The problems Cipher Mysteries recently had with its last web hosting supplier were all logical consequences of scale: not only had the blog got larger and the number of comments shot up, but also WordPress (and all those ‘must-have’ caching and security plugins) had got larger (and slower) as well.
I genuinely thought that moving the site to a WordPress multisite installation on a far more heavyweight hosting account would be (despite the inevitable hassle the transition involved) a great technical fix for all those scaling issues. And in many ways, it was: Cipher Mysteries now seems (touch wood) to be working better than it has done for a long time (though I’m still looking for a good multisite redirection plugin, bah).
But having now sat down to start posting again after my enforced break, I realise that I had overlooked a quite different scaling problem, and the effects that has been having on Cipher Mysteries. And this turns out to be something I don’t yet have a fix for, technical or otherwise.
Small Blog, Big Stories?
Over the last year or so, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to write blog posts on unbroken historical ciphers, and for one simple reason: that, having researched all the major ones in great detail over the last decade, a thousand words or so is too small a space to fit even a preamble to a new angle, let alone the new angle itself.
In practice, this is having the effect of dissuading me from writing anything about anything: inside the WordPress editor, I have thirty or more draft posts started that I just can’t find the energy to complete – in each case, having written a page or two or three, I can already tell that they’re all going to be too long.
In short: without really realising it, I’ve silently undergone a transition from medium-form to long-form, to the point that I can’t sensibly fit what I want to write into blog posts. And I don’t know what to do about it.
Schmeh For Two?
At the same time, Klaus Schmeh has arrived on the scene with his (entirely sensible, though occasionally Lego-minifigure-abusing) Krypto Kolumne, which covers a diverse collection of crypto stuff (particularly enciphered German postcards).
Klaus has a good presentation schtick, a nicely dry sense of humour, and a loyal online audience that relishes being fed unsolved cryptograms that it can (and often does) actually solve. He has taken what I would categorize as a more journalistic angle on historical ciphers: he seems less interested in solving or researching them himself than in enabling other people to grow them into a more substantial story.
By comparison, my own research interests have become far narrower and far more specific as time has gone by. This has been the perhaps inevitable result of exploring and testing the outer limits of knowledge of the “big” unsolved historical ciphers – the Voynich Manuscript, the Rohonc Codex, the Beale Papers, the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat Page, the WW2 Pigeon Cipher, the Dorabella cipher, La Buse, Le Butin, etc. It’s a list whose elements were all individually well-worn by the time Elonka Dunin put them together and posted it on the Internet.
“Opinions Are Like…”
But this process of knowledge exploration has also meant that I have developed strong technical opinions: these are not only about the range of possible decryptions, but also about the limits of what can and can’t be known about a given artefact – i.e. what evidence we do have, and what we can infer from that evidence.
And expressing such technical opinions have, of late, brought me into repeated conflict with various people on the Internet: for example, I think that there is no evidence of “microwriting” in the Tamam Shud page whatsoever that could not similarly be drawn out from almost any digital image whatsoever – I continue to receive online abuse (and indeed accusations of mental disorders) for saying this. Which is the kind of thing only libel lawyers find enjoyable reading (simply because it pays their mortgages).
It has got to the point where I’m utterly bored of moderating snarky comments written by people who want to take a cheap shot at me: being ghastly to me has become a kind of initiatory hazing ritual for cipher nutters.
The Mainstream Arriveth
Another thing that’s going on is that, thanks to what looks like extended Turing Mania, historical ciphers have moved into the mainstream. Even today’s announcement that a teleprinter for a Lorenz SZ42 machine was bought on eBay for £9.50 (which is a nice little story, but far from cryptologically earth-shaking) emerged not via (say) the CryptoCollector mailing list, but via the BBC.
Even Kernel Magazine devoted its last issue to Codes and Ciphers: though this actually turned out to have only micro-interviews with Zodiac Killer Cipher researchers and a largely unrevealing summary of the A858 (ok, “r/A858DE45F56D9BC9” in full) subreddit code thing.
Yet arguably the only good mainstream article on cipher mysteries in the last decade has been Christopher Tritto’s excellent Code Dead on Ricky McCormick: and even that barely touched the nature of those pages.
And so even though codes and ciphers are now officially “cool”, there’s almost no good writing on them out there at all: and where Cipher Mysteries fits into the overall landscape any more is something I’m struggling to see.
Finally, Nick Gets To The ‘Focus’ Bit
So what will Cipher Mysteries’ focus be, going forward?
Right now, I don’t honestly know. But what I do know is that things have to change…