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How Cryptic: 4 Famous Unsolved Ciphers and Codes

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People love a good mystery, and few things are more mysterious than a long-unsolved code. Here are the stories of four ciphers and codes we've been unable to crack.

1. The Shugborough Inscription

Letters carved into Shepherd's Monument at Shugborough Hall in the mid-1700s, commissioned by Thomas and Admiral George Anson, continue to ignite the interest of conspiracy theorists. OUOSVAVV and, below at either end, the letters D and M—that's the whole thing. Yet such a short and seemingly meaningless inscription is just cryptic enough to mean just about anything: an acrostic in Latin dedicating the shrine to George Anson's wife, a love letter, a list of Shugborough residents by surname, a kind of old-school graffiti, and of course, a link to the Priory of Sion—perhaps as a coded message leading to the Holy Grail.

The latter theory was compounded by similar themes in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, prompting the general manager of Shugborough Estate to launch a promotional campaign implying a definite connection between the inscription and the Holy Grail. The influx of Grail-hunting codebreakers resulted in countless new "solutions" related to the life of Jesus and an alleged Knights Templar/Priory cover-up of his non-divine bloodline. Jury's still out on that one.

2. The Dorabella Cipher

The Dorabelle Cipher is an 87-glyph, three-line code written by "Pomp and Circumstance" composer Edward Elgar in a letter to Dora Penny in 1897. Elgar was fascinated by cryptography, often suggesting that his compositions were coded references to other famous works or, in the case of Enigma Variations, at least partly decipherable in Morse code.

While trying to make his big break as a composer, Elgar met Dora Penny (he called her "Dorabella"), the daughter of a clergyman. Penny was 20 years his junior, but the two shared common interests in cycling, kites, and the Wolverhampton Wanderers soccer team. The Pennys invited Elgar and his wife, Alice, to stay with them. After returning home, Alice Elgar sent a note of thanks to the family; the coded letter, addressed to "Miss Penny" was tucked inside.

Theories abound about the nature of the message, which would have been seen by the entire family. Was the much older and married Elgar professing his affection for Dora? Is it a joke inspired by artifacts from the Penny family's travels? Is it a musical composition? Suggestions for all three are floating around but, without deciphering the note, there's no way to know.

Attempts to crack the code have resulted in more confusion. When deciphered musically, the code is, well, unimpressive. Direct substitution (wherein each symbol corresponds to a letter of the alphabet) produces nonsense. Double encipherment is likely, but no keyword is known, so nobody has been able to break the Dorabella Cipher for 114 years.

3. The Zodiac Killer's Codes

Throughout the 1960s and '70s, a serial killer terrorized the San Francisco Bay area, sending letters and encrypted messages to the media and police. Of the many letters, at least four were cryptograms. Only one, a three-part missive sent to three separate newspapers, has been solved. The 408-character code was cracked by Donald and Bettye Harden; it contained multiple errors in both spelling and transcription, which is possibly why the remaining codes have been so difficult to decrypt.

There are several sites dedicated to decoding the Zodiac Killer's cryptograms, but this one has a handy web toy that lets users practice their cryptanalysis skills online.

4. The Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript is arguably the most famous unsolved text in history. Named after Wilifred M. Voynich, the book dealer who acquired it in 1912, the 240-ish page illuminated codex contains drawings of bizarre plants, astrological maps, strange anatomical drawings, and what are possibly pharmaceutical compounds. A final section, devoid of illustration, is thought to be an almanac or list of recipes. The almanac section is the most text-dense section of the work.

Though it has been scrutinized extensively by cryptologists and interdisciplinary groups, not a single section of the Voynich Manuscript can be satisfactorily deciphered. Certain glyphs resemble European alphabets, but largely the language remains unidentifiable. The structure of words and sentences, word repetition and frequency, and distribution of letters within words resist correlation to known languages.

The first "solution" was offered by William Romaine Newbold in 1919, claiming the codex was authored by Roger Bacon in the 13th century. But radio carbon dating disproves this theory by showing the manuscript to be at least 200 years too young; it was likely created between 1404 and 1438. This also disproves a long-held belief that Voynich himself constructed the manuscript as an elaborate hoax to gain fame and money. Similarly, the C14 dating discounts multiple theories of other suspected authors, who mostly lived a few hundred years after the book's creation.

The most cryptic feature of the Voynich Manuscript, though, is the purpose. Is it a pharmacopeia? Proof of an alien encounter? The gibberish glossolalia of an insane or possessed person? Without context, satisfactory translation, and verifiable authorship, it's just about anyone's guess. The only certainty is that it is unique. The Voynich Manuscript is currently owned by Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which offers the full catalog of document images on its website.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]