The Voynich Manuscript at the Folger Shakespeare Library!

Ever since Hans P. Kraus donated the Voynich Manuscript to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1969, it has been on an exceedingly short leash. (Has it even left New Haven? I don’t believe so.)

Well, that’s about to change. As part of a special “Decoding the Renaissance” exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library from 11th November 2014 to 1st March 2015, the Voynich Manuscript will be on show in Washington (free admittance, too!). The Folger people haven’t yet said how they plan to display it or illustrate it, but I’m sure they will be eager to make the most of this hens’-teethingly rare opportunity.

De furtivis literarum notis vulgo The Voynich Manuscript at the Folger Shakespeare Library!

The overall exhibition is curated by Renaissance historian Bill Sherman (his excellent “John Dee: the Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance” sits on the shelf next to me as I type), who will be giving a ‘public panel’ discussion with Rene Zandbergen at 7.30pm on 11th November 2014 to open the exhibition (tickets to the talk at $10/$15 are already on sale).

But… why the Folger, why Washington, why the Voynich Manuscript? The answer is simple: what links all the parts of the exhibition is the famous Washington-based code-breaker William F. Friedman. From his early days working on Baconian claims at Colonel George Fabyan’s “Riverbank” complex, to his Index of Coincidence, to his work breaking the Japanese “Purple” code, and right through to his long-standing interest in the Voynich Manuscript, Friedman was a fascinating and complex character.

220px William Friedman The Voynich Manuscript at the Folger Shakespeare Library!

Hence anyone wanting to get the most out of the exhibition should probably prepare themselves with a second-hand copy of Ronald W. Clark’s (1977) “The Man Who Broke Purple”, a biography of William Friedman. It’s not the whole story (government codebreaker stories rarely are), and it skirts unsubtly around Friedman’s depression and related problems during WW2: but even so, it’s far from a bare-bones sketch, with plenty of meat for interested readers to sink their teeth into.

Do I wish I had got the public panel gig with Bill and Rene? Of course I do, I’m only human. But it turns out that even though this is all fascinating news in its own right, there’s much, much more afoot to do with the Voynich Manuscript that is planned to be played out during the remainder of 2014. So, much as I applaud the Folger’s exhibition’s honouring and celebrating the man who (very probably) was the greatest code-breaker of all time, this is in many ways merely the antipasto for a very much larger cryptological feast that is approaching…

…but more on that as it happens. Don’t say I don’t spoil you. icon smile The Voynich Manuscript at the Folger Shakespeare Library!

And the Somerton Man’s surname was…

As normal, the answer turns out to be so painfully, staring-us-all-in-the-face obvious that it’s almost embarrassing to type.

From what I can see, the most likely scenario is that the Somerton Man’s surname was surely…


i.e., that he was a Russian merchant seaman called Stein, who I believe died from natural causes (possibly, as Byron Deveson suggests, of neurosyphilis) in the Glenelg house of Jessica Harkness during the evening of 30th November 1948.

The reason is that I suspect “JEStyn” = “J(essica) E(llen) Штейн”, and that the two met in Royal North Shore Hospital Sydney, where she was a trainee nurse and he was a patient (where, pace Byron Deveson, he was perhaps having his syphilis treated with penicillin? Who can tell?). Whether or not they were actually married, it seems that in 1944 she felt confident enough of their relationship to take the Russian seaman’s surname when signing her name in Alf Boxall’s Rubaiyat.

It’s a pretty specific claim, so how can it be disproved?

Tamam Shud loose end roundup…

I’ve posted on so many separate Tamam Shud / Somerton Man topics recently (which have in turn triggered so many comments), I thought it might be a good idea to at least try to tie up a few loose threads still dangling here. “Ne’er does one door close but that another opens”. (Am I the only person who remembers “The Horrors of Ivan”?)

1. A Professorial Plug

As I mentioned here recently, the Unresolved Mysteries subreddit will be hosting an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) session with Professor Derek Abbott this Saturday. If you log in there then and post questions, he promises to try to answer them.

To be precise, the AMA session will start at the following (time zone) times:-

- Eastern Standard Time: Saturday, 30 August 2014 at 9pm
- Mountain Daylight Time: Saturday, 30 August 2014 at 7pm
- Pacific Standard Time: Saturday, 30 August 2014 at 6pm
- Australian Central Standard Time: Sunday, 31 August 2014 at 10.30am
- Australian Western Standard Time: Sunday, 31 August 2014 at 9am
- New Zealand Standard Time: Sunday, 31 August 2014 at 1pm
- Central European Summer Time: Sunday, 31 August 2014 at 3am
- British Summer Time: Sunday, 31 August 2014 at 2am

Of course, the timing is (let’s say) somewhat suboptimal for European Somerton Man fans: but it is what it is, and if you do want to take part, I’m sure you’ll find a way. icon smile Tamam Shud loose end roundup...

If you do, here are a few good questions to warm him up with…

* How come the Somerton Man was clean-shaven?
* How come he only had a pastie for lunch and dinner?
* Do you accept the new evidence in Feltus’ Chapter 14 “A Final Twist”?
* Can the dead man’s lividity be reconciled with his position posed on the beach?
* Did anybody ever try to track down the strappers that first found the Somerton Man’s corpse?
* Why did the Somerton Man have no socks in his suitcase?
* etc etc etc icon smile Tamam Shud loose end roundup...

2. The Australian Codebreaker

While following up the whole how-was-the-Rubaiyat-photograph-made question, I noticed that it was sent to “decoding experts at Army Headquarters, Melbourne” (26 July 1949, Feltus p.108) and that on the next day a “Navy ‘code cracker’ was tackling the task this afternoon” (Feltus p.110).

It struck me that these news stories can only really be talking about one person: Captain Theodore Eric Nave, who his biographer Ian Pfennigwerth dubbed “Australian Codebreaker Extraordinary” (in the 2006 book “A Man of Intelligence”). I personally found this a good read, but I suspect that the details of Eric Nave’s Japanese code-breaking exploits probably proved a bit heavy on the technical cryptology side for most lay readers.

Nave was on loan from the Royal Navy to the Australian Army for eight years until 1st January 1948, when he was “attached to the Defence Signals Bureau as a serving officer”, though his “loan appointment was terminated 17:3:49″. When the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) was established on 16th March 1949, Nave was proposed as a possible director: however, in those paranoid times the job actually went to a Brit: Nave was instead given the role of Defence and Services Liaison Officer, starting 15th December 1949. (Incidentally, he was also appointed to the board of the Victorian Mission to Seamen in 1950, just so you know).

I feel confident that, even though Nave had managed to accrue 160 days of untaken holiday by June 1948, he was at his desk in Melbourne when the Rubaiyat photograph came in – would they honestly have given it to anyone else in the building? Would they hell, I say.

But did Nave ever write about it? And did Army Headquarters keep a copy of that photograph? Even though Pfennigwerth’s book mines many different archives, Nave’s years immediately post-war seem far more sketchy than his war years, as far as evidence goes. All the same, wouldn’t it be nice if one of these archives proved to have a little bit more of an answer for us?

3. A Close Shave?

When I posted about how the Somerton Man was oddly (given the generally accepted timeline) clean-shaven, I proposed that he might have had a long-standing beard shaved off that morning.

With the help of the numerous commenters (and having thought about this a bit more), I can see now that I was being a bit hopeful: ultimately beard science says that hair growth is probabilistic, so there ought to have been a normal mix of all three hair phases in his stubble.

And yet at the same time that doesn’t really square with the timeline and what we see. Even so, there are plenty of other possible explanations we can’t rule out: e.g. the man’s face was shaved in the morgue before the photographs were taken (which is possible); he was shaved later in the day; he was in the throes of such a debilitating (and terminal) condition that his body didn’t have the strength to grow any hairs that day; he in general grew hair slower than most people; he had pale ginger facial hair which didn’t show up as 5 o’clock shadow; and so on.

Who knows which one was right? icon sad Tamam Shud loose end roundup...

4. The Football Player

When I posted about Mrs John Morison, the Adelaide Mission to Seamen’s relentless hospital visitor, I noted that her daughter Mary Morison married a footballer called Ian McKay, and listed highlights of her life up to 1954. The reason for this particular cut-off date is simply that this is currently as far forward as the Australian newspapers archived in Trove go: 50 years back from 2014 is 1954, and any newspaper more than half a century old is deemed to be out of copyright there (just so you know).

But it turns out that Ian McKay was an Australian rules footballer of great repute, who even has a Wikipedia page devoted to him. Unfortunately, the links given there have withered and died on the webby vine: but not before being picked up by the Wayback Machine. So, according to his obituary, we know that when he died in 2010:-

“Ian is survived by his wife, Mary, and three children, Heather, Andrew and David.”

Hence it’s entirely possible I might yet speak with a member of Mrs John Morison’s family before long, which could well prove to be hugely interesting.

Finally, here’s a picture of Ian McKay at (quite literally) the height of his career in 1952:-

IanMcKay1952GF Tamam Shud loose end roundup...

A quick look at the Feynman Ciphers…

For those of you who have had their fill of the last week’s posts on the Somerton Man, here’s a different cipher mystery that doesn’t get aired even 1% as much: the Feynman Ciphers.

The first Feynman Cipher (F1, 380 characters long) turned out to be based on a 5 x 76 transposition path cipher (the plaintext was “WHANTHATAPRILLEWITHHISSHOURESSOOTE”, i.e the start of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), but what is a little odd is that nobody seems to have yet made any inroads at all into the other two, though it is often remarked that transposition may well be involved. In that sense, they’re a bit like the d’Agapeyeff challenge cipher, which is also believed to be a multi-stage cipher including one or more transposition stages.

At 261 characters long, the second Feynman Cipher (F2) is a little shorter than F1: this length factorizes to 3 x 3 x 29, or 9 x 29, or 3 x 87. It also includes all 26 letters, which rules out a lot of tricky ciphers such as Playfair and Phillips.


Though normally very good at identifying cipher types, Cryptocrack doesn’t do particularly well in this: it suggests Phillips, FracMorse, Playfair and Beaufort as its top four tips, none of which seem hugely likely to me. What is interesting, though, is that if you transpose the ciphertext (say, using some of the seven transposed routes listed by James Lyons), Cryptocrack produces a quite different set of recommendations, suggesting instead Trifid (which it almost certainly isn’t), but more reasonably Running Key and occasionally Vigenere.

Personally, I don’t think it’s a Vig: so right now, my prediction is that it’ll turn out to be a funky path transposition combined with Running Key (combining this with Vigenere would surely be just a bit too sadistic). Perhaps this will be what James Lyons will say too, when he gets round to posting part 3 (his part 2 is here.

Finally: the third Feynman Cipher (F3) is short too: 231 characters, which factorizes to 3 x 7 x 11. Much as James Lyons notes, I currently expect more or less everything said about F2 to hold true for F3: so I epxect it’s probably a Running Key (or perhaps Vigenere, but I doubt it) combined with a funky path transposition.


What do you think?

The oddly clean-shaven Somerton Man…

Gordon Cramer, responding to a comment about beards I left back in June on his Tamam Shud site, replied:-

“[...] I do wonder about the clean shaven image of him that was published originally, given his supposed movements he would have been without a shave for 18 hours or more before his departure yet no 5 o’clock shadow or stubble..”

The Somerton Man checked his suitcase (containing a razor and razor strop) into Adelaide Railway Station cloak room between 11.00am and noon (and he then bought a bus ticket sometime after 11:15am), while his time of death was estimated next morning as probably having been about 2am that same night: so to be precise, it seems likely that he wouldn’t have shaved for at least 15 hours.

All the same I do agree that Gordon has a point here: the Somerton Man’s perfectly clean-shaven appearance in the police photos doesn’t really square with the generally accepted timeline – 15 hours is too long to not get some kind of “5 o’clock shadow”.

Just to remind you, here’s what he looked like (once Jimmy Durham had managed to wrestle a shirt and tie onto the body):-

Somerton Man front 768x1024 The oddly clean shaven Somerton Man...

Somerton Man side 1024x768 The oddly clean shaven Somerton Man...

Timing discrepancies like this are problematic for all Tamam Shud theories, because they’re not really a matter of opinion: facial hair is controlled by physical rules, which aren’t normally bypassed. So what could explain the Somerton Man’s apparent clean-shaven-ness?

Never having grown a beard myself, I was surprised today to find out that facial hair doesn’t ‘just grow’ (i.e. continuously and mechanically): rather, it follows a set of growth rules. In a page on beard length in a beard-products-selling website, I discovered that human hair has three distinct phases: anagen, catagen, and telogen.

The anagen phase (for head hair) lasts anywhere from two to six years, and since this is the growth phase, we can say with confidence that no man’s beard can ever grow longer than it is at six years old. Now, a man’s genetics determines how long his beard’s growth phase is. [...]

During the second phase (catagen), your hair stops growing. It embeds in your skin, and sort of sits there for a few months. During the final phase (telogen), a new hair starts growing in the follicle and pushes out the old hair, causing you to shed it.

The upshot for the Somerton Man, I think, is that if his facial hair didn’t obviously grow during the last 15+ hours of his life (and don’t take my word for it, click through above to the high-res images for yourself), it seems most likely to me that his facial hair – i.e. moustache and beard – wasn’t in the anagen (growth) phase, but was instead in the later catagen or telogen phases. That is, I believe this supports the idea that he had recently shaved off a long-standing (or do I mean “long-hanging”?) and therefore possibly quite substantial moustache and beard. (Hence the question: might one of the two combs in his suitcase have actually been a beard comb?)

Of course, the major alternatives to this scenario are (a) that he shaved again later in the day (problem: his razor was still in the suitcase), (b) someone else shaved him while alive (but in Glenelg?), or (c) someone else shaved him just after he had died (possible, but this does seem just a little bit unlikely – a dead guy is a dead guy, right?).

Personally, I’m running with the whole “luxurious beard” theory, but feel free to disagree. icon smile The oddly clean shaven Somerton Man...

pirate captain and his luxurious beard The oddly clean shaven Somerton Man...

Mrs John Morison, the Mission to Seamen’s indefatigable hospital visitor…

In my previous Somerton Man post, I wondered aloud who the Mission to Seamen committee member was. Having raked through Trove, I suspect I may have an answer: I think it was Mrs John Morison, the Adelaide Mission to Seamen’s indefatigable hospital visitor.

Here’s the article I found (Adelaide Mail, 10th July 1954) :

Mrs. Morison has visited hundreds of sick seamen since then [1946] — men from England, India, Germany, Malaya, and many other countries. Some did not live to see their own countries again, but in their last days were attended by the Mission.

Mrs John Morison Mrs John Morison, the Mission to Seamens indefatigable hospital visitor...

I suspect that she was the same Mrs John Morison who was honorary secretary of the Cheer-Up Society, and am sure she was the wife of Mr John Morison of North Terrace, Adelaide: their daughter Miss Mary Morison was an air hostess.

Here’s a picture from the 26th June 1948 edition of the Adelaide Mail, showing Mrs J. Morison bringing a birthday cake to (young, tanned, blue-eyed) Irish seaman Thomas Duffy, cheered on by daughter Mary (centre, back):-

thomas duffy in hospital 300x220 Mrs John Morison, the Mission to Seamens indefatigable hospital visitor...

Oh, and I’m pretty sure that Mrs John Morison’s actual first name was Evelyn, and that she was the daughter of Jim and Minnie Brimble, of 57 Gurrs Road, Beulah Park.

As for Mary Morison: she sunbathed at Henley Beach in 1948, trained as a TAA air hostess, got engaged to North Adelaide league footballer Ian McKay in 1949, which was also when they were married (story here), with a daughter following on 14 June 1951 called Heather (though not the famous squash player), but she still helped with the canteen at a Mission for Seamen fundraiser (in a “flat blue suit and tile red beret”) in 1952, though that’s where the print trail seems to end. A life in Trove!

Right now, that’s the extent of my knowledge of Mrs Morison: but if the Somerton Man was a foreign merchant seaman in the Royal Adelaide Hospital during 1948, the chances that he came into contact with the Mission to Seamen’s Mrs John Morison were surely very close to 100%.

I’ll post more as I find it…

The Somerton Man “missing list”, and the simplest explanation of all…

I’ll start with a quick Somerton Man announcement: Professor Derek Abbott will be doing an interactive AMA session on Reddit right at the end of this month (August 2014), which will happen at the following times:-

- Eastern Standard Time: Saturday, 30 August 2014 at 9:00:00 p.m
- Mountain Daylight Time: Saturday, 30 August 2014 at 7:00:00 p.m
- Pacific Standard Time: Saturday, 30 August 2014 at 6:00:00 p.m
- Australian Central Standard Time: Sunday, 31 August 2014 at 10:30:00 a.m
- Australian Western Standard Time: Sunday, 31 August 2014 at 9:00:00 a.m
- New Zealand Standard Time: Sunday, 31 August 2014 at 1:00:00 p.m
- Central European Summer Time: Sunday, 31 August 2014 at 3:00:00 a.m
- British Summer Time: Sunday, 31 August 2014 at 2:00:00 a.m

If you have Tamam Shud questions for him that have long been burning into your soul, perhaps that would be a good time and place to ask them.

Today’s post is about something oddly specific: what the South Australian police apparently didn’t find.

If we assume, quite reasonably, that the Somerton Man was the owner of the suitcase found at Adelaide railway station not long after his death, we end up with some curious gaps – a “missing list” of things that ought to be present but were not.

At his death, what he had on him was:

* 1 jacket
* 1 shirt
* 1 tie.
* 1 pullover (even though it was the middle of the hot Australian winter)
* 1 pair of trousers (made of Crusader Cloth)
* 1 singlet
* 1 pair of jockey underpants
* 1 pair of socks
* 1 pair of shoes (new-looking)
* 1 Army Club cigarette packet (containing cheaper Kensitas cigarettes)
* 1 quarter-full box of matches (Bryant and May)
* 1 half-full packet of chewing gum (Juicy Fruit)
* 2 combs
* 1 piece of rolled-up paper (famously bearing the words “Tamam Shud”)
* 1 used bus ticket to Glenelg
* 1 unused second-class rail ticket to Henley Beach.

Here are the contents of the stuff that was found in the (also new-looking) suitcase:-


* 1 laundry bag (marked “Keane”)
* 4 ties (one marked “Kean”)
* 2 singlets (one marked “Kean”, the other with name tag torn off)
* 2 pairs of underpants
* 1 pair of slippers (size 8)
* 1 pair of trousers (‘Marco’ brand)
* 1 sports coat
* 1 yellow coat shirt
* 1 coat shirt
* 1 shirt (name tag removed)
* 1 scarf
* 6 handkerchiefs
* 1 dressing gown and cord
* 1 pair of pyjamas

Clothes accessories

* 2 coat hangers
* 1 front stud
* 1 back stud
* 1 button (brown)
* 3 safety pins
* 1 card of tan thread
* 1 tin of tan boot polish (Kiwi)

Work tools (it would seem)

* 1 scissors in sheath
* 1 knife in sheath
* 1 stencil brush
* 1 piece of light board (zinc?)
* 1 small screwdriver
* 1 pair of broken scissors
* 1 loupe (small ring shaped object)

Personal hygiene

* 1 razor strop
* 1 razor
* 1 shaving brush
* 1 toothbrush and toothpaste
* 1 soap dish (apparently green)


* 8 large and 1 small envelopes
* 6 pencils
* 2 air-mail stickers
* 1 rubber

Miscellaneous stuff

* 1 hairpin (in the soap dish)
* 1 piece light cord
* 1 cigarette lighter
* 1 6d coin (in the trouser pocket)
* 1 tea spoon
* 1 glass dish

Put all these pieces together, and you get a surprisingly long list of things that weren’t there:-

* Hat
* Outer coat
* Pen (or did he really write everything in pencil?)
* Money
* Ration card
* Identity card
* Wallet
* Socks
* Any kind of railway ticket (if he came to Adelaide by train)
* Any letters received

Were these all lost (in a bet in a pub?), dropped (in a fight in the street?), stolen (by strappers on the beach?), removed (by a spying clean-up crew?), or what? Nobody knows – not even Derek Abbott. It’s a first-class mystery, for sure.

What does it all mean?

Well… that’s the big question, isn’t it?

It’s certainly odd that the Somerton Man seems to have only owned a single pair of socks. I’ve wondered (elsewhere) whether he might have used his other socks to wrap his money in, and whether he had those socks in his outer coat’s pockets. I’m well aware that this, as explanations go, is both plausible and ridiculous at the same time… but if you have a better explanation, please say.

I think the absence of letters may also be telling. I feel reasonably sure that the Somerton Man had letters in his possession, but carried them in his pocket because at least one of them included the address he was travelling to.

I also suspect that the “T Kean[e]” was Adelaide Freemason Tom Kean, whose 1947 Will – I believe, but can’t prove – donated many of his clothes to a local charity, from where the Somerton Man received it.

But I think that perhaps the biggest clue of all in his possessions has yet to be properly mentioned by anyone – the dressing gown and slippers. I recently read a short “Out Among The People” article in Trove from the 7th November 1950 edition of the Adelaide ‘Tizer, which said that the Mission To Seamen visited sick seamen in hospital and supplied them with “cigarettes, fruit, toilet necessities, slippers, books, dressing gowns…”

The full extract goes like this:-

Missions To Seamen

In addition to providing wholesome entertainment for crews of visiting vessels at the Flying Angels at Port Adelaide and Outer Harbor, the Missions to Seamen also watches their interests if they are sick in hospital. A member of the committee cited cases in an enlightening account to me yesterday. “One patient, an Irish lad, has been in hospital for 3 1/2 years and recently was permitted to get up for the first time.” she said. “The hospital visitor has seen him regularly and has been able to do the manv little things his own family would have done in the way of shopping, business affairs, arranging for a wireless set, and so on. A young South African suffering from polio was visited daily and helped in his efforts to walk again in the hospital grounds in the evening. Just recently patients have been Swedish, Indian, Cornish, Scotch, English and Irish. An Indian from Pakistan has been in hospital for 20 weeks, and will soon undergo another operation.”

Devoted Nurses

My committee friend described the devotion of the nursing staff to these lonely overseas patients as wonderful. The Mission supplied cigarettes, fruit, toilet necessities, slippers, books, dressing gowns, had their laundry done when necessary; in fact, it did as far as possible take the place of the patient’s family. The men are most grateful and say they do not know what they would do without this thought and care. “I have been receiving letters from at least 10 former patients regularly for the past three years,” she told me. “Short motor drives and visits to private homes are arranged when, patients can get their doctor’s permission to do so. Two seamen were taken out and home to tea this week-end.”

Hmmm… I wonder who that female committee member was?

The simplest explanation of all?

Prediction #1: the Somerton Man was a foreign merchant seaman in Adelaide who had been taken seriously ill at sea, and had been visited in hospital by the Mission to Seamen. He was a Third Officer (hence his stencilling equipment for marking cargo.). He had written letters home overseas (hence the air mail stickers).

Prediction #2: the Somerton Man was Russian and needed an interpreter to help him get effective treatment. The nurse we know as “Jestyn” (who, we are now told, spoke Russian when she was younger) was asked in by the Mission for Seamen as a Russian-speaking volunteer – what we might nowadays call a ‘patient advocate’.

Prediction #3: the Somerton Man wrote letters to her in Russian from the hospital and sent them to her home address in Glenelg; and that she wrote back to him. This was a source of great comfort to him.

Prediction #4: the Somerton Man didn’t arrive in Adelaide from Melbourne, but was already in hospital there. Feeling terribly unwell and alone he decided to discharge himself from hospital and go and visit her in Glenelg. He put his possessions into a suitcase given to him by the Mission To Seamen (along with the dressing gown and slippers, etc) and checked it into the left luggage department of Adelaide railway station.

Prediction #5: that same morning, he did something simple that accidentally had the effect of making him hard to trace – he shaved off the beard that he had grown in hospital, to try and look as respectable as he could for meeting Jestyn.

Prediction #6: I believe that it wasn’t poison or a pastie that killed him, but whatever he had been suffering from in the hospital (causing his spleen to enlarge etc).

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.

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