Friday, 14 December 2007

And the new Kahn is... Kahn?

For a while, I've been wondering about what "the new Kahn" (i.e. what the updated, 2007 equivalent of David Kahn's "The Codebreakers") would be. On a whim, I recently bought a couple of plausible-looking cryptography history books, just in case one of them might be that book...

"Codes, Ciphers, Secrets and Cryptic Communication" by Fred B. Wrixon is quite cool. In its 704 pages of cryptographic and cryptologic fun, it bounces along at a fair old rate, not only discussing plenty of different historical ciphers but also describing ways of cracking them - both making and breaking. It has two brief pages on the VMs (pp.555-556). Its weakness (in my opinion) is that it is somewhat fragmented (in an encyclopaedic kind of way), possibly because it was formed by merging two earlier books by the same author into a single larger book. Good if you want a quicky book to tell you how to break historical ciphers. But not Kahn.

"Codebreaker: The history of secret communication" by Stephen Pincock and Mark Frary is OK, but didn't really work for me. Consistently misspelling Trithemius as Trimethius (even in the index) didn't help in this regard: but the book has other merits, such as the glorious colour photograph of the Phaistos disk on page 5. It's a well-illustrated piece of popular science journalism, with three colourful pages on the VMs (pp.49-51, showing f11r, f56r, and f67r1-2, though labelling them "Nature and alchemy" might be a little be off the mark). Random House obviously thought there was a need (in these post-Da Vinci Code days) for a colourful cryptography / history / journalism thing: I'm not so sure. I suspect the authors would have been better off telling a historical story than what they produced: beautifully produced, but not really enough of any substance, nor large enough to be a proper coffee table book. (Sorry!)

Which leads me back to David Kahn. If you are serious about reading up on the history of cryptography, I'd suggest searching on for a copy of the unabridged (1136 page!) version of "The Codebreakers". For now, Kahn is still king! :-o

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