The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America's EnemiesThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This fascinating biography of one of America’s great woman sheds more light on a history little known to most Americans. Elizebeth Friedman was a cryptanalyst who helped the government chase smugglers during Prohibition and Nazis during WWII. The author has obviously dug deeply into archives to piece together her life. The author creditably relates the subject’s experience with discrimination in employment, unequal pay, and sexual harassment. Some things never change – or at least change all too slowly.

The book is not without its problems, though. For one thing, much of it is not new. It borrows heavily from The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet by David Kahn, among other sources. The author, who admits he knows little about cryptography, gets many things flat out wrong. Some of his work is just sloppy. For example, on P. 127 he copies the sentence from Elizebeth’s note to her husband wrong, omitting the final I in “mari.” Even my high school French taught me that husband is mari, not mar (not to mention you can see the I in the note). He also calls that note a Railfence cipher, but it is really just plaintext written in an alternating columnar route. I won’t bother to explain a Railfence; look it up in Wikipedia if you want to know. He repeats both of those errors later on, too. On p. 136 he writes the ciphertext word for “prospects” wrong, adding a letter. His cryptographic definitions at the beginning are misleading at best, just plain wrong in other spots. As a forty-year member of the American Cryptogram Association I am more sensitive to those issues than others, I’ll admit, but the serious crypto fan will have to grit his teeth in places.

Another problematic issue is the suggestion throughout the book, especially at the end, that E. Friedman never got her due, often overshadowed in government circles and even the press by her husband William. This is true to some extent, but is also misleading. First of all, William was, and is widely recognized as, the superior cryptographer of the two (Purple and SIGABA are each alone more significant than her entire body of work). Second, she often got more public notice than he did, especially when she was testifying against rumrunners and others. Reporters and the public alike were much entranced by the “attractive girl cryptographer.” She’s been the subject of much press in recent decades, too, including in Kahn’s seminal book, although much of it does not include her wartime feats which this author brings to light very well. Lastly, the very nature of cryptanalysis (the breaking of codes and ciphers) is a secret business and both Friedmans were often dismayed at any publicity about their craft. I think the author and women’s rights advocates are more upset than either Friedman ever was about her relative anonymity. The Friedmans were products of their time and she was very much one of the most liberated and professionally fulfilled women of her day.

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San Francisco Bay Blues

Jesse Fuller wrote and performed this song as a honky-tonk ditty. His one man band included a slew of eclectic acoustic instruments, but I don’t like that overly busy sound. The song is too good to clutter up with cymbals, kazoos and harmonicas. However, in order to be true to the honky-tonk nature of the composition, I have played it on my Taro resonator to give it a little funk.



The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers

The Monk of MokhaThe Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I struggled to make my way through this audiobook, but the reader’s aggravating breathless awestruck delivery of every sentence thwarted my attempts. It’s a mundane non-fiction report about coffee history and commodity pricing, at least at the beginning, so why the jaw-dropping amazement at every line? The author suggests that any decent human being should “step up” and pay eight dollars for a cup of arabica coffee – its “real price” – so than Yemeni farmers can get paid fairly for coffee and stop growing khat. Maybe I’m morally bereft, but I’m quite happy with my daily two cups of Taster’s Choice instant for 15 cents a cup or whatever it costs. No, I don’t care about the fate of Yemeni farmers; if they prefer to grow khat, that’s fine with me. This is the same reader for this author’s earlier book The Circle and I couldn’t make it through that one for the same reason.

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Our Ignorant Newsies – Good Morning America edition

Today GMA reported that the NTSB had recommended school buses install “automatic breaking.” This text on the screen next to a picture of a bus that had badly broken in a fatal crash. No! No! No! It’s braking, not breaking. Then their reporter said removing 100 pounds of weight from your car will decrease fuel efficiency by 1%. No again. It will increase fuel efficiency. It decreases fuel usage. Is it any wonder our youth today can’t spell or do math when these are the kinds of examples they see. ABC is not some podunk 5000-watt radio station in Fresno (Ted Baxter’s line from the Mary Tyler Moore show if you don’t recognize it). They’re big enough and rich enough to hire people who can spell and understand simple concepts like increasing versus decreasing.

Edit 5/26/18: NBC Nightly News had a caption on some story saying something about a “laywer” (sic). Really, can’t they just buy a spellchecker?

The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs. ParrishThe Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I can barely squeeze out two stars for this ham-fisted “psychological thriller.” The cast of characters:

Amber – a conniving young woman lusting after the good life with a fabulously rich, gorgeous, alpha male.
Jackson – a fabulously rich, gorgeous, alpha male.
Daphne – Jackson’s wife – a gorgeous, pampered, society matron.

Amber sets her plan in action by insinuating herself into Daphne’s life by becoming co-chair of Daphne’s charitable foundation. The author spends a few hundred pages describing lavish opulence, designer clothes, yachts, jewels, etc. and how Amber lusts after them while Daphne takes them all for granted without a hint of appreciation for what she has. If you can stay interested long enough, the big reveal comes about halfway through with Part 2 when the story is told from another perspective. When that comes, you can pretty much write the rest of the book yourself. All except the ending, that is. The author lays it on so thick in the last couple of chapters you’ll get seasick from all the eye-rolling you’ll be doing. There are no twists there, just horrible writing and an editor with a 12-year-old’s sophistication. I managed to read the whole thing, though, so I can’t quite give it one star. It killed a few hours.

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Going Dark – FBI Director Wray’s statement

Here is an excerpt from the statement supporting the Budget Request that FBI Director Wray made to Congress last week. A link to the full statement is below.

The rapid pace of advances in mobile and other communication technologies continue to present a significant challenge to conducting court-ordered electronic surveillance of criminals and terrorists. There is a real and growing gap between law enforcement’s legal authority to access digital information and its technical ability to do so. The FBI refers to this growing challenge as “Going Dark,” and it affects the spectrum of our work.

The benefits of our increasingly digital lives have been accompanied by new dangers, and we have seen how criminals and terrorists use advances in technology to their advantage. In the counterterrorism context, for instance, our agents and analysts are increasingly finding that communications and contacts between groups like ISIS and potential recruits occur in encrypted private messaging platforms. The use of encrypted platforms also presents serious challenges to law enforcement’s ability to identify, investigate, and disrupt threats that range from counterterrorism to child exploitation, gangs, drug traffickers and white-collar crimes. In addition, we are seeing more and more cases where we believe significant evidence resides on a phone, a tablet, or a laptop—evidence that may be the difference between an offender being convicted or acquitted. If we cannot access this evidence, it will have ongoing, significant effects on our ability to identify, stop, and prosecute these offenders.

For the full statement, Click here:

Secret Warriors by Taylor Downing

Secret Warriors: The Spies, Scientists and Code Breakers of World War ISecret Warriors: The Spies, Scientists and Code Breakers of World War I by Taylor Downing
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a history of the technological advances in Britain during World War I. As such the title is misleading. Although there is a chapter on code-breaking (a brief and unsophisticated treatment), virtually all of the rest of the book is about scientific and engineering advances. There’s nothing about spies other than a few anecdotes about successful disinformation.

The book is not badly written, but the author makes the typical historian’s mistake of spending way too much time and space on the biographies of the inventors and not enough on the technology, i.e. the actual subject matter. Since I am more interested in the spycraft and cryptology, I was quite disappointed in this book.

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There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
His daughter named Nan
Ran off with a man,
And as for the bucket, Nan tuck it.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

The Woman in the WindowThe Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anna is suffering from agoraphobia, stemming from a traumatic incident in her recent past. She sits staring out her window, watching the neighbors and drinking, mixing alcohol with powerful drugs. She knows better since she is a psychologist; still she self-medicates with a dangerous alcohol and drug cocktail. She is also a huge movie fan, especially the classic black and white mystery films like Hitchcock’s Rear Window. There are many film quotes scattered throughout the text, popping spontaneously from Anna’s muddled brain. For those of you too young to know that film, the protagonist, played by Jimmy Stewart, is wheelchair bound and stares out his window. He sees what he thinks is a murder. Of course, we find that Anna, too, sees what she thinks is a murder but the police don’t believe her. This homage to Rear Window is both intentional and, in my opinion, an intriguing start.

The book goes downhill from there. Still, before I say why, I should say that this book is a worthwhile summer beach read if you like mysteries. I can give it a solid three and a half stars despite its rather obvious and severe problems. So what makes me object? Three things primarily: first, its lack of originality (and I am not referring to Rear Window); second, it’s draggy and overwritten, that is, stretched and manipulative in order to fit the publisher’s cookie cutter hit mystery formula; and third, the voice actress on the audiobook overacts terribly.

The lack of originality I refer to is the current fad of using the first person and an unreliable narrator. Anna is drunk and taking psychoactive drugs that can cause delusions as she tells the story. Can we believe her? This trend, a short-lived one, I hope, although not entirely new, recently became immensely popular with publishers after the commercial success of Gone Girl, and especially The Girl on the Train. Since then we’ve had The Woman in Cabin 10 and Before I Go to Sleep that I’ve read, and who knows how many other copycats. Even the name is a rip-off of these “The Girl/Woman” titles. I listened to the author interview at the end and he even admits to deciding to write this book only after the success of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. The plot is all too predictable as well. The first big dope slap moment for Anna comes about three-quarters of the way through the book, although most readers will have figured that out a hundred pages earlier. Suspension of disbelief moments abound, especially with the police, and the ending is ludicrously overwritten, although satisfying in a perverse sort of way. Put another way, it’s formulaic, but the formula it follows is entertaining enough.

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Serial killer/rapist caught with DNA

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last week, you’ve no doubt heard that the Golden State Killer, aka East Area Rapist, guilty of at least twelve murders and fifty-one rapes in the 1970s and 80s, was recently captured using a DNA match found through a genealogy site. That site is My DNA sequence has been uploaded to that site. Since that time I’ve seen several news story about people having, or needing, increased awareness/concern about their privacy on DNA sites. Spokespeople for other sites like 23andMe and have appeared on news shows to emphasize that they do not share DNA information with law enforcement without compulsory legal process, i.e. subpoena or court order.

I don’t get it. Why the concern for privacy and why this policy? Are there really people out there who don’t want serial killers and rapists caught? The serial rapist/killers themselves, I suppose. But are you really concerned that police might catch your fourth cousin twice removed that you’ve never heard of because they linked a killer’s DNA to yours? I’d be thrilled if my DNA led to catching another Golden State Killer even if it turned out to be a close relative. Some people may think they could wrongly be suspected based on a DNA “hit” but that’s simply wrong. A DNA test can positively confirm or eliminate a match. At the very least, the users of such sites should have the option of checking a box that allows law enforcement access to their DNA without legal process. What kind of person (expletive deleted) wouldn’t opt in to that? I think this case could lead to a huge increase in clearing such cold cases, or even some quite hot cases. Lives could be saved. Rapes could be prevented.

Some people might say, well, then, all the cops have to do is get a subpoena or court order. That shows a woeful ignorance of the law. To get either you need one of two things: a grand jury convened for your case (only available for a major active case) or a search warrant, which requires probable cause. Probable cause requires that you have good reason to believe the DNA in a company’s data base contains useful evidence in a specific case. That’s almost never the case; that is, you can’t prove to a judge in advance that it’s likely a DNA match will be found. The simple fact is that in most criminal cases, especially cold cases, subpoenas and warrants or other forms of court order are simply not available to investigators. I’ve had a few people challenge me on this and find it hard to believe, but, unlike me, they weren’t lawyers or experienced criminal investigators. Take my word for it. It’s true.

What the police did here, though, doesn’t require probable cause or any legal process. No one’s rights have been violated. The DNA matching came from two sources: the victims (either given voluntarily in rape cases or taken from the deceased’s body in the murders) and the accused’s used paper cup that he threw away. There is no privacy right in trash you throw away in a public place like a mall. The way the police identified him, i.e. by using GEDMatch, is irrelevant legally. The whole point of that website is for people to put their DNA out for public comparison. Even if their rights were violated, which they weren’t, the defendant wouldn’t have standing to contest that. If the police conduct an illegal search of your house and find evidence incriminating me, I can’t object. They can use it against me; they just can’t use it against you. This is another concept the general public often doesn’t understand.

Anne Wojcicki (CEO of 23andMe), your pro-rapist, anti-police policy is reprehensible. Not only are you protecting rapists and killers, but you are hindering the freeing of wrongly convicted prisoners by your policy. Shame on you!

Following is the recent notice on the home page of

April 27, 2018 We understand that the GEDmatch database was used to help identify the Golden State Killer. Although we were not approached by law enforcement or anyone else about this case or about the DNA, it has always been GEDmatch’s policy to inform users that the database could be used for other uses, as set forth in the Site Policy ( linked to the login page and While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including identification of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes. If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove DNA that has already been uploaded.

Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly

Two Kinds of Truth (Harry Bosch, #20; Harry Bosch Universe, #30)Two Kinds of Truth by Michael Connelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Followers of my blog or reviews know I’m a big Connelly fan, especially the Bosch books, so perhaps it is not very useful to see that I like this one, too. However, I can’t rate it quite as high as most of his earlier Bosch books. Harry has always been something of a rule-breaker who answers only to his own sense of right and wrong, but for the most part he adheres to the law and respects the legal process. In this one he verges closer to a Dirty Harry sort of attitude, a somewhat disappointing twist for those of us who respected his “purity”, such as it is.

Harry is now in his seventies and working for San Fernando P.D. The plot involves multiple crimes, some of them related. The primary thread is a gang of drug pushers who use elderly addicts as shills, shipping them from one corrupt pharmacy to another to fill phony prescriptions for opiods, keeping half the take to sell on the street. I liked the fact Jerry Edgar, his old partner, makes an appearance. Personal loyalties and trust are tested in this one. He paints a very sordid picture of the drug crisis which can be hard to stomach at times. As always, the detail of police procedure is spot on and usually fascinating.

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This Is What Happened by Mick Herron

This Is What HappenedThis Is What Happened by Mick Herron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Be patient. This book starts slow and soon becomes both confusing and implausible. If you hang in there, though, the plot begins to reveal itself about halfway through. This is to say you figure out “what happened.” The storyline is really quite imaginative. Maggie, a naif living alone in London in a menial job, is recruited to help MI-5 in a secret task. She agrees to do it, but things go wrong and she is whisked away to a safe house. That’s enough to get you the idea.

The writing is workmanlike, but uninspiring. The style is somewhat lighthearted, although you wouldn’t call this a comedy by any means. The author manages keep the reader in suspense enough once into the meat of the plot, but I suspect a few readers get bored and drop out before that point. The subtitle on the cover (“A Thriller”) is quite a stretch, I’d say. It isn’t something I’d recommend highly, but it was good enough to be my airplane entertainment when I flew down to Austin for my daughter’s wedding. It could be a “summer beach read.”

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Word Length Patterns

For my hobby of cipher solving I decided to try a new technique, one I call word length patterns. The concept is simple: compare the pattern of word lengths at the beginning of the cipher to known patterns that match to gain an idea of probable words that fit. I restricted it to the beginning of sentences.

To use this method, one must be able to determine where the word breaks are. This would be true for typical cryptograms, i.e. aristocrats in the jargon of the American Cryptogram Association (ACA). However, aristocrats are quite easily solved by other methods and the ones that are too tough for conventional methods no doubt also have atypical word lengths. However, there are other cipher types, not so easily solved, where word breaks are shown or can be easily determined. These include the Ragbaby, Tridigital, Sequence Tramp, and CONDI. To use the method to help solve, simply make note of the pattern of word lengths for the first three to eight words and write out the numbers in order, separated by hyphens. For example, “The quick brown fox jumps over the…” would produce the indexing sequence 3-5-5-3-5-4-3. Look up in a reference source that same pattern (or at least the first three or four numbers) to see what the most common, or most likely, set of words produce that pattern,.

Clearly, this method requires a reference source that includes similar sentences to the one you are trying to solve. I wrote a program to analyze dozens of books I downloaded from These were almost all novels from the 19th and 20th centuries, which limits their usefulness, but it is an easily obtained large block of English sentence data. I processed these books, taking only sentence beginnings and only sentences that had at least four words to compile a data base of patterns. There were just over 141,000 sentences in the data. I provide a link to that file at the end of this post in case you want to download it. Searching that file for the above pattern there were 25 instances beginning 3-5-5-3-5. The vast majority began with the word “the” but none continued with the word “quick.” In fact, the 25 second words were all different. In short, there was no clear winner for that pattern. I found this unsurprising since it would have been quite odd for that sentence or one much like it to appear in an old novel since it is an artificial sentence (viz. a pangram) created to test typewriter keyboards.

I then took the data and examined it to see what patterns were the most common. The most common pattern for the first five words was 2-3-4-2-3. There were 158 sentences that began with this pattern. The most common words meeting this pattern were “do you mean to say” at 12 instances, but even more common was the pattern “at the ???? of the” where the center word could be any of several 4-letter words, such as foot, base, edge, head, gate, etc. This could be useful in some cases, I believe. I then did the same process restricting output to cases where a 5-letter word appeared somewhere in the first five, and then again requiring a 6-letter word. The results were 2-3-5-2-3 and 2-3-6-2-3, identical to the previous pattern except for the center word. The most common words fitting the pattern, like the earlier case, was either “at the ????? of the” or “in the ????? of the,” especially “in the midst of the” for the first case and “center” or “centre” for the third word in the second case.

I don’t consider this method a success, but neither do I feel it is totally useless. For example, I did a similar data processing on my collection of over 6000 solutions to ACA ciphers and searched for the pattern 3-10-7. There were four sentences beginning with that pattern. Three of the four had the second and third words as “difference between”. Two of those began with “the,” the other with “one.” I believe that if I were to encounter a CONDI, Ragbaby, etc., with this particular pattern, this data would prove useful. Selecting the right reference data is obviously key.

If you want a copy of the gutenberg novel data, click here.

Artemis by Andy Weir

ArtemisArtemis by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Artemis is chock full of brilliant improvised technical solutions to life-threatening situations on this fictional moon community. This much I expected from Weir, the author of The Martian. What I didn’t expect was the amusing banter and snappy dialogue between the characters. Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara is a sexy, smart-mouthed young woman who grew up in Artemis, a lunar town. She makes her living officially as a porter, but unofficially as a smuggler of contraband. She’s rebellious and reckless and occasionally foul-mouthed. She is inveigled into a risky and illegal scheme to get rich quick and things go wrong. I’ll leave the rest to you to find out.

This book hits just the right blend between reality and fantasy. It’s much more imaginative and exciting than a NASA technical manual and much more plausible than the average space opera. Weir obviously did a lot of research into arcane scientific or technical subjects like how to weld in outer space, what the by-products of aluminum smelting are, how the low lunar gravity affects those who grew up in it, and so forth. He gets it close enough to be credible, although I doubt an astronaut would rely on the representations in this book alone. But focusing on the science would be a mistake. The book’s charm is in the snappy dialog, colorful characters, and exciting plot. It’s a fun read. I’ll leave it at that.

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Cliffhanger A Cliff Knowles Mystery

Cliff Knowles is back! Ten geocachers are invited to an exclusive all-expense paid adventure on a private island owned by the controversial new owner of the geocaching company. What could possibly go wrong? Geocaches that are death traps. A ferocious storm. A body. A murder? Some adventures can be too thrilling, as Cliff Knowles learns once again.
Kindle link: Cliffhanger (Kindle)
Paperback link: Cliffhanger (paperback)

Sapiens by Yuval Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s books like this that made me hate history in college. The author is an historian and suffers from the same arrogance and condescension of every history professor or teacher I’ve ever had. Sure, most of what he writes is well-established as true, but he is constantly going beyond the factual and asserting that such and such happened when really it’s speculative at best. He certainly gets a number of things wrong about American History. The author is Israeli and seems to have a picture of American history taken from tabloids, not historical documents. Like most people, he fits history into his world view, ignoring inconvenient facts. For example, he describes how happy hunter gatherers were tens of thousands of years ago. Happy, really? How about all those parasites and infectious diseases and animal attacks that killed their children at alarming rates. How frightened were they of unexplained natural phenomena like lightning, floods, forest fires, earthquakes. They may have been in constant terror of the gods they worshiped. We don’t really know, but modern-day hunter-gatherers who have recently joined the civilized world seem very happy to have left behind the brutally difficult life they led. He predicts the future as though it is already fact. I appreciate the fact that he thoroughly debunked religions and other modern day self-righteous value systems in favor of scientific knowledge, but he then proceeded to paint his own value system as the only correct one, falling prey to the same false premises.

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Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Christine wakes up every morning with no memory of where she is or who the man is in the bed next to her. He explains that he is her husband Ben and that she has amnesia. He clearly loves her but she cannot reciprocate that love because he seems like a stranger. The woman in the mirror looking back at her is 20 years older than she thinks she is. Soon a doctor researching her unusual case provides her a way to connect with the past – by writing down in a journal what each day is like. Every day after Ben has gone to work he calls her and tells her to look in the closet to read the journal so she can get a sense of what her life has been and who she is. The next morning the same thing happens, but there is always a little more written in the journal. It is an intriguing set-up for a plot.

This is the best mystery I’ve read in months. The suspense builds page by page as we learn more about her past. She begins to have flashes of memory – or are they her imagination? Ben is caught lying to her about things, but does he do it only to spare her having to relive traumatic events? Because he can’t bear to go through the same explanations day after day? Her doctor lies too. For the same reason? She once had a best friend. A son. Why aren’t they in her life now?

The pacing is sharp and so is the writing. I had to force myself to put the book down to make it last longer. This is one I recommend to every mystery fan.

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