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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Life at uni, revisited

By Gordon Rugg

If you’re about to start your first year at university, and you’re feeling unsure and nervous, then you’ve got plenty of company. Most new students feel that way, though not all of them show it. This is a re-post of the first in a short series of articles for people in your situation, about key information that should make your life easier.

This article is about roles at university. The American cartoon below summarises them pretty accurately.

academic muppets

Image from Twitter

So what are the roles other than “Elmo the undergrad” and how are they likely to affect you?

Grad students: In Britain, these are usually “PhD students” or “teaching assistants” or “demonstrators” in practical classes. They’re usually cynical and stressed because of their PhDs. They usually know the university system well, and they’re very, very useful people to have as friends. (Really bad idea: Complaining to the university that they’re not real, proper teachers.)

Post-docs are next up the food chain. They already have their PhD, and they’re working on a research project until they can land a job further up the food chain. You might see post-docs around the department, but you probably won’t have much direct contact with them.

Assistant professor: In Britain, these are lecturers and Senior Lecturers and Readers and (in some universities) Principal Lecturers. These are the people who will deliver most of your lectures. Lecturing is just one of the things they do; they also do research, and income generation, and university admin, and a pile of other things. (Classic embarrassing newbie mistake: Calling them “teachers”.)

Tenured professor: The image says it all; lofty, often scary figures who give the strong impression of wisdom beyond mortal imagining. That impression is often true.

Professor emeritus: Again, the image is all too accurate. Emeritus professors often have ideas so strange that ordinary humans wonder whether they’re brilliant or completely divorced from reality. I make no comment on this.

The other articles in this series cover the main sources of confusion for students, including useful information that would be easy to miss otherwise, but that can make your life much better. I hope you find them useful.

Other articles in this series that you might find useful:

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2014/09/23/life-at-uni-lectures-versus-lessons/

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/life-at-uni-why-is-my-timetable-a-mess/

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2014/11/06/life-at-uni-cookery-concepts-101/

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2015/01/05/life-at-uni-exams/

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2015/01/18/life-at-uni-after-uni/

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2015/02/23/life-at-uni-will-the-world-end-if-i-fail-my-exams/

A couple of other articles on this blog that you might find useful as starting points:

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/from-boilerplate-to-pixy-dust-useful-writing-tips-for-stressed-students/

https://hydeandrugg.wordpress.com/2015/06/25/critically-reviewing-the-literature-the-quick-and-dirty-way/

 

Life at Uni: Why is my timetable a mess?

By Gordon Rugg

Every year, huge numbers of new students start university, and are surprised to discover that their timetable is very much a work in progress (and sometimes, a work of fiction). Every year, understandably, huge numbers of new students react to this discovery by wondering why universities crammed with alleged geniuses can’t sort out something as simple as a timetable. It’s not an encouraging start. This article is about the reasons for this state of affairs.

The main reason is that timetabling actually isn’t simple. In reality, it’s hideously complex. The timetable for a single university has to handle thousands of students, hundreds of modules, hundreds of academic staff, and hundreds of rooms. Very few of those students want lectures first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon, or on a Monday or Friday, so some slots are much more in demand than others.

Reconciling all of these issues is a huge, messy problem, but it could in principle be resolved by using smart software; some universities already use cutting-edge software that can perform impressively well, if other things are equal.

Unfortunately, the big spanner in the works is that other things usually aren’t equal. Here’s a classic example of why timetables are often fluid until well after the first week.

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Life at Uni: Lectures versus lessons

By Gordon Rugg

A lot of things at university look very similar to things in school, but are actually very different. Lectures look like lessons to a lot of new students at university, but they’re very different beneath the surface.

One major difference is this:

  • In a lesson, the teacher is someone who knows the textbooks.
  • In a lecture, the lecturer is often the person who wrote the textbooks.

It’s a rule of thumb – some teachers write textbooks, and many lecturers don’t write textbooks, for various reasons – but it brings out a key underlying point. Lecturers do a lot of things in addition to delivering lectures, and a lot of lecturers are world class experts in their fields.

Student reactions to this vary.

  • Some students view this as an opportunity.
  • Some students view this as intimidating.
  • Most students either don’t know this, or haven’t thought about the implications.

academic muppets

Image from Twitter

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What’s it like at Uni? The people…

By Gordon Rugg

If you’re about to start your first year at university, and you’re feeling unsure and nervous, then you’ve got plenty of company. Most new students feel that way, though not all of them show it. This is the first in a short series of articles for people in your situation, about key information that should make your life easier.

This article is about roles at university. The American cartoon below summarises them pretty accurately.

academic muppetsImage from Twitter

So what are the roles other than “Elmo the undergrad” and how are they likely to affect you?

Continue reading