Puzzles of the Voynich Manuscript

I just published the guide “Puzzles of the Voynich Manuscript” on Amazon.

This illustrated guide to the Voynich Manuscript is targeted mainly at those who have recently come across the book and are wondering what all the fuss is about, and why, after more than a century of effort, nobody has cracked its code yet. It should also be useful as a set of tests for those who believe they may have cracked the code, so that they can see how their solution matches up against each of the puzzles or notable features described. And finally, it is hopefully of interest to those already familiar with the manuscript – perhaps they will find something new or thought provoking within.




Trying the Sitar

I’ve always been entranced by the sound of the sitar, and wanted to try it for myself. If you do some research on beginner sitars, you will find a lot of people pontificating in a most discouraging way, e.g. by saying that it’s incredibly hard and painful to play, that every sitar costing less than $1000 is rubbish, and so on. You get the picture.

Casting these admonitions aside, I ordered a 1/2 size sitar on Amazon. It’s probably about 3-4 feet total length.

The 1/2 size sitar. This has 7 main strings, and 11 sympathetic strings. There are two toombas: one at the base (the big, round object that is made from a gourd/pumpkin), and the one on the neck, which looks a bit like an upturned salad bowl. Never rest the sitar as shown!

Although it was advertised as “blemished”, what I got was an unblemished model. It arrived well packed, inside a soft carry bag, and complete with a set of new strings, some mezrabs (the little wire things you put on your forefinger to pluck the strings), a learning sitar book, and another soft cloth bag.

There are seven main strings that are played, and a set of 11 “sympathetic” strings, which lie underneath the main strings, and aren’t played, but vibrate in sympathy with the main strings. I spent quite some time tuning *all* the strings to the Ravi Shankar C# settings, which you can find online. I used an Android tuning app to do this. Take extreme care, as it’s easy to over-tighten a string when tuning it, and thus create a crack around the tuning peg hole (I did this on the third main string, and had to repair the crack using wood glue and clamps overnight – now it is fine). Another thing that can happen is that a string can break – this also happened on mine, just after I started tuning one of the main strings. Replacing it was easy, but make sure you replace the string with one of the correct gauge (I used a micrometer to measure the snapped string diameter, and then selected a new string of the same diameter from the set sent with the sitar).

Another tuning tip is to remove each tuning peg carefully and rub some pavement chalk on it, before carefully reinserting it – this helps to avoid the peg slipping. After tuning all the strings, the effect is striking – if you pluck any of the main strings, the whole instrument resonates and produces that very characteristic buzzy sitar sound. With the strings un-tuned, the sound is dull and lifeless.

What is great about beginning the sitar is the fact that it sounds good even when a novice is plucking it, unlike most other instruments (the violin is a particularly bad offender). So, you can sit plucking and strumming and bending notes randomly on the sitar and it actually sounds very pleasant.

One other issue I’ve found is that the strings dig deeply into your finger ends, when you press them against the fretboard. It’s like playing an egg-slicer! The first main string (tuned to F# in the Shankar tunings) is the one that sees most finger pressing action, and it is thin! After a while of playing, it becomes almost unbearable, so I’m hoping that I develop some callouses soon.

Repairing a Sharp Optonica RP-117H

This turntable was bought on Ebay “for repair”. The first problem was that the turntable tray was loose and wouldn’t retract or come out. On removing the covers, a shield over the tray motor and the motor itself it was obvious what the problem was:

Broken tray gear wheel

The gear wheel is split, and has dropped off the motor drive. Here is a close-up of the gear:

Closeup of gear

Because the gear had shrunk a little (probably why it cracked), simply epoxying it together at the crack didn’t work: this made the hole too small and prevented the gear from going back on to the drive shaft. I carefully bored the hole out a tiny amount, then used epoxy to glue the crack and the gear back onto the shaft: I clamped it there for 24 hours.

Next problem was a broken belt for the platter itself: to reveal this involves removing a plate underneath the turntable tray:

Broken belt on motor

The belt had disintegrated, leaving a rubbery mess over the turntable and the motor capstan – removed fairly easily with rubbing alcohol. I ordered a replacement belt, and fitted it by feeding it through from the top of the turntable. It was a bit fiddly, but I’d read somewhere it was a nightmare – I didn’t find that.

Now the turntable tray moved in and out, and the turntable turned. The next problem was that the stylus trays were not moving. These trays move linearly across the deck. There is a clever mechanism with worm gears and a slotted metal disk and opto-transistors that move and detect where each stylus arm is. Here is the mechanism:

Stylus trays mechanism

Just visible at the back of the mechanism is a rubber belt – of course this turned out to be worn and was slipping on the motor and not moving the mechanism. I replaced it with a rubber belt I happened to have in my parts box and fit very nicely. Now the whole mechanism worked. Here is a video of it in operation, showing the switchover to Side B from Side A, which involves the turntable motor reversing direction.

The fitted stylii are by AudioTechnica. The Sharp part number is STY133.

AudioTechnica Stylus

Although the turntable now works, it initially played several LPs without issue, it has now developed a random periodic click/thump, almost as if the record is scratched. This is a little peculiar and hard to understand. To be continued ….

Sharp Optonica RP-117H and Sony CDP-X555ES