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Sunday, March 31, 2013
Reading List: Colossus
- Copeland, B. Jack, ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
During World War II the British codebreakers at
provided intelligence to senior political officials and
military commanders which was vital in winning the
Battle of the Atlantic
and discerning German strategic intentions in the build-up to
the invasion of France and the subsequent campaign in Europe.
Breaking the German codes was just barely on the edge of
possibility with the technology of the time, and required
recruiting a cadre of exceptionally talented and often highly
eccentric individuals and creating tools which laid the
foundations for modern computer technology.
At the end of the war, all of the work of the codebreakers
remained under the seal of secrecy: in Winston Churchill's
history of the war it was never
mentioned. Part of this was due to the inertia of the
state to relinquish its control over information, but also
because the Soviets, emerging as the new adversary, might adopt
some of the same cryptographic techniques used by the Germans and
concealing that they had been compromised might yield valuable
information from intercepts of Soviet communications.
As early as the 1960s, publications in the United States began to
describe the exploits of the codebreakers, and gave the mistaken
impression that U.S. codebreakers were in the vanguard simply
because they were the only ones allowed to talk about their
wartime work. The heavy hand of the Official Secrets Act suppressed
free discussion of the work at Bletchley Park until June 2000, when
the key report, written in 1945, was allowed to be published.
Now it can be told. Fortunately, many of the participants in the work
at Bletchley were young and still around when finally permitted to
discuss their exploits. This volume is largely a collection of their
recollections, many in great technical detail. You will finally understand
precisely which vulnerabilities of the German cryptosystems permitted
them to be broken (as is often the case, it was all-too-clever innovations
by the designers intended to make the encryption “unbreakable”
which provided the door into it for the codebreakers) and how sloppy
key discipline among users facilitated decryption. For example,
it was common to discover two or more messages encrypted with the
same key. Since encryption was done by a binary exclusive or (XOR)
of the bits of the
Baudot teleprinter code,
with that of the key (generated mechanically from a specified
starting position of the code machine's wheels), if you have two messages
encrypted with the same key, you can XOR them together, taking out the
key and leaving you with the XOR of the
of the two messages. This, of course, will be gibberish,
but you can then take common words and phrases which occur in
messages and “slide” them along the text, XORing as
you go, to see if the result makes sense. If it does, you've recovered
part of the other message, and by XORing with either message, that
part of the key. This is something one could do in microseconds
today with the simplest of computer programs, but in the day was done
in kiloseconds by clerks looking up the XOR of Baudot codes in
tables one by one (at least until they memorised them, which the
better ones did).
The chapters are written by people with expertise in the topic discussed,
many of whom were there. The people at Bletchley had to
make up the terminology for the unprecedented things they were
doing as they did it. Due to the veil of secrecy dropped over their
work, many of their terms were orphaned. What we call “bits”
they called “pulses”, “binary addition” XOR,
and ones and zeroes of binary notation crosses and dots. It is all
very quaint and delightful, and used in most of these documents.
After reading this book you will understand precisely how
the German codes were broken, what Colossus did, how it was built
and what challenges were overcome in constructing it, and how it
was integrated into a system incorporating large numbers of intuitive
humans able to deliver near-real-time intelligence to decision makers.
The level of detail may be intimidating to some, but for the first
time it's all there. I have never before read any description
of the key flaw in the Lorenz cipher which Colossus exploited and
how it processed messages punched on loops of paper tape to break
into them and recover the key.
The aftermath of Bletchley was interesting. All of the participants
were sworn to secrecy and all of their publications kept under high
security. But the know-how they had developed in electronic computation
was their own, and many of them went to
to develop the
pioneering digital computers
developed there. The developers of much of this technology could not speak
of whence it came, and until recent years the history of computing has been
disconnected from its roots.
As a collection of essays, this book is uneven and occasionally repetitive.
But it is authentic, and an essential document for anybody interested in
how codebreaking was done in World War II and how electronic computation
came to be.
Friday, March 29, 2013
Reading List: A Time for War
Savage, Michael [Michael Alan Weiner].
A Time for War.
New York: St. Martin's Press, 2013.
The author, a popular talk radio host who is also a Ph.D.
in nutritional ethnomedicine and has published numerous books
under his own name, is best known for his political works,
four of which have made the New York Times bestseller list
including one which reached the top of that list. This is
his second foray into the fictional thriller genre, adopting
a style reminiscent of
in which the author, or a character closely modelled upon him or her,
is the protagonist in the story. In this novel, Jack Hatfield is a
San Francisco-based journalist dedicated to digging out the truth
and getting it to the public by whatever means available,
immersed in the quirky North Beach culture of San Francisco, and
banned in Britain for daring to transgress
the speech codes of that once-free nation. Sound familiar?
After saving his beloved San Francisco from an existential threat in
the first novel, Abuse of Power (June 2012),
Hatfield's profile on the national stage has become higher than ever,
but that hasn't helped him get back into the media game, where his
propensity for telling the truth without regard to political correctness
or offending the perennially thin-skinned makes him radioactive to mainstream outlets.
He manages to support himself as a free-lance investigative reporter,
working from his boat in a Sausalito marina, producing and selling
stories to venues willing to run them. When a Chinook helicopter
goes down in a remote valley in Afghanistan killing all 39 on board
and investigators attribute the crash to total failure of
all electronics on board with no evidence of enemy action, Jack's
ears perk up. When he later learns of an FBI vehicle performing
a routine tail of a car from the Chinese consulate being disabled
by “total electronic failure” he begins to get
really interested. Then strange things begin to happen
in Chinatown, prompting Jack to start looking for a China connection
between these incidents.
Meanwhile, Dover Griffith, a junior analyst at the Office of Naval Intelligence,
is making other connections. She recalled that a proposed wireless
Internet broadband system developed by billionaire industrialist
Richard Hawke's company had to be abandoned when it was discovered
its signal could induce catastrophic electrical failure in
aircraft electronics. (Clearly Savage is well-acquainted with the
sorry history of
and GPS interference!) When she begins to follow the trail, she
is hauled into her boss's office and informed she is being placed
on “open-ended unpaid furlough”: civil service speak
for being fired. Clearly Hawke has plenty of pull in high places
and probably something to hide. Since Hatfield had been all over
the story of interference caused by the broadband system and
the political battle over whether to deploy it, she decides to fly
to California and join forces with Hatfield to discover what is
really going on. As they, along with Jack's associates, begin to
peel away layer after layer of the enigma, they begin to suspect
that something even more sinister may be underway.
This is a thoroughly satisfying thriller. There is a great deal of
technical detail, all meticulously researched. There are a few dubious
aspects of some of the gadgets, but that's pretty much a given in
the thriller genre. What distinguishes these novels from other
high-profile thrillers is that Jack Hatfield isn't a superhero
in the sense of
Mitch Rapp or
Scot Harvath: he is a largely washed-up journalist, divorced, living on a boat
with a toy poodle, hanging out with a bunch of eccentric characters
at an Italian restaurant in North Beach, who far from gunplay and derring-do,
repairs watches for relaxation. This makes for a different kind of thriller,
but one which is no less satisfying. I'm sure Jack Hatfield will be
back, and I'm looking forward to the next outing.
You can read this novel as a stand-alone thriller without having
first read Abuse of Power, but be warned that
it contains major plot spoilers for the first novel; to
fully enjoy them both, it's best to start there.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
Reading List: The Vatican Diaries
- Thavis, John.
The Vatican Diaries.
New York: Viking, 2013.
Law of Bureaucracy states that:
…in any bureaucratic organization there will be two
kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals
of the organization, and those who work for the organization
itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work
and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives
who work to protect any teacher including the most
incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the
second type of person will always gain control of the
organization, and will always write the rules under
which the organization functions.
Imagine a bureaucracy in which the Iron Law has been working
inexorably since the Roman Empire.
The author has covered the Vatican for the
Catholic News Service
for the last thirty years. He has travelled with popes and other
Vatican officials to more than sixty countries and, developing
his own sources within a Vatican which is simultaneously opaque
to an almost medieval level in its public face, yet leaks like a sieve
as factions try to enlist journalists in advancing their agendas.
In this book he uses his access to provide a candid look inside the
Vatican, at a time when the church is in transition and crisis.
He begins with a peek inside the mechanics of the conclave
which chose Pope Benedict XVI: from how the black or white
smoke is made to how the message indicating the selection of
a new pontiff is communicated (or not) to the person responsible
for ringing the bell to announce the event to the crowds
thronging St Peter's Square.
There is a great deal of description, bordering on gonzo, of the
reality of covering papal visits to various countries: in
summary, much of what you read from reporters accredited to the
Vatican comes from their watching events on television, just as
you can do yourself.
The author does not shy from controversy. He digs deeply into the
sexual abuse scandals and cover-up which rocked the church, the
revelations about the founder of the
Legion of Christ,
the struggle between then traditionalists of the
Society of St Pius X
and supporters of the Vatican II reforms in Rome, and the
battle over the beatification of
Pope Pius XII.
On the lighter side, we encounter the custodians of Latin,
including the Vatican Bank ATM which displays its instructions
in Latin: “Inserito scidulam
quaeso ut faciundum cognoscas rationem”.
This is an enlightening look inside one of the most influential,
yet least understood, institutions in what remains of Western
civilisation. On the event of the announcement of the selection
of Pope Francis,
James Lileks wrote:
…if you'd turned the sound down on the set and shown
the picture to Julius Cæsar, he would have smiled broadly.
For the wrong reasons, of course—his order did not survive
in its specific shape, but in another sense it did. The
architecture, the crowds, the unveiling would have been
unmistakable to someone from Cæsar's time. They
would have known exactly what was going on.
Indeed—the Vatican gets ceremony. What is clear
from this book is that it doesn't get public relations in
an age where the dissemination of information cannot be
controlled, and that words, once spoken, cannot be taken back,
even if a “revised and updated” transcript of
them is issued subsequently by the bureaucracy.
In the Kindle edition the index cites
page numbers in the hardcover print edition which are
completely useless since the Kindle edition does not
contain real page numbers.
Monday, March 18, 2013
Reading List: Rockets and People. Vol. 4
- Chertok, Boris E.
Rockets and People. Vol. 4.
Washington: National Aeronautics and Space Administration,  2011.
ISBN 978-1-4700-1437-7 NASA SP-2011-4110.
This is the fourth and final book of the author's
autobiographical history of the Soviet missile
and space program.
was a survivor, living through the Bolshevik revolution, the Russian
civil war, Stalin's purges of the 1930s, World War II, all of the
postwar conflict between chief designers and their bureaux and rival
politicians, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Born in Poland in
1912, he died in 2011 in Moscow. As he says in this volume,
“I was born in the Russian Empire, grew up in Soviet Russia,
achieved a great deal in the Soviet Union, and continue to work in
After retiring from the RKK Energia
organisation in 1992 at the age of 80, he wrote this work between 1994
and 1999. Originally published in Russian in 1999, this annotated
English translation was prepared by the NASA History Office under the
direction of Asif A. Siddiqi, author of
Challenge to Apollo (April 2008),
the definitive Western history of the Soviet space
This work covers the Soviet manned lunar program and the development
of long-duration space stations and orbital rendezvous, docking,
and assembly. As always, Chertok was there, and
participated in design and testing, was present for launches
and in the control centre during flights, and all too often
participated in accident investigations.
In retrospect, the Soviet manned lunar program seems almost
bizarre. It did not begin in earnest until two years after
NASA's Apollo program was underway, and while the Gemini
and Apollo programs were a step-by-step process of developing
and proving the technologies and operational experience for
lunar missions, the Soviet program was a chaotic bag of elements
seemingly driven more by the rivalries of the various chief
designers than a coherent plan for getting to the Moon.
First of all, there were two manned lunar programs,
each using entirely different hardware and mission profiles.
program used a modified Soyuz spacecraft launched on a
booster, intended to send two cosmonauts on a
circumlunar mission. They would simply loop around the Moon
and return to Earth without going into orbit. A total of
eight of these missions were launched unmanned, and only one
completed a flight which would have been safe for cosmonauts
on board. After
accomplished a much more ambitious lunar orbital mission in
December 1968, a Zond flight would simply demonstrate how
far behind the Soviets were, and the program was cancelled
manned lunar landing program was even more curious. In the
Apollo program, the choice of mission mode and determination
of mass required for the lunar craft came first, and the
specifications of the booster rocket followed from that.
N1 heavy lifter did not get underway until 1965—four years
after the Saturn V, and it was envisioned as a general purpose
booster for a variety of military and civil space missions.
Korolev wanted to use very high thrust kerosene engines on the
first stage and hydrogen engines on the upper stages as did
the Saturn V, but he was involved in a feud with
who championed the use of hypergolic, high boiling point, toxic
propellants and refused to work on the engines Korolev requested.
Hydrogen propellant technology in the Soviet Union
was in its infancy at the time, and Korolev realised that waiting
for it to mature would add years to the schedule.
In need of engines, Korolev approached
a celebrated designer of jet turbine engines, but who had no
previous experience at all with rocket engines. Kuznetsov's
engines were much smaller than Korolev desired, and to obtain
the required thrust, required thirty engines on the
first stage alone, each with its own turbomachinery and
plumbing. Instead of gimballing the engines to change the
thrust vector, pairs of engines on opposite sides of the stage
were throttled up and down. The gargantuan scale of the lower
stages of the N-1 meant they were too large to transport on
the Soviet rail network, so fabrication of the rocket was done
in a huge assembly hall adjacent to the launch site. A small
city had to be built to accommodate the work force.
All Soviet rockets since the
in 1949 had used “integral tanks”: the walls of
the propellant tanks were load-bearing and formed the skin
of the rocket. The scale of the N1 was such that load-bearing
tanks would have required a wall thickness which exceeded
the capability of Soviet welding technology at the time, forcing
a design with an external load-bearing shell and separate
propellant tanks within it. This increased the complexity of
the rocket and added dead weight to the design. (NASA's
contractors had great difficulty welding the integral tanks
of the Saturn V, but NASA simply kept throwing money at
the problem until they figured out how to do it.)
The result was a rocket which was simultaneously huge, crude,
and bewilderingly complicated. There was neither money in the
budget nor time in the schedule to build a test stand to
permit ground firings of the first stage. The first time
those thirty engines fired up would be on the launch pad.
Further, Kuznetsov's engines were not reusable. After every
firing, they had to be torn down and overhauled, and hence
were essentially a new and untested engine every time they
fired. The Saturn V engines, by contrast, while expended
in each flight, could be and were individually test
fired, then ground tested together installed on the flight
stage before being stacked into a launch vehicle.
The weight and less efficient fuel of the N-1 made its
performance anæmic. While it had almost 50% more thrust
at liftoff than the Saturn V, its payload to low Earth orbit
was 25% less. This meant that performing a manned lunar
landing mission in a single launch was just barely
possible. The architecture would have launched two
cosmonauts in a lunar orbital ship. After entering orbit
around the Moon, one would spacewalk to the separate
lunar landing craft (an internal docking tunnel as used
in Apollo would have been too heavy) and descend to the
Moon. Fuel constraints meant the cosmonaut only had ten to
fifteen seconds to choose a landing spot. After the
footprints, flag, and grabbing a few rocks, it was back
to the lander to take off to rejoin the orbiter. Then it took
another spacewalk to get back inside. Everybody
involved at the time was acutely aware how marginal
and risky this was, but given that the N-1 design was already
frozen and changing it or re-architecting the mission to
two or three launches would push out the landing date four
or five years, it was the only option that would not
forfeit the Moon race to the Americans.
They didn't even get close. In each of its test flights, the N-1 did
not even get to the point of second stage ignition (although in its
last flight it got within seven seconds of that milestone). On the
second test flight the engines cut off shortly after liftoff and the
vehicle fell back onto the launch pad, completely obliterating it in the
largest artificial non-nuclear explosion known to this date: the
equivalent of 7 kilotons of TNT. After four consecutive launch
failures, having lost the Moon race, with no other mission requiring
its capabilities, and the military opposing an expensive program
for which they had no use, work on the N-1 was suspended
in 1974 and the program officially cancelled in 1976.
When I read Challenge to Apollo, what
struck me was the irony that the Apollo program was the very
model of a centrally-planned state-directed effort along
Soviet lines, while the Soviet Moon program was full of the
kind of squabbling, turf wars, and duplicative competitive
efforts which Marxists decry as flaws of the free market.
What astounded me in reading this book is that the Soviets
were acutely aware of this in 1968. In chapter 9, Chertok recounts
a Central Committee meeting in which Minister of Defence
…the Americans have borrowed our basic method
of operation—plan-based management and networked schedules.
They have passed us in management and planning methods—they
announce a launch preparation schedule in advance and strictly
adhere to it. In essence, they have put into effect the principle
of democratic centralism—free discussion followed by the
strictest discipline during implementation.
In addition to the Moon program, there is extensive coverage
of the development of automated rendezvous and docking and
the long duration orbital station programs
Mir). There is also
an enlightening discussion, building on Chertok's career
focus on control systems, of the challenges in integrating
humans and automated systems into the decision loop and
coping with off-nominal situations in real time.
I could go on and on, but there is so much to learn from this
narrative, I'll just urge you to read it. Even if you are
not particularly interested in space, there is much experience
and wisdom to be gained from it which are applicable to all kinds of
large complex systems, as well as insight into how things were done in
the Soviet Union. It's best to read
Volume 1 (May 2012),
Volume 2 (August 2012),
Volume 3 (December 2012)
first, as they will introduce you to the cast of characters
and the events which set the stage for those chronicled here.
As with all NASA
publications, the work is in the public domain, and an
edition in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats is available.
A commercial Kindle edition is available
which is much better produced than the Kindle editions of
the first three volumes.
If you have a suitable application on your reading device
for one of the electronic book formats provided by NASA, I'd opt for
it. They're free.
Russian edition is available online.
Saturday, March 9, 2013
Levitating pyrolytic carbon
It's been a while since the last gizmo post. Here's one of the coolest things
I've encountered in some time, and what's especially remarkable about it
is how warm
it is—it works at room temperature.
Many visitors to this site are probably sufficiently nerdly to have, at some point
in their lives, levitated a magnet above a piece of high-temperature superconductor,
demonstrating the Meissner effect
to the amazement of all onlookers.
Unfortunately, “high-temperature” in this context means only
that it works at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, not liquid helium, so you still
have to go off to the welding supply shop with a thermos, and the experiment
only works until you run out of liquid nitrogen.
Amazingly, you can do a similar demonstration of levitation at room temperature
by using a
substance and a strong permanent magnet. A diamagnetic material has a magnetic
less than that of free space,
and hence expels external magnetic fields, creating a repulsive field in
response. This is usually a weak effect.
exhibits the strongest diamagnetic effect at room temperature of
any known substance. It is a form of carbon not found in nature, but which can
be produced by a variety of processes. Its structure is similar to that of graphite,
except there are covalent bonds between atoms in the
sheets of which it is composed.
To the right is a small square piece of pyrolytic carbon. To the left are four
magnets stuck to
a steel plate at the bottom. What happens when we pick up the carbon
square and place it atop the magnets?
Whoa! Its diamagnetism causes it to levitate above the magnets. If you perturb
it from its minimum-energy state, it will return to the centre point and the same
orientation. If you tilt the magnets slightly, the carbon square will shift to balance
the force of gravity. (If you tilt it beyond the diamagnetic restoring force, the
carbon square will fall off onto the table.). The following picture gives a sense of
If you want to try this yourself at home, you can usually find everything you need on eBay. For some reason, you'll need to search for “pyrolytic graphite”; eBay has its own vernacular for such things. Neodymium magnets are
extraordinarily strong, and you should always be cautious when dealing with them.
Make sure you have anything magnetic far away, and never, ever allow your finger
to get between one of these magnets and something magnetic. If you want to
experiment with displacing or spinning the levitated carbon square, a wooden
toothpick is an excellent implement; a screwdriver, not so much. Also be careful how you store the magnets. They can wipe the magnetic stripes on credit
cards brought near them and erase other kinds of magnetic media. I doubt they'd
cause any problem with a hard drive within a computer, but darned if I'm going to let
them anywhere near one of my computers. I took all of these photos on a wooden table
after making sure there was nothing magnetic within two metres.
And if you have a really strong magnet
, note that
frogs are diamagnetic