Posts Tagged ‘romaine’

Pitfalls of Decipherment

July 26, 2015

I am barely a cipher amateur. Nonetheless, I’ve read and studied about many historical cipher attempts, both successes and failures, and over the last few years, and I’ve been privy to a great many decipherment attempts on the Voynich, both in public and in private. And so even if I have not made any significant decipherments of my own, the successes and failures of others have still taught me many useful signs of error in the process of decipherment. The failure of many of these attempts may be obvious to me and others, but is often not at all apparent to their proponents. This should not be so, as there is available a very simple two-step test one can use to determine a the correctness of any proposed solution. These tests are derived from several sources, but most notably the works of Elizebeth and William Friedman. Both of these conditions MUST be met in order for a claimed decipherment to be deemed correct:

1) Repeatability: If one can explain the system used, to a second person, and then they derive the same cipher text as the solution’s proponent, then part one has been passed.

2) Meaning: If the system is repeatable, as above, then the results must have meaning.

But the problem is that, in a very many instances, a decipherer believes they have met the above two-step criteria, and passed the test, when they have not. As I asked, why? It usually is because they have been trapped by various pitfalls, in which “ways around” the tests… although invalid… seem to obviate a need to meet those basic requirements, or convince them that they have met them. I’d call these “pitfalls” then, and are very dangerous. By not recognizing them in one’s own work, by stepping over or around them, one can become victim to spending huge amounts of life and effort continuing to work on what is a failed scheme.

List of potential pitfalls to decipherment:
1) Defending subjective input: It is normal, in many cases, for a decipherer to insert speculative plain text characters, words or phrases in order to test cipher schemes: Such as using the name of an item in an illustration, or a word which might make sense in the context of the work in general. But then a problem arises if the system is not seen as flawed when it needs to alter itself in order to allow for new results from new cipher text. That is, if the scheme needs to be altered to fit the new, speculative plain text, then this should be seen as a test of the scheme, and that the scheme has failed. It this “red flag” is missed, there is no limit to the complexities that that a decipherment scheme/system can grow to, in order to continue to adapt to speculative, desired, plain text. But we know the solution is wrong, because no cipher system needs to adapt for individual words. No matter how complex, a proper cipher will work consistently to decipher the text without needing to adapt as it progresses.

The signs to look for are if the decipherer will not try new text, and only sticks to small section of selected text. Another is if the system is not shared, often said to be “too complicated” for others, or if there is no expressed, relatable system at all. Sometimes a system is shared, but cannot be used to create meaningful text by a second party, and then this shows the solution is wrong.

2) Multiple Plain Text Choices: If at any point in the decipherment process, choices of multiple possible plaintext letters or words are needed, the number of outcomes quickly rises. The level of subjectivity in such decipherment schemes can be so high that many different translations of meaning, or near meaning, can be derived from the same cipher text. What to look for are charts with columns or rows of alternate “translations” for one cipher character or word.

Often the pitfall is that the translator has a concept of what they think the content is, or should be, so then the choices they make for the output don’t seem subjective to them, but the only logical possibility from the many variations conceivable during the process. In these cases, a proposer may believe the “repeatability” requirement must be bent, as there needs to be a mutual understanding of what choices should be made in the process, and that the original users of the cipher would possess that understanding. Another excuse is that the original creator alone possessed the necessary understanding, as they never intended anyone else to read the plain text. They then feel that, possessing this understanding, they alone come to the proper results. This is a dangerous pitfall, as there is really no way to convince oneself, or others, that this is unlikely to be the case. But it is  historically unknown as a concept, if that helps.

Another good test is falsification, as if many other results can be derived by using other choices of characters, then at the very least it should be apparent that any particular results cannot be known if correct or if in error. That is, any such results are virtually indistinguishable from guesswork, and therefore, the solution can be assumed incorrect.

3) Anagrams: Similar to the above, if any string of plain text results needs to be reordered to derive meaning, the chance are the derived meaning is purely speculative on the part of the decipherer. It is true that anagrams have historically been used to hide information, but rarely used to hide it in a way that another person could readily derive the meaning without help. This is a common misconception about various historic uses of anagrams, such as those by Roger Bacon and Galileo. They were using anagrams to insert a “watermark” of sorts in the test, so that they could later reveal that they were privy to some knowledge, so that they could later claim precedence to that knowledge, but without revealing it to unwanted eyes. But the purpose was not for another party to discern the meaning on their own, as it needed help from the creator to find it.

But if for whatever reason anagrams might be suspected, after only a few characters the possible translations quickly rises beyond any sensible use of hiding plain text, since many alternate plain texts can be derived from even short strings of plaintext characters. This means it becomes purely subjective, and almost from the start of the process. This was one of the pitfalls that William Romaine Newbold fell into, when attempting to decipher the Voynich Manuscript cipher text.  He derived long strings of characters, from which he, or really anyone, could assemble some resemblance of meaningful text. Newbold was assuming Roger Bacon content, however, and so he manipulated his anagrams until he found it.

4) Small Set of Input/Output: If a scheme seems to work for a select few words, usually under 20 (and rarely approaching it), and then the decipherer stops attempting their scheme on new words, it then becomes a pitfall. There are several such claims of translation, some of which have made it into mainstream media. In order to avoid this, one must make certain that their scheme continues to work on a larger set of cipher words, and that they do not stop at early, perceived, “successes”. Likewise, for those attempting to determine the validity of such small set solutions, they should first insist that the proponent apply their method to a larger set (editors and producers take note). Until they do so, the solution should not be taken seriously.

5) Lack of plain text meaning: This is only a pitfall if it is not seen as a failure of a decipherment, as per the two step test at the top of this post.

It is of course easy to translate the Voynich text, or any cipher I suppose, in a way that produces “something”. But if that something has no discernible meaning, it is wrong. The pitfall comes when one does not accept that this lack of meaning exists, or that it is important. For the former, one may think the encipherer must have had a meaning in mind for the resultant ramblings; for the latter, that it is simply not a problem that there is no meaning- that is, they simply do not address it, to themselves or to others. But if one wants to self test their scheme, or the scheme of others, then lack of meaning is a sign of an incorrect solution.

Nonetheless, there are many claimed solutions which produce meaningless text… in the case of the Voynich, this almost always involves long strings of repetitive words and phrases, as the cipher text of the Voynich has much repetition. It is often claimed that these meaningless solutions must be either song, chants or poetry we don’t understand, or lists of recipe ingredients or formulas, which we simply do not know how to use due to our modern viewpoint. In reality, they are simply gibberish, and not the solution.

6) False Patterns: It is human nature to seek, and then find, patterns in randomness. But the ability can become a pitfall when left unchecked in the practice of decipherment. This pitfall not only arises in seeing patterns in the text, but in illustrations, also. And a very good self-test is, again, if the results have meaning. There has to be a greater context for the pattern, or it is probably purely subjective. If one does not make an attempt to find that greater context, or diminishes the importance of doing so, they may never see the error in the scheme. But also, like many schemes which are vulnerable to subjective errors, a pattern may be “seen” which matches a preconception for meaning and context, and this then is mistakenly thought to be validation of the pattern. Another good check in that case is falsification… that is, seeing if other patterns can be also found, with other meanings, in the same text or illustration… by oneself, or better yet, by others. If they can, then there is no way of knowing which one, if any, may be correct, and the solution is in error.

7) Skipping the process: This is rare, but there are cases of decipherers simply inserting plain text for cipher characters or words, purely speculatively (or maybe loosely based on some belief of what the Voynich may be about): This can be food sources, if one thinks it a cookbook; or chemical names, if one believes it a formula book; or maybe herbal and plant names, if one believes it a pharmacopeia. Great lists of meanings for characters or words may be offered. The tests as usual are repeatability and resultant meaning, but these are often avoided in this case. One case I’ve seen is that the proponent wrongly claims repeatability because of anyone using the list will arrive at the same exact results as they do. But the point being missed in this case is that the list is the decipherment, and the list must therefore be repeatable, and is not. And so, repeatability has actually failed. Another danger is that one may simply surmise there is a missing code book that was originally used to derive the lists of meanings; and that the results are (again) simply not understandable to a modern mind. But if one is objective, and realizes that any list of words can be substituted for one’s own (for any speculative code book), and that any results can be claimed meaningful, as in #5, they will see the error, and so can avoid this pitfall.

Conclusion: There are many historical, and even contemporary, instances of decipherment attempts which have consumed large portions of their proponent’s life and effort. In the case of the many failed Baconian theories, several individuals spent decades in a fruitless pursuit of hidden meanings in Shakespeare’s texts. But there are many other cases like this, and unfortunately even in our time. The Voynich cipher has engendered many dozens, if not hundreds, of its own instances of this unfortunate effect. I’ve personally witnessed several cases in which very brilliant and sincere people have fallen into the traps I relate above, and so are expending their precious life energy, year after year, to baseless chimeras so easily avoided- if but a small amount of careful introspection would be applied. I offer my observations, above, as a well-meant and helpful warning to them.

Newbold’s “Nebula”

May 31, 2013

Anyone who has an interest in the history of Voynich is well aware of the unfortunate and disastrous attempts of William Romaine Newbold to solve its mysteries. Although an earnest and intelligent man, he could probably be considered the first to fall victim to the vast, nebulous, nature of the problem, in which one can often see any solution their individual proclivities lead them to.

But nebulous is a bit of an appropriate and even punny adjective, in Newbold’s case, as his most famous error was in believing that Roger Bacon not only wrote the Voynich, but possessed optical equipment which allowed him the ability to discern the spiral structure of the Andromeda Galaxy… or “Nebula”, in his time. I won’t here deal with the many other facets of Newbold’s infamous claims, not the least of which was the belief that each character was made up of microscopic segments, which were therefore coded information; or the resulting long strings of subjective results from those segments, which became immense anagrams which would and did yield infinite and diverse results.

What interests me are the Andromeda suggestions. It barely requires a detailed explanation as to why he was wrong, but very simply, the detail necessary to see the spiral nature of the Andromeda was not possible until the telescopes of the latter part of the 19th century allowed it. But if you are interested in a good dissection of the reasons why, read Norman Sperling’s excellent blog post on the subject, “Voynich: Spiraling into Folly”. As Sperling writes in his very first sentence, “William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk.”

First Photograph of Andromeda Galaxy

Isaac Robert’s 1899 Photo of the Andromeda Galaxy

Above is the first picture of the Andromeda Galaxy, taken by Isaac Roberts, in 1895. As he described it in his 1899 book, “Photographs of Stars, Star-Clusters and Nebulæ”,

“That the nebula is a left-hand spiral, and not annular as I at first suspected, cannot now be questioned; for the convolutions can be traced up to the nucleus which resembles a small bright star at the center of the dense surrounding nebulosity; but notwithstanding its density the divisions between the convolutions are plainly visible on negatives which have a proper degree of exposure.”

Compare the Roberts photograph, and description, above, with the f68r image from the Voynich, below. Also note that the Voynich image spirals to the right, not the left, as the Andromeda does:

Well it is "Spiral", Anyway

Well it is “Spiral”, Anyway

So then Newbold showed the f68r spiral image (above) to one “Eric Doolittle of our Flower Observatory”, who (according to the Newbold/Kent book, “The Cipher of Roger Bacon”, told Newbold,

“…that in his opinion it unquestionably represented a nebula, and that the man who drew it must have had a telescope”.

This alone seems to have led Newbold to one of his purely speculative “decipherments” of the center of f68r’s spiral illustration. However note that Doolittle did not say which spiral nebula, and bear that in mind when considering that some spiral nebulas known, and photographed by that time, were actually seen as a circular shape… as f68r’s illustration shows… and not as an oval, due to an angle to the viewer, as the Andromeda does (see below, “Isaac Roberts M51 & M100 ‘Comæ'”). So we can’t really draw Doolittle into the web of error, considering this, nor knowing how the illustration was presented to him in the first place. However, Newbold takes the Nebula hint, runs with it, and translates the Voynichese at the center of the spiral,

“The legend is extremely difficult to decipher, but my first attempt gave the location of the object as between ‘the navel of Pegasus, the girdle of Andromeda, and the head of Cassiopea,’ and stated that it was seen in a concave mirror. The great Nebula of Andromeda lies within the triangle determined by these three points; it is there fore presumable the object which Bacon saw.”

And here, too, we see Newbold substituting Dolittle’s “telescope” with a “concave mirror”. I see in this a disingenuous, unscientific manipulation of the purely subjective results of Newbold’s, to reflect what he must have suspected: Telescopes were out of the question for Roger Bacon, but there were historic hints of concave mirrors being used in this capacity, at a very early date.

Look again at the f68r “spiral” in question. And below we see Isaac Roberts’ image of Nebulæ M51 and M100 “Comæ”, taken in the 1890’s. Comæ appears in his 1899 book. I feel these help to exonerate Doolittle to some extent, and further mire Newbold in a fog of questionable judgement. For I would have to say that if I saw the below photographs, and the above Voynich illustration, I would certainly have wondered, as Doolittle did, if there was a connection. At the very least I am certain that I would not have jumped to the oval-appearing Andromeda, as Newbold did, as it never appeared to me a good match. I also note they are right spirals, as f68r’s illustration is:

isaac roberts m51 and m100

I have of course, as others have, wondered if Romaine Newbold was a victim of an overabundance of imagination, which drove his wild speculations to their obviously incorrect conclusions. But at the same time I felt this may point at Voynich, and possibly others, having fed the poor man just enough Roger Bacon “winks and nods” to send him off the cliffs of self-delusion. Anyone who did study Bacon would soon become aware of his possible use of optics and code, which would have caused Newbold to pick them up with relish- well, we know he did- but then he charged off at light-speed down a road Voynich never intended, or imagined. But perhaps all Voynich really wanted was…

… for Newbold to simply see a few microscopes instead of “jars”, a couple of diatoms and such, and maybe, M51 from Isaac Roberts’ book. If this is the case, I would imagine Voynich’s great frustration. Rather than being handed the desired reasonable, and yet exciting, Roger Bacon attribution, Newbold instead managed to taint the image of the Cipher Manuscript, along with his own reputation, and even, a little bit, the name of Roger Bacon himself… and thereby destroy any chance Wilfred Voynich would sell this manuscript in his lifetime.

UPDATE, 6/11/14: Elitsa Velinska has found a really striking similarity to the f68r spiral, in Nicole Oresme’s, “Traité de la sphère”, BNF Français 565. It has the stars, the T/O center, and the “frills” around the edges, that the Voynich spiral all have. All that is missing are the spirals, really. This find, in my opinion, is so good that it alters my speculative reasoning as to the original purpose of the illustration in the Voynich manuscript: I don’t believe it would have been put there AS a nebula, to fool anyone… but probably was influence by the image of Orseme in some way, directly or indirectly. Of course, Newbold’s opinion on it, while wrong, still has certain implications and possible causes, some of which still stand, as stated above.

You can see Elitsa’s images and comments on her blog post, here:

UPDATE, 9/30/14: After much recent discussion about this image, which began when Robert Teague noted a very close alignment of the Oresme illustration with the f68r Voynich one, I’ve come to realize that the original possibility still stands: That perhaps the artist of f68r was a forger, and was intending to imply that this was a spiral galaxy… and that this was the original intention after all.

Of course that is purely speculative, and there is no way to prove it. It may certainly be wrong. But considering that these spirals, as attached to the Oresme-type illustration, are not found elsewhere so attached, nor is there any good reason for them to exist there (none at all, offered, as of this writing), in the first place, I have reconsidered, and think it possible that this “addition” could have been for this reason… and that Newbold simply “mucked it up” by going to Andromeda instead of M51 or M100. That is, that the f68r illustration is a false attempt to look like a 13th or 17th century astronomer’s version of a nebula, as seen and understood by an early 20th century forger, who was trying to imply the use of advanced optics by the author of the Voynich Manuscript.