Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies review

Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World's Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret SocietiesUnsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies by Craig Bauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David got this book somewhat randomly at Barnes and Noble and, honestly, I didn’t have very high hopes. But the author actually worked at the National Cryptologic Museum, so he definitely knows his stuff!

If anything the book is a bit too detailed, but if you’re into reading about, say, the whole history of the Voynich manuscript it’s very good. Another minor irritation is that, well, most of the ciphers he talks about are unsolved! That can get kind of unsatisfying.

But he does a good job of listing what we do know, using various statistical techniques. Another nicety is that he actually goes through the exercise of decoding some simple ciphers, which is much more instructive than the usual “well, just look at the letter frequencies, and voila!”

One of the crazier things he talks about is that there are a lot of ancient writings that don’t make any sense – we know what language they’re using, but the words don’t make any sense. Apparently people who study such things used to think “well, this doesn’t make any sense, so obviously it’s gibberish – maybe illiterate sellers of goods would write stuff that looked like words to fool illiterate buyers?” Which is such a weird first option, as opposed to “maybe these things are in codes that we don’t understand”. Hey scholars – just because you don’t know what it is doesn’t mean it’s gibberish, ya bums!

Anyway, it’s a good book.

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Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? review

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White HouseWho Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting book – a mix of “what it’s like to work in the White House” (the author was Obama’s deputy chief of staff!) and “how I got to the White House”, mixed in with some personal anecdotes.

Reading books like this can trigger a tiny existential crisis in me – the author had a huge impact on the Obama presidency and knows a lot of the more powerful people in DC. (her wedding was officiated by Justice Kagan, for goodness sake!) Did I miss my chance to have such a big impact on the world? (I’m not thinking of any opportunity in particular, here)

But I like to think that I’m making a difference in the job I’m in, even though it might be indirect and barely visible. This is one reason I really enjoy seeing what scientists and engineers are able to accomplish with our software at events like NIWeek.

To be fair, it sounds like it was hard for the author after leaving the White House for similar reasons. It’s hard to go to an “ordinary job” after the role that she played in Obama’s campaign and presidency!

This book also makes me sad because of the contrast between President Obama, who sounds like a really stand-up guy (not that this is new information!), and President Trump.

Anyway, the book was good and a pretty quick read. Recommended!

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The Underground Railroad review

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The central conceit of the book is “What if the Underground Railroad was actually a real railroad?”. I feel like this didn’t really add much to the story, which follows some slaves on a plantation as they attempt to escape. However, the story itself is very compelling and really takes an unflinching look at slavery.

“Slavery was bad” is one of those things that (presumably) everyone agrees with, but it’s hard to remember just how bad it was, and this book did a good job of reminding me.

(I say that the whole railroad thing didn’t add much for me, except it did make me more interested in buying the book, so maybe it all works out 🙂 )

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Al Franken, Giant of the Senate review

Al Franken, Giant of the SenateAl Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Unsurprisingly, the book is funny, as Al is an entertaining guy. It’s also interesting about what it’s like to be a Senator. After getting barely elected in 2008 (after a career in comedy), he wanted to be taken seriously, so he studied up on the issues and mostly stopped making jokes in public. He talks about being able to work with Democrats and Republicans when they can find common ground. It’s actually kind of inspiring! (he won reelection in 2014 by a wide margin)

The book was written after Trump was elected, so there is some depressing stuff too, but I really enjoyed the book!

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The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking review

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of HijackingThe Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Interesting book! Some things I learned from it:
– The period in question had a ton of hijackings. (or “skyjacking”s as they used to call it, which is way cooler!) At a Senate hearing, the airlines claimed it was an impossible problem “short of searching every passenger”, which they really didn’t want to do for cost reasons, and they thought passengers wouldn’t stand for it. At this point, every hijacker just wanted to go to Cuba, where the airline would pay Castro a nominal fee to get the plane back, so it didn’t even cost that much!
– A few weeks after the hearing, a hijacker pulled a gun on a Senator (randomly, he didn’t know the victim was a Senator), which made it clear that something had to be done. The State Department proposed providing free one-way flights to Cuba for anyone who wanted to go! (Castro didn’t want to do this – he preferred the black eye that America would take from hijackings) So the airlines told pilots and flight attendants to comply with hijacker demands no matter what to avoid violence. As a part of this, all cockpits had charts of the Caribbean regardless of where they were going, and some Spanish phrase cards to communicate with the Havana airport!
– So people just accepted hijackings to Cuba as a necessary risk of air travel for a while. (and passengers were treated well in Havana, although Castro generally disliked the hijackers themselves)
– By February 1969 there was more than one hijacking a week in the US! So the FAA tried again to address the problem, and the public had some input. They had the following crazy suggestions: trapdoors outside cockpits! Arming flight attendants with tranquilizer darts! Playing the Cuban national anthem before takeoff and then arresting anyone who knew the lyrics?! One suggestion the FAA took seriously was to build a replica of the Havana airport in South Florida to fool hijackers into thinking they had reached Cuba, but it was rejected as too expensive.
– Eventually hijackers started wanting to go other places, although they didn’t always plan ahead. One hijacker wanted to go to “Africa” (which is a pretty broad place to want to go?), but the airline only flew to California so of course their planes couldn’t reach across the ocean. Incidentally, the main hijacker’s girlfriend ordered one flight attendant to feed her baby a bottle, and another to crochet the baby a hat!
– The hijacking that broke the camel’s back was a hijacking in 1972 that landed in Cleveland, Toronto (an elderly passenger suffered a nonfatal heart attack on this leg of the journey), Chattanooga (where they picked up $2 million of ransom money), Havana (where Castro rejected them), Orlando (where the FBI started shooting at the plane, which still managed to take off), then for lack of a better idea, back to Havana. Along the way they threatened to “bomb” the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where nuclear material was kept. After that threat, the airlines saw the writing on the wall and agreed to screen passengers with metal detectors and inspect carryon bags. The Cubans also made a deal to extradite hijackers to the US, which didn’t hurt.

The main story is an interesting look at a hijacking by Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow – how they hatched the idea, where they ended up, etc. The whole book is pretty interesting and I’d recommend it if you’re interested in such things!

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Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical review

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the SkepticalMaking Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Timothy J. Keller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book is basically a bunch of arguments for Christianity. While the author doesn’t try to prove the existence of God (which I appreciate!), he does make a number of arguments that I found pretty convincing about why the secular idea of morality still requires faith in something. (although not necessarily God)

There’s definitely some overlap with his other book The Reason For God, but I found this book thought-provoking and helpful.

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