Hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript, part 5: Planning the book structure

By Gordon Rugg

In this series of articles, we’re imagining that you’ve gone back in time, and that you want to produce the Voynich Manuscript as a hoax to make money. We’re looking at the problems and decisions you’d face, and at the implications of various possible solutions.

The first article looked at why a mysterious manuscript would be a good choice of item to hoax. The second article looked at some of the problems involved in hoaxing a text that looked like an unknown language, from the linguistic viewpoint. The third examined the same subject in more depth, and the fourth discussed the choice of materials, going into some detail about the choice between using freshly-made or already-old vellum.

In this article, I’ll look at issues involved in planning the layout, structure and contents of the book.

the outside of the voynich manuscript

Not as exotic as the interior: the outside of the Voynich Manuscript. (Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library)

Continue reading

Shock, horror, jokes and Necker cubes: Why humour is funny and scary things are scary

By Gordon Rugg

Complex things often have simple causes. Here’s a classic example. It’s a fractal.

julia set detail

(From wikimedia)

Fractal images are so complex that there’s an entire area of mathematics specialising in them. However, the complex fractal image above comes from a single, simple equation.

Humour and sudden shocks are also complex, since they both depend on substantial knowledge about the world and about human behaviour, but, like fractals, the key to them comes from a very simple underlying mechanism. Here’s what it looks like. It’s called the Necker cube.

necker cube red

So what’s the Necker cube, and how is it involved with such emotive areas as humour and horror?

Continue reading

Schema theory, scripts, and mental templates: An introduction

By Gordon Rugg

Why should anyone care about schema theory? Well, among other things, it’s at the heart of how society functions, and if you make good use of it, you can become rich, famous and socially successful. That’s a persuasive pair of reasons. This article describes the core concepts in schema theory, discusses some examples of how it gives powerful insights, and relates it to various concepts that complement it.

First, some background. Schema theory was introduced in the 1930s by Sir Fred Bartlett. It’s pronounced like “schemer” which is a frequent cause of confusion if people first encounter the term by hearing it rather than reading it. The core idea is that a schema is a sort of mental template that describes the key features of something. For instance, the schema for a typical car includes having four wheels, a chassis, a body, doors, seats and a steering wheel.

There’s a closely related approach known as script theory. Scripts in this context are a sub-type of schema that describe the key features of an activity – a verb as opposed to a noun. For instance, the script for a pre-arranged dinner at a French-style restaurant includes the actions of booking a table, arriving at the agreed time, being greeted by a member of staff, being shown to your table, etc. We’ll be covering script theory in a later article.

So far, this may sound tidy but not particularly powerful or interesting. When you dig deeper, though, schema theory and script theory turn out to have a lot of uses and implications that aren’t as widely known as they should be. These take us into fields as varied as designing game-changing new products, the law, and measuring novelty in film scripts, as well as the eternal question of why the general public appears collectively unable to have consistent, clear ideas about what it wants. First, we’ll work through the basic concepts.

Continue reading

Decision rationale: The why and the wherefore

By Gordon Rugg

People are usually able to give you reasons for the things that they do. Sometimes those reasons make perfect sense; sometimes they make sense once you understand the background; other times, you’re left wondering what one earth is going on in the person’s head. There’s also the issue of whether those reasons bear any relation to reality, but that’s another story.

This article is about how one apparently pointless superstition can be traced back to a perfectly sensible piece of evidence-based reasoning that subsequently spiralled off into a very different direction. It involves the ancient Roman practice of examining the livers of sacrificed sheep and poultry as a way of predicting the future.

So what does this practice have to tell us about how people make decisions today? Actually, quite a lot. It’s a good illustration of some fundamental points that are as important now as they were over two thousand years ago, when this bronze model of a liver was created to help Roman fortune tellers assess the omens before a major decision.



Continue reading

Client requirements: Are they really infinite and unknowable?

A tale of Dostoyevsky, deserts, Wile. E. Coyote and Road Runner

By Gordon Rugg

“We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is? I sometimes fancy it like that.”

“Can it be you can imagine nothing juster and more comforting than that?” Raskolnikov cried, with a feeling of anguish.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

If you’ve ever had to deal with a demanding set of client requirements, and you were offered the alternative of spending eternity in a black, grimy spider-infested country bath house, then you’d probably hesitate about which choice to go for.

At one level, client requirements actually are infinite and unknowable. At another level, though, there’s a more positive message. Yes, the complete set of client requirements is ultimately infinite and unknowable, but that isn’t the real point. The real point is that you don’t need the complete set. You just need enough for the task in hand, and that’s a much more tractable problem.

This article is about ways of getting your head round the concepts involved.

They’re important concepts, because they have far-reaching implications for how we approach the whole issue of requirements and what people want, not just for product design, but also for bigger issues like architecture and what people really want out of life, and how to design the human world to meet those wants and needs. Fortunately, the concepts required are actually fairly straightforward, if you have the right tools for thought. The tools for thought that we’ll be using in this article are a desert highway and a large number of scattered boxes.

Continue reading

Why heavy things are heavy: Brought to you by classical logic

By Gordon Rugg

Here’s Vitruvius again, trying to explain something using the four elements theory again, and ending up with a distinctly dodgy chain of reasoning again. You get the feeling that his heart isn’t really in it, and that he knows he’s working with tools that just aren’t up to the job.

6. To begin with fir: it contains a great deal of air and fire with very little moisture and the earthy, so that, as its natural properties are of the lighter class, it is not heavy.

I know how he must have felt. When I started to add tags to this post, the software helpfully suggested adding the tags Brookside characters and mattress. Is there a Brookside character named Vitruvius Mattress? I really don’t want to know.

Hoaxing the Voynich Manuscript, part 4: The materials

By Gordon Rugg

In this series of articles, we’re imagining that you’ve gone back in time, and that you want to produce the Voynich Manuscript as a hoax to make money.

The first article looked at why a mysterious manuscript would be a good choice of item to hoax. The second article looked at some of the problems involved in hoaxing a text that looked like an unknown language, from the linguistic viewpoint. The third examined the same subject in more depth.

In this article, I’ll look at the materials that would be needed for the hypothetical hoax. Some of them are straightforward, but one is the subject of much argument.

rugg with table

Continue reading

Why birds can fly: Brought to you by classical logic

By Gordon Rugg

You might already be familiar with the Monty Python scene where one of King Arthur’s knights uses logical reasoning to show why witches and ducks float. As with much of Monty Python, it’s fairly close to something that actually happened.

Here’s Vitruvius, the famous Roman engineer and architect, using the four elements theory (that all things are made of various mixtures of air, fire, water and earth) to explain why birds are able to fly.

Winged creatures have less of the earthy, less moisture, heat in moderation, air in large amount. Being made up, therefore, of the lighter elements, they can more readily soar away into the air.

(From his Ten Books on Architecture)

Disclaimer: If you try using this quote as justification for throwing an alleged witch into a pond, then you’re on your own – this post is tagged under “error”…

Is that handaxe Windows-compatible? The concept of “range of convenience”

By Gordon Rugg

A “Useful concept for the day” article

This is a replica handaxe that I made in my archaeology days. It’s turned out to be invaluable as a demonstration of assorted useful concepts, though I didn’t expect that when I made it.


What would your response be if someone asked you whether that handaxe is Windows-compatible? You’d probably be surprised by the question, because it’s meaningless. As for explaining why it’s meaningless, though, that’s not so immediately obvious.

This is where range of convenience comes in. It’s from George Kelley’s approach to psychology, namely Personal Construct Theory (PCT). It dates from the 1950s, but still has a strong following today because it offers a clean, systematic, rigorous way of modeling how people think. PCT has a rich, well-developed set of concepts for handling language and categorisation and ideas. Range of convenience is one of those concepts.

Continue reading

A very British mystery, part 5: Gavin Finds a Typo

By Gordon Rugg and Gavin Taylor

The story so far: This is a series of articles about the D’Agapeyeff Cipher, a short ciphertext that’s never been cracked. It first appeared in Alexander D’Agapeyeff’s 1939 book Codes and Ciphers. It’s a good testbed for codebreakers who have to deal with short texts. In the previous episodes, we’ve listed the codes described in the book, plus the worked examples that D’Agapeyeff used. In today’s gripping episode, we focus on a typo that Gavin found in Codes and Ciphers. It’s more exciting than it sounds, though admittedly that isn’t the most difficult challenge in the world…

Opening question: Does anyone apart from sad pedants really care about typos, and if they do, is that just a sign that they really ought to get a life?

In fact, a lot of people care a great deal about typos, in a lot of different fields, and for a lot of very good reasons, most of them involving money and the law. They’re also a serious issue if you’re applying for a job. A high proportion of organisations will reject a job application because of a single typo in the covering letter.

So why do people care so much about typos, and what does Gavin’s discovery mean for anyone interested in the D’Agapeyeff Cipher?

Continue reading