According to the New York Times, Michael Drosnin has been briefing intelligence analysts at the Pentagon (link via Charles Kuffner). Drosnin is the author of The Bible Code, the 1997 bestseller which asserts that the Torah contains specific predictions about the future hidden in equidistant letter sequences. Gematria, reducing the words and letters of the Torah to numbers, is a kaballic exercise with milennia of history behind it, but I sure hope that nobody’s putting too much weight into Drosnin’s methodology. Drosnin arranges the letters into grids of arbitrary width; unfortunately, the method is flexible enough that one can produce almost any result one chooses. Responding to a throwaway comment by Drosnin (who asserts that the Torah predicted the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin), skeptics have produced assassination prediction in Moby Dick. I’m sure if they wanted, they could produce textual evidence predicting Saddam Hussein’s death or the appearance of SARS or Marquette upsetting Kentucky. Given enough lattitude, anything that a researcher recognizes as a pattern can be considered a valid result. The whole thing resembles nothing so much as the attempt to find anagrams proving Francis Bacon’s authorship of Shakespeare. The idea that Francis Bacon was responsible for the plays attributed to William Shakespeare was one of the earliest anti-Stratfordian theories. It can largely be laid at the feet of Delia Bacon, a friend and colleague of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In Banvard’s Folly, Paul Collins claims that Bacon was mad even before she published her masterpiece, The Philosophy of Shakespeare’s Plays Unfolded. Afterward

the critics were merciless in their savagery — and those that did not ridicule the book simply ignored it. But it scarcely mattered any more. By the time Philosophy came out, Bacon was almost senseless. She slipped in and out of fevers, accused her kindly landlord of stealing from her and plotting against her, and dragged herself to the doorstep of the mayor of Stratford to complain…. When she turned suicidal, and bgan claiming to be a descendant of Francis CBacon, he had her committed to an asylum.

But the idea had been put forth, and actor, politician, science fiction author, and Atlantis theorist Ignatius Donnelly was off to the races. His 998-page The Great Cryptogram laid out in numbing detail some of the many hidden references to the true authorship of the Shakespearian plays, such as "More…low…or…Shak’st…spur…never…writ…a…word …of…them."

It’s not that anagrams in verse works were unknown; early cryptography enthusiast E.A. Poe and wordplay master Lewis Carroll used acrostics and anagrams in their work (although this does not mean, no matter what some people claim, that Carroll confessed to being Jack the Ripper). The tradition of hiding one’s name in a text dates back at least to 1646, and probably much earlier. And an inclination towards pattern-recognition has been the basis for scientific as well as literary insights. But when one starts looking for patterns, it’s often hard to stop finding them; Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of structuralism and nobody’s fool, spent three years hunting anagrams in Latin verse.

That complexity, brought forth by the decision to see the poem in a way utterly counter to what we would normally consider reading, soon yields further patterns. Before long, Saussure is beginning to notice graphic and phonemic patterns which are themselves suggestive of a much deeper order. Considered in isolation, the common phonemes and the unpaired consonants begin to re(as)semble independent words, which, Saussure concludes, must form the "theme word" from which the rest of the poem is formed….

While the shift from seeing words as words to seeing words as patterns "suggestive of a much deeper order" makes Saussure’s distinction between the signifier and the signified quite explicit and serves as a lovely metaphor for the postmodern condition, it also bears a hint of incipent madness. It’s probably for the best that Ferdinand quit looking in 1909.

That glow of obsession, of recognizing secrets that the masses cannot, illuminates the efforts of the Bacon cryptographers. When wealthy cotton merchant George Fabyan established the Riverbank Labs to conduct research into codes, Shakespeare’s true identity, and Baconian flying machines, he sponsored Elizabeth Wells Gallup. She examined Bacon’s "bi-lateral cipher" (which used two fonts) and announced that Bacon was not only the author of the Shakespearian works but also the eldest child of Queen Elizabeth, the product of a secret marriage. Gallup’s one-time secretary, Elizabeth Smith Friedman, having thus received a proper education in codebreaking went on to a distinguished career as a cryptanalyst during the Second World War; Friedman and her husband William went on to write The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined, the definitive anti-Baconian text. The matter is still not entirely settled. But the exercises used by some enthusiasts can be a bit overwhelming.

A mathematics professor and cipher expert from Holland, Dr. Speckman, using the Trithemius cipher and looking for a possible signature at the end of the famous Fama Fraternitas, figured out that the capital initials of the final line SUB UMBRA ALARUM TUARUM JEHOVAH transposed five places to the right yielded A C F B O, easily anagrammed into F.BACO,the Latin name for Francis Bacon .The phrase was found in Bacon’s own handwriting: in a manuscript in the British Museum. JEHOVAH was used in the place of the original DEUS, apparently to provide the necessary J.

If one takes the initial letters S V A T and transposes them five places to the right, AC B F is obtained.Transposed six places to the left yield M O R N. Taken together there is not much that can be anagrammed other than M (agister) FR BACON -the true author of the mysterious Fama.

In the Shakespeare Folio this combination is found with unnatural frequency. Take the famous couplet:

This Figure that thou heere see ‘st put I T W A S for gentle Shakespeare cut.

A little imagination will show SVATI - the same initials in the Fama - "Put F BACO for gentle Shakespeare"

The Shakespearian Ciphers Examined contains a small joke of the Friedmans’. Using a genuine bi-lateral cipher indicated by italicized letters, they inserted the message "I did not write the plays. F. Bacon." into their text. Their message does not seem to have convinced anyone; perhaps they should have predicted the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, or at least Marquette upsetting Kentucky.