The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-breaking by Simon Singh

(first published in Great Britain in 1999, paperback edition published 2000)

As the author notes in the introduction, this book should properly (if less snappily) be called ‘The Code and Cipher Book’, because there is an important technical difference: codes involved scrambling a message at the level of words and phrases, while ciphers involve a deeper level of scrambling which operates at the level of individual letters. Ciphers are more useful than codes, because the keys tend to be small, easily distributed and concealed, while codes tend to require more conspicuous code-books, which can be quite large in order to accommodate all the possible plain-text phrases required and their equivalent code-words.

This is a pretty interesting book. It charts the history of cryptography in roughly chronological order, from mono-alphabetic substitution ciphers (which use one code alphabet to scramble a message) and the invention of frequency analysis onwards.

The first chapter starts with a description of the trial of Mary Queen of Scots on 15th October 1586, with a focus on the code which she allegedly used to communicate with traitorous co-conspirators in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I and install Mary on the English throne. If it could be broken, her guilt would be proven beyond all doubt; if it could not, she would be free and could not be executed for treason. This serves to introduce the very real power and importance of codes, ciphers, and cryptanalysis (the science/art of breaking codes and ciphers). Singh then goes back to the start of the history of secret writing: physical concealment of messages, as described by Herodotus when writing about the Greco-Persian wars in the fifth century BCE — a message carved on a block of wood and concealed under a layer of wax allowed the Greeks to gain a decisive advantage in the battle at Salamis. Singh then goes on to trace the development of ciphers (mostly mono-alphabetic substitution ciphers and transposition ciphers), which seemed impregnable until the development of frequency analysis in 750CE by Islamic scholars — the first cryptanalysts. This leads up to an account of the skulduggery and intellect involved in the cracking of the cipher of Mary Queen of Scots, which led to her execution on 8th February 1587.

The second chapter discusses the creation and breaking of a variety of ciphers that were stronger than mono-alphabetic substitution. These include the Great Cipher of Louis XIV (broken in the 1890s by Etienne Bazeries), the poly-alphabetic cipher codified (ehehe…) by Blaise de Vigenère and known as le chiffre indéchiffrable (lit. ‘indecipherable figure’) until its breaking by Charles Babbage in the 1850s. This discovery occurred around the time of the Crimean War, so  for reasons of national security Babbage could not publicise his discovery. The credit for the cryptanalysis therefore went to one Friedrich Kasiski. The remainder of the chapter is given over to a discussion of the mystery of the Beale ciphers, which are probably a clever hoax but have nevertheless led to a great deal of activity by determined treasure hunters.

The third and fourth chapters discuss the mechanisation of code-making and code-breaking in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Particular focus is given in Chapter 3 to the Zimmerman telegram from World War One, the decipherment of which (by British intelligence) galvanised the US into declaring war on Germany in April 1917. The rest of Chapter 3 and all of Chapter 4 focus on the development and breaking of the Enigma machine cipher, from the work of Polish cryptographers before the Second World War to the work of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park, who used the Polish work as their foundation when tackling the ever-more-elaborate developments of Enigma.

The fifth chapter, probably my favourite, talks about language and how it can be considered as a code; the use of Navajo code-talkers by the American army in the Pacific theatre of the war is one example. The Navajo language was uniquely indecipherable to the Japanese army, ensuring the security of messages transmitted by the code-talkers. The rest of the chapter talks about the decipherment of two ancient languages: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (with the aid of the Rosetta Stone as a ‘crib’) and the decipherment by Michael Ventris of Linear B, a very old script that turned out to be an archaic form of Greek being written using the script of an even more ancient language, Linear A, which has not (to date) been deciphered at all. Full details of the tale of Linear B can be found in The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick.

Chapters 6 through 8 talk about the development of public key cryptography, modern unbreakable encryption, and possibilities for the future of cryptography. I have to admit that I found this section of the book quite difficult to follow; large primes (20+ digits) and modular arithmetic are not really my area.

The end-matter includes a glossary of terms, a list of further reading, and a collection of appendices which contain advice on frequency analysis, information on one-time pads and why their re-use is ill-advised, and discussions of types of cipher which did not receive much attention in the main text. Possibly my favourite of these is the Playfair cipher; while it is quite weak from a cryptographic point of view, I enjoy composing ciphers of this sort.

Overall, The Code Book is a good read whether you are a new initiate to the world of cryptography or you are experienced in this field. A good grounding in mathematics will aid comprehension of the final three chapters of the main text.


Understanding Human Sexuality in a Broad Context

The Philosopher's Eye

Taken from the Introduction to The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality, published May2015, edited by Patricia Whelehan and Anne

Whelehan - web_resSexuality as an academic, legal, medical, and social subject has become increasingly visible over the past thirty years as attested to by the dramatic increase in the number of courses, scholarly and applied peer-reviewed publications, and other resources on the topic. It has also been an ongoing source of anthropological study since the nineteenth century.

However, recent anthropological interest in sexuality has been heightened as a consequence of globalization, the AIDS pandemic, national and international concerns over issues such as sex education, same sex marriage, transgender issues, and sex work among others.

In response to these widespread concerns and an attendant critical need for understanding human sexuality in a broad context, Wiley-Blackwell has commissioned us to produce an inter-disciplinary three-volume encyclopedia titled The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality

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Contextualizing the LGBT Patient in the Health Care System

The Philosopher's Eye

clinician and medical recordsThe Institute of Medicine (IOM) in its report, The Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered People: Building a Foundation for Better Understanding, recommends that data on sexual orientation and gender identify be collected and included among other demographic information  routinely stored in patients’ electronic health records. The intent of the IOM recommendation is to improve clinical care and to facilitate research that can address health inequalities among LGBT persons. The reality is that many LGBT persons remain reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity, or have that information documented in the electronic health record – even when sexual orientation or gender identity is material to a medical  diagnosis or treatment. This reluctance should be contextualized within the backdrop of a health care system where many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons have had negative, invalidating or discriminatory experiences when attempting to access health care, during their…

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The End of Reparative Therapy

The Philosopher's Eye

50 Great Myths of Human Sexuality 50 Great Myths of Human Sexuality

With the removal of homosexuality as a mental illness in the 1970’s came a change in how therapists treated gay, lesbian, and bisexual patients. Instead of attempting to change a patient’s sexual orientation, experts were told to help them understand it and learn to cope in what was still a very homophobic society.
When mental health professionals changed, however, religious organizations picked up the mantle and started ministries dedicated to “reparative” therapy. Their members—who were sometimes referred to as ex-gays—went through programs that varied from independent bible study to aversion therapy, which involved administering electric shocks every time a patient became aroused by gay pornography.
These groups were very vocal for a few decades and lent their support to efforts to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals; they argued against teaching about sexual orientation in schools, fought the formation of gay-straight alliances, opposed marriage equality, and…

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Closing the Question about Trans-Identities

The Philosopher's Eye

3111086451_91879a4b16_oWas there ever a time in which a person could have argued for the moral acceptability of slavery without doing something gravely wrong in the very arguing? Maybe not, but it ever there were, it is now long, long, past; some questions are simply closed.

Questions about the validity of transpeople’s identities—of whether, e.g., transwomen are “really” women, eligible to apply to Smith College and to use women’s restroom, have been considered fair game since we emerged into public view. Whether expressed in academic prose, in political posturing, or in outright sneers, such questions are heard by many transpeople as profoundly disparaging, and sometimes menacing.

Yet if the tide of social attitudes and practices easing passages between genders keeps swelling, such debates might become as out of place as, say, a serious discussion about whether homosexuality is a mental illness. The sound you hear may be the closing of yet…

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No work as yet — such is the lot of freelancers for the first year or so. I’ve been receiving some pretty interesting offers, though, so I remain hopeful while networking away.

I’m also shortly going to be in a position to move into my own home, so I’m house-hunting in the local area. It’s interesting and a little exhausting.

The Time Is Now: Bioethics and LGBT Issues

The Philosopher's Eye

LGBT Cover Image“Bioethics has an obligation to work toward the resolution of real and pressing issues.” that’s where Tia Powell and Mary Beth Foglia start with the ideas and driving force behind their special issue, The Time is Now: Bioethics and LGBT Issues for the Hastings Center Review.  With an ultimate goal of encouraging colleagues to incorporate topics related to the LGBT populations into bioethics curricula and scholarship, the two take on several prominent topics of relevance to the LGBT populations but they know there are many more topics of concern to this population and hope that scholarship continues beyond this collection. Read Free through July.

We feel that bioethics has an obligation to discuss [LGBT] history and to help us as a society take responsibility for it. – Tia Powell and Mary Beth Folia

From Tia and Mary Beth:

Andrew Solomon offers an elegant overview of the challenges that bioethics…

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The Psychological Burden Associated with the Stigmatization of Homosexuality

The Philosopher's Eye

imagesThe Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) has long focused on the psychological burden associated with the stigmatization of homosexuality and, in articles over the past decade, explored the roots of public opposition to marriage equality; examined the rights and responsibilities of gay parents; and critiqued the “psychological” arguments that are typically put forward regarding gay rights.

In “Social Advocacy for Equal Marriage: The Politics of ‘Rights’ and the Psychology of ‘Mental Health’, (Analyses of Social Issues of Public Policy, December 2004), Celia Kitzinger and Sue Wilkinson argue against the discipline’s dominant narrative regarding homosexuality, with its focus on social stigmatization and the mental health damage or deficit that such stigmatization imposes. They argued instead for a discourse of rights, which “asserts universally applicable principles of equality, justice, freedom, and dignity.” The psychological approach, by contrast, seemed fundamentally “antithetical to the conceptual framework…

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Ageing into Lesbian-Feminism – An Excerpt from a Life

The Philosopher's Eye

ari headColor

It was 1969, I was just 12 years old, and Stonewall had not yet happened. My best friend Linda and I hung out at the local schoolyard wearing army jackets with male names emblazoned on the pocket. She was not just my friend, though I had no name for what we were.

When I smacked a boy upside the head who tried to grab my breasts, the home economics teacher said if I couldn’t stop acting like that no boy would ever marry me. I had no vision of what life could be without marrying a boy and gay marriage was still an oxymoron; I decided that marriage was a trap that I would never willingly step into. I mostly still think that.

I discovered feminism with an insatiable hunger. I read every book, bought every woman’s music album and joined consciousness raising groups, and coming out groups.

Today my…

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What Would Universal Marriage Equality Mean for Culture?

The Philosopher's Eye

640px-Eric_Stonestreet,_Jesse_Tyler_FergusonUntil recently, American culture has been relatively devoid of representations of the LGBTQ couple. In fact, one of the frequent observations made by critics of television programs and films particularly has been the tendency of those forms to depict lesbians and gays as singular figures isolated from continuing relationships or larger community. There are,
one supposes, a few notable (or infamous) exceptions if one wishes to press the issue: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas had attained a certain celebrity status by the 1920s and 1930s, though their salon days were spent in Paris and not in America. Likewise, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were by all accounts a couple in the 1920s but their infamy as murderers hardly made them role models.  Lesbian and gay couples did exist, to be sure, among them Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who were together more than five decades before Martin’s death in…

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