340 CipherThe other day, I noticed a rather unusual spike in traffic to this website. After digging around a bit, I determined that the primary reason for the spike was a renewed interest in Corey Starliper’s clearly invalid solution to the Zodiac Killer’s 340 cipher. This increased level of interest was partially brought about because Tom Hanks’ “Electric City” blog decided to pay it some attention.

The timing of these happenings was interesting in that it coincided nearly perfectly with the one-year anniversary of the publication of the Tewksbury Patch article which introduced to world to Corey Starliper’s “solution.”

I didn’t write about it at the time, but in the days after my article on the subject, I was contacted by the author of the Tewksbury Patch story, Brandon Schillemat. He explained he was planning a follow-up article in which Corey could answer his critics. He essentially asked if I had any input. I replied and described my thoughts on the matter.  I’m fairly certain that what I had to say was a bit different from what Brandon was expecting. Nonetheless, some of the thoughts (though slightly misinterpreted) made it into the follow-up article.

The recent renewed interest in the subject motived me to go back and reread the email I wrote nearly a year ago. Satisfyingly, I concluded that it still represents my opinions on the subject quite well. For these reasons, I’ve decided to share it (with some of the boilerplate removed).

I don’t really buy into the premise of the planned article. Corey Starliper doesn’t deserve to have a forum in which to answer his critics.  The people that should be answering their critics are those in charge of publication decisions at the Tewksbury Patch. Corey Starliper and his claim that he’s solved the 340 are all over the internet. In most ways, he’s no different than the 10s of other people who claim to have solved the 340. However, there is one important difference: a website with apparent journalistic integrity gave him credibility.

If Corey Starliper walked into your office and announced that he had cured cancer, would you write the story: “Tewksbury Native: I’ve Cured Cancer” without seeking input from a medical professional? If he walked in and claimed to have solved one of math’s currently unsolved problems (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unsolved_problems_in_mathematics), would you write the article without doing something to evaluate the validity of his claim? I hope the answer to those questions is “No.” But, for some reason, if he walks in and says he’s solved a cipher that’s remained unsolved for the last 40 years, the Tewksbury Patch has no problem publishing an article without doing anything in terms of evaluating the probability that his solution is actually correct. His solution is garbage, pure and simple. Point me to one person with real cryptographic expertise who endorses Starliper’s solution. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you cannot because I’m fairly certain one does not exist.

Multiple people have written master’s degree theses on the subject of solving the 340. I and a fair number of other people have spent 100s of hours attempting to solve the cipher. I’ve personally written a computer program that is capable of solving the Zodiac Killer’s first cipher, the 408. Other people have written other programs that can also solve the 408. Through all of this effort, none of us have even come close to solving the 340.

So when Corey Starliper comes along and claims to have solved the 340 in nine hours only because he doesn’t have sufficient knowledge to understand that his solution is not valid, well, it’s not surprising. People do this every so often. Simply google “zodiac 340 solution” and you’ll find enough material to keep yourself occupied for quite some time. But what is surprising is that the Tewksbury Patch would write an uncritical article about his so-called solution and, in so doing, bolster his claim.

There’s an interesting epilogue to this story. About a month ago I was reviewing various data regarding other websites that link to ZodiacRevisited.com. One particular table showed the “authority” of the websites that are doing the linking. Of course, the website with the highest so-called authority was (wait for it…) the Tewksbury Patch.