I’ve noticed a number of things about the Paul Rubin ciphertext, which are definitely beyond what the FBI’s cryptanalysts managed to find. Please feel free to advance these yet further!

The Paul Rubin Ciphertext

Here’s my transcription, as posted on the Cipher Foundation website, but with the individual lines numbered:

[01] digIs sawthn'g mathUlley-Dulles crancklavn' meteore iElli
[02] zheaopfvamn greA'Lltenmn
[03] kKiqtu albawmnabs dzhjellEiE matel ungdreabozvmie oie
[04] sprekln meIktrene fodroscolmn oeir
[05] *driEk Conant astereantol Iyvondiolon
[06] desceth megleagna mAlzbourgnion grele

[07] newtdo sfoatzdexklagh 2pont ¼ly asgestaltverbensdi

[08] 7469921
[09] 100.011x100.10x.10011.1.xx0.101.x.001011.101x1011.1001..10x1

[10] 01.001011x10.1x.11101.x1.001x1.001001

[11] 0.101.x.101110.x101.1101101.0101x1.1011

[12] Want: datum Tywood Janossey Ketelle

[13] R-QR6
[14]                aliacaui PER

The Last Two Words

It seems almost certain that “PER” stands for “Paul Emanuel Rubin”, which gives us a reasonable amount of confidence that this is a real ciphertext Rubin himself had made.

Rubin liked reading science fiction, and repeatedly claimed to be a member of a “Brooklyn Astrophysics Society”: however, despite asking a lot of people, the FBI were unable to turn up any reference to any such society – Rubin seems to have dreamed this up completely. So there is (I think) good reason to suspect that we might find obscure references to science fiction and/or imagined science embedded in this ciphertext.

And in fact this is exactly what we find on line [14]. The word immediately before PER – “aliacaui” – comes from a 1950 novelette by Poul Anderson called “The Helping Hand“, that first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction:

Valka Vahino sat in his garden and let sunlight wash over his bare skin. It was not often, these days, that he got a chance to aliacaui… What was that old Terrestrial word? “Siesta”? But that was wrong. A resting Cundaloan didn’t sleep in the afternoon. He sat or lay outdoors, with the sun soaking into his bones or a warm rain like a benediction over him, and he let his thoughts run free. Solarians called that daydreaming, but it wasn’t, it was, well — they had no real word for it. Psychic recreation was a clumsy term, and the Solarians never understood.

In the story, “Aliacaui” is a central concept to the Cundaloans, one which the hard-working Solarians (machine-culture humans) find difficult to grasp:

“For instance, just this matter of the siesta. Right now, all through this time zone on the planet, hardly a wheel is turning, hardly a machine is tended, hardly a man is at his work. They’re all lying in the sun making poems or humming songs or just drowsing. There’s a whole civilization to be built, Vahino! There are plantations, mines, factories, cities abuilding — you just can’t do it on a four-hour working day.”

So this is the single word from the Science Fiction universe that Paul Rubin valued so much that he used it as a farewell in his note: “Aliacaui”, meaning lying around “making poems or humming songs or just drowsing”. Really, you couldn’t make it up.

The Codebook Indices

I’d also immediately point out that lines [01]-[07] almost certainly each use a different codebook entry, and that the seven codebook indices for them are on line [08] – 7469921. It seems likely (though not yet proven) that these are the indices in the order the lines appear.

Furthermore, lines [09]-[12] each almost certainly use a different codebook entry, and that the four codebook indices for these are on line [13] – R-QR6.

Hence, the three “binary”-like lines would seem to be codebook entries “R-QR”, while all the other lines’ codebook indices are digits: 7469921 and 6. I pointed this out to Craig Bauer before his book came out, but it was (alas) too late to update his Paul Rubin chapter.

Still, knowing this should help us avoid many pointless cryptanalytical tests: for example, there would seem to be no point in carrying out any test that combines a binary-like line with a text-like line, because they would seem to be using completely different types of codebook.

The Three Binary-Like Lines

If the 0s and 1s in these lines are binary, I noticed something a little odd about them: specifically, that they contain are no instances of ‘000’, and only two instances of ‘111’.

I therefore wondered whether the ‘.’ and ‘x’ character be standing in for ‘000’ or ‘0000’, and ‘111’ or ‘1111’? I converted various permutations for line [09] (the longest binary-like line) into the corresponding streams of pure binary digits, and then ran them through index of coincidence tests online.

[09] 100.011x100.10x.10011.1.xx0.101.x.001011.101x1011.1001..10x1

However, I don’t have a positive result yet (the IoC probably isn’t the most reliable test for this kind of thing, but I thought it was worth a try), but if you happen to be looking at this part of the ciphertext, I think this currently seems like the most likely route to an answer.

The Letter Ciphers

According to Cipher Mysteries commenter Thomas, “Conant and B.H. Ketelle were members of the Manhattan Project. Janossy was a Hungarian nuclear physicist at the same time. Tywood is a professor of Nuclear Physics in Isaac Asimov’s short story ‘The Red Queen’s Race’ from 1949.”

Indeed, Asimov describes Elmer (Pop) Tywood in his short story as “Ph.D., Sc.D., Fellow of This and Honorary That, one-time youthful participant of the original Manhattan Project, and now full Professor of Nuclear Physics.”

Unfortunately, “Elmer Tywood was dead. He lay next to the table; his face congested, nearly black. No radiation effect. No external force of any sort. The doctor said apoplexy. […] In Elmer Tywood’s office safe were found two puzzling items: i.e. twenty foolscap sheets of apparent mathematics, and a bound folio in a foreign language which turned out to be Greek, the subject matter, on translation, turning out to be chemistry.”

Mysterious deaths and Manhattan Project physicists were therefore at the forefront of Paul Rubin’s mind: my suspicion is therefore that Rubin’s book of words that would drive his code project may well turn out to be a list of names of members of his imaginary Brooklyn Astrophysics Society. We’ll probably never see it, of course: but it is what it is.

Back in 2015, I blogged about the ciphertext that was found taped to Paul Rubin’s stomach, and also wondered whether Rubin might have suffered from paranoid schizophrena, and whether the FBI would ever release his code-tables. On a larger scale, given that we only had a single scratchy newspaper photograph of his cipher to work with, it seemed that we were unlikely to make huge progress.

Well, a lot of that has now changed.

Craig Bauer’s “Unsolved!”

Craig Bauer’s (2017) “Unsolved!” covers a good number of cipher mysteries with a particular focus on Americana, and so his book covers the Paul Rubin case on pp.289-304. Very kindly, he passed me the following (much clearer) scan to work with, that his book had reproduced at a fairly small size:

Hence I’ve added a page on the Paul Rubin Cipher to the Cipher Foundation website: this also includes my transcription of the cipher, as well as (thanks to Albert Mock) a copy of Rubin’s death certificate and details of his grave.

Arguably even more importantly, however, Craig Bauer also received a 160-page document set from the FBI following a Freedom of Information Act request (though this arrived too late for him to use in his book), which is now also linked on the Cipher Foundation webpage – and this is where our real research begins.

Paul Rubin’s FBI File

A number of suggestions as to the possible contents of the cipher appear in the FBI file: that it might be written in cable language, that it might contain cribs for a chemistry examination, and so forth. It also lists (p.25) possibly the first nutty theory about the cipher, courtesy of Mrs L. Rohe Walker, 2 Beekman Place, New York 22, NY.

For me, though, one particularly interesting aspect of the file is that it details (on p.66) the specific sequence that the FBI’s cryptanalysts followed to try to understand Rubin’s ciphertext (though without success). It starts by listing the languages FBI linguists tried: “Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, German, Hungarian, Finnish, Latinair [?], Lettuishuan [?], Turkish, Portuguese, Rumanian, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Malayan, Albanian.” They also “[t]ried to develop words phonetically and as abbreviations, with no success.”.

It then moves onto cryptanalysis, firstly listing the “Direct Cipher” methods they looked for (all with negative results):

a. Monoalphabetic Subst.
b. Transposition – uniliteral
c. Partial encipherment with & without nulls
d. Typewriter displacement
e. Combination subst + Transp + nulls + partial encipherment
f. Commercial word codes
g. False language
( 3 books from Library of Congress:
( * “On the Choice of a Common Language”
( * “Method [?] to Esperanto”
( * “A Planned Auxiliary Language”
h. Binary substitution as superencipherment

It then lists the “Open Codes” they looked for, firstly for letters mapped across the whole specimen:

(1) Constant key positions 2-25 (Entire specimen)
(2) 1st, 2nd, 3rd …. final letters of words, initial letters – forward and reversed alphabets
(3) Beginnings & endings of lines (+10 and -10 letters)
(4) Numerical key 7469921 as letter positions
(5) Capital letters, including letters to right & left

Next they looked for words embedded in the entire specimen:

(1) Constant key positions
Also 1st, 2nd letters of constant keyed words 2-10

They moved on to search for possible “Distorted Words”:

2PONT = Dupont
1/4ly = Quarterly
KETELLE = Catelle (psychologist) ?

They also looked for possible names, cross-referencing them in the FBI files (e.g. for B. H. KETELLE):

TYWOOD-JANOSSEY-KETELLE [lists FBI document references]
IVAN DIOLON (negative)

Next, they list various observations made by the cryptanalysts. This for me is the most interesting part by far (note that ‘Q5’ is the reference names for this ciphertext within the bundle of evidence made available to the FBI):

1. Peculiar letter combinations of contacts.
a. Phonetic & pronounceable but unintelligible. Hebrew/Yiddish influence observable.
b. Doubled letters – with “KK” at beginning of one word.
c. “MN” digram, occurring 3 times at end of words.

2. General letter frequency:
A = 21, B = 5, C = 4, D = 11, E = 35, F = 3, G = 10, H = 6, I = 15, J = 1, K = 7, L = 23, M = 10
N = 21, O = 17, P = 3, Q = 1, R = 13, S = 12, T = 15, U = 5, V = 5, W = 3, X = 1, Y = 3, Z = 5
2 = 1

3. “Digits” at bottom of Q5 not in organized form. “X” and “.” appear haphazardly. Makes no sense in attempts to convert binary to digits.

1. Letter frequencies and pronounceability indicate phonetic composition.
a. May be syllable, phonetic, or artificial word code. If so, material is insufficient for analysis.
b. letter material looks like irrational or unsystematic composition

2. Digits have irrational composition. Positions of “X” and “.” do not assist solution. Concentrated efforts on “Binary”, produced no significant results. If digit code on cipher underlying binary, material is insufficient.

Is It A Real Cipher?

On the one hand, the parents “did state, however, that there were a number of papers of a similar nature in their home in Brooklyn. They stated also […] that Benjamin Birnbaum […] would undoubtedly be able to furnish information concerning the ‘coded note.’ ” Later: “Mrs Rubin stated that her son and his friend, Benjamin Birnbaum, often exchanged “notes” similar to the one found taped to the subject’s abdomen when he was found.” (p.17). Yet “BIRNBAUM advised that he never sent to nor received a coded message from deceased” (p.29).

Rubin was also fascinated by binary. Birnbaum “stated that the deceased talked of using a word unit code with numbers for each word. The numbers would then be transmitted into the binary code. BIRNBAUM advised that the binary code is a code used on all calculating machines. He stated that the deceased was going to use another stage of transmitting this code unknown to BIRNBAUM.” (p.35)

I think it is abundantly clear from the file that Paul Rubin and Bernard Birnbaum did communicate by means of cipher, even if Birnbaum strenuously denied this under interview. Rubin and Birnbaum thought that everyone else was not only stupid, but deserved to be treated as stupid (and said so in the interview): so if Birnbaum treated the FBI as stupid, we should perhaps not be surprised.

In my opinion, the cipher would seem to be completely genuine and that Paul Rubin’s parents and Bernard Birnbaum did initially have access to Paul Rubin’s codebook. However, I strongly suspect that they chose to destroy it rather than give it to the government, lest the ciphertext reveal something unsavoury about the dead student’s end – better for him to die in mystery than in possible ignominy.

Just before Christmas, I went up to London for what is rapidly becoming a very traditional slice of overdone turkey at the BFI IMAX cinema. I refer, of course, to the third Disney Star Wars film, “The Last Jedi”.

According to my son, the first Disney Star Wars film was two hours of recapitulation (noble if you are trying to save the planet by recycling, but a bit sad otherwise), while the second Disney Star Wars film was two hours of filler (how did knowing anything that happened in that film improve our lives?). For me, the third Disney Star Wars film was two hours of technofetishist panto: and so the two stand-out performances were by those actors who grasped they were trapped in a panto and chose to embrace it in all its awfulness – Yoda and General Armitage Hux. If anything, Yoda believable slightly of the two the more was: but quote me don’t on that. 😉

What next, two hours of sitcom? Two hours of lightweight romantic comedy? Perhaps I’m being unfair, but it all seems to me to cast a harsh raking light across modern screenwriters’ apparent inability to explore Good vs Evil in any mode apart from full-on cartoon schtick. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to have paid the money to go see a well-executed fantasy on a beautiful giant screen: but nonetheless, Very Big Holes Remain.

And On To Shrek

While we were walking around the South Bank, I noticed a poster for a DreamWorks Shrek Experience show at the old City Hall:

I couldn’t quite believe my eyes, so had to take a closer look:

Yes, it would seem to be correct that the British domestic security service is doing some kind of outreach via a green animated Scottish ogre character. Having previously struggled to maintain interest in The GCHQ Puzzle Book not so long ago, whatever do I have to look forward to next?

“Jack and the Cursed Manuscript” – Part One



JACK’S MUM: Woe is me! I’m a poor old peasant woman ‘oo ‘as frittered a giant’s castle full o’ gold on online casinos an’ Class A drugs.

JACK [aside to the audience]: You’d have thought it might have lasted longer than a week.

JACK’S MUM: Tell me, my darlin’ Jack, does we ‘ave anyfink in the world left ter sell?

JACK: Only the cow you won in a virtual meat raffle, the one you called “Meteor”.


JACK’S MUM [aside to the audience]: Face it, you can’t get Meteor than a cow. [badum-tshhh]

JACK: I’ll take her to market, I’m bound to see some more magic beans there. I’m on a lucky streak, got the Midas touch, I have.

JACK’S MUM [aside to the audience]: Don’t ‘e take after me? Ooh, I couldn’t be prouder!


TOWN CRYER: Young fellow!

JACK: Errrm… [looks around] do you mean me?

TOWN CRYER: The very same! The young man unwillingly taking his cow to market, just like Rick Astley and his sheep.

JACK: Rick Astley?

TOWN CRYER: It’s how he got rich, you know. “Never gonna give ewe up, never gonna let ewe down”.


TOWN CRYER: Exactly. And not at all like that idiot lad Jack who swapped his cow for magic beans and killed the giant.

JACK: Errrm… “idiot lad”?

TOWN CRYER: Even as we speak, insurance company agents are combing the land to track him down and bring him to justice.

JACK [backing away]: I’d… best be going, I think.



JACK: Excuse me, sir, but have you seen a curious traveller? He was right here last week, selling m-m-m-mysterious beans. Definitely not magic ones, anyway.

WILFRID: He’s been and gone. [badum-tshhh]

JACK: Oh no! So what priceless MacGuffin will I exchange our possessions for this week?

WILFRID: I have just the thing for you. [He brandishes the Voynich Manuscript] Behold – the world’s most unreadable manuscript! And it even has a blank price tag!

JACK: That’s my kind of price tag.

WILFRID: …because you’re insanely rich?

JACK: No, because I’m innumerate.

WILFRID: Errrm… so how much do you actually have to spend?

JACK: Basically, this cow.


WILFRID: Well… this manuscript’s proper price should be ten cows, but I’d accept one cow now with another nine in the future if you become unexpectedly filthy rich.

JACK: No, no, I had that last week: a guy selling magic geese here also wanted a down payment.

WILFRID [rolls eyes]: OK, just one cow for the manuscript, then.

JACK: A pleasure to do business with you, Mister. [Takes book and hands him cow’s lead]

WILFRID [aside to audience]: Why should I care? Now I’ve seen one, I can hoax as many as I like. Ethel will be delighted!


JACK: I’m back, mum!

JACK’S MUM: So what did you get for dear old Meteor, then? More magic beans?

JACK: No, something much better. I give you – The World’s Most Unreadable Manuscript! [He triumphantly holds the book aloft]

JACK’S MUM: Errrm… [awkward pause] more unreadable than Article 57? And every footballer’s memoirs ever written?

JACK: At least 10% more unreadable than those, yes.

JACK’S MUM: So… what’s it about?

JACK [rolls eyes, passes the book to his mother]: It’s not about anything, it’s unreadable. Even the pictures aren’t about anything, they’re unreadable too.

JACK’S MUM: Well, that is a novelty. [Puts on airs and graces voice] One shall have to run one’s new acquisition past one’s dear friends next door.

JACK [encourages audience to join in]: Oh, No We Won’t!

JACK’S MUM: Oh, Yes, We Will. Dame Trot and Prince Salerno know all about ‘erbal medicine. They’re bound to be able to broaden your young scope.

JACK [muttering under his breath]: So I’ve heard, so I’ve heard.

JACK’S MUM: Come, young Jack. Take one’s arm as one perambulates to one’s neighbour’s esteemed location.

JACK: Whatevs, Mama. [shakes head silently]


DAME TROT [opening the door]: How fantabulosa, it’s my bona omi young Jack! And his shyckled palone Margaret. [calls upstairs] Princey, off the khazi, visitors at front of ‘ouse.

JACK’S MUM: So delayted to see, you, may dear Dame Trot.

JACK: But… she’s a man?

DAME TROT: I’ll have none of that lingua in my flowery, young omi. Again in Polari, please.

JACK: But… Palone Trot is an omi?

DAME TROT [aside to the audience]: I don’t think the poor chicken knows he’s in a panto! [To Jack, somewhat condescendingly] Oh, it’s an old tradition in these parts.

JACK: But… your riah isn’t zhooshed like a palone, and you haven’t even got fake willets. What kind of a panto Dame are you?

DAME TROT [aghast]: Why, according to Charles Singer’s (1928) “From Magic to Science”, Dame Trot was a made-up female practitioner based on an entirely male medical tradition.

JACK: So you’re a Dame only in name?

DAME TROT: Precisely. You can’t just camp up your crypto to get onto Cipher Mysteries, these days you have to play by the ‘istorical rule book.

PRINCE SALERNO [emerging from inside the house]: Bona journo, everyone. What brings you here this bona morning?

JACK’S MUM: One has a mysterious book to show you both. [She extracts the Voynich Manuscript from her capacious handbag]

PRINCE SALERNO [visibly shocked and appalled]: Kiss my quongs and slap my town-hall drape, it is The Cursed Book that she has!

DAME TROT: What, Katie Price’s fifth autobiography?

PRINCE SALERNO: Nay, nay, 10% worse still – it is the book that has no beginning and no end.

DAME TROT: That still sounds like “Love, Lipstick and Lies”


DAME TROT: I jest did.

PRINCE SALERNO: Margaret and Jack, to free yourself from this terrible curse, you must now climb Mount Doom and hurl the book deep into the biggest Crack you can find.

JACK’S MUM: Oh. Is there not time for a cup of Earl Grey before one goes?

PRINCE SALERNO [glowers even more powerfully]: No. When destiny raises its head, you must grasp it firmly with both hands.

DAME TROT: Definitely both hands.

PRINCE SALERNO: Go now, and remember the ancient wisdom of the Masons – the bigger the Crack, the better the builder. Fare thee well!


“La Buse, l’or maudit des Pirates de l’océan Indien” is a two-part (i.e. 2 x 52 minutes) documentary with fictional re-enactments (you get the idea) made by Kapali Studios, and due for release around January 2019 (so no need to get too excited just yet).

If (like me) you’re a pirate museum trivia fan, you’ll be interested to hear that the film-makers did their talking heads interviews in the Musée de la Marine and the Musée Cognacq-Jay (both in Paris), as well as on “L’Étoile du Roy“, a 46m replica of an 18th century British sixth-rate frigate that is a well-known tourist attraction in Saint-Malo (it was previously used as HMS Indefatigable in the TV series “Hornblower”).

Of course, as a cipher historian who cannot for the life of me see any actual connection between La Buse and “his” cryptogram, there could be no place set for me at that particular table – for realistically, where would the mystery be without the cryptogram? But while I don’t hold out a lot of hope for cryptological accuracy here, I’m sure the production will look beautiful. 🙂

The Eye Candy Bit

There are some nice behind-the-scenes images on the Kapali Studios website which I thought it would be nice to share here:

There were some other images here:

The total of my cipher mystery books purchases for 2017 was £260, which was actually a little lower than recent years (it’s been fairly quiet). For a change this year, I thought I’d list them here in all their eclectic glory.

I’ve lightly annotated each of these cipher mystery books, to cast a little glancing light on the areas of research I’ve been working on. Make of them all what you will!

* The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books: From the Twelfth to the Early Sixteenth Century (Cambridge Studies in Palaeography and Codicology), by Albert Derolez.

Magisterial yet accessible, a really great book on Gothic palaeography. Of course, you then have to try it out in the field for a decade to be any good at it, but… palaeography is what it is. 😉

* A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change, by John Glassie

Basically, the best-known modern biography of Athanasius Kircher. Perhaps a bit too generous towards its subject in places for my tastes, but it certainly covers all the ground. My focus when I bought this was on the people who carried on Kircher’s legacy, which turned out to be a very small group indeed.

* Regiomontanus: His Life and Work: Volume 1, by Ernst Zinner

Epic, detailed, stunning evocation of Regiomontanus. I’ve long wanted to read this, but until this year (when I found myself wanting to know whether Regiomontanus might have seen Vat. Gr. 1291 when it arrived in Rome), I could never quite justify the cost. Regardless, it turns out that it’s well worth the money – recommended.

* The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau: how Australia’s signals-intelligence network helped win the Pacific War, by David Dufty (ebook).

Nice little book on Australia’s surprising war-time cryptology effort, something that tends to get trampled by gung-ho American cryptology historians. And no, it’s not all about Eric Nave (he actually plays a surprisingly small part in this account).

* Comment ils ont trouvé un trésor, by Alain Cloarec

Fairly lightweight, but helped me understand some of the practicalities of French treasure hunting law. But that’s another story…

* Maps, Mystery and Interpretation: 2. The Mystery: Oak Island Speculation: Volume 2, by G. J. Bath
* Maps, Mystery and Interpretation: 3. Interpretation: Sizing Up the Money Pit: Volume 3, by G. J. Bath
* Anson’s Gold: and the Secret to Captain Kidd’s Charts, by George Edmunds

I reviewed Bath’s books and Edmunds’ book in my blog.

* The Sirius Mystery: New Scientific Evidence for Alien Contact, by Robert K.G. Temple

Cipher Mysteries commenter Astronomical challenged me to read this, to make up my own mind about Temple’s Sirius theories (though on 1st April, so it’s hard to be sure). However… now that it has arrived, I just haven’t been able to get excited enough to actually pick it up, so it’s still waiting patiently on my bookshelf.

* The Templars: The Secret History Revealed, by Barbara Frale

Oh my, what an excellent little book this is. Anyone wanting to read about the Templars should start here. Highly recommended!

* Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem between the Wars, by Shane White, Stephen Garton, Dr. Stephen Robertson, and Graham White

Very interesting book on the subculture of gambling that I touched on in my blog.

* Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters, by Mark Dunn,

Funky littl novl that msss around with th problms of writing whn crtain lttrs ar not allowd to b usd. 😉

* Generation of Vipers, by Philip Wylie

The book that Paul Rubin was supposed to be a follower of. Interesting (and surprisingly influential) mid-20th century nonsense.

* The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by Talbot, David

Another book triggered by the release of the FBI papers concerning Paul Rubin: I wanted to know more about Allen Dulles (whose surname seems to appear in Paul Rubin’s cipher, or is at least in his covertext).

* Sleepwalkers, by Arthur Koestler

A readable (but now rather dated) account of the development of astronomy.

* Humanism, Scholasticism, and the Theology and Preaching of Domenico de’ Domenichi in the Italian Renaissance, by Martin F. Ederer.

I wanted to know more about Domenico de’ Domenichi (who owned Vat. Gr. 1291), and this is probably the best book on the subject out there.

* The Renaissance in Rome, by Charles L. Stinger

I bought this to cast a light on what was going on in Rome circa 1460-1470, where some of my secondary Voynich research paths are now starting to vaguely lead towards.

* French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry, by Millard Meiss

Splendidly detailed book, but don’t buy it expecting lots of extraordinary pictures, it’s mainly fine-detailed history. 🙂

* Solution of the Voynich Manuscript, by Leo Levitov

I’ve been meaning to buy a copy of this for myself for ages, and finally got round to it. However, I couldn’t bring myself to pony up the far greater amount for Joseph Martin Feely’s “Roger Bacon’s Cipher; The Right Key Found”, so if anyone just happens to have a digital copy of that, please let me know. 😉

* From Magic to Science: Essays on the Scientific Twilight, by Charles Singer.

Though I’ve ordered this, it hasn’t yet arrived. This was prompted by an updated page on Rene Zandbergen’s site which quotes Erwin Panofsky’s thoughts on the Voynich Manuscript in a less abbreviated form than has been the case.

After The History Channel’s recent season of “The Hunt For The Zodiac Killer” programmes (episodes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), I thought it was time to get back to some non-fake-news codebreaking research.

In particular, I want to suggest an approach we might follow to try to solve the Z340 that (hopefully) won’t need a brain the size of a planet to run it. But first I’m going to talk about the Z13 cipher, because I think it tells us a lot about what is hidden inside the Z340 and indeed why the Z340 was written at all…

The Z13 Cipher

The text just above the Zodiac Killer’s Z13 cipher (20th April 1970) clearly and unambiguously refers back to a ‘name’ supposedly in the Z340 cipher (8th November 1969), though as far as I can see the “Dripping Pen” note that arrived with the Z340 didn’t mention a name at all:

An oft-repeated account for this is that the Z13 had been constructed in response to a kind of cryptographic ‘taunt’ that appeared six months previously in the Examiner newspaper on 22nd October 1969, as detailed here. In the Examiner piece, entitled “Cipher Expert Dares Zodiac To ‘Tell’ Name“, the President of the American Cryptogram Association issued a direct challenge to the Zodiac Killer to reveal his name in a cipher.

However, if you put all these pieces together, it seems highly likely to me that it was instead the Z340 cipher that had been constructed as a response to President Marsh’s taunt (it appeared a mere seventeen days later). Hence it seems entirely reasonable to conclude that the Z340 indeed contains a specific name for us to decrypt – though, as always, it seems highly unlikely that this will contain the Zodiac Killer’s actual name.

Cryptanalytically, though, the Z13 couldn’t be further removed from the homophonic world of the (cracked) Z408 (and presumably the Z340), in that it has shape repeats and internal structure aplenty. In fact, if you colour all the Z13’s repeated cipher shapes (once again, using Dave Oranchak’s neat-o-rama Cipher Explorer), this is what you see:

Much as I love “Sarah The Horse” and “Clara Cataract” as elegant literary plaintexts for this, it’s important to note that these are homophonic solutions for something whose many repeats point to its actually being a monoalphabetic substitution cipher. Dave Oranchak’s “Laura Catapult”, and glurk’s “Gary Lyle Large” are fine examples of how it is possible to construct name-like phrases to fit: but these are relatively rare examples in a surprisingly sparse, errm, name-space.

In many ways, whereas the problem with the Z340 is that it has too many shapes, the problem with the Z13 is arguably that it has too few shapes. So there would seem to be something a little odd going on here, cryptanalytically speaking: something feels wrong.

In his 2017 book “Unsolved!”, Craig Bauer praised a possible crack of the Z13 cipher which I hadn’t previously heard of, and credits p.128 of Robert Graysmith’s (2002) “Zodiac Unmasked: The Identity of America’s Most Elusive Serial Killer Revealed” as the source (though Graysmith talks about it as if the suggestion were as old as the [Hollywood] Hills):

Now, even though this doesn’t quite fit the pattern (the N cipher shape shouldn’t be shared between plaintext F and M), I think Bauer was completely right to give this his imprimatur, because it seems exceptionally close. Giving MAD Magazine’s “Alfred E. Neuman” as his name feels like this exactly the kind of thing the Zodiac Killer would do, in that it is taunting, unhelpful, superior, nasty, satirical, self-centred, and narcissistic in all the right ways.

For ALFREDENEUMAN to be the Z13’s plaintext, the only concession you would need to make is that a single letter was misenciphered: and as starting points go for a ciphertext that already feels as though it has too few shapes, this is not half as big a step as almost all other solutions I’ve seen proposed. Even though I completely accept that this isn’t cast-iron proof, I do think it suggests that it is well worth considering as a conditional piece of evidence to work with.

And Now, The Z340 Cipher…

For me, the big (if not ‘huge’) question the above leads to is this: if this ALFREDENEUMAN Z13 decryption is actually correct, might the Zodiac Killer have included exactly the same name in his Z340 cipher? And if so, might we be able to use the name as a known-plaintext crib into the Z340? (AKA a block-paradigm match. 🙂 )

Assuming the Z340 does use some kind of homophonic cipher, there are (340 – 12) possible positions the Z13 crib could be positioned at: however, we should be able to eliminate any position containing a cipher shape repeat within the 13-shape stretch that does not match a repeat in the ALFREDENEUMAN crib, because that would mean that the same homophonic cipher shape would have been used to encipher two different plaintext letters.

For example, because Z340 line #4 begins “S99…”, the “99” part could not be any part of the Z13 crib because there are no doubled letters in “ALFREDENEUMAN”: this is also true for the “++” pairs in lines #4, #14, and #18. Similarly, the +..+ repeat on line #9 and the W..W repeat on line #18 both cannot be in the crib, because no plaintext letter is repeated three steps apart in “ALFREDENEUMAN”. If you run this against the most widely used Z340 transcription, there are – according to the vanilla C test I put together (below, which you can actually run for yourself by clicking on [Run]) – exactly 197 valid crib positions. So we can eliminate (340-12-197) = 131 candidate positions. Which is nice. 🙂

What I find interesting is that locking a set of fixed set of letters to an (albeit still hypothetical) crib should enable us to use a homophonic solver on far smaller subsections of the Z340 than we would normally be able to do. I’ve written before about how the top half and the bottom half of the Z340 have quite different (but subtly overlapping) properties: for example, how top-half ‘+’ characters seems to work differently to bottom-half ‘+’ characters. As a result, I think it would make sense to try to solve lines #1 to #9 separately from lines #11 to #19.

But there are other results, that point out how lines #1 to #3 seem to work quite differently from lines #4 to #6, and so on. So the ability to try to solve even smaller blocks of lines may well be a critically useful string for our cryptological bow.

Unfortunately, I’m not (yet) a zkdecrypto-lite power-user, so I don’t know how to automate this kind of search Anyone who would like to collaborate on doing this, please feel free to step forward: or if you want to take the idea and do what you like with it, that’s fine by me too. Can you blame me if I want to see this solved before they start shooting Season #2? 😉

Just One Last Thing…

There is, of course, one other possibility that should be investigated… it’s just that those cold, creepy eyes in the famous Zodiac poster remind me of someone, can’t think who it is, but the name might come to me soon, who was it…?

C: Crib Matching Code

Without any further ado, here’s The History Channel’s “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer” season #1 finale, wherein Craig Bauer, having immersed himself almost completely in Zodiac Killer arcana, conjures up a new solution of the Z340, whereupon everyone else falls (or seems to fall) in line:

Well… OK, I guess. I suspect what most people would agree on about this ‘solution’ are:
* it’s primarily intuitive, and not really ‘cryptological’ in any useful sense of the word
* it’s either really brilliant or really foolish, and almost certainly nowhere inbetween

Craig’s Crack

Because the starting point for Craig Bauer’s decryption attempt was the idea that some letters might actually encipher themselves (to make the answer hide in plain sight), I’ve added a green background to those letters (or simply transformed letters) where the ciphertext and his decrypted text coincide, e.g. “HER……KI.L….” on the topmost line. You should be able to see 23 green-backgrounded letters.

However, for the sake of balance, I’ve also added a red background to those letters (or simply transformed letters) where the two do not coincide, e.g. “…PLVVP….TB.D” on the topmost line. You should be able to see 61 red-backgrounded letters (I think).

To make the following diagram, I used Dave Oranchak’s funky online Cipher Explorer tool:

It should be immediately obvious that a very high degree of selectivity is going on here: furthermore, seven letters are left out (on lines 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7), while three extra letters are inserted (lines 5 and 8). Finally, there is no consistent mapping of other shapes to plaintext letters as per the claimed decrypt, which is why I think it is safe to say that this is not a ‘cryptological’ decryption in any useful sense of the word.

The notion that a given historical ciphertext uses a handful of actual letters as themselves while the rest are somehow illusory or made up is an illusionary amateur cipher-breaking trope I have seen many dozens of times. In every case, it is a Pyrrhic victory of intense hopefulness over good sense, and achieves nothing bar wasting my time. If anyone can point my attention to anything about this particular decryption that varies from this rather self-defeating and useless template, I’d be fascinated to see it: but so far, this is just about as bad as it gets.

The motif of this antipattern is the codebreaker dreaming themselves an intense imaginary journey into the world of the codemaker, and bringing back as their prize a sampling of their vision, one that is every bit as hard to read as a book in a dream. All they have is the enduring conviction that they have solved it, a conviction that gets strengthened the brainier they are (and hence the more ingenious their post-rationalizing retro-fitting gets).

Total Immersion Delusion

If I were to give this kind of behaviour a “Pattern” name, I’d probably choose “Total Immersion Delusion“. Only someone who feels they have totally immersed themselves in their imagined world of the cipher maker would propose such a thing, and in almost every single case it is – sadly – a delusion that gets conjured up.

Here, you can see the seeds of the dream forming in the first line’s “HER…” and “KI.L” word-fragment patterns: but as the dream progressively fades away, the ability of the dreamer to fit the shape to the overselected letters reduces and reduces, until they’re left with only the sketchiest outlines of hope (a single green letter on lines 4, 5 and 7 demonstrates the degree to which it has triumphed over rationality here).

Sorry, but from what I can see, this Z340 ‘solution’ isn’t even close to being close: nobody’s going to come out of this particular dungheap smelling of roses, no matter how hard you hold your nose. Not huge, not a game-changer, sorry.

You may not be aware that there are, out in the world, many private languages – languages that offer speakers and listeners within a particular group or subculture the ability to talk about things that could if said in public cause one or both to be hated, persecuted, prosecuted, or even killed.


The academic literature sometimes call these antilanguages, a term coined by M.A.K. Halliday in 1976 to describe those secret languages used by (what he also named) “anti-societies”, e.g. prisoners, fairground workers, gay men, lesbians, thieves, Voynich researchers ( 😉 ), etc.

For me, I suspect that pitching them as tools of active resocialization formed within consciously-formed alternatives to the mainstream (as Halliday does) is a little bit overreductive: from my point of view, they are necessary parallel forms of language when the use of mainstream language would be personally problematic.

Polari And Its Sisters

This need for ‘privacy in public’ has led to a large number of cant slangs, such as Polari – this is a very old UK cant slang used by many subcultures (fairground people, Punch & Judy men, gay people, etc). Even though there are two fairly recent books on it (both by Paul Baker), this private language first came to wider public attention (a linguistic paradox if ever I heard one) thanks to the 1960s radio programme “Round the Horne” and its two Polari ‘homy polones’, Julian and Sandy.

Even though Polari seems – in my opinion – to have a closer historical connection to Punch and Judy performers than anything else, it has become best known (thanks to Julian and Sandy, arguably the first “celebrity gay couple”, as one programme put it) as a gay cant slang.

Yet even if it was culturally appropriated in this way, Polari is far from the only gay subculture language. One could quickly point to Bahasa Binan in Indonesia, Gayle and IsiNgqumo in South Africa, and Swardspeak / Bekimon (short for “Baklang Jejemon”) in the Philippines, all countries where verbally displaying as gay can be physically perilous in the extreme.

It’s a fascinating linguistic area, for sure.

Calabar Lesbian Cryptic Languages

Now adding to this existing array of public/private languages is Nigerian researcher Waliya Yohanna Joseph at the University of Calabar. Calabar is a port city, capital of Cross River State on the Nigerian border with Cameroon: incidentally, it’s a part of Nigeria I happen to have an (indirect) connection with.

Waliya’s article (which appears in Anna Odrowaz-Coates & Sribas Goswami (2017) Symbolic violence in social contexts. A post-colonial critique.) is called “Calabar Lesbian Cryptic Languages”, and is downloadable on ResearchGate.

As you would expect, using this cryptic language yields the speakers “emotional and sexual liberation, as well as anthropological security”, because “Lesbians preferred not to be known by the general public in Nigerian society.”

Though the basic form is numbers, there are also enciphered forms. One ciphertext is quoted:

Ba1baya ga3rala, 3 la4va2 5. 5 1ra2 sa4 ba215ta3fa5la. 3 na22da 5 3na maya la3fa2.
Wa3lala 5 la4va2 ta4 ba2 maya fara32nada? 3 para4ma3sa2 ta4 la4va2 5 1nada 5 1la4na2.
Ra2palaya !

The paper goes on to say that “violence against the female child among other things are also very prevalent in Single public schools where Senior students and self-declared school mothers force, entice and cajole the juniors in the hostels to practice lesbianism, abortion and prostitution.” It makes for uncomfortable reading at times.

At the same time, it has to be said that the author’s position seems to be perhaps a little overfocused on Calabar: the idea that lesbianism is perilous in Africa in general, even more so in Nigeria, and yet more so in Calabar doesn’t really do the paper justice. There also seems to be a moralistic tightrope being patrolled here, when the paper pitches itself as being…

of help especially to parents, teachers, lecturers, matrons, guardians and care givers who may wish to protect their wards from strange sexual orientations such as same sex relationships.

Still, it is a bold and interesting piece of work, shining a light not only on the edges of language and cipher, but also on the sharp differences between the specific mores of Calabar and those generally of “post-colonial” societies – particularly of those people reading the paper.

I learned, via an email from Rene Zandbergen today, that Voynich theorist Stephen Bax died a few days ago. It was only last month that he and Rene jointly formed the Voynich research presence at the Siloe press launch (he is on the left below, next to Rene):

I’m sure there are plenty whom he taught or that worked with him that have fond, positive memories: the obituaries will surely be safe in their hands. My thoughts – and I hope those of other Voynicheros – are with his family.