With my book publisher hat on, I’d guess that the pitch for this book probably said: “Codes! Ciphers! Cryptograms! Masonic stuff! For Dummies!” And yes, the authors (Denise Sutherland and Mark E. Koltko-Rivera) pretty much seem to have delivered on that basic promise. But… is it any good?

Bear with me while I sketch out a triangle in idea-space. On the first vertex, I’ll put recreational code-breakers – the Sunday supplement sudoku crowd. On the second vertex, hardcore cipher history buffs – David Kahn groupies. On the last vertex, historical mystery / conspiracy fans – Templars, Masons, Turin Shroud, HBHG, Voynich Manuscript etc.

“Cracking Codes & Cryptograms for Dummies” sits firmly on the triangle’s first vertex, but I have to reaches out only fairly lamely (I think) to the other two vertices. Structurally, its innovation is to tell three stories where you need to solve a long sequence (100, 80, and 55 respectively) of individual cryptograms to find out what happened. Quite a few of the ciphers use well-known cipher alphabets, such as Malachim, Enochian, and various Masonic pigpens: there are also a few trendy puzzle ciphers (such as predictive texting ciphers formed just of numbers).

Compare this to its big competitor (Elonka Dunin’s “Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms”) which sits on the same first vertex. Elonka’s book has quite a few more puzzles, is structured both thematically and by ascending difficulty, and sticks to plaintext: it also has a 40-page section on unsolved ciphers (the VMs, the Dorabella Cipher, Phaistos Disk, etc), but with no real pretense at trying to precis Kahn’s “The Codebreakers”.

For me, Cipher Mysteries sits on the opposite edge of the triangle (i.e. between hardcore cipher history and, errm, softcore cipher mysteries) to both of these, so I’m probably not the right person to judge which of the two puzzle books is better. Elonka’s book is easy to work your way through (but feels a bit more old-fashioned): while Sutherland & Koltko-Rivera’s book is lithe and up-to-the-minute (but feels less substantial, in almost every sense). OK, the first is more cryptologic, the second more puzzle-y: but ultimately they’re doing the same thing and talking to the same basic audience.

Really, I guess puzzle book buyers would do well to buy both and make up their own mind which of the two they prefer: but sadly I have to say that most Cipher Mysteries readers might prefer to buy neither. But you never know!

11 thoughts on “Review of “Cracking Codes & Cryptograms for Dummies”…

  1. Nick
    I can’t believe you’re still listing Dorabella as an unsolved cipher – tut , tut, tut, tut …..

  2. Tony: even if your solution is right, the issue of why Elgar would write so very mysteriously remains a cipher mystery! 🙂

  3. nemáš vůbec v ničem pravdu.Nicku abys mohl dešifrovat manuscript musíš ovládat český jazyk, to je zásadní podmínka a potom taky gematrii. Všechno co se na webu píše, jsou jen keci a blbosti. Já Zlatoděj jsem kompletně přeložil mnoho stran rukopisu a tak vím o čem je řeč. Je to čistě alchymistická kniha. Kod není vůbec složitý je ve své podstatě velice jednoduchý. Znaků které použil autor rukopisu je 16.Kabala má 8 čísel. Takže znaky jsou malá a velká písmena. Nejblíže dešifrování byl Robert Brumbaugh. Všechno ostatní jsou jen kecičky. Zlatoděj.

  4. Josef wrote (poorly translated from his Common Czech by Nick):-

    you do not in any way, you can decrypt veridically. For you to be able to decipher the manuscript, you must grasp the Czech language, it is an essential precondition, and then Gematria too. Everything on the Web says they are just crap and bullshit, but I (Josef) have completely translated many pages of the manuscript now so they [don’t] know what they are talking about. It’s a pure alchemy book: the code is not complicated at all, but is essentially very simple. The author of the manuscript used 16 characters, whereas the Kabala has 8 numbers. Hence, the characters are case-sensitive. The closest translation was by Robert Brumbaugh. Everything else is just kecičky [?]. Zlatoděj [Josef].

    Brumbaugh reduced Voynichese down to the ten Arabic digits, using plant and star “cribs” to help him derive the correspondences between the two sets. Yet this gave him an ambiguous cipher where each letter had two or more choices (hence a 5-letter word would have roughly 2^5 (i.e 32) possibilities to choose from), and so word-like entities could be constructed at will. Putting case to one side, reducing the alphabet to eight letters would yield (say) 2.5 possibilities per letter, hence a 5-letter word would have 2.5^5 (i.e. 97 possibilities). I would point out that this extra ambiguity would be enough to let people construct large runs of words in many languages: so the particular difficulty you face is convincing people that you are reading signal rather than noise. What have you found that convinced that you were right?

  5. Brumbaugh, byl nejblíže a to tím, že řekl : rukopis je alchymistické dílo v němž je použita gematrie. Vše další okolo jsou jen doměnky a keci. Když si Nicku přeložíš text rukopisu, tak zjistíš že je to psáno v českém jazyce. Kdyby byl použit anglický jazyk tak už to je dávno dešifrované. (ale řekni mě , kolik lidí , kteří se snaží o dešifrování zná český jazyk?) Děláš z toho moc velkou záhadu. A přitom je rukopis tak jednoduchej. Jak už jsem napsal . Rukopis má 16 znaků (liter). Gematrie má 8 čísel (numer), které obsáhnou celou naší abecedu. Takže žádná velká záhada.Najdi si stranu f 67 r1, a to co vídíš, je geometrické vyjádření Kamene Mudrců. Nic jiného to není ,jen obyčejnej Philosophers Stone. Autor rukopisu tímto obrázkem sděluje ,že pochopil a zná co kámen mudrců (philosophers stone),znamená a vyjadřuje. Na tomto obrázku použil autor rukopisu návod na výrobu kamene z knihy Atalante Fugiens.

  6. Josef wrote (once again badly translated by Nick):-

    Brumbaugh came close when he said that it was an alchemical manuscript in which Gematria is used. Everything else is assumptions and crap. Nick, when you decrypt the handwriting, you’ll see that it is written in the Czech language. If the author had used the English language, it would have been deciphered long ago. (But tell me, how many people are looking for a Czech language translation?) You make too much of a mystery. And it is no machine manuscript. As I wrote, Voynichese has 16 characters (letters), while Gematria consists of 8 numbers, which embrace the whole of our alphabet. So, no big mystery. Look at f67r1, and what you’ll see is the geometric expression of the Philosophers’ Stone. Nothing else, it’s just an ordinary Philosophers Stone. The author caption to this picture tells that he understood and knew what the Philosophers’ Stone means and expresses. In this picture, the author used the instructions for manufacturing the stone from Atalanta Fugiens.

    Actually, plenty of Czech and Bohemian researchers have looked at (and continue to look at) the VMs over the centuries, and none of them before you has seen a Brumbaugh-esque Gematria link. Sorry to point it out yet again, but the credibility problem you have is that what little evidence we have points to the VMs’ having been at Emperor Rudolf II’s court probably between 1600 and 1612 (actually, about the time that Michael Maier was at court), but your earliest possible date is (from Stolcius’ writings) around 1621.

  7. We hawe no researchers,let alone many researchers.Lots of poople do not grope.Even here in Czech Republic with a few people trying to decipher,but in vain.Everything I read on the web looks one copying from another.Nothing new,only old information.The manuscript is written as three votes.Most important is the translation and then to the autor.I’m able to translate the entire manuscript. What about you? (zkouším jak to bude přeloženo, Zlatoděj)

  8. Josef: yes, it is a sad truth that at least 99% of Voynich pages on the web are (let’s say) ‘uninformative’, ‘misleading’ or ‘wrong’. I know other Voynich researchers who believe that they too are able to disambiguate this uncertain text based on an ancient key: in both cases, I am unsure of the claimed historical authenticity of the key. To me, it still seems like a big leap from a tiny castle-wall inscription to a 200+ page cipher manuscript, which is why I’m interested in seeing the inscription for myself. Unless that very first step is solid…

  9. Poslední věta měla být. I try to translate as interpreter,(zkouším jak to přeloží překladač). Nick už jsi se podíval na kámen mudrců.(voynich manusript f 67 r 1).Co mně na to řekneš. čau zlatoděj.

  10. marco guido corsini on July 29, 2010 at 2:21 pm said:

    my phaistos disk translation is on

    on demand I can send You the English translation,

    best regards, dr. Marco Guido Corsini

  11. Hallo! New translation of Phaistos disk war published in WM magazin in czech language – http://www.wmmagazin.cz. The base for this is old slavish language.

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