Link blog: world-war-II, encryption, history, bletchley-park

The Influence of ULTRA in the Second World War
“In 1993 Sir Harry Hinsley kindly agreed to speak about Bletchley Park, where he worked during the Second World War. Sir Harry Hinsley is a distinguished historian who during the Second World War worked at Bletchley Park, where much of the allied forces code-breaking effort took place.” A transcript of the talk.
(tags: bletchley-park world-war-II encryption enigma history)

Link blog: politics, world-war-II, iot, italy

Who Will Command The Robot Armies?
Funny and worrying talk. Pinboard is always good for “Internet of shit” stories, but has a wider point here.
(tags: robots facebook twitter amazon work po politics surveillance technology automation iot)
Ur-Fascism | by Umberto Eco | The New York Review of Books
What are the common features of anything worth calling Fascism?
(tags: history politics fascism italy world-war-II)

Link blog: war, world-war-II, solstice, turing

The button that isn’t | Restricted Data
There’s no actual big red button to launch all the missiles. Interesting article on nuclear command and control.
(tags: nuclear icbm button war missiles)
Secular Solstice: Doing good for goodness’ sake – The Washington Post
The WaPo reports on secular solstice celebration. Sounds cool.
(tags: atheism religion solstice)
“Yer a Developer, Harry” – Programming Is Magic
How being a programmer is a bit like being a wizard. Via andrewducker.
(tags: magic programming spells software wizards)
A Poor Imitation of Alan Turing by Christian Caryl | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books
The Imitation Game is pretty bad as history. Via HD on Facebook.
(tags: biography film review turing history war world-war-II)

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.