Spring 2014 Voynich Miscellany…

Over the last few days here at Cipher Mysteries, I’ve had all kinds of ups and downs with the website, mainly to do with excessive levels of spam (which triggered account suspensions, etc). Anyway, I’ve now turned all the security dials to 12 (Spinal Tap must have got it wrong, because 11 apparently wasn’t high enough) and have added yet more Heath-Robinson bodgery to the webmaster scripts and configurations: fingers crossed it will make a positive difference. And I’ve finally got outgoing mails working again (how annoying was that?!), *sigh*

Regardless, it’s spring cleaning time: that is, time to clear out my short term collection of Voynich cultural mini-links, some of which you might even like. Arty Voynich appropriators first:-

‘Modestly’ (Anne Corr) is offering a 32-page hand-made book comprising images from the Voynich Manuscript. She says:-

There are eight folded pages each with four illustrations printed onto a lovely textured watercolour paper chosen for its excellence in print quality and longevity. I have used a coptic stitch with a faux leather cover, finished with a faux leather tie. It certainly gives the impression of a medieval book.

I hope she’s talking about her own book: as if we haven’t got enough trouble with Voynich theorists who similarly claim that the Voynich itself “gives the impression of a medieval book.” *shakes head, sighs*

Rather less obviously crafty is New Zealander Baron’s Selection, who (virtually) offers T-shirts via Zazzle themed around “Philosophy, Politics, general ‘intellectual’ stuff.” One is called Voynich #1 T-Shirt (f67r1), and the other Voynich #2 T-shirt (Scorpio).

Incidentally, I once won a big box of promo T-Shirts for suggesting that the right question for the answer “Above a grocer’s shop in Grantham” was “What was the setting for Ben Elton’s ‘Inferno’?” All of which was a very long time ago indeed, however you try to slice that particular gala pie.

And now we move on to Voynichian musicians.

Melbourne music producer Andrei Eremin has recently put out a track called Voynich Manoeuvre. I actually quite like it, but it has got a certain 9pm-in-a-Shoreditch-restaurant vibe to it that’s hard not to notice: music to drink overpriced urban cocktails to. But perhaps that’s the point, I don’t know.

Anyway, Arcadia Studios TV has a YouTube interview with Nelson Rebelo of rocking Portuguese underground band The Voynich Code to promote their debut single ‘Antithesis’: here’s the official video for it. The guitar lick at about 4:19 is quite cool, though the whole band then goes into a sequence where they all look they’re playing air guitar, even though most of them are holding guitars. Which is a bit odd.

All the same, my son points out (correctly, it has to be said) that Antithesis is hard to distinguish from the awesomely dark the Lego Movie Batman song, though The Voynich Code’s version possibly still gets the vote (by a whisker). But feel free to make up your own mind, pop pickers! And that’s just the first verse… icon wink Spring 2014 Voynich Miscellany...

Finally: some proper Voynichian miscellany.

Was the (15th century) Voynich Manuscript written in the (1987-vintage) conlang Lojban, perhaps through some kind of trickery involving Leonardo da Vinci and time travel? You know the answer already (I can only hope), but though this April Fool’s Day paper was inspired both by Talbert and Tucker and by Stephen Bax, the way it deciphers “penis” and “darseBar” surely combines technical correctness with historical mastery in a way that the preceding three authors can only dream of emulating in the future. Enjoy!

“Overcompensating” web comic does the Voynich Manuscript…

Jeffrey Rowland’s “Overcompensating” web comic has just run a short story about the Voynich Manuscript, with the author’s surprisingly reasonable premise being that “I’m sick of them not figuring out what the Voynich Manuscript means! I guess we’ll have to figure it out ourselves.

OC1486 frame 1 Overcompensating web comic does the Voynich Manuscript...

How foolish of us all, it could only ever have been a manual for building a God 2.0! Perhaps J.J. really has nailed it, who can tell? icon wink Overcompensating web comic does the Voynich Manuscript...

Weldon Ciphers resolved (it would seem)…

At last! Jordan Himelfarb of the Toronto Star has managed to crack the mystery of the Weldon Ciphers, with nothing more than a well-judged bit of social probing.

Online forum member “+Myst0wn” had cleverly unearthed the owner’s page for the mysterious blog “000xyz.blog.ca” referenced on the back of each envelope. Jordan thought about the owner’s name (“Sculpture 2.0″), and decided it must be something to do with “social sculpture”, a kind of art that is defined by people’s reactions to encountering something unusual.

But how was he/she connected to Western University? Jordan found an art instructor there called Kelly Jazvac whose art interests seemed fairly similar: and it turned out, after some to-ing and fro-ing, that Jazvac had taught the (still unnamed) “Sculpture 2.0″.

She explained that the Weldon code was an art project that came out of a second-year sculpture and installation class she taught in 2012. The artist, then an undergraduate student, placed 121 letters in the Weldon stacks and moved on with her or his (but probably her) life. Jazvac told me the artist was shocked by the project’s recent fame and wished to remain anonymous lest she be treated unkindly in the media. (The artist later declined my offer, via Jazvac, for an interview under the condition of anonymity.)

So it was, after all, simply a puzzle-like thing composed of 26 upper case and 26 lower case letters in a hand-built font (one that the artist christened “Sculpture 2.0″), but with a meaningless plaintext, and left abandoned in the stacks at Weldon. A thing of oddness and careful beauty, defined more by people’s collective reactions to it than its actual internal content.

weldon cipher key small Weldon Ciphers resolved (it would seem)...

More Weldon cipher stuff…

I had an interesting note from long-time Voynich Manuscript researcher Dana Scott about the Weldon Ciphers (thanks!). He noticed that (what Chris Demwell idiosyncratically called) the “fish” and “dog” glyphs in fact appear to be a linked pair:-

reconstructed fish More Weldon cipher stuff...

So “fish” actually = “fish head”, while “dog” actually = “fish tail”. But what that means is still anybody’s guess.

Another interesting angle is, as the Pressing Refresh blogger points out, the moderate similarity with a game played in the same D. B. Weldon library in 2011. This was based around a fictional “Captain Smith” and included all manner of harmonic-themed cookie crumbs for the players to find. There’s much more on the Intangible Harmonics website, according to which it all ended up like this:

Our players determined that Smith’s words were from an obscure poem called Tecumseh, Or The Warrior of the West by John Richardson. The players then somehow figured out that the words on the scrap of paper were in the Shawnee language, the same language spoken by the great Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa. The words were actually a library location code.

So, that’s one set of people who might possibly be involved, perhaps as a kind of karmic payback for (or follow-on to) Captain Smith’s historic adventures. Who can tell?

The Pressing Refresh blogger also suspects it might be a certain cryptographically-focussed assistant professor at Western University, which would also make a lot of sense.

My own best guess is that it is a cryptic literary cipher (for I’d be a bit surprised if a crypto professor would allow letters to scroll off the bottom of the page when inserting different-sized pictures: and pink feathers too?) by a writer who previously had his/her own blog hosted on the blog.ca domain. I managed to find a “Pale Writer” blog active there from 2006-ish, so – in the absence of anything better – that’s today’s best guess. Whoever that is (and perhaps you know who that is, because I certainly don’t).

Just so you know!

Weldon Ciphers transcribed…

Having today had a closer look at the eighteen Weldon ciphers found so far, I have to say that there’s not quite as much cryptographic meat to chew as it initially seemed. In fact, there are exactly three different cryptograms, with only minor variations from those in the others.

So, here’s Chris Demwell’s original transcription for Note 01, along with my transcriptions for Notes 02 and 03, and descriptions of the differences between these and the fifteen other notes:-

* Note 01

threecircle leaf bubble dog apple dotsquare yinyang target square clover key bird hatch arrow
circle dotblob triangle clover threecircle fire cube bidirection sunfish pacman target three ra flux
arrow sun earth dotblob floyd diamond grass key apple bubble dotcircle ra target pacman star
apple hook yinyang clover triangle bird ra square brush dotsquare three bigstar bubble waves
target ra triangle dotcircle phi star grass leaf threecircle star diamond threecircle circle desktop
bidirection dotblob tack sun dotcircle threecircle circle ra fire dotsquare bigstar cube key leaf
dotsquare phi bubble splitcircle leaf feather floyd brush circle triangle star remote pacman remote
dotcircle threecircle gem frame triangle square trefoil
puzzlepiece bird apple arrow yinyang feather dotblob
bigstar tack apple star ra brush square
leaf hand threecircle bubble dotcircle phi sun

* Note 02

gem cube tree bird feather leaf key desktop ra dotsquare bubble square arrow grass star
hand sun desktop feather cube atomic ra star earth hand bigstar brush diamond apple key
tree feather cube phi flux dotsquare puzzlepiece frame arrow hatch dotblob ra cube key hook
square triangle waves dotcircle gem leaf gem waves threecircle earth clover phi bubble dotcircle
hook bird cube feather bidirection hook knot bigstar atomix bubble three square trefoil dotsquare bigstar
bird arrow dog dotblob hand triangle three yinyang hand waves atomic bigstar threecircle circle
dotsquare bigstar bubble sunfish leaf key hook gem gem
feather earth phi dotcircle desktop fire waves splitcircle
triangle leaf square remote hand arrow apple grass
threecircle dotblob feather target gem pacman threecircle dotcircle
gem phi triangle dotcircle bubble apple bird puzzlepiece

* Note 03

circle desktop bird leaf dotblob frame cube gem fire floyd tree feather tack knot foam
dagger key cube waves atomic three square bigstar bubble grass knot foam puzzlepiece dog pacman
threecircle dotcircle ra yinyang gem hatch cube floyd tack bird brush clover earth dotsquare
circle square flux hand dotblob dotcircle triangle waves dotcircle triangle trefoil dotsquare hand yinyang
square target remote circle yinyang star trefoil flux frame tree foam frame floyd feather fire
cube hook dotblob desktop feather circle brush three atomic feather desktop gem bubble brush square
target sunfish dotblob dotsquare grass bird pacman threecircle game dotsquare ra puzzlepiece waves atomic
star square yinyang waves square target dotcircle
bigstar three cube feather arrow apple sun leaf
bird desktop splitcircle puzzlepiece threecircle tree bigstar dotsquare
feather threecircle square arrow target three earth

* Note 04 = Note 03, but “square arrow target three earth” at the end replaced with “frame puzzlepiece”.
* Note 05 = Note 02
* Note 06 = Note 02, but with two extra symbols (“triangle waves”)
* Note 07 = Note 03
* Note 08 = Note 03, but “square arrow target three earth” at the end replaced with “frame puzzlepiece”.
* Note 09 = Note 02, but missing the final two symbols
* Note 10 = Note 02
* Note 11 = Note 03, but “square arrow target three earth” at the end replaced with “frame puzzlepiece”.
* Note 12 = Note 03
* Note 13 = Note 02, but missing the final six symbols
* Note 14 = Note 02, but with two extra symbols (“triangle waves”)
* Note 15 = Note 02
* Note 16 = Note 03
* Note 17 = Note 03, but missing the final five symbols
* Note 18 = Note 01

From the way that the text flows around the slightly different-shaped pictures, it seems likely to me that this was done in a straightforward word processor (say, Microsoft Word) with a custom font, text flowing left-to-right and top-to-bottom (as per normal). Also, even though I haven’t counted, my guess is that there are no more than 52 different shapes used in the three core cryptograms, which would seem to point to A-Z and a-z having been used.

Anybody want to have a go at cracking these? icon smile Weldon Ciphers transcribed...

The Weldon Ciphers

The way things normally work at Ivey Business School (part of Western University in London, Ontario) is that economist Mike Moffatt would trundle along doing his professorial thing, posting yet more analyses of Mayoral local unemployment claims to his blog.

Except… a fortnight ago (9th March 2014), he happened to stumble upon a cryptogram in an envelope inside a book on the shelves at the University’s D. B. Weldon Library. This puzzle has grown to bug him so much that he’s now offering $100 (presumably Canadian dollars, but still ~90 USD, ha!) to anyone who can crack it.

weldon cipher 1 The Weldon Ciphers

Hey, welcome to my world, Mike. icon wink The Weldon Ciphers

Curiously, the act of blogging about what he’d found encouraged library staff and various others to reveal or find seventeen others apparently in the same series (e.g. here, here, here and here, and more may well turn up over the next few days, who can say?), all folded neatly in little white envelopes hidden in other books in the same library. Oh, and each envelope also contains either a coloured toy ‘gem’, a feather, or a leaf (many with two coloured dots of paint): endearingly, the object is repeated as an coloured icon in the Wingdings-a-like font used to print out the pages.

Chris Demwell produced a transcription of the first cipher, which showed that it has too many glyphs (about 50) to be a monoalphabetic (simple substitution) cipher: while other people have allegedly had a crack at it, but without making any obvious progress so far, it would seem.

Oddly, several of the notes are cryptographically identical (e.g. #3 and #5 differ only in the colour of the gem, but I think there are other pairs too), so there are actually fewer than 18 different cryptograms to crack. Cryptologically, the frequency instance distribution is far from perfectly flat, while a number of glyph sequences recur between notes, which would seem to point away from almost all tricksy modern crypto stuff, and instead towards the wobbly world of hand-picked homophonic ciphers.

But no, I don’t think it’s the Zodiac Killer back to taunt us with pink feathers and pictures of jugs and Ikea tables (I don’t think that’s what his vision of “paradice” was at all). But zkdecrypto might possibly be the right tool for the job, who can say? It’s early days…

I don’t know, though: I’m more of an historian, so this is all a bit fey for my liking, a bit too consciously an art-school-meets-Slashdot-and-everyone-loses gig. But there seems no obvious reason why these cryptograms shouldn’t be crackable, in that they look more like a hand-rolled ‘peasant’ cipher system than heavy duty crypto. But given that that’s true of the Voynich Manuscript too, maybe that’s an assessment that’s still slightly premature. What do you think? icon smile The Weldon Ciphers

PS: a tip of the missing hat to Dennis H for flagging this to me, much appreciated!

Coast to Coast AM does the Voynich Manuscript…

Tonight (23rd March 2014), Coast to Coast AM talk host George Noory will be discussing the Voynich Manuscript with “spiritual artist and musician Stuart Davis” and PR-hungry Voynich theorist Stephen Bax.

Well… at least the musician guy sounds credible. icon neutral Coast to Coast AM does the Voynich Manuscript...

I have to admit that, not so many years ago, I would experience a frisson of excitement whenever I heard about the Voynich Manuscript’s being picked up by the media. Back then it would get no more than one or two genuinely substantial mentions per year, whether in Cryptologia, Nature, New Scientist, or wherever: and I was fascinated to see how the Voynich cultural meme developed over time.

But over the last few months it has been mentioned in so many goshdarned articles that the same phenomenon instead induces a wave of nausea – my stomach sinks and I wonder “how are they going to misrepresent Voynich research this time?”

For instance, Stephen Bax seems doggedly determined not only to recapitulate every single error made in Voynich research up to 1970 (e.g. …
* reading Voynichese as an obscure-but-lost-or-maybe-polyglot language;
* parsing Voynichese as if it were a simple letter-for-letter language;
* looking for obscure language matches for possible herbal cribs;
* assuming that any published research must have some Rastafarian-truth-in-all-truths viability; etc, etc),
but also to represent his own nine wonky words as if they somehow define cutting edge Voynich research.

In fact, the mistakes Bax has made (and indeed continues to make) are about as stolidly retro as rockabilly quiffs.

But, of course, the chances of anybody outside the Voynich world having the history and cryptology chops to call him on this are terribly slim. Would George Noory ask him why he is so certain that Voynichese is actually a language, when…
* the dictionary statistics are all wrong, with words often differing by a single letter;
* different letters have different preferences for positions on the page;
* indeed, “p” gallows tend to occur in pairs halfway along the top line of paragraphs;
* frequently occurring groups like “aiiv” and “aiir” are apparently the same as medieval page references;
* and so on?

Incidentally, Bax’s most recent ‘find’ is that the plant depicted on f6v is Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. Father Petersen, Ethel Voynich, Ellie Velinksa, and even Mazars and Wiartz (2006) all think this is a good match, so he’s kind of kicking at a long-opened door here. However, when Bax suggests that EVA “qoar” (which recurs 11 times throughout the manuscript) might be the name of the plant, I think he’s just being equal parts overoptimistic and foolish, and showing his ignorance about how Voynichese works.

Perhaps at any moment in history we get no more and no less than the Voynich ‘experts’ we deserve. What a horrible thought. icon sad Coast to Coast AM does the Voynich Manuscript...

Review: Leena Krohn’s “Datura”…

Leena Krohn’s novel “Datura” has long been on my big fat list of Voynich novels: though originally released in 2001 as ‘Datura tai harha jonka jokainen näkee’ by the multi-genre Finnish writer, it has now been translated into English as Datura, or a delusion we all see.

The story follows a woman running a kind of Finnish Fortean Times, and its chapters are criss-crossed by her (fictional) encounters with oddbods holding a wide range of fringe beliefs about reality. All the while, her accidental addiction to Datura is growing, while her ability to tell fantasy from reality diminishes… it’s a slippery slope. The Voynich Manuscript is in there somewhere (but then again, so is a lot of other marginal stuff).

That’s the bare bones of the story – is it worth a read?

Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy it half as much as I hoped I would. Krohn launches her story from a traditional horror plotline trope (the a-little-bit-of-this-surely-won’t-hurt gag), but never really puts her foot on the accelerator: her main character’s meetings with Fortean outsiders are more tetchy and impatient than genuinely weird or mind-expanding, and only occasionally intersect with anything like the plot.

Even the book’s Fortean fare – the Voynich Manuscript included – acts merely as a backdrop to the main character’s solipsistic, dreary suburban life, in thrall to her friend Markus (who owns the magazine she edits) for no particularly good reason. Even the ridiculous practical risks involved with taking Datura – aka the moonflower, angel’s trumpets, Devil’s Weed, or Jinson weed – are breezed over.

I’m sorry to say that at the end of the book I came away wishing that Krohn had been braver, had taken more risks with the writing, had been… I don’t know, altogether more gothic.

Structurally, you can’t (I’d say with my editor hat on) genuinely hope to sustain a book around a main character whose interactions with other characters are avowedly indifferent or grudgingly accepting: it’s just not enough for readers to work with.

Double pirate book recommendation…

A bit of an unusual double-header review today, because I recently read a pair of pirate-history-related books one after the other, and they complemented each other in such a satisfying way that I thought I had to recommend you get yourself a copy of both, if you even remotely like pirate stuff.

The first half of this brace is Colin Woodard’s (2007) The Republic of Pirates, ‘Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down’ – i.e. Woodes Rogers. As you may know, the Golden Age of Piracy (well… in the Caribbean, at least) ran from 1715 to 1725, and was the extraordinary time when Bellamy, Blackbeard, Vane, Hornigold and even the faintly ridiculous Stede Bonnet were all in play. Woodard tells their stories well and with reference to a generous boatload of near-primary evidence.

Just about all you could criticize him for is perhaps throwing too many pirates at you all at once – there’s a point about halfway through when the reader almost inevitably gets pirate fatigue. But give yourself a good slug of rum (with plenty of lime, sugar and ice) and persist, it’s well worth the effort.

The second half of the twosome is something that’s both wonderfully edgy and crazily sophisticated all at the same time. You may have heard that Tim Powers’ (1987) On Stranger Tides was used – sort of – as a plot backbone for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film (which was hugely successful, even if it got mixed-to-poor reviews).

But Powers’ book is really much better than the big-budget film schtick loosely ‘inspired’ by it: and it sets up its darkly magical twists and turns without having to resort to the kind of special effect extravaganza the PotC film goes all-in for. In fact, Powers is often described as writing a kind of “gonzo history”, because he comes across (perhaps a little surprisingly) as a bit of a history obsessive, trying extremely hard to fit his story around the very real history of the pirates, as later documented by Colin Woodard.

For me, what is truly epic is this: read these two books back to back (Woodard first, then Powers) and at the end of it, it’s as if you’ve been immersed in a fantastically detailed, near-immersive pirate fantasy world. Much better than 3D! icon smile Double pirate book recommendation...

Jutta Kellner proposes Voynich theory, asks for money…

How many more Voynich Manuscript theories does 2014 plan to dump in my inbox? Hot on the heels of Tucker & Talbert, Fallacara & Occhinegro, and indeed Stephen Bax (who I recently banned from commenting on Cipher Mysteries) as well as several others whose theories I’m patiently working through (please forgive the delay, but e.g. it takes time to learn Nahuatl well enough to comment on it), comes yet another new Voynich theory, this time courtesy of Jutta Kellner of Dransfeld.

Kellner has historical mystery ‘form’, in that she previously self-published a (2011) book 2012 + 4,3 Die Lösung des Mayakalenders und mehr… (i.e. a 2012 Mayan calendar theory book). And just so you know, her company JKdesign also sells a range of curiously beautiful neck-warmers as well as loads and loads of zips.

But what of her Voynich Manuscript theory, I hear you asak? Well, she claims to have first begun to solve the puzzle over an intensive five day period in February 2007, and to have been supported in her extensive secondary research by a family member ever since. Now she is looking for some kind of ‘crowdfunding’ to help her complete the last stage – translating the body of the text – by the end of 2014: she’s looking for somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 euros. Which is, of course, a lot of zips.

But rather than laying to claim nine wonky words or one wobbly diagram, Kellner has actually published some fragments of her decryption. She claims that the plaintext is in Latin, dates from the 13th and 14th centuries, and “was written as a kind of adventure novel”: specifically, “it’s all about battles, assaults, quarrels, togetherness, voyages, captureing ships and much, much more…” So why can’t we just read it all straight off? Her good reason is that:

No computer program in the world can do this translation work, because you first need to extract the meaning from a “speech cloud”, but in the end there is always a unique solution. You never know in advance how long a sentence is. It’s like solveing a two-sided crossword in the head.

Of course I will not exposure the key. That would be just like you publish an ingenious invention without patent application. There were many inventors or explorers in the past who were cheated, exploited and ignored.

All the same, I think we can get pretty close to what (she thinks) she’s doing to decrypt our mysterious manuscript’s text. Let’s look at one of her examples (decrypted from Voynichese into Latin, and then translated into German and English), the top line of f28v (though she has the first word as EVA “tshol” when it should clearly be “kshol”):-

Voynichese: tshol qooiiin shor pchoiiin shepchy qoty dy shory

German: Zum Vierten Male Wasser zu holen ist mit Mühe verbunden. Wir sind sauer, weil wir nicht in den Hafen können, da dieser natürlich nicht die Tiefe hat. Demzufolge müssen wir jetzt außerhalb vor Anker liegen.

English: A fourth time to fetch water requires effort. We are angry because we can not in the harbor, because it certainly does not have the depth. Accordingly, we now have to be at anchor outside.

(Incidentally, Kellner dates this page to “10/12/1245″.)

For a Voynich researcher, the top line of f28v presents lots of classic Voynichese ‘motifs’ (one might even call them ‘leitmotifs’):
* it has a gallows character as the first letter of the line, paragraph, and page (just as you’d expect)
* it has a horizontal “Neal key” (a pair of single-leg gallows half-to-two-thirds of the way across the topmost line of the paragraph)
* it has a double ‘o’ in the second word (qooiiin), as a result of which looks to me as though it may well have been miscopied from ‘qoaiin’
* it has a jarring e-gallows pair, that (again) looks like it may have been miscopied (‘shepchy’ as written, when I would have instead expected ‘shcphey’)

Perhaps the most visually obvious thing about this short line is that it contains about eight words, and many of those are built up out of extremely common patterns: ol, or, qo, aiin, dy. But while I would broadly agree with the late Mark Perakh’s conclusion that the Voynich Manuscript’s text is probably abbreviated in some way, I somehow doubt that it could have been abbreviated to the degree that Kellner’s claimed decryption would appear to have been.

What’s going on here? I suspect that Kellner is translating the “4″-shape in the first “qo” pair to “A fourth time”: but this would make no sense for a 13th century or even a 14th century text, because the digit “4″ wasn’t written in that way until very late in the 15th century. As for the rest, I have the strong suspicion that she is largely reading the rest as a Latin acrostic – i.e. building up phrases based on the first letter of the words only.

Perhaps Cipher Mysteries readers will do better than me at working out precisely what she’s doing with all this. But really, whatever it happens to be, right now I honestly don’t think it will turn out to be anything much to do with either cryptology or linguistics.

As always, you are entirely free to do with your own money whatsoever you will. But so far I’m failling to find any reason at all to direct any of my own crowd-of-one’s money in the direction of Dransfeld.

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