As you may have heard by now, a man from Tewksbury, Massachusetts named Corey Starliper is the latest in a long line of people who claim to have solved the 340.

Fortunately, this time, the claim is accompanied by the supposed solution, details regarding the procedure used and other insights into the circumstances surrounding the alleged decipherment. Pretty clearly, Starliper’s solution is not valid.

In the primary article relating the facts of the solution, Starliper explains how he mapped all of the non-letter symbols to letters such that he ended up with a cipher that only included the 26 letters of the alphabet (the original cipher has 63 unique symbols). Then he applied a Caesar cipher – a simple substitution cipher that involves shifting the letters of the alphabet some fixed number of positions. After doing this, the solution broke down after the “first few lines,” so he adjusted the cipher – presumably by reshifting the Caesar cipher – which he continued to do on an as-needed basis.

The secret to convincing yourself that your invalid solution to a Zodiac cipher is actually a valid solution requires the introduction of what I call “degrees of freedom.” By introducing enough of these degrees of freedom, you allow yourself varying ways in which to move from the unambiguous cipher to the questionable solution. The more degrees of freedom you introduce, the easier time you have navigating the path from cipher to solution. Some common degrees of freedom that people tend to use include:

  • Anagrams, i.e. rearranging the order of letters in the solution
  • Garbled meaning, i.e. not requiring true coherence from the solution
  • Binary number manipulations. Sometimes you hear of people trying to apply binary number representations to some aspect of the Zodiac case (not necessarily just ciphers). Usually, when they are doing this, it involves some representation that introduces a degree of freedom.

Starliper’s solution defintely has an element of garbled meaning. But the big degree of freedom appears to be the readjustment of the Caesar cipher on an as-needed basis. In general, any time somebody proposes a solution in which a given symbol in the 340 cipher maps to multiple letters, you should be extremely skeptical.

To see a solution that has none of these problems, one need only look as far as the 408 – no anagramming, no garbled meaning, no resetting of processes; just symbols mapped to letters. It’s pretty clear that the 340 has some additional complexity when compared to the 408 based on analysis that a number of us in the Zodiac community have performed. However, fundamentally, the cipher is – to a high degree of certainty – a homophonic substitution cipher, i.e. each symbol maps to one and only one letter.

Apparently, Starliper managed to elicit little interest from the relevant law-enforcement agencies. Subsequently, the article conveys:

He even sent the code to a (sic) author with knowledge of the case, who, after looking over the solution, said that it appeared “not valid,” according to Starliper.

“That really ticked me off,” he said. “With a code that constantly changes a pattern … you can’t attack it using brute force. There are people who have tried. Out of all of the solutions that I’ve seen this one has the highest readability and probability for accuracy that I’ve ever come across.”

Unfortunately, this is another characteristic common among people putting forth invalid solutions: an unwillingness to accept critical objective analysis.

Of course, the motivations to put objectivity and discipline aside are strong. In fact, another quote from the article makes that point clear.

The discovery of a possible solution to the code wasn’t “disturbing,” as Starliper said he had heard it described, but invigorating.

“To me, I found it exciting, that I was actually able to get into his head when nobody had for over 40 years,” said Starliper. “It was a high. One of the best highs I had ever experienced was cracking something that nobody else had cracked in over 40 years.”

Add to this the fact that Starliper’s picture is now plastered around the internet (sometimes without qualifiers like “may have” and “claims”) and it’s probably safe to say that we’ve sown the seeds for more people to solve the 340.

There really needs to be some measure of potential legitimacy applied to these claims of decipherment. I mean, is there even one person with some basic knowledge of cryptanalysis who believes Starliper’s solution is correct?!

If you’re still interested, here’s the so-called solution.