What journalists the world over love to do is to bring two vaguely related things together to review or discuss, as if by doing so they identify an incipient trend or fashion. Once pointed out, of course, this trick reeks of self-indulgent modern tossery: but in the scientific interest of exploring different ways of writing about unsolved historical ciphers, I thought it might at least be a little interesting to try on this dropped shoe, to see for myself whether it’s fur or glass.

So here goes.

Jess Feldman’s “Call It a Premonition”

Jess Feldman’s slim book of poetry “Call It a Premonition” eerily subtitles itself “Translations from the Voynich Manuscript”.

When I tweeted Jess to ask how her set of poems related to the Voynich Manuscript, she replied:

I didn’t base the poems on any specific pages. Just created the poems by looking at the manuscript holistically and imagining it as the diary of a 13 year old girl. Even though it’s a different time period, I was influenced by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Is it any good? Well, if you want you can read the 18-page PDF here and decide for yourself (and let’s face it, it’s not going to take long). For me, though, there are some obvious highlights: and with my unsolved historical cipher hat on, I certainly couldn’t read the line in “Another Dead Fellow”…

I’ve a shiny new hairpiece. See, cuz: a mermaid

…without thinking of the curious fish/mermaid hybrid that appears on f79v in Quire 13:

Similarly, the line in “I Dreamed Of”…

a leashed hart young doe collared in soft pink bouclé
the king’s own grazing animals

…brought to my mind the strangely red-painted animal on the same page (note where the heavy painter has smooshed green paint all over the lines, so that we can’t easily discern the outlines that were originally drawn here):

Finally, “The Summer of 1438” will surely ring true for some long-suffering Cipher Mysteries readers:

I’m learning
Unsolved mysteries
It’s better not to ask

My favourite single poem from the set, however, is her eponymous “Call It a Premonition”, which is last but certainly not least:

In a distant future
I look like a boy only
still a girl but in slacks okay
I am moving my lacquered
fingers so text materializes
across a framed fluid tapestry
without seams Without origin
unmarried far from dead
childless and leather-booted
I say words like Co-workers,
I hate this fucking job and
I mean it but I am happy
enough I think
comparatively speaking

To me, this kicks an angry skateboard shoe at our foolish modernity’s ankle in a way that stings both kicker and kickee. I enjoyed it, and hope for more good Feldmany stuff in the future, slacks or otherwise. 😉

The poetry of “Supercomputer CARMEL”

In many ways, all that ackshwall poetterie couldn’t really sit further from our second contender in the ring tonight. Championed by CompSci historical cipher buff Professor Kevin Knight, CARMEL is a supercomputer running AI pattern-recognition software (according to, wait, the History Channel press release is round here somewhere) that he filled with all manner of documents and items to do with the Zodiac Killer Cipher, as part of the Hunt For The Zodiac TV documentary series that started a few days ago.

Well… that’s basically what the History Channel (and the programme makers at Karga Seven) would like us to think. However, despite all the nicely-lit close-ups of charcoal grey racks studded with the obligatory array of blinking LEDs, CARMEL isn’t a “supercomputer” at all, it’s a laboratory teaching support code toolkit developed (in C++ with a bit of Boost) and extensively tweaked over the last twenty years at the Information Sciences Institute at USC where Knight is a professor. Strictly speaking, it’s a “finite-state transducer package written by Jonathan Graehl”, that basically lets you set up a whole load of linked and/or nested finite state machines and then do all manner of clever things with them, such as train them (i.e. condition the transition weights) just by passing data into them, via either “EM (expectation-maximization) training” or “Bayesian Chinese Restaurant Process training”.

In fact, ISI students (and doubtless many others) have wheeled out the CARMEL toolkit over that period to write all manner of experimental NLP (natural language processing) software, from cipher solvers – though if you have to repeat anything “trillions of times” to get a result, something’s probably going horribly wrong with your choice of algorithm – to accelerated knowledge acquisition to (yes, you guessed it) synthetic poetry generation.

The wonderfully creepy thing is that by seeding the (CARMEL toolkit assisted) poetry generator specifically with the corpus of letters written by the Zodiac Killer, you can – with a smidgeon of justification – say that you’re generating Zodiac Killer (-seeded) poetry. It’s by no means a simulated look into his head, sure, but rather a rhyming sampling plucked from the linguistic soup apparently (on the evidence of the contents of his letters, anyway) swilling around there. Sort of.

But is this artificial poetry any good? Well, (with the caveat that I don’t know the settings or the precise keywords used to seed the particular runs) I can do no better than quote some examples given on the web and let you decide for yourself.

Existence enters your entire nation.
A twisted mind reveals becoming manic,
An endless modern ending medication,
Another rotten soul becomes dynamic.

Or under pressure on genetic tests.
Surrounded by controlling my depression,
And only human torture never rests,
Or maybe you expect an easy lesson…

Handily, you can also generate your own here. I tried out a few for myself (the title of each is the keyword I chose), each took no more than a couple of seconds to pop up:


Another day without a life abused.
Confused or blinded by the nitty gritty,
Afraid of being openly accused,
You and me against the world severely.

Or this:


Something like an angel on the vine!
An endless dream about eternal youth,
A power full of blood and sugar pine,
A sigh of love and see the naked truth.

OK, it’s not hard to see that these are simply terrible poems, mashing up pukable birthday card rhymes with a madman’s self-loathing and anger. But perhaps some entrepreneur will now use this to corner the market in psychopathic greetings cards (though perhaps even modern society has a little way further to descend before that really hits the zeitgeisty spot).

Hegelian synthesis?

This is of course the point where journalists, happy to have simulated catching a trend (or created a simulacrum of catching a trend, depending on how picky you are), press [Send], kick off their loafers, and inject some ridiculous Class A drug (or whatever journos prefer these days). “It’s a wrap!” as I once shouted angrily (having actually ordered a sandwich).

But having thought about it for a few days, I think that a common thread subtly links the two sets of poetry. In the case of Jess Feldman, she imagined herself into the inner mental world of “a 13 year old girl” living in a brutal historical period: while the Zodiac Killer text corpus also transports us (via the CompSci magic of trained finite-state transducers) into the stage of his broken psychodrama. Yet for me, the challenging link between the two is not the brutality of the two worlds (by which I mean the girl’s outer world and the Zodiac’s inner world) but the two sets’ shared performative aspect.

Why? Well: in my opinion, Jess Feldman’s poetry is – I think, but feel free to have your own opinion – written as performance pieces: the poems are not hurty / shouty / broken / combat wordplay, but stuff that could comfortably be performed: their language is consistently wry and agile, half-spoken thoughts in the grey area between what we say and what we think.

Similarly, even though the Zodiac Killer synthetic poetry is essentially an experimental linguistic simulation, it is necessarily anchored within the inherently narcissistic and manipulative language he employed for effect in his letters: and whether you like it or not, I think it is the raw language that constrains the computer’s output far more than the rhyme scheme.

Without any real doubt, the Zodiac Killer’s letters (and indeed his ciphertexts) were constructed solely for the practical needs of his hateful theatre and his need to control by terror, not for communication. The notion that we might ever actually learn something so banal as his name from any of his ciphertexts (even the Z13) seems to me ridiculous and pathetically needy: what he wrote was never a diary, but a performance that’s both as fake as Reality TV and as psychotic as Charles Manson.

My left arm, disembodied, slowly rejoins the mothership
Searching for adverbs, unsuccessful as ever
Distant aches filed for future reference
Blur, wash, smudged light chinks overpainting
Eyes that shouldn’t be open quickly close
And re-enter that censored dream again, the one with the
And the
And the two naked women standing oddly, reading telegrams
“ABACTOR ABLATIVE” says one. The other:

The room fills with water and light and shouts from the trapped
I look down at my ticket: Third Class, yet again.

And I realise that I am awake.

A little while back, I became aware that “The Unknown Man” – which I consider to be the #1 factual account of the Somerton Man cold case / Tamam Shud mystery – was about to be republished in ebook format, and so I asked Gerry Feltus for some more details to share with you. What I thought Cipher Mysteries readers would be particularly interested in was whether he had made any changes to the original print version (which came out way back in 2010).

Incidentally, here’s a nice photo of Gerry in action, taken from this family website:

Gerry kindly emailed me back a few days ago, saying:

I didn’t make any great changes apart from identifying and providing details relative to the nurse and her husband. I am aware that their identities were continuously produced on web sites, but people who purchased my book don’t all follow web sites so it is only fair that they also have access to the details.

There’s a little more detail on his News page.

Simply The Best

Since “The Unknown Man” first appeared in print back in 2010, I have continuously recommended it to prospective Somerton Man researchers as their very best first port of call. The only possible objection international researchers could have was the (still shockingly high) cost of postage from Australia, a pox to which ebooks are thankfully immune. So the ridiculous situation where people write articles, posts or even papers about the Somerton Man that fail to cite “The Unknown Man” should now hopefully be a thing of the past: it remains the core of any good Somerton Man bibliography.

For me, what is so good about Gerry’s book is that he sensibly restricts it to the pure factuality of the case, for it should be obvious that reporting all the facts in a clear and well-structured way is an amply hard enough challenge on its own. Having said that, even though this approach leaves plenty of room for other books to explore the various hypotheses in more detail, these sadly remain unwritten. Maybe one day, who knows?

Frustratingly, there are still a few details of the case hidden under pseudonyms in “The Unknown Man” which have yet to become public, most notably the real identity of “Ronald Francis” (in the back of whose car the Rubaiyat with the torn-out “Tamam Shud” was found in late 1948) and even the real make of Francis’s car. But perhaps these will emerge into the light before too long… here’s hoping, anyway. 😉

PS: if you haven’t already read “The Unknown Man”, go away and read it now!

The History Channel’s new Karga Seven-produced series “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer” has just started: it features top Zodiac Killer researcher Dave Oranchak, Copiale Cipher cracker (and Voynich Manuscript fanboy) Kevin Knight, long-time Zodiac researcher (and University of North Texas CompSci professor) Ryan Garlick, Cryptologia editor (and author of “Unsolved!”) Craig Bauer, and a Google engineer guy called Sujith Razi who I’ve never heard of. But I’m sure is a lovely bloke.

The film makers also have a retired homicide cop and a cold case searcher both talking to people on the ground and raking over hitherto unseen archives. Overall, the televisual conceit they try to sustain is that the whole process is unfolding right before our eyes in sort-of real time, which is a decent enough fiction to structure this kind of thing by.

The first episode tries to link the Zodiac Killer with the unsolved 1966 Riverside murder of 18-year-old Cheri Jo Bates, a connection that has been floated (yet also denied) many times. The suspect they quickly move to is a certain Ross Sullivan, who was a student who also worked in the library where Bates was studying the evening of her death: Sullivan took a cryptography class, wore army boots, disappeared the day after Bates’ death, came back with fresh clothes a few weeks later, etc etc etc.

The programme alludes to DNA comparisons, to reconstructing faces purely from DNA, and to cracking some part of one the Zodiac Killer’s ciphers in the following episodes, but we’ll have to see which of these promises they keep. If all they ultimately serve up on their delightful silver platter is Craig Bauer’s ALFREDENEUMAN hopeful crack of the Z13 cipher (whose first three cipher letters are also “AEN”), I’m not 100% certain the cryptological ticker tape and marching elephants parade will be on duty that day. But, as always, we shall see.

Incidentally, my personal favourite of the homophonic solutions for the Z13 listed by Dave Oranchak are “Sarah The Horse”, “All Banana Alan”, and “Trove Behemoth”. Ever since I read that, I’ve been deeply distrustful of anyone called Sarah The Horse: I therefore advise all Cipher Mysteries readers to keep some sugar cubes in a convenient pocket, just in case this particular worst-case scenario is correct. What, me worry?

The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer

Anyway, I’m not sure how long the following embedded video will stay live for, but it’s courtesy of well-known site Tagtélé:

Enjoy! 🙂

A week or more ago, I started writing up a fairly hefty post on John of Sacrobosco’s famous “De Sphaera” (which is one of the books Nicole Oresme translated into French, adding his commentary). I was particularly interested in the diagrams that appear in many of the manuscripts, and so began with Lynn Thorndike’s account “The Sphere of Sacrobosco and Its Commentators”, which describes the drawings found in three specific “De Sphaera” manuscripts:

* Oxford, Bodleian, Canon. Misc. 161, fols. 9r-19r
* Princeton University, Garrett MS 99, fols. 124ra-136vb [‘a’/’b’ means 1st/2nd column] [may have been sold to Garrett by Wilfrid Voynich!]
* Cambridge, University Library Ii.III.3, fols. 25r-35v

“Most excellent!”, I thought (thankfully silently) to myself, and so went off to try to find copies of any of the three to illustrate the post. Which… proved impossible, despite trying quite hard. And so the help I’d really like is – if anyone can find such a thing, which I have singularly failed to do – a link to an online illustrated copy of John of Sacrobosco’s “De Sphaera“.

Note that because I’d like to specifically compare these diagrams with the (slightly different) diagrams that appear in Nicole Oresme’s French translation (of which, oddly, I have a good number of illustrated copies), I’m focused on illustrations of the original Latin version that appear in the context of the text.

All That I Have

No prizes for guessing the subheading reference: but all that I have so far isn’t a great deal.

Firstly, there’s BNF MS Latin 7197 that Ellie Velinska kindly linked to a few days ago: this was (mostly) copied by 15th century Zurich physician Conrad Heingarter, and the De Sphaera is on ff.39-50, e.g. this from fol. 39r:

Unfortunately, Heingarter seems to have been copying from a largely unillustrated manuscript, because that was the only diagram there. 🙁

The other interesting set of De Sphaera illustrations is from the fascinating and beautiful Estense “De Sphaera” manuscript. However, the PDF of this available online only includes the drawings, not the drawings in their textual context. (Note: technical description here.)

Can anyone help? All tips and suggestions gratefully received! 🙂

Thanks to a top tip from the Cryptocollectors mailing list, here’s what the Stwórzmy Enigma Museum in Poznań posted on Facebook today:

11 listopada w Poznaniu to nie tylko Dzień Niepodległości, ale tak także Imieniny Ulicy Święty Marcin. Parę lat temu na Paradzie Świętomarcińskiej wystawiliśmy żywą Enigmę na kółkach, w której “przyciskami” byli harcerze z 100 Poznańska Drużyna Harcerzy im. gen. St. Maczka. To była petarda!

As normal, my badly-laundered translation follows:

11th November in Poznań is not only Independence Day, but also St Martin’s Day. A couple of years ago at the St Martin’s Day Parade, we put a live Enigma on wheels, where the “buttons” were scouts from the 100 Poznań General Stanisław Maczek Group. It was da bomb!

The scouts seem to be enjoying themselves, which is great:

Here you can clearly see that it’s a four-rotor Enigma. But no stecker board! 😉

Writer (and University of Bristol PhD student) Gerard Cheshire has recently been asking people to look at his paper “Linguistic missing links: instruction in decrypting, translating and transliterating the only document known to use both proto-Romance language and proto-Italic symbols for its writing system“. (Note that this is actually a draft, but dressed up to look as though it is to be published in “Science Survey (2017) 1” when, as far as I can tell, there is no such journal as “Science Survey”.)

His paper breathlessly reveals that Voynichese is nothing more than Vulgar Latin (though without any obvious grammar or structure). He then proposes a scheme mapping Voynich letters to normal letters (though this lacks “b/f, c/k, ch/sh, g/gh, h/j/ym v/w, x/z” [p.17]), which he then uses to “transliterate” some sentences (though shaped out of strings of words assembled from God-only-knows-how-many different European languages) into something approaching modern-day English. These sentences ‘demonstrate’ that the Voynich Manuscript is (running counter to the radiocarbon dating) actually from the 16th century, and is nothing more than a courtly woman’s health and bathing manual, a fact which every other Voynich Manuscript researcher to date has been too short-sighted to see or recognise, bla bla bla bla bla bla bla.

Errrm… really? Really? Really?

Vulgar Latin

First thing I have to point out is that there is no such (single) thing as Vulgar Latin: rather, the phrase denotes a vast family of vulgar / pidgin / hybrid Latin-ish spoken languages sprawled across all of Europe and over most of a millennium.

Every single version of Vulgar Latin was a purely local affair, nobody spoke them all at the same time – Vulgar Latin wasn’t a universal lingua franca, it was a heterogenous set of hacky vulgar dialects that helped people get by locally. And I simply don’t believe for a moment Cheshire’s implicit claim (completely necessary to his argument, but not expressed anywhere I can see) that this kind of Vulgar Latin had no structure, that each specific instance of Vulgar Latin was no more than language expressed as a diarrhoeal deluge of words that listeners teased meaning out of.

As a result, the entire linguistics mindset running through Cheshire’s paper (i.e. the comparison between a single concerted instance of a script and a vast cloud of unwritten potentialities diffusely surrounding a huge family of languages, each of which is presumed to have no structure) seems utterly wrongheaded.

As such, it makes no sense at all to compare a single slab of written Voynichese text (which gives every sign of having been written in a single time and place) with a wide set of different language potentialities (that, further, were almost never written down, and – further still – would in every instance have had a basic rationale and structure [because that’s how language works] that he requires to be absent).

A Monstrous Mash-up

Even though Cheshire puts forward his speculative translations (which he repeatedly calls “transliterations”, as if that somehow brackets out the mile-wide interpretational chasms he repeatedly has to swing across) of several sections of the Voynichese text, I’m going to give as my example here the top three lines of f82v that he discusses on pp.20-21. This is because f82v is a nice, bright, easy-to-read page in the “Balneo” quire (Q13), which means that the various EVA transcriptions speak almost with a single voice:


Cheshire’s own transcription of these lines (according to his conversion-to-letters-scheme) is as follows:

molor orqueina doleina dolinar æor domar om nar nar or æina,
dolina ræina domor nor æina æina na nas omina eimina rolasa,
nais oe eina domina domeina etna domar doma dolar dolina ro.

Let’s take each line apart in turn to see what he’s trying to get at:

molor = mollor = (soften/calm/pacify) [Latin] – because molor (grind/mill/wear) [Latin] “would be inappropriate”
orqueina = ?
doleina = therapeutic [Catalan]
dolina/dolinar = bath/bathe [Romance languages]
æor = ?
domar = to tame/control [Catalan and Portuguese]
om = hom (homine) = man [Latin]
nar nar = foolish/crazy/up-tight [Romansch]
or = ?
æina = wife [Catalan]

Cheshire’s “reasonable transliteration” (i.e. speculative translation) for this first line is: “Calming with therapeutic bathing is always certain to tame the tense man and wife“.

dolina/dolinar = bath/bathe [Romance languages]
ræina (reina) = queen [Romance languages]
domor = [domar] = to tame/control [Catalan and Portuguese]
nor = daughter-in-law [Aromanian]
æina = wife [Catalan]
æina = wife [Catalan]
na = ?
nas = ?
omina = omen [Latin]
eimina = to eliminate [Spanish and Portuguese]
rolasa = ?

His translation of the second line is: “A queen’s bath always relaxes the daughter-in-law and wife to eliminate the omen, for it to happen“.

nais = to begin/commence/create [French]
oe = ?
eina = ?
domina = lady [Latin]
dome[i]na = domain/room [Latin]
etna (ætna) = to heat/burn [Latin/Greek]
domar = to tame/control [Catalan and Portuguese]
doma = ?
dolar = ?
dolina/dolinar = bath/bathe [Romance languages]
ro = abbreviation for rogo = to ask/request [Latin]

His third line of translation runs: “Begin now the method for the lady’s domain, and heat the room to make the bathing smooth, please!

Cheshire sums up what these three lines mean as follows:

So, the passage appears to be advice for the mother (queen) of a prince to impart to her daughter-in-law as guidance for seducing her son and becoming pregnant.

Like a badly mislabeled lift, this is wrong on so many levels. Nobody reading the above should need to look through Latin, Catalan, Portuguese, Romansch, Aromanian, French, Greek, and “Romance languages” dictionaries to find words to describe this fantastical nonsense. (Though you might find Partridge’s “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” most fruitily germane to the task.)

Disastrous Dog’s Dinners

What Cheshire has been seduced by here is the beguiling notion that the numerous textual difficulties that Voynichese presents might all be magically explained away by a wave of the polyglot fairy’s wand, e.g. that the Voynich’s tightly-knit buzz of similar words might simply be a result of a large number of active component languages somehow feeding into the plaintext. However, it should be no surprise that these polyglot sirens appear rather different when you take a closer look at them:

For all the undoubted cleverness of Leo Levitov PhD, his particular polyglot reading of the Voynich was (as seasoned Voynich Manuscript researchers will happily attest) more or less exactly the same kind of dog’s dinner as Cheshire’s is. And this was for exactly the same reason, which is that the Voynich Manuscript’s curious text presents so many different kinds of non-language-like behaviours all at the same time that trying to read it as if it were a simple language (even a polyglot mash-up “simple language”) is never, ever going to work.

Specifically, the kind of challenging textual behaviours I’m talking about here are:
– 1) Low entropy (highly predictable, babble-like text)
– 2) Highly structured letter placement rules (e.g. highly stylized word beginnings and endings)
– 3) Two or more significant language variants
– 4) A surprisingly high (dictionary size) : (corpus size) ratio.
– 5) A generative dictionary (i.e. covering many more permutations than normal languages do)
– 6) Only sporadic word adjacency pattern matches
– 7) Neal keys (both vertical and horizontal)
– 8) Where are common words like “the” and “and”?
– 9) Where are the number shapes, number clusters, or number patterns?
– (etc)

My point here is that while it is possible to construct a proof-of-concept plaintext language to partially get around one or two of these issues, all the other pesky behaviours will then cause that ‘solution’ to sink like a Chicago Mafia whistleblower. This is all pretty much what Elizebeth Friedman was talking about in 1962 about people seeking such solutions being “doomed to utter frustration”: it’s a horrible shame that in 2017 people continue to fail to even begin to grasp what is such a basic message.

In the case of Cheshire, a polyglot Vulgar Latin reading would aim to get around points 4) and 5), but would then collapse in a miserable heap at the hands of all the other points. Anyone following Stephen Bax’s miserable lead to try to come up with their own ingenious linguistic reading of Voynichese should wise up to the whole list, because – unless you are even trying to satisfy all these oddly non-language-like constraints all at the same time – you’re plainly wasting both your own time and that of everyone else you try to convince.

Laughable linguistics

When I read nonsensical papers like this (and I can assure you that this is not an outlier, because there are plenty more of them out there), I feel a deep sadness for historical linguistics. Even for unbelievably bright people such as George Steiner (who at his peak was clearly a hugely inspirational speaker, and whose books oddly summon to mind Ioan Couliano’s syncretic layerings), far too many linguists lard their writing with speculative etymological riffs anyone else would be embarrassed to put their name to, even if they were walking home from a beer festival drunk and wearing a foolish hat. (For his sins, Cheshire throws a fair few of these soggy prawns onto his linguistic barbecue.)

And whenever I see linguistics people rap about Ur-languages while constructing metronomically-timelined millennia-spanning etymology trees (yet again), I just despair. All the while modern linguists can’t construct solid etymologies for the words we use in the 21st century, what chance do historical linguistics people really stand going back X hundred years? Honestly, some things lie beyond the limits of useful reconstruction, and trying to claim otherwise is a collective (and discipline-wide) failure.

To me, the structural problem with historical linguistics, then, is that if you remove all the brazenly bullshit stuff, what little is left is perilously close to a tree-less tundra: it remains an academic discipline, sure, but one whose grasp of history is all too often paper-thin (as is its actual use to historians), and whose pretensions to science are largely laughable.

And so I really don’t think that Gerard Cheshire should feel bad about having ended up down a garden path here, when it’s actually historical linguistics that has marched down that garden path en masse. The entire conceptual toolkit that he brought to bear on the Voynich Manuscript was as much use as a Swiss Army Knife made of soft-set jelly: sorry to have to say it in such flat terms, but the poor bugger never really stood a chance.

There’s a big controversy at the moment about bloggers and vloggers who get paid to promote products but who do not declare it (or, perhaps more often, do declare it but in what can easily be perceived as misleading ways). For the record: though I have been given a small number of books to review here, arguably the biggest favour I’ve ever returned is that of tactical silence, i.e. not posting a review at all when I really couldn’t comfortably say a good thing about the book.

But all the same, I must confess that there’s a tiny evil homunculus deep inside my psyche that secretly yearns – much as Britten’s Ploughboy dreamt of – to sell off my Ayes and Nos to the highest bidder. Though I’d never actually do such a thing, when certain objects contrive to present themselves before me, I do find my homunculus jumping up and down like crazy

La Buse Vanilla Rum

A few days back, I was delighted to stumble across a German drinks site offering a “La Buse” pirate-themed rum distilled in Réunion by J. Chatel S.A.R.L. [history here] (image from drinkology):

Here’s my translation of their effusively rum-soaked copy:

La Buse Vanilla Rum embodies rum’s typical character yet in a stylish way. A white rum from Réunion, it impresses with its clear line and simplicity: light and pleasantly sweet, it brings a summery feeling to your home. Indispensable for the bar and for the kitchen, it instantly refines desserts, cakes, drinks and cocktails. Drunk straight on the rocks, it refreshes the stomach and cools the head.

OK, I’m sold already. But the copywriter, clearly licking his or her lips in a very old-fashioned way, continues riffing on its ‘real vanilla’ USP:

La Buse Vanilla Rum has been flavored with real vanilla to make it unique. For gourmets, it is in great demand for use in high-end kitchens and is often used to add the ‘final touch’. Bright, clear and freshly fruity, it is particularly well-suited as a basis for great cocktails. The bottle is particularly elaborate and stylishly decorated, with a large picture of an old pirate reminiscent of the origins of rum: for old sailors and seasoned men would have lost all control at the sight of this noble drink. La Buse Vanilla Rum continues this tradition and would certainly have been a favorite drink of pirates and sailors. Anyone today who does not want to be able to drink tough sailors under the table would prefer not to drink it neat, because it is good and strong and heats the throat and stomach powerfully. And there’s no need to miss out on cold winter days, because a slug in your cup of black tea refines it splendidly.


However, before you get too excited, I should add that it seems that J. Chatel has stopped making this particular rum, which is a huge shame (particularly because I was going to order a case, in the interests of cipher research, of course). But I thought you’d like to see it anyway. 😉

The biggest cipher news of the week (apart from learning that David Hamer’s splendid M4 4-rotor Kreigsmarine Enigma s/n M7772 is to be sold by Sotheby’s New York on 12th December 2017) is a sad story concerning Dalek operator (and Whovian columnist ‘The Watcher’) Nicholas Pegg (not to be confused with perennial voice-of-the-Daleks Nicholas Briggs) and hidden writing.

“What are these words? Explain! Explain!

Though quickly picked up by the Telegraph and others, it was Twitter user Dave Elliott whose tweet contained the image of the offending page in Doctor Who magazine:

As you can see from the string of highlighted letters above, the hidden message says simply: “Panini and BBC Worldwide are cunts”. Unsurprisingly, Pegg has had his contract (ex)terminated, and will no doubt find himself on the next shuttle to the Dalek Asylum planet, where the BBC puts all its dissidents.

Order of the Boot

Another recent BBC leaver was James May, who also has a hidden message story. As features editor on magazine Autocar, he once inserted the following (fairly innocent) message one letter at a time into the headers of the (riveting-sounding) 1992 Autocar Special Road Test Yearbook Issue.

“So you think it’s really good, yeah? You should try making the bloody thing up. It’s a real pain in the arse.”

For his sterling efforts, May quickly received the Order of the Boot (or Order of the Trunk, as Americans like to call it).

Bungled Fond Farewell

Another less obvious departure letter was by Mark Dunning, the headmaster of Orley Farm prep school in Harrow, as summed up (fairly glibly, it has to be said) by Matthew Norman in the Telegraph.

Dunning, in an end of term newsletter, wrote (of the departing teacher Roger Clark): “We all now know every really great teacher has to finish one day and Mr Clark will do so at the end of this term”, i.e.


When Clark raised this with the school governors, they took a dim cryptanalytical view of the affair, and requested that Dunning should also depart. Oh well.

Incidentally, a separate Telegraph piece noted that “[f]ormer pupils of the school include Anthony Horowitz, the novelist, who has been critical of his “unbelievably brutal” time there in the 1960s.”

Historically, though, Dunning’s arguably-less-than-completely-fond farewell was dwarfed by the 1949 poem (thanks to Mental Floss) composed on the occasion of Gordon Macdonald (the last Governor of Newfoundland), and printed in the Newfoundland Evening Telegram two days after his departure:

The prayers of countless thousands sent
Heavenwards to speed thy safe return,
Ennobled as thou art with duty well performed,
Bringing peace, security and joy
Among the peoples of this New Found Land.
So saddened and depressed until your presence
Taught us discern and help decide what’s best for
All on whom fortune had not smiled.
Remember if you will the kindness and the love
Devotion and the respect that we the people have for Thee

Political Steganography

More recently, the American political class – largely enraged by Trump’s extensive rhetoric against them – has carried out all manner of political steganography. There’s RESIST (added by the seventeen members of Donald Trump’s arts council) that Klaus posted about earlier this year, and IMPEACH (science envoy Daniel Kammen’s parting shot), following Trump’s response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville VA).

But in many ways, these are mere ghostly wraiths: for as far as political steganography goes, the real deal is none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger, affectionately referred to by TechCrunch as the “Governator”. His 2009 letter vetoing Assembly Bill 1176 stands as a classic of the genre:

According to the Huffington Post:

“My goodness. What a coincidence,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear. “I suppose when you do so many vetoes, something like this is bound to happen.”

Which, of course, triggered a near-googolplex of mathematical posts calculating the (dwindlingly small) probability, leading to the whole affair being included in Princeton University’s stats lecture notes (Hint: to do this properly, you’d need word-initial letter distribution statistics, rather than =POWER(1/26, 7) )

You may also remember this (c.f. Troy McClure) from the famous Montreal gravestone:

…which also brings to mind the fake gravestone laid by PETA in ‘tribute’ to Harland Sanders…

Tasty. :-/

Protest Steganography

Finally: there’s one further category of steganography, where writers conceal anti-government messages in their writings. Of course, poets have concealed messages in poems for centuries (if not millennia), but here I’m talking about something quite on the next level.

Jose F. Lacaba wrote a poem called “Prometheus Unbound” that was published in an entirely mainstream publication: when people in the government realised that the initial letters spelled out the phrase “MARCOS HITLER! DIKTADOR TUTA!” (a common rally chant widely graffitied in the 1970s) that Lacaba was jailed for being a dissident. (He was only let out when the same regime tried to give an award to “golden boy” Nick Joaquin: Joaquin would only accept it in return for Lacaba’s freedom.)

When I found the actual poem here, it was a pleasing coincidence that its final word is RESIST:

Mars shall glow tonight,
Artemis is out of sight.
Rust in the twilight sky
Colors a bloodshot eye,
Or shall I say that dust
Sunders the sleep of just?

Hold fast to the gift of fire!
I am rage! I am wrath! I am ire!
The vulture sits on my rock,
Licks at the chains that mock
Emancipation’s breath,
Reeks of death, death, death.

Death shall not unclench me.
I am earth, wind and sea!
Kisses bestow on the brave
That defy the damp of grave
And strike the chill hand of
Death with the flaming sword of love.

Orion stirs. The vulture
Retreats from the hard, pure
Thrust of the spark that burns,
Unbounds, departs, returns
To pluck out of death’s fist
A god who dared to resist.

A linguist, an epigrapher, and an ethnologist are in a bar, waiting to be served. The linguist says, “Did you know that Mele Kalikimaka by Bing Crosby is the most popular song featuring indigenous American language?”

The epigrapher sucks through his teeth: “sorry, Stevie, but I can think of at least two far more popular songs that prominently feature indigenous Americans: (1) Olmec Donald had a farm, and (2) MicMac paddywhack, give a dog a bone, This old man came rolling home.”

The ethnologist also shakes his head. “And it’s not even the best-selling recorded song prominently featuring indigenous American language. That would have to be Buddy Holly’s:

Nahuatl be the day, when you say goodbye
Nahuatl be the day, when you make me cry
You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie
Nahuatl be the day-hay-hay-hay when I die”

Here, the barman leans over and says “Oh, and Mele Kalikimaka isn’t actually Hawaiian, it’s a transcription of ‘Merry Christmas’ into Hawaiian.”

At which the barmaid stage-whispers: “Yeah, an’ anyway, it’s a Polynesian language, not American, innit? Ponce.”