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01 November 2010 @ 07:28 pm
The Code Book  
The Code Book by Simon Singh is a tour through the history of codemaking and codebreaking, with the odd digression into Tudor politics and the translation of ancient languages. As such it pretty much does what it says on the tin. I've always been interested in cryptography and was happily entertained by it. I could follow all the descriptions of cryptographic techniques but I'm not sure how easy that would have been for someone without any relevant background. In several places I skipped over bits of explanations I was familiar with, e.g. what is a prime number, so clearly the book was making an attempt to be clear to readers with less of a maths background. It certainly contained plenty of examples which are often key to following mathematical stuff.

I'm not sure how interesting it would have been if I hadn't had a pre-existing interest in cryptography. I was fascinated by the thought, for instance, that frequency analysis isn't at all an obvious technique and, in fact, simple alphabetical substitution ciphers were sufficient for hundreds of years. I've been using basic frequency analysis to crack code problems since I was in my early teens, if not earlier and had always unthinkingly considered it totally obvious. I was also particularly interested in the use of, essentially, code-breaking techniques to decipher both Egyptian Hieroglyphics and Linear B and in the history of modern cryptographic protocols for key exchange and public-private key encryption. Of course the history of modern cryptography is very closely tied up with the history of the computer which again probably increased my interest in the topic. The book was very readable but I did occasionally feel it perhaps lacked the spark that would grab a casual reader who had never really thought about cryptography before. However if you are at all interested in the subject then this comes highly recommended.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/24035.html.
daniel_saunders: Medaniel_saunders on November 1st, 2010 09:33 pm (UTC)
I think I've been tempted by this book (or something very like it) in the past, but I've been put off by the fact that I'm not very good at understanding maths, or at least at conceptualizing it (at school I was good at maths because I just memorized the necessary techniques, but I think my understanding was limited). I went to Bletchley Park a few months ago and did not really understand the technical details; likewise when I read Enigma. I think frequency analysis is about the only codebreaking technique I have ever understood, having learnt it from the Sherlock Holmes story The Dancing Men; as you say, it is obvious once you know it.
daniel_saunders: Medaniel_saunders on November 1st, 2010 09:49 pm (UTC)
Sorry for rambling; it's been a stressful day.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on November 1st, 2010 10:04 pm (UTC)
I can't promise you'd follow all the technical details. I think the book does quite well at telling a good story even if you are not following the details, and that a lot of the "tricks" would be comprehensible, even if the basic techniques were not. As I said, I followed everything, but I'm probably in that class of reader that, if I'm not following, then you are doing something very wrong.

It does contain plenty of examples to illustrate how things work, which I'm sure helps a lot.
ewx: geekewx on November 1st, 2010 09:59 pm (UTC)

I'm somewhat tickled by the fact that it took over two millennia to find an application for prime numbers, and now many millions of people use them every day (admittedly usually without knowing they're doing so).

What else lies waiting, in dusty tomes and brilliant minds, for the day we learn enough to construct marvels from it?

louisedennis: mathematicslouisedennis on November 1st, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
More generally it's one of the problems faced by the intuitionist mathematician - if all mathematics is a human construct/invention/logic game, then how come it keeps turning out to be so incredibly useful in unlooked for real world applications?

I think the amazing thing about prime numbers is that they are so fundamental and basic and yet so strangely and unpredictably behaved.
fredbassettfredbassett on November 1st, 2010 10:23 pm (UTC)
I think this might be one for Mr FB's Xmas list.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on November 2nd, 2010 09:36 am (UTC)
Certainly worth getting if he likes this sort of thing.