The Rugg and Taylor “Cryptologia” article on the Voynich Manuscript

By Gordon Rugg and Gavin Taylor

Standard disclaimer: This article represents our own opinions, and does not reflect the views of Keele University or of Gavin’s employer, Heath Lane Academy, Leicester.

We’ve recently had an article published in Cryptologia about our work on the Voynich Manuscript, which was discussed in New Scientist. The Cryptologia article is behind a paywall, so in this article we’ve summarised the key points, for anyone who wants some more detail.

The background

Our involvement with the Voynich Manuscript started when Gordon needed a test of concept for the Verifier method that he had developed with Jo Hyde, for detecting errors in previous research into hard, unsolved problems.

The Voynich Manuscript is a book in a unique script, with odd illustrations, which had previously been believed to be an undeciphered text, either in a unidentified language or in an uncracked code. There were serious problems with both those explanations for the manuscript. If it was an unidentified language, then it was an extremely strange one. If it was an uncracked code, then it was either astonishingly sophisticated, or was based on a very unusual set of principles. The third main possibility, namely that the manuscript contained only meaningless gibberish, had been generally discounted, because there are numerous odd statistical regularities in the text of the manuscript, which everyone believed were much too complex to have been hoaxed.

Gordon’s work showed that this belief was mistaken, and that the most distinctive qualitative features of the Voynich Manuscript could be replicated using low-tech hoaxing methods. This resulted in an article in Cryptologia in 2004.

Gordon’s initial work, however, did not address the quantitative statistical regularities of the text in the manuscript.

Our recent article in Cryptologia addresses this issue, and shows how the most distinctive quantitative features of the VMS can be replicated using the same low-tech hoaxing methods as Gordon’s previous work. These features arise as unintended consequences of the technology being used, which produces statistical regularities as unplanned but inevitable side-effects.

Taken together, these two articles show that the key unusual features of the Voynich Manuscript can be explained as the products of a low-tech mechanism for producing meaningless gibberish.

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Iterative non-functional prototyping

By Gordon Rugg

Sometimes, product development is straightforward. The client tells you what they want; you produce it; they’re happy with it, they pay you, and everything is fine. This is known in the field as the waterfall model of development; once the client has signed off on the requirements, the process then moves irrevocably onwards, like a river going over a cliff.

When you and the client are dealing with familiar territory, this approach usually works reasonably well. Sometimes, though, things don’t work that way. You’re particularly likely to hit problems when you’re developing something that’s new territory for you and/or the client.

One common problem involves the client changing their mind part-way through development.

Another involves the client being unhappy with what you produced.

Communication problems are another frequent source of trouble, with you trying to make sense of just what the client wants, and getting more and more frustrated.

If you’re in that situation, or you think there’s a risk of getting into it, you might want to try iterative non-functional prototyping. It’s a lot simpler than it sounds, and it’s a fast, cheap, efficient way of getting to the heart of what the client wants, particularly when clients don’t actually know just what they want at the start. It involves looping through mockups systematically until the requirements are clear.

This article gives a short introduction to the core concepts and the process. It should be enough to let you get started; there’s supporting material elsewhere on this blog which goes into more detail about the underpinnings, which I’ve linked to within the article.

Waterfalls and loopsbannerv1Images from Wikimedia Commons: Attributions are given at the end of this article

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Teacher Humour: Why spelling matters

By Gordon Rugg

If one of your students ever complains that you’re making too much fuss about correct spelling…

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https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/573223858803590270/

(Image used under fair use terms, as a humorous low-resolution copy of an image already widely circulated)

If you want a more detailed explanation, this previous article goes into more depth (but is less artistically striking…)

 

Why Hollywood gets it wrong, part 2

By Gordon Rugg

The first article in this short series looked at one reason for movies presenting a distorted version of reality, namely conflict between conventions.

Today’s article looks at a reason for movies presenting a simplified version of reality. It involves reducing cognitive load for the audience, and it was studied in detail by Grice, in his work on the principles of communication. It can be summed up in one short principle: Say all of, but only, what is relevant and necessary.

At first sight, this appears self-evident. There will be obvious problems if you don’t give the other person all of the information they need, or if you throw in irrelevant and unnecessary information.

In reality, though, it’s not always easy to assess whether you’ve followed this principle correctly. A particularly common pitfall is assuming that the other person already knows something, and in consequence not bothering to mention it. Other pitfalls are subtler, and have far-reaching implications for fields as varied as politics, research methods, and setting exams. I’ll start by examining a classic concept from the detective genre, namely the red herring.

five red herrings bannerHerring image by Lupo – Self-made, based on Image:Herring2.jpg by User:Uwe kils, which is licensed {{GFDL}}, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2610685

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Will the world end if I don’t get a job soon?

By Gordon Rugg

The short, reassuring answer is no, the world probably won’t end if you don’t get a job soon.

However, if you’re trying to find a job and haven’t found one yet, it can easily feel as if your personal world is closing in around you and about to collapse. This article is about some ways of handling that feeling and of handling the situation so that you get something good and positive out of it.

To set a good, positive mood as a starting point, here’s a picture of a hammock on a tropical beach.

798px-HammockonBeachImage source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HammockonBeach.jpg

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Catastrophic success

By Gordon Rugg

Sometimes, you know a concept, but don’t know a name for it. I’m grateful to Colin Rigby for introducing me to a name for this article’s topic, namely catastrophic success.

It’s a concept that’s been around for a long time, in fields as varied as business planning and the original Conan the Barbarian movie. It’s simple, so this will be a short article, but it’s a very powerful concept, and well worth knowing about.

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Some myths about PhDs

By Gordon Rugg

This article covers three myths about PhDs that seem to be popular at the moment.

  • First myth: You have to find a PhD topic by looking for advertised PhD studentships
  • Second myth: You have to have a 2:1 or a distinction to get onto a PhD
  • Third myth: You have to start in September, or you’ve missed your chance till the next year

All three beliefs contain enough truth to look discouraging to many people who might be thinking of doing a PhD, but who don’t fit the criteria set out in the myths. However, that doesn’t mean that those myths tell the full story. The full story is longer and more complex (which may be why it isn’t as widely known as it should be) and is also more hopeful for anyone who isn’t able to follow the usual PhD route.

Before we get into the details, here’s an encouraging pair of classical pictures to put you in an appropriate mood, showing the transformation from solitary uncertainty in the wilderness to public adulation and success…

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