Title: The Code Book
author Simon Singh
publisher Anchor Books
ISBN 0-385-49532-3
pages 450
rating 10/10
summary Engrossing history of code-making and code-breaking, with equal parts drama, biography, and tutorial.
reviewer Stern

Stern is the president of Information Markets Corp.
Where Gray Matters

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Simon Singh's masterful The Code Book becomes clear at the end, when he provides seven coded messages. He starts with a simple substitution cypher and ends with what appears to be a form of public key encyrption. After only 350 pages, he has made codebreaking so exciting, so worthy an endeaver, and has explained the mechanics of the process so well, that you can't help but pick up a pencil and setting to work.

When compared to other mass-market books on cryptography, Singh goes into much more detail on the contruction of cyphers, and the mathematics behind them. This makes the power and momentum of his writing a bit of a surprise. However, his thrill at the cracking of each code, and his understanding of the world-altering effects of each one, infect the reader.

The book contains everything you would expect -- Vigniere cyphers, the cracking of Enigma, a brief history of public key encryption. It also includes the Beale Treasure (crack a code, and there may still be millions in gold left to find), the Zimmerman telegram (which, when decoded by the British in 1917, drove the United States to declare war on Germany), and other stories of varying levels of familiarity. Most unusual, Singh includes the story of the decoding of Linear B and Egyptian Hieroglyphics. In other books, these chapters might seem very much out of place, as neither language was developed as a tool to keep things secret, and they are therefore distinctly out of place when next to commercial and military cyphers. That said, Singh's book is more about the thrill of decypherment and the intellect of code-breakers. Since the skills necessary to decode these languages closely resemble those of code-breakers, and since the triumph of victory is very much the same, they fit here.

What's Bad?

Codes and cyphers of importance in Britain and the United States dominate the book. There is almost no discussion of codes or codebreaking elsewhere. Perhaps Singh will address them in a later book. Also. for some, very sophisticated readers, much of the math will be overly simplistic. For some, very slow readers, later chapters will be difficult to follow. However, most people will find this book to be a treasure -- worth reading, and worth sharing with others.

What's Good?

From the perspective of the early 21st century, the weaknesses of old codes are obvious. As Singh walks us through the Cipher of Mary Queen of Scots, substitution codes and cyphers of increasing sophistication, the Vigniere cipher, we cover thousands of years worth of the science of secret writing. Today, computers bring us such tremendously powerful tools for cracking these codes, that you want to put a hand over your eyes and shake your head in embarassment for the governments, businesses, and hobbiests who should have known better. When Singh shows us the first Arabic document on the use of frequency analysis to crack substitution cyphers, I felt a pride similar to that I feel when I contemplate powered flight. As Singh's story progresses, it becomes clear that the advance of code-making, just like the advance in agriculture or the advance of transportation, carries within it the evolution of global civilizations. It includes technology, politics, trade, and the the demand for civil liberties (or privacy, which often amounts to the same thing).

Singh considers future technologies as well, especially quantum computing and its implications for modern, prime-number based encryption systems. He ends with quantum cryptography, perhaps the next paradigm in secrecy. If Singh is right, there is no principal in physics as we now understand it which will allow an untrusted party to decode messages encrypted with quantum cryptography.

He has also put up $15,000 for whoever can read the secret messages at the back of the book. The first few are easy, but they quickly get difficult. If the last few are what I think they are, a distributed computing network will be needed to crack them. Anybody volunteering to organize it?

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