Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Mystery deepens around cryptic coded messages found at Western University

There is nothing more exciting than a good mystery. Whether they are full-blown conspiracies or simple puzzles to exercise the mind, we love being stumped, and we love the moment when the code is eventually cracked.
It is why we play Sudoku. It is why people are outraged when daily crosswords are removed from our favourite newspapers. It is why the Hollywood hit National Treasure earned itself a sequel, regardless the acting talents of Nicolas Cage.
There is a doozy of a mystery playing out on the Western University campus in London, Ont., where more than a dozen notes containing apparent secret messages have been found slipping into the pages of library books.
The messages, all printed on computer paper, are primarily a series of odd characters – similar but not identical to Microsoft Word’s wingding font – but the notes also include images of mundane household items, and paint-spattered objects are included with the notes.
The mystery has been investigated by code breakers, professors, and is now being debated on the social media site Reddit.
Mike Moffatt, an assistant professor in the Business, Economics and Public Policy department, has been detailing his puzzling adventures on a personal blog for weeks. He most recently obtained a cache of 11 notes discovered by one student who had scoured the Weldon library, bringing the total number of known messages to 16.
"I was in the D.B. Weldon library at Western University on Sunday and discovered some form of cryptogram in one of the books in the 3rd floor stacks. This puzzle is really bothering me – I will pay $100 to anyone that can solve it," he wrote on March 10.
The mystery began gaining public attention after the London Free Press wrote about it earlier this month. The Toronto Star more recently published a story about the puzzle.
While it remains unclear what the messages mean, the added scrutiny has managed to confirm that people have been finding the odd notes for more than a year. The earliest-known note was discovered in January 2013, while Moffatt says he has heard anecdotal stories about messages dating back beyond that.
Here is what we know about the messages that have been found, via Moffatt's blog:
  • The messages were all found in envelopes slipped into the pages of books found in the economics/political science section of Western's Weldon library.
  • At least 12 were discovered on shelves about five feet off the ground; 10 notes were definitely found between pages 16 and 17 of the book.
  • Each note was found in an envelope that also contained a small bauble, usually a gem or feather, but in one case it was a small leaf. Each item has been speckled slightly by two colours of paint.
  • Characters seemingly matching the bauble, usually the same colour, are included in the note.
  • Each note also includes an image of a generic household item, such as a glass or a table.
  • Some, but not all, of the notes contain the same series of characters, with images that match the baubles the only difference.
  • There are about 50 different characters, which Moffatt says makes a straight symbol-letter substitution unlikely.
  • The back of each note includes a reference to this empty blog page.
As with most mysteries, the longer this one remains unsolved, the larger its notoriety grows. And the more people grow skeptical that there is a solution at all. Recently, some have speculated that the messages are not part of a puzzle, but actually an elaborate piece of performance art.
Moffat doesn't appear dissuaded by his lack of progress. In a post from Monday, he stated, "I keep hearing things like 'sorry to disappoint, the notes don't mean anything, it's an art thing.' That is certainly a strong possibility. I'm not sure why that should disappoint at all! I find the idea that these are a form of art really interesting. That still doesn't solve the mystery, though. Who put them there? When were they put there? What was the artist thinking? How did they create the font? I have all kinds of questions, so if it is art, I'd be delighted if the artist stepped forward."
Lots of questions, few answers and plenty of clues, leads and speculation. The perfect puzzle.

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