A few errata and notes on the virtual pinboard, tacks don’t have to be taxing…

(1) Warburg librarian Francois Quiviger kindly points out that my description of the layout of the Warburg Institute (in the Day Two blog entry) wasn’t totally precise: though the overall layout matches Warburg’s arbitrary Mnemosyne plan, books within a section are arranged chronologically (or rather, by date of author’s death). Hmmm… hopefully it’ll be 60+ years before his successors will be able to place my book in its final order… 😮

Re-reading my blog entry with Francois’ other comments in mind, I think its emphasis (on madness) somewhat diverged from what I originally planned to say. In computer programming, you can “over-optimize” your solution by tailoring it too exactly to the problem: and this is how I felt about the Warburg. One tiny architectural detail at the Institute tells this story: the oddly hinged doors in the men’s toilets, that appeared to have been mathematically designed to yield the most effective use of floor space. For me, this is no different to the filing cabinets full of deities, all laid out in alphabetical order: and so the Institute is like a iconological Swiss Army Knife, optimally hand-crafted for Aby Warburg and the keepers of his meme. But the cost of keeping it functioning in broadly the same way goes up each year: programming managers would call it a “brittle” or “fragile” solution, one with a high hidden cost of maintenance.

But am I still a fan of the Warburg? Yes, definitely: it’s a fabulous treasure-house that only a particularly hard-hearted historian could even dream of bracketing. And in those terms, I think I’m actually a bit of a softy.

Finally, Francois very kindly offered to put in a reference for me (thank you very much indeed!!): so there should be a happy ending to the whole rollercoaster story after all. I will, of course, post updates and developments here as they happen. 🙂

(2) Thanks to a flood of HASTRO-L subscribers dropping by to read my review of Eileen Reeves’ “Galileo’s Glassworks”, Voynich News has just broken through the 1000 visitor mark (and well past the 2000 page-view mark). Admittedly, it’s not a huge milestone… but it’s a start, right? And though Google seems to like it, only Elias Schwerdtfeger and Early Modern Notes link to it: and nobody has yet rated it on Technorati etc, bah!

(3) Though in the end I was unable to get to the recent CRASSH mini-conference on books of secrets (which was a huge shame), I’m still up for the Treadwell’s evening on Magic Circles at 7.15pm on 19th March 2008 (which I mentioned here about ten Internet years ago). Should be fascinating, perhaps see you there! 😉

It’s been a rollercoaster of a day for me at the Warburg Institute on the Early Modern Research Techniques course, like being given the keys to the world twice but having them taken away three times. I’ll try to explain…

Paul Taylor kicked Day Two’s morning off in fine style, picking up the baton from Francois Quiviger’s drily laconic Day One introduction to all things Warburgian. My first epiphany of the day came on the stairs going up to the Photographic Collection: an aside from Paul (that the institute was “built by a madman”) helped complete a Gestalt that had long been forming in my mind. What I realised was that even though the Warburg’s “Mnemosyne” conceptual arrangement was elegant and useful for a certain kind of inverted historical study, it was actually pathological to that entire mindset. Essentially, it seems to me that you have to be the “right kind of mad” to get 100% from the Warburg: and then you get 100% of what?

(The Warburg Institute is physically laid out unlike any other library: within its grand plan, everything is arranged neither by author, nor by period, nor by anything so useful as an academic discipline, but rather by an arbitrary conceptual scheme evolved to make similar-feeling books sit near each other. It’s not unlike a dating service for obscure German publications, to make sure they keep each other company in their old age.)

My second epiphany arrived not long afterwards. On previous visits, I’d walked straight past the Warburg Photographic Collection, taking its darkness to mean that it was closed or inaccessible: but what a store of treasures it has! My eyes widened like saucers at all the filing cabinets full of photographs of astrological manuscripts. I suddenly felt like I had seen a twin vision of hell and purgatory at the core of the Warburg dream – both its madness and its hopefulness – but had simultaneously been given the wisdom to choose between them.

It was all going so well… until Charles Hope (the Warburg’s director) stepped forward. Now: here was an A* straight-talking Renaissance art historian, sitting close to the beating heart of the whole historical project, who (Paul Taylor assured us) would tell it like it is. But Hope’s message was both persuasive and starkly cynical: that, right from the start, Aby Warburg had got it all wrong. And that even Erwin Panofsky, for all his undeniable erudition, had (by relying on Cesare Ripa’s largely made-up allegorical figures) got pre-1600 iconology wrong too. With only a tiny handful of exceptions, Hope asserted that Renaissance art was eye candy, artful confectionery whipped up not from subtle & learned Latin textual readings (as Warburg believed), but instead from contemporary (and often misleading and false) vulgar translations and interpretations – Valerius Maximus, Conti, Cartari, etc. And so the whole Warburgian art history research programme – basically, studying Neoplatonist ideas of antiquity cunningly embedded in Renaissance works of art – was dead in the water.

To Hope, the past century of interpretative art history formed nothing more than a gigantic house of blank cards, with each card barely capable of supporting its neighbours, but not of carrying any real intellectual weight on top: not unlike Baconian cryptography (which David Kahn calls “enigmatology”). All of which I (unsurprisingly) found deeply ironic, what with Warburg himself and his beloved Institute both being taken apart by the Warburg’s director.

The second step backwards came when I tried to renew my Warburg Institute Reader’s Card: you’re not on the list, you can’t come in. (Curiously, there were already two “Nicholas Pelling“s on their computer system, neither of them me.) It seems that, without direct academic or library affiliation, I’m now unlikely to be allowed access except via special pleading. Please, pleeeease, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease… (hmmm, doesn’t seem to be working, must plead harder). If I had a spare £680 per year, I’d perhaps become an “occasional student” (but I don’t).

My third (and final) step backwards of the day was when I raced up to the Photographic Collection both during the afternoon tea-break and after the final lecture and had an Internet-speed finger-browse through the astrological images filing cabinets. Though in 20 minutes I saw more primary source material than I would see in a fortnight at the British Library, I ended up disappointed overall. Yes, I saw tiny pictures of a couple of manuscripts I had planned to examine in person next month (which was fantastic): but there didn’t seem to be anything else I wasn’t already aware of. Rembrandt Duits has recently catalogued these mss in a database (though only on his PC at the moment), so perhaps I’ll ask him to do a search for me at a later date…

Perhaps I’m wrong, but it seemed to me that even though old Warburgian/iconological art history is basically dead, the new art history coming through to replace it revolves around precisely the kind of joint textual and stylistic interpretation I’m doing with the Voynich Manuscript, with one eye on the visual sources, and the other on the contemporary textual sources. Yet the problem with this approach is that you have to be an all-rounder, a real uomo universale not to be fooled by spurious (yet critical) aspects along the way. All the same, though I’m no more than an OK historian (and certainly not a brilliant one), I’m now really convinced that I’m looking at a genuinely open question, and that I’m pointing in the right kind of direction to answer it.

Don’t get me wrong, Day Two was brilliant as a series of insightful lectures on the limits and origins of art historical knowledge: but I can’t help but feel that I’ve personally lost something along the way. Yet perhaps my idea of the Warburg was no more than a phantasm, a wishful methodology for plugging into the “strange attractors” beneath the surface of historical fact that turned out to be simply an illusion /delusion: and so all I’ve actually lost is an illusion. Oh well: better to have confident falsity than false confidence, eh?

As a curious aside, for me this whole historical angle on the Warburg also casts a raking light across the “Da Vinci Code”. The book’s main character (Robert Langdon) is a “symbologist”, a made-up word Dan Brown uses to mean “iconologist”: and as such is painted on the raw canvas of the Warburg ‘project’. What cultural archetype is the ultra-erudite, friendly (yet intellectually terrifying) Langdon based upon? A kind of Harvardian Erwin Panofsky? In my mind, the “Da Vinci Code” (and its ‘non-fiction’ forerunner, “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”) both sit astride the ebbing Warburg wave, both whipping at the fading waters: and so the surge of me-too “The [insert marketing keyword here] Code” faux-iconology books and novels is surely Aby Warburg’s last hurrah, wouldn’t you say?

R.I.P. 20th Century Art History: now wash your hands. 🙁

Some tasty bite-sized morsels for you: don’t eat them all at once, though…

The April 2008 edition of sci-fi monthly Analog has a 10,000-word Voynich-based story, “Guaranteed Not to Turn Pink in the Can” by Thomas R. Dulski. When super-bright billionaire’s daughter Pamela Roderick writes an academic book on the idea of UFOs, people are surprisingly OK: but when her second book claims that the Voynich Manuscript describes 15th century humans being taken on a journey into space, the people around her become more tense… Hey, any novelistic take on the VMs without a papal conspiracy or evil Jesuit priests is fine by me. 🙂

Incidentally, a key part of Eileen Reeves’ “Galileo’s Glassworks” surprisingly revolves around anti-Jesuit propaganda, most notably Johannes Cambilhom’s “Discoverie of the Most Secret and Subtile Practises of the Iesuites“, which claimed to dish the dirt on the Jesuits’ buried treasure, sadistic treatment of novices, sexual misadventures, and mad politicking. And the Jesuits had only been going 70 years at the time! Anyway…

Change of direction: here’s a cool picture called “Arizona” by ~HinoNeko / A. Brenner, depicting a young guy with a Voynich-themed T-shirt (basically, the centre of the ‘sun-face’ on f68v1). Yet more VMs things edging into the mainstream consciousness, one meme at a time…

Finally: I don’t know how I managed to miss the decade-old story of the Swedish parents who were fined for wanting to name their son “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116“, in a kind of pataphysical protest at Sweden’s child naming law. Amazing: a name that makes Voynichese look sane. 😉

Back to the non-fiction grindstone, and next up on my list to read was the very promising-looking “Galileo’s Glassworks“, by Eileen Reeves: though this has as its main focus the issue of what Galileo knew (and when) about the Dutch telescope, I was told (by Peter Abrahams on HASTRO-L) that it also covers the pre-history of the telescope, which I was more interested in. I was intrigued to see how it would blend these two topics together: it sounded quite ambitious.

And indeed, just as promised, the book turned out to be a game of two very distinct halves. The first half was a kind of wide-roaming literature review of the classical, medieval and early modern texts that promised some kind of proto-telescopes or burning mirrors to their readers: that this was built on broadly the same foundations as Albert van Helden’s 1977 monograph “The Invention of the Telescope” is made completely clear in the acknowledgements at the end. Let’s be clear: the primary sources for this form a fragmentary, piecemeal soup, whose components interlock and separate eternally – despite all Reeves’ hard work, there is no emergent narrative, no thread, no causal proof to be had here. Yet she gives the impression of needing to draw out a story based on the 16th century reception of travellers accounts of the Pharos, in order to give a structural punchline to this section: but unfortunately this never quite hits the spot.

The second half is very much more focused, and reads quite differently: it focuses on the minutiae of correspondence of Galileo and his circle circa 1608-9, as they received (possibly unreliable) reports of mirrors and telescopes coming from France and Holland (often embedded in pro- or anti-Jesuit propaganda), and tried to make up their minds what to make of them – was the new Dutch telescope truly something amazing, or based on the mirror, or was it yet another tall tale?

In the end, Reeves’ central point (which hinges on whether Galileo thought the new telescope was built with a mirror or purely with lenses) is well argued, but extremely marginal: and it fails to mesh comfortably with the first half of her text. I came away feeling like I had read two 90-page monographs in quick succession: I desperately wanted her to find a way to knit the two together, to redeem her choice of structure – but this never really happened.

Look: “Galileo’s Glassworks” is a lovely, compact, readable book, and pleasantly affordable too (a snip at £14.20 for the hardback). But Reeves can’t really reconcile the broad generalities of the pre-history of the telescope with her ultra-close reading of Galileo’s “Starry Messenger” and his letters. Ultimately, what’s going on is some kind of mismatch in epistemological tone: the first half raises many open-ended issues, while the second half answers a single (quite different) question.

I suspect that somewhere along the way, Reeves lost track of whom she was talking to, and about what: the book ended up being just as much about Sarpi (or even about the ghost of della Porta!) as about Galileo himself, which is surely a sign that her aim drifted off true. Perhaps in the end she simply didn’t have enough to say about Galileo in the second half that hadn’t been amply said before: which would be a shame, as I would say the first half of her book is really very good, well worth the cover price on its own.

It’s a nice historical detective story, one kicked off by John Dee, Frances Yates‘ favourite Elizabethan ‘magus’ (though I personally suspect Dee’s ‘magic’ was probably less ‘magickal’ than it might appear), when he claimed to have told an angel that his “great and long desyre hath byn to be hable to read those tables of Soyga“. Dee lost his precious copy of the “Book of Soyga” (but then managed to find it again): when subsequently Elias Ashmole owned it, he noted that its incipit (starting words) was “Aldaraia sive Soyga vocor…“.

However, since Ashmole’s day it was thought to have joined the serried, densely-stacked ranks of long-disappeared books and manuscripts, in the “blue-tinted gloom” of some mythical, subterranean library not unlike the “Cemetery of Lost Books” in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novel “The Shadow of the Wind” (2004)…

Fast-forward 400 years to 1994, and what do you know? Just like rush hour buses, two copies of the “Book of Soyga” turn up at once, both found by Deborah Harkness. Rather than searching for “Soyga“, she searched for its “Aldaraia…” incipit: which is, of course, what you were supposed to do (in the bad old days before the Internet).

It is a strange, transitional document, neither properly medieval (the text has few references to authority) nor properly Renaissance. There are some mysterious books referenced, such as the Liber Sipal and the Liber Munob: readers of my book “The Curse of the Voynich” may recognize these as simple back-to-front anagrams (Sipal = Lapis [stone], Munob = Bonum [Good], Retap Retson = Pater Noster [our Father]). In fact, Soyga itself is Agyos [saint] backwards.

But what was the secret hidden behind the 36 mysterious “tables of Soyga” that had vexed John Dee so? 36×36 square grids filled with oddly patterned letters, they look like some kind of unknown cryptographic structure. Might they hold a big secret, or might they (like many of Trithemius’ concealed texts) just be nonsense, a succession of quick brown foxes endlessly jumping over lazy dogs?

  • oyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoy
    rkfaqtyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyo
    rxxqnkoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoy
    azzsxbqtyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyo
    sheimasddtguoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoy
    eyuaoiismspkfaqtyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyo
    enlxflfudzrxxqnkoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoy
    sxcahqczfbtfzsxbqtyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyo
    azepxhheurgmyknqnkoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoy
    rlbriyzycuyddpotxbqtyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyo
    ryrezabirhdiszeknqnkoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoy
    ogzgfceztqalpntsxhssyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyo
    opnxxsnodxqhuekknykkoyoyoyoyoyoyoyoy
    rcqsfueesfsqrqgqrossyoyoyoyoyoyoyoyo
    roauxmdkkxkhyhmpzqphdtgtguoyoyoyoyoy
    aqxmudiamubkoqifbszktdmspkfaqtyoyoyo
    sazoesrmlrnaqnzhgabmsmlpeahfsddtguoy
    ………………………………
    (etc)

Jim Reeds, one of the great historical code-breakers of modern times, stepped forward unto the breach to see what he could make of these strange tables: he transcribed them, ran a few tests, and (thank heavens) worked out the three-stage algorithm with which they were generated.

Stage 1: fill in the 36-high left-hand column (which I’ve highlighted in blue above) with a six-letter codeword (such as ‘orrase‘ for table #5, ‘Leo’) followed by its reverse anagram (‘esarro‘), and then repeat them both two more times

Stage 2: fill each of the 35 remaining elements in the top line in turn with ((W + f(W)) modulo 23), where W = the element to the West, ie the preceding element. The basic letter numbering is straightforward (a = 1, b = 2, c = 3, … u = 20, x = 21, y = 22, and z = 23), but the funny f(W) function is a bit arbitrary and strange:-

  • x f(x) x f(x) x f(x) x f(x)
    a…2, g…6, n..14, t…8
    b…2, h…5, o…8, u..15
    c…3, i..14, p..13, x..15
    d…5, k..15, q..20, y..15
    e..14, l..20, r..11, z…2
    f…2, m..22, s…8

Stage 3: fill each row in turn with ((N + f(W)) modulo 23), where N = the element to the North, ie the element above the current element.

For example, if you try Stage 2 out on ‘o’, (W + f(W)) modulo 23 = (14 + 8) modulo 23 = 22 = ‘y’, while (22 + 15) modulo 23 = 14 = ‘o’, which is why you get all the “yoyo”s in the table above.

And there (bar the inevitable miscalculations of something so darn fiddly, as well as all the inevitable scribal copying mistakes) you have it: the information in the Soyga tables is no more than the repeated left-hand column keyword, plus a rather wonky algorithm.

You can read Jim Reeds paper here: a full version (with diagrams) appeared in the pricy (but interesting) book John Dee: Interdisciplinary essays in English Renaissance Thought (2006). The End.

Except… where exactly did that funny f(x) table come from? Was that just, errrm, magicked out of the air? Jim Reeds never comments, never remarks, never speculates: effectively, he just says ‘here it is, this is how it is‘. But perhaps this f(x) sequence is in itself some kind of monoalphabetic or offseting cipher to hide the originator’s name: Jim is bound to have thought of this, so let’s look at it ourselves:-

  • 1.2.3.4..5.6.7.8..9.10.11.12.13.14.15.16.17.18.19.20.21.22.23
    2.2.3.5.14.2.6.5.14.15.20.22.14..8.13.20.11..8..8.15.15.15..2

If we discount the “2 2” at the start and the “8 8 15 15 15 2” at the end as probable padding, we can see that “14” appears three times, and “5 14” twice. Hmm: might “14” be a vowel?

  • 2 3 5 14 2 6 5 14 15 20 22 14 8 13 20 11 8
  • a b d n a e d n o t x n g m t k g
  • b c e o b f e o p u y o h n u l h
  • c d f p c g f p q x z p i o x m i
  • d e g q d h g q r y a q k p y n k
  • e f h r e i h r s z b r l q z o l
  • f g i s f k i s t a c s m r a p m
  • g h k t g l k t u b d t n s b q n
  • h i l u h m l u x c e u o t c r o
  • i k m x i n m x y d f x p u d s p
  • k l n y k o n y z e g y q x e t q
  • l m o z l p o z a f h z r y f u r
  • m n p a m q p a b g i a s z g x s
  • n o q b n r q b c h k b t a h y t
  • o p r c o s r c d i l c u b i z u
  • p q s d p t s d e k m d x c k a x
  • q r t e q u t e f l n e y d l b y
  • r s u f r x u f g m o f z e m c z
  • s t x g s y x g h n p g a f n d a
  • t u y h t z y h i o q h b g o e b
  • u x z i u a z i k p r i c h p f c
  • x y a k x b a k l q s k d i q g d
  • y z b l y c b l m r t l e k r h e
  • z a c m z d c m n s u m f l s i f

Nope, sorry: the only word-like entities here are “tondean”, “catsik”, and “zikprich”, none of which look particularly promising. This looks like a dead end… unless you happen to know better? 😉

A final note. Jim remarks that one of the manuscripts has apparently been proofread, with “f[letter]” marks (ie fa, fb, fc, etc); and surmises that the “f” stands for “falso” (meaning false), with the second letter the suggested correction. What is interesting (and may not have been noted before) is that in the Voynich Manuscript, there’s a piece of marginalia that follows this same pattern. On f2v, just above the second paragraph (which starts “kchor…”) there’s a “fa” note in a darker ink. Was this a proof-reading mark by the original author (it’s in a different ink, so this is perhaps unlikely): or possibly a comment by a later code-breaker that the word / paragraph somehow seems “falso” or inconsistent? “kchor” appears quite a few times (20 or so), so both attempted explanations seem a bit odd. Something to think about, anyway…

Some European Voynichy things that have caught my eye recently: make of them what you will…

A 3-part Spanish-language documentary on the VMs written by Eric Frattini, and viewable online (just click the big green buttons). Voynich News regulars will recognize him as the author of Voynich-themed novel “El Quinto Mandamiento” (the fifth commandment), which I touched upon here.

Here’s some Italian poetry, including a couple of poems apparently on the Voynich (hence the image of the VMs’ nine-rosette page at the top). The first of the two starts something like “I have a strange form of nausea“: yup, that’s the VMs, alright. 🙂

On Tuesday (19th February 2008), there’s a program scheduled on German radio WDR 5/530 at 16:05 about our old friend Beinecke MS 408 (A.K.A. the Voynich Manuscript), presented by Sven Preger.

You might reasonably wonder whether this is all part of a diffuse European interest in the VMs: and I think you’d be right. According to Google Trends, the primary languages of people who Google for “Voynich” is (in descending order): French, Italian, Spanish, German, English, Dutch, Polish, Japanese, Portuguese. Though I should also note that over the last 12 months (probably thanks to the novels by Enrique Joven and Eric Frattini) Spaniards searched for “Voynich” slightly more than the French. Anglophone interest in the VMs would appear to be practically nil (apart from Melvyn Bragg): which is either a really good thing or a really bad thing. I’m not sure which… you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Here’s a nice Voynich-themed oddity from the much-frayed edge between C.P.Snow’s “Two Cultures” of art and science.

A contemporary painter called Shardcore explores the history of science by painting famous scientists and historical scientific objects: and was so entertained by the notion that Ethel Lilian Boole – the daughter of the famous logician George Boole – came to own the Voynich Manuscript (she married Wilfrid Voynich, of course) that he decided to paint a picture celebrating it: and you can see the result here, together with a time-lapse recording of the painter as he painted it.

In Voynichological circles, this connection is old news: the website of my old Voynichian chum Jeff Haley is called The George Boole Fanclub, for precisely this reason. Incidentally, I have spent five years trying not to think of Julian Clary’s former life as The Joan Collins’ Fan Club (terrible, but surely better than “Gillian Pie-Face”?) whenever I see this, but as yet without success. Perhaps in another five years, when Julian Clary has become as horribly mainstream as Jim Davidson (sorry, but that’s how showbiz works)…

The quotation which adorns the picture is from George Boole: “Language is an instrument of human reason, and not merely a medium for the expression of thought“. Which is nice. But it this true of Voynichese?

Having just worked my way through Vol III of Lynn Thorndike’s “History of Magic & Experimental Science”, I thought I’d give my reading eyes a rest with some fiction: and so turned to “Vellum” by Australian writer Matt Rubinstein, a 2007-vintage Voynich-themed novel I mentioned here before.

The story revolves around Jack, a translator/subtitler who, while working on a near-untranslatable Russian film, stumbles upon an unreadable (and unapologetically Voynich-like) manuscript. Many of the other characters are librarians or collectors of obscure aphorisms, who seem to share his delight not so much in etymology, but in the living texture of language, its flow. However, the book’s central irony is that though Jack can read many languages, he cannot read the people around him: while their lives are complex and conflicted, his is empty – and so he allows the strange manuscript to fill his void.

Of course, while at first he can make no sense of it, under UV light its margins yield many clues to its provenance and history: and as Jack becomes progressively more attuned to its nuances and strange ur-language, it begins to reveal details to him of a fantastical machine to build, not entirely unlike a medieval version of the one in Carl Sagan‘s novel “Contact” (you know, the one filmed with Jodie Foster).

I have to say that at one point while reading Vellum, I did find myself completely immersed: this was when Jack’s growing obsession for his pet manuscript (and his disconnection from the world) suddenly lurched and exceeded my own. I felt the urge to try to pull him back from going over the brink: perhaps this was Matt Rubinstein’s focus for the book, to help readers find and explore the point where they felt uncomfortable with the change in Jack’s downward arc.

Though it has a contemporary European vibe to its vocabulary, Vellum is firmly situated in the Australian geographical and historical landscapes (spinifex, First Fleet, etc): and is all the fresher and more engaging for it. The paradoxical idea of an inland desert lighthouse recurs through the book, and (surprisingly to me) one such does exist, at Point Malcolm: I think this nicely mirrors various Voynich-like conundrums, which I’m sure you can work out for yourself.

In short, I like Vellum: though not perfect (plot-wise, the explosion is a bit clumsy, for example: and half-quoting Foucault’s quoting Borges don’t really work), it does have a lot going for it. For the mass market, though, I think the issue is whether Rubinstein manages to find just the right balance between research and story, between exposition and narrative: even though a few times he does err a little too far towards the former, overall I think he earns enough goodwill from the latter to get away with it. Buy it, read it, enjoy it! 🙂

Yesterday, I posted up a low-resolution image of some Codice Olindo ciphertext: it appears to be a set of slightly-accessorized 8-directional arrows (and a few double-headed arrows, plus some additional shapes (punctuation?)). It struck me when I woke up this morning that – statistics aside – this might simply be a kind of arrow-based pigpen cipher, where the arrows point to the appropriate corner of the 3×3, and the accessorization indicates which 3×3 block to refer to.

Typically, modern-day code-breakers focus (if not over-focus) on the transcription and computer analyses. However, people are sometimes motivated by quite different things from pure security – the psychology is at least as important. Pigpen is easy because you can decrypt it very fast (an arrow-based pigpen would be at least as quick to read as a ‘proper’ one), and perhaps this is what Olindo Romano wanted. And it seems likely to me that he thought/thinks he’s cleverer than all the people around him (whether that’s true or not).

Of course, this is the kind of approach I have used when looking at the Voynich Manuscript, so it should come as no surprise that this is how I look at things. I wonder: if the Italian “mathematicians” who have deciphered this cipher plotted out the letters they have found on 3×3 arrow-pigpen grids, what would they find?

First sight (for me at least) of the Codice Olindo’s cryptography: admittedly the quality is abysmal, but it’s better than no picture at all. I found it on the Corriere di Como’s website. Pieces of ciphertext are interspersed with cleartext: the third (clear) line appears to read “Rosa non posso e…” (Rosa is the wife of Olindo Romano, the main accused in the case).
For more background on the trial, here’s an article from The Scotsman (30th January 2008), and a Agenzia Giornalistica Italia page from yesterday (11th February 2008).
Massacring your noisy neighbours seems a little bit extreme to me: I think I’d prefer to send them unsettling notes, as in this wonderful true story from New York (called The Astoria Notes, from David Friedman’s Ironic Sans blog), with its surreal follow-up. Enjoy!