Skip to site navigation

Andrew's diary > Writings > Diary
<<< 06/2005 January Feburary March April May June July August September October November December 08/2005 >>>

Wednesday, 27 July 2005

Having finished Mary Krosse's excellent Labyrinth set around here (Carcasonne), I picked up Dan Brown's The Digital Fortress off the villa's bookshelf.

Labyrinth explores a secret society guarding the mysteries of the Grail for centuries - and those who would exploit the vicious Crusade against the Cathars in 13th Century France to gain access to its power. The story neatly steps between 1209 (the siege of Carcasonne) and July 2005 with the plot neatly unfolding between the two intertwined stories.

Since the The Da Vinci Code supposedly deals with similar secret societies, the Church and its secrets; and so many people rave about it (criticising those who dismiss it as "intellectual snobs"), I thought I'd give Dan Brown a chance on a book a lot less like Labyrinth, close to hand but still dealing with conspiracies, far flung locations and a twisting plot to keep the interest up.

Unfortunately, I think it's quite possibly the worst book I've ever read. The Digital Fortress ventures into the morally questionable area of information espionage: specifically the NSA. The premise is that the NSA have secretly built a machine capable of breaking any encryption algorithm in under three hours; and typically within minutes: allowing them to read all PGP-encrypted email flowing across the Internet. However, a previous NSA employee has created an unbreakable algorithm with a "rotating cleartext" - who wants it, who's killing to get it, and is everyone telling the truth?

Well, the answer to all of those questions is obvious from the moment the plot is laid out: it's ponderous, predictable and (if you'll excuse the pulpish simile) with dialogue as clumsy as two hedgehogs on their wedding night. It's full of technical inaccuracies and downright lies: encryption algorithms shouldn't rely on being unknown to be secure (the point of a good encryption algorithm is that it shouldn't matter if anyone else knows the algorithm - if they don't know the key, they can't decrypt it); typical Hollywood-style computers which can "trace" an email account without the recipient having to do anything; viruses which seem to affect any computer system, even uniquely designed ones; "But it's a 64-bit key; no-one would be able to remember all sixty four [sic] characters!"); clumsy use of terminology and trademarks, such as "X-eleven". And that's not an exhaustive list. These don't matter in a Hollywood film if the other elements of the film are enjoyable and well done, however this is supposedly a well-researched novel and these things just jump out of the page. For example, is it really worth a novel describing a useless (and highly improbable) graphical display of the defences of the NSA being worn down and hackers from the EFF (oh yes, did I mention the author doesn't seem to like civil libertarians very much?) circling like sharks?

Technical accuracy is one thing which, to me, is important. Others may disagree. However, the characters which are in other ways unbelievably super-intelligent and insightful (or so we are led to believe) act foolishly and unbelievably stupidly just to drag out the pointless denou&egrav;ment with the defences being slowly eaten away. Each chapter seems to end with a cliffhanger, even when it's obvious they're - at most - only hanging from the edge of a small step... or perhaps a crease in the brow of anyone reading it. Numerous times towards the end of the book I was literally shouting across the breezy day the answer which should have been obvious to the main characters: no cryptographer is going to think "prime" means "primary" ahead of the mathematical definition.

The only reason I finished it was the fact that I was too lazy to move, sitting in the shade with the wind breezing through the trees and stirring the otherwise balmy air. Although, to be fair, I also couldn't believe it'd get worse: it had to get better. It didn't.

It's almost offensive that I won't get the time back, especially after Labyrinth and John Humphrys' Lost for Words.

In the evening I picked up Stephen King's From A Buick 8 from the same bookshelf and was struck by the difference immediately: Stephen King can do dialogue; and tell a story. The plot structure of his books may be very formulaic, but it works and his innovative use of chapter structure kept you wanting more. For example, chapters flitting between present and past tense, but continuing the narrative seemlessly, depending on whether the plot was being told third person or first person narratively at that point.

Thursday, 21 July 2005

Still no results from the further bloodtests; but no symptoms so we may well be safe. We're both tired though as we held an impromptu gathering for David, Robert and Sam at our house last night (after dinner at Wetherspoons) to treat them for Robert's actual birthday.

Wrote up lots of (lightweight) diary entries.

More bombs on the tube. Is this a regular occurence, every other Thursday, now?

Saturday, 16 July 2005

Robert's 18th birthday dinner. Very nice dinner at the Buck & Bell in Long Itchington - may well be going there more regularly.

Friday, 08 July 2005

Blood test's back: there are antibodies, but they can't say whether or not it is due to an old infection (ie. immunity), or a new one (infection). Doing further tests: results will be ages.

More cases of it at school so Mel's having next week off too.

Thursday, 07 July 2005

8.44am - left Moorgate tube station.
8.49am - bomb explodes on tube just outside Liverpool St.

Given deadlines at work we hadn't realised how bad the bombings were; and I hadn't realised Moorgate had been evacuated and shutdown because of the smoke billowing down the tunnel from the next stop: Liverpool St.

Tuesday, 05 July 2005

Second day commuting from Rugby (after it took 3 hours to get home last night due to missed, and then cancelled, trains. Unfortunately mid-morning I got a phone call from Mel saying she'd been sent home from school (to Gill's house) as one of her kids was today diagnosed with German Measles. This could be very bad for the baby (especially since it's not clear whether or not Mel had her rubella vaccine).

I took the afternoon off and went with Mel to her midwife's appointment in Basingstoke: didn't think I'd be back here this soon. Bloodtest taken but I point out that if her blood shows antibodies that won't clarify whether or not that's an immunity or whether or not she's been newly infected. Arse.

Mel and Angela decide she should at least have the rest of the week off until the blood test comes back and so we pack up and drive back to Rugby. Feeling a little worried.

<<< 06/2005 January Feburary March April May June July August September October November December 08/2005 >>>