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The Codebreakers: The Story of Secret Writing by David Kahn. Book review by Roger Pineau

codes and code breaking, history of,
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Recent Books: Cryptology

cryptology in which cryptanalvsis is equated with voyeurism and it is implied "that cryptography may come ultimately from the infantile sexual pleasure that Freud says children obtain from the muscle tension of retaining the feces." There is a catch-all chapter discussing miscellaneous motives, purposes, and media for cryptologic activity. "Rumrunners, Businessmen, and Makers of Nonsecret Codes" offers well-told stories about these subjects and introduces a lady code expert of the war against rumrunners in the prohibition era-Mrs. William F. Friedman.   There is a collection of historical oddities, the most intriguing of which is probably the still unsolved Voynich manuscript. The problem of Boger Bacon and the Shakespeare writings is treated not uninterestingly. Finally we go way out with paracryptology to "Ancestral Voices" and "Messages from Outer Space."
In sum, this reviewer learned a lot from The Codebreakers, found many parts and sections to be of great interest, and considers it a monumental work. The shortcomings I mentioned above derive from a careless and somewhat cavalier attitude toward factual detail in matters not strictly cryptologic. One detail is the meaning of the word interview. A number of the people whom the author "interviewed" told me they had no idea their conversations with him were related to the writing or publication of a book. One man assured me that his "interview" consisted of a 15-minute telephone conversation devoted mostly to reasons why Kahn should not try to write about this subject.
As to historical detail: there are anachronisms in military rank; a 5'8" commander is called "tall"; Ellis M. Zacharias is mistakenly treated as a cryptanalvst; the "Manchu laws" requiring the rotation of Army officers to the field are foolishly applied to the Navy; Vladivostok is cited as having a U.S. legation when there was never more than a consulate there; the distance from Navy building to State is called 8 or 10 blocks; the United States is said to have had in World War II 1,350 days of conflict, three too many; Yamamoto is said to have lost two fingers of his right, rather than left, hand; Magic is given as the source of a report on Japanese shipping which actually came from ONI agents along the Chinese coast; a Japanese ship is misnamed; it is claimed that the creation of the USAFFE command was a "direct" result of intercept information about German pressures on the Japanese.
As this review was nearing completion I had occasion to talk with Kahn and mentioned some of these errors; he brushed them aside as too
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Posted: May 08, 2007 08:18 AM
Last Updated: Aug 05, 2011 01:55 PM