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The spotted dog tangos with the red umbrella

At last check, the DU bookstore didn’t carry umbrellas with poisonous tips or watches that snap secret photos.

And while they’re not required items in a new course called Ciphers & Codes, freshmen this fall are still getting a revealing — albeit more realistic — peek inside the real-life drama of spy communications.

Developed by the math department, the course shows students the covert techniques used in e-mails, Web sites and other forms of e-communication so they can better dodge the dangers of the digital age. It’s one of more than 50 first-year seminars offered to all incoming DU students to prepare them for the academic rigor of college.

“The math department wanted to create a mathematical seminar suitable for freshmen, and cryptography [ciphers] and coding quickly came to mind,” says Petr Vojtechovsky, a mathematics assistant professor who teaches Ciphers & Codes. “It’s about teaching them the theoretical background so they can apply the concepts in practice.”

The words cipher and code are often used interchangeably in English, Vojtechovsky says, but they are indeed different. In ciphering, a message is rewritten so that only the intended receiver can understand it. With coding, he explains, information is added to a message to prevent errors from creeping in.

Most people don’t know they use ciphers when they buy tickets online, or that they use coding when they play a CD or DVD, Vojtechovsky adds. “The subjects are at the core of electronic communication,” he says.

“As an international studies major, I think it’s important to understand how the world communicates in the digital age,” says Jeremy Vinyard-Houx, a freshman from Frisco, Colo., who is taking the course. “Secure and accurate communications are vital.”

Vinyard-Houx says he’s learned why certain forms of math are used to break ciphers, and that cipher making and breaking involves a lot of modular arithmetic and probability.

In addition to numbers, students also get a dose of history and an explanation of how codes have been used in the past, particularly during wartime.

Vinyard-Houx gave a presentation on the National Security Agency’s use of codes, and another student spoke on the Enigma machine the Nazis used in World War II.

“All in all, the class helps you open your mind to the security of the digital age and realize there’s a lot more that goes into things we take for granted, like sending an e-mail,” Vinyard-Houx says.

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