****The Cypher Bureau

Enigma machine

PX Here, creative commons license

By Eilidh McGinness – This fictionalized history of the breaking of the Germans’ Enigma code methods in World War II is as tense as any thriller and more consequential, based, as it is, on true events.

Although readers around the world are familiar with the accomplishments of Alan Turing and the British code-breaking team at Bletchley Park—most recently popularized in the Benedict Cumberbatch movie, The Imitation Game—the substantial contribution of youthful Polish mathematicians to the unraveling of the Nazis’ coding system is less well known. This novelization of the life of Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski and his colleagues attempts to fill this historical blank spot.

As children, Rejewski and his two friends and fellow mathematics stars, Henry Zygalski and Jerzy Rozycki, lived through the German occupation and depredations of the First World War. Now, on the cusp of completing their university studies, war clouds are once again amassing on their country’s western border, and the Polish authorities are desperate to expose the Germans’ secrets and help foil their plans.

Rejewski, Zygalski, and Rozycki are successfully recruited to work for the Cypher Bureau, although, as invasion approaches, the danger of such work grows by the by day. They have successfully solved numerous important decryption problems, yet Rejewski longs for a chance to try cracking the Enigma—the coding machine the Germans considered unbreakable. Finally, he gets this super-secret assignment. Thanks to documents obtained by French intelligence and the lucky acquisition of an Enigma machine, he is able to reconstruct its internal wiring. Once that is accomplished, the method for determining the master key for a given day is the remaining challenge.

The insight that allows his breakthrough is not mathematical or technical, it is psychological. Having had German tutors in his youth, Rejewski knows how they think. As the author of the book on which The Imitation Game was based wrote about the Poles, “They had not broken the machine, they had beaten the system.”

Once Germany invades Poland, the code-breaking team flees, working its way across Europe, stopping briefly here and there to decode messages, deal with Germany’s efforts to make Enigma increasingly complex, and making hair’s-breadth escapes from the enemy. Although this book aims to be a true account and the writing style is never hyperbolic, its substance is akin to an action thriller.

The bravery and intellectual contributions of the Polish mathematicians and their team is clear. Equally so is the commitment of a great many people in Poland and elsewhere to keeping the secret of their accomplishments. Not one person ever revealed this information throughout the long years of the war, and the Germans never knew they’d been hacked. This in itself is an astonishing feat!

Your Next Thriller: Idea Goldmine

The July 2018 issue of Wired is a treasure trove of ideas for thriller writers. Here are the ones that got my creative juices flowing.

satellite 2

photo: Alexas_Fotos, creative commons license

Space Wars and Daily Life
“The Outer Limits of War,” by Garrett M. Graff, which bears the provocative subhead “a new arms race is threatening to explode—500 miles above our heads.” A parenthetical factoid declares that 14 out of the 16 “infrastructure sectors designated as critical by the Department of Homeland Security, like energy and financial services, rely on GPS for their operation.” Things you might not expect, like ATMs, cellular networks, and credit card systems depend on GPS. And the satellite array that makes GPS possible is highly vulnerable to deliberate attack, not to mention the 500,000 pieces of debris, marble-sized and up, currently orbiting earth at up to 17,000 mph.

The All-Seeing Eye
In Steven Levy’s “The Wall,” Palmer Lucky’s portable surveillance towers use radar, cameras, and communications technologies to identify moving objects up to two miles away. The virtual reality component of the system tags objects as people or coyotes. Then it reports in to those who will do something about it. Such systems would have military uses, scanning the battlefield, and are being tested at the U.S.-Mexico border. Lucky’s virtual wall would cost about one-fiftieth of the proposed 30-foot high concrete structure under consideration at the border, with all its security, wildlife disruption, aesthetic, and property infringement downsides.

Bitcoins

photo: Mike Cauldwell, creative commons license

Cryptocurrency
“The Blockchain: A Love Story; The Blockchain: A Horror Story,” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. How the Tez went bad. Leaving aside the particulars of this long piece, a good thriller writer can expertly decode the most opaque problem. So I hope you’re working on a novel about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, so I can finally understand it.

Mission Possible?
Oh, and the Mission Impossible movie franchise technologies that have—and have not—achieved reality. Gecko gloves, yes. Covert subdermal implants, no.

That Plastic Gun Isn’t a Toy
Finally, check out this chilling video on the Wired website headlined “Legal Win Opens Pandora’s Box for Weapons.” Forget age requirements. Forget background checks. Forget gun control altogether. Thank you, DoJ.

****Number 7, Rue Jacob

cell phone camera

photo: rocksee, creative commons license

By Wendy Hornsby –Maggie MacGowen is an almost-forty-year-old American, dedicated to her documentary filmmaking career and engaged to delightful Frenchman Jean-Paul Bernard, about a decade her senior. Though he says his job is “in business,” she realizes it is something far more consequential and lets him keep his secrets.

She’s in Paris to rendezvous with him and look for some documentary film work there, as they plan to marry. She’ll stay at number 7, rue Jacob, in a flat inherited from her biological mother, a Frenchwoman she never really knew. After her mother died, she learned she has a half-brother, a grandmother, an uncle, and nephews in France, still practically strangers.

Her inheritance isn’t just the flat. Maggie and Jean-Paul now own all three buildings of a former convent, including a mysterious basement library. Many people want the library’s contents, including officials from the diocese, the Vatican, and the Louvre, whom Maggie’s mother believed should have the religious books. The library also contains a number of illuminated manuscripts created for 17th c. Russian regent Sofia Alekseyevna. These are of almost inestimable value, since most such treasures were destroyed during the Revolution.

Almost before Maggie can unpack, Jean-Paul sends an urgent summons and a request for her to meet him in Italy. She follows his ominous instructions—burner phones only, cash, no credit cards—to the letter. When she finds Jean-Paul, he’s been injured. A drone dropped a bomb in front of his vehicle. This is an exciting set-up for the cat-and-mouse game that takes the pair from Venice to Ravenna and across Italy.

Hornsby’s novel is a cautionary tale about how easily people’s location can be tracked these days. First, a simple tracking device was attached to Maggie’s coat. Then someone uses social media to broadcast a call to “find this couple!” Photos of them are posted by dozens of casual passersby, as if Maggie and Jean-Paul are targets in some terrifying Pokemon Go universe.

The instructions change from “find them” to “stop them” with a reward attached, and the risk goes through the roof. Anyone with a cell phone can potentially expose them. Whether all the technology can be used exactly as Hornsby uses it here, the story bears the stamp of “Oh yeah, I can believe some idiot would try that.”

But what do their pursuers want? Are they after Maggie, with her film exposé about unexploded landmines? Or is Jean-Paul the real target? Or is it 7 rue Jacob itself, and its hidden library of precious illuminated texts? My questions about the initial attacks on Jean-Paul weren’t ever satisfactorily answered, but in the thrill of the chase, I set them aside. Again, though, the motivation is weak.

From the streets of Paris to the canals of Venice, to the several other locales in this story takes, Hornsby establishes an alluring sense of place. She has a clear writing style and creates significant tension around the threat to Maggie and Jean-Paul, as well as a warm and sexy relationship between them. At the same time, she pays attention to the ties to Maggie’s new French family that complicate whatever she decides about her unexpected, many-strings-attached inheritance.

The Rouge: Industrial Architecture Icon

The Rouge, Michael Kenna

photo used wall-size to open the exhibit – © Michael Kenna

The Princeton University Art Museum’s exhibit of evocative photos of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, remains on display through February 11. British photographer Michael Kenna became enamored of the Rouge in the early 1990s—past the time when auto manufacturing there was at its peak. At that time and before automation, the plant employed some 100,000 workers a day—including my grandfather, his neighbors, and several of my uncles.

Kenna especially liked to photograph the Rouge at night and in frigid weather, when the temperature turns the heat and steam into clouds whose buoyancy contrasts with the solidity of the structures. The museum has a large collection of these photographs, which, in documenting this famous landmark by industrial architect Albert Kahn (“the architect of Detroit”), shows today’s Rouge and its “complicated status as a symbol of industrial decay and endurance.”

The Rouge was a mile long and took in raw materials from massive Great Lakes freighters at one end, and finished automobiles rolled out the other. It had its own steel- and glass-making plants, and its eight-towered Powerhouse produced enough electricity to serve a city of a million residents. My grandfather walked to work at the Rouge every day, and my father and his sibs swam in the Rouge River (not recommended).

As Kenna photographed, “Parts of the Rouge were active and quite dangerous with moving cranes, trains, and enormous containers of molten steel and slag. Other parts were disused and quiet, rusting and decaying, with vegetation growing in and around long-abandoned machinery.” Some of the vegetation is purposeful. Land around the Rouge has been turned into sunflower fields, with the flower-heads harvested to make oil that is used in today’s manufacturing processes.

It isn’t a huge exhibit, but the photos are so powerful, you can almost smell hot metal and hear the hissing steam and clanking machinery.

Can Robots Write Science Fiction?

pen, writing

photosteve101, creative commons license

Canadian writer Stephen Marche presented the results of his recent experience with “algorithm-guided” writing in a short story published recently in Wired (December 2017). The algorithm was developed by the research team of Adam Hammond and Julian Brooke, who use big data to illuminate linguistic issues. We know automated processes have been writing newspaper stories for some time, so far only basic business and sports stories, using a program developed by another Hammond, Kris. But pure creative work, Lit-ra-ture?

In a nutshell, Marche collected 50 science fiction short stories he admires and gave them to the researchers. Their software analyzed the stories for style and structure, then gave Marche information on what they have in common.

Could this advice help him write a better story?

The analysts first presented Marche with style guidelines to bring the new story he was writing into closer sync with his 50 favorites. Examples of such general guidelines are:

  • There have to be four speaking characters
  • 26% of the text has to be dialog

From there, the analysts developed 14 very specific rules to govern the new story’s content. The usefulness of the rules, though, depended totally on the 50 stories he selected. One rule encouraged greater use of adverbs and even set a quota for the number of adverbs needed in every 100 words of text. That rule probably reflects that, among the 50 stories, were several from decades ago, when adverbs were less frowned upon by editorial tastemakers. Choosing only contemporary stories would probably eliminate that prescription.

Similarly, another rule limited the amount of dialog that should come from female characters—another artifact of an earlier era, one hopes. This, even though the late Ursula K. LeGuin’s story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” was included and stories written by women divide dialog almost equally between male and female characters. Those by men (at least the ones he close) clearly do not. Marche was limited to 16.1%.

What did the algorithm “think” of his story?

Marche wrote a draft of his story, submitted it to his electronic critique group of one, and began to revise. As he worked on it, the software flagged areas—words even—in red or purple where Marche violated the rules, turning green when he fixed it properly. (Sounds soul-crushing, doesn’t it?) Marche says, “My number of literary words was apparently too high, so I had to go through the story replacing words like scarlet with words like red.”

I particularly admire Rule Number Six: “Include a pivotal scene in which a group of people escape from a building at night at high speed in a high tech vehicle made of metal and glass.” Could authors reverse-engineer these rules to help them avoid cliché situations and themes? Would it be possible to violate all of them, consistently? Bring new meaning to the phrase “purple prose”?

Submitted to two real-life editors, Marche’s story was panned as full of unnecessary detail (those adverbs again) and implausible dialog—I guess because the women didn’t speak—and pegged as “pedestrian” and “not writerly.”

Marche’s human editor was more upbeat: “The fact that it’s really not that bad is kind of remarkable.” You can read the results here and decide for yourself. But the fact the software could be helpful at all has me watching my back!

Family History Models (Part 1)

Queen Victoria's Family Tree

Queen Victoria’s Family Tree

Once you begin working on your family genealogy, there’s an infinite way to organize and present it. You can keep all of it on Ancestry.com or other websites, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily give you the flexibility of sending copies to family members who aren’t online, taking copies to family reunions, or having a few pages with you on a scouting trip to a history center or cemetery. Taking your laptop or tablet along isn’t always desirable.

Last Friday’s post covered general tips, today’s begins describing the wide range of ways to organize and report your genealogical findings, from the simple to the elaborate. Today and tomorrow, I’ll describe five of them.

Many kinds of reports can be created within the better software options.

“The Begats”

Some people are only interested in what I call “the begats”—who were the parents, the grandparents, the great-grandparents and so on. In addition to names, a genealogy organized this way often includes: dates of birth and death, date of marriage and name of bride/groom, and, possibly burial place. (The cemetery information is valuable, because many cemetery records are now online, for individual cemeteries or collectively, and they’re another research avenue.) Your begats may be in tree form, with boxes like an organization chart or it may be text.

When You Don’t Know Much

Sometimes, the choice about presentation style is dictated by the fact that you just don’t know very much. That’s the situation with my father’s parents, who immigrated separately to the United States from Hungary before about 1910. Research on the Ellis Island website brought up several people who might be them. Ship manifests, which provide key genealogical information, including age, home town, and place/person they were traveling to, helped me narrow my search.

The family history I prepared includes some background on the home towns of the two immigrants I believe are most likely my grandparents (about which my father’s generation knew almost nothing). Whether the information I found is correct in every particular or not, reading it you get some insight into the black box of their immigration story. You can get a feel for this kind of reporting with the stories of my grandmother, Maria Krausz, and grandfather, Ferencz Hegyi.

When You Have A Narrow Interest

Sometimes, you have a particularly narrow interest that suggests a focus for a family report. My seven-year-old grandson asked whether any of our family fought in the Civil War. I took the Civil War chapter of the family history I’ve written, revised the text to make it more suitable for a young person and added historical photographs and artworks.

The finished piece (25 pages) includes transcriptions of letters from our ancestors home. Since these soldiers they indicated where they were writing from, I summarized information about their units and the battles they participated in. I also created a Civil War family tree, focusing on the combatants. Grey boxes for our Confederate ancestors, blue boxes for the Union, and red lines for soldiers who died in the war. Seven so far.

Writing a complete family history is a formidable task, even for a writer like me, and much more so for non-writers. Taking a piece of it—in this case the Civil War, or the Immigrant Generation, or “Our Family in the Depression”—is for some people a manageable way to start.

WEDNESDAY: Family History Models (Part 2): The More Elaborate Options

***Freefall

cyberspace

photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

By Brian Lutterman – Pen Wilkinson has appeared in two previous books in this contemporary amateur sleuth series, and author Lutterman gets points for creating a protagonist who uses a wheelchair. Pen has solid contacts in law enforcement and strings she can pull when she needs investigatory assistance, but everyday issues are a challenge. Lutterman acknowledges the practical aspects of her disability, as well as its impact on her relationships with others.

Pen lost her mobility as an adult, the result of an auto accident, so is acutely aware of how people treat her differently than before. Fine, empathetic work. Pen is a get-on-with-it kind of gal and, at least in this novel, has come to terms with her situation.

Pen was driving when the accident occurred, and her sister’s young daughter was killed. Although she was not held responsible, she blames herself. And so, apparently, does the girl’s mother, Pen’s older sister Marsha. The rupture between them has brought to the surface Marsha’s longstanding resentment of Pen, and guilt over this resentment has led to hostility. Now Marsha needs Pen.

About a year before the book begins, Marsha’s son Kenny, a computer prodigy, left Marsha’s Tampa home to live with his father and stepmother. He then convinced them to move to Minneapolis. Why people would leave sunny Florida for the notorious icy winters of Minnesota, Marsha can’t understand and no one has adequately explained. Now Kenny has gone missing.

Given the settings he’s chosen—Minnesota and Tampa—Lutterman had considerable opportunity to explore how such vastly different urban cultures shape people and events, but this story could have played out just about anywhere, only changing the street names.

Pen agrees to help find him, since the police—and his father—seem unconcerned. It appears Kenny was doing some hacking for a mysterious person called Z. Z is well known to Pen’s old friends in the banking industry for a string of ransomware exploits, but has been strangely quiet of late. The book takes advantage of the growing appreciation of the vulnerability of systems and institutions to cybercrime, financial institutions in particular.

This is a multiple point-of-view novel, and you know Z is planning something big. The risks to Kenny are coming from at least two directions, since Z believes Kenny is expendable and a highly trained team of mercenaries is on his trail.

Lutterman’s complex plot is peopled by members of the Russian mafia, the mercenaries, the hackers, banking insiders, the FBI and local law enforcement, plus Kenny’s friends and family. Many of them are not behaving as Pen would expect them to. Yet she repeatedly arrives at conclusions without much indication of how she reached them.

If you like cybercrime plots and don’t think too hard about it, Lutterman’s fast-paced story will carry you forward. However, the book would greatly benefit from more realistic dialog. The heart of the book is Pen, Lutterman’s captivating protagonist, dealing with her significant challenges and urgent desire to reconnect her family.

A longer version of this review appeared in CrimeFictionLover.com.

Behind the Scenes at Murder on the Orient Express

set model, dining car

3-D Printer Model of Dining Car, Beowulf Boritt; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual Backstage Tour was expertly timed this year. Participants got the inside scoop on the fantastic sets and costumes created for the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann.

Because McCarter does an elaborate version of A Christmas Carol every December, the production team couldn’t start creating the sets and costumes for Agatha Christie’s iconic story until early January, explained David York, the quiet genius who is McCarter’s Director of Production.

By then, they had the costume sketches from six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long, and the set designer, in this case Tony Award-winning Beowulf Boritt, had presented the production team with a highly detailed model of the set produced by a 3-D printer. Creating the sets and costumes involved  thirty-five crew members and some seven thousand hours of labor, first in the construction and costume shops, then, in a week of very long days, making everything work on stage.

Stage set

Portion of the stage set, Murder on the Orient Express, McCarter Theatre; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The production team built two and a half truly spectacular railway cars that travel back and forth across the stage, using a braided wire rope system, much like San Francisco’s cable cars. The production also required a gorgeous new curtain, which has moving panels that can mask portions of the set, as needed. (Four painters spent four {?} days stenciling the Turkish design on the curtain.) Once the timing of every aspect of the play was finalized, managing the rail car and curtain movement is computer-operated.

Prop Master Michele Sammarco described the high degree of authenticity the production crew strives for. In a brief scene, the railway conductor delivers a tray with a roll and coffee. The prop department decorated both sides of the cup with the period-correct Orient Express logo, a detail probably no one in the audience can see, but which conveys a sense of being “really there” for the cast. Similarly, eight characters need passports from different countries. All eight look different and include the correct cast member’s photo and information.

Getting both the big, splashy elements—like the railroad cars—as well as the innumerable small touches right makes a big difference in the quality of the theater-goer’s experience. They are why eighteen thousand people have rushed to see this show in its two and a half-week run. If you’re not one of them, you have until Sunday, April 2, to try to get tickets! Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

Octavia Hudson, Taraji P. Henson, & Janelle Monáe

It would be hard not to like this inspiring Ted Melfi movie (trailer) based on the true story of three women—three black women—overcoming early 1960s gender and racial stereotypes to make it in the super-white-male environment of NASA, just as Americans are struggling into space.

Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) were powerful role models for their, or any, age. Despite being relegated to the pool of “colored computers,” as the black female mathematicians were called, and despite their superb skills being barely recognized, they showed astonishing levels of patience and tenacity, as the story tells it.

At times, the movie feels like a deserved exercise in myth-making. Families are supportive, kids are perfect, home life is smooth. These women are almost too good. Their lives had to be more complicated than that. But those aspects of their stories are secondary to their achievements in the workplace, and that’s where the movie focuses.

With the recent passing of John Glenn (reportedly every bit as open and truly nice as on screen here), the early days of U.S. space program have disappeared into history. Today’s Americans either weren’t born yet or may have forgotten the fear that gripped the nation when Russia orbited the first satellite, when rocket after rocket blew up on the Cape Kennedy launch pad. When  our education system, at least temporarily, geared up for greater student achievement in math and science.

The pressure on NASA to succeed was enormous, and this is the environment in which these women worked and excelled. Despite their significant contributions five decades ago, something essential about the message has been lost. Between 1973 and 2012, 22,172 white men received PhDs in physics, as did only 66 black women.

I liked this movie; I think the subject is great, and the broader recognition well deserved and too long delayed. The three women play their roles beautifully, as individuals, not symbols. While the subject was new and surprising, the film stakes no new emotional territory. More disappointing, fifty years on, the movie’s “feel-good” moment is quickly trumped by awareness of our society’s persistent racism and gender inequity. Perhaps the fact that this movie has been a top box office draw several weeks running, will help, but I’ve seen that movie before. See it for yourself, feel good, and then ask yourself, what next?

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences 94%.

*****Burning Bright

photo: Kevan, creative commons license

By Nick Petrie – Petrie’s debut thriller, The Drifter, was a 2016 favorite. In these novels, Petrie’s protagonist, Peter Ash, is a veteran Marine lieutenant who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. His war experience left him with a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that he calls “the static,” and it starts up whenever he’s in a confined space—indoors, for example—threatening to bloom into a full-blown panic.

For that reason, he’s spent a lot of time tromping around the deep forests of the northwest United States, living in a tent, trying to convince himself no one is shooting at him. Unfortunately, in this book, someone is.

When he climbs a young redwood tree to escape a rampaging bear, he discovers he’s not the first or the only one hiding out up there. Following a trail of ropes, he finds a woman with a bow and arrow, the arrow aimed at his heart. (Hits it, too, but not in the literal sense.) The sound of automatic weapons on the ground tells them they need to fly. Their escape through the treetops, thirty stories up and above the forest fog is pure excitement. And that powerful opening just begins their non-stop adventure.

The woman, June Cassidy, is on the run. Her mother—an artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford University—was killed by a hit-and-run driver, all the contents of her office were carried away in the middle of the night by “government” heavies, who later tried to kidnap Cassidy. Her mother has developed an algorithm to penetrate secure networks called Tyg3r, and quite a few determined folks think now Cassidy has it.

Cassidy wants to know who killed her mother. Ash’s interest is in Cassidy, and he wants to use his considerable tactical and physical skills to protect her. In a recent essay about thriller superheroes, London Review of Books editor John Lanchester described his Superman Test for plausibility: “Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?”

Somehow, Petrie’s depiction of Ash and his actions would pass that test. In part that’s because the author is meticulous about explaining how Ash and Cassidy do what they do. Whether you understand all those rope climbing terms or not, the details are utterly convincing.

At the same time, it seems less believable that multiple teams of heavily armed pseudo-governmental agents are driving around in phalanxes of black Ford Explorers. Yet, Ash needs a significant foe, and there’s a high-tech prize of inestimable value here. Perhaps it makes sense that considerable human and firepower resources are focused on acquiring it.

Though heavily overmatched, Ash and Cassidy are not without resources of their own. In addition to their personal skills, Ash calls on some a few pals, including one from The Drifter, Lewis: genius investor, crack shot, awesome sense of humor. Banter between Cassidy and Ash is pretty genuine and entertaining too.

The Northern California and Seattle-area settings are refreshing and full of possibility for the kind of mental isolation that breeds paranoia. And there’s plenty of it in this novel, given the game-changing significance of the technologies it explores. As Petrie says in an author’s note, “large institutions, both public and private, operate with few controls in a fast-changing environment. For some reason, I don’t find this entirely comforting.” Nor will you.