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One cannot truly consider oneself a dilettante until one has offered an opinion on some famous and difficult mystery.  One of the most difficult and attractive mysteries is the Voynich Manuscript, a codex written in an unknown language in the 15th century, which resides in the Yale Library.

Its obvious paradoxes – the amount of work and exquisite detail, the effort exerted in making a book that clearly stands to convey information, is opposed by the absolute impenetrability of the language it is written in.  The book is meant to be seen and marveled at.  It is not meant to be read.

Many, many attempts have been made to pierce the code.  I have been curious about this document, although I’ve never thought I could make any headway in clarifying it.  I had just recently wondered if an analysis of the Shannon Entropy of the text had been considered by anyone.  Of course, the Voynich text draws attention like crazy, and has led to various attempts, modern and classical, to wring meaning from the codex.  I have discovered a website, Computational Attacks on the Voynich Manuscript… using Genetic Algorithms and other Machine Learning Techniques, especially a posting on attempts to wring understanding from the document by observing its Shannon entropy. (here)   That discussion on the website was based on a worthy analysis of the Shannon entropy of the text by physicists Marcelo A. Montemurro and Damián H. Zanette (here) which merited a proper scolding by a linguist in the comments (here.)

As a dilettante, I consider the scolding by greatly appreciated.  I like the website.  It shows my ambivalence about enjoying the benefits which technology brings to us, and worrying about the dangers of technological analysis.  That is what I mean by “classical and modern approaches” – not simply whether an approach is “current” or “ancient,” but the method of the approach.

The humanist, or academic approach, is to gather people learned in the various subjects worthy of advanced study, and analyze difficult problems, and publish documents based upon the slow, patient accumulation of wisdom concerning a topic over the many years.  This was the idea behind the University.  That concept has now gone extinct in the United States.  It does not pay.  Professors are not supposed to sit there and think – they are to be useful.  The fusty Classical approach is disfavored nowadays.  People in the Universities should be acting, not absorbing.

Technology and information access, on the other hand, assures us of mechanical omnipotence.  It promises that the new way of problem solving i by rapidly collating the key tools to solve a problem, by resorting to the electronic brain.  So we are all engineers of the mind; the formulas are straightforward and simple.  All it takes, we assure ourselves,  is a rapid and focused effort, using technology, to shave off the essentials and solve a problem.  Any problem which doesn’t yield easy to this approach, isn’t worth studying in the first place.  This is the Modern approach.

I cheerfully note that my hunch in the Voynich analysis is the very one that is criticized.  I am a dilettante in the area of linguistics.  I do not honestly hope to develop The Power Hunch that will blaze a new trail through the document, and unveil it in majestic clarity.  My interest is more selfish – this analysis entertains me.

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Citation: Montemurro MA, Zanette DH (2013) Keywords and Co-Occurrence Patterns in the Voynich Manuscript: An Information-Theoretic Analysis. PLoS ONE 8(6): e66344. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0066344

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