The Somerton Man – found dead on Somerton Beach near Adelaide on 1st December 1948 – had, in his fob pocket, a small slip of paper on which was printed “Tamam Shud”. It was subsequently determined that this slip had been torn out by hand from the last page of a Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: and that the specific edition of the Rubaiyat had been published by Whitcombe and Tomb’s in New Zealand, as part of their “Courage And Friendship” series.

(Note: if we knew what other books in the “Courage And Friendship” series were listed on the inside front cover of the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat, we’d almost certainly be able to determine the precise year in which the book was printed).

The Tasman Sea

So: given that the Rubaiyat had started in New Zealand but ended up in Australia, it seemed highly likely to me that the book and its mysterious owner had travelled across the Tasman Sea from the former to the latter between 1st January 1945 and 1st December 1948. But… exactly how did they make that journey?

To try to answer that question, I bought a copy of Peter Plowman’s (2009) Wanganella and the Australian Trans-Tasman Liners to find out. Plowman’s book covers the history of all the major passenger ships that travelled the roughly 2000km across the Tasman Sea very well, and with admirable attention to detail (the page numbers in the following refer to Plowman’s book).

It didn’t take long to discover that we would appear to have only three ships to consider: the Katoomba (briefly), the Wanganella (also briefly), and the Wahine. Let’s look at each of these three ships in turn…

Katoomba

As 1946 began, there was pressure on the Australian government to help get “the thousands of New Zealand residents who had been stranded in Australia for the duration of the war” back across the Tasman Sea (p.118).

However, this apparently simple-sounding objective proved very difficult to attain in practice. Of the ships that had seen Trans-Tasman service before the Second World War, the Awatea had been sunk en route to Gibraltar in 1942; the Monowai’s intense war-time usage had left it needing an extensive refit; while the luxurious liner Wanganella similarly needed a year’s refitting to turn it back from the hospital ship it had served as for many of the war years.

In the short term, this only really left “the veteran coastal liner Katoomba” (p.118), which had been converted to a troopship during the war: as a result, it was only able to take passengers across in what at the time was called “austerity” quarters. I found a nice picture of it here.

katoomba

The Katoomba made only a single round trip, initially carrying 600 passengers and 2,000 tons of cargo out to Wellington: even so, its departure was plagued by industrial action that delayed its departure by a fortnight, before finally arriving on 6th February 1946. Its return journey terminated at Sydney on 23rd March 1946 (travelling via “Totokina and Rabaul”), (p.121), but the ship never made another journey on that route.

Wanganella

Wanganella

(Image from Reuben Goossens’s excellent webpage)

The Wanganella had been a beautiful (and much-loved) liner before the war, but its post-war refit took until October 1946 to complete. And its first journey then was from Sydney to “Auckland, then on to Suva, Honolulu and Vancouver. Leaving Vancouver on 27 November, Wanganella returned to Sydney on Saturday, 28th December”. (p.122).

However, its heavily anticipated (and fully-booked) second journey on 17th January 1947 fared much worse. As the gigantic ship entered Cook Strait in Wellington Harbour on the evening of 19th January 1947, it was accidentally steered onto Barrett Reef, where it remained stuck for seventeen days amidst remarkably mild weather (since then known locally as “Wanganella weather”) (p.130). Unsurprisingly, it then needed extensive mending in the shipyards before it could take to the seas again.

So as things turned out, the Wanganella’s next journey was to be 9th December 1948: and as a result, its part in our timeline comes to a close here also.

Wahine

Though the Wanganella’s much-hoped-for fortnightly sailings had been booked out for months, after its accident in the harbour put it out of commission there were simply no suitable ships to replace it with. So the Wanganella’s owners (Huddart Parker) decided to use the “veteran steamer Wahine” instead (p.136).

Wahine

(Image taken from a website devoted entirely to the ship!)

It carried 300 passengers on its first journey from Wellington to Sydney on 14th February 1947: it left Sydney on the 21st February 1947. It then left Wellington on 28th February 1947, and continued a regular service for the next three months. However, the trips stopped for the (antipodean) winter on 3rd June 1947, restarting on 12th September 1947. “In all, Wahine made sixteen return trips across the Tasman Sea in 1947” (p.137).

In 1948, however, the Wahine made only ten round trips across the Tasman Sea, with its last departure being on 14th May 1948. “For the rest of 1948 there was no passenger service provided by Huddart Parker or the Union Line across the Tasman” (p.137).

And so…

It may not sound like much, but I harbour [*] a very strong suspicion that the Somerton Man travelled from New Zealand to Australia on one of these trips, with the little Whitcombe and Tomb’s “Courage and Friendship” Rubaiyat stowed [**] in his pocket.

And, moreover, I further suspect that should we list all the male passengers aged (say) between 45 and 55 who travelled on the Wahine’s twenty-six journeys during this period, we would see the Somerton Man’s name.

How many names would that yield? Perhaps three hundred or so would be my finger-in-the-air guess: but we may be able to eliminate many of them very quickly. And we may may already have seen one or two of the names from other directions (I have one particular surname in mind… but that’s a story for another day completely), which would be a highly intriguing development.

OK, so… shall we draw up a list, then?

[*] Sorry about that. 🙂
[**] And that. 😉

The “Somerton Man” gained his epithet from Somerton Beach near Adelaide, which was where his dead body was discovered in the early morning of 1st December 1948. Yet despite the mass of forensic evidence (his body and, more recently, an analysis of one of his hairs) and physical evidence (his clothes and possessions, plus his suitcase), his real identity has never been determined.

Police investigators were then led down into not so much a ‘rabbit hole’ as a labyrinthine warren of ‘twisty passages all alike’ by the tiniest of objects half-concealed in the man’s fob pocket… a tightly-furled slip of paper with the words “Tamam Shud” printed on it:

Tamam Shud Slip2

A cropped version of this appeared in the 9th June 1949 edition of the Adelaide Advertiser, just before the first Coronial inquest was due to start:

the-note-in-persian

Police determined that these two words were Persian for “The End”; that they were the concluding piece of text in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a popular book of poetry at the time); and that they were printed in a font that was specific to the editions put out by Whitcombe and Tomb’s (a New Zealand publishing company).

As a result, the police took the opportunity of the flurry of publicity surrounding the inquest to ask anyone in the general public to come forward if they just happened to have a copy of the specific edition of the Rubaiyat from which the final two printed words (“Tamam Shud”) had been ripped out by hand. A picture of the original Rubaiyat’s front cover appeared in the 26th July 1949 Adelaide News:

rubaiyat-adelaide-news

Amazingly, a Rubaiyat that exactly matched this description was quickly brought forward by a publicity-shy local “businessman”: it had been discovered in the back of his car parked in Jetty Road in Glenelg, not too far from the beach where the dead man’s body had been found. And when police photographers carefully examined indentations on the back of that (now long-lost) Rubaiyat, they uncovered not only something that looked like a mysterious code, but also one or more phone numbers (and possibly even a name, though this item remains completely unconfirmed).

What of these two wonderfully specific pieces of evidence? The code-like text was speedily passed to a top Australian code breaker (almost certainly Eric Nave), but proved indecryptible. As for the phone number(s), one led to a local nurse called Jo Thompson, who denied all knowledge of the Somerton Man when asked by the police (though we now know that she did know more than she said).

At the time, however, the code and the phone-numbers were the police’s two last-gasp hopes of cracking the mystery: and when those leads went cold, so too did the case. Despite all the wild and unfounded speculation (ranging all the way from romance and illegitimacy to Cold War espionage) that the decades since have seen, this is as much as we genuinely know… the rest is just guesswork (and often highly fanciful guesswork at that).

All the same, what these very public dead-ends did manage to achieve was to intensify the mystery surrounding the unidentified dead man on Somerton Beach. Who was he? Why was he there? How did he die? What had happened?

The Rubaiyat

One of the few non-speculative research avenues open to investigation is the Rubaiyat itself. What was its story? Where did it come from?

Retired detective Gerry Feltus, the man who (literally) wrote the book on the investigation into the Somerton Man cold case, spent years trying to find Whitcombe and Tomb’s editions of the Rubaiyat (as described in his Appendix 5). Here’s a picture of what he was looking for (note the highly ornate border):

Rubaiyat W&T SM Last Pages

After a great deal of searching, Feltus eventually managed to locate “two first edition copies”. One, however, “was printed in a different font and there was no ‘Tamam Shud’ at the end”, so was of no direct help to his search (p.168). The following is a scan of a different copy of this same particular edition:

Last page of Rubaiyat

Yet though the other copy Feltus found was a much better match, it too was not identical: the font and layout was the same, but the front cover was smaller and squarer than the image of the cover that appeared in the media at the time, while “the page positioning differed”. (p.169)

How could it be that Feltus’s years of diligent searching had produced a copy that was nearly-but-not-quite identical? What was going on?

Whitcombe and Tomb’s

Founded in 1888 in New Zealand, Whitcombe and Tomb’s (now merged and reborn as “Whitcoulls”) was by 1948 something of an institution: it printed text books and all manner of serious-minded stuff. Here’s a photo of its Dunedin store in 1931 (which I found here):

Dunedin-store-1931

But as WWII approached, W&T was struggling to find an edge over its many rivals: it was perceived as being staid and somewhat boring, while its competitors were building up reputations for having a stylistic edge over W&T.

If you look again at the edition above, I think you can see W&T’s inner bore emerging: even though it uses a nice enough font, overall the pages themselves are rather dull-looking – though professional, it’s completely unremarkable. The final page states:

printed-by-whitcombe-and-tombs

By way of comparison, the other edition not only has a highly-decorated border on every page, it finishes with a triangular design that stresses the artistry involved in the new production – that it is “A W&T Art Production“:

whitcombe-and-tombs-triangular-logo

Something seems to have changed…

Rubaiyat Advertisements

I suspect we can learn a lot more from the press advertisements the company took out to try to sell its Rubaiyats.

The sequence of advertisements in New Zealand Papers Past (a Kiwi version of Trove) starts with a 24th December 1936 W&T advert for a Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam at 4/6. However, I’m not sure what to make of it.

Papers Past then has the following advert from 22nd November 1941:

Pretty Booklets

The Courage and Friendship Booklets, produced by Messrs Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd. (Auckland), are enveloped ready for post, a very attractive means of conveying a Christmas greeting, The five titles issued are Bracken’s Not Understood, Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, some songs and poems of Robert Burns gathered as Sprigs o’ Heather, an anthology of Great Thoughts from famous books, and Golden Threads drawn from Trine’s “In Tune with the Infinite.” The booklets are prettily designed, two being printed in a decorative letter.

According to this November 1941 advert, these booklets were priced at 1/6 (or 1/7 posted). The posted price went up to 1/8 in 1943, when a sixth title was added to the list (“Falling Leaves, thoughts for shadowed days”).

However, an advert from 22nd April 1944 announced a new – and much more upmarket – edition:

OMAR KHAYYAM

Delight again and again over, this wise old Persian’s verses; you can never exhaust their pleasures: they carry you far beyond the four walls of everyday life – singing with sheer beauty of love, and life’s riches – The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. New edition bound in dark green cloth, with illustration. 12/6

21st December 1944 saw them advertising their cheaper (1/6) Courage and Friendship version, and now with “Merrie England, songs from Shakespeare” (a seventh title) added to the list.

Similarly, the following year (29th November 1945) saw them selling the same series at 1/6, but this time with “Forget-me-nots, an anthology of friendship” (an eighth title) added to the list.

Trove aficionados can also find Australian adverts, e.g. for the Courage and Friendship series:
* 5th December 1942 (Courage And Friendship, 5 titles, 1/6 each, 1/8 posted)

Once you get to 1944, the second luxury edition appears on sale in Australia:
* 22nd January 1944 8/6, 8/10 posted
* 26th January 1944 8/6, 8/10 posted

And then there’s a third leatherette-bound W&T Rubaiyat we’re not otherwise aware of:
21st December 1946 and 25th December 1946: “THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM. A delightful leatherette-bound volume, suitable for presentation. Price, 5/6 (posted 5/8).”

And is this 1947 version the same as the Courage And Friendship edition, but at a slightly higher price?
* 3rd May 1947 “RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM 2/5. Postage, 2d. A compact, well illustrated edition of this evergreen classic”.

rubaiyat-advert-1947

This 1947 version sounds like the 1944 luxury edition again:
* 27th September 1947 “RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM, Large gift edition, beautifully illustrated. A Whitcombe and Tombs art production. 8/6. (Posted 8/10.)”

As for this 1948 mid-price version, I’m guessing that this was the Rubaiyat published in London by Frederick Muller Ltd, because George Buday (1907-1990) was an artist and printmaker who emigrated to Britain from Hungary in 1937, and ended up living in Coulsdon (ten miles from Surbiton):
* 27th March 1948 “RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM. 3/2, postage 3d. An attractive little gift book, Illustrated with engravings by George Buday.”

So Many Rubaiyats, So Little Time!

Even though I have tried to collect as many of the Whitcombe and Tomb’s advertisements together as I can, I think it should (“Shud”?) be clear that it would take a far more determined book detective to reconstruct the exact sequence of books being published here.

The dull-looking “Printed by Whitcombe and Tombs” edition that Gerry Feltus found might conceivably be the 1936 Rubaiyat: or it might just as well be a very early version of the Courage and Friendship series.

Regardless, it seems to me that we can reduce most of Whitcombe and Tomb’s Rubaiyats into two basic families:
(1) the smaller and more compact, Courage & Friendship pocket Rubaiyats (low-end, cheap stuff for gifts)
(2) the taller and generally fancier deluxe presentation Rubaiyats (high-end, 5+ times more expensive!)

Moreover, from other stuff (to come in a follow-up post), it seems that the Courage & Friendship pocket Rubaiyats were reprinted in slightly different colours from year to year, both inside and out. For example, the decorative page borders were cream in one year and beige in the next, while the border blocked around the text was green in one edition and yellow in another. And the inside page of the front cover was reprinted at different times, because different Courage and Friendship Rubaiyats list different numbers of titles in the C&F range.

So it seems to me that if only a picture had been taken of the inside cover of the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat, we’d be able to date it simply by the number of other Courage and Friendship titles listed in the same series. But perhaps there’s a note still in the police file somewhere.

Courage and Friendship Covers

The very nice “An Empty Glass” Somerton Man Wiki has rather splendidly managed to somehow collect a sequence of Whitcombe and Tomb’s Rubaiyat front covers in its page on the Somerton Man’s Rubaiyat.

Its key picture looks like this:

anemptyglass-rubaiyat-cover-comparison

Here you can see different printing colour schemes being used in different years: and the substantial difference between the (compact) Courage and Friendship editions on the left and the deluxe version on the right.

So, What Is Going On, Nick?

I think it’s reasonably simple. What Whitcombe and Tomb’s were doing with the Rubaiyat was dipping their corporate toes into the oversize paddling pool of design aesthetics: which is why they tried different price-points, different materials, different techniques, different sizes, etc. By and large, it seems to have been an experimental time for them.

Each Courage and Friendship printing batch seems to have had its cover printed in a different colour: if only we had a record of the list of other Courage and Friendship books in the series that appeared on the front inside flap of the cover of the Somerton Man’s book, we would be able to tell which year it had been printed.

Gerry Feltus had found the right book: just not the right year’s edition of that book, it would seem. And the reason that there was so much year-to-year variability is simply because Whitcombe and Tomb’s was trying to extricate itself from the staid, boring corner of the market it had painted itself into so relentlessly for so many years. Even though it wanted to develop its arty side, it didn’t really know what was going to work in the wider book-buying market. (Frankly, it seems to me that it never quite managed this particular trick).

And so we have reached our almost-paradoxical conclusion of the day: that even though Whitcombe and Tomb’s deluxe version of the Rubaiyat (with its gilt lettering or hand-stitched lettering) would be a more desirable book to own from the point of view of a collector, it is very probably from the far more cheap-and-cheerful 1/6 Courage and Friendship edition that the Somerton Man had ripped out his “Tamam Shud”.

And quite why he did that at all is another matter entirely! 😐

Long-suffering-standing Cipher Mysteries readers cursed with photographic memories may recall a post I made back in 2008 that included images of Giovanni da Fontana’s rather wonderful Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber. Because this is a book-sized enciphered manuscript, it is a member of a highly select club, with little more than the Voynich Manuscript and Rohonc Codex to keep it company at their Christmas dinner.

As Bert Hall put it rather nicely, though, the Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber is not so much an illustrated text as a series of drawings accompanied by a bit of text (partially enciphered text, in this case). And the whole book is available online, which is just splendid.

Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber

One of my favourite images from the Bellicorum Instrumentorum Liber is of what seems to be a skateboarding rabbit. By which I mean not something from Pinterest

skateboarding baby rabbit

…but something from Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München Cod.icon. 242, fol. 37r, urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00013084-8 (“Mechanische Maschinen und Automaten”), dating to between 1420 and 1430…

fontana-rabbit-skateboard

If we look at the same image in context, it becomes immediately clear that this isn’t an anachronistic exercise in Internet whimsy, but a state-of-the-art early Renaissance killing machine:

fontana-rabbit-killing-machine

This ‘rocket rabbit’, then was a quasi-terrorist device, to propel itself at speed at the foot of a building and blow itself up.

Oh, And The Rocket Cat As Well

Fontana’s rocket rabbit seems to have inspired this 1584 “rocket cat” (and similar “rocket bird”), which I saw discussed at a UPenn blog back in 2013:

rocket-cat

The blog post also pointed to a c.1530 rocket cat:

heidelberg-rocket-cat

Now Build Your Own…?

But it seems – to my eyes, at least – that even though written descriptions of “fire birds” setting besieged towns [alight] predate the Renaissance by half a millennium, it was Giovanni da Fontana’s rocket rabbit that begat the rocket cat. And what is particularly nice is that he shows us how to build one, piece by piece on Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München Cod.icon. 242, fol. 16v, urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb00013084-8 (“Hydraulische Maschinen und Automaten”):

fontana-rocket-skateboard

All of which, I believed, marked the end of this whole interesting line. For who on earth would be so splendidly insane as to actually build one of these for themselves? Such a person would need to have great expertise in making 3d models and historical reconstructions, and they’d need a film production company to fund it, etc etc.

That was never going to happen, was it?

Richard Windley

Step forward Richard Windley, who (it says here) “has lectured part-time in 3D Design at Hereford College of Art as well as making models and reconstructions for film and television productions”.

richard-windley

And step forward his awesomely wonderful rocket roller car, that was called “Fleeing tortoise” (as per the Latin description on the page) and was built for an Ancient Discoveries episode that aired on the History Channel (3×09 “Ancient Robots”? Perhaps there’s a copy on YouTube somewhere, but I haven’t yet found it):

Richard Windley's rocket car

Those who remember Zeno’s paradoxes of motion may recall that a fleeing tortoise was proved to be swifter than Achilles (to a Greek logician, anyway):

Richard Windley's rocket car

Here was Richard’s preliminary rocket car test run (in his back garden):

Richar Windley's rocket car is go!

His car indeed went like the rocket that it was, too bright and almost too fast to capture on a normal camera:

Richard Windley's rocket car test run

Zeno or no Zeno, I’d like to see Achilles try to outrun that fleeing tortoise. 🙂

But my favourite photograph of the many that Richard kindly shared with me is of him in his protective “furnace suit” (though this was for a separate – and potentially lethal – Greek Fire demo for a different documentary):

richard-windley-astronaut-suit

If there’s a more evocative photo of an historical maker out there, I’ve yet to see it! 🙂

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a website called The Great Lost Treasure: across its sequentially-numbered twenty-four pages, it builds up a case for arguably the most audacious (and certainly the most all-encompassing) cipher history / mystery theory I’ve yet seen.

The person behind this website is Ron Justron, who sees his over-arching theory as falling somewhere between [inconveniently true] and [a thorn in nearly every other cipher theorist’s side]. It’s not hard to see why such people get so annoyed by him: his cipher mega-theory aspires not only to disprove almost all the cipher theories out there, but also to replace them, insofar as – to him – they (pretty much) all are trapped within the explanatory cage of his mega-theory.

How should I try to do justice to this awesomely epic construction? I’ll try to start at the beginning…

The Great Lost Treasure

Justron’s starting point is a treasure mystery associated with (the very real) Admiral Lord George Anson (1697-1762), and (apparently) described in Andrew Westcott’s (1999) book “El Tesoro de Lord Anson”. (If I mentioned that George Anson was born in Shugborough Hall, you might be able to guess part of where this is going).

According to Justron’s account, a treasure horde was entrusted to a certain Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla at the end of the Spanish War of Succession in 1714: the Spanish Hapsburgs, having lost their ownership of the Spanish Crown to the French House of Bourbon, passed it to Ubilla for him to secrete in South America for safety.

Note that Captain-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla definitely existed. In 1715 when the convoy of treasure ships he was commanding on the way back from Havana to Spain was hit by a hurricane close to the Bahamas, over a thousand people lost their lives, including Ubilla himself. Only one ship, the Grifon, managed to avoid catastrophe.

One treasure site recounts the story that the Capitana went down with the jewels Philip V had been required to provide as a dowry for his new wife, the Duchess of Parma: these included “a heart delicately crafted of 130 pearls, a 74 carat emerald ring, a pair of pearl earrings-each complemented with a 14 carat pearl, and a rosary of pure coral the size of small marbles“. This much-searched-for royal trove was used as a plot device in films such as The Deep (the 1977 Peter Benchley-written film, not the 2013 Icelandic film) and Fools Gold (which I thought was a bit pants, though not offensively so).

So is this Justron’s “Great Lost Treasure”? Actually no – for once, it is nothing so boringly mundane as gold, silver or diamonds: far more audaciously, Justron asserts that it is the “set of vessels, items and furnishings for the Tabernacle in the Wilderness” that Moses had had constructed, and which came to be housed in the Temple of Jerusalem. And then Justron raises the stakes yet higher, by asserting that the “Holy Grail” has been mistranslated, and that what we call the Holy Grail was actually part of the Davidic Temple trove.

The Über-Map

According to Justron’s narrative, once Ubilla had concealed this heavenly stash in South America, he somehow managed to convey a map of where he hidden it to the Royal Society in London, which (he says) “then became the reluctant stewards of what was considered to be God’s own treasure”.

According to Justron, the list of things that Ubilla passed across included (though note that many of the details come from a separate cipher mystery, courtesy of Richard Latcham, which I’ll cover in Cipher Mysteries when my brain has stopped hurting from this one):

1. A chart of the region.
2. A reference to latitude and longitude using the alchemically themed colours of the fixed stars known as the Tetramorphs and their zodiacal associated constellations.
3. A series of consecutive and geographically descriptive codewords in Spanish;
* Trinidad (Trinity)
* Herradura (Horseshoe)
* Pan da Azucar (Sugarloaf). This is a ‘sailing mark’, a distinctive rock to identify the island and the pass through the surrounding reef.
* Playa Blanca (White Beach)
* Aguada (Water)
* Ebanin (Marked rock)
4. The ‘Cero tres Puntas’: literally the ‘Zero (cipher) of the longitude for the Three Points’.

Justron also asserts that Ubilla also managed to convey a copy of the map to Spain, which was used for a later treasure hunt (Diego Alverez, Luke Barrett, Archer Brown and Killorain: ‘The Treasure of the Tuamotus’ or ‘The Bosun Bird Treasure’).

As you’d perhaps expect, Justron has decrypted the map’s subtleties: he used the Shugborough monument letters, an simple substitution cipher key used by “a lawyer names Zwack in 1786 during a political raid in England of a secret society called ‘The Illuminated Ones’, the magic number 19, the Golden Section, and a map of some South Sea islands.

The trail, then, leads to Mururoa Atoll (where some atomic tests were famously carried out): if you suddenly feel the urge to book your flight there, rest assured I won’t be offended if you open another tab in your browser. 🙂

The Cornelius Patrick Webb Letter

Justron also points to an odd letter dated to later in the 18th century:

I, Cornelius Patrick Webb, Captain of his Majesty’s Navy, Master of the Unicorn, only survivor of the Horseshoe Expedition depute this account to my Lord George Anson First Lord of the Admiralty (courtisualy) because I judgeth malady which ailleth me will not permit to wait. Departure Unicorn June nineteen crossed Cap Horn December six arrived at position lat thirty D eight M. January thirteenth opened royal orders, located secret entrance, translated Crown’s belongings, located eight hundred sixty four bags gold. Two hundred bars gold, twenty one barrels precious stones and jewellery one golden trunk containing rose of gold and emeralds, two foot high, one hundred and sixty chests with gold and silver coins. January twenty four fortress destroyed. When returning the twenty-eight of January before a violent storm, the ship suffered serious damage and lost a mast. We were forced to shelter on an island; the third of February found us at Longitude … Latitude… and it was impossible to carry out repairs for the safe transportation of the treasure; transferred to a new hiding place valley of Anson a cable length from the observation point in direction great yellow stone depth fifteen feet. Unicorn repaired for emergency crossing course Valparaiso; informed of plans for mutiny while the ship was becalmed to the West of Valparaiso I made use of the auxiliary boat (Pinnace). Unicorn blown up by me with all on board, six loyal men sacrificed for the cause of the Crown, I arrived at Valparaiso. 1761

Now, the problem for Justron is that even if this letter is genuine (and personally I’m still struggling to get to the stage where I believe that it is), its contents doesn’t quite fit his über-narrative. However, his resolution is to infer from internal evidence that the letter was originally written in Latin and then mistranslated into English.

Anson’s Papers

When Lord Anson dies in 1762, his papers were (says Justron) found to contain a file containing enciphered or coded details of something that was called the “Horseshoe expedition”, which was presumed to refer to the Webb Letter above. Justron continues:

“As the Webb report mentioned the ‘Valley of Anson’ and with Lord George Anson having published a book [“A Voyage around the World”, 1748] with a map of Juan Fernandez Island, anyone with a modicum of imagination would have recognised the similarity in shape between the robes of the Shepherdess on the monument and the island of Juan Fernandez. From that day copies of the Shepherdess’ shape were made and circulated as a ‘treasure map’.

Justron also observes that “An interesting modification that occurs for each region where the story is retold is to give the ‘dying sailor’ a local sounding name or the name of a person known to the inhabitants.” For him, the prototypical “dying sailor” was Cornelius Webb, and every one of the numerous ones ones thereafter were merely story-telling clones of Webb.

And this tweak helps him build two additional storeys to the top of his argumentary tower: that not only are all treasure maps ever made little more than variations on Anson’s original treasure map hidden in plain sight on the Shepherd’s Monument at Shugborough, but also all “a dying sailor bequeathed me this treasure map” stories are variations of a single meta-story.

Oak Island and Beale Papers

Justron then takes a long digression into the murky tunnels and waters of Oak Island. And then into the Beale Papers, which he says were written by some Freemasons in an attempt “to alert other Freemasons they had found the Cerro tres Puntas”.

Harold T. Wilkins and Fake Maps

Ron Justron’s next target is the wonderfully frustrating set of maps found in the 1930s: he asserts that nutty proto-Fortean hack Harold T. Wilkins had found Lord Anson’s Papers in the 1920s, and so decided to construct a long series of maps in some kind of homage to the Anson über-map. These then (so the story goes) were inserted into oldish items of furniture, which then all came into the possession of collectors Guy and Hubert Palmer in Eastbourne between 1929 and 1942.

After Hubert Palmer’s demise, the maps passed to his nurse (Mrs Dick), who then sold them all off to a mysterious Canadian/American syndicate in 1957: they have never been since since.

For Justron, however, Wilkins was pulling everyone’s legs, because he clearly (writes Justron) knew that the location referred to by Anson, Webb and Ubilla lay somewhere else entirely. And this is because – asserts Justron – it was also Wilkins and Latcham who were behind Latcham’s fake cipher / treasure maps at Guayacan.

After a digression on the Tokugawa treasure, Justron then starts to get to what I can only describe as the real meat of his argument (yes, there is in indeed more to go yet). Which links Harold T. Wilkins to…

Rennes-le-Chateau and the Priory of Sion

[Wilkins] decided to leave for posterity the final part to the grand riddle. This part would be the direct pointers to Lord George Anson and his map. […] Unfortunately Harold T Wilkins selected a right bunch for his chosen dupes; rather than just carry the clues for others to find they goofed the whole thing up completely.

In the mess that the myth of Rennes le Chateau has become one could dismiss the whole thing as a fraud perpetrated by a group of French associates in the 1950s for their own gain.

In reality the story of Rennes le Chateau is that of it being just another Masonic hoax/riddle in which the real codes have to be identified and decrypted.

Yes: just when you thought there were no more cipher-related mysteries to throw into the same bubbling pot, the Priory of Sion appears. Justron’s long argument that accompanies this claim reduces to: Wilkins was the Svengali who set the whole thing up (apparently with Anson’s Great Lost Treasure in mind), but with Wilkins’ death in 1960 everyone involved seemed to lose the plot.

The Secret of the Unicorn?

But Justron has left the best to last – and it is so stunning that he hasn’t even put it on his website yet. Which is that the Tintin adventure The Secret of the Unicorn (published in Le Soir in serial form between 1942 and 1943) contains embedded clues to much of the above.

The-Secret-of-the-Unicorn

Justron writes:

“Unfortunately the main part missed too was the hint given in Tintin, that is by assembling the (RLC) parchments, you’ll be led to the ancestral hall of a famous mariner where you will learn the Secret of the Unicorn.”

Of course, for Justron the ancestral hall of a famous mariner being referred to is not Hergé’s fictional Marlinspike Hall of his fictional Sir Francis Haddock, but without any shadow of a doubt Shugborough Hall, birthplace of George Anson. And the Unicorn is, well, the Unicorn (of course).

The Great Lost Treasure, Really?

For me, there’s something endearingly syncretic – almost Rastafarian, with their “Truth of All Truths” – about Justron’s sprawlingly all-encompassing cryptophily. For him, the whole cipher/treasure endeavour appeals to an Ur-story lurking beneath the suburban drear of mere data, much like Joseph Campbell inferred a single story laying beneath all myth.

Naturally, I don’t believe it for a minute: but I wouldn’t, would I? I’m a getting-the-details-really-properly-right kind of guy who likes to understand the arguments and evidence behind each cipher/treasure/history/mystery, one at a time. Which means that I don’t really believe that Justron has sufficient evidence to prove any single one of his claims about these historical mysteries, even though he is convinced all his conclusions holistically support one another.

All the same, Justron’s mega-narrative steamrollers its way through a whole load of cipher mysteries in (what, to me at least, comes across as) a fresh new way, and I can honestly say that it has helped make me look afresh at a lot of the ground he has covered over the last decade.

In a post a couple of months back, I mentioned what I called “The Indus Problem” implicit in the first of the Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang letters: that even though the pre-1800 BN1 mentions “les trésors sauvés de l’Indus”, the phrase “Trésors de l’Indus” was from the well-known 1804/1805/1806 poem “La Navigation” by Joseph Esménard.

Hence if the phrase came from the poem, then the date of the letter must be wrong – and (by implication) the letter could well be fake. That would definitely be a problem with the basic evidence: and I didn’t really have a workable explanation for the phrase.

But today I came up with alternative scenario…

Captain Lewis and the “Industan”

Auguste Toussaint (1911-1987) was, without much doubt, Mauritius’s premier marine archivist and maritime historian.

While looking through his (1967) “La route des Iles: contribution à l’histoire maritime des Mascareignes” this morning, I noticed some intriguing entries:
* (p.306) 4th March 1796, the ‘navire’ “Industan” (Captain Louis) arrived from Philadelphia.
* (p.262) 22nd August 1796, the American ‘vaisseau’ “Industan” (Captain Lewis) arrived from Pondicherry.

Might Captain Lewis’ ship the “Industan” have hit the rocks near Vacoas, spilling its treasures for Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang to opportunistically get hold of? It certainly seemed a far more concrete explanation than assuming the phrase was pulled from a high-culture poem written nearly a decade in the future.

(There was also (p.311) mention of the Industrie, a ‘brick’ out of Newburyport commanded by Captain Stone, arriving on 2nd April 1804: but that would seem to have been a quite different ship.)

For the sake of completeness, there was (even though the dates don’t match BN1) a later ship called the “Indus”:
* (p.312) 10th September 1804, a 400-ton American brick called the Indus (Captain Myrick), armed in (and coming from) Boston
* (p.331) 22nd February 1805, a 400-ton American ‘vaisseau’ called the Indus (Captain Myrick) of Batavia, heading for Boston.

Toussaint also lists a similar-sounding ship called the “India”, which might well have been the (later) Indus on an earlier journey:
* (p.326) 25th April 1798, Captain Armhead, a 400-tone American ‘navire’ out of Batavia (no destination listed)

Tracing the “Industan”

(Note that this was not the British ship the Hindostan, parts of which are in Whitstable Museum, which I didn’t find time to visit when I was there this week.)

What I was looking for was an American boat called “Industan” (Captain Louis or Lewis) going from Philadelphia to Pondicherry and back, but which might possibly have hit the rocks off Mauritius (for whatever reason) in August or September 1796.

Splendidly, searching Philadelphia newspapers revealed the following advertisement from the Philadelphia Gazette that ran from March 1797 to May 1797:

newspaper-ad

So it would seem the Indostan (Captain Jacob Lewis) made it safely back to Philadelphia, and so this thread has come to an end.

But… What Happened Next?

Might the Indostan have then embarked upon a further – but far less successful – trip to Mauritius and India? I would expect that the ship would have left a little later in the 1797 season (say September), with a view to using the favourable trade wind pattern to make it across the Indian Ocean in the spring of 1798.

If this guess is right, I would expect the Indostan to have reached Mauritius in or around March 1798, which is – presumably – where it would have hit the rocks at Vacoas before reaching the island’s main port.

However: having now broadly reached the limits of my search tools, perhaps others would like to have a look and see if they can take this further.

Might there be newspaper reports of the Indostan’s subsequent departure and Indian Ocean demise out there, just waiting to be found? Might there be an obituary for Captain Jacob Lewis, or an account of his life? Who financed the ship in Philadelphia? Who insured the ship?

Plenty of interesting (and hopefully resolvable) questions. 🙂

Many angry arrows have been aimed in the direction of Cipher Mysteries of late (mostly by a single vociferous individual), asserting that it has got its moderation policy Just Plain Wrong.

Obviously, differences of opinion about what comments should be moderated in or out hardly amount to breaking news. But the reactive rhetoric attached to these attacks has recently reached a somewhat fevered pitch, where the blog posts being made about comment moderation had become much worse than the comments they were related to.

Best Practice for Bloggers?

As a result, I thought it was high time I trawled the web to see what, as of mid-2016, is considered best practice for bloggers. After all, knowledge is power, ain’t it?

“The Blogger’s Code of Conduct”

In 2007, Tim O’Reilly proposed a Blogger’s Code of Conduct, to try to promote civility online (specifically in blogs). The six points (which he also tried to connect to badges) were:

1. We take responsibility for our own words and for the comments we allow on our blog.
2. We won’t say anything online that we wouldn’t say in person.
3. We connect privately before we respond publicly.
4. When we believe someone is unfairly attacking another, we take action.
5. We do not allow anonymous comments.
6. We ignore the trolls.

For all the good ideas in there, O’Reilly was quick to recognize that he had severely underestimated the size of the issues. In practice, each of his six points has a huge number of weak spots:

1. moderating is full of edge cases (e.g. at what point does someone expressing a strong feeling about something actually become abusive? If someone doesn’t like a comment, does that mean that that comment is genuinely offensive or do they just not like to see opinions different to their own? So, to what notional person should any given comment be deemed offensive? etc etc) to the point that the notion of a single catch-all “responsibility” umbrella is woefully inadequate.

2. it is ridiculously easy for someone to cut and paste what you have written or commented or moderated and quote it out of context to deliberately distort what you said or allowed to be said. And (moreover) to say in person where? In a bar, in a church, at a football match? Given that context forms ~90% of communication, it’s almost impossible to write posts or comments that cannot be taken out of context and given a new, offensive meaning.

3. for a whole bundle of reasons, connecting privately first is something that almost never happens.

4. for a different (but very similar) bundle of reasons, it is extraordinarily rare for anyone to step forward to “take action”. Again, this almost never happens.

5. it is very hard to prevent anonymous commenting. Even tiny children are now indoctrinated never to disclose their real names or any information that might help identify them online: and from there it is the smallest of technical steps to full anonymity. It turns out that anonymity is less of a true/false condition than a spectrum of ‘anonymousness’ that is defined mainly by the cost of de-anonymizing that anonymity. So: how much time, effort and money should a moderator have to put in to determine what degree of anonymity a specific comment is employing?

6. trolls just like attention, and have many mechanisms for baiting people just below the threshold of not-OKness. At what point does a commenter become a troll? And anyway, according to whom are they a troll? And how can the people making that judgement tell that they are a troll? And what recourse can someone have if they are incorrectly accused of being a troll?

So it turns out that the main problem with O’Reilly’s proposal is that almost every aspect of blogging is a grey area, and that his approach for trying to make everything in the blogosphere OK is just too rigid and (as some critics put it) rather too corporate. He says that he’s more interested in promoting civility than in enforcing political correctness, but given the extraordinarily wide range of conversations and interactions that blog posts enable, imposing a single model upon them all seems destined never to work.

In my opinion, his heart was in the right place but he underestimated the scale and practical difficulties of the real-world problems by a factor of a hundred, to the point that his proposals weren’t fit for purpose.

Responsible Blogging

Numerous other angles have been proposed over the years. A post by Daniel Scocco proposed 10 Rules for Responsible Blogging, but which I think are far more concerned with transparency and professionalism than ‘responsibility’ as such:

1. Check your facts
2. Respect Copyright Law
3. Consider the implications
4. Control the comments on your blog
5. Give credit where credit is due
6. Disclose professional relationships
7. Disclose sponsored posts
8. Be transparent with affiliate links
9. Respect Tax Law
10. Avoid “blackhat” methods

Of course, many of these issues are covered by actual legislation.

For example, according to this UK ethical blogging blog, the Office of Fair Trading would like everyone to understand that “The integrity of information published online is crucial so that people can make informed decisions on how to spend their money. We expect online advertising and marketing campaigns to be transparent so consumers can clearly tell when blogs, posts and microblogs have been published in return for payment or payment in kind. We expect this to include promotions for products and services as well as editorial content.”

But this is more of a legislative angle than anything else, and many of the interesting questions are more to do with blogging ethics.

Rebecca Blood’s “Weblog’s Ethics”

Rebecca Blood’s take on Weblog Ethics is a slightly more journalistic angle:

“1. Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true.”
“2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it.”
“3. Publicly correct any misinformation.”
“4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry.”

“Post deliberately. If you invest each entry with intent, you will ensure your personal and professional integrity. […] History can be rewritten, but it cannot be undone. Changing or deleting words is possible on the Web, but possibility does not always make good policy. Think before you publish and stand behind what you write. If you later decide you were wrong about something, make a note of it and move on.”

“5. Disclose any conflict of interest.”
“6. Note questionable and biased sources.”

While Blood is solid on the foundations of positive blogging here, I think it’s fair to say that she doesn’t offer a very practical guide to the problematic issues of moderating and offence that caused O’Reilly’s proposal ship to hit so many rocks.

“A Bloggers’ Code of Ethics”

Even though it was clearly adapted from what was originally a journalism code of practice, there’s a lot to like about the Bloggers’ Code of Ethics, that came courtesy of CyberJournalist.net:

“1. Be Honest and Fair”
* Never plagiarize, but always identify and link to sources where practical.
* Ensure that what you write does not misrepresent, oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
* Never distort photos without disclosing what has been changed, and label all montages etc.
* Never publish information you know is inaccurate — and highlight doubt if publishing questionable information.
* “Distinguish between advocacy, commentary and factual information”, and don’t misrepresent fact or context.
* “Distinguish factual information and commentary from advertising” and shun anything blurring the boundaries.

“2. Minimize Harm”
* “Treat sources and subjects as human beings deserving of respect.”
* “Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by Weblog content. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.”
* “Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.”
* “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of information is not a license for arrogance.”
* “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.”
* “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”
* “Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects, victims of sex crimes and criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.”

“3. Be Accountable”
* “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.”
* “Explain each Weblog’s mission and invite dialogue with the public over its content and the bloggers’ conduct.”
* “Disclose conflicts of interest, affiliations, activities and personal agendas.”
* “Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence content. When exceptions are made, disclose them fully to readers.”
* “Be wary of sources offering information for favors. When accepting such information, disclose the favors.”
* “Expose unethical practices of other bloggers.”
* “Abide by the same high standards to which you hold others.”

Is this approaching “Best Practice For Bloggers”? In many ways, it is, insofar as it points itself squarely at Honesty, Non-Harmfulness and Accountability, three things which are hard to disagree with. Yet at the same time, I have to say that it’s not really tackling the basics.

And there are some really big basics none of the above has managed to cover.

Irresponsible Blogging Practices

Most of the unethical blogging practices you’ll find described on the web are to do with not disclosing that certain blog content has been paid-for or sponsored in some way. Which is fair enough.

Yet there are many more blogging practices going on out there that I would consider acutely unethical. And having recently found myself on the receiving end of what I would consider a long string of them, I thought it might be helpful to compile a list:

1. Theft, Misrepresentation, and Libel
* Writing posts culled from posts and comments all over the web
* Never giving attribution or credit to your sources
* Constantly blurring the boundaries between truth, speculation, and outright fiction
* Never posting anything that can be easily separated out into truth, speculation, and outright fiction
* Exaggerating your website’s own importance and telling lies about other people’s websites
* Writing posts asserting that a particular individual who disagrees with you has a specific mental disorder, helpfully cutting and pasting sections of text from Wikipedia to help demonstrate the accuracy of that claim [Two people have done this to me in the last six months or so, with two very different disorders].
* Telling hateful lies about other people, but then quietly deleting those lies from the website “once they have served their purpose”.

2. Baiting, Deception, and False Closure
* Writing posts aimed squarely at an individual.
* Writing posts openly baiting a particular individual.
* Writing posts openly baiting a particular individual, waiting for them to comment, then completely changing the sense of the text in the post to try to present the commenter in a bad light.
* Responding to critical or comments with a snarky, hostile, superior comment and then immediately closing comments on that post.
* Selectively editing (or often outright deleting) commenters’ comments to remove any sections that don’t happen to paint the blogger/moderator in a favourable light.
* Closing comments and then selectively editing the comments to remove any that are not favourable to the moderator.
* Claiming ‘victory’ in comments, then deleting any incoming comments that might run counter to that claim.
* Changing the title of posts to aim them (after the event) at individuals.
* Changing the title of baiting posts to pretend (after the event) that it wasn’t aimed at individuals.
* Putting up unbelievably hostile, libelous, bait-filled posts but then quietly deleting them if things get too hot.

3. Trolls, Stalkers, and Safe Havens
Sadly, you may recognize some or all of the following patterns of behaviour:
* If you leave a comment on my website that doesn’t accord 100% with my views, I will either delete your comment or post a hostile rebuttal comment specifically designed to piss you off
* If you disagree with me, you are a troll
* If you disagree with people who blogs I admire, you are a troll
* If you use a proxy server, you are a troll
* If you sympathize with someone I don’t trust, you are a troll
* If I believe you are a troll, I feel justified in openly publishing your IP address(es) and your email address(es)
* If I believe you are a troll, I feel justified in saying anything I like to you, no matter how disgusting
* If you publish a comment on your website from people who don’t like me, they are trolls and you are a disgrace
* If you publish a comment about me from someone I have loudly pissed off on my blog, your website is nothing but a safe haven for trolls and you personally are a despicable, unethical pervert.
* If I think your website acts as a safe haven for trolls, I will denounce you as a despicable troll-lover to all the domain experts whom I know you rely upon: and I will make sure that those domain experts are so disgusted by your sympathy for such modern-day devils that they don’t return your emails or calls. But that’s not actually “libel”, because… I say so.

Oh, and if you honestly think I’m making any part of the above three sections up, you have no idea at all about the depths a few irresponsible people can – and do – plumb.

“Best Practice For Bloggers”, Really?

Tim O’Reilly’s idealistic-sounding proposal for more civility in the blogosphere seems a world away from my own experience of the last year (particularly during the last few months): Daniel Scocco’s “responsible blogging” barely touches on my concerns, while Rebecca Blood and CyberJournalist.net’s angles on blogging ethics seem to assume everyone out there is journalistically sparring according to a rather refined set of Marquis of Queensberry-style rules.

Clearly they’re not.

What people keep telling me to do when I yet again come up against what to me – and probably to almost all other bloggers, I believe – seems like unbelievably irresponsible and unethical blogging is to just ignore it. Turn the other cheek. Take no notice: walk away.

nothing-to-see-here

Step away from the burning firework factory, sir. Nothing to see. Even if the fireworks do happen to be vividly writing your name across the virtual sky.

But there’s something deeply unethical about saying and doing nothing. As the CyberJournalist.net says, all bloggers should have an ethical obligation to “expose unethical practices of other bloggers.”

And yet the behaviour I have encountered would be unrecognizable to almost all other bloggers. Does what I have had thrown at me even fall in the same category as blogging? Or is it something that has grown into a sustained campaign of intensely personal, bitter hatred, merely shaped into what superficially resembles blog form? [*]

For me, the best practice for bloggers isn’t anything so idealistic as the four accounts I referred to above: but rather to read the list of Irresponsible Blogging Practices above and make sure you never – ever, ever – do any of it whatsoever. For any reason.

P.S.

[*] For the record, I don’t “loathe” or even “hate” the person who has been doing this. I just wish he would spend even 1% as much time facing himself in the mirror as he does trying to devise loathsome new ways to attack me.

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…

…but what a pain in the neck moving a large blog from a single-site WordPress install to a WordPress multisite install is. 🙁 I started trying to count how many individual steps it took to get it all working again, but gave up around ninety (for what it’s worth, I’d guess the final figure was closer to 150). Astonishing (and not in any good sense of the word).

Anyway, even though I *think* I’ve got everything basically working again, please use this page to let me know if you find anything broken. Which is entirely possible, unfortunately. Thanks!

If you’ve been wondering why Cipher Mysteries has been so quiet for a few days, it’s because my PC has been out of order (the old power supply died, *sigh*). But it’s now working again, no thanks to Corsair (boo).

Though this is good, it unfortunately also means I now have a lot of catching up to do, so I shall continue to be subdued for a few days while emails get replied to and everything slowly eases back into some kind of normality.

In the meantime, I thought you might like this: a song by UK indie band Fanfarlo called “Harold T. Wilkins, or How to Wait a Very Long Time“. It was used in the (2010) film “Going The Distance”, if you were unfortunate enough to end up watching that on a plane.

If you don’t know who Harold T. Wilkins was, why, you’ve missed out on sooooo much: he wrote about allegedly lost pirate treasure (particularly Captain Kidd’s), lost Atlantean civilizations, what we now call cryptozoology, and UFO conspiracies… but all more than 40 years before the X-Files. And to my eyes, he seems to have made up a large part of everything he wrote. In short: 50% bad journalist, 50% bad Erich von Daniken. Which is… an interesting mix, you might say.

Fanfarlo also released a pretty good acoustic all-in-one-tiny-room version of the song here, though (purists look aside) the bass guitar did look to me as though it was plugged into an amp.