Betting the Farm on a Drought by Seamus McGraw

Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate ChangeBetting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Lines of Climate Change by Seamus McGraw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The author is a journalist who has followed the public debate about climate change, or, if you prefer, the weather. That sums up the main message of the book – how a subject as mundane and apolitical as weather has turned into a political hot potato pitting liberals against conservatives. He argues that extremists on both sides, aided by the media, have politicized an important issue and and in effect stalled any attempts to address it.

The science isn’t in question. It’s getting hotter and the rate of rise is unprecedented not only in human history but in the history of the world. It coincides with the industrialization of the world using fossil fuels in unprecedented numbers. Global warming is real and it is caused by the increase in greenhouse gases. Just don’t call it global warming or even climate change. Those are buzz words pointy-headed liberals use. As one skeptic put it, “I didn’t know anything about the issue except Al Gore believed it so I didn’t believe it.” This theme was echoed a lot in the book, but the author also takes issue with the apocalyptic rhetoric coming from the extremists on the other side and the media, which he says presents only extremist views because those are the ones that draw the ratings. They fool themselves into thinking presenting both extremes is balanced reporting. It’s not, at least according to the author.

He makes a point to interview a lot of skeptics, conservative “climate deniers” if you will, like hunters, commercial fishermen, and farmers. Almost to a man they claim man-made climate change is a hoax or at least not proven. Yet they also agree that it is getting hotter and that it will continue to get even hotter. (Umm, fellas, that is climate change). The elk no longer come down from the high mountains to the valleys until after hunting season is over because it stays warm longer. The trees are dying, too, the hunters say. The whiting no longer come close to shore in the Maryland bay where the author grew up because it’s too warm. Fishermen have to go north long distances out to sea now. Cattle ranchers in Texas have moved their herds to Montana and North Dakota. Others who used to plant corn now plant cotton. They just call it drought or weather, not climate change, and they are taking reasonable actions to deal with it. The author’s point is that it is their very actions that are necessary (although not sufficient) to fight the phenomenon everyone agrees is real, even if they can’t agree on what to call it.

The book is a bit pedantic even though it is peppered with personal anecdotes. It probably isn’t going to change anyone’s mind because the issue is so polarizing now, but it has some good information for anyone wanting to educate themselves on the subject.

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The Vaccine Race by Meredith Wadman

The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating DiseaseThe Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease by Meredith Wadman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This nonfiction account of the spectacular and life-saving advances in vaccine development over the last fifty or so years is in some ways reminiscent of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson. Until you see it set out before you, it is difficult to imagine or remember how much important history has passed in this field in just the last few decades.

The book begins and ends with Leonard Hayflick, a cell biologist credited with, among other things, discovery of the Hayflick Limit, an amorphous number that identifies how many times cells, especially human cells, can split and thus reproduce in a laboratory culture. In effect he established that non-cancerous cells cannot live and expand in culture indefinitely, which was in direct contradiction to the established wisdom of the day. He developed a human cell culture known as WI-38 that had the remarkable quality of being able to culture or reproduce in the lab multiple times without becoming cancerous or developing other anomalies. He promoted these cells vigorously for the purpose of researching cell aging, and, perhaps more importantly, for use in producing “clean” vaccines.

Hayflick was a controversial figure for several reasons. He was treated as hired help at the Wistar Institute where he worked culturing cells for the virus researchers, the supposed stars, a fact that he deeply resented. His discovery of cell death was not easily accepted by the scientific community, but more than that, it was his fateful, and questionable, decision to take the WI-38 cells he had developed with a government grant to his new position at Stanford University, and eventually to begin selling them through his own corporation. Some at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) considered him a thief while others saw him as an underappreciated scientist of outstanding ability.

The book is not a biography of Hayflick, however, although he is the central figure. Other virus researchers, doctors, biologists and bureaucrats are featured at length. The process of cell culture and vaccine development is described in considerable detail in language a layman like me can understand. I was awestruck at how complex the process is. Really top-notch science is required – hands-on lab work especially – and some risky experiments and testing that raise ethical questions. Experiments of the day involved inoculating subjects with untested vaccines, including live ones that could give him the disease. Subjects were often orphans, prisoners, soldiers, babies, the mentally deficient, and others who had little or no ability to consent. Many or even most were unaware that they were even test subjects. The diseases involved included polio, rubella (German measles), rabies, and adenovirus. The WI-38 cells were derived from an aborted fetus. It is clear that the field is replete with controversial and ethically troubling issues.

The writing is clear and workmanlike, if not particularly elegant. To my taste there was too much time spent on the upbringing and background of the various figures in the book when it should have focused more on the science. The author also had an irritating tendency to repeat. Virtually every time a vaccine or person was mentioned it was followed by clause informing us for the umpteenth time who or what that was. I’m not an idiot. I can remember the person who was just the subject of a long chapter twenty pages ago and mentioned fifty times earlier in the book. It made the book overlong. It also focused too much on the intellectual property controversy over the ownership of the WI-38 cells and Hayflick’s alleged wrongdoing. He was, by all accounts, a star in the field of cell biology and a decent human being whose work led to the development of new or improved vaccines preventing thousands, perhaps millions, of deaths and other suffering, and to scientific advancements that brought Nobel prizes to others who built on his work. Still, all in all, it was a well-written book on an interesting subject.

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Winterkill by C. J. Box

Winterkill (Joe Pickett, #3)Winterkill by C.J. Box
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett finds the local U.S. Forest Service manager drunk and shooting elk like crazy. Joe arrests him, but the man escapes and by the time Joe catches up with him, he’s been murdered. Joe has to solve the crime since the local sheriff is an incompetent lout and arrests the wrong man. His deputy is even worse. Meanwhile Joe’s adopted daughter is imperiled by the return of her natural mother. As with his first two Pickett novels, Box portrays the stark majesty of Wyoming well and has created a likeable All-American do-goody main character. The plot is full of action and cleverly constructed, only I can only bring myself to give it three stars. In fact, I could barely finish it. Why?

Because of the near-vitriolic anti-government sentiment that only gets worse throughout the book. The Joe-Pickett-against-the-world thing just got to be too much. It seems that Joe is the only government worker in the whole world who is decent and hard-working. The local sheriff is lazy, mean, and incompetent. [My grandfather was a sheriff in Wyoming and was kind and beloved by the citizens. I know; I was living with him in the courthouse as a 5-year-old when he died]. The Forest Service victim is a drunkard and animal slaughterer. His boss, a regional manager, is an insane egomaniacal woman who blithely lets (or causes) her dog to be run over by a piece of heavy machinery and is itching for a shootout with the Sovereign Citizens group camping nearby. She only gets worse throughout the book, too. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and USFS types are all lazy, arrogant, and don’t work a second past 5:00. Worst of all, the FBI agents brought on scene are chain-smoking HRT members who were at Ruby Ridge and Waco and take sadistic pleasure in killing people. [Now, as an ex-FBI agent I’m beginning to feel some piling on here]. The local County Attorney seems to have his heart in the right place, but he’s portrayed as ineffectual. The disgustingly obese judge will give a woman whatever court order she wants in exchange for sex. So only the game wardens are the good guys? Oh wait! I forgot – no they’re a bunch of corrupt crooks, too, as portrayed in the first book. Oh yes, anyone with a southern accent is evil and stupid, too.

So who are the good guys, if any? Of course, the swastika-wielding gun-toting white supremacist sovereign citizens. Well, not quite good guys, but portrayed almost sympathetically. I’m perplexed by this anti-government direction in the writing since Joe Pickett is a government employee. Okay, plenty of crime novelists and TV writers like to stick pins in the FBI, making them out as pompous or arrogant, hogging glory. I’m used to that and it doesn’t bother me. I even do a bit of that in my own novels, although it’s confined to the top brass. But there are so many things wrong with the portrayal in this book on all levels it’s beyond literary license. A chain-smoking HRT member? They’re all fitness nuts. The FBI taking orders from a Forest Service manager? It’s laughable. In my 25-year career I saw nothing but cooperation and friendly relations between police and FBI, with the exception of one case (in which the FBI rescued a kidnap victim, arrested both kidnappers, and recovered the ransom much to the annoyance of the local police). Worst of all, a sadistic FBI agent who took pleasure in killing people? Not in my FBI. Okay, so forget my gripes on that account; maybe I’m not objective.

The thing that got to me more than anything else was the way it seemed to be taken for granted that the white supremacist narrative was accurate on things like Ruby Ridge and Waco. What’s next, Timothy McVeigh’s a hero for blowing up the day care center and hundreds of other innocents in Oklahoma City? David Koresh is a true prophet despite burning down his own parishioners? The Unabomber? Jim Jones? ISIS? This kind of story-telling is troubling. Sure, most people will see it as just the fiction that it is, but it only takes a tiny fraction of one percent to buy into it to end up with the self-styled vigilantism that justifies in someone’s mind the mass killing of random innocent people. It’s possible to make Pickett a good guy without making everyone else a scumbag.

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Birthday present

Look what my kids gave me for my birthday: a complete hard-bound set of the Cliff Knowles Mysteries: Held for Ransom, Cached Out, Fatal Dose, Death Row, Gut Shot, Behead Me, and A Will to Die. These are NOT for sale!

Retiree Activity Survey

I’m interested in how others fill their free time. Please respond to this survey. When I tested it on the SurveyMonkey site it allowed participants to add comments to each question. If you have trouble doing that, you can add a comment here on this blog. I’m too cheap to buy the pro version, so I’m restricted to 10 questions. Therefore, I couldn’t be too specific and had to restrict answers to broad categories and lump some things together. Please do give me specifics wherever possible. I’m mainly interested in things I could do, so I’ve eliminated babysitting grandchildren or running a retirement “business” but if you have an activity you think should be included and it’s not there, try to find a place for it.

Create your own user feedback survey

I was sure that I had made the results public, but SurveyMonkey just told me they weren’t so I think I have remedied that. Here is the link to see the results: Results

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri my rating: 5 of 5 stars (Blackstone Audio edition)

This is one of those works that you think you should have read in college if not in high school, yet the idea never appealed to you enough to get it done. Out of curiosity I picked this off the library shelf and I’m glad I did. It is a 3-disc audio recording of a radio play by BBC actors including John Hurt. It is much more than a simple audio narration. The acting is superb with many actors. Music and sound effects help give it a full dramatic impact. Screams of the condemned can be heard in the background. I had expected archaic, hard-to-follow language like Shakespeare in the original form, but this was in contemporary English. Other than a few references to specific popes and other religious and political leaders, it could be mistaken for a work written today. Dante writes with a biting satirical lance colored by the clear religious fervor of the devout Catholic of his day and place. Everyone is skewered – the bankers and politicians, the greedy and the envious, the lustful and the lazy, even the good well-meaning rulers who do not use their power to better the lives of others.

Dante is the main character in his own story. He is led through the many levels of Hell, then through Purgatory, and finally into Paradise. This journey is made possible by his first love Beatrice, a beautiful young woman who died years before who has obtained permission to lead him thus.

I tried to find this edition on Goodreads and Amazon but could not. Perhaps it is only a library edition. Since the review is based heavily on the dramatic production values, I can’t say it applies to written translations. I don’t even know who the translator was for this radio play. In whatever form you find it, it is still something you will instantly recognize as a classic with which everyone should be familiar.


Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Wild is like watching a train wreck photographed in exquisite slow motion and super high definition. It is both horrifying and captivating at the same time, something you can’t tear your eyes from even though you think you should. It’s a beautifully written account of a life that is anything but beautiful. The book is a non-fiction account of the author’s self-redemption achieved through her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) while in her twenties.

As she freely admits, almost boasts, she was one *&%^ed up young girl at that time, immediately after her mother’s death. Many descriptors of her come to mind as you read: adultress, heroin user, horny, irresponsible, vain, reckless, self-delusional, impetuous. But you don’t have to like the person, the character she portrays as herself, to like the book, and I liked it very much. She writes wonderfully. I could almost feel myself on the trail, experience that sinking feeling at every disaster, and there is one on almost every page. Every new chapter, two or three new bad decisions.

Her tale of the trail is interwoven with accounts of the life that preceded the pilgrimage: her wife-beating father who abandoned the family, her mother’s unconventional semi-hippie lifestyle in a tarpaper shack on a bare tract of land in northern Minnesota, her pregnancy, abortion, and divorce, but most of all her mother’s death.

Three possibilities exist: the author has an incredible memory, she took and preserved phenomenal notes of every step, or she has a fantastic imagination and made it all up. She describes almost every bite she ate for the months-long journey fifteen years earlier, the exact moment she lost each toenail. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday. She developed an inexplicable compulsion for Snapple and snap decisions. She brought a roll of condoms with her on the hike. She was obviously a hot number back then which got her all kinds of favors and kind treatment, especially from men, and put her at risk of some pretty nasty behavior, also from men. I did some backpacking in the Sierras in my younger days and there was a grandeur about those mountains, something humbling and frightening and enthralling. I was tempted to say “indescribable” but Strayed manages to capture the feeling remarkably well.

I didn’t know until I read the book that her name, Strayed, was self-anointed at the time of her divorce, and spot on appropriate. This book is one you don’t want your daughter to read in her freshman year of college. You don’t want her to think “Well, if she can shoot heroin, abort any pregnancy, hike the PCT alone, and still end up famous and have a movie made about her, I can too.” No, you can’t. Strayed was the embodiment of foolishness and lucky to still be alive, not just from those pre-hike life choices, but also because of her reckless, woefully unprepared approach to the PCT itself. I’m a judgmental person. As an FBI agent and the father of a beautiful young woman I judge the author harshly, but as a writer and self-anointed critic I judge the book very differently. I was thoroughly moved the entire way through it. I know there is a movie out based on the book but I have no desire to see it. The compelling force of the story is its reality. The book gives us that; the movie would only be a staged reenactment, a falsity.

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Tax brackets

I was working on my taxes yesterday when it reminded me of a conversation with my roommate when I was back in law school. He said his mother was angry because she had learned that she had earned just a few dollars over the limit that put her into a higher tax bracket. She thought that meant she actually lost money by earning those last few dollars.

I’m amazed at how many people make this mistake. You don’t lose money on your taxes by making more except in very rare cases where you may no longer qualify for some special benefit. The brackets are all marginal, not absolute. That means the new rate applies only to the dollars over the cutoff point, not to the X dollars below that. If you move from the 30% bracket to the 32% bracket when you earn that last $100, you get to keep $68 of that $100. The dollars just before that are still taxed at 30% and the ones below that at lower levels or not at all. You still make money by making money.

I thought this might make someone’s day.

Embryo by J.A. Schneider

Embryo (A Rainey & Levine Thriller #1)Embryo by J.A. Schneider
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Embryo is subtitled as a medical thriller, but it could as easily be characterized as a romance or even science fiction. It kept me more or less entertained for a day, so it was worth the 99 cents I paid for it. It has its flaws, quite a few of them, in fact. It was much too girly for my taste with Jill, aka Dr. Raney, the main character, swooning over hunky Dr. Lavine and breaking into tears whenever a patient died or lost a baby. She’s an intern in an OB-Gyn unit and there are babies and mothers dying due to strange genetic anomalies. There may be strange experiments going on. The basic premise is an old standard, although the author gives it a new twist or two.

Plausibility isn’t in the cards for this one. Jill can get access to more kinds of information in a day than the entire FBI could in a year with a boatload of subpoenas. No one believes anything she says notwithstanding the evidence shoved in their faces. The doctors, all obstetricians, seem astounded at a detached placenta as though they’d barely heard of it in some obscure textbook even though any parent whose ever taken one of those childbirth classes has read and heard all about them. Jill ventures into, and gets lost in, ancient tunnels under the hospital where she is repeatedly attacked by large men whom she can best in a physical confrontation. You get the idea.

The amateurish writing wasn’t bad exactly, just aimed at the poorly-educated teenage girl market. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. I got my money’s worth – barely.

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World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories – 4th Collection by Ed Gorman

The World's Finest Mystery and Crime Stories: 4: Fourth Annual CollectionThe World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories: 4: Fourth Annual Collection by Ed Gorman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I rarely read short stories as I like to get my teeth into a good twisty plot. The stories in this book are too short for much of that. They are mainly about style. As such, it held a mixed bag – some good, some not so good. I read a half dozen of the of the 42 stories, enough to get a feel for the book, but not enough to give a fair review of most of them. My favorite was Cousin Rachel’s Uncle Murray because I really like Susan Isaacs’s witty and original style. It was handy at times to have something I could pick up and finish after the news and before dinner. The book holds a rich and varied selection for you to choose from, but in the end I can only give it three stars because most of the stories were rather predictable and too short to develop any real feel for the characters.

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Handcuffed by Malcolm Sparrow

Handcuffed: What Holds Policing Back, and the Keys to ReformHandcuffed: What Holds Policing Back, and the Keys to Reform by Malcolm K. Sparrow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As mentioned by another reviewer, this book is aimed at police managers, not the general public. The author has a point of view worth considering. He backs it up with a lot of solid data, too. I’m a retired FBI agent, and the FBI mission is quite different from that of police departments, but I have some familiarity with the issues dealt with in the book since I’ve worked with police many times and also investigated them in civil rights cases.

I did not know until this book that the Ferguson, MO police department’s main mission was revenue generation and that contributed heavily to the problems that led to the riots. That’s one of several interesting facts set forth in the book, but there is also a great deal of repetition and empty bureaucratic jargon that tells you what not to do without really providing a clear method for stopping those behaviors. It reminded me of those excruciating lessons the California bar requires of lawyers every three years on substance abuse and sexual harassment. I wrote a scene spoofing those in one of my books. You’re going to find bad cops (and bad managers and bad FBI agents) in every large department. They’re the exception, though. You just have to weed them out either during recruitment and training, or, unfortunately, after a bad incident happens. I don’t think the author has provided a clear path to avoid them altogether. He has provided some good food for thought, though, and the book may be useful to some police officials.

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What ever happened to song lyrics?

It used to be in olden days that lyrics were an important part of a song. Lyrics contained clever rhymes, witty puns and wordplay, or told interesting, emotional stories. They contained metaphors and used a sophisticated vocabulary. They alluded to sex with imaginative euphemisms, not crudeness. They did all this while fitting the words to the rhythm and meter of the music. Examples includes Hoagy Carmichael’s Small Fry, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The First Lord’s Song (Ruler of the Queen’s navy), Ira Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So, Irving Berlin’s Heat Wave (not the one by Linda Ronstadt or Martha and the Vandellas),  and many others.

When rock ‘n’ roll became popular, the lyrics mostly became pretty sappy with a dumbed-down vocabulary, aimed at teens, but even then there were some that were clever or interesting even without the music. Some dealt with important social issues, like Harper Valley PTA. A Boy Named Sue, and almost all of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre. Mr. Tambourine Man is sheer poetry.

Now, all I hear in popular songs is boring lyrics, mostly rather crude and with a vocabulary for a ten-year-old. I just searched for the most popular song this week and the Internet tells me it’s Shape of You by Ed Sheeran. Although I’ve never heard of it or of him, I looked up the lyrics. Bingo – boring, somewhat crude, and not exactly aimed at the sophisticated set. It’s only one song and others may be better, but I think it’s representative of the trend. I think the bigger trend is that young people today are simply losing the command of language in all forms. Writing is much worse today and so is spoken grammar. Perhaps part of the problem is that performers are now writing their own stuff. I’ve found that good singers and good instrumentalists do not usually make good composers or lyricists. It’s a shame.

Computer Cipher Solving – Lesson 9: Determining the type

What kind of cipher is this? How do I find out? I’ve avoided this topic up to now because it is both the most sought after question and the most difficult one to tackle. Determining what kind of cipher you are dealing with is certainly the necessary starting point and often the most frustrating. I wrote a series of columns for The Cryptogram, the magazine published by the American Cryptogram Association (ACA), called Tackling the Unknown. I believe I stopped after 19 articles. If you are an ACA member you can access those. I am not going to republish or even summarize all of those here. They were specific to ACA cipher types and not necessarily all that useful in other contexts, anyway.

The fact is, there is no magic bullet for this. Depending on the source, there is an infinite number of possible cipher types (since some people make up their own system which has never been seen before or since). For most modern computer or communication applications, the ciphers used are unbreakable by us mere mortals so I am restricting this post to the types you are likely to find in various puzzle venues like the ACA or geocaching unknown types or that weird message you found in your great-grandfather’s letters.

Step one is to determine the general class as either code or cipher, and if it’s a cipher, whether it’s substitution or transposition. With a code plaintext words or phrases are substituted by another word, symbol, numbers, or a collection of characters, usually much shorter in length than the original. “Washington, D.C.” might be encoded TSOPN. I’m not going to deal with codes. Ciphers work on individual characters or small groups (e.g. pairs) of characters. They may be substituted by other characters, or just moved around (transposed) or both. That’s what I will deal with here.

A pure transposition cipher is one that rearranges the letters (or other characters such as spaces, numbers, or punctuation). There are many well-known types such as the Route, Railfence, Amsco, Columnar, Double Columnar, Knight’s Tour, Scytale, and Turning Grille, ciphers. Some are (or once were) useful in the real world, but most were not. As long as you know the language and the plaintext is normal, it is usually fairly easy to spot such ciphers because you can see lots of frequent letters like ETAOINS in English. However, I have devised a test for measuring how normal the letter frequencies are which I call the Normor test. If you have text you’d like to test, you can paste it into my cipher test page. Generally transposition types will score less than 100 on that test. There is a link to an article on that page explaining in more detail how to use the test and interpret the results.

If the test indicates it is a transposition type, how do you know which one? I don’t have the time or patience to go into detail, but there are several things to look at, such as the number of letters (a square of an even number, e.g. 64 or 100, might indicate a Grille, a prime number might eliminate a Route, etc.) Look at the history of the source for clues as to types used before, types probably known to the author, etc. If it’s a puzzle, clues as to type are probably there. The best way to diagnose which transposition type it is in my experience is to run it through autosolvers of the various types to see if plaintext emerges. Most transposition types yield rather easily to brute force autosolvers.

For simple substitution types like cryptograms or patristocrats (cryptograms without spaces or punctuation), the Index of Coincidence (IC) will usually identify it as such because the IC will be the same as the original text. My test page also measures the IC. For other types, including ones that mix substitution and transposition, there are various tests, some specific to a particular type. I am not going to go through them all here, but there are resources available. A good website for diagnosing the type is BION’s gadget page. See his various ID tests.

Beyond that, it boils down to using your brain and reading up on the different kinds of ciphers. Some so-called ciphers are actually hoaxes. Others may be too short or too convoluted and unique so as never to be solvable. All you can really do is to keep trying different things and hope you can at least identify the type so you can start solving.

Vengeance in Death by J.D. Robb

This is not a review, just a warning. I pulled this audiobook off the shelf at the library thinking it was a mystery. It’s not. J.D. Robb is the pen name of Nora Roberts, a romance writer. I didn’t make it through the first disk. The excessive and graphic gore was more of a problem than the excessive and graphic sex, but maybe fans of the romance genre go for both. I don’t.

The Butcher’s Boy by Thomas Perry

The Butcher's Boy (Butcher's Boy, #1)The Butcher’s Boy by Thomas Perry
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A beautiful DOJ analyst who studies cases looking for professional hit men and a handsome young FBI bomb expert are sent from Washington to investigate a homicide by explosion in Ventura, California, then are sent on to Denver where a U.S. Senator died by curare-poisoned false teeth. Yes, really. If you enjoy books of that sort, you’ll probably enjoy this one, too. I don’t want to be your buzzkill, so if you liked it, that’s fine, just stop reading now.

I found the book so absolutely ludicrous and had to stop at page 80 because I couldn’t take it any more. My regular followers know that I’m a retired FBI agent and mystery book writer (7 novels now) and something of a stickler for verisimilitude. Virtually nothing in this book was even remotely plausible, which is what spoiled it for me. I know it’s fiction, but still. I’ll take this opportunity to educate you on a few real-life facts, as opposed to alternative facts. Do NOT be misled by Michael Connelly’s introduction. He should be ashamed of himself for having written it. He knows real police work as his Harry Bosch novels show.

1. DOJ doesn’t have analysts who look at individual crimes, much less ones who look for killers for hire.
2. Professional killers like the one in the book don’t exist. Sure, mafia and street gangs have killers, but they’re just regular thugs and gang-bangers, low-IQ, not well-paid, and not for hire. The pro for hire like the ones supposedly found in Soldier of Fortune magazine are all undercover cops doing sting operations, or informants hoping to catch someone trying to hire them for a hit job so they can get paid by the cops when they turn in the person trying to hire them.
3. Neither DOJ nor the FBI would send someone from WDC to Ventura to investigate what was believed to be an accident, and certainly not an agent with only four years of experience. The FBI Los Angeles office has a whole team of bomb experts led by people with 15 or 20 years of experience. The FBI probably would investigate a case of this sort as a domestic terrorist matter, but not send someone from back east.
4. Fertilizer bombs do not go off just by having a blasting cap embedded in the fertilizer. You need fuel oil or something similar to make them explosive, like Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bomb. This “expert” seems to know nothing about explosives.
5. At one point Elizabeth asks the Ventura police chief for a car and driver to take her around because she doesn’t want to interrupt her FBI partner who has their car keys. This almost had me rolling on the floor laughing. If a police chief were even to spare the time to listen to her request, he would respond by saying “You want me to take an officer off patrol to chauffeur you around town when you have your own car?! Get out of here you *%^&$%#!”
6. The various methods of killing by the eponymous hit man are equally ridiculous. They make no sense whatsoever, but I won’t go into all the reasons why as this review would turn into a novel-length diatribe.

The writing is trite and hackneyed. I found later that even my wife had tried it and given up on it early. She had a one-word description: terrible. The author did absolutely no research on anything. How in the world this guy got this first novel published by a major publisher is beyond my comprehension, but somehow he became a big name in the genre. It just goes to show that talent has little to do with it.

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Computer cipher solving – Lesson 8: Brute Force

Brute force as a concept is as simple as it gets. Write a program that decrypts a cipher type given the ciphertext and key, then decrypt it using every possible key. The key is usually a word or a sequence of letters or numbers, or in the case of transposition types, a route or pattern. Try every every possible key and save the ones that produce the best plaintext. You need a method of identifying the correct solution, but that’s covered in earlier lessons.

Some purist hobbyists disdain brute force as a solution method, at least for recreational purposes. It’s true that once you have the program written, using it becomes a cut-and-paste exercise and deprives you of the task/fun of solving the cipher. However, some of the ciphers solved this way are tedious and not very fun to solve anyway, and the fun comes from writing the program and watching it work. In addition, there always seem to be some small variations that require modifying or debugging your program. You don’t realize how many assumptions you’ve made when you wrote your program until you run the program and it fails. Maybe your word list doesn’t include the keyword, or that word may be a phrase. Maybe the period length doesn’t fall within your program’s range. Maybe you haven’t allocated enough stack size for a cipher of that length. You get the idea.

What may be useful for me to do here is provide you a method of determining whether a brute force attack is practical for a given cipher type. What it normally boils down to is the size of the keyspace. Simple substitution ciphers like Aristocrats, Patristocrats, and Xenocrypts (using the terminology of the American Cryptogram Association or ACA), are simple to solve with other methods but are not susceptible to brute force, at least not on my computer. Let’s forget the NSA. That’s because brute force would require approximately 26! trials, which is about 4×1026. That number would be less if the number of different letters is less than 26 or if ACA rules are followed and no letter stands for itself, but it’s unimaginably large. At the other extreme, the ACA’s Pollux uses only about 19,000 possible different keys, which a desktop PC can handle in less than a second. Of course, what’s practical depends on how long you’re willing to wait for an answer. If you can let your computer run for hours or even days on a problem, then more types become practical, but my chart below assumes the answer is needed within an hour or two. Of course the time to try each key varies by ciphertype and how efficient your decryption engine is, the length of the ciphertext, etc., but I’ve provided a chart showing the approximate keyspace size and whether it’s practical on a standard PC using a compiled language like C++ or in my case, Delphi. Bear in mind that brute force may not be the best approach for all these types, nor does the fact a type doesn’t appear mean it isn’t solvable by a computer method or even by brute force. Keyspace numbers should be considered approximate for several reasons, e.g. some different keys may produce the same result, some might produce plaintext for the ciphertext, etc. I can say that I have brute force programs that will solve all these types. For some, whether brute force is practical depends on the period or other factor N, as indicated in the chart.

Ciphertype (ACA rules) Keyspace Practical
Amsco (period N) N!x2 N<13
Baconian (N different characters in ct) 2N Yes
Bazeries 1,000,000 Yes
Columnar (Period N) N! N<13
Grille (N rows/columns) 4(n^2)/4 Yes
Homophonic 390,625 Yes
Morbit 3,628,800 Yes
Nihilist Transposition (N rows/columns) N! N<13
Pollux ~19000 Yes
Polybius (Playfair, Bifid, etc. 1-word key) ~4,000,000 Yes
Ragbaby (1-word key) ~80000 Yes
Railfence/Redefence (N rows) N*N! N<12
Route (48 routes, N diff. rectangles) N*2304 Yes
Sequence Transposition (primer given) 3,628,800 Yes
Swagman (N-digit key) (N*(N-1))! N<8

Computer Cipher Solving – Lesson 7: cross-reduction

Last September I wrote a series of blog posts on computer cipher solving. They continue to get quite a few views, so it seems to be a popular topic. Today I’m resuming the topic by discussing cross-reduction of word patterns. This method has been used for centuries with simple substitution ciphers and it is still useful today for several types of ACA ciphers. Clearly it can be done without computers, but it is simple to program and a great time-saver. Often it’s the only way to break some tough ciphers. Don’t confuse this usage with cross-reduction in mathematics, which is a method to reduce fractions. The idea is to use the patterns of one word to reduce the possible solutions of a second word and vice versa.

The basic concept is simple. Take two ciphertext words enciphered with the same key, preferably long words, and compare the patterns to produce combinations of possible words that fit both patterns. It’s easier to understand by looking at an example. Headlines puzzles contain simple substitution ciphers, but they are often very short and have uncommon words such as proper nouns so usual methods like hill-climbing may not work. Consider this ciphertext from a recent ACA Headlines puzzle: EA’I NG THJLUZI IGIAHN AWBA’I MBCG. My hillclimber had no luck with it, but cross-reduction solved it easily.

Begin by reading through a word list and identifying all words with same pattern as THJLUZI, which is to say, all 7-letter words with no repeated letters. That sounds like a large list, but you can reduce its size by considering that Headlines puzzles use K3 alphabets to encipher. No, that’s not Kindergarten – 3rd grade. That K3 as used here: Click on Keywords to get an explanation. The significance is that if a letter stands for itself in a K3 substitution, then all the letters must stand for themselves. In effect, the entire plaintext would be showing. Since it isn’t, that means none of the letters of the words stands for itself. That means you can eliminate all words beginning with T, having H as the second letter, etc. Next do the same thing with the word IGIAHN. Here, the 1st and 3rd letters are the same, so your list will probably be somewhat shorter. These lists may be saved in arrays or in files. Finally, you compare the two lists word by word to produce pairs of words such that there are no conflicts. That means the 2nd letter of word 1 must be the same as the 5th letter of word 2, the last letter of word 1 must be the same as the 1st letter of word 2, and so on.

The easiest way to do this with programming is to write a pattern function, one that produces ABACDEF for IGIAHN, etc. When you test every word pair (word1 and word2) from your lists all you have to do is ask if the pattern(word1+word2) = pattern(THJLUZI +IGIAHN). If it does, then display it or save that pair as a possible solution. My program produced about 200 pairs that fit the pattern. That didn’t appear to help much at first, especially since several combos seemed like plausible phrases from a newspaper headline (e.g. AEROBIC CYCLES). But notice that two words in the ciphertext end with an apostrophe I. That strongly suggests that I stands for plaintext S. Looking through my lists, there was only one word there that looked possible for the 2nd word: SYSTEM. The combos included DEVIOUS SYSTEM and LEPROUS SYSTEM, but it wasn’t hard to spot NERVOUS SYSTEM as the most likely candidate, and that proved to be correct. The solution is “IT’S MY NERVOUS SYSTEM THAT’S LAZY”. This method works best when you can find two words that have many common letters; if they’re adjacent, too, that’s even better, but not necessary. Needless to say, it only works if both words are in your word lists. When I get no solutions this way, I sometimes drop the final letter of one of the words in case it’s an inflected form (e.g. plural or past tense) and try again hoping the base word will be in the list.

This method will work with Key Phrase ciphers, too, even though that doesn’t use simple substitution. You just have to write a different comparison routine. Of course it works with Xenocrypts as long as you have good word lists for the language.