Books: Silk, Cyanide, Atrocities and Potter

I’ve recently finished reading Between Silk and Cyanide, The Atrocity Archives and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Between Silk and Cyanide is Leo Marks’s memoir of his time working as a code-maker for the Special Operations Executive during World War II. SOE agents were parachuted into occupied countries with the job of organising the resistance to the German occupation and of carrying out assassinations, sabotage and the like, “setting Europe ablaze”, in Churchill’s words. The agents communicated with Britain using enciphered messages sent in Morse code on their portable radio sets.

The ciphers used by SOE were keyed by words chosen from poems memorised by the agents. Marks instituted the use of original compositions, to prevent the enemy cryptographers from deducing which poem was in use and hence breaking all future messages. The book is peppered with his poems, including The Life That I Have. Eventually, Marks instituted the move to random keys printed on silk (so that keys which had been used could be cut away and burned), which, while they still keyed a weak transposition cipher, gave the agents some more security. He also independently invented a way of using one time pads to encipher text.

Marks narrates a story of brave men and women let down, in some cases fatally, by incompetence, bureaucracy and infighting among those who notionally had a common aim. His description of his struggles to improve the security of agents’ message is by turns funny and tragic, with passages which might have been taken from Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall alongside brief but nonetheless horrifying descriptions of the atrocities perpetrated by the Gestapo. Between Silk and Cyanide is a fascinating and moving book.

Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives deals with a fictional successor to SOE, an organisation known as “The Laundry”. Stross draws his inspiration from the idea of a Platonic universe where mathematical reasoning can change reality (familiar to readers of Greg Egan) or break your brain (as in David Langford’s short story, Blit). In a stroke of genius, Stross combines this with the horror trope of “things Man was not meant to know” to create a universe in which Cthulhu lurks in the folds of the Mandlebrot set. National governments know about this, but it’s all hushed up, of course. The Laundry is Her Majesty’s Government’s thin grey line of civil servants, who keep the rest of us safe from unspeakable horrors who want to eat our brains. From there we get the book’s other influence, the spy novels of people like Len Deighton and John le Carre, where, as in Marks’s factual story, infighting and petty malice mean the people on your side can be worse than the enemy itself.

The book contains The Atrocity Archive, as well as the follow-up short story The Concrete Jungle (link to the full text) and an essay by Stross on the links between Cold War spy fiction and horror. The Atrocity Archive itself is darker than The Concrete Jungle, being closer to A Colder War, Stross’s earlier work along similar lines. There are some some nasty set-pieces among the geek references and spycraft. The story takes its time introducing the world before anything much happens, but when things get going it’s gripping stuff.

The Concrete Jungle is more of a romp from the start, where the truly sinister is absent, and instead we get a spy action story combined with Dilbert in a universe where magic works, a world in which Bond might check out a Hand of Glory from Q while worrying about whether he’s filled in his TPS report. Stross has done his research, from the code-word compartments on secret documents to the name Dansey House for the Laundry’s HQ.

I enjoyed both stories. A follow-up, The Jennifer Morgue, is out soon, so I’m looking forward to that.

Medium-sized Potter spoilers coming up…

<lj-cut text=”Cut for spoilers”>I’m not a huge Potter fan, but I think the books are fun. The final book was a good read, wrapping things up nicely. As the darkness deepens, Rowling continues the theme that the people we think are the gods in our youth are actually morally ambiguous (I’m sure I’m supposed to say bildungsroman at some point, so that’s that out of the way). The middle of the book bogged down a bit with mopey New-Age-Traveller Potter camping out in the woods (hope he cleaned up after himself, bloody crusties (ETA: offensive slang term corrected to right one for New Age Travellers), but things bucked up after a while. Some of the major character deaths seemed a bit perfunctory, but the ones we did see were quite affecting.

The epilogue has attracted some criticism, but if you read this excellent bit of fanfiction you might wonder whether Rowling has been very clever after all (or you might think that tkp is pretty bright herself).

Rowling has created a series which has held its interest over seven books, got kids reading again, and deservedly made her richer than God. Hats off to the author.

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Cambridge Folk Festival

I’m back from the Cambridge Folk Festival. It was the first one I’d been to. I enjoyed it.

 went on Friday. I’d booked the day off work with the thought that I might go, but didn’t in the end. A combination of being busy at work and staying up late to read various books had left me a bit broken, so I just had a quiet day at home.

By Saturday I judged that my beard had grown out sufficiently to blend in with the other festival-goers. We got there just in time for Bellowhead‘s set. They’re a big band doing folk stuff with a lot of other influences, from jazz to disco. They were technically good (according to 

, who can apparently tell whether violinists have been classically trained by looking at them) and made the crowd laugh with their disco sea shanty.

We popped into the Club tent to hear Lisa Knapp. She can sing, but the mixing was painfully bad, so we went and found some chilli from the food stalls instead.

We finished that just in time to meet up with

 and squeeze back into the edge of the main tent for a view of Kate Rusby from a distance (Graham has some great pictures taken with his paparazzi-grade long lens). Turns out she’s from the Wright ancestral seat of Barnsley, so she scored points for that alone. She chatted amiably with the audience and sang beautifully.

After Kate Rusby was done, we made a dash for the front in anticipation of Joan Baez’s set. That meant we had great view of Fanfare Ciocarlia, a Romanian brass band who tore into their gypsy tunes with verve (you could tell it was going to be interesting when the stage hands laid out towels for the band members to wipe themselves with). The audience responded with whooping, clapping and as much dancing as we could manage in the confined space. In the middle of their set, Baez appeared from the wings and danced a bit with the slightly bemused Romanians, who didn’t know who she was.

Finally, it was time for Baez to come on. Amazing music, whether accompanied by her excellent band, playing her guitar alone, or acappella. She’s a trooper who, she implied in her comments, sees as much need for her activism now as in the 1960s. She attacked President Bush in Dylan’s With God on our Side and Elvis Costello’s The Scarlet Tide. She also put in some of her best known stuff, according to

, who loved Diamonds and Rust. She finished with Imagine, which I usually can’t stand (it’s a bit of a dirge, and it’s a “wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice” sort of song). This time, there was a lump in my throat as she got the crowd to sing along. Nothing could top that, so then we went home.

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Rev Steve Midgley on Dawkins

The Rev Steve Midgley, who I remember from my days at The Square Church, has been featured on the Dawkins site. The sermon he gave on Professor Dawkins’s views is about a year old now, but I suppose that a posting on the Dawkins blog might generate some more interest in it. You can find MP3s of it on his church’s site (the church is the Cambridge “plant” from St Andrew the Great which I think nlj21 attends).

Rev Midgley comes across as a thoughtful and careful preacher, eager to ensure he has presented Dawkins’s views fairly.

Midgley speaks about Professor Alister McGrath’s responses to Dawkins. I’ve not read McGrath’s books, but I’ve heard his discussion with Dawkins at the Oxford Literary Festival, and also seen him and Dawkins talking at length in out-takes from Root of All Evil?, Dawkins’s Channel 4 opinion piece from last year. I didn’t find McGrath particularly impressive in either case, mostly because of his irksome habit of telling Dawkins he’d made an interesting point and then answering something other than Dawkins’s question (now I think of it, in Yes, Prime Minister, I think that’s one of Jim Hacker’s tips to Sir Humphrey for dealing with the press). For someone who’s been associated with the infamously evangelical Wycliffe Hall theological college, McGrath seems oddly evasive on some fundamental, if unpalatable, bits of evangelical doctrine, like the Virgin Birth, penal substitutionary atonement, and the sovereignty of God even in natural disasters. I’d be interested to hear what any of you who’ve read McGrath’s books thought of them.

Midgley quotes Terry Eagleton’s LRB article to illustrate that reviewers have criticised Dawkins’s lack of theological knowledge. I think I’d be more receptive to those sort of arguments if someone could point to a rebuttal of Dawkins based on that theology. Eagleton’s attempt founders on its own contradictory assertions about what God is, as Sean Carrol points out. I doubt Midgely is willing to sign up for Eagleton’s theology, which sounds suspiciously liberal to this ex-evangelical. It’s illuminating to ask how Midgley would demonstrate that his theology was more correct than Eagleton’s, though, of which more later.

Midgley talks about Dawkins’s Ultimate 747 argument. He makes the valid point that ordinary Christians generally aren’t concerned with the Argument from Design. Similarly, he says that forcing us to chose between evolution and God is a false choice, since God may use evolution. I think this mistakes what Dawkins’s argument is. If the universe does not require a designer (as Midgley seems to concede), life itself and the universe are not evidence for the existence of God. If there are no other good arguments for God’s existence (the one from Design isn’t the only one Dawkins talks about, although it’s the centerpiece of the book), it’s reasonable to suppose that God’s not there (or he doesn’t want to be found).

Midgley goes on to point out that scientific theories change, quoting McGrath again, and asserts that Dawkins has a faith as much as a Christian does. Dawkins’s own response to McGrath points out the inconsistency here: Dawkins, along with any good scientist, is willing to admit the scientific theories are provisional. Midgley, to get his old job at St Andrew the Great and to speak to CICCU, presumably assented to some extremely specific doctrines (never mind the Nicene Creed, if you want to test for “soundness”, try the CICCU Doctrinal Basis). These doctrines aren’t subject to testing, peer review or later revision. How are we supposed to know that Midgley is right and Eagleton’s Marxist Christianity is wrong? I think we’d just have to have faith 🙂

Finally, I wish he could pronounce Dawkins’s name correctly. That sort of mistake lays you open to parody.

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Rocks fall. Everyone dies.

In their latest spasm of incompetence in the on-going Strikethrough 2007 drama, LiveJournal’s admins have clarified that they were just kidding about that all that free speech and community stuff for long enough to get the last batch of permanent accounts sold.

Countdown to Harry Potter spoilers being posted in that thread: in 10… 9… 8…

ETA: Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies. Youtube and Google win again. I think I slightly prefer Harry Potter and the Brokeback Goblet, myself. Both spoiler free.

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Facebook is the future of the Internets

I look up potential interviewees on Facebook (as well as Google, obviously). Unlike the proctors at Oxfrod, I don’t care whether you’ve been photographed covered in flour or shaving cream, as long as you look like someone who’s smart, and gets things done.

livredor recently posted an entry in which she talks about online privacy, linking to Charlie Stross’s essay on the subject. I think Stross has this article on teenagers and online privacy in mind when he talks of a generation growing up with the idea that you have no privacy online and it doesn’t matter anyway. livredor is coming to the conclusion (which I share, see my replies in the comments) that she “should just make everything open and take care never to post anything that I could be ashamed or embarrassed about”.

As the comments on her posting point out, the problem is working out what you could be embarrassed about. The problems mentioned in the Times article are partly the result of a generation gap between people who aren’t surprised that some of their peers have put their lives online, warts and all, and the staid elders who are shocked to learn stuff that proctors, employers and parents didn’t previously find out about. I suspect that absence of evidence of shaving cream was never really evidence of absence, but it’s going to take a while for the elders to work that out. It seems sensible for the younger people to be a little circumspect in the meantime, so it’s not surprising that many existing Facebook users are tightening up their privacy options. Relying on privacy settings is another risk, because you’re trusting your e-friends and the site you’re using, but at least you’re keeping your embarrassing university antics out of sight of indexers and archivers, and you’re not assuming that the elders cannot join the site you’re using.

livredor also mentioned the possible problems which might be caused by people migrating away from email to the messaging systems offered by sites like Facebook. Gervase Markham has some thoughts on the subject. Conventional email is a lot less slick than, say, Facebook’s internal messages, and faces a greater spam problem, in part because email is distributed but Facebook has centralised control. These proprietary systems have their downsides too, of course: balkanisation, and a single point of failure when Facebook gets shut down by a law suit.

I think there’s some mileage in building an email system which is a bit more like Facebook’s walled garden. When I say spam in its current form is a solved problem, what I mean is that you can solve it by only accepting messages from well-behaved parts of the Internet. What I mean by well-behaved is stuff like not being in space given to cable modems and the like (Spamhaus PBL, checks on the presence of reverse DNS and that the hostname does not contain some variant of the IP address), not being a known baddie (Spamhaus SBL and XBL or your own email providers local list of scumbags), and not sending bulk email except by prior arrangement (DCC with whitelisting for mailing lists).

Alas, not all badly-behaved emailers are spammers, some of them are just managed by incompetents. Sometimes these incompetents work for large companies who aren’t going to change, so you have to start making holes in your garden wall to keep your users happy. However, an inbound email gateway for a hugely popular site like Facebook could enforce these restrictions by fiat without losing anything, since their users are using the internal system to send each other messages anyway, so anything else is a bonus (you could also make a nice interface for whitelisting legitimate bulk senders by requiring them to produce a Facebook application, say). If Facebook does take over the world, it needn’t mean the death of email. It might just bring the incompetents into line, we can but hope.

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God hates fags (and women)

Rt Rev Graham Dow, Bishop of Carlisle, has let us know that the real reason for the floods in the north. It’s the gays.

“We are in serious moral trouble because every type of lifestyle is now regarded as legitimate,” he said.

“In the Bible, institutional power is referred to as ‘the beast’, which sets itself up to control people and their morals. Our government has been playing the role of God in saying that people are free to act as they want,” he said, adding that the introduction of recent pro-gay laws highlighted its determination to undermine marriage.

“The sexual orientation regulations [which give greater rights to gays] are part of a general scene of permissiveness. We are in a situation where we are liable for God’s judgment, which is intended to call us to repentance.”

The non-sequitur in that second paragraph is breathtaking, isn’t it? The reference is to Revelation, chapter 13. Revelation has been favoured by loons since it was written (I particularly like this version, myself). The beast is usually thought to be the power of ancient Rome, possibly Emperor Nero himself, whose burnings of Christians and insistence on worship of deified emperors are clearly just like a secular democracy which is trying to give its citizens equality under the law.

Dow is quoted alongside a couple of other evangelical Bishops saying less insane stuff about global warming, with the vague hint that God is telling us off for being nasty to the planet. They’re probably wishing they had chosen to speak out at a time when their episcopal colleague wasn’t hell-bent on emptying churches throughout the north. Good luck to Dow in his quest, anyhow.

Hassan Butt appears to be one of those people you don’t hear about often enough: a Muslim speaking out publicly against terrorism and calling on Muslims in the UK to reform. His article in The Observer is worth a read, as is the one giving Tony Blair’s thoughts on British Islam. Both links come from those Drink Soaked Trots, who I commend to you for sensible commentary if, like me, you’re a bit of a leftie.

The original drink-soaked trot, Christopher Hitchens, points out in Slate that God also hates women, or at least, those who are slags.

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Who Review

No blog is complete without a posting on the season finale of Doctor Who. Here’s mine. Contains spoilers.

<lj-cut>I was, in the end, disappointed. It’s clear that Russell T. Davies so wants the geeks to like him, what with all the references to pre-RTD Who and other SF stuff (“the project was our last, best hope”, the funeral pyre, and so on). But what we got was a bit incoherent, long on emoting and short on plot. Geeks like plot, and, as Babylon 5 showed, we can put up with some terrible acting and special effects as long as we get it. RTD worked himself into a frenzy of flashes and bangs from which he had no way out other than using the TARDIS as a big reset switch yet again.

I liked the final scene between the Doctor and Martha because they involved the audience in a way most of what went before had not. RTD can do character interaction.

The best episodes of this series were those which combined this development of the characters with a plot which made consistent (and a little less frenetic) use of the SF elements (Human Nature and the Family of Blood) and one which took a single SF premise and worked through it well (Blink).

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