Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Secret Message November 5, 2009

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Secret Message

This post is by Jesse Galef

We humans are so intent on finding meaning in things that we have a tendency to find it even where none was intended.  It’s what we call a false positive and it happens all the time.  We often hear about people seeing the Jesus or the virgin Mary in a particular piece of toast, water stain, or IKEA bathroom woodwork.  But we usually associate it with images, not words, making this story about Governor Schwarzenegger particularly valuable.

It turns out that Schwarzenegger sent a veto letter to the state legislature.  This is nothing out of the ordinary and wouldn’t be worth my mentioning, so you must know that there’s more of the story to come.  No, it’s the “secret message” that got attention – see if you can find it (image from the San Francisco Bay Guardian):

Did you see it?  Here’s the answer from the SFBG:

But wait — there’s a real message, an actual missive from the Gov to Tom, embedded in this text. And it’s not hard to find — in fact, it’s hard to believe it could have been a coincidence.

Read down the letters on the left side of the message

If you read along the left-most column and take the first letter of each line, you get “I fuck you”.  This was seen as a dastardly and immature prank.  But I’m betting that the odds of a ‘coincidence’ like this are higher than intuition suggests.

To be honest, I’m not particularly interested in whether of not the message was intended, but the story does raise an interesting question: how likely are we to find a “hidden message” where none was intended?

It’s absolutely possible that the message was deliberate – I certainly used to do that sort of thing in my English papers (I hated the classes and needed some creative way to keep the projects interesting).  There are also other important factors – there was a feud between the governor and the politician in question, the wording is stilted, etc.  But as it stands, I’m not willing to rule out the null hypothesis (a hilarious coincidence) quite yet.

It looks like Brad Johnson at the Wonk Room tried the kind of analysis I was envisioning.  He says the odds of that particular phrase are about 1 in a trillion, taking into account the likelihood of different letters being the start of each word.

Now, the likelihood that some phrase would be spelled out? Ignoring letter distribution, there’s about a 0.3% chance any four letter string is a common English word, and a 3% chance any three letter string is a common English word. The specific likelihood of the words “soap” and “poet” appearing, for example, given the Schwarzenegger speeches, is one in 100,000 — much greater than the one in 10 million shot of “fuck” appearing.

As letter distribution would make the appearance of common words more likely (e.g. “teas”), the probability of some two-word combination appearing is on the order of two percent. The likelihood of it making any sense, of course, is smaller. A more accurate estimation is left to the reader.

Good to see there are fellow nerds in the world interested in spending time on the question!  But what’s missing from Brad’s analysis is the possibility of messages hidden other ways – we would be similarly remarking had the message been at the end of each line instead of the beginning.  Or had the message been in the first letter of consecutive words.  Or the last letter of consecutive words.  Or in another language.  Or backwards.  This would surely increase the potential for “hidden” messages dramatically.

I should see how often “hidden messages” appear in the Bible.

This is a job for Python! Quick – to the bat-computer lab!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Hidden messages in the Bible? It’s been done.

  • Miko

    You’re correct. However, the estimate from a full combinatorial analysis would probably still be good enough to reject the null hypothesis (i.e., that it’s a coincidence).

    And we could get even better results using textual analysis, since the word choice seems a bit strained. One could argue that a text is likely to deviate significantly from the normal speech patterns of its author (for that type of communication) if and only if it has been engineered to contain an encoded message. This could be tested mathematically by looking at the frequency of certain types of words (i.e., adjectives, nouns, adverbs, etc.) and idioms appearing at certain structural positions in a sentence (e.g., “{adverb} {verb}” vs. “{verb} {adverb}”). Based on what I’ve heard Schwarzenegger say, I’d guess that the probability of the phrases “the Legislature just kicks the can down the alley,” “Yet another Legislative year,” and “Californians overwhelmingly deserve” appearing in a regular Schwarzenegger text is near zero.

  • littlejohn

    I assume you’re familiar with “The Bible Code,” and the devastating criticism of it, finding similar messages in “Moby Dick” and other long books. Maybe this is the Terminator Code.

  • sailor

    The chances against coming up with fuck are pretty small, the chances of coming up with fuck you are way smaller. It was intentional

  • Nefzeni

    Oh Arnie, such a lovable fellow.

  • H


    Nope, no hidden messages in this blog post that i can see 🙂

  • Kaylya

    When I first saw this, I took a look at the other veto letters it links to. Based on differences in wording and tone, I’m pretty darn sure this was intentional. Although the “I” isn’t meant to be part of it, it’s just how all of the letters start.

    The other letters linked to in the WSJ article detail a specific reason or two for the veto (like duplicating existing legislation), while this one amounts to chastising people for not getting things done. And all of the others end with “For this (these) reason(s), I am unable to sign this bill.”

  • sc0tt

    The trick to encrypting messages in this type of correspondence is to make the message obvious while maintaining plausable deniability through eloquent rhetoric – I contend the governor single handedly incorporated this.

  • David D.G.

    I’m just wondering how the mainstream media (e.g., “family newspapers,” non-cable TV news programs) are going to report on this without either being so vague about it as to make any reportage moot or violating the law by showing/repeating the phrase. It’s a thorny problem for them.

    ~David D.G.

  • Owen

    Python, eh? I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find a good Crypto module in the Python Module Index. We nerds love cryptography.

  • Jen

    And suddenly, I feel just a tiny bit better about Schwarzenegger.

  • Charon

    “we would be similarly remarking had the message been at the end of each line instead of the beginning.”

    Doubt it. The “beginning of line” version is the standard acrostic.

  • Juliette

    I like to think that I live in a world where political punches are now thrown with recourse to poetry tricks, rather than political backstabbing.
    If this was done by a staffer, before Arnie put his signature to it, I’ll go ahead and ask that person to marry me.
    I don’t even care if Arnie was right or wrong in whatever fight brought this forward; I like the creativity. He wins this round, as far as I’m concerned. I hope the answer will be just as creative.

  • Don Juan Triumphant

    The phrase “kicks the can” is such an unusual phrase that I find it hard to believe it wasn’t put in there on purpose to get the “K.”

    It is also one of the few times I’ve seen “healthcare” written as two words, which creates the “C” in fuck. It’s not one word that has been split due to margins, because it’s not hyphenated.

    “Overwhelmingly deserve” is another clunky phrase that feels like it was put there just to get the “O” in the right place.

    I have a very hard time believing that it is a coincidence.

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