2015 Virtual Somerton Man Beach Sculpture Contest…

In the beautiful sunlight at Studland Bay’s Knoll Beach this morning, I suggested to my son that we build a sand sculpture together. But of what?

Naturally, I proposed that we make a man-sized Lego minifigure (because that would be cool), while he proposed that we carve ourselves a virtual Somerton Man. (That’s my boy!)

It should be no surprise that we ended up doing both at the same time – i.e. a life-size Somerton Man Lego minifigure sand sculpture – which was of course a lot of fun.


If you look closely, you can see his tie and a half-smoked cigarette dangling loosely from his yellow brick lips:


Is it art? No, but we had fun making it. I somehow doubt anyone on the beach realised what it was depicting, but who cares?

Anyway… later in the day, this whole thing sparked a much bigger idea in my sun-addled head. Why not hold a Virtual Somerton Man beach sculpture contest, so that everyone else has the possibility of showcasing their sand-based interpretations of this enduring South Australian mystery too?

So here it is: the 2015 Virtual Somerton Man Beach Sculpture Contest, which will run until 31st December 2015. Email me your pictures, or InstaTweetBookGram them (or whatever), but leave a comment here with a link to your masterpiece and I’ll collect them all together for a vote at the end of the year. I’ll try to track any #somertonman Tweets too, just in case a contestant is so technologically advanced that other forms of communication are too far below them. :-)

For a bit of spice, I’m donating a non-virtual real-world prize: the winner (assuming anyone enters) will get not only their very own copy of Gerry Feltus’s excellent book The Unknown Man (on the Somerton Man mystery, if you couldn’t guess), but also a glorious victory to boast about forever!

So what are you waiting for? Get sculpting! ;-)

NURP 40 TW 194’s pigeon club identified…?

A quick recap: a copy of the WW2 cipher was placed on the leg of two pigeons, one with ring NURP 40 TW 194 and the other with ring NURP 37 DK 76. But we haven’t been able to identify either of these birds, or their owners, or even their clubs.

I recently suggested that NURP 37 DK 76 might have been owned by Mr L Duke of Great Shelford, and I continue to pursue that possibility. But just now, while speculatively browsing the (paywalled) British Newspaper Archive, I found a whole lot of stuff that was new to me…

Lost Pigeons

During WW2, Robert Lever of Ticehurst, Sussex placed a series of small ads in the Kent & Sussex Courier, offering sizeable rewards for lost racing pigeons (these were plainly no ordinary pigeons). And many of these had exactly the kind of NURP … TW pigeon rings we’re looking for:-

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 29 November 1940, page 12
* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 06 December 1940, page 12

Ring Numbers NURP 39 NSC 62 (Black), NURP 40 TW 243 (Blue). — ROBERT LEVER, HIGHLANDS, TICEHURST

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 14 February 1941, page 10

Black Hen, NURP 39 NSC 62. Blue Cock, NURP 40 TW 243. Blue Chequer Pied Hen, NURP 40 HBC 182. Red Chequer Cock, NURP 40 W 4323.–ROBERT LEVER, HIGHLANDS, TICEHURST.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 13 June 1941, page 8
* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 20 June 1941, page 8

Red Chequer Hen, NURP 39 JWS 31; Dark Blue Chequer, NURP 41 TW 5; Blue NURP 41 TW 14; Blue Chequer, NURP 41 TW 22.–Robert Lever, Highlands, Ticehurst, Sussex.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 22 May 1942, page 8

£1 REWARD.–Racing Pigeons, NURP 39 JWS, 119 (Blue); NURP 39, NSC 17 (Black Pied); NURP 39, NSC 8 (Black); NURP 41, TW 25 (Light Blue Chequer). –Lever, Highlands, Ticehurst.

Lever’s Pigeons

There are lots more local newspaper references to Robert Lever’s pigeons in wartime races:

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 05 September 1941, page 5


PIGEON RACING.–The final young bird race was flown on Saturday from Tavistock (197 miles) under good weather conditions. Result: Sargent (Lewes) 1160, 1158; Lever (Ticehurst) 1159, 1157, 1154, 1152; Bristow (Lewes), 1106; Mrs Oswald Smith, 1078, 1077; Hills, 882. Mr Hills wins the “Frank Simms” young bird average cup : runner-up, Mrs Oswald-Smith.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 28 August 1942, page 5


PIGEON RACING CLUB.–The young birds racing from Dorchester (122 miles) for the first time attained a speed of 48 miles per hour. Liberated at 11.35 a.m., members were clocking-in arrivals from 2 p.m. Result : Henshall, 1443 ; Simms 1434; Carter, 1423; Ransom and Coleman, 1417; Mrs Oswald-Smith, 1407; Booth, 1385; R. Lever, 1326 ; Westow, 1295 ; Hills, 1293.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 28 May 1943, page 5


PIGEON RACING.–On Saturday, the race birds experienced a hard fly from Selby. Mr R. Lever, Ticehurst, timed in the winning bird, which flew the distance of 199 miles in 5 hours 47 minutes. […]

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 26 May 1944, page 5


PIGEON RACING.–On Saturday, members raced their birds from Selby (191 miles). Liberation took place at 12.30 p.m., and birds were being clocked-in from 4.30pm, the leading ones putting up a speed of 45 miles per hour. Result: Lever, 1365, 1354.2 ; […]

…and again for Friday 9th June 1944, when Mr Lever’s pigeons were racing from Morpeth (290 miles).

Tunbridge Wells Racing Pigeon Club at War

Unsurprisingly from the above, Mr Lever’s local club was Tunbridge Wells Racing Pigeon Club: which was, far from coincidentally, pretty much my first guess as to the likely location.

Nicely, though, the Kent & Sussex Courier also included a number of short pieces from the same club that help us see the larger picture about pigeons in wartime. It may be a bit TL;DR for some, sure, but I rather like it all, and I get to choose what gets included. :-)

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 28 February 1941, page 6


At the invitation of the President (Mr W. C. Raiswell) and Mrs. Raiswell, members partook of tea, followed by discourse on club matters which are affected by war conditions, at their residence, Halls Hole, Forest-road, on Saturday. Amongst others who attended were Dr. and Mrs. Oswald Smith. Mr. H. Wallace Stubbs (Crowborough), Mr. T. Ashdown and Mr. A. Ransom (Chairman). Letters of apology for absence were read from Major J. G. Hiley, Messrs. H. Ashby and J. F. Mitchell. Corpl. W. J. Muddle, late loft manager to Mr. Raiswell, who is serving with the Royal Air Force, wrote referring to the valuable work the racing pigeons were doing in the R.A.F.

The PRESIDENT expressed regret at the unavoidable absence of Major Hiley, who is in command of a section of the Carrier Pigeon Service, and stressed the fact of how little was known of this essential war effort members were doing for the Services. The cost of breeding and training the right type of bird for strenuous flying was high. Unfortunately, many were shot or injured when on Service flights. Mr Raiswell thought the difficulty of overcoming the shortage pigeon food was not insurmountable, and he hoped that members would not let that obstacle deter them or reduce their stock, as the Army required every serviceable pigeon. He hoped the Club would not disband for the duration of war.

Mrs. Oswald Smith presented the following cups to the winners: Raiswell Cup for the best old bird average, F. Simms, average velocity 1,028 yards per minute over 10 races; “Robert Lever” Cup for bird winning the longest distance race (Fraserburgh, 462 miles), F. Simms; “Frank Simms” Cup for best young bird average, F. Carter, with an average of 1,136 yards per minute over four races.

The SECRETARY (C. R. Suffolk) gave brief report on the finances and equipment of the Club, which were in sound condition. Commenting on the possibilities of racing this season, he said much depended upon the conditions of rail transport. Apart from that he saw no reason why races should not be flown. He expressed his thanks to the Chairman and Mr. F. Simms for their valuable assistance setting and checking clocks and preparing racing panniers for despatch of birds; also to Mr. H. Colebrook for providing a trunk for storage of clocks and other equipment.

The CHAIRMAN, replying, said it was a pleasure to both himself and Mr. Simms to help the Club in every possible way. A cordial vote of thanks was passed to Mr. and Mrs. W. C. Raiswell for entertaining the members; also to Mrs. Oswald Smith for presenting the cups.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 06 November 1942, page 6


Presentation to Mr. C. R. Suffolk

Describing what was perhaps the finest five minutes of his life, Councillor W. C. Raiswell recalled the indescribable thrill of pigeon racing and the intense exitement of waiting for and seeing the birds return to their loft after being on the wing for many hours.

The occasion was meeting on the 21st anniversary of the Tunbridge Wells Racing Pigeon Club, held at “Little Bredbury,” Tunbridge Wells, by kind invitation of Dr. and Mrs. H. Oswald-Smith, when prizes for the 1942 season were distributed and presentation was made to the secretary, Mr. C. R. Suffolk.

After report by Mr. SUFFOLK on the year’s programme, which had been most satisfactory despite wartime limitations, Mr. RAISWELL briefly reviewed the past 21 years. He recalled the old days when they had only two clocks for recording the return of the birds and a system wiring in was used. One member, he said, who had had a loft over a shop in Calverley-road, used to throw out of his window message to a boy waiting below, who would then wire in the time of the pigeon’s arrival. Later, when had installed a clock on the lawn at his house, he recollected members rushing madly down the hill on bicycles eager to “clock in.”

The President went on to speak of the vital work of what he considered to be the most important club in Tunbridge Wells. It was now stronger than it had ever been, and every member was really doing a great public service. Not only could pigeons be relied upon as valuable inland messengers, but they could be and were being used in co-operation with the R.A.F. and Royal Navy. Already they had been instrumental saving the life of Service personnel, though the full story of their achievements in that direction could not be told until after the war. Had the Club not been formed it would not have been possible to help in the national effort, and therefore grateful thanks were due to Mr. Suffolk, who had been Secretary from the beginning. “I have been requested by the members the Club,” concluded Mr. Raiswell, addressing the Secretary, “to ask you to accept something in recognition of the service you have given for so many years; a token of gratitude and appreciation what you have done.” He handed a cheque to Mr. Suffolk.

In reply. Mr. SUFFOLK expressed his thanks. Remarking that bis association with pigeons had commenced many years ago, when he had bought pair of birds for his small daughter. Mr. Suffolk told how suddenly he bad found hlmsAf Secretary of the Club, and later Federation Secretary when the Club had Joined the South Coast Federation He was able to bring to mind many interesting and amusing incidents in this all-absorbing sport, and how untiring enthusiasm had been rewarded by one of the greatest thrills, the thrill of seeing bird drop on to the loft after, a 500-mlle race. Unable now, for health reasons, to take part in actual racing, Mr. Suffolk said bow much he as Secretary enjoyed working out the times and velocities of the birds, details which required minute calculations. Mr. Suffolk hoped the Club would be enlarged after the war. and was particularly glad to note the ardent enthusiasm displayed by the Club’s youngest member, 13½-year-old Ernest Colebrooke. Finally, his special thanks went to Mr. Raiswell, Mr. Ransom and Mr. Simms for their constant support and co-operation.

Commenting upon a particularly successful season, Mr. RANSOM remarked that members were definitely improving, since all those who had raced had won a prize. One other presentation was to have taken place, that of a water-colour painting of his favourite pigeon to Mr. F. Simms in recognition of his untiring work on behalf of the Club, but unfortunately that gentleman was unable to be present. This remarkable piece of work had been painted by Mr. Suffolk, whose artistic invitation cards had also been greatly admired by all members.

For their charming hospitality a hearty vote of thanks was passed to Dr. and Mrs. Oswald-Smith, who at the close of the meeting miraculously produced a most Inviting tea.

Prizes were distributed by Mrs. Raiswell follows: Mrs. A. Oswald- Smith, 3 firsts, 6 seconds, 1 third and special; R. Lever, 3 firsts, 3 seconds, thirds and 2 specials; F. Simms, 2 firsts, 2 seconds, 7 thirds and 2 specials; E. G. Hills, 2 firsts, 2 seconds, 2 thirds; W. Henshall, firsts, 2 seconds; A. J. Westow, 1 first; Ransom and Coleman, 1 second, 1 third; G. Amsden, 1 first; F. Carter, 1 second, 2 thirds; S. E. Booth, 1 third. Ralswell old bird average cup—Mrs. A. Oswald- Smlth with average velocity of 1,082 yards per minute over nine races. Frank Simms young bird average cup—W. Henshall. velocity 1,036 (seven races). “Robert Lever” cup for longest distance old bird race —H. Colebrooke and Son, velocity 993. Number of birds sent to race points, 613. Amount paid out in prize-money and specials: £24 4s.

* Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 28 February May 1945, page 7


A thoughtful reminder of the Important part that pigeons have played in the war, particularly with the R.A.F., was that given by Messrs. W. C. Raiswell in one of their windows in Mount Pleasant. Alderman Raiswell is the President the Tunbridge Wells Racing Pigeon Club, exhibited on Tuesday and Wednesday 10 birds which have been on active service carrying important messages. One was used by the R.A.F. when a V1 site was located. A notice read “Our tribute to the pigeons and the members of the Tunbridge Wells Pigeon Club.” Also on view were some exceptionally fine photos of famous birds. The pigeons were loaned by Mrs. A. Oswald Smith, Mr. F. Simms, Mr. A. Ransome and Mr. W. Henshall.

“Raiders of the Lost Past” tackles the Beale Papers…

Six months ago, I was interviewed for a “Raiders of the Last Past” (“Myth Hunters” in the US) episode focusing on the Beale Papers. Unfortunately, I managed to miss the first US airing three weeks ago of Series 3 Episode 13 “The Mystery of Thomas Beale’s Treasure”, *sigh*, and so completely failed to flag it to all you nice Cipher Mysteries readers, sorry. :-(


However, the UK version is going to be broadcast at 9pm this Good Friday (3rd April 2015) on Yesterday (Freeview channel #19), and I heartily recommend it as a nice slice of cipher mystery TV entertainment. Of course, feel free to fast-forward past my own talking head, because if you’re reading this you probably already know what I’m going to say. :-)

Anyway, rather than try to summarize the whole sorry saga of the Beale Papers, the film-makers have chosen to focus on George and Clayton Hart’s sustained attempts to understand and crack them. Which I think, having seen the final edit, was a pretty smart move on their part: I mean, who really wants to see a long parade of ugly battling theories?

My own conclusion on the Beale Ciphers shifted while I was getting my thoughts ready for camera, as I described here before. In short, I now think that the ciphers are very probably real, but that nearly all of the pamphlet is fake. I also think that the ciphers will prove to be crackable, with little more than a small step sideways from what we already know.

We shall see! But in the meantime, enjoy the episode! :-)

“La Buse”‘s cryptogram and French love magic…?

Over the last few days, I’ve been looking again at the cryptogram widely claimed to have been composed by the pirate Olivier “La Buse” Levasseur that I first properly described here back in 2013: and really, I have to say that I don’t believe a word of the supposed hidden-pirate-treasure back-story.

I’ll explain…

A Pigpen Cipher

The mysterious text is, without any real doubt, a cryptogram formed using the exact pigpen cipher layout suggested by Charles de la Roncière in 1934. But there is also, I think, strong evidence that the plaintext was already enigmatic and/or hard to read even before it was ever enciphered.

For example, one very early section of the cryptogram is in almost perfect French:

* Lines 3-4: prenez une cullière de miel

Here, “cullière” looks overwhelmingly as though it ought to instead be “cuillère” (spoon), i.e. “take a spoonful of honey”. What this suggests to me is that the person originally encrypting this text found it hard to tell the difference between ‘i’ and ‘l’ in the original (plaintext) handwriting he/she was working from. What’s more, this sounds – however disappointingly prosaic it may be to some people – a lot like a recipe of some sort. And furthermore, it is tempting to surmise from this that the encipherer was unable to read French, and was just reading and processing the letters exactly as they seemed to him/her.

All of which is rather odd: but perhaps the encipherer had inherited or acquired the plaintext and believed that it contained directions to a French pirate’s treasure (albeit one written in a language he/she couldn’t read), and so thought it more prudent to encipher it than leave it lying around en clair. This is just my speculation, of course: but all the same, there’s a whole heap of details here that doesn’t properly make sense just as it is, so there has to be some explanation for the confusing stuff that we can see.

There is evidence too that the cryptogram that we have was also copied from an earlier version of the same cryptogram, specifically because of the variability of the pigpen dots. For example:

* Line 8: povr en pecger une femme [dhrengt vous n ave]

Here, if you swap pigpen dots for the first ‘v’, ‘n’, and ‘g’ you get –

* Line 8: pour empecher une femme [dhrengt vous n ave] — i.e. “to prevent a woman…”

Even with what snatches of mangled French we can (mostly) read, it seems highly unlikely to me that this will turn out to contain anything so obnoxiously capitalist as clues to hidden treasure.

A French Love Spell?

In fact, to my eyes the most convincing scenario so far is that what we are looking at here is a French love spell involving honey.

Because spells were almost always copied rather than devised, I therefore think the most practical way to untangle this whole cipher mystery would therefore be to look at as many (preferably pre-1800) French spells as possible, and see if we can discern unusual patterns there that are reflected in the text here. And any mention of honey, too. :-)

So I took a quick look on the web, and quickly found The Passion Spells of France (2nd Edition) (though note that your $6.99 only buys you 24 pages). This includes a French spell involving placing honey in the middle of a pentacle (the “Midnight Secrets” ritual, page 15), but sadly the spells only appear in English translation and there are no notes as to the original French sources for any of them. :-(

Note that the book also includes a “Dove Love” ritual (p.8) involving the feather of a dove: which might possibly begin to explain the otherwise generally mystifying inclusion of the “une paire de pijon[s]” [t -> s] on the first line of the cryptogram. (Incidentally, pigeons less than a month old are known as ‘squabs’ and have historically been considered a great delicacy.)

I also found a book often mentioned called “La Poule Noir” (The Black Pullet) by “A.J.S.D.R.L.G.F.” (all bar one of whose initials lie on the middle row of a QWERTY keyboard, for all you trivia fans). This seems to be included in a 1900 book by Legran Alexandre called “Les Vrai Secrets de la Magie Noire” (downloadable here), but please say if anyone finds a proper download (note that there are a whole of sign-up-for-this-service-and-get-this-ebook-free scam download pages that contain it).

A few of the recipes / rituals listed there do include honey, such as one for making newborn babies intelligent, and also one involving the left leg of a tortoiseshell cat. The love ritual involves taking a lock of someone’s hair, burning it, and spreading the ashes on their bedframe mixed in with honey. (If it brings people together, who am I to raise an eyebrow? It’s no worse than online dating, 17th century style.)

I don’t know. There must be a huge literature on French love spells somewhere out there (dissertations and books), but I’m far from tuned into that whole channel just yet. If anyone finds a better starting point into it, please say! Perhaps we’ll then start to make some genuine progress with this, rather than wasting time and effort wishing for buried treasure. :-|

Yannick Benaben and the fake “La Buse” cryptogram…?

It’s no secret that there is little of substance about “La Buse” (the pirate captain Olivier Levasseur) on the web. Errrm… or anywhere else, to be brutally honest.

One of the few good places is photographer Yannick Benaben’s website, where he has posted up a set of pages called Sur les Traces du Trésor de La Buse Entre Histoire et Légendes Insulaires. This is a mixed bag of “La Buse”-related threads, some of them genuinely historical (which is good), but also a lot of fairly empty cryptogram-based speculation too (which is… not quite so good).

Regardless, I’m happy to recommend his set of “Sur les Traces…” pages as a genuinely useful resource covering the Indian Ocean phase of La Buse’s piratical life (as long you don’t inhale the cipher speculations part of it too deeply).

“Les Diamants de Goa”

However – and this is where it gets confusing – Yannick has also published an online story called Les Diamants de Goa. This has a (fictional) underwater archaeologist called “Francesca Verrazone” working at a (fictional) French underwater archaeological institute in Marseille, albeit one that sounds a great deal like (the very real) Marseille underwater archaeological institute DRASSM, which is indeed one of the first (real) places you’d go if you were looking for an underwater site in French (or formerly-French) territorial waters.

Yannick’s story has his (fictional) Verrazone arrange a (fictional) conference to air her (fictional) theory about the Nossa Senhora do Cabo, the (real) treasure-filled ship that La Buse captured. He then has a whole load of (fictional) marine archaeologists go and look for it: and so it all proceeds.

But though he seems to have enjoyed this writing (I suspect he had the film rights at least half in mind), the piece has ended up unfinished, stranded precariously on the water’s edge of his website. And people (particularly those who rely heavily on Google Translate, I expect) find links to his story high up in their La Buse search results and conclude it must be just as true as the “Sur Les Traces…” pages, when it’s in fact no more than a frippery.

As a result, you have to be very careful as to which “tree” of pages you’re looking at (i.e. the “Sur Les Traces…” set or the “Les Diamants de Goa” set), because while the former is largely factual (though laced with cipher speculation), the latter is simply made up – a bit of cipher-themed fun.

This difficulty becomes most apparent when Benaben’s (fictional) narrative deals with the captured treasure ship…

The ‘Nossa Senhora do Cabo e São Pedro de Alcântara’

There are plenty of things we can say for certain about this (very real) ship. The Nossa Senhora do Cabo e São Pedro de Alcântara (or ‘Nossa Senhora do Cabo’ for short):
* was built in Amsterdam in 1710 and called the ‘Zeelandia’ or ‘Gelderland';
* was a two-deck 2nd rate ship of the line with 72 guns;
* was bought by Portugal in 1717 and renamed ‘Nossa Senhora do Cabo e São Pedro de Alcântara';
* entered service in August 1717;
* having survived a terrible storm, was captured in port by Olivier Levasseur (“La Buse”) in 1721;
* subsequently disappeared without a trace (presumed sunk).

(Note that because people writing about La Buse tend to be French, the ship’s Portuguese name tends to get Frenchified into “La Vierge du Cap”.)

In Yannick’s story, however, he has his (fictional) marine archaeologist refer to the (real) “Grande Panorama de Lisboa” (a huge set of tiles depicting Lisbon around 1700):


He has Verrazone (fictionally) assert that a (real) ship (genuinely) drawn near the front of the tiles is the Nossa Senhora do Cabo:


As you have probably already worked out from the above, this cannot actually be the Nossa Senhora do Cabo: the tiles were drawn before 1703 (because that was when the artist died), while that ship was not built until 1710, and did not arrive in Lisbon until 1717. Also, while the ship depicted does have two decks, it only seems to have ~44 cannon (rather than 72): the real Nossa Senhora do Cabo was a substantially bigger beast.

(Perhaps someone else will be able to find out what this ship depicted actually was, because there wasn’t anything on the 3decks website that seemed to match: doubtless a plucky Portuguese historian has already trawled through many more fleet descriptions to do precisely this.)

The First Cryptogram

My current understanding is that the first “La Buse” / “Le Butin” cryptogram – the one that Charles de la Roncière wrote about in his 1934 book “Le Flibustier Mysterieux” (and how I’ve tried to get a copy of that book, but without success) – has not been sighted since 1934.

(And for what it’s worth, I still fail to see how this has anything to do with La Buse.)

However, following an exchange of comments on Klaus Schmeh’s recent page on La Buse, I received what seemed to be a low resolution version of a photo of the real first cryptogram (“crypto_musee_2004″). Looking at the EXIF data attached, it was (c) Yannick Benaben and dated 2004:07:18 13:10:30.


When I then trawled through the Wayback Machine, the only place that this appeared on Yannick’s site was at the bottom of the ‘Préambule’ section of his (fictional) “Les Diamants de Goa” web pages. It therefore seems – unless someone can prove otherwise – highly likely to me that Yannick mocked this up for the purposes of his “Les Diamants de Goa” story sometime before 1st Sep 2009.

The Second Cryptogram

Going forward a little in (Wayback Machine) time to 16th October 2011, we find that Yannick has replaced the (presumed mocked-up) image of the first cryptogram with an image of the second “La Buse” cryptogram, the one which Emmanuel Mezino wrote an entire book about (but which I don’t believe is genuine).

As far as I know, this would have been the first public sighting of this second cryptogram.


Now here’s the curious thing. If we look closely at the ship on the second cryptogram identified as “La Perle” (of which Manu very kindly sent me a close-up copy), we see something rather odd:


What is arguably far too coincidental is that the back of “La Perle” is almost exactly the same as the back of the ship drawn on the Grande Panorama:


My Conclusion

I didn’t believe that the second cryptogram was real before, and now I really don’t believe it all. To be precise, it seems extremely likely to me not only that Yannick Benaben mocked up the image of the first cryptogram, but also that he was the person who created the whole second cryptogram. He had the means, opportunity, and – crucially – the motive to do it.

…unless anyone knows better?

An Enigma wristwatch…?!

Link of the month has to be this rather extraordinary handmade “Enigma wristwatch” from New Zealand.


To be precise, it’s a home-made wrist-mounted three-rotor Enigma simulator with a three-button user interface. But the fun of the thing lies not so much in any celebration of historical code-breaking as in the extraordinary (if occasionally obsessive) contortions the guy went through to make it. It’s a “Joy Of Techs” thing, and unless you’ve ever fettled a pair of moving parts to get them to fit together ;-) it probably won’t float your boat.

What I find particularly poignant is that this has emerged into the light at about the same time as the Apple Watch: and so within a matter of days, somebody will doubtless have built an interactive Enigma watch skin you can buy in the App Store for $0.99 or so.


Incidentally, the same person who made the Enigma wristwatch also made his own John Steed puppet, deftly crossing original Avengers retro (“Would the winner come to the unsaddling enclosure?”) with the Thunderbirds Supermarionation of Gerry Anderson, arguably the finest thing from Slough not made of chocolate and caramel.


Again, the guy – following the plot of the Avengers episode “How To Succeed At Murder” – decided to build his own wristwatch controller to control the puppet. Which is really nice.


Here’s what the original Avengers wristwatch controller looked like, back in 1966:-


All of which brings me back sweetly to the future of smartwatches, as foreseen in a Slough warehouse 50 years ago (though note that Thunderbirds was set in 2065 rather than 2015):


How far we’ve come, and yet in many ways not so far at all! ;-)

Conspiracy comedy podcast takes on the Somerton Man…

For a lighter side to the Tamam Shud / Somerton Man case, you could (probably) do worse than Mose[le]y over to the Consbeeracy Theories Conspiracy Comedy Podcast site, where their latest episode is 009: Follow The 100° Proof Fence (Somerton Man).

Consbeeracy Theories

The guys making the podcast clearly find each other hugely funny: though there are indeed a few good yoks in there (Tamam Shuda Cuda Wuda, etc), the closest they get to comedic historical insight is wondering why the dead man wasn’t wearing an “Australian Tie” (i.e. why he didn’t have vomit down his front having been poisoned). All in all, I get the feeling that their research train set out from Wikipedia, but never arrived at Feltusville.

All the same, it is (putting all their lazy stereotypes aside) a not-entirely-unpleasant contrast to the usual po-faced ‘battling theorists’ mushfest that gets posted: but just don’t expect to get to the end any wiser. :-) Enjoy!

The Rubaiyat note and Gordon Cramer’s “Q”…

Over the last couple of years, Australian researcher Gordon Cramer has been promoting (and indeed gaining a little media attention for) his various theories about the Somerton Man that he has patiently built up over the last four years: for example, that the dead man was a Cold War spy and that the Rubaiyat note contains microwriting.

Specifically, Gordon asserts that he can discern microwriting inside a number of the letters that were found on the back of the Rubaiyat, most notably the letter “Q”.

As I understand it, his claim is that even though the contrasty writing in the image (looks like it) was written in a laundry pen on a shiny surface (say, a print of a photograph), that overwriting process still managed to preserve the fine detail of the original microwriting additively within it: and that by using a carefully chosen sequence of image enhancement steps, he thinks he has been able to reconstruct that original microwriting.

I was sceptical of this claim for many reasons. For instance, it seems hugely likely to me that we can see a small part of the original writing that (one would hope) lies beneath the laundry pen marks…


…yet as far as I can see, there is no sign there of any microwriting. And if microwriting isn’t there, why should microwriting be anywhere else? But I digress. :-)

More recently Gordon has, in response to questions from me, elucidated the experimental process he followed by which he believes he was able to make that microwriting visible. As a result, I have gone through the process of trying to understand and reproduce his results, and I’m posting here to explain what I found.

Here’s the original Q, cropped and rotated counterclockwise by 90 degrees but otherwise completely unchanged from the original scans:


We can, without much difficulty, directly pick out the set of grey levels in the image that make up the curve of the Q (that Gordon claims contains the microwriting): and if we adjust the image’s levels so that this range (12.5% to 50%) fills the entire 8-bit dynamic range, this is what we get:


Let’s now blur this (which is essentially what happens when you resize an image to be slightly smaller than 100%):


And then let’s sharpen it up again to try to bring out the detail that Gordon thinks is there:


Amazingly, we can now apparently see the word “SEGA” starting to coalesce out of the digital mists. Of course, the video games company SEGA (which started out as “Service Games”) only became known as “SEGA” in 1965 or so (it’s the first two letters of each word), so the actual chances of the Somerton Man having been a secret Sonic The Hedgehog fan are basically zero. Possibly even less.

Yet a number of other image processing experiments I carried out on the Q produced different results. All in all, while I can see how Gordon extracted some kind of microwriting from inside the Q, I also believe that he could have extracted any number of different messages from the same source image (with only slightly different image enhancement sequences), and that he could very likely have extracted plausible-looking microwriting from any sufficiently noisy source image.

In the Voynich Manuscript world, we have an extraordinarily close precedent for this whole thing: in the 1920s, Professor William Romaine Newbold used large prints of rotograph images, strong lighting and large magnification to extract what he believed to be microwriting – specifically Latin shorthand strokes. The intense effort of doing this seems to have sent Newbold to an early grave, followed by posthumous debunking to the point that he is now often cited as the worst possible way of doing cipher research: which is not a good end to any historical story.

Here, though, we have something that Newbold didn’t have: the possibility of better images. So rather than institute yet another dreary bout of back-and-forth comment tennis, why don’t we just see if we can get a higher-resolution (and higher bit-depth) scan of the photograph in the newspaper archive and see if we can work with that instead? If there is microwriting there, it should come out clearly. If there isn’t, it should vanish completely.

Review: “The Voynich Deception” by Michael Lancashire…

I’ve read a lot – and I really do mean a lot – of Voynich Manuscript-themed (and other genuine-historical-cipher-themed) novels over the years, and I have to say that the whole experience rarely gets any better than just-about-OK-if-there’s-nothing-much-on-TV. Yes, even with TV in the nadir-like pit it has winched itself down into these days.

Sad as it is, such novelists’ including-an-ancient-unbroken-cipher writing mechanism comes across to reflective readers as rather, I don’t know, desperate-and-wanting-to-be-loved (and doubtless someone will tell me an obscure German or Icelandic adjective to describe this more precisely). More precisely, it shouts out “please God, let importing some genuine real-world mystery be enough to distract attention from the countless plot flaws, the unconvincing characters, and the piss-poor writing“. And that’s before you’ve even got to page one.

At the same time, none of the above ever hurt Dan Brown, so why not press that button and see where it leads, eh?


Indeed, Michael Lancashire pressed that very button: and to his credit, his novel “The Voynich Deception” comes out of it basically an OK read. As the backdrop to his story, he has an unfeasibly clever guy (‘The Architect’) devising unfeasibly-clever-yet-still-oddly-micromanaged evil plans for ambitious crims to buy to execute. The rest of the plot involves a group of brutal, greedy and unlovable – though utterly uninvolving – Albanian gangsters following a blood-soaked trail of Voynich-linked cookie crumbs ever onwards towards a long-concealed treasure trove, where… well, that last bit would be telling, so my lips are sealed.

But at the same time, what I can say is that the structural weakness of “The Voynich Deception” is that while Lancashire’s ‘Architect’ is just an anti-Sherlock Holmesian conceit, the entire story pivots entirely on a single (admittedly fairly large) twist, one which the author flags very early on. As such, it’s more like a long short story than a novel: and for all the (occasional spatter of) blood ‘n’ gore, it does end up feeling a bit… thin.

Still, Lancashire is respectful towards the Voynich Manuscript (which is good), and he tells his story at a fair old pace, something far too many cipher novelists struggle with (hint: a fight they usually lose ignominiously).

The Kindle ebook version is only £1.99, so it’s not a huge investment or risk. And if you like The Voynich Deception, Lancashire has since written an Architect prequel novella (“Kernel Panic”) for you to move onto. All in all: not my tasse de thé, sure, but a perfectly OK read.

Those Chinese Gold Bar Ciphers, once again…

It turns out that the Internet has a little bit more information about this affair than I thought, specifically a 2005 report about the Chinese Gold Bar Ciphers (in Chinese, and possibly copied from an earlier blog entry), which seems to paint a rather more complicated story.

(Incidentally, a commenter on Klaus Schmeh’s website (where the Chinese Gold Bar Cipher is #19 of his top 25 ciphers) Google-Translated parts of this page into rather wonky German (the commenter preferred to stick with Google rather than ask someone at a nearby Chinese restaurant), but it’s probably not the best translation you’ll ever see).

The Big Fat Secret History – and I think you’re going to like this – seems to be that at the Shanghai branch of Citibank on 3rd March 1933, General Wang Jialie allegedly bought 300 million of Citibank’s shares for just over $300 million, but that (inevitably) everyone involved has somehow managed to cover up this transaction ever since. Believe it or don’t (as is your right): but that is apparently what it says.

(Note that in 1933, it wasn’t yet “Citibank” but was still “National City Bank”: according to Schwikipedia, its Shanghai branch was opened in 1902 by the International Banking Corporation, which in 1918 then became a subsidiary of National City Bank. NCB seems to have been a very major contributor to the 1929 Stock Market Crash: its boss at that time, Charles E. Mitchell, resigned in 1933, following investigation by the Pecora Commission. Hence 1933 was both the bottom of the stock market and an interesting time in the NCB’s history.)

Anyway, one of the gold bars is claimed to be a licence attesting to this transaction and its witnesses: (Kuomintang Generals) [He] Yingqin, Zhu Peide, Li Fulin; as well as Governor Sijie, Ruanruo Fu, and secretary Anna Si Lina.

“王家烈将军于中华民国 1933 年 3 月 3 日 10 时 30 分 3 秒( 股票以秒计算 ),以黄金、珠宝、法郎、马克、英磅折美元叁亿伍仟伍佰万元。存入美利坚合众国美国花旗银行上海分行。鉴存人何应钦、朱培德、李福林等( 当时都是军长 )三人座谈入行。行长斯杰、阮若夫,秘书安娜斯丽娜,金货总重壹点捌公斤”

Zhu Peide was a Military Intelligence man who had worked his way up to become a general: here’s a photo of Chiang Kaishek crying at Zhu Peide’s 1937 funeral. Li Fulin was also a General – there’s a (roughly-translated) biography of him here (e.g. it says he died of hypertension aged 79 in Hong Kong in 1952). And He Yingqin was also a General: there’s a picture of him as he accepts the Japanese Instrument of Surrender in 1945.

However, “Governor Sijie, Ruanruo Fu, and secretary Anna Si Lina” I don’t (yet) know anything about.

The same page also reproduces three American Chinese-language newspaper articles from 1993, which I’m guessing are all saying much the same thing (but please feel free to correct me on this).

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