What on earth, you may reasonably ask, is a Voynich “metatheory”? I use the term for a specific kind of Voynich Manuscript theory that seeks to explain more or less all its puzzling features by pointing to a single – usually surprising and/or counterintuitive – lateral step away from what we know (or, rather, what we think we know).

Because of the complexity of the manuscript, ‘normal’ Voynich theories tend to be a patchwork of simple explanations and tangled saving hypotheses (i.e. to try to explain why the simple explanations didn’t actually work): by way of contrast, metatheories instead assert that something really fundamental we tend to take for granted is wrong, and that all our confusions have arisen merely as a result of our treating the manuscript as entirely the wrong category of object.

In short, a theory tries to account for the difficulties we observe fairly directly, while a metatheory tries to explain away more or less the whole constellation of difficulties by pointing to (what it asserts is) a basic flaw in our mindset.

For example, Gordon Rugg’s hoax metatheory asserts that the Voynich Manuscript ‘could be’ or ‘is’ (depending on which journalist he’s talking to) a 16th century hoax (technically, a simulacrum) that was constructed at speed using sets of ingeniously-arranged tables and grilles: and hence that the entire statistical edifice of oddly-language-like textual behaviours that taxes Voynich researchers so greatly is no more than an incidental by-product of the hoax’s cleverly-structured meaninglessness. (It’s just a shame that the radiocarbon date for the manuscript’s vellum turned out to be a century earlier, or else he wouldn’t now look like a bit of a fool. Still, I did tell him so at the time. *sigh*)

Another long-running Voynich Manuscript metatheory is Richard SantaColoma’s 2012 proposal (having previously proposed various similar hoax theories) that Wilfrid Voynich himself created the Voynich Manuscript as a sort of fake or a hoax. Rich continues to write about this, and even gave a presentation called “Is the Voynich Manuscript a Modern Forgery? (And why it matters)” at the recent (2017) Symposium on Cryptologic History in Maryland. Here’s what he looks like:

As always with the Voynich Manuscript, broadly the same thing has been suggested numerous times before, e.g. Michael Barlow’s (1986) Cryptologia article “The Voynich Manuscript – by Voynich?”. But what has distinguished Rich’s presentation is his readiness to fight his corner against all-comers, even though the physical evidence, the historical evidence, the codicological evidence and indeed the palaeographic evidence each separately seems to weigh quite strongly against it. Oh, and the fact that Voynich spent so much time trying to get people to prove it was by Roger Bacon.

Anyway, given that so few people now seem to understand the actual nature of Rich’s hoax claims (and why refuting them matters), I thought a post was a little overdue. So here it is.

Not Probably, But Possibly

As mentioned above, the radiocarbon dating of the vellum points specifically to the early 15th century: to which Rich responds that there is some evidence that some forgers have sometimes used caches of unused old vellum as the support medium for their forgeries. So his argument runs: because some forgers have done this on some occasions, it could have been the case here too. And so the radiocarbon dating – though obviously opposing simple forgeries – cannot be used to absolutely disprove the suggestion that the person who (putatively) hoaxed the Voynich Manuscript.

Similarly, even though the codicological evidence directly implies that the Voynich Manuscript has been rebound and overpainted (leaving bifolios mis-coloured and out of context), Rich’s position is that this implies Wilfrid Voynich must have been not just a hoaxer, but a highly sophisticated hoaxer, deliberately shuffling the vellum bifolios and overpainting them to simulate what might have happened over time to such a document (had it been genuine). And, naturally, the more codicological details that you add to this list, the more sophisticated a hoaxer Wilfrid Voynich must surely have been, he would argue. Even though increasing the sophistication and complexity like this makes the hoax less probable, it remains a possibility: and the smaller the possibility, the more wondrous a deception it surely was.

The palaeographic evidence to do with the ultra-rare numbering system used to number the quires is a strange one: this specific (and rather cumbersome and impractical) system seems only to have been used for a few years during the mid-15th century in no more than a few parts of what is now Switzerland. Rich’s response here is that because Wilfrid Voynich was an antiquarian bookseller roaming Europe looking for rare books and manuscripts, he would surely have been well-placed to see such a system in action in the kind of rare manuscripts he regularly saw. Again, even if there is no evidence that Voynich himself actually bought a separate manuscript where this rare numbering system appears, this is a historical possibility that we cannot use to disprove Rich’s basic claim, despite its low intrinsic probability.

Despite the mathematical fact that multiplying two small probabilities together makes a much smaller net probability, Rich’s overall position as far as these contraindicating evidences goes is simply this: that if his proposal that Wilfrid Voynich faked/hoaxes the manuscript is correct, then the final probability that all these other things happened is actually 100%, however unlikely each may seem to an historian.

Some may say that this is a lot like explaining away the chocolate bar missing from the kitchen table as having been taken by hungry aliens who beamed it up to their mothership to eat it: but that’s perhaps a little too glibly sarcastic. Rather, I think the real situation is that Rich defends the possibility that Voynich faked/hoaxed his manuscript so avidly because he thinks that the weight of secondary explanations it yields balances out its net improbability, i.e. that the explanation’s high utility is in inverse proportion to its likelihood.

Document X

In my opinion, however, the place where Rich’s argumental train struggles to stay in contact with its logical rails is in its relationship with a complex of 17th century letters to and from Athanasius Kircher, that famously describe a document strikingly similar to the Voynich Manuscript.

In recent years, this set of letters has been documented and dissected in depth, from which prolonged study there now seems no doubt whatsoever that they are all referring to a single mysterious document (let us call this “Document X“) that was owned by Georg Baresch, passed to Johannes Marcus Marci after Baresch’s death, and then passed by Marci to Athanasius Kircher.

Rich SantaColoma firstly points out that we have no direct proof that Document X is the Voynich Manuscript, and that we should therefore be wary of assuming that the two are the same object. He further contends that in his opinion, the Voynich Manuscript was instead faked/hoaxed by Voynich specifically to make it resemble the description of (the presumably now long-lost) Document X.

For this to be true, it would seem that Wilfrid Voynich must have been aware of the contents of some or all of these letters in 1914 or before, so that he could design his hoax/fake to resemble their description of Document X.

However, even though Kircher’s thick volumes of letters were well-known during his lifetime (e.g. De Sepi’s 1678 description of Kircher’s museum in Rome), they were not listed in later Jesuit sources (such as Sommervogel and De Backer (1893)). Furthermore, the modern rediscovery of Kircher’s correspondence came about long after the Voynich Manuscript appeared on the world stage: until John Fletcher took on the mammoth task of reading and judiciously summarizing the more-than-2000 letters in the 1940s, there had been no more than passing mention of them at all since the 17th century.

For Wilfrid Voynich to have even seen these volumes would therefore have been highly surprising: and what is more, for him to have had sufficient time (and good enough Latin) to work his way through them enough to draw out the strands of the sub-network of letters around the Voynich Manuscript nearly a century before anyone else did is basically impossible.

Apologies to Rich SantaColoma, but there is therefore no way whatsoever that Wilfrid Voynich himself could have built up a description of Document X that would have been good enough to work as a template for him to use when (supposedly) forging/hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript.

Saving Hypotheses Aplenty

If that’s a bust, what other alternatives still remain open? Alas, the problem with imaginative historical interpolation is that there are almost always numerous ways to construct saving hypotheses to paper over the cracks in any wonky explanation’s wall, no matter how wide those cracks may be.

For example, it is possible that an entirely unknown group of people (let’s say, one or more 18th or 19th century Jesuit students) had access to Document X, and from that built up an entirely separate set of descriptions of it: and that it was this separate set of descriptions that Wilfrid Voynich had access to, which he used as the basis for his hoax/fake.

However, the way that the 1665 Marci letter (the one that Voynich said he found tucked into the manuscript) ties in so neatly with the rest of the 17th century Kircher correspondence then becomes very hard to reconcile. And so you would be left with the awkward conclusion that this unknown group of people must also have had access to Marci’s letter. In fact, I think you would be forced to conclude that this letter originally accompanied Document X, but that even though Document X was lost, the still-extant accompanying letter was inserted by Wilfrid Voynich into his faked-up version of Document X.

But this is starting to sound too unlikely even for Rich SantaColoma’s subtle taste for the barely possible. :-/

If you don’t like that, then another possibility could be that Wilfrid Voynich was shown (or saw) Document X itself (including Marci’s letter), but then created his own fake Document X while stealing Marci’s letter to attach to his own version… but this is all veering into the realms of the historically fantastical, and I don’t want to do Rich’s work for him. 😉

And So The Moral Of The Story Is…

In my opinion, what Rich SantaColoma offers up doesn’t really fall in the category of History, but is rather a kind of Debating Society take on historical certainty – for unless you can prove to him to his satisfaction that his argued scenario is impossible by his own criteria, he feels happy to announce that he has won the debate.

Moreover, because Rich seems to believe that the proposal that Wilfrid Voynich himself faked/hoaxed the Voynich Manuscript is itself enough to resolve all otherwise-difficult-to-explain issue, this is something against which he is happy to balance a homeopathically low level of probability, one lower than just about anybody else would consider acceptable.

Yet it seems to me from this that whereas most Voynich theories are based on some kind of psychological projection on the part of the theorist, there is something quite different going on here. Despite the sustained effort Rich has put into sustaining the dwindlingly small possibility side of his Wilfrid-Voynich-hoaxed-it-himself theory, there seems to be a thoroughly irrational component to the other half of his equation. That is to say: what exactly about the Voynich Manuscript would any modern hoax theory throw any light on? What would it explain about the manuscript’s strange text and hard-to-pin-down diagrams? How does the notion that it is a hoax help explain the intricacies of its patterns? If Voynich created it, how did he create it? But all such questions seem to trail off into an awkward silence.

Regardless, all the while Rich’s absolute-disproof-avoiding way of going about this is merely his idiosyncratic opinion, it is (of course) of no wider importance whatsoever: as always, people are free to hold whatever opinions they like, however odd or curious they may be. Given that we’re living in a postmodern world where even Stephen Bax is feted as a Voynich expert, rhyme and reason of the sort I happen to value would seem to be rare commodities indeed: so perhaps I’m simply a Victorian dad peering at Instagram and wondering why all the children depicted aren’t working up chimneys.

But if I were to be asked – as indeed sometimes happens – whether I think there is any merit in Rich’s suggestion of a modern hoax by Wilfrid Voynich, I would have to say: I haven’t seen any sign of it yet, and if I’d have held my breath waiting for it, I’d be long dead by now. Oh well.

Here’s another Voynich-themed art show to add to what is already a medium-sized list: “Drawing Close – Voynich Series”, by Sabina Sallis. It’s at the Customs House art centre in Mill Dam conservation area in South Shields, close to the River Tyne south bank ferry landing until March 2018.

Helen Shaddock seems to like it, noting that “Sabina uses drawing, video, performance, sculpture and narrative in a multimedia transdisciplinary approach that interweaves fact and fiction”, and that her Voynich Series “attempts to bring forward knowledge and thoughts that are enmeshed with life processes and invites the audience to decipher their own meaning”.

In some ways, we already have more than enough people ‘deciphering their own meaning’ from the Voynich Manuscript: even if (miraculously) one of the existing set of Voynich theories turns out to be essentially correct, that would still mean that the other 999+ theories out there are just plain nonsense.

But if artists want to do the same thing in the name of Art, that’s fine by me: at least it’s not like a certain anonymous Italian writer who claimed that his fanciful Voynich novel revealed the true nature of both the Voynich Manuscript and the Titanic disaster etc etc. What a mess. 🙁

Elsewhere on Tyneside

I wonder what Tynesider Wor Cheryl would make of all this: though she does sometimes lurch a bit close to Cockney Star Trek, as in this reicent puurst…

Reinventin meiself az a grime awtist.
Look oot faw a new album bein released bei Cherylzee

🎼Gannin oot
Oot an aboot
Coppah divint shoot!🎼

…Wor Cheryl would surely have sumthin ta sei: mebbe…

Tha Voynich manyiscript, Pet? Izunt that some medicul instruckshun manyual fer medyievul womun, leik? It wuz in tha TLS, so it merst be true, uthaweiz therra bunch uv reit idyits.

Well, all ah can say is that ah wunce hadda groin itch, but dinna leik menshunin it in perleit compny. An ah certainly wouldna reit a herl buik about it.

A new day, and a new episode of “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer” (S01 E02, in programme guide speak) to trawl through. Luckily, though, this week’s episode proved to be fairly lightweight:

Increasingly Uncomfortable

I’m sorry to have to say it, but as this series goes on, I’m getting less and less comfortable with the presentation. Televisually, the editing conceit has been to make it look as though all the evidence is being considered and discovered for the first time (and sort of ‘in real time’), but just about everything that pops up (hey, what magic beans has CARMEL found this time?) has previously been floated, shot down, raked over, partially resurrected and left hanging in a kind of evidential limbo ten or twenty times over. And so it’s more than a little bit grating to see so many creaky old ideas being dredged up and presented as if they were not only new, but also generated by a piece of software.

So, for all the potential cleverness of the software toolkit, CARMEL has been largely reduced here to a panto linking device, not a million miles from “And now for something completely different: a man with a tape recorder up his nose”. (Which, tape recorder reference aside, originally came from Blue Peter’s Christopher Trace, UK TV buffs might be interested to know.)

The connection the programme makers float between TWICH/TWICHED and SQUIRM/SQWIRM in the Cheri Jo Bates typed “Confession” letter and the Zodiac’s 1970 letter is interesting (of course, Michael Butterfield discussed this in 2009, though doubtless it was already old news by then). But in every other sense the Confession letter comes across to me as a crock, a simulation of a confession letter that says nothing actually new. And though two of the three notes that arrived six months later said that “BATES HAD TO DIE THERE WILL BE MORE Z”, these also come across to me as fakes, or rather someone simulating nuttiness.

At the same time, according to this Quester Files website page, “[t]he envelopes carried double postage. This is something the Zodiac did.” And moreover, “Sherwood Morrill, the Questioned Document’s examiner in Sacramento, examined the envelopes and writing. He said it was indeed The Zodiac’s handwriting.”

Putting all this together, even though I could comfortably accept the idea that the 1966 Cheri Jo Bates “Confession” letter and even the three (somewhat belated) nutty-looking handwritten notes were by the same person who would later become the Zodiac Killer, I would struggle to accept without any obvious supporting evidence the claim that he also killed Cheri Jo Bates, in the unquestioning way the programme makers seem to think their audience should. To me, it seems far safer to conclude that in 1966 Zodiac was instead merely fantasizing about killing, and that he instead wrote the suite of letters as a kind of performative role play theatre, projecting his incipient psychopathy onto the stabby, bloody, horrible backdrop of some other properly mad person’s crime (which was very probably driven by enraged sexual inadequacy and/or spurned passion).

Lone Wolf, or Sea Wolf?

As a side note, the question of the origin of the Zodiac and his ‘cross-hair’ symbol comes up again and again: an obvious issue is that his chosen symbol is not in any way connected with astrological or zodiacal symbols, which is also true of the (for the most part letter, reflected letter, and part-filled geometrical) shapes he uses in his ciphertexts. So, then: why ‘Zodiac’?

However, I have to say that the answer to this question seems to me to be very simple and indeed painfully obvious (though it has of course previously been pointed out a thousand times or more): that the most likely inspiration for the Zodiac’s symbol and name was the Zodiac Watch Company, which had during the 1950s achieved great renown with their Sea Wolf diving watch (and very similar symbol).

Note that the Zodiac Sea Wolf watch had (of course it did) a movable bezel, much as per the Mt Diablo note: which is not anything like proof, of course, but it’s definitely something to think about. (As a further aside, perhaps a watch historian might like to tell us which movable watch bezels of the 1960s had 0 / 3 / 6 / 9 markings on them.)

All of which finally spins this post back round again to poor Cheri Jo Bates’ murder: for, as the zodiackillerfacts site points out, it was there that “[I]nvestigators came upon a man’s Timex watch lying on the ground near the body”. Honestly, does anyone truly believe that a psychopath who specifically named himself after a macho Swiss watch brand would be seen dead – if you’ll pardon the phrase – in an American Timex?

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.