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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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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Grand Unified Theories

By Gordon Rugg

If you’re a researcher, there’s a strong temptation to find a Grand Unified Theory for whatever you’re studying, whether you’re a geologist or a physicist or psychologist or from some other field.

That temptation is understandable. There’s the intellectual satisfaction of making sense of something that had previously been formless chaos; there’s the moral satisfaction of giving new insights into long-established problems; for the less lofty-minded, there’s the prospect of having a law or theory named after oneself.

Just because it’s understandable, however, doesn’t mean that it’s always a good idea. For every Grand Unified Theory that tidies up some part of the natural world, there’s at least one screwed-up bad idea that will waste other people’s time, and quite possibly increase chaos and unpleasantness.

This article explores some of the issues involved. As worked examples, I’ll start with an ancient stone map of Rome, and move on later to a Galloway dyke, illustrated below.

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Things, concepts and words

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a useful three way distinction in linguistics between things, concepts and words.

This article is a gentle examination of the distinction, with some thoughts about implications for human error.

Unicorns and non-unicornsbannerSources for images are given at the end of this article

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Why do people treat spelling and punctuation as such a big deal?

By Gordon Rugg

This one has a nice, easy answer: Legal implications. Spelling and punctuation can have huge legal implications that in turn can have huge financial implications.

That, however, raises the question of just what those legal implications are. Again, there’s a nice, clear answer, but unpacking it will involve a couple of examples; one for spelling, and one for punctuation. Here are those examples.

bannerAttributions for images are given at the end of this article

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The Myth of Business Efficiency

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a widespread belief that the public sector has much to learn from business, in terms of efficiency. There’s also a widespread belief that Bigfoot exists. One of these beliefs has some correspondence with reality, and has a fair chance of making the world a better place; it’s not the one about business efficiency…

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Images from Wikipedia; full credits at the end of this article.

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Truthiness, scienciness, and product success

By Gordon Rugg

This is a Tempest Prognosticator.

800px-Tempest_Prognosticator“Tempest Prognosticator” by Badobadop – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tempest_Prognosticator.jpg#/media/File:Tempest_Prognosticator.jpg

It’s a splendid example of nineteenth century ingenuity, right down to the name. What does it do? It’s intended to let you know if a storm is approaching. The way it does this is as wonderfully nineteenth century as the name. The Prognosticator is operated by twelve leeches, each of which lives in a bottle. When storms are approaching, the leeches become agitated, and climb out of the bottle. When they climb out, they disturb a piece of whalebone, which activates a bell. The more serious the risk of storm, the more leeches climb out, and the more bells ring.

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