I'm sorry, I haven't a clue

R.A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Fri Nov 26 23:56:25 EST 2004


  Guardian |

I'm sorry, I haven't a clue

However cracked they may be, our fascination for codes remains
Mark Lawson
Saturday November 27, 2004

The Guardian
The discovery of a code at Shugborough Hall, in Staffordshire -
"O.U.O.S.V.A.V.V" - that may disclose the location of the holy grail has
been widely compared to Dan Brown's super-selling novel The Da Vinci Code.

This Shugborough cryptograph - on which old Bletchley Park codebreakers
have been working - is seen as life imitating art, but the relationship
between popular fiction and reality is more often the reverse. Novels sell
well because they reflect our times: art imitating life, if often in heavy

The biggest-selling novels of the 70s - Jaws and The Godfather - concerned
shadowy forces, fish and criminal, beneath the surface of society. We can
now see that these tales reflected the menaces to the American way from the
cold war, Vietnam and Watergate. Similarly, the millions drawn in Britain
at the same period to the animal epic Watership Down were drawn by a
sentimental regret that our traditional way of life was being swamped by

So, if bestselling books contain hidden messages about our times, then The
Da Vinci Code, having cryptography as both content and method, may be the
ultimate popular fiction. We can guess that the reason Brown's book has
sold in such quantities is that we live surrounded by codes and puzzles
that we fear may be broken (such as our computer and digital
communications), or that we fear will not be (Osama bin Laden's
instructions to his followers, the "big wedding" in America that turned out
to be 9/11).

It's the same instinct - of fear and fascination with encryption - that
leads people to read both The Da Vinci Code and the newspaper stories about
a supposed clue to the holy grail. And, coincidentally, a new non-fiction
book reveals that one of the world's most famous figures believes that a
secret code gives meaning to his life. The Pope in Winter, by John
Cornwell, discusses John Paul II's conviction that his attempted
assassination in 1981 had been predicted by an apparition of Christ's
mother speaking to Portuguese children in 1917.

But the lesson of both the Shugborough puzzle and the Pope's divine code is
that predictive cryptography - as distinct from practical code-breaking,
such as the Enigma work at Bletchley - works better in fiction than fact.

The problem for code-breakers is that they are often forced to assume that
a setter sophisticated with letters or numbers would be sloppy with grammar
and spelling. Hence, notoriously, Nostradamus, credited by some fans with
predicting the rise of a German tyrant called "Hister", must be assumed to
have had massive predictive powers but limited dictionary skills.

So it is with Shugborough's O.U.O.S.V.A.V.V sequence. Cryptologists suggest
that the letters can be made to say the Hebrew phrase "Why Feather Curve"
or, in Latin, "Best wife, best sister, widower most loving vows
virtuously". But both interpretations feel like the kind of sentence you
end up with after failing to solve a puzzle, rather than what you would
begin with in setting one - a code consists of language to be broken, but
it's not clear why it would be rooted in broken English.

A similar application of linguistic imprecision to an art that should be
precise is the Pope's assumption of the Third Secret of Fatima. This final
dictation given to the Portuguese children by their shimmering vision was
sealed by the Vatican for many decades, leading to much prediction that it
contained the date of the end of the world. There were rumours of popes
fainting when they took the envelope out of their library.

At the turn of the millennium, John Paul II decided to break the code. He
revealed that the long-suppressed message foresaw that a "man in white"
would "fall to the ground". He was convinced that these words anticipated
his shooting in Rome.

In fact, as Cornwell's book points out, you have to arm-lock the prophecy
to get this reading. The seer in Portugal predicted that the white-clad man
would be "killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at
him". Numerous civilians would also die in the attack. This raises the
Nostradamus problem: why would someone with the ability to tell the story
of the future be shown such a corrupted narrative?

The need for codebreakers to ignore the bits that don't fit is why such
puzzles are most satisfying in novels where, unusually, both the cipher and
the solution are provided by the same mind and therefore must match. The
prophecies of Nostradamus have always sold well, but The Da Vinci Code is
Nostradamus without the bits that have proved to be embarrassingly wrong.

Those who believe that the road to the holy grail leads from a stone at
Lord Lichfield's family home should crack this code: T1BEM. The M, if it
helps, is "minute".

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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