Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thoughts from a youth literature conference

Alison Goodman on fear:
Fear makes misers of us all. Fear makes us become a smaller person

Bernard Beckett on fear:
These days we spend so much time worrying about all the things that can go wrong. That's what I feel about fear - to hell with it!

The perfect ending is both surprising and inevitable.

Raymond Chandler wrote about the man he wanted to be; Dashiel Hammet wrote about the man he feared he was.

Randa Abdel-Fattah was once described in hate mail as 'a terrorist in Halal lipstick'

Mal Peet wants to be the Jamie Oliver of children's literature. He wants to wean them off their pot noodles and chicken nuggets.

James Roy and John Green on Twilight or 'books about teenage love affairs with neck biting involved':
It set women's lib back forty years; says that a guy can be as much of a prick as you like, as long as he's shiny; girls don't need men to be their protectors (largely because they're not very good at it); it's Mormon porn for girls; girls shouldn't marry their stalkers

James Roy:
I don't need to do a quiz to find out what 80s pop star I am. I already know I'm A flock of seagulls.

Mal Peet:
History is the great narrative, the infinite narrative. We need to see ourselves as part of history.

Life was disappointing after the war - just not as exciting. The war was our parents's grand story. When my grandfather came home from World War I, he said 'hello darling' to his daughter and never spoke again.

I gaily made stuff up for my books about South America but now I'm writing about myself and I'm having to research it. But the 1960s - by God it was daft wasn't it?

I am awe-struck and tremble, for the rage of sheep is truly awful - James Whistler after being criticised by Oscar Wilde.

MT Anderson:
In the 1980s young adult literature seemed to be written by fifty year old child psychologists who said it's ok to masturbate. And I'd figured that out by myself.

Reading the classics is being part of the history of human thought.

The very elderly and quite dotty editor of Magpies magazine:
I knew at the age of 13 that I was born to be a rich man's mistress.

Isobelle Carmody:
Comfort reading: there's always a time when I need a comfort read. I couldn't possibly read a new book. I mean, what might happen in the end?

Carmody: I always carry three books with me. It's almost a phobia. What if I had nothing to read? What if I run out?
Anderson: I always worry about being in a hostage situation.
Carmody: You read about people stuck in a lift. I think 'oh I hope they had a book.'
Anderson: And a catheter.

John Green:
Yesterday, after I'd done a writing workshop, a kid came up to me and asked 'So are you going to write about your shit life?' I had to explain to him that it wasn't just my shit life it was ALL of our lives.

Green: Worship beauty and you will always be ugly; worship Twitter followers and you will be satisfied forever.
Roy: Is that Whitman?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Encoding on the Home Front

I never give birthday presents on time. I rarely, if ever, pull through with a card. My sister will call me six weeks before an anniversary saying, 'It's blahblah soon, what are you going to do?' So, of course, I didn't quite get around to Mother's Day. While the present is still sitting here, I did manage to pull through with a card. Of sorts. Eventually.

Mr Chairman's BRILLIANT BRAIN went to work and he organised to send mum a telegram from this mob, thus fulfilling his brief 'to do something better than my sister's card'. Luckily, my family have a history of faux espionage, so we are fully equipped with a code. Such as 'a wet bird flies by night' and 'Paris is lovely in the spring'. You can identify me in a crowded market place by asking if 'the lone wolf howls'.

Between silk and cyanide

Recently finished the absolutely gripping book Between silk and cyanide: the story of the S.O.E.'s secret code war by Leo Marks. So gripping that I clearly annoyed my beloved by reading non-stop, only surfacing occasionally to utter a distracted 'mmm.... what?' If you want to read about cryptography in World War II, this book is the goods.

S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive) was charged with conducting warfare 'by means other than military engagement'. In other words, espionage and sabotage!

Leo Marks (who's parents, incidentally, owned an antiquarian bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road) failed to get into Britain's leading cryptographic department, Bletchley Park - being rejected as too 'slap-dash and erratic'. Instead, he was sent to what his Sergeant described as "some potty outfit in Baker Street, an open house for misfits". This was S.O.E. and Leo Marks was 23 years old. Soon he would become Head of Codes, responsible for maintaining the secrecy of communication with secret agents in Europe and developing encryption systems that would save many lives.

The first thing to say about the book is that it is marvellously entertaining. Marks has a distinctive, impish and eccentric voice, which can be quite baffling for the opening pages (what crazy man is this??). It soon becomes extremely engaging and brings his remarkable story to life. Shortly after he starts with the S.O.E., he becomes suspicious about messages received from agents in the Netherlands. It soon becomes clear to him that these agents have been intercepted and the messages are being sent by Germans. Marks battles to make this understood, and his is ignored or told to sweep it under the carpet - largely due to internal politics within the department, and the diplomatic manouverings of the Allied countries. Marks watches in horror as Britain continues to drop agents, money and weapons in the Netherlands. Effectively delivering them straight into German hands. Desperate to keep agents alive Marks fights to show how flimsy the established methods of encryption were, how easily garbled and how easily they could be broken by the enemy, even offering proof that this had actually occured. And is told to keep it to himself. He dedicates himself to devising new methods of encryption. The story of this battle is agonising.

We learn a lot about code, which is absolutely fascinating. In the S.O.E. this means hand coding (as opposed to using machines such as Enigma). And what brilliant people we encounter: from heroic secret agents and master coders through to the girls from FANY (the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) who worked round the clock to decrypt messages. This is such a personal story, and Marks is an expert in conveying characters. I came to care about the taciturn Norwegians and the loopy female agents that were dropped into Europe - with an average life expectancy of six weeks. I found myself flicking to later chapters in the book, just to make sure that they made it. Sadly, most of them didn't. Particularly moving is his account of 'the White Rabbit', who worked with the Free French and was one of Britain's greatest secret agents. We also meet Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan.

While much of the book will break your heart, Marks is also very very funny: writing about his hilariously over protective Jewish parents who have a hotline to the black market and keep the department supplied with cigars, cream cakes and smoked salmon sandwiches, or about his meeting with one Colonel Wills (apparently the model for Ian Fleming's Q), who proudly showed Marks his latest project: collecting animal dung from the London Zoo, with a view to making explosives disguised as poo.

There are many many books this will inspire me to read and films such as the 1958 Carve her name with pride, the story of Violette Szabo. This film included the first public reading of a poem, written by Leo Marks, and given to Szabo to use as a code as she left for a mission in Nazi-occupied France:

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will by yours and yours and yours.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Taking tea with the Rabbi

This is not our Rabbi. Though that may be his beard.

This was ruining our weekend. For the last week it had been looming up. Just when you were enjoying a quiet moment the thought of taking tea with the Rabbi would leap out at you from a behind a corner. We were not looking forward to it. Why? For one thing, English wasn't a strong point. And though we have friends who are of the people, we weren't sure how much we actually knew about Judaism - would our ignorance lead us to commit an unforgivable sin? Basically, we were terrified because a Rabbi is a completely and utterly intimidating personage.

Except for our Rabbi. He's a real sweetie. We had been a little concerned that 'tea' = dinner and had primed ourselves with several potential topics of conversation. Thankfully 'tea' = tea - a lovely box of fancy teas from Israel that were almost too pretty to break into. And rugelach (yum!) Our Rabbi turns out to be a committed story teller - and an amusing one at that. He also had the astounding facility to keep track of the original point he was trying to make, despite having taken a million Scheherezade-like turns into stories in stories in stories.

We'd been invited over as a 'thank you' for our efforts at reaching neighbourhood peace. There had been growing tension and, sadly, some violence. The Chabad House is there to support Israeli tourists - young folk on holiday, fresh out of their time in the Isreali army. Their celebrations were noisy, rauckus and seemingly never ending. Left over bagels piled up in the yard, young people spent their time loitering on the footpath outside our place, treating everyone with suspicion (even having a go at Mr Chairman as he parked outside). Requests for peace had gone ignored. Police had been called, but still the noise did not abate. It all came to a head after a week of sleepless nights, when some idiot neighbour started throwing things at the House - straight through the window of the room in which the Rabbi's young family slept. They cried out in alarm and the young Israeli boys who were there at the time promptly raced into the neighbour's apartment to attack. We had two terrified teenagers climb out the apartment's bathroom window, climbing over the fence and seeking refuge as they bled from cuts. The police were called and took a dim view of things. Neighbourhood relations were very very strained. Things were not good.

So we started making flyers a week before a Jewish festival. We'd explain what was being celebrated, the food and traditions of the festival and an idea of what would be going on at Chabad House. I did the research at work, Mr Chairman gave them a slick finish with his graphic design skills and we tucked them under the doors of all our neighbours. And not a peep has been heard since! We now pop over and get an overview of what events are coming up, what time they start and finish and give the neighbourhood and idea of what is going on. Anyway, you could have read all this at Mr C's blog.

We talked about Jewish beliefs, what they were trying to achieve at Chabad House, why they'd set out from Israel to Melbourne and, yes, Palestine. It was absolutely fascinating and we found we'd been there talking for two hours. The Rabbi's wife, Sara, is lovely. I suspect she provides a practical anchor to the dear man who is not quite of this world. But there is something about his pure view of his religion and a commitment to selfless kind acts - no matter how small - that inspires you to do good and makes it seem so simple. He's a remarkable man. He had very kind things to say about me and my new job (Mazal tov!) so I feel somewhat blessed. How can I go wrong? The Rabbi thinks I'm alright!

They had such a sincere appreciation for what we have done. In a way I am saddened that he is so surprised.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Talk like an Egyptian

The real reason I got The science of secrets was to learn more about codebreaking at Betchley Park during WWII. Which got pretty short shrift. Much of the focus was on modern developments. Which frankly, made me go a bit squiggle eyed with all that maths and quantum physics. Singh's book was written in 2000. His chapter on the philosophical and ethical aspects of cryptography in the internet age is now looking a little dated and over-simplified, though it's a bit spooky to read of ''new developments' such as ecommerce and email (written here e-mail: you know it's early days for a term when it still has its hyphen).

What the book did include, that was super exciting in a romantic I-want-that-to-be-my-job, Indiana Jones kind of way, and was kind of unexpected in a book of this sort - a chapter on deciphering the Rosetta Stone and Egyptian hieroglyphics. When I was young I had lots of books about the ancient world. Most of it forgotten. (Seven wonders of the ancient world? I think I can name two.) And when it comes to hieroglyphs, somehow I seemed to have gotten the wrong end of the stick entirely. I had the idea that each little picture represented a word (logograms). Not so. Or not very often. Instead, they represent phonetic sounds. I wasn't alone in my mistake. A leading scholar of the 17th century translated the heiroglyphics for the name of pharaoh Apries as 'the benefits of the divine Osiris are to be procured by means of sacred ceremonies and of the chain of the Genii, in order that the benefits of the Nile may by obtained'. Snappy.

What I love about heiroglyphics is that they can be read left to right, right to left or top to bottom. It all depends which way the figures are facing. To make things trickier, it appears they also left out vowel sounds. And the order of the figures could be rearranged if it made them more aesthetically pleasing. Which all sounds a bit hard. And then of course, they encrypted some of them. Usually, this wasn't intended to hide secrets but would appear on the tombs of pharaohs, cryptic puzzles to entice the passerby to linger at the tomb rather than move on.

Apparently there are still a good many languages left to decipher. So there is hope for a career change yet. The book by Singh includes in its list of cryptographic puzzles yet to be solved, the translation of messages from outer space! In the 19th century a German mathematician suggested planting avenues of trees in the barren plains of Siberia to form a giant right angled triangle. This is intended to let aliens know we are intelligent enough to appreciate the 'wonders of geometry'. But surely the best idea is that of Viennese astronomer Josef Johann von Littrow. He suggested digging canals to form a geographical shape 15km in length, and at night he wanted to fill them with kerosene and set them alight.


Just finished reading The science of secrecy: the history of codebreaking by Simon Singh. I've read other works by this author and I think that he tends to lean a little too much towards the popular side of popular science - references and bibliographies are not his strong point - but his approach is tolerable in this instance. Written as a companion to a BBC series, Singh presents a (very) general overview of the history of cryptography.

He starts with the Babington Plot and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. While Elizabeth the First was clearly a piece of work, I've always considered Mary to be suspiciously goody-two-shoes. (The story of her little lap dog that hid in her skirts as she faced the executioner, really it's just too twee. I would have cut her head off too.) Cryptography wise, it's not that interesting. At that time they mainly used a Caesar ciphers - a monoalphabetic substitution cipher where one letter of the alphabet (the cipher alphabet) represents another, according to a key. This method succumbed to frequency analysis. The characters e, t and a are the most common letters used in English. All you need to do to break the code is count how often certain letters appear and compare it to a table of frequency. You'll then be able to make a pretty good guess of what that character that letter may represent. Check out the title of this entry!

They then went on to use polyalphabetic cipher, a substitution cipher in which the cipher alphabet changes during the encryption. This was known as the Vigenère cipher - the 'unbreakable cipher'! Which was fine for a few centuries. Until it was broken. And it was broken by one Charles Babbage. The father of computing! The designer of the first programmable computer! (Except he never actually made a computer. After 10 years twiddling about he scrapped his plans and started on a new model. Not unsurprisingly his financial backers lost faith and his design remained incomplete - until 1991, when the Science Museum in London completed his plans.It worked perfectly.) Babbage's main contribution to science and mathematics was as a highly regarded cryptographer. In this he displayed a tendency to dilletantism typical of these code breakers. The story of cryptography is the story of people getting distracted, not bothering to publish their discoveries and generally wandering off to do other stuff.

Anyway, Babbage broke the unbreakable. My favourite story is about his correspondence with the poet Alfred Tennyson, regarding the poem "The vision of sin". This poem ends with the lines: Every moment dies a man, / Every moment one is born. To which Babbage objected:
It must be manifest that if this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill... I would suggest that in the next edition of your poem you have it read - 'Every moment dies a man, Every moment 1 1/16th is born.'... The actual figure is so long I cannot get it onto a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16th will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.
I am, Sir, yours, etc.,
Charles Babbage

Saturday, May 16, 2009

No prisoners

On my book pile: Lawrence of Arabia: the life, the legend by Malcolm Brown. My last book about deception in WWI and WWII contained a fascinating chapter on T. E. Lawrence, so I was inspired to do some more reading. This book is actually a companion piece to an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, so it's probably more a coffee table book (not the easiest thing to read with a cup of tea and a cat on your lap). It does assume that one knows a bit about the man, and of course, one doesn't. But as a visual biography it's fascinating. Lawrence was a keen photographer and documented his activities extensively. He's such an enigmatic character that it's easy to find yourself pouring over the pictures, trying to make sense of the man.

His role in creating the whole schemozzle that is the Middle East is heartbreaking. A Welsh-born archeologist, Lawrence found himself leading guerrilla forces against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The Arab tribes offered their support in fighting a common Turkish enemy, with the dream of establishing an Arab state. It soon became apparent that the British had no such plan - indeed, they were soon eyeing off potential additions to the British Empire. Lawrence found himself in a bind, yet he continued to encourage Arab involvement - so raising the stakes and rendering the inevitable disappointment all the more bitter. Lawrence's plan had been to so involve the Arab forces in support of the British, that it would be difficult for the British government to dishonour promises of independence. The British, however, felt no such obligation. It's all very complicated, very messy and very, very sad.

Particularly sad, and puzzling, is Lawrence's life after the war. A national hero, hounded by the press, he changed his name and re-enlisted as a lowly soldier. Tracked down several times, changing his name and moving to different military units, Lawrence could find no peace; clearly struggling with a devastating sense of guilt - and struggling to find a life after an extraordinary career. There are tales of paying people to whip and beat him.

His writing is beautifully literary (his formal war despatches far outclass my latest book club reading). Not sure if I'm up for reading the Seven pillars but I've certainly got my hands on Peter O'Toole.

Blog duel

Picture our happy modern household: Mr Chairman on the mac, blogging away; The Chairman on the laptop, blogging away. I've only done two posts to his four and he's now moved on to looking at bike frames that weigh the same as 9 dvds in their cases (ie. lighter than the book I'm reading). We may soon communicate only by email.

Pedagogical blogical

I like reading. I like watching documentaries. I learn a lot. Sadly, I also forget a lot. So while my film viewing is in hiatus*, this blog will now become my aide-mémoire. We're going educational!

Feeling exceedingly grown up by reading some non-fiction that wasn't a cookbook. Spent almost two weeks sick on the sofa, encouraging moral, spiritual and educational improvement by imparting fascinating facts to Mr Chairman. I know he appreciated it. The book? Churchill's wizards: the British genius for deception, 1914-1945. And my, isn't it just chock-full of interesting tit-bits. Which, dear reader, I will now share with you.

Camouflage is fairly new. The Germans had it sussed when they marched into Belgium in WWI, wearing mud grey uniforms. The French, on the other hand, chose to go into battle wearing royal blue and red, white gloves and dress swords. This uniform did not last long.

The charmingly named, Operation Mincemeat, involved the dumping of a dead body at sea, apparently carrying 'secret documents', a photo of his 'girlfriend', a stern letter about 'his' bank overdraft. Actually, this account does nothing to convey the sneakiness of the whole episode. It's worth reading more about it : Wikipedia says.

The British used dummy tanks made of plywood. A skeleton staff would move them around, create tyre tracks and fake fuel depots to give the impression of a huge force. They painted canvas to make jeeps look like tanks. They built fake buildings and even constructed an entire fake harbour with anti-aircraft batteries complete with sound effects and fireworks. They dropped platoons of dummies with parachutes and conjured up fake armies. The entire D-Day manouveurs depended on such trickery and bluff (and very nearly came a cropper).

The whole tissue of lies was largely created by artists, actors, stage folk and an impressive array of writers: John Buchan, Kipling, J.B. Priestley, Roald Dahl, George Orwell... I have, of course, forgotten the rest. But can you imagine Ian McEwan creating fake personas for fake a British airman?

It's surprising the British got anything done - their beauracracy was a nightmare. 17F, NID17, SOE, ISLD, PWE, MI(R), MI9.... all doing much of the same thing and all hating each other.

In WWI a stage set designer made fake trees out of metal, hollow inside so
a soldier could climb up and spy on the enemy. To make them more lifelike they used bark cut from a tree at Buckingham Palace. It would take about 16 men to carry the trees around and several hours to set them up. Why didn't the Germans notice trees springing up?

Planes dropped loads of tinselly reflective material to fool the newly devised RADAR equipment. I have a wonderul image of how pretty this must have been in such horrifying circumstances.

The early days of camouflage saw some ill advised experiments. Like palm trees adorning London factories.

One of the major forces behind British deception was arrested in Spain, wearing woman's clothing complete with pearls, turban and handbag. Why he is dressed like this is unknown. Why the Spanish let him go is just as puzzling.

It's a cracker of a book and I've not done it justice. Read it and entertain your loved one today.

*Since we've bought ourselves a NEW TELEVISION, gigantor size, we're having too much fun watching television to bother with movies. MegaTV makes even ads look captivating.

The forgotten blog

Yes, I've been neglecting my blog. Though we compulsively add to our dvd collection, I rarely seem to find time to watch anything because a) we only start watching films at 9.45pm - so I have to go to bed before the end - and b) Herr Roberts and I have very different ideas of what makes an enjoyable cinematic experience. We made a deal that Friday would be movie night and we'd take it in turns to choose a film - enriching and strengthening our relationship by sharing things that meant so much to us.
Started with his first choice: Million dollar baby, which I enjoyed very much. Ended with my first choice: The women (original 1939 version), which I enjoyed very much and of which Kim saw only a fraction of the opening credits before falling into a bored stupor.
Film nights = over