The Rubaiyat ciphertext photograph (again)…

Given that there has been so much recent noise / banter online surrounding the origins of the Rubaiyat ciphertext photograph, perhaps it might be a good idea to look at Gerry Feltus’ definitive opinion (that I received recently by email):-

“I am led to believe that the original photograph of the ‘code’ was taken by a police photographer and countless copies were developed and sent to numerous locations, including The Advertiser where I obtained my copy. I did not find a copy of the photograph in police files or a negative thereof of same. Unless I receive evidence to the contrary I believe that the code was written on the top left side of the rear (plain white dust type cover) of a Whitcombe & Tombs pocket edition of the Rubaiyat.”

The SAPOL Historical Society does now have a copy of this photo, but it turns out that this was one of several sent to them not long ago by Gerry Feltus, who also sent them to Kerry Greenwood for her book. She had (very sensibly) contacted the SAPOL H/S, who had then asked Gerry Feltus because they didn’t have any.

As for what means was used to take the photograph, I think we can probably rely on the Adelaide News, Tuesday July 26th 1949 (as per Gerry Feltus’ “The Unknown Man”, p.108), whose journalistic ear seems to have been close to a policehorse’s mouth:-

“Acting on the possibility that the ‘Rubaiyat’ in their possession did belong to the lieutenant [Alfred Boxall], police set out to decipher a number of block letters pencilled on the back of the book.

Although the lettering was faint, police managed to read it by using ultra-violet light.

In the belief that the lettering might be a code, a copy has been sent to decoding experts at Army Headquarters, Melbourne.”

Finally, we might also in future have to be a little more careful about timing. The Adelaide Advertiser, Monday July 25th 1949 also notes that the man who found the Rubaiyat in his car in Jetty Road, Glenelg, also claimed that he had found it about the time of the RAAF air pageant in November 1948 – in fact, this was held at Parafield on 20th November 1948, a date I don’t recall having previously seen in anybody’s Somerton Man timeline…

The Voynich’s infuriating liminality…

Something is ‘liminal’ if it sits right on a kind of perceptual boundary: so it is surely the Voynich Manuscript’s liminality – that is, its apparent inability to be included in or excluded from any category or pigeonhole – that makes it such an infuriating object to study. Why can’t we prove or disprove that it is a language, a cipher, a shorthand, indeed an anything? Why, centuries after it was constructed by person or persons unknown for reasons unknown, are we still unable to drag any part of it kicking and screaming into the light of certainty?

Yet a recent email here from BC helps demonstrate the difficulties we face when we try to do this. He (very reasonably) asks:

“What do you think best explains the lack of repeated sequences? (i.e. there are almost no repetitions of any group of 3+ consecutive words). I would think that disproves the hypothesis of a pure natural language already.”

It’s a fair point (and I’d add that it works equally well as a disproof for both “pure natural language” and simple substitution ciphers, which are almost exactly the same thing). Moreover, many of the repeats that you do find within the Voynichese corpus are qokedy/qokeedy blocks, words which combine a small information content with a strong affinity for sitting next to one another (as I recall, but please correct me if I’m wrong) such that trivial repeats of these are statistically almost certain to be found somewhere in the text.

Yet conversely, it could be argued that if a pair of instances were to be found where a longer non-trivial block is repeated, that would surely throw a statistical spanner of improbability into that reasoning’s smoothly rotating spokes, in much the same way that the statistical improbability of the Gillogly strings militate strongly against most non-DOI-based readings of Beale Paper B1.

And so it is with all that in mind that Torsten Timm points – in his interesting and challenging paper that I will discuss in more detail another day – to a particularly intriguing (nearly-)repeating sequence pair, both halves of which are on page f84r:-

<f84r.P.3>  shedy qokedy qokeedy qokedy  chedy okain chey
<f84r.P.10> shedy qokedy qokeedy qokeedy chedy raiin chey

This is surely as close to a “Gillogly sequence” as we get in Voynichese. In fact, this to me is very much as if we are looking through a gap in the confounding clouds, insofar as it seems that the same (or at least very similar) plaintext sequence is being processed in two slightly different ways by the same system to yield two extremely close Voynichese sequences.

But yet the almost complete absence of any other reasonable-length sequence pairs throughout the Voynich Manuscript’s hundreds of pages speaks loudly against the idea that what we are looking at is either a natural language or just about any straightforward cipher. So this pair is arguably most useful as a demonstration of how weak many of our current proofs and disproofs are.

As a consequence, my current answer (to “What do you think best explains the lack of repeated sequences?”) would be that the Voynichese text seems to have been consciously constructed in such a way to avoid including non-trivial repeating sequences (i.e. I don’t really include “qokedy/qokeedy” sequences in this).

But this comes with a caveat: that this “Timm pair” is then probably the keenest example we have of a slip-up in the generally excellent execution of a tricky system specifically designed to avoid including non-trivial phrase repetitions (and which almost completely managed to succeed in this ambitious aim).

Yet because it contains three trivial consecutive qokedy/qokeedy words, it plainly suffers from the weakness that it existence might just be a statistical coincidence, of the kind of Dave Oranchak sees suggested so often for Zodiac Killer cipher patterns. Hence its inherent liminality: we just can’t tell for sure whether it’s a break in the system or a freak occurrence fooling us into thinking it’s a break in the system.

…unless you happen to know of any other “Timm pair”-like sequences that are even more solid?

Disproving and/or testing Voynich theories…

I’ve just got back from holiday, and I’m very sorry to say that there’s a whole heap here of cipher stuff waiting to be written about. 2014 has seen a yeast-like explosion in Voynich theories: Torsten Timm, R. Sale, a Russian engineer and the whole Nahuatl thing (never mind Stephen Bax’s nine little words)… plus at least ten more Voynich theories and a fair few Voynich novels to cover. All in all, I’m something like twenty posts behind where I want to be: so apologies to all. icon sad Disproving and/or testing Voynich theories...

As the years crawl by, though, I have to say that I increasingly find almost all cipher mystery theories unhelpful at best, and tiringly time-wasting at worst. Historical speculation is fun for faux-historical novelists, or as a 10pm pub game for academics: but pretty much every time I’ve seen it applied to an unbroken historical cipher (particularly the Voynich Manuscript), it turns out badly for everyone. By squinting at Voynichese in a certain way, it may indeed resemble (say) a kind of demented cross between Latinized Occitan and mirrored Middle German: but how exactly does that help us decrypt it? Does Theory X make even a single prediction about how the oddly-behaving Voynichese ‘language’ works, or what any of the Voynich Manuscript’s inscrutably unfathomable pictures are all about?

And yet I find Voynich theorists now increasingly try to goad me, to try to get me to fight back against their theories, so that they can lock intellectual horns with me in some kind of sad parody of Roman arena sport. (Stephen Bax managed to pull this sad trick off to such a ridiculous and annoying degree that I ended up deleting every single one of his foolish comments, plumbing a depth even beyond the sweariest of Tamam Trolls.) In fact, I’ve been told that some Voynich theorists now see having a flat-out Cipher Mysteries rebuttal as a rite of passage, a badge to be worn with pride. It’s not a proper Voynich theory until Nick’s shredded it a little, etc etc.

And so the question arises: for whose benefit do I write these supposedly-blood-soaked reviews of Voynich theories? Certainly not for the people who propose them, because I don’t believe that any Voynich theorist takes a blind bit of notice of what I say. And from the fawning media coverage that Stephen Bax continues to receive for his Voynich non-theory (which, as ever, remains several sandwiches and a basket short of a picnic), I’d say that few journalists take much notice either. And it’s not for SEO reasons either – if page hits were that important to me, wouldn’t I be blogging about lolcats and making Minecraft videos, hmmm?

When John Matthews Manly demolished William Romaine Newbold’s foolishly optimistic Voynich theory, his main motivation was to stop Newbold’s imaginative “decryption” from trashing the history of the Middle Ages. More recently, John Stojko’s ridiculous “proto-Ukrainian” ‘decryption’ of the Voynich Manuscript has been used by some Ukrainian nationalists to try to support their cause, in a country assembled from random jigsaw-like pieces during the 20th century, a country that is arguably suffering more than most right now. Have such people actually read any of it? I mean…

[f18r] 1. What slanted Oko is doing now? Perhaps Ora’s people you are snatching. I was, I am fighting and told the truth. Oko you are fighting mischievously (evil manner). Ask this. Are you asking religion for your clan?
2. We renewed the information (news) and told to the world. He wrote and I am writing. You broke this slanted eye of God. Oko Bozia (Baby God) answered.
3. In believe she is holy and you should believe and welcome our religion and Miss. The holy told in slanted way. Is that the evil that will be victorious?
4. In religion we decide for Ora and Ora will welcome the renovation. What a news you and Bozia told.
5. That in religion I will believe in god’s emptiness. Empty (vain) is your calling, we caught (snatched) and carted away.
6. What I am writing you should believe. Perhaps now that what you are calling you will relinquish, Oko is fighting, Oko is victorious and Oko was.
7. In one religion only one is gods. For what reason Kosa (slant) is telling us? Oko is calling slanted, praise the God’s Oko.
8. In believe her holiness is asking for freedom. Kosa has the freedom. You were slants and now you are taking Oko.
9. You are saying but you were idlers. You were alone but you are writing and talking.
10. Oko is fighting for one religion. You told this. Do you won’t this God’s Oko?
11. Where do you wont in Steppe? Tell and write. Kosa should ask for freedom in religion.
12. Every one was vain in the marked place. God’s Oko and (she) holy one is writing this emptiness.
13. Vain believers are wishing one religion. You are vain therefore you are taking Oko that was.
14. Write this to Pontia and wish him.

But actually I’m not that high-minded. Ultimately, the real reason I review Voynich theories is that I feel outraged for the original cipher-makers, whose lives and works get hijacked and rewritten in such obviously stupid and pointless appropriations. To me this is a form of theft (i.e. credit/reputation being stolen, the kind of thing Pamela O. Long describes some Romans as being preoccupied with), albeit one that many people nowadays seem lazily content to go along with. If you do, well… that’s your choice, but please understand that it’s really, really not mine.

A History of SAPOL Photography to 1950…

Gordon Cramer continues posting apace, asserting – for example – that iodine vapour deposition (also known as “iodine fuming”) and/or UV illumination could have been used in South Australian police forensic photography circa 1948.

But here at Cipher Mysteries Towers, I’m constantly besieged by weak claims built on top of this same “could have” linguistic structure: so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Gordon’s repeated use of it gets my historical goat. In the case of the Somerton Man, “M R G O A B A B D” (or however you want to transcribe it) “could have” also been written by the SM, the nurse, her husband, the person who found the book, saboteurs, conspirators, many thousands of other people that we know nothing about, or indeed by aliens. As with all other cipher mysteries, how does observing that each of these scenarios is ‘possible’ move us forward, exactly?

Then again, Voynich theorist Gordon Rugg has been ploughing that same unyielding field for over a decade now, despite the fact that his possibilistic ard has turned over nothing of value in all that time. So maybe our Tamam Shud Gordon has at least six years’ catching up yet. Hmmmm. icon neutral A History of SAPOL Photography to 1950...

Anyway, by way of sharp contrast, I’ve put a bit of time into trying to understand the specific history of the South Australia Police (SAPOL) and its relationship with forensic photography. What techniques did SAPOL actually use, what evidence is there for this, and what can all that tell us about how the image of the page of the Rubaiyat was taken? As most long-suffering faithful Cipher Mysteries readers doubtless already know, these have the attributes of my favourite kinds of questions: evidence-based, potentially informative, archive-focused, yet in practice tricky to pursue.

So here’s what I found…

The History of SAPOL

South Australia’s policing started relatively early in 1838. Formal police photography didn’t take off in South Australia for many years, even though its Inspector Paul Foelsche took numerous photographs between 1869 and 1914 (these were kept in the family for year, before finally being shown in 1969 to local photographic historian Robert J. Noye).

According to the official SA Police history website

The first report of [photography] being used in the Police Department was in the late 1870′s, when Detective Von Der Borch was appointed official Photographer. Later a report was submitted requesting a ventilator be installed in the work place to reduce the fumes caused when developing and printing photographs. There is no evidence to show that this science proceeded beyond experimentation until approximately 1898…

..when a certain Detective Lingwood-Smith took on the role: he developed (pun intended) the practical arts of both photography and fingerprinting, turning them into essential parts of police practice, even though the particular fingerprinting scheme he championed was discontinued in 1904. There’s a picture of Lingwood-Smith (inevitably) in the Adelaide ‘Tiser, 29th June 1922, when he claimed that there were “more than 70,000 fingerprints and photographs [...] filed in the Adelaide detective office”:-

lingwood smith 1922 A History of SAPOL Photography to 1950...

When asked if he had ever used fingerprint evidence in court, Lingwood-Smith replied that he had not: but that was simply because he had not needed to. “When confronted by their photograph and description, which we have ascertained by means of the finger prints, the offender generally owns up. There is really nothing else for him to do.”

In 1920, Lingwood-Smith passed the baton of the Photography and Fingerprint Section over to Mr. Leslie Hilland Bruce Hudd. In 1923, Bruce Hudd obtained a conviction by ingeniously taking a plaster cast of a footprint left at the scene of a crime: and moreover in 1939…

…he introduced a method for detecting thieves who stole from working companions. A powder was sprinkled onto coins and left at the scene of previous thefts. The powder was not readily visible, and when the money was noticed missing, all staff were requested to place their hands under an ultra violet light. The powder would fluoresce on the hands of the culprit.

Hudd’s photographic and fingerprint evidence was used in a fair number of court cases reported at the time, including the 1942 Hindley Street murders, the Port River murder case of 1944, and a triumphant forensic case from 1947 where a NSW sailor’s badly decomposed (roughly six-month-dead) body was identified purely from his fingerprints. This same article included a picture of Hudd:-

bruce hudd 1947 A History of SAPOL Photography to 1950...

And those who think that the modern forensic study of ears is a new discipline will surely be surprised to read this from the Adelaide News in 1944:-

POLICE fingerprint expert Bruce Hudd is not surprised at a London ear specialist being able to say from a captured German newsreel that the Hitler shown there wasn’t the real Adolf. Today he showed me a book explaining that the shape of the ear doesn’t change from birth to death. Before fingerprint identification came in, the police relied chiefly on ears for identifying men. Fourteen points were set out in describing each ear, including the shape of the lobe, size, and angle to the head. I was shown 140 pictures of ears and saw for myself that not one was alike when an expert pointed out the differences. Even today both Mr. Hudd and Mr. Jimmy Durham, his fellow fingerprint expert, prefer to work on profile pictures showing an ear rather than full face pictures when seeking to identify men.

But even this story pales in relevance to this news piece from 1946, that answers many of my questions directly:-

From there we went to see Mr. Bruce Hudd, chief photographer and fingerprint expert — carefully pulling on our gloves before entering his den. Mr. Hudd said that he now had filed away about 50,000 sets of fingerprints of people who had been brought in on serious charges since 1906. Nowadays he sends a duplicate of all fingerprints to Central Bureau in Sydney, where a master set for the whole of Australia is kept. In Adelaide only one man has tried to beat the fingerprint experts by removing the skin from his fingers. That was the notorious ‘Shiner’ Ryan, who once rubbed the pattern off his fingers on the rough brick wall of his cell, in an effort to outwit expert Hudd. Mr. Hudd waited for the skin to grow again — then took ‘Shiner’s’ prints. Photography is playing a bigger and bigger part in the work of crime detection, and these developments are keeping Mr. Hudd and his staff busy, photographing the scenes of serious crimes, accidents, and copying documents. Ultra-violet light and infra-red rays, which reveal many clues invisible to the naked eye, are now used by the experts of the police photography section.

Incidentally, Hudd was also a dahlia enthusiast (according to Trove), who both grew them and photographed them, hand-tinting the finished product. Now not a lot of people know that. icon smile A History of SAPOL Photography to 1950...

Bringing this chapter to close, Hudd finally retired in 1952. He had been assisted in his career “by the following fingerprint experts: Frank Brice, James Durham, Alan Cliff, Dudley Aebi and Bill Low[e]“, which presumably included the three fingerprinting and photographic experts “who did nothing else and their skill was said to be second to none in Australia” back in 1932. On Hudd’s retirement, it was Aebi became the head of the department which he had first joined in 1934, with Bill Lowe also promoted beneath him.

[And yes, it was indeed Constable Patrick James "Jimmy" Durham, stationed in Adelaide, who on 3rd December 1948 took the Somerton Man's fingerprints in the morgue, and who - with Mounted Constable Knight - then partially re-dressed the Somerton Man and photographed him too. (Feltus, "The Unknown Man", p.42).]

The South Australian Police History Museum

Even though we have some great – and very specific – description above, I’d still really like to look directly at the South Australian Police photography archives. These are (I believe) held at the volunteer-run South Australian Police History Museum at Thebarton Police Barracks, Gaol Road, Adelaide.

They have placed lots of nice old photographs on its website, most notably transport themed ones here, a few outback ones here, firearms closeups, and uniforms.

However, none of these is the kind of evidential photography apparently used in the Somerton Man case. But there must – surely – be something in there that is similar in technique, that will help us read and reconstruct the precise science of the Rubaiyat ‘code’ photograph?

PS: Victoria Police museum has a vampire-killing kit in its collection, though they don’t put it on display because it doesn’t fit any of their thematic displays. Who’d be a curator, eh?
Victoria vampire kit A History of SAPOL Photography to 1950...

PPS: here’s something for Pete Bowes I found in “Hue & Cry”, January 2001 edition. “The Murray Pioneer October 20, 1949 DEVICE IN TREE: A parachute with a box attached was found in a gum tree on Calperum Station property, about nine miles from Renmark on Monday morning by Mr W Letton. He reported the matter to the police and Detective DO Flint and MC Brebner went out and recovered the apparatus and handed it to the local Post Office.”

PPPS: has anyone read “The Life and Times of an Unlikely Detective”, by Arthur Robert (Bob) Calvesbert?

Obituary: Timothy Rayhel (Glen Claston) 1957-2014

Tim Rayhel – better known to historical codebreakers as “Glen Claston” – died a few days ago (July 2014) in Albuquerque. He was 56.

He was always very private, and once told me that blogs “expose too much of the underbelly to the carnivores, and that I don’t want to do”.

Even so, because the Internet is almost completely silent about his life and work, this page is my attempt to tell his story, to remember my old friend Tim properly.

Timothy Rayhel

tim rayhel glen claston Obituary: Timothy Rayhel (Glen Claston) 1957 2014

Joining the US Army young, he found a natural home in the Army Security Agency which was where his life-long interest in ciphers began.

“Post military I served in the private armies that were the forerunners of BlackWater, etc., in Nicaragua and other points south. My old boss Ollie North took a fall and I retired from that work, having seen a bit too much of what real American policy is all about. I suffered an attack of conscience, became a fundamentalist minister [in the Church of Christ], found that too extreme, and finally directed my efforts toward staying below the radar.”

Tim then became interested in the (alleged) cryptographic writings of Francis Bacon and their possible links to Shakespeare’s works. Yet despite building up a huge regard for Bacon, he ultimately ended up disappointed, certain that most Baconian researchers’ claims were “false and misleading”.

“There was a time several years ago when Mr. Rayhel drank a lot and said some embarassing things, even if he was right. It’s much simpler to be a reformed person with a new name, and it keeps the crackpot mail down a bit as well.”

Glen Claston

He also started researching the Voynich Manuscript from 1986, posting online under his ‘Glen Claston’ (‘GC’) pseudonym from 1994 onwards. He subsequently became convinced that Leonell Strong’s mid-century attempts at decryption were essentially correct. Over a period of several years, he built his own detailed transcription of Voynichese (“Voynich-101″) and released this openly, which many researchers now use.

But his interests were very much wider, covering a whole range of historical ciphers, the early works of John Dee (particularly the Monas Hieroglyphica) and numerous Renaissance books on cryptography, some of which he worked with others on transcribing: but none of these has (as yet) been published.

In 2000, Tim believed that he had cracked the Beale Ciphers (B1 and B3), and that he had even identified the likeliest location of where the treasure had been hidden. A TV production house took out an option to make a documentary on the subject, but this never got made. (By 2004, though, he had changed his mind, concluding instead that the cipher was nothing more than a strange 19th century cipher hoax.)

He is also well known for his research into the Zodiac Killer Ciphers: for years he was intrigued by the numerous apparent connections between Gareth Penn and the Zodiac Killer, but was never ultimately able to find a way into the unbroken Z340 cipher.

He struggled with various health issues, including a heart attack: while severe back pain problems throughout 2012 were later diagnosed as “peripheral neuropathy that may be related to MS”. His cause of death is as yet unknown. He leaves behind a daughter.

My Friend Tim

That’s all the facts. But what to say about my good friend Tim, who I had first encountered in 2001?

In truth, he was like a twin brother to me (and I told him so), equal parts inspiring and infuriating: he would gleefully pick a fight with me over anything inaccurate I wrote or any logical shortcut I inadvertently tried to take.

But I never minded this from him, because here was someone who had walked a thousand crypto miles before I had walked even one – someone whose fiercely-held opinions were guaranteed to be built on obsessive observation skills, sustained hard graft, and a highly analytical brain. How many people can you genuinely say that of?

Having Tim as my friend taught me this: that sincerely disagreeing with someone – and having the strength of will and mind to fight them in the spirit of mutual learning – is the greatest gift you can give. I learnt more from him than from anyone else.

Without him in it, my world seems unchallenged, empty, even (dare I say it) easy. And I can’t begin to tell you what a dreadful loss that is to me.

In memoriam Timothy Rayhel (‘Glen Claston’) 1957-2014

Somerton Man Part Two: Police Photography revisited…

In Part One I looked afresh at the ink of the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat letters, trying to get some kind of handle on what it is that we are looking at there.

However, I think there’s a huge slice of mid-century history that we’ve largely managed to overlook up until now, but that may well give us a different angle again: Australian police photography.

The ‘mother lode’ of this is a huge collection of about 100,000 negatives taken by NSW police photographers “between 1912 and the late 1960s”: this was originally uncovered in a government warehouse in 1989, but has since had books written about it, as well as travelling archive exhibitions and countless reproductions in newspapers. (It is now under the custodianship of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.)

Fingerprints, crime scenes, mug shots, stolen goods, and (yes) even documents are there: the dead, the gloating, the defensive, the beaten, the defiant, the lost. All human life is here, though (with a nod to Anthony Burgess) perhaps the Holy Ghost remained just out of shot. Some appear strikingly anachronistic, such as the extraordinary Mrs Osbourne, who looks to me like someone circa 2009 with a thing for retro clothes:-

mrs osbourne Somerton Man Part Two: Police Photography revisited...

There’s a great description online by Peter Doyle of the research he did into this collection, that turned into his (2005) book “City of Shadows, Sydney police Photographs 1912-1948″, as well as his (2009) book “Crooks Like Us”. Perhaps a little media-theoretic for my personal taste, but stunning, unforgettable images nonetheless. (There are a fair few more online here.)

Anyway… from my reading so far, it seems that almost all police images prior to the 1950s used 6″ X 4″ glass plate negatives: it was only in the late 1940s and early 1950s that sheet film started to be used (roll film didn’t arrive until the 1950s). The white writing on the images (such as “20. MRS OSBOURNE” above) was black writing written directly onto the negative (and hence which came out white when turned positive). Text was normally, I believe, written back to front on the negative so that it would end up the correct way round when finally printed, which I suspect is why many of the captions look somewhat scratchy and upright.

We can therefore (I think) already rule out the suggestion that what we see in the Rubaiyat note might have been applied directly to a negative, because (as you can see from the archives) this was a practice used extensively with dark ink that ends up white when the negative is turned positive (as opposed to white ink that ends up dark when reversed).

We can also (I think) rule out the use of iodine vapour deposition to make the photograph: this was an early forensic technique that took the lipids left on a surface in fingerprints and (briefly) turned them brown, whereupon they could be photographed and used as evidence. However, the drawback with this technique is that the lipids left behind in this way degrade and become unusable after only a week or so: so it would seem unlikely to have been used on the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat.

(This also answers the often asked question about why the Somerton Man’s suitcase was never fingerprinted – it’s because iodine vapour deposition isn’t much use after a week, and the suitcase was only retrieved several weeks later).

We can also (I suspect, though Gordon Cramer will doubtless disagree) rule out the use of UV photography. Even though the Australian Special Investigation Bureau was formed in 1938 (it had access to up-to-date photographic equipment, and developed a “standard set of procedures for taking crime photos” according to this page), I simply don’t believe the photographer used by the SA police was in that league at all.

So what are we looking at, then? If the back part of the image isn’t a film or glass negative, we only really have three feasible scenarios left:

(1) the actual object itself, with an acetate film placed on top of it (and drawn on)
(2) a positive (developed) photograph of the image, with drawings made directly on top of the photograph
(3) a positive (developed) photograph of the image, with an acetate film placed on top of it (and drawn on).

Gordon Cramer also suggests that the photographic image may have been reversed and overexposed to yield more contrast: it’s a possibility, but I suspect we should get the opinion of a photographic historian who properly understands the nuances of mid-century dark room practice, because the image might well be good enough for an expert eye to tell.

Right now, I’m not sure which scenario will turn out to be the right one: but I suspect that there may well still be sufficient clues in the image to assist us in this. For example, it looks to me as though there is some kind of ‘clip’ in the top right hand corner of the image: might that be for holding the original image flat, or for clipping an acetate on top of the image?

top right corner Somerton Man Part Two: Police Photography revisited...

Perhaps taking a closer look at some of the 1940s NSW police photographs will help to make this clear. Something to think about, anyway. icon smile Somerton Man Part Two: Police Photography revisited...

Manu wants his La Buse theory disproved…

Emmanuel Mezino, having misinterpreted my critique (of his book) as in some way overcritical, has left some comments on Cipher Mysteries challenging me to disprove his La Buse theory. Constructing a disproof is often quite hard, but I think that in this case it’s possible if I focus solely on his speculative cryptology (rather than his speculative history, speculative cartography, speculative numerology, etc).

First, I’ll need to summarize Manu’s complicated-sounding reasoning. He argues…
* …that the 17-line copy of the cryptogram (as decrypted by Charles de la Roncière and popularized by Robert Charroux) is a fake, while the 22-line copy of the cryptogram (as revealed for the first time in Manu’s book) is real;
* …that the pigpen cipher key inferred by de la Roncière is only the basis of the cryptogram’s cipher system;
* …that there is an extra first level that involves swapping between dotted and undotted pigpen shapes;
* …that there is an extra second level that involves a Caesar-like +4 substitution shift (i.e. replacing a letter with a letter four steps on within the alphabet) for certain characters;
* …that there is an extra third level that involves treating the two halves of the pigpen alphabet key as if it is some kind of virtual chess board, and then using knight’s moves to make letter substitutions within the alphabet (but again, only for certain letters);
* …that even with this pigpen cipher basis plus these three additional confounding steps, he still can’t make sense of the first 17 lines of the ciphertext, but that the final five lines (of the recently revealed 22-line copy) can be read very clearly;
* …and hence that the only things he draws from the cryptogram are (a) the number 22 (which is important to him, because it is the same number as the number of mysterious stone markings he claims to have found scattered around the North-East part of Réunion, (b) the word “ECU” (which he claims links with the constellation known as the Ecu of Sobieski), and (c) a steganographic star map of the same constellation hidden in plain sight within the cryptogram, formed by linking up all the letter “A”s (in their pigpen form).

Additionally: whereas the original 17-line cryptogram has no connection to La Buse at all beyond mere hearsay, the new 22-line cryptogram has “LA BUSE” clearly added to it (written in the same pigpen cipher), along with a picture of a ship marked “La Vierge du Cap”, a picture of a man being hanged (presumably Olivier Levasseur himself), five additional lines of cipher including the date 1730 (i.e. the year of La Buse’s execution) written in words, and lots of other wonderfully detailed historical pirate-looking stuff all around it.

What is wrong with this reasoning?

For me, there’s a difficult paradox that underlies all of the above: that even though Manu concludes that the original 17-line cipher is uncrackable and unknowable (even with his claimed three stage extra confoundment of a pigpen cipher, he only claims to decrypt a single word “DIFFUS” from the whole of line 17), he simultaneously is content to accept that the new lines 18 to 22 are perfectly readable and reliable.

= …DIFFUS…………….

Were these two lines really made in the same way and at the same time?

For me, the answer is a flat no. If line 18 to 22 were written at the same time as lines 1 to 17, then the same subsequent process – whether of conscious confoundment (as Manu thinks) or of accumulated historical accident (as I suspect) – would have happened to both blocks of text. As such, we would not be in a situation where we can read line 18 but have not the faintest clue about its neighbouring line 17.

Really, from what I can currently see of these two ciphertexts (Manu’s book only includes his transcription of lines 18-22, but not a clear image of these new lines in the ciphertext), I cannot honestly accept that lines 17 and 18 were originally written down at the same time. That is, the final 5-line block looks to my eyes like it was added as an entirely separate (and possibly much later) constructional layer.

It’s therefore an open (and extremely interesting) question whether this second cryptogram is a genuinely old artefact (i.e. a copy of an earlier document that has been extended, though not with sufficient art to make that extension appear seamless) or a modern fake. From my perspective, I don’t think there’s yet quite enough information to make that call: but I hope someone takes it on as a challenge in the future. That, for me, is the central core of the book that I’d have written (but which Manu plainly didn’t, apparently for reasons of “respect”).

All in all, then, Manu’s notion that 22 (the number of lines of the second cryptogram) is somehow important now seems impossible to justify, whether or not you place any trust in numerological arguments (and I personally have never seen one that turned out to be true or useful). And so his subsequent claim that this necessarily links with the 22 stone incisions he found now seems almost certainly wrong.

Given the uncertainty in the confoundment of lines 1 to 17, I also have no confidence at all that all the instances of the letter “A” were letters “A” in the original ciphertext: I also have no confidence that the cryptogram as it has come to us (in either variant) has precisely the same layout as the one that was originally enciphered. As a result, I have no real confidence that Manu’s suggested A-based star map is a reliable guide to anything.

Finally, I also have no confidence that the word “ECU” apparently in the ciphertext was in the original. Manu’s claimed explanation of the 17-line ciphertext as some kind of triply-confounded pigpen (based on what? Has anyone ever made one even remotely like this? I don’t think so) is completely speculative and unhelpful, in that it doesn’t seem to explain a single word. I cannot see that the presence of “ECU” in a string of unreadable French can be a reliable starting point to build an argument about steganographic star maps.

Gordon Cramer and the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat…

A piece in the Adelaide ‘Tiser a few days ago lays out retired policeman Gordon Cramer’s sensational-sounding Somerton Man claims – that the mysterious cipher-like Rubaiyat note linked to the Somerton Man contains “Prosigns” (a set of abbreviations when using Morse Code); that it also contains microwriting; and that some of this microwriting in fact refers to a top secret post-war British plane – the de Havilland Venom.

gordon cramer cropped Gordon Cramer and the Somerton Mans Rubaiyat...

Gordon has been doggedly pursuing the Somerton Man’s trail for several years now… so might his diligent nose have sniffed out a whole set of truffles that everyone else has been walking past in the rotting forest of evidence?

The immediate thing to note is that there are so very many cipher history / mystery elements in play here that it’s going to take me more than a single blog post to cover them all. But I’ll start briskly with what I think is the fundamental forensic question – What happened to the Rubaiyat note to leave it the way we see it in the scans? – because Gordon’s take on this has both interesting similarities to and differences from my own.

A smooth writing surface?

First things first: Gordon and I agree (I think) that what we’re looking at is quite different from the state the page was in when it was passed to the SA police. Looking close-up at the letters (as Gordon has spent so much time doing), it is very clear (I think) that there is a ‘slide’ to the way many of them were formed, as if they had been written on a shiny / smooth / glossy surface… and hence not on the roughly-textured post-war paper of the Rubaiyat.

pane Gordon Cramer and the Somerton Mans Rubaiyat...

In particular, I think it is hard to see the “A” of the “PANETP” (above) as having been written on anything but a slippery surface: and if this holds true for the ‘A’, then it must also be true of all the other letters written in the same codicological ‘layer’.

A laundry pen?

Secondly, he and I also agree (I think) that in 1949 these marks must almost certainly have been made by an early indelible marker pen, such as a laundry pen. I’m not a laundry pen historian (there can’t be that many of them in the world, surely?), but I am reasonably sure that they would have had fairly stiff wicks / tips drawing ink from their ink reservoir. I also don’t think they would have been much fun to write with: by way of contrast, the (later) felt tip pins had tips that were much more pliable.

I further suspect that we have enough evidence to make a reasonable estimate of the physical size of the pen’s tip. Given that the size of the Whitcomb and Tombs Rubaiyat edition upon which the writing was found is 110mm x 140mm, (which Gordon describes (fairly reasonably) as a “pocket version”) and that the width of the downstroke on the A is about 13 pixels on the 1802×1440 image, I believe we can infer a line width of between 0.75mm and 0.80mm. All of which is pretty much consistent with the pen being something similar to a laundry pen of the time (note that the first Sharpie was launched fifteen years later in 1964).

pooling Gordon Cramer and the Somerton Mans Rubaiyat...

Furthermore, if you look at the ‘feet’ of many of the vertical lines (as above), you can – I think – see ‘pooling’ where the ink has collected at the end of a downstroke: so my suspicion here is that the ink would seem to have been made to a ‘wetter’ formulation than the kind used in modern marker pens.

The Jestyn ‘R’?

Gordon has also recently pointed out a similarity between the (only) R in the Rubaiyat note and the first R in Jestyn’s note in Alf Boxall’s Rubaiyat.

R and R Gordon Cramer and the Somerton Mans Rubaiyat...

I agree that it’s an intriguing suggestion, but I’d caution that Jestyn’s overall ‘hand’ is slightly forward slanting and curved, while all the ‘laundry pen letters’ are distinctly upright and linear. All in all, if there is a match there, I’d say it’s a pretty thin one… but I thought I ought to say.

The first letter.

So far, so good. But it is broadly at this point that our paths diverge, so I’ll go on to consider a number of possible scenarios in the next post.

Yet there is another issue here: the “M” that is apparently visible beneath the first letter. (And yes, I know that the first letter is also an “M”: I’m talking about something that looks like a pencil “M” beneath a laundry pen “M”). A picture is well worth a thousand words here:-

first letter Gordon Cramer and the Somerton Mans Rubaiyat...

If you can’t see what I’m talking about, here’s another version with the M-like lines roughly highlighted in green:-

first letter green Gordon Cramer and the Somerton Mans Rubaiyat...

What was used to mark out this single under-letter? Not laundry pen, nor iodine vapour, nor even UV light: to my eye, it resembles faint pencil, or perhaps pencil marks that have been partially erased and then contrast enhanced in the photographer’s dark room. Might it be that these faint lines were what all the text originally looked like, before having the marker pen layer added on top?

What I find most interesting is that this ‘under-M’ doesn’t yet square well with anybody’s ideas about this page (not even my own): and is therefore perhaps a sign that we’re all misreading this in one or more significant ways. We don’t yet know the real history of how this page was made – every account seems to be closer to hearsay than to evidence – so it’s all up for grabs. Anyway, scenarios next…

Ohio Cipher revisited (again)…

One thing that annoyed me about the Ohio Cipher was that the quality of the newsprint scan of the original 3rd July 1916 article was simply terrible.

ohio cipher version 1 300x81 Ohio Cipher revisited (again)...

Yes, it really was exactly that bad. Having said that, the version of the same cipher in the follow-up 7th July 1916 article was, comparatively speaking, in excellent shape:

ohio cipher version 4 Ohio Cipher revisited (again)...

But… which was the correct version of the cryptogram? What’s worse, both of these differed again from the one that ended up in the Futility Closet nearly a century later. So will the real Ohio Cipher now please stand up, please stand up? (…so that we can give it a proper go at solving it, at least partially).

Anyway, a little earlier this year I had a good idea as to how to resolve this: why not find a list of newspaper archives that might possible hold a physical copy of the Lima Times-Democrat from that particular day (3rd July 1916), and see if I could get a fresh scan of it from there? There must, I reasoned, surely be more than a single extant copy of that particular edition, and in all probability they can’t all be as bad as the online one I’d been working with, surely?!?

Hence I contacted the Ohio Historical Society to see if they had a list of such archives, and yesterday got an unexpectedly positive response from this via Tom Rieder of the Ohio History Connection, Columbus OH. He very kindly scanned two different copies of the same article and sent them through to me (they’re at higher resolution than they appear within the blog post body, so feel free to click through to them in all their fuzzy monochromatic glory):-

ohio cipher version 2 300x87 Ohio Cipher revisited (again)...

ohio cipher version 3 300x86 Ohio Cipher revisited (again)...

So, thanks to Tom Rieder’s help, I think we can now say with a reasonable amount of certainty that the Ohio Cipher’s ciphertext was similar but not quite identical to the second version given above, and should read:-

Was nvlvaft by aakat txpxsck upbk txphn ohay ybtx cpt mxhg wae sxfp zavfz ack there first txlk week wayx za with thx

What does this mean? Here we go (at last)… icon smile Ohio Cipher revisited (again)...

If you try to read this off the page as a normal monoalphabetic cipher, the fact that “txp” occurs twice and “tx” occurs four times (and that “TH” is the most common letter-pair in English) would probably make you strongly suspect that “txp” = “THE”. Further you’d probably like to hazard a guess at this point that “txlk” = “THIS” and that “ybtx” = “WITH”. (“aakat” I don’t believe is correct, so let’s skip past that that for the moment.)

But… this approach simply doesn’t work. Even putting only the cipher-like words into CryptoCrack as a patristocrat yields gibberish-like plaintext (such as “fmomewseenesstaturngainstalfpleddistrasktlycebutwahemwhernstoncedthe”, which isn’t particularly close to anything anyone apart from a statistical linguist might describe as a normal language).

There also seems to be some kind of odd-even pattern to the letters, in that ZA appears three times all on even letter boundaries. So my suspicion is that what we’re looking at here is something like a Frankenmixture of plaintext and Polybius ciphertext (but indexed with letters rather than numbers), i.e. with (say) [ A P S U X ] on one side and [ T H K M Z ] across the top, plus other stuff (such as spelling mistakes, transmission errors and possibly extra letters coded as themselves) to confuse the picture. *sigh*

I’m sorry if that’s not as robust a decryption-style reading as you’d like to be getting from Cipher Mysteries, but it is what it is, and please feel entirely free to see if you can do better yourself, ain’t nothin’ stoppin’ ya. icon smile Ohio Cipher revisited (again)...

“The Devil in the Details” Voynich short story…

Here’s a nice departure from normal: a ‘Peter Crossman’ short story that just appeared on called The Devil in the Details, by Debra Doyle and James D. McDonald.

It’s a kind of high-octane (parody of / homage to) the modern-day Knights-Templar-as-God’s-Special-Ops novel genre, based around missing pages from the Voynich Manuscript being offered at a dangerously high-powered auction, at an arcane and mysterious venue with the Vatican and (possibly) Google Research also trying to bid, if they can stay alive long enough… you get the idea.

The writing sustains a quirky balance between rigid Latin medievalism and modern weapon fetishism, with tongue firmly in cheek. I hope you like it! icon smile The Devil in the Details Voynich short story...

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