This is just a work in progress post: I’ve taken the Beaumont family data recently posted here as comments by B Deveson and Samuel Z, and converted (most of) them into a single über-diagram.
Please let me know if this is wrong in any way!
Newly arrived Voynich theorists Giuseppe Fallacara and Ubaldo Occhinegro will be holding their book launch at the European Parliament in Brussels tomorrow (4th December 2013, 6pm, room ASP 5G2 if you just happen to be nearby).
They’ve even managed to bring Roberto Giacobbo, the hugely well-known (and much-parodied) guy from long-running TV history / pseudohistory documentary series Voyager on Italian channel Rai 2 along to the presentation to give his thoughts, along with MEP Sergio Silvestris, no doubt somewhat delighted that anyone outside of Brussels remembers that he has a pulse. Cipher Mysteries readers with sad photographic memories for trivia may recall that it was Giacobbo’s Voyager programme who busted the infamous “John Titor” time-traveller hoax waaaay back in 2008. Though not everything on Voyager has managed to reach the same level of factual accuracy and careful research, if its many critics are even partially to be believed.
As far as I can tell, what the two Italian Voynich authors will be demonstrating is that the Castel del Monte was not only an incomplete Imperial hunting lodge (as if anything so obvious could be the case, pshaw!), but also a planned fantastic herbal laboratory (of sorts) for gaining eternal life, via Voynich-style spagyric alchemy. It’s true that they seem a little bit wobbly as far as physical history (Roger Bacon? Hmmm) / codicology (what?) / art history (where?) goes – frankly, their Voynich theory seems to be all about architecture and nothing else – but that’s probably entirely par for the course. Perhaps they’ll have something genuinely interesting and insightful to say about the Voynich Manuscript I’m not expecting… anything’s possible, I guess.
The nicest thing of all is that they plan to stream the whole event live-and-direct to we far-away denizens of the Whole Wide World via their shiny website www.castello-manoscritto.it. So there’s still time to get a refund on that EasyJet flight to Belgium you just booked for tomorrow, because you can watch the whole thing at your PC or Mac, perhaps even in your dressing gown (depending on your timezone relative to 18:00 Central European Time).
I doubt they’ll allow questions from the (virtual) wings, though… it all looks that bit too fragile to stand up to proper scrutiny. I’m sure you’re way ahead of me already as far as what questions they’d find hard to answer (i.e. why does the Voynich’s cryptography so resemble ciphers made 150 years after the dates you’re talking about? etc), so I won’t list them here.
Will I be in Brussels tomorrow? Well, not unless a CIA black team descends on Cipher Mysteries Mansion and some kind of extraordinary rendition thing happens (and it’s reassuring to that know the rules have changed so that I wouldn’t now get tortured in the process). However, my best guess is that no three-letter agency (or even honorary members GCHQ) is currently sufficiently bothered about the Voynich Manuscript to do that. But all being well, I’l doubtless try to stream it. Hopefully that will be as close as I need to get!
I’ve just added a new permanent page on the mysterious Blitz Ciphers to Cipher Mysteries. Basically, I discovered a few days ago that I had much higher resolution versions of the three scans so far released than I remembered having (i.e. 4MP rather than 1MP), which gave me a good-sized shove to put a proper page up for them. Also, a big hat tip to Edward B for asking if I had anything so useful as decent-sized scans.
But that has also prompted me to revisit the issue of why the Blitz Ciphers aren’t apparently trivially crackable with normal crypto tools (e.g. zkdecrypto etc). And that prompted me to think again about how to go about detecting / predicting nulls.
As always, I had a look for null detection algorithms on the Internet, just in case there was some kind of magical analytical framework out there that I had somehow missed (there’s nothing in Cryptool etc). The closest mention I found was a 2005 message from Brian Tawney on the Voynich mailing list that basically described his independent version of my own homebrewed null character detector: which basically comes down to comparing the distribution of letters preceding / following nulls and seeing how closely that distribution approximates the context-less distribution of letters in the message.
For what it’s worth, my implementation of this hack predicts that B / D / E / M / S are the glyphs in the Blitz Ciphers most likely to be nulls: while another null-detector hack I wrote (that calculates the per-glyph difference in 1st order entropy if individual characters are removed from the stream) predicts that E / B / M / C / S / D may well be nulls.
So far so reasonable, you might initially think. But from my perspective, the problem with this is that nulls also behave a lot like vowels, in that they sit comfortably next to many different other letters / glyphs, can occur quite often within a ciphertext, and tend not to contain much information (in the Shannon entropy sense of the word). So I’m very far from convinced that I could tell nulls from vowels, or even from high-frequency nomenclature tokens (such as “the”, “and”, or perhaps “Freemason” ).
I might be wrong, but arguably the biggest theoretical problem with both of these hacks is that I think we would need to feed them a substantially larger ciphertext (I’m guessing 10x larger?) to get properly significant results in the presence of other cipher mechanisms (e.g. homophonic equivalents). Whereas a decent simple substitution cipher cracker can have a decent go at breaking a monoalphabetic cipher with as little as, say, 30 characters… so it may be clever, but it seems an order of magnitude cruder than proper cryptanalytical kit.
So… where are all the null detection algorithms? It seems to me that the cryptanalytical tools written these days are more focused on the statistical nuances of computer-era cryptography, while old school trickery (such as nulls and homophones) gets relatively little attention outside of the Zodiac Killer Ciphers world. Maybe there just aren’t any out there.
…unless you know better?
Here’s a list of the various Voynich facsimile editions that have been (or are still) actually in print and that I’ve heard about to date. Maybe you can buy them, maybe you can’t: but here’s everything I know, make of it all what you will.
Oh, and don’t get me started on Yale’s CopyFlo print, that was a purely monochrome edition that was really quite painful to work with: you basically had to simultaneously read the colour annotations in the interlinear transcription and imagine the details in the appropriate colour… which was neither effective nor useful. Thankfully that’s (very) ancient history now!
Also, if anyone passing has bought a copy of any of these apart from “Le Code Voynich”, please leave a comment here as to what you thought of it. People often ask me for a recommendation for a good Voynich facsimile edition, but don’t seem to grasp that these days review copies of anything are as rare as hen’s gold-capped false teeth… hence I don’t normally get to see any first hand.
* * * * * * * *
(1) Le Code Voynich – Jean-Claude Gawsewitch
The grand-daddy of the current generation: prefaced by a long (and fairly pointless) recap of the Voynich Manuscript’s history in French. Lots of image cropping: apparently conceived as a coffee table book rather than a facsimile edition. But very useful for Voynich researchers none the less (David Kahn was delighted by my copy, and wanted one for his own crypto library), if you happen to have bought your copy five years ago (when it was affordable – I think my last car ended up being worth less than what people currently sell copies of this for).
Pages: 240 pages
Editeur : JC Gawsewitch Editeur (27 octobre 2005)
Collection : BEAU LIV LUX
Size: 30.8cm x 26.8cm x 2.4cm
Price: out of print, 7 used copies currently on sale from 299 euros upwards (!!!)
(2) Le Voynich
Broché : 240 pages couleur.
Editeur : Editions HADES
Langue : Français
ISBN-13 : 9791092128031
Price: 49,99 €, now reduced to 29,99 € (plus postage).
(3) VOYNICHŮV RUKOPIS
Publisher: CAD PRESS
ISBN 978-80-88969-60-0 / EAN 9788088969600
Size: 24cm x 17cm, 448 pages (in Czech, I believe), including a 272-page complete facsimile..
Price: 29,00 € reduced to 27,00 € (plus postage).
(4) The Voynich Manuscript – A Facsimile
Editor: David Durand
Publisher: Lulu (print-on-demand)
Size: 21.59cm wide x 27.94cm tall
Binding: spiral bound
Price: £43.66 (plus postage).
(5) El Manuscrito Voynich = The Voynich Manuscript
David G. Walker
Hardcover: 269 pages
Publisher: Editorial Sirio (31 Aug 2013)
Product Dimensions: 1.8cm x 17.8cm x 24.8cm
£26.21 RRP, reduced to £23.20 (plus postage).
(6) The Voynich Manuscript Illustrated: “One of the most mysterious books in the World” [Paperback]
Paperback: 212 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (4 Jan 2013)
Product Dimensions: 1.4 x 15 x 22.6 cm
Price: £15.61 + postage on Amazon (RRP £18.74)
Feedback: three reviews on Amazon, all of them bad.
(7) The Voynich Manuscript Project
$199 buys you a classy-looking reproduction of the Voynich Manuscript from Ambush Printing. Or, alternatively, you can buy an 18″ x 24″ print of the nine-rosette foldout sexfolio on vellum quality paper for $24.99: or a 24″ x 36″ print of the nine-rosette foldout for $39.99.
208 pages printed from hi-res scans, and also folded just like the original (“includes 5 double-folio, 3 triple-folio, 1 quadruple-folio, and one giant six page folio”). Printed on vellum-style paper for added realism, hand stitched together, and then “bound with a single piece of handpicked leather to closely match the original Voynich cover”.
The Castel del Monte is a well-known octagonal fortress in Apulia, constructed in the 13th century for Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. However, it was never properly finished and ended up being used over the centuries as:
* a state prison;
* somewhere to loot nice bits of marble from; and
* a story location in Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose” (he rechristened his version the ‘Aedificium’).
Derelict for many years, the Castel was bought by the state in 1876 and subsequently restored (though more or less all the tasty-looking marble bits had been robbed out and scavenged). Nowadays, it’s not really of much consequence unless you happen to be on holiday in South-Eastern Italy and want something nice to look at. It is what it is, which is actually not nearly as much as people once hoped that it was.
But now possibly a brand new (and perhaps architecturally esoteric) chapter in its life has begun. Giuseppe Fallacara and Ubaldo Occhinegro have just had a book published by Gangemi Editore SpA, with the title Manoscritto Voynich e Castel del Monte. Yes, it’s a brand new Voynich theory.
What they seem to be proposing is that some of the Voynich Manuscript’s more architectural-style drawings (particularly the nine-rosette fold-out page, but also various others in the astronomical section, as I understand it) encode sort-of-plans for building the Castel del Monte, and include all kinds of mysterious and little-known plumbing details – “pipes, tubes, channels, cisterns, showers and fireplaces” etc – once present or nearly-present in its construction.
Well… it is certainly true that the design of this little castle was constructed with water management strongly in mind: there was a large cistern sunk in the rock immediately beneath the central courtyard, and tanks for capturing rainwater in some of the eight towers. There was also a (presumably substantial, but now lost) octagonal basin in the middle of the courtyard, briefly mentioned in the Castel’s official webpage.
And so I can certainly see how someone looking at the Voynich Manuscript’s drawings afresh while tilting their head in just the right way might feel somehow compelled to tease out some kind of parallel between the twin themes of architecture and plumbing that apparently inform both artefacts. But in fact active, central water management was a key part of castle design throughout the Middle Ages – for if you find yourself besieged, you can last for a long time with only a little food, but without plenty of water you will soon die.
I have to say that this sounds like the Castel del Monte could be one of the slimmer resemblances or correlations I’ve seen used to construct a Voynich theory upon or around. But Fallacara’s and Ogginegro’s book includes an English version on facing pages, so hopefully I will get to see their argument in full for myself before very long. At 40 euros plus shipping from Italy, the whooshing sound you might also hear is the vacuum left when the money leaves your wallet. But it does look quite pretty, maybe that’s enough.
The 60 Minutes video segment on the Somerton Man has just gone live, thought you’ll have to navigate down the thumbnails on the right hand side to find it – alternatively, this direct link to the video might possibly work for you.
Though it’s always nice to see Gerry Feltus and Derek Abbott on screen , the whole point of the programme was that it also included a series of on-screen interviews with Jestyn’s direct family members (daughter Kate Thomson, daughter-in-law Roma Egan, granddaughter Rachel Egan) that revealed some new titbits of information – though (as is normally the case with cipher mysteries) only really enough to tantalize rather than definitively prove or disprove.
As a result, the things we now know are:-
* That Jessica Thomson lied to the police (as just about everyone suspected), i.e. that she did indeed know who the Somerton Man was;
* That Jessica Thomson told her daughter that the whole mystery wasn’t “at a State Police level”;
* That Jessica Thomson told her daughter that she “was teaching English to migrants”, and could speak Russian (if a bit rustily);
* That Jessica Thomson’s daughter now believes that her mother was a Soviet spy; and
* That Jessica Thomson’s granddaughter now suspects that the Unknown Man might well have been her actual grandfather.
The first bit of good news is that if (as claimed) Jessica did know the Somerton Man, then we can’t really call him the “Unknown Man” any more, because he was manifestly “The Known Man”. Having said that, I somehow doubt that Gerry Feltus will be changing his book’s title any time soon, though.
As far as the whole Soviet spy scenario goes: ASIO (Australian Secret Intelligence Organization) had an office in Adelaide, and I expect that there is a huge amount of stuff in the archives relating to Russian spies in Australia during that edgy post-WW2 period. Of course, it may be many years yet before anything in such grey archives get declassified… but if this side of the story is even partially right, then that could – much to my surprise – well be where any kind of genuine historical answer will lie.
But all the same… if Jessica Thomson was indeed a Soviet spy, it still makes no sense that she would silently poison another Soviet spy visiting her, even if she were a double agent (other countries’ spies were often far more useful alive-and-known-about than dead-and-buried). Personally, I still think it far more likely that the Somerton Man died by accident or by someone else’s hand than by Jessica’s hand – though I really wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was she who meticulously cleaned and polished his shoes after his demise. Shame the hat was too far gone, though.
Moreover, the notion that the Somerton Man was Robin Thomson’s father (and Rachel Egan’s grandfather) is still a little bit hard for me to digest. Before anything so radical as an exhumation could take place, the simplest explanation of all – that Prosper McTaggart Thomson was the biological parent of both Robin Thomson and Kate Thomson, as you’d basically expect – would surely need to be eliminated first.
Even though Y-DNA testing is not possible here (because it only works for two direct male descendants of a single male ancestor), I would be pretty sure that there must be some other DNA test that could look for some kind of shared allele pattern between Kate Thomson and Rachel Egan that would indicate whether or not they were related (or very probably related) via a shared male ancestor. (I’m not an expert on genetics, though, so please tell me if this is just plain wrong.)
Only if it could be shown beyond reasonable doubt that the two did not share such a male ancestor would it make any obvious sense to push for exhumation – so, has this kind of testing already been done? The programme was silent… but maybe such tests have already been done, who knows?
Thanks to Diane O’D for flagging that long-running Australian current affairs TV programme “60 Minutes” will be covering the Somerton Man this coming Sunday, with reporter Charles Wooley. The team were snapped filming in West Terrace Cemetery (where the Unknown Man’s body lies) last month.
For what it’s worth, I suspect that the fact that their interest and the Tamam Troll attacks on Cipher Mysteries all happened at basically the same time is not entirely coincidental. Perhaps that’s simply what happens when people stick their hot hands into historical hornets’ nests: someone’s gonna get stung.
But this is, of course, exactly how TV film-makers the world over make their programmes: their only concern is with the shining televisual jewel that finally emerges from the edit suite, not the wreckage that’s left behind by their underpaid & overstretched researchers trampling cavalierly over the cultural flowerbeds. It’s rare these days that this process yields even genuine reportage, let alone anything approaching (capital-H) History.
All the same, the programme makers have a moral responsibility to check their facts, to get their basic story straight: so let’s read their initial press release, to see what we should expect of them:-
We all know that fact is stranger than fiction and that’s very much the case with this story.
It’s the true tale of espionage, a love affair and murder – that wouldn’t be out of place in the movies.
Not a great start. Unless 60 Minutes have found a huge cache of evidence everyone else has missed completely (very unlikely), I think it’s important to say that we have:-
* no evidence of “espionage” at all – the “cipher” seems to be a list of initials of a set of phrases, nothing to do with spying
* no evidence of “a love affair” at all – all we have is a phone number in a book that seems to have been connected to the dead man
* no evidence of “murder” at all – the pathologists, lab analysts and coroners found no trace of poison, despite looking really hard
The year was 1948. Communism and democracy were wrestling for world supremacy. The nuclear arms race was in high gear. And there were spies everywhere, even in Australia.
All true (if a tad self-important and grandiose). But the probability that any of this is even remotely to do with a middle-aged bloke found dead on Somerton beach still seems extraordinarily low. I repeat: we still have not one jot of evidence that supports any of this speculation.
Against this sinister backdrop, an unidentified body was found on Adelaide’s Somerton Beach – the so-called Somerton Man.
TV loves sinister backdrops… but that doesn’t make the two things connected, or even likely to be connected.
Now, 65 years after he was buried there are moves to exhume him in an attempt to finally solve this lingering Cold War Mystery.
Professor Derek Abbott has indeed been trying to get the body exhumed. But – contrary to nearly every crime scene TV drama ever shown on television – the courts are respectful of the dead, and don’t allow them to be exhumed on a whim or on a fishing trip for physical evidence. Right now, we simply have insufficient tangible evidence to convince the courts that exhumation is a good idea, and – unless people actually do better quality research and find better quality evidence – that’s how it’s going to stay for the foreseeable future.
This Sunday, 60 Minutes will reveal for the first time the identity of the mysterious nurse who was romantically linked to the Somerton man, and talk to the woman who claims she’s the Somerton Man’s granddaughter.
Well… apart from the awkward fact that the identities of the nurse and her husband have been known by hundreds of researchers for many years now, perhaps we can be generous and say that “60 Minutes” will probably be the first to reveal it on TV.
All the same, the interview with “the woman who claims” (etc) will doubtless be interesting, if perhaps a bit speculative: though if they’ve hooked themselves a gee-new-wine Tamam Troll, that would turn the entire programme into a Tamam Train Wreck of spectacular proportions.
Let’s hope for some fast and furious fact-checking before Sunday!
Seeing as you’re here, I’ll let you into a sort-of secret: actually, I’m not the best code-breaker on the planet. All the same, I think (for what it’s worth) I’m an extremely good historical logician with a strong ability to work in a sustained manner with tricky, uncertain evidence: and am extremely cipher- and stats-literate.
So when I’m taking on a thing like the Beale Ciphers, my primary aim is to understand the practical and historical logic of what happened, and to use that to reduce the dimensions and degree of the code-breaking ‘space’ to something that is more practically tractable. But in all honesty, that’s far closer to an explicitly history-focused process than to a directly cryptology-focused process: someone else who is fundamentally a code-breaker would almost certainly be looking more for cryptanalytical results as a starting point.
But that’s OK: roughly paraphrasing what Euclid said to Ptolemy I Soter I, there is no royal road to this kind of knowledge – every individual must travel it (and learn it) for themselves the hard way.
Anyway, I’ve been looking again at the (33 years later, I’d say “infamous” is very nearly the right word to describe them) Gillogly sequences in Beale Cipher B1.
Firstly, here are the strings that Jim Gillogly found all those years ago: by reconstructing the sequence, I can say with some certainty that what Jim did to get these was to use the first letters of the Declaration of Independence exactly as quoted by Ward as a cipher letter dictionary. And here is what you get (with indices outside this DoI’s 1332-word range printed as ‘?’)
Today’s interesting observation is that if you instead use the modified index numbers that are required to transform Ward’s DoI into the letters that reproduce the B2 plaintext (i.e. adjust for the numbering gaps etc), the output is similar but more coherent (i.e. even more improbable than before):-
What makes this so interesting to my eyes is that quite a few formerly diffuse features kind of ‘come into focus’:-
After : abcdefghiijklmmnohpp
After : tjttt
After : acbcddebe
The immediate thing to notice is that “abcdefghiijklmmno” is (I think) more than a thousand times more improbable than “defghiijklmmno”, which itself already had a probability of occurring of less than one in a million million.
The second thing to notice is that the probability of ttttt occurring (based solely on the letter frequency distribution) was about 12.9%, while the probability of tttt occurring is 51.2%: so the fact that the only occurrence of ttttt disappears from one to the other is also a strong indication that we’re going in the right direction.
All the same, another thing to notice is that because T, A and P are all high probability initial letters in the DoI code book text (19.3%, 13.5%, and 4.46% respectively), we would expect to see quite a lot of TT, AA, and PP pairs in the output if the codebook was somehow misaligned with the index stream. And we still do… so it’s also very likely (from that alone) that dictionary mismatches or construction errors or cipher dictionary errors continue to persist.
This isn’t a solution, it’s just an observation standing on on Jim Gillogly’s shoulders. I don’t fully know what it all meams just yet… but I suspect that it will turn out to mean that broadly the same letter numbering used in B2 was used for B1 as well, rather than Ward’s DoI text. Your mileage may vary! To me, the Gillogly strings tell a complicated, multi-layer story… it’s just that we can’t read it all yet as closely as we would like…
Hot on the heels of yesterday’s Beale non-Decoder app comes something just as achingly zeitgeisty, but actually rather nice with it. OK, its uncracked historical cipher content is pretty much ‘zilch point squat’ percent, but I rather like it. So there.
On the one hand, the article (from Slate magazine) itself is little more than a short piece by Joseph Nigg to promote his nice-sounding (2013) book “Sea Monsters: A Voyage Around the World’s Most Beguiling Map”. However, given that the map in question is Olaus Magnus’ epic 1539 Carta Marina (that took 12 years to compile), and that Slate made its splendidly garish sea-monsters clickable (each one brings up Olaus’ somewhat breathless description of it), I think the page is well worth a visit.
Of them all, my personal favourite is the “ducks being hatched from the fruit of the trees” in the Orkneys, a folk tale that has a long and interesting history all of its own (for example, I’m pretty sure it came up in Andrea di Robilant’s (2011) book “Venetian Navigators: The Voyages of the Zen Brothers to the Far North”)… but really, there should be more than enough sea-monster madness going on there for anybody, perhaps even enough to inspire a whole new series of Scooby Doo Mystery Incorporated (yes, the one with Harlan Ellison). Enjoy!
In some ways, it’s an epic win for historical codebreaking: that the Beale Papers phenomenon has become such a cornerstone of American armchair treasure hunting that an entire Beale Decoder app (including several challenge ciphers) can be devoted to it is surely a sign of how mainstream unbroken ciphers now undoubtedly are. As far as I can tell, it’s a bit like David Oranchak’s Zodiac Killer Cipher webtoy but for the Beale Ciphers and running under iOS etc.
And yet, to my eyes it’s also such an obvious epic fail for historical common sense. The Gillogly in B1 strings go so far beyond statistical, errrrm, anomalousness that it surely makes no sense whatsoever to bring people an app that allows them to put in long-out-of-copyright texts in the one-in-a-trillion hope that one might possibly have that right coincidence of letters that will spit out the directions to the Beale treasure on a tiny white card, like some “I Speak Your (Soon-To-Be-Immense) Fortune” machine from the carnival.
Though I’ve said it several times before, I’ll say it one more time: once you really get what’s going on in B1 (and it’s not a hoax, sorry), the big sequential Gillogly string can be one thing and one thing only – an accidental repetition of a badly chosen key phrase used in the enciphering system. Moreover, I’m also sure that the Gillogly strings provide proof beyond all reasonable statistical doubt that we don’t need to look for another text, because the same Declaration of Independence is – though with a quite different set of copying and/or numbering errors arising from the different cipher system in use – the key text used in B1, and very probably B3 as well, why not?
In fact, I’d go so far as to that I hold these truths to be self-evident, that all three ciphers’ keys were created equal, that they were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable statistical properties. And really, who’s going to argue with something as well written as that, eh?