I'm going to touch upon a few topics first. Some of them may not seem to have obvious reasons for their inclusion here... but, trust me, they're all related to my little incident. I also hope that you find some of the links I'm going to point you to interesting in their own right.
The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin? Based on earlier work by others, it claims that by using "skip codes" one can find all sorts of predictions about today's events encoded in the Bible. A skip code is a code where one starts at a particular letter (for the Bible, in Hebrew), and then skip ahead a specific number of characters to read the next letter in the secret message, and then keep skipping ahead by the same number of characters. Critics, however, applied the same technique to modern novels and found very similar "hidden messages". So, basically, in a rich enough body of text, you can find anything you want encoded there.
For example, this link shows "predictions" of the assassination of various world leaders within the text of Moby Dick:
And check it out - I found "Winnie the Pooh" eight times in the Bible (in English, not the traditional Hebrew used when looking for skip codes):
You might be interested to read about the "Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy":
This is sort of related to the "Birthday Paradox". The paradox is that in a fairly small group of people (say 23), how likely is it that two will share the same birthday? Most people's first reaction is to say it is something like (1/365) x (1/365) or similar (in other words, a very tiny chance). But the reality is that it is more like 50%. For just 57 people, the probability that there's a shared birthday is 99%. How is that possible with only 57 people but 365 days in the year?
The answer is that we're not picking a specific date (say, January 1) and asking how likely is it that two people have a birthday on that particular date. The odds of that would, indeed, be small. What we're asking instead is that given every possible pairing of two people in the group, how likely is a birthday match? So, if you start with person #1 out of the 23, and then compare that person's birthday to each of the other 22 people, the odds of a match should be something like 22/365. Now do this for each of the other 22 people (comparing them to everyone else), but make sure not to do the same pairs twice. Now you see why it is a lot more likely that there's a match somewhere in there. Again, just like with the Bible Codes, given a certain amount of richness in the data you can find patterns that seem counter-intuitive.
For more information on the Birthday Paradox, see this link:
I'm starting to think that the Internet itself makes the entire world into a rich data-set of this nature. The number of people you can possibly communicate with or even just get a one-way information dump from has recently skyrocketed. It used to just be that the data you could interact with came from people you actually knew, books you read, or TV shows you watched. But now anything written by anyone in the world is available to you quite easily. Who knows what coincidences you will find that resonate with your own information?
This is also related to a concept that the well-known game developer Brian Moriarty calls "Constellation".
If you have time, I highly recommend the video found in the below link, but the text is transcribed on that page as well:
This works in fiction, as well. I once had an email exchange with a close friend of an author I admired, asking about particular odd details in a story that were never fully explored. I was told that the author did this purposefully because he knew that the readers would fill in their own details and make the story that much deeper and more mysterious.
Again: this is all about seeing patterns where there really are none.
Here is one of the many articles debunking the "Face on Mars":
And here is Hoagland's response:
In particular, on Hoagland's page (the link just above), please note the image labeled Cydonia Geometric Relationship Model. This is a perfect example of looking for patterns that simply aren't there. But when you have enough random shapes in an image, you are able to come up with these kinds of things.
So now we get to my own personal interaction with someone else's conspiracy theory.
The Listeners and Carl Sagan's novel Contact. So I decided that the puzzle would be an alien message.
I was not the first person to create such a puzzle, and I knew this. At the time I felt that I was the first to specifically create the puzzle with the thought of online collaborative solutions. Later, I found out that even that had been done before.
The following puzzle was posted to Usenet in the summer of 1991, with the solution being posted about a week later. Usenet was really the first Internet discussion system (besides email), coming online in 1980.
In many (although not all) novels dealing with radio first contact with aliens, the messages are generally depicted as a binary series (on/off signals) with a message length that is a factor of two prime numbers. Those two prime numbers can be thought of as a height and width, and the on/off nature of the signal can be used to fill out the grid thus defined with pixels. In Contact, if I recall correctly, part of the message was actually a product of three prime numbers, and thus the grid was three-dimensional (a 2D movie, where the 3rd dimension was time).
I definitely didn't want to do that, although I did include it as a small part of the message. And I had always thought that in stories like Contact (and others) that the message was too easily figured out. I thought that alien ways of thinking might produce really... odd... ways of looking at the world, and communicating. An alien might try to make a message easily understood only to be foiled by this obstacle. I wanted to prove that it wouldn't be easy.
My primary thought was to actually write the message in as strange a way as I could devise, while the content itself would be similar to other "sample" alien messages that had been created before. My feeling was that even if an alien were trying as hard as possible to make a simple, easy-to-understand message that it could be misinterpreted. My initial thought was to write the message backwards, but I quickly discarded that as too simple. So I created their "grammar" as symmetrical. Statements are read both from the left and right simultaneously, from the outside to the center. I was then able to use this idea to also decide things about how the aliens must see the world in order to have this method of communication, and generate a "story" for them.
In reality, I was unable to prove that it wouldn't be easy. What I did prove was that the Internet was an incredible collaboration tool and people were able to quickly solve what I considered to be very difficult problems!
I knew that I might make some science or math mistakes that might be caught by the players, so I decided my aliens wouldn't really be very advanced, perhaps having only recently discovered radio. They would have less technology than we do, and that also gave me a little bit of back story with which to generate the messages.
The original website of this game is still out there:
Click on the "Discussion" link to see the forum from back in 1995 when people worked on the problem.
Most of the "alien messages" I knocked off pretty quickly, and frequently made mistakes which the game participants were able to catch! That is how good these guys were. You'll see this in the forum posts. I often had to go back and change the messages to fix these errors!
I had a general idea of where I was going: I wanted to have the messages tackle more than just math and science - I wanted them to be about philosophy and religion. But to get there the early messages had to introduce the needed concepts using just the basics that are universal: math and science.
Over the years I received a number of emails about the project. Here are a few interesting ones:
From: "***** *** *****" <*******@eos.ncsu.edu>
Date: Thu, 9 Mar 1995 17:30:34 -0500
When I saw the Contact Project it gave me the idea to
give a similar puzzle to my class. The messages from Tau Ceti
looked a little too hard for my students but I remembered seeing
a similar puzzle which did math in base 10 with standard notation:
A L AA K AAA --------> 1 + 2 = 3
I tried to reproduce it from memory, including the punchline in
the last message. So I can't claim any originality.
Over dinner the other night, a couple of friends helped me
in deciphering the first message from Tau Ceti. That's a good idea
putting in symbols for True and False. I assume that more logical
operations are to follow. I don't want to look at any spoiler pages
but can you tell me if anyone has solved the whole thing yet? Do you
plan messages from other stars after this puzzle is solved?
Date: Thu, 5 Oct 1995 14:22:50 -0500
From: ****@astro.as.utexas.edu (**** ******)
Subject: The Contact Project
I know that you probably thought that you left it all behind, but, I
have a question for you. I just recently stumbled onto the Project and
some friends and I have been working on it. We decided that one of us
would read the answers in case the others got stuck, etc. (yes, I know
that wouldn't work if it were a REAL message, but oh well...) and I
am that person. Anyway, my question is, did you ever post a final
translation of the messages and all the information about the Tau Ceti
culture, etc.? If not, would you please mail them to me? My friends and
I (all astronomy graduates, so you can imagine how much we have enjoyed
this!) would really appriciate it!
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 1996 20:06:16 -0600
From: ***** ********* <********@HUB.ofthe.NET>
I appreciate the fact that you must get hundreds of letters
imploring you to bring back your projects. I warn you in advance: this is
another such letter. Heh. I saw the Message project (just today) and was
awestruck. It was incredibly detailed, at *least* rivaling Sagan in
_Contact_. What really impressed me was the fact that yours took into
account a more realistic view of alien morphology (2 eyes, parallel visual
processing). I regret not being in on the ground floor of that, but that's
OK, because my highest level of Math is Trig (hey, I'm only 17).
Thanks, at the very least, for a truly artful Message.
A new fan,
Subject: The Contact Project
Date: Thu, 2 Mar 2000 23:55:11 +0100 (MET)
From: "***" <*****@sampan.cs.vu.nl>
I just discovered your alien message translation puzzle a couple
of hours ago, and it's really great. Too bad I discovered it
five years too late.
I couldn't help noticing on the message board that a group of
people, including at least one PHd, took several days to
translate the first two messages, while I did it in a couple of
hours. All help from the message board that I used was that Gs
encapsulate statements (I'd probably have found it out soon
enough, but I peeked there first), and that there are 216 bits
in a circle.
Does this mean I could get a job at NASA as an alien message
Date: Thu, 30 Mar 2000 22:53:25 -0800
From: **** ******* <*******@pacbell.net>
Subject: Contact Project thanks
I had first seen the Contact Project pages some years ago (but after they
were done). I worked on the first two messages without consulting the logs
and had a great time. Events took me away from the machine bearing those
files, and I (literally) "lost Contact". Recently, I de-archived the
floppies, saw my decoding efforts, and re-found your site. It's a beautiful
piece of work. Thanks. Now I've got to finish message #2 and start on #3.
So in general it seems people liked the game and understood it (at least they understood it in general, even if they didn't understand every single piece of it). I also received emails asking if this was for real or not (even though the website explicitly states this is just a game, and not real), but nothing really unusual. Actually, at some point over the last few years I lost access to the site and its email address, so I don't know if I'm still receiving emails there about it.
Actually, based on some of the emails, I thought the messages would make a really interesting lesson plan for a class. Possibly a fun way to engage students in learning the math and science involved in the message. If I ever had the time, I'd try to write a small workbook around the idea.
Also, at least one copycat website appeared shortly after the original game (in fact, some of the HTML code behind the scenes was unchanged from my game, as it had been directly copied, although the content of their message was completely different). Sometimes (every few years) I search the net to see if anything else related to it comes up. It's now been 15 years.
So on Sunday, March 28, 2010, I happened to do another of these searches, and found... well, that I was apparently at the center of a small conspiracy theory surrounding my game.
I'll let the links speak for themselves. Please enjoy, thinking about how you would feel in my situation stumbling across this:
They obviously didn't do a very good job of finding me, because the latest dates I can find for any of these things is 2006, four years ago. And this is the first I've heard of it.
Needless to say, I have no desire to actually interact with these people, to let them know where I am, and to be hounded by them. I realize that they may see this, but with any luck this article speaks for itself and forms my reply.
If you are interested in their unusual ideas, here are the main documents I was able to find (including audio interviews), which are later referenced in this "reply":
When the data provided for the game did not match his own numbers, Bateman changed them. For example, I gave a list of frequencies of the first 6 tones of the message (the message symbols are said to have been received as tones):
A = 73.179 Hz
B = 85.375 Hz
C = 97.572 Hz
D = 109.768 Hz
E = 121.965 Hz
F = 134.161 Hz
The tones are separated by 12.1965 Hz each.
Note that I chose Tone A to be the separation interval times 6 (12.1965 x 6 = 73.179). The messages, as you'll see, use a base-6 number system, so I thought that using 6 as many times as possible made sense (similar to how we generally do things in tens). The interval between tones itself is 6 cycles per alien time unit. The alien unit of time, rather than our second, works out to be 0.492 seconds (it is the length of each tone in the message). So 6 divided by 0.492 is 12.1965.
But in Bateman's documents he outright changes these values for his own purposes:
C.P. Tone "D" or 109.768 is actually 109.739369 Ra Hz (track 1) This is the Ra value for the "Rydberg Constant for infinite mass."
109.739369 Ra Hz is actually 9 x the frequency increment of 12.193263222 (frequency track 1).
Tone "E" or 121.965 is actually 121.5 (track 2) This is the wavelength of the most intense spectral line of hydrogen (Lyman m2- ultra violet).
Imagine the odds against anyone (even a genius) coming up with the Rydberg Constant and the wavelength of the Lyman 2 spectral line of hydrogen as tone frequencies, in what they say are 9 "fictitious ET messages."
Except that, no, I didn't come up with that at all – Bateman did. The numbers I gave are not the numbers he is using. He's finding exactly what he wants to find, but not what's actually there.
At first as I read through these articles, I was amused. But the more I read the more I felt outright depressed that someone could make these mistakes based on something I created for fun. Bateman doesn't seem like he was unintelligent. He just had this odd blind spot. Listening to the audio interviews was the worst experience for me – it was obvious that he was really passionate and serious about this.
A few of the documents point to a Geocities account that contains a more detailed analysis. The Geocities website is now defunct, but thanks to the magic of the Internet Archive, Bateman's notes are still available. The amount of work here is both staggering and depressing:
I think that anyone without this certain blind spot for conspiracies can easily read through the forum on my game site and see that the translations derived make sense and are much simpler than the mathematical games Bateman played to get the results he wanted.
Here's an interesting example of Moriarty's "Constellation" idea in action. When creating the message, I needed to give each radio tone a length. This time length could then be used within the message as a measurement period. In other words, if he aliens want to tell us the length of their planet's day, or the length of a year, it would be very difficult without them knowing how long an hour is, or a minute, or a second. So, as mentioned earlier, I picked a time period for the length of a tone in the message (0.492 seconds), and then the aliens could say something like "a day is 87805 long." What unit are they using? The only constant length of time we have is the length of the tone, 0.492 seconds, of course. So their day is 12 hours long (87805 x 0.492 = 43200 seconds, or 12 hours). Actually, I'm just making the 12 hours up – I don't remember if the day length was a part of the message or not, and if it was I don't remember if it was 12 hours – probably not. But this gets the idea across. As mentioned earlier, I made my aliens less technologically advanced than us. I thought that their transmitter might even be mechanical, not a computer. So I thought that the tone length might vary. I happened to say the tone length was "0.492 seconds, plus or minus 5%, pretty much randomly". Effectively meaningless, just in there for some color. But Bateman grabbed this statement and felt it was staggeringly important. He wrote:
If these messages were made up, why not say that each tone lasted exactly .492 seconds? But, then again as you will soon learn this is not a game. (emphasis in the original)
Why not say each tone is exact? Well, why say it is? This is exactly what Moriarty meant by "Constellation". If there are enough meaningless details, someone will see a pattern in them.
Here is another example. If you recall, it was the grammar of the alien message that I felt would be the most difficult part, not the content. So at the website itself, you'll see the following message I wrote:
There have been projects like this before. However, they have always been (in my opinion) fairly simple tests, being very anthropomorphic in nature. What I hope I have achieved here is something different. Through a lot of time and effort a message has been developed that is fairly simple in content, but very unusual in the way it is put together. It should be very difficult to understand the way in which the message is written... even if you understand its contents. In fact, there are ways it could be made even more... alien.... but then I don't think anyone would get it. As it is, I predict it will take a few weeks anyway.
Bateman says that these real messages were passed to me to translate, and I found myself unable to do so:
He must have concluded that he could not really begin such a project, until he first had an inkling as to how the messages were written. This is why he emphasized to his game players to concentrate on "how the messages were written and not on what they actually said."
But of course, the much simpler reason is that I felt the most challenging part of the messages would be the outside-in grammar, as mentioned earlier.
Another element that helped convince Bateman that my messages were real is that my game site was linked to from the SETI Institute website. Now, you have to realize that in 1995 the World Wide Web was still very small. It was possible to visit most sites. The people that ran websites for various organizations often did so without much oversight. And the act of linking to and from other websites was seen (rightly so) as amazingly important – hypertext is what it was all about. Pretty much every site that went up had a page or section of a page devoted to links to other sites that the author either considered interesting or related. So it's no wonder that whoever was maintaining the website for the SETI Institute created a link to my page. The game was announced on the NCSA What's New website (which was at the time effectively an index of every single new website) so most people with access to the web at the time would have at least briefly checked it out if it seemed interesting. It was obviously related: a game about SETI. I actually recall seeing the link and being tickled.
At no time did I ever think I was getting any kind of endorsement, and I'm sure none was ever intended. The fact that Bateman sees the link for anything other than it was is just a sign of not understanding the nature of the web from that time period, which is understandable.
And, actually, I think he's wrong about the link: it didn't come from the SETI Institute, but rather from the SETI League. I can't find a link to the Contact Project on the SETI Institute website via the Internet Archive (looking back to 1997), but I quickly found a link from the SETI League website:
The link actually still exists today, although is found on a slightly different page (listed under "SETI ORGANIZATIONS"):
Bateman apparently also caught me in an error (if you read the message boards, you will see I made many, and readily admitted them when the players pointed them out). Apparently I made the statement (I haven't found it, but haven't looked very hard and I don't have any reason to doubt him on this point) that the total number of symbols/tones in all the messages was 82, while Bateman apparently counted them and only found 81. While, if true, this was a simple mistake on my part (again, one of many documented mistakes). Yet Bateman writes:
Don't you think the brilliant inventor of the so-called "fictitious messages" would remember that he only used 81 tones to compose the messages? Of course he would. This error certainly gives us a solid clue to the fact that David Levine did not write these messages.
Of course I would? I think I'll just leave that statement to stand for itself, with no additional commentary.
There were also a few coincidences involved. In several of his documents, I read references to the Contact Project site no longer being available (and he mentions the year 2002, seven years after the game ended). As you can see for yourself, it is still there. It is not a site I visit that often, so I wonder if there may have been a short period where Bateman tried to access the site and for whatever reason it was unavailable? There's no way to know now, but one can see how that would also have added to the look of conspiracy. There was apparently also a UFO sighting in 1997 which Bateman claims involved the unidentified craft blinking its lights in a pattern which is somehow connected with the Contact Project messages. I have no real comment on this, except that I am of the firm belief that one can come up with enough mathematical convolutions to link any pattern to any other pattern if one really wants.
In one of his documents, Bateman displays the first seven statements of the first message and proceeds to explain those statements in his terms. However, he goes on to berate my explanation of the message:
When David Levine of Project Contact shut down his web site he told his loyal game players that the messages had been interpreted and "told an alien story of creation" which took place on a planet that orbited the star Tau Ceti. He said this story began with "bugs and worms crawling about on the slime covered surface" of his fictitious world. He never said how the 81 tones that composed the 9 messages told this ridiculous story. Because of this attempt by David Levine and the Contact Project to deceive the public, we have named this nonsense the "Tau Ceti Con Game."
By the way, did you see any sign of David Levine's bugs and worms in the information given above? Anyone who still believes David Levine made up these messages has my deepest sympathy. If you want a laugh look at his archived discussion page at: www.ibiblio.org/lunar/alien.html.
It is interesting to note that the actual encoded images of the insectoid aliens were included in Message 3 (in fact, the discussion board shows the image itself and how it was encoded, which Bateman must have seen). Yet Bateman only shows the first seven statements (out of forty-six) of the Message 1 only and then proclaims that because you don't see anything about a bug in those seven statements, it must not be in any of the rest of the data, either. Message 3 and its translation can be seen below.
This is all disingenuous at best, and outright lying at worst.
I'm also not sure where the worms and slime come into it, although he attributes it to me as a quote.
Bateman actually published an "open letter" challenging me to explain the messages and even the UFO sighting. The link for that letter can be found above. Needless to say, I never saw this challenge until March 2010, and wouldn't have answered it anyway. How can I answer this in any way that Bateman would have found satisfactory?
At the bottom of this article, I've provided translations of the first three messages. I no longer have my original notes, but I did my best. Most of Bateman's detailed documentation that's available deals with the first message only. Please compare his translation and mine, and decide for yourself which makes more sense. I think you'll find that my translation is much simpler, and contains more direct information. No special "Ra" mathematics are required.
Wes Bateman apparently died last year. It would have been a challenging decision to have to choose between confronting him to explain that this is all a huge mistake that he was wasting his life on, or staying silent to protect both my privacy and his feelings. It might have been cruel to explain that the previous ten years of his life were spent chasing something that just wasn't there.
I also firmly believe that people like Wes Bateman, Rod Davis, and Jerry Pippin probably cannot be convinced that their supposed conspiracies are not real. No matter how often I could say that I really created these messages myself for fun; no matter how often I explain whatever inconsistencies they question; no matter how often I could say that I'm simply not involved in other matters they think are connected - won't they just say "of course you would say that - you don't want us to know the truth!"?
Now I'll admit I've occasionally been drawn in by some things like this myself in the past, where a series of connections just seems so real. But, now, being on the other side I see how these connections can seem to be there, even when they're not. It will absolutely color how I perceive such connections in the future.
And, yes, I realize I could have a bit of fun now by purposefully leading them on with vague hints and clues. In fact, that's mostly what Moriarty's "Constellation" is about. It's what the whole Who Buried Paul talk, above, is about. But while it seems like it could be hilarious, it also seems cruel, and that's just not in my nature.
A final diversion from my tale, but also interesting, I hope:
Masquerade was a children's book written by Kit Williams, published in 1979. It contained a series of puzzles that, if solved, would lead to an actual buried treasure (in the shape of a rabbit) hidden by the author. It was solved in March of 1982.
Bamber Gascoigne, author and British television presenter, who documented the entire contest from beginning to end, wrote:
Tens of thousands of letters from Masqueraders have convinced me that the human mind has an equal capacity for pattern-matching and self-deception. While some addicts were busy cooking the riddle, others were more single-mindedly continuing their own pursuit of the hare quite regardless of the news that it had been found. Their own theories had come to seem so convincing that no exterior evidence could refute them. These most determined of Masqueraders may grudgingly have accepted that a hare of some sort was dug up at Ampthill, but they believed there would be another hare, or a better solution, awaiting them at their favourite spot. Kit would expect them to continue undismayed by the much publicised diversion at Ampthill and would be looking forward to the day when he would greet them as the real discoverers of the real puzzle of Masquerade. Optimistic expeditions were still setting out, with shovels and maps, throughout the summer of 1982.
For more information on Masquerade, see:
At any rate, I think if I were to summarize this experience, I'd say that it just shows how easy it can be to find meaning everywhere, whether or not meaning is actually there to be found. Be skeptical. If you are in the minority opinion about something, there's a good chance you're wrong, That's not always true, of course. But you should absolutely take that as your cue to objectively analyze your own methods of reaching that opinion (or better yet, have someone else do it).
I don't know if I have anything really earth shattering to say here, except that this was a fascinating experience and has taught me a lot about how conspiracy theories form that essentially come from nowhere. I hope you found it interesting, too.
When I first shared this story with friends, I was pointed to the following article. It is tangentially related, although this guy's problems are obviously far more serious than mine!:
Thanks for reading!
See below for my personal translation of the first three of the "messages" of the game: