New: Book Report: Crypto

This last weekend, I pitched in for a playtest of MSPH12 "Jeopardy!". These puzzle-solving endeavors have wonderful moments. Solving puzzles in a team environment--it's very satisfying when my skills complement someone else's and we solve a puzzle quickly by playing off each others' strengths.

I tell people about this stuff, and they're interested at first, until I 'fess up that it's not all about shining flashlights at carefully-constructed paper models of the Las Vegas skyline--it's mostly sitting, thinking, and scritching little notes. It ain't rock and roll, though in conversation I probably paint it exciting.

Of course, I'm thinking about a book as I write this. I'm thinking about Crypto, about another activity full of secret messages.

This book is by Steven Levy and thus has a faux rock-n-roll rebel subtitle: "How the Code Rebels Beat the Government--Saving Privacy in the Digital Age." And there's an awful passage that reminds me of some of Levy's worst writing:

Profane, cranky, and totally in tune with the digital hip-hop of Internet rhythm, they were cryptographers with an attitude.

Argh. Even if the Internet had a rhythm and even if "digital hip-hop" described that rhythm, I don't think the cryptographers could be described as... arrgh. Oh, and he kinda gives partial explanations of some crypto techniques, explanations so incomplete that they're less help than nothing. Arggh, aiyee.



But if you can get past that, this is a pretty well-researched history. Levy talked with plenty of cryptographers and other figures. And he shows both sides--I still think that the Clipper Chip was a bad idea, and maybe I still can't respect Al Gore for backing it--but I can kinda see how he got roped into supporting it; maybe I can see how well-paved his hell-bound road was.

I got an idea of the personalities of Diffie, Rivest, and some other big names. The story of the coining of "cypherpunks" is in here. There are plenty of good anecdotes. All in all, a worthwhile piece of work.

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Posted 2009-01-27