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VMs: Personal Guess
My turn for a personal guess:
English, early to middle 16th century, (1526-1540's), personal work, written
by a physician. Anthony Askham is a likely candidate, his habit of
inserting his name in many places in a manuscript is documented. I believe
it to be written by means of a polyalphabetic cipher, but a very unusual use
of one. In some ways my views are closer to Nick Pelling's as to
construction and technique. I am at this point uncertain as to whether the
entire text is mathematically recoverable. Portions may have to be
recovered through context, leaving some ambiguity.
I am an admirer of the private cryptographic work conducted by Leonnel C.
Strong, not just in the VMS, but in other areas as well. None of his work
saw publication over the 5 decades it progressed as a personal study, and in
the case of the VMS, his only two publications were for the sole purpose of
gaining access to the VMS. Having failed in the attempt, he ceased work on
the VMS, and never took it up again.
(I noticed that A&E has a program on tonight on the Zodiac Killer, so this
trivia may interest a few - when the first Zodiac cipher was published, a
school teacher and his wife were publicly given credit for solving it and
sending their solution to the newspaper, but at the same time, Dr. Strong
solved it as well, sending his solution instead to the FBI. Fame and
fortune were not his game of choice.)
His VMS work has been heavily criticized, and Strong never chose to defend
himself. Some of the early criticism was harsh and unjustified, some of the
more recent criticism better founded. I am the first to admit that there
are serious errors and other problems, but there are also serious truths to
be discovered in these worksheets. I can certainly produce a list of
anachronisms, transcription errors and blatant guesses in the crib sheets
for these two pages. Very fair and accurate criticisms. I could be
critical of his chosen plainttext alphabet, which is not properly aligned to
the work. I could be critical of the fact that he attempted to mix CL A
and CL B folios, even after he became aware that the two were incompatible.
Then again, if you only have two clear pages to work with, you make a few
mistakes. Rather than dwell on Strong, I'll pursue my own assumptions and
guesses, so criticism can be properly directed where it belongs.
My guess: The two statistics, CL A and CL B, differ in the length of the PT
alphabet, CL A being one to two characters longer than the alphabet used in
CL B. I'm not certain why this change was made, but the number of
transitional pages may indicate that the change was made to suit a
particular construction method. By this I mean the way the system
functions, and the lowering of the alphabet aiding in the ability to produce
repetitions. The following is my "best guess" on construction technique.
For whatever reason, a table of pairs was generated through polyalphabetic
means. The author played around with these for awhile, and by the time he
started writing the VMS, he had most of them memorized. This must have been
easier for him than rotating a wheel or sorting through individual character
tables. (It was said of shorthand near this time, that it could be
memorized in a month, and practiced with fluency in two months. Our author
was definitely a user of shorthand, and no stranger to the art of
mnemonics.) An alternate view might be that he sought "consistency" in his
ciphertext, and chose a system that offered that consistency, based on
pairs. Later he altered the system to provide more consistency in
appearance and increased ease of use, through more than one means. What
drove this man I can't begin to understand, but I'm trying.
I've encountered one or two problems with my own theory, one being that the
system operates both backward and forward, whichever generates the most
"suitable" ciphertext at the moment. Can this be done in memory? I'm not
certain, as I've never tried it. I'm certain that at times he had the
tables before him, so this may not be that big a problem - simply read
right-to-left instead of left-to-right. My "memory" theory is based on the
increasingly developed structure of the VMS, something that gets better with
memory and increased use. This also accounts for why shifts in the
alphabets happen most often in "pairs". Also, word initials have a certain
sequence of progression, but the internal shifts grow increasingly erratic,
something that is not found in purely mathematical systems. I believe the
author was not fully aware of the potential for disaster by not adhering to
a purely mathematical schema when jumping alphabets, but then again, this
was a poorly investigated area of cipher at these early stages.
As to underlying language - we're all familiar with the wording in Strong's
decipherment. "Paprika" is an anachronism, and Strong's rendition of
"habit" was actually spelled "hbiit". The much discussed "sunflower" does
not necessarily fall into the "anachronism" category however. In Bancke's
Herbal of 1525, there are at least three spellings for "flower", "flower"
being one of those spellings. The word "sunflower" entered the English
language in print in 1595, but there is no telling how long it was used
before that event, and Cambridge University grew sunflowers as early as
1530, according to one (presently unverified) source. This source states
without qualification that "all flora brought from the New World by Columbus
and the early explorers had made their way to major universities on the
continent by 1518, and to isolated England by 1530." My view of England at
this time is that it was not that isolated, and if it can be proven that
these plants made their way to continental universities, it is a given that
they were also in English universities. One must remember that Padua,
Italy, was one of the favorite abroads for English university students, with
French locales coming in second.
>From work outside Strong's notes - spellings are not what we find in early
English printed books. "Kengs Gonroe" for "King Henry", Latin "Bel Opus"
for "Fair moon", and "streves" for "sterres". "Strewes" with a "w" was also
used in at least one book at the time in place of "sterres", and if I take
the meaning correctly, it would mean something like "scattered lights",
since "strewe" meant "to scatter", perhaps simply a play on words. (I have
the book in question, but can't recall the name - I'll look it up and make a
note of the location.) We also have "Lyonyx Yorx" for "Lion of Yorke". I
once assumed this to be a reference to a person, but later discovered it was
a reference to a star that was deemed to have had great influence on the
province of York. I still don't know the actual name of the star.
(According to Askham, there are 40 stars that have influence on York, so
take your pick.) There's that little ditty from my late friend Rayman,
still valid - "Svdden lumpe hed ryske ismek deathe". (Probably "is mek",
meaning "...risk is, makes death")[one of the many examples of spaces not
being the natural word breaks]. This came from the system reversed, when it
traversed an entire initial line. These are but a few, and most out of
context by design.
Most of what I "assume" I keep close, so I don't have to defend against my
own uncertainties. I lack the talent Dr. Strong possessed, but I have the
perseverence to fill the gap between talent and hard work. I'm a believer,
not because it's something to fill my mental void, but because the numbers
are there for anyone who looks close enough and is willing to make
corrections to obvious errors (took me a couple of years), because it makes
sense, to me at least, and because even defective forms of the system
produce "intelligent" results. My current studies are designed to expand
the limitations of my own adaptation of Strong's system. Hope it works.
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