Monthly Archives: April 2018

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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