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Cryptonomicon
7.23.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.


XXXEU NFQIF

I just wrote an encrypted message. I used an encryption algorithm called "Solitaire," from Neal Stephenson's novel, Cryptonomicon. If you want to decrypt the message, there is a full description of how to do it in Cyrptonomicon, or you can get the same information here (I used an unkeyed deck BTW, in case anyone actually bothers to do it).

"Solitaire" is a cool encryption algorithm. All you need in order to use it is a deck of playing cards, and yet it is extremely strong — so strong, in fact, that it falls under U.S. law governing export of crypto technology. As a result, electronic copies of Cryptonomicon are export-controlled goods, because the U.S. government doesn't like people to have access to strong encryption — especially not foreigners!

Cryptology is one of the major themes of Cryptonomicon. But as Stephenson says:

Since cryptology is mathematics, which most people do not consider interesting reading, I have broadened my scope a little bit to include related fields such as Money (e.g. digital currency), War (e.g. the Enigma), and Power (e.g. crypto export controls) which can provide the basis for a more engaging yarn.


And an engaging yarn it certainly is. In fact, it's a whole bunch of engaging yarns. There are at least 4 storylines going on simultaneously in this book. One of them takes place in the present, and the hero is a computer nerd named Randy. Randy's trying to start up a data-haven — a repository for digital information, outside government jurisdiction, where clients can operate with total privacy and without regard for the law. The other storylines all take place during World War Two. Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is a brilliant mathematician, working to break the codes that the Axis use to communicate; Bobby Shaftoe is a Sergeant in the marines who is recruited into a special squad responsible for planting misleading information for the Axis intelligence people to find; Goto Dengo is a soldier in the Japanese army. Other secondary characters include Alan Turing, Douglas MacArthur, Hermann Goring, and Yamamoto.

All of these storylines intertwine and weave in and out of one another, and get tangled up and stop and start and stop again. The book is constantly jumping from one storyline to another, jumping forwards and backwards in time, jumping from one character's perspective to another... It's all a bit confusing and frustrating at first, and it takes a while to sort out who's who and when's when and what's what. Also, at 900+ pages it takes a lot of time and effort to read. But if you can keep up the momentum it's well worth it.

The wartime setting makes for exciting action scenes, as well as some interesting historical stuff on codes and codebreaking, and the present-day setting makes for some cool techno-geeky stuff (like Van Eck phreaking). Stephenson writes it all in his wonderfully blunt and often hilarious style. He's especially good at explaining complex technology and math related things in ways that are both easy to understand and not-boring. There is also romance, philosophy, religion, politics, economics, social commentary, and conspiracy all thrown into the mix.

Stephenson certainly knows how to tell a good story. And he seems to know what he's talking about on both the historical and technological end of things. His writing is straightforward and funny, and he plays with some genuinely interesting ideas. I don't know if it's great literature, but it's certainly a great World-War-Two-Spy-Techno-Thriller.




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