Back to previous post: One for the carpenter

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: Chrono log

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

December 30, 2003

Consider the source
Posted by Teresa at 12:30 PM *

A number of news venues and weblogs (notably Electrolite, which picked it up from Arthur Silber) have commented on the recent AP story about how the FBI is urging the police to watch out for people carrying almanacs:

The FBI is warning police nationwide to be alert for people carrying almanacs, cautioning that the popular reference books covering everything from abbreviations to weather trends could be used for terrorist planning.

In a bulletin sent Christmas Eve to about 18,000 police organizations, the FBI said terrorists may use almanacs “to assist with target selection and pre-operational planning.” It urged officers to watch during searches, traffic stops and other investigations for anyone carrying almanacs, especially if the books are annotated in suspicious ways.

“The practice of researching potential targets is consistent with known methods of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations that seek to maximize the likelihood of operational success through careful planning,” the FBI wrote.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the bulletin this week and verified its authenticity.

“For local law enforcement, it’s just to help give them one more piece of information to raise their suspicions,” said David Heyman, a terrorism expert for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It helps make sure one more bad guy doesn’t get away from a traffic stop, maybe gives police a little bit more reason to follow up on this.”

The FBI noted that use of almanacs or maps may be innocent, “the product of legitimate recreational or commercial activities.” But it warned that when combined with suspicious behavior — such as apparent surveillance — a person with an almanac “may point to possible terrorist planning.”

“I don’t think anyone would consider us a harmful entity,” said Kevin Seabrooke, senior editor of The World Almanac. He said the reference book includes about a dozen pages out of its 1,000 pages total listing the world’s tallest buildings and bridges but includes no diagrams or architectural schematics. “It’s stuff that’s widely available on the Internet,” he said.

The publisher for The Old Farmers Almanac said Monday terrorists would probably find statistical reference books more useful than the collections of Americana in his famous publication of weather predictions and witticisms.

“While we doubt that our editorial content would be of particular interest to people who would wish to do us harm, we will certainly cooperate to the fullest with national authorities at any level they deem appropriate,” publisher John Pierce said.

The FBI said information typically found in almanacs that could be useful for terrorists includes profiles of cities and states and information about waterways, bridges, dams, reservoirs, tunnels, buildings and landmarks. It said this information is often accompanied by photographs and maps.

The FBI urged police to report such discoveries to the local U.S. Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The first thing that struck me about that story was a sense of the familiar made strange. I know Kevin Seabrooke. Yon purveyor of information to terrorists used to work in Ad Promo at Tor, during which time Editorial’s nickname for him was “Captain America”. Next to Kevin, Norman Rockwell paintings look faintly debauched. It’s truly weird to run across him in the context of a nationwide FBI alert. On the other hand, it means there’s at least one quote in the story I can believe without question—not that I’d have thought anything else of the World Almanac.

That aside, this is just a phenomenally dumb move. The old hardcover family almanacs might or might not have gotten annotated, but your modern year-by-year trade paperback almanacs certainly do. If someone’s carrying an almanac around with them, there’s a good chance they’ll have jotted down notes in it. Who’s this going to catch? Schoolteachers. People with children. The more earnest sort of traveler. The last person I saw annotating an almanac in public was a nice woman who turned out to be a professional tour guide. One of her routes covers various sites and sights in my Brooklyn neighborhood. She was annotating her book because she’d just been out checking her route for changes.

What scares me, though, is how specifically the FBI has targeted almanacs, and how they haven’t mentioned travel guidebooks, high-resolution terrain maps, architectural guides, government directories, maps of underground water, power, and transit systems, lists of major industrial sites, the Yellow Pages for pete’s sake, or any of the other references that might reasonably be used at that stage.

I’m not just alarmed because this lets hypothetical terrorists escape scrutiny by taking their notes in a travel guide instead of an almanac. If you want to see how someone does research, look at how they imagine someone else doing it. If the almanac is the only documentation that comes to the FBI’s collective mind when they visualize potential terrorists engaged in “target selection and pre-operational planning,” what that suggests is that almanacs are pretty much what they’re working from when they’re doing their own target selection and pre-operational planning.

That’s unsettling. Almanacs are a great resource, a good place to start your research, but they’re the very definition of “general information.” Somehow, I feel as though I’d just found out that FBI agents were all recruited from the kids who did their class reports by copying stuff out of the encyclopedia.

Comments on Consider the source:
#1 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 03:15 PM:

If the almanac is the only documentation that comes to the FBI92s collective mind when they visualize potential terrorists engaged in 93target selection and pre-operational planning,94 what that suggests is that almanacs are pretty much what they92re working from when they92re doing their own target selection and pre-operational planning.

It suggests to me that they picked up someone who appeared to be a terrorist using an almanac, or got a report of such but didn92t catch the guy, or something.

#2 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 03:36 PM:

As I said on Electrolite, I'm going to start carrying my OFA everywhere I go. In the mesh pocket on the back of my backpack, so it will be visible.

#3 ::: Adam ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 03:39 PM:

I'm doing the same, Xopher. In fact, I might make random notes in dwarven runes in the margins just to fuck with authority figures.

#4 ::: Kellie ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 03:40 PM: they haven92t mentioned travel guidebooks, high-resolution terrain maps, architectural guides, government directories, maps of underground water, power, and transit systems, lists of major industrial sites...

One would hope that some of these at least were on a previous list that wasn't leaked. Or that they are already a specific part of FBI training. Because if the FBI doesn't know to look twice at someone toting maps of power and transit systems, then we've got really big problems.

#5 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 03:43 PM:

Of course, the OFA primarily tells you when a lot of Witches will be having circle, but radical Islamists hate us even more than they hate Christians. Maybe they'll target us right after Full Moon when we'll be magically helpless...or so they think, hehheh.

Adam, use Feanorian instead. It looks like Arabic to the truly stupid, who, as Teresa has established, is who we're dealing with here.

#6 ::: Dorothea Salo ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 03:52 PM:

In light of the ALA-Ashcroft scrap of a few months back, couldn't this be an ill-considered attempt to round up reference librarians, who live and die by almanacs?

#7 ::: Adam ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 04:03 PM:

Good point.

I think I still have the issue of Micronauts in which the Sanskrit-looking alphabet of the Microverse is laid out, so I could always make notes for Baron Karza's imminent invasion of the Macroverse, as well.

#8 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 04:11 PM:

"...I feel as though I92d just found out that FBI agents were all recruited from the kids who did their class reports by copying stuff out of the encyclopedia."

Well, they are supposed to have college degrees...but then, so does W. Bush.

The underlying truth here, and the scary one, is that the FBI doesn't know wtf it's doing, and it's making policy by guess.

#9 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 04:33 PM:

Somehow, I feel as though I92d just found out that FBI agents were all recruited from the kids who did their class reports by copying stuff out of the encyclopedia.

And what about encyclopedias, at that? Or libary references (e.g. The New York Public Library Desk Reference)? Or atlases, or coffee-table photography collections? Or any one of thousands of different books in any of thousands of libraries and bookstores.

Randolph: Policy by guess, driven by a raging paranoia, I think. People carrying Zagat's guides might be next....

#10 ::: Emma ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 04:46 PM:

I can just see the phone calls: this the FBI? I'm down here at the library, you know, the branch on Marsh and 23rd? There's this guy here, he looks like an Arab and he's looking through the Almanac. And the librarian just handed him the Rand McNally Atlas, for God's sake, you gotta get down here!

The response, though, that's going to be interesting....

#11 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 05:36 PM:

It embarrasses me to confess that I don't really know what an almanac is. Some kind of encylopaedia?

"First they came for my OED, then for my Britannica, but they'll have to claw my Encarta from my cold, dead CDROM drive ..."

#12 ::: Kris Hasson-Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 05:40 PM:

My mind must not work the way all of yours do: the first thing I thought of was that they'd been tracking book purchases and found a lot of almanacs going to names on lists, or to places where they think terrorists are training. I'm more appalled at the idea they keep track of book purchases (and yes, I know they've been doing it and that good bookstores refuse to let them look at the records) than by the portrayal of agents as so uncreative as to focus on almanacs.

#13 ::: Jeffguy ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 05:58 PM:

More power to the folks like Xopher who want to f*** with the authorities (I'm just now wondering what could be made of my LOTR tattoo, which always gets mistaken for something Arabic). Just as long as you're American citizens. Otherwise, you could end up as makinglight's new correspondents in Gitmo.

#14 ::: Laura ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 06:11 PM:

The Today's Washington Post article about this alert notes that investigators found an annotated almanac in the apartment of an al Qaeda sleeper agent.

It also quotes the president of the ACLU as saying, "Founding Father Benjamin Franklin probably never imagined that the almanac he created would be the subject of an FBI terrorism bulletin."

#15 ::: David Elworthy ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 06:14 PM:

One data source widely used in my field (natural language processing and information retrieval) is the CIA world factbook, which has most of the characteristics of an almanac. Another source, used when you want to build something like an address recognizer is the FIPS55 data, which the US government distrbutes for free through the National Institute of Standards and Technology. I wonder if they will start tracking people who download them in future; or perhaps they already are.

#16 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 06:24 PM:

I wonder if agents also found toilet paper in the apartment?

Or that fiendish WMD, dihydrogen monoxide.

All sarcasm aside, I suppose I do see what the FBI's concern is, but it still seems like they're grasping at straws.

Just relieved my parents are 2nd generation (well, 1.5 gen) american citizens, lest they be held by the feds based on the reading material in their bathroom. (OK, so the sarcasm got to me again.)

#17 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 06:31 PM:

Might an almanac be used to study for the citizenship exam?

#18 ::: Isabeau ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 06:55 PM:

Xopher, maybe you can refresh my memory. Who was it that said, "Once you've been slammed up against a wall by a federal goon, you can't ever be unslammed, even if you're cleared absolutely"?

#19 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 07:57 PM:

If terrorists were really into reference books, they'd use Chase's Annual Events. It tells what special events are going on, at least in the U.S., every day of the year, as well as a good bit of the stuff that's in almanacs. (It doesn't tell things like the tallest buildings, largest bridges, etc., though, which may be what the FBI thinks terrorists are really wanting to know.) We use it a lot at our reference desk. But I still love the World Almanac best even if I need stronger glasses to read it these days. Their print is getting awfully small lately! :-)

I've been known to tell people my motto is, "The World Almanac -- don't leave home without it." As I mentioned over on Electrolite, I may start taking that literally, just for spite.

#20 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 08:00 PM:

The problem with this is that now, finding an almanac on someone they're interested in taking a closer look at is probably probable cause to search everyone in the car/house with them.

Not that they need probable cause these days, but it's rather disconcerting, and I say this as a domesticated-looking middle-aged white woman with blue eyes and freckles who regularly goes by checkpoints unchecked (my party was actually waved through at the Canadian border, and they never asked to look at my ID at LAX).

I don't like this a bit.

#21 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 08:12 PM:

I have to agree with Julia. It sounds like they're developing grounds for reasonable cause so they can get to someone in particular. Unfortunately, such actions almost always hit someone innocent as well.

Guess I shouldn't let anyone know about the coding and decoding program I developed that avoids almost all pattern problems that make most codes vulnerable since that will probably be next.

#22 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 08:30 PM:

I ran across this today as well, and immediately journalled it. I think my first reaction was to wonder if we were going to see future headlines like "FBI Urges Police to Keep an Eye Out For Fodor's Guide Books".

Then too, I wonder what over zealous police officers would make of my possessing a little handbook containing information on internation countries, cities, money exchange rates, methods of measurement. I carry it around in one of my backpacks....and I'm kinda curious if "I have this for Trivia Night" would go over well as an excuse.

#23 ::: catie murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 08:31 PM:

It all just makes you want to rush out and buy almanacs and hand them out on the street corner, doesn't it? Or maybe it's just me. Well, no, actually, reading this thread, it's *clearly* not just me.

#24 ::: Jon H ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 08:36 PM:

One wonders what the FBI would think if they considered that, right now, there are probably Arabs in the US poring over books on cryptography, power transmission lines, bridge construction, and other things.

They're called 'college students', of course. But I can easily imagine the FBI using a required textbook as evidence of evil intent.

#25 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 08:42 PM:

Charlie: Almanacs are general reference books which have things like lists of award winners, tall buildings, statistical info, dates for rising and setting of the sun and sometimes the moon and other planets. The Old Farmers Almanack lists weather forecasts and times to plant. Reference librarians use almanacs, dictionaries, and encyclopedias more than any other book.


#26 ::: Keith ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 08:53 PM:

In light of the ALA-Ashcroft scrap of a few months back, couldn't this be an ill-considered attempt to round up reference librarians, who live and die by almanacs?

As a reference librarian in training, this is just another slap in the face from Herr Ashcroft. One of these days Crisco Johnny is going to realize that you don't mess with Librarians! Because in the Information Age, those who control access to the Info, control the world.

#27 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 09:14 PM:

Charlie, what Mary Kay said. Back when many rural American households only had two or three books, one was almost certain to be the Bible, but it was a good bet that one of the others was an almanac. The climax species almanacs were vast compendious things containing weather forecasts, gardening tips, tide charts, historic dates, lunar calendars, weights and measures, postal rates, the text of the Constitution and other basic documents, home remedies, collected proverbs and wise sayings, distances between major cities, and sixty-zillion other things.

Their descendants are longer on records and statistics, and not as focused on planting times and proverbs, but they're still vast compendious something-of-everything general reference books.

#28 ::: ben ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 09:27 PM:

'Sides which anyone with an eighth-grade education and an Web-connected PDA can do a good sight better...

Does that mean that they're gonna start putting surveillance on meter maids and business travellers?


#29 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 10:51 PM:

And if they're carrying an Old Farmer's Almanac, the carrier of such is screwed. They're interesting for some data, and reporting things that happened the previous year, but as a predictor they're pretty much rolling dice. I've bought a couple in my time and the only advice they actually give, weather, has just been wrong.

#30 ::: Jon Hansen ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 10:55 PM:

Hmm. I buy my dad a Farmer's Almanac and a World Almanac every year for Christmas. He's not a reference librarian, just a retiree interested in the world and what's going on there.

Probably ought to give him a call and tell him about this.

#31 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 11:14 PM:

John Tukey, one of the great statisticians of the last century and the developer of exploratory data analysis and fast Fourier transforms, collected World Almanacs. I made him very happy by finding half a dozen years he didn't have when we were at the AAAS meetings in Detroit.

He was very interested in how the information for previous years changed from one year to the next. In the almanac world, revisionist history is apparently a requirement -- and the changes are generally not marked, and not obvious.

I wonder what happened to his collection?

#32 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 11:38 PM:

Merriam-Webster suggests that almanac may be derived from the Arabic al-manAkh. Maybe that92s why it92s just almanacs. Presumably the FBI92d be even more suspicious if they were to find you working out algebra in your almanac, especially while while drinking alcohol from a carafe and eating apricots. (Go extend the list on your own if you like.)

#33 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 30, 2003, 11:50 PM:

First, this particular bulletin sounds a lot like something that got typed up in five minutes at quiting time on a Friday. They had to come up with a bulletin for local law enforcement, since we'd just gone to Orange Alert, and Orange Alert means that a bulletin describing Something Specific To Look For is required.

Second -- an almanac is part of one of the better pencil-and-paper cyphers. While it may be breakable in theory, it's never been broken in practice.

#34 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 12:05 AM:

Avram,aren't most common nouns that begin with al- from Arabic? Alchemy is my favorite.

James, could you elaborate on the cipher? Or would that violate some stupid law? (I don't want you to violate the law even if it is stupid, like the one that outlaws Teresa's brain.)

#35 ::: Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 12:07 AM:

I'm feeling like the smart kid on a playground at recess, again. Unsettling feeling, to have my government making fun of me for liking to read.

I don't know what they're trying to do. I can't even guess anymore if they're being stupid or malicious or devious or just plain nuts. I do know that hostility towards knowledge can't be a good thing.

#36 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 12:55 AM:

If the FBI cites almanacs because a suspected terrorist was found with an almanac, then this is just another example of fighting the last war, without any realization that the next terrorist might think of something else. Our security forces seem to think of terrorists as natural phenomena with predictable patterns, like hurricanes.

I believe it was someone on this weblog who once wrote, "Every time I take my shoes off at airport security, I give thanks that Richard Reid wasn't known as the underwear bomber."

Emma wrote,

"I can just see the phone calls: this the FBI? I'm down here at the library, you know, the branch on Marsh and 23rd? There's this guy here, he looks like an Arab and he's looking through the Almanac. And the librarian just handed him the Rand McNally Atlas, for God's sake, you gotta get down here!"

I hope you don't think this is just an imaginary scenario, or something that might happen in the future. Something very like this call was made about me quite recently. And I don't even look that much like an Arab. I don't want to describe the incident, except to cite this mitigating factor: that the cop who questioned me seemed deeply embarrassed by the whole thing, and let me go with no fuss.

#37 ::: d'Herblay ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 01:01 AM:

If using words derived from Arabic is in itself suspicious, then I have to cast a baleful glance towards the institutions of Homeland Security themselves, which currently have us on orange alert.

I tend to use my almanac to find such sensitive information as zip codes and election returns, so I'm skeptical of the great threat it poses. On the other hand, were I ever to plan a Topkapi-style cat burglary of a major European museum, the first thing I'd want would be a Dorling-Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide. I commonly refer to it as the "Junior Woodchuck Manual."

On the other hand, weren't the anthrax letters of late 2001 were tied together because the return address had an incorrect zip code?

#38 ::: Simon ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 01:07 AM:

"On the other hand, were I ever to plan a Topkapi-style cat burglary of a major European museum, the first thing I'd want would be a Dorling-Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide."

If I ever wanted to find my way to the exit of a major European museum, the first thing I'd want would be one of those D-K guides. Those places are really easy to get lost in, and the D-K guides are really fab.

And now I have to worry about being considered a terrorist for using one. Great.

#39 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 01:19 AM:

James, could you elaborate on the cipher? Or would that violate some stupid law?

Xopher, I have no idea about the particular thing James is talking about, but I would guess that he's thinking of some method (every nth letter? All the population data about the countries in Asia?) of turning the information in an almanac into something approximating a one-time pad. If given an almanac and told I had to use it to encode a message, that's what I would do. (Although if that's it, the almanac-ness is only useful in that there's a lot of data in the book.)

#40 ::: Yonmei ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 06:08 AM:

Is this the cypher made famous by Arthur Conan Doyle in The Valley of Fear?

#41 ::: Anne Murphy ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 07:55 AM:

Speaking of our dear administration, read this:

The administration quarantines dissent (re-posted from The American Conservative)

#42 ::: Virge ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 07:57 AM:

The FBI is warning police nationwide to be alert for people displaying signs of independent thought.
"The one common thread in recent terrorist attacks has been the novelty of target choice and methods. It has been a long and costly exercise to uncover this weapon in the terrorist's arsenal. Now that we know they are employing creativity in planning their attacks we can take steps to control its use."

#43 ::: Barry ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 09:52 AM:

"My mind must not work the way all of yours do: the first thing I thought of was that they'd been tracking book purchases and found a lot of almanacs going to names on lists, or to places where they think terrorists are training. I'm more appalled at the idea they keep track of book purchases (and yes, I know they've been doing it and that good bookstores refuse to let them look at the records) than by the portrayal of agents as so uncreative as to focus on almanacs."

Posted by: Kris Hasson-Jones on December 30, 2003 05:40 PM

If Al Qaida & Co are so naive as to not erase the tracks of retail purchases, then we're pretty much home-free in terms of eliminating them.

Spreading cash purshases across multiple stores (in cities that one doesn't reside in) is a pretty elementary precaution.

#44 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 10:20 AM:

It is indeed using the almanac as a one-time pad, with the plaintext changed to ciphertext using a straddling checkerboard.

It'd take too long to explain, but only a couple of minutes to demonstrate.

There are two weaknesses: First, the numbers are not truely random. Second, the keytext is publicly available, and a search of the suspect's effects will yield a copy of the key.

#45 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 10:27 AM:

You could use a copy of The Silmarillion to the same effect, yes? (Checking my understanding here.)

If so, then all of us fans, who own many matching books, are suspect.

#46 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 10:35 AM:

You could use any book for certain ciphers (I recall one fellow who was using The Good Soldier Schweick), though the numbers in tabular form in an almanac is what makes it particularly useful for this particular

#47 ::: Alan Bostick ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 11:16 AM:

In a world where computers fit in bookbags and backpacks and where ports of PGP are available for PalmOS, the use of an almanac (or any other book) as a one-time pad seems strangely quaint. I mean, even the old rotor-based version of crypt would be harder to crack.

#48 ::: Dennis Moser ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 12:09 PM:

Dorothea Salo and Keith are on the right track: this is the prelude to the mass arrests of librarians and (an)archivists! We're extremely dangerous folks because we know WHERE the information is and how to find it and how to help YOU find it...the deadly almanac being but one of our own massive collection of Weapons of Mass De-dumbification...nothing so subversive as the ordinary or mundane.

Sheesh! The ALA had better start watching who's asking for membership lists...

#49 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 12:24 PM:

I remember reading about the almanac cipher. You and a friend both have access to identical books, and he can send you a coded message of just numbers that are meaningless to anybody who doesn't have the almanac. Suppose the first number is 315002015. You turn to page 315, paragraph 2, 15th word, and you'll see where someone has written in: "We blow up the dam at midnight. Bring lots of dynamite."

Ah, with such a cipher, I could -- dare I say it? -- Rule the World!!

#50 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 01:34 PM:

Alan: a world where "computers fit in bookbags and backpacks and where ports of PGP are available for PalmOS" is also a world where there's an FBI-owned DCS2000 sniffer sitting on every ISP's backbone, and if you think PGP is safe you haven't been following the news about developments in quantum computing.

In contrast, pencil-and-paper one-time pads, dead letter drops at Greyhound bus stations, and plain old-fashioned cell structures with minimal information flow offer security no worse than they ever did -- and the opposition (read: the FBI, DHS, NSA, and so on) have stopped paying attention to anything as old-fashioned and low-budget as HUMINT resources.

If I was setting up a terrorist network today, rule #1 would be "no technology invented after 1970 shall be used for secret communications". It's amazing how efficiently sticking to that rule defeats most current-day surveillance measures.

#51 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 01:48 PM:

The only problem Kip (as I suspect you already know) is that book ciphers are secure only in special situations. (See this for some background.) The problem is that if you manage to get a crib, there are ways to reconstruct the keytext, even if you don't have the code book. As Charlie just mentioned, better to use one time pads.

#52 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 02:15 PM:

Dennis -

My friend, an archivist, recently returned from a conference in Canada. When she went through U.S. Customs at the (Vancouver) airport, they asked what her profession was. When she answered "I'm an Archivist." the customs agent responded with an alarmed look and was about to call another agent or security guy over when she calmly explained to him the nature of her job.

Her colleague, driving back from another Canadian project in a rented car, had a similar (but somewhat scarier) experience the previous month: He must have chuckled when the border agent wigged out about the "Archivist", and the border guys took umbrage and searched his car. The found about 42 euros in a plastic bag hidden in the wheel well of the rental car. This really pissed them off, and they did a greater search, asking if there was anything in the trunk he should tell them about. He responded (somewhat less shirtily in this case) that he hadn't known about the 42 euros, since it was a rental.

These incidences have left me with two life-lessons:

1) Don't. Ever. Smile. when going through customs or crossing a border. This is especially important to Librarians and Archivists, as the ones I've know tend to have a keen sense of both sarcasm and the absurd.

2) People are getting dumber and more paranoid. I suppose not everyone has a brain that hears an unfamiliar word and thinks: "Hmmm... archivist... from the greek..." but use your head, dammit! Is "Anarchist" (what I'm sure was their brain's neuron-jerk reaction to the unfamiliar word) really a viable Profession? That they would be having a Professional Conference? Anarchy doesn't really make one think of careful planning and name tags.

(and furthermore, why would anyone go to all that trouble to smuggle 42 euros into the States?)

#53 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 03:18 PM:

The real advantage of semi-exotic ciphers (almanacs, Silmarillions, decks of cards) is that, while not as secure as true one-time pads, they offer a substantial number of pseudo-one time pads and are both easily concealed and obscure (security through obscurity is not reliable, but if you're a gambling man, its worth a try.)

(If my backpack contains an almanac, a notebook containing ciphertext, and little else, you're still going to need time and human ingenuity to figure out what the agreed-upon method is -- if you've never heard of the almanac cipher, or if I'm carrying five different almanacs, three decks of cards, a copy of the classfied section of three major newspapers, and the complete works of Tolkien, I've stymied you barring interrogation.

#54 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 03:38 PM:

BSD, that would be true will very low levels of traffic, which of course personal messages generally are (in cryptanalytic terms). But don't expect any security at all from obscurity of method -- the rule is security must rest on the security of the keys.

#55 ::: Karen Junker ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 04:34 PM:

new bumpersticker: I buy Almanacs for Arabs!

I wonder what page they found the notes on and what they actually said? I hope it had something to do with neap tides. I love neap tides...

#56 ::: eleanor rowe ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 06:11 PM:

I don't think we have almanacs in the UK anymore. The weight/time/currency conversion stuff is in diaries, along with the holidays and saints days - almanacs used to have dates for planting & weather preditions along with calendar notes such as 'on this day in 1235 the bishop of Bath and Wells spontaneously combusted due to overindulgence in pickled mushrooms'; which is probably not that helpful to terrorists. Or anybody, really. Possibly bishops.

Someone should issue an urban almanac: Sept. 5th: Christmas crap appears in supermarkets. Jan 3rd: Hot Cross Buns. June 4th: Back to Skool special!

#57 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 06:12 PM:

And as a postscript to what Claude said: I believe it's Bruce Schneier who commented that virtually no encryption key is invulnerable to Rubber Hose cryptography.

#58 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 06:27 PM:

Lexicographically speaking, let me clarify "almanac." But first, an anecdote:

Noah Webster, the famous lexicographer, was once found by his wife while he was kissing [or, alternatively, undressing] the cook [or maid] in the pantry. The wife said, "Noah, I am surprised at your action!" To which he replied, "No, YOU are amazed and offended, dear. WE are surprised..."

As I wrote long ago in the "Authors 'A' page of The Ultimate Science Fiction Web Guide (where I often throw in a non-author encyclopedia entry among the 9,000+ authors listed)

Almanac: [Arabic origin obscure]: medieval Latin word for a calendar of days and months with astronomical information and whatever else the authors/editors wanted to stick in, which sometimes verged on Science Fiction or Fantasy.

#59 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 06:29 PM:

Okay, here's complete workshop instructions on how to use a straddling checkerboard with an almanac or phonebook to create a pretty decent pencil-and-paper cipher. The straddling checkerboard was used by the Jesuits in the 16th c., while the combination of the straddling checkerboard and the tabular numerical data was used by Die Rote Kapelle during WWII, transmitting Nazi military information from Berlin to Moscow.

Here's how to work it.

First, make up your straddling checkerboard.


With this cipher you have the most frequent letters in the top row, which has no number to its left. Any letter found in this row will only have one number associated with it. Numbers from the next two rows are designated with two numbers, the first of which is always a 1 or a 2. (Note: you can arrange the numbers any way you please, and changing them (and the exact letters in the grid) daily is a good idea).

So: To make FRED IS HERE into cipher text:

16 8 3 15 9 0 18 3 8 3

16831 59018 38371

(In five-character groups, with nulls added to fill up the final group.)

When decrypting, go through and find every 1 or 2. Circle it and the number that follows it. Those will be your letters that are formed from two-numeral coordinates. Any number not preceded by a 1 or 2 is one of the top-row letters. (Advantages of this cipher include the fact that unlike normal checkerboards, the length of the message isn't doubled. Another advantage is that sometimes a numeral contains all the information about what the plaintext letter it represents is, sometimes it only contains half the information.)

So you have your ciphertext. Now you take a large set of random numbers (your one-time pad, your almanac, your phone book) and add them to the ciphertext using non-carrying addition.

16831 59018 38371 Ciphertext.
13446 27022 58334 56034... key.

29277 76030 86605 Final Ciphertext.

Now, we need to tell our correspondent where the key starts. So: Pretend that I have a pair of agent numbers, and they're 18181 and 46979 (the bad guys will only find these out by finding me, then using drugs, money, or rubber hoses to learn it). This key is from a phone book. I start on a certain page, in this case 093 with entry number of 87 (the 87th listing on the page, starting at top left). I'm using only the last four digits of each phone number I come to, skipping boxed display ads.

I add my numbers to the page and line numbers, to the day, month, and year:

18181 46979 Agent numbers
09387 09387 Page and line
31123 31123 Date

48581 76389 Keyblocks

These are inserted in the message in prearranged places (for the example, I'll use second from the start and second from the end):

29277 48581 76030 76389 86605 Cipher As transmitted.

Now, we have a couple of special characters in the grid: . and / . is the period, the full stop. Used to end sentences. / is the letter/mumber shift. When you have to send numbers, you put in the shift symbol, then place each digit thrice. When you shift back to letters, you do a shift symbol again. Thus:

CONTACT FRED ON 103.67 KHZ would be rendered

CONTACT FRED ON /111000333/./666777/ KHZ

14674 51441 68315 67211 11000 33321 22216 66777 10182 01327 (with nulls).

Key (begins page 129 line 12):

3127 6647 3611 3692 5045 3416 3814 4603 6560 3519 3128 3599 2213


18181 46979
12912 12912
31123 31123

51116 89904

Finished text:

45840 51116 15177 79674 82256 45138 37781 58776 91860 22917 89904 90548

A few more notes:

Carry everything (except the almanac or phone book or what-may-have-you) in your head. Only reconstruct the keys (from memory) when you are actually enciphering or deciphering.

When you're working, use single sheets of paper (don't put one sheet on top of another, don't use a pad of paper). Put the key on one sheet, the plaintext on a second sheet, and the ciphertext on a third sheet. Plaintext, key, and ciphertext are never to be on the same sheet of paper. Never!

Immediately after you finish ciphering, burn the plaintext and ciphertext sheets. Stir the ashes.

Avoid electronic communications whenever possible.

Assume that the method you're using is known, and that the only thing protecting your information is the key. Assume at least one member of your group is a spy. Everything goes strictly on a need-to-know basis.

If a member of your group is captured, change all your keys immediately.

#60 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 08:17 PM:

My system is simpler. Create a group of equations. A group of ten will be enough. One equation might be X+Y=result. Another might be X times Y= result. What is important is that each of the equations in the group must result in a two digit number or each must result in a three-digit result. The sample equations I used here as an example are not real. Those require a little work to prepare properly, but those are actually quite easy for anyone who graduated high school algebra with at least a C grade.

X will be the character that you want encrypted. Y will come from the key phrase. The key phrase can be a password sentence you construct or it can come from some other source provided you have a secure means of transferring the key phrase separately.

At this point, substitute a value for each character in the key phrase. You can keep it simple by using the ASCII values since I designed it originally using a computer. Consequently, if the key value is a sentence of forty characters, then you will use the group of equations four times before you return to the beginning of the key. If you're encrypting the letter B and your first key value is an A, you would substitute the ASCII value for B in the X position of your equation and the ASCII value for A in the Y position of your equation. Do the calculation with those values. Record the result. Now do the second letter of the message. Assuming that it's an E, you would substitute the ASCII value for E in the X position of the second equation and the ASCII value of the second character from your key phrase in the Y position. You would then calculate the results of that equation and record the result. If the next character is a space, do the same thing. Substitute the ASCII value for a space in the X position of the third equation and substitute the ASCII value from the third position of the key phrase into the Y position and calculate and record the results. When you reach the end of your group of equations, restart with the first equation. The same thing happens with the key phrase. When you reach the end of it, go back to the beginning of the key phrase. If one of the two is an odd amount, that will strengthen the results because it will make different values appear in the same equations for Y which means that even if the letter A should be encrypted twice within the same message by the first equation, the calculated result stands a better chance of being different. Likewise, this takes care of repeated letters such as in MOON where there are two Os. Since each O would be calculated by a different equation, the results will probably be different. This strength can also cause two different letters to appear to be a repeated letter when different equations come up with identical results. Because the results from every equation is either a double-digit or triple-digit number, there's no need to wonder where the code separates. However, since the numbers are listed sequentially without any breaks, it presents no clue as to which kind of result was created. When the recipient receives the code, he already has the key. He now has the results. He plugs the values into a reverse set of equations and out comes the clear text.

YES, there are some other stipulations that I'm not listing such as how does the recipient know which key phrase to use if he has a list? Or, how does he know whether to break the results into two-digit or three-digit groupings (which could vary from recipient to recipient)? All I'm giving are some of the basics for creating a very strong code that does not create patterns because even the spaces and punctuation are coded and everything is run together as a single very long integer. Yes, I created a computer program that used this technique and it worked very well for both encryption and decryption.

#61 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 09:20 PM:

Dave, it looks like you've independently reinvented the Vigenere cipher. The general solution has been known since the middle of the nineteenth century.

#62 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 09:27 PM:

Dave Kuzminski:

doesn't it matter that not all such equations give equally distributed probabilities of various 2-digit and 3-digit combinations?

Thus, the output at each step does not have the Zipf's Law kind of power law distribution of about 30% of 2-digit and 3-digit combinations starting with "1" and so forth?

Isn't failure to have pseudorandom distributions a guarantee that there is still some structure for cryptographers to chew on?

Sorry, it's a LONG time since I did the Finite Field math and Galois Theory used in crypto, as well as being one of the very first to code Public Key Cryptography on a PC (namely a Processor Technology Sol-20 in 1976, as I demo'd with Ted Nelson and Mark Miller at the world's First Personal Computer Conference, in Philadelphia).

#63 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 09:28 PM:

First I've heard of that cipher. I read one of those pocket books for children when I was a child that showed how to make tic-tac-toe types of codes and a few others, but nothing with more depth than that. All I knew was that patterns were highly instrumental in breaking codes (learned that from WWII movies) and that any code worth its while would deal with that problem. Nice to know I didn't invent something new so that I shouldn't expect the nice government men to show up and escort me to a special house.

#64 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 09:40 PM:

Just did an Internet search and found a site with an excellent description of that method. You're right. Mine is almost identical. My method just uses math to derive a table like that method used and I go just a bit farther in applying it to all punctuation, including spaces, though I can see that wouldn't make much difference to anyone trying to break the code. It would still create some repetitions if the key phrase is short enough. My program allowed a key phrase up to 255 characters long. That might have made a small difference, but I doubt if it would really be significant in the long run.

#65 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 10:41 PM:

What might be of interest in this context is Between Silk and Cyanide, subtitled A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945, by Leo Marks. Mr. Marks worked for MI8 during WW2, as a cryptographer, and faced a number of practical problems with regard to basic communications between agents and HQ. The title of the book refers to an interview he had with a government person wherein he convinced that person that reams of silk, in extremely short supply and absolutely necessary for parachutes, should be allocated to his department as the material on which cyphers were printed. The argument he put forth was that either they use silk, or they continue to have a large proportion of agents suiciding due to being compromised.

He writes well-- it's a real page-turner-- about the various methods they used to ensure security of their communications, and a key factor in all was imagination. The foundation of their system was "poem-codes", where the agents memorized not just standard poetry, but also composed their own. Everyone in the office was writing poetry, to provide fodder for the encryptions.

They made use of one-time pads as well, but it appears from this account that those were difficult to implement over an on-going series of communications, where an agent is in place over several weeks or months, and expected to make regular reports. Using a one-time pad system would mean talking back to the agent, in order to set up each translation, and such contacts from HQ tended over time to compromise the agent.

The beauty of the poem-code system lay in its unpredictibility. English is a language peculiarly suited to writing doggerel, which lends itself to being memorized by a native speaker, but which is so much noise to the non-native speaker. So the agents could write and memorize yards of this stuff, not found in any standard reference or publication, and use it to create encrypted reports. The home office, having a copy of the doggerel on file, would then be able to decrypt it in a reasonable space of time.

#66 ::: Virge ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 10:54 PM:

Terrorist fish now.

I think I need to start work on a SATI program (Search for Anti-Terrorist Intelligence).

#67 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: December 31, 2003, 11:51 PM:

Along the same lines, a shopping mall in New Jersey has eliminated its "mall walkers" program, where up to a thousand people (mostly senior citizens) could come to the mall several hours before the stores opening, and get some walking exercise in a controlled, safe environment.

The program was eliminated as an anti-terrorism action.

Gotta watch out for them geezers!

#68 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2004, 02:01 AM:

This whole thread has pissed me off. I am now sorely wishing that we HAD elected John Ashcroft as our governor. At least he'd have been sheltered away from doing all the har he is doing. We just would have bourne all the strife he could have commited on our state.....

#69 ::: PDM ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2004, 07:59 AM:

Let's investigate Beatles fans next----after all, John Lennon once said they were bigger than Jesus!!!!

#70 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2004, 10:02 AM:

Pericat, if the SF community ever needs to run a spy operation, the number of people in it who know all the poems in Bored of the Rings, and every song ever written by Monty Python or Tom Lehrer, is going to be handy.

#71 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2004, 12:02 PM:

Can't recommend Between Silk and Cyanide highly enough. Alas, Leo Marks died last year -- so it's his literary swan-song. (NB: based upon a close reading of it, there is no evidence to support the supposition that Marks was, in fact, a Fascist Octopus.)

#72 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2004, 12:12 PM:

Hm... So long, Mom! I'm off to drop Tom Bombadil, so don't wait up for me.

This could work.

#73 ::: Kayjay ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2004, 04:33 PM:

How was silk important for the cyphers?

(I'm probably missing something blindling obvious.)

#74 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2004, 06:01 PM:

Kayjay, you're not missing anything. The silk was important because poem-code has its drawbacks and Marks was among those working to institute an alternative, a more secure one. Its drawback as well as its strength was that it could not be memorized, so the agents would have to go into the field with part of the codes written down on something. Marks wanted to use silk since, "Silk itself was easy to cut, easy to burn and easy to camouflage. If the Gestapo or Vichy police ran their hands over an agent's clothing during a random street search, silk sewn into the lining could not be detected."

#75 ::: Karen Junker ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2004, 06:41 PM:

It's so hard to say au revoir, so let's just say hors d' ouvre'...

#76 ::: Captain America ::: (view all by) ::: January 01, 2004, 08:58 PM:

What took the FBI so long?

Consider the following from page 2 of The Washington Post:

FBI spokesman Ed Cogswell said the bulletin was meant to provide general information to local police and was not the result of a specific threat. It does not refer to any specific cases involving almanacs. But investigators have said that during a search of the apartment of alleged al Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, they found an almanac with bookmarked pages on major U.S. dams, rivers, reservoirs and railroads.

A quick web search will tell you that al-Marri was arrested in "late 2001." One can presume his apartment was searched at the time. Why do you suppose it took 2 years to pass this vital information on to the rest of the law enforcement community?

Otherwise not much to add to TNH's excellent commentary. It's nice to see such a strong world-wide reaction to this story.

Best headline so far (IMHO) belongs to The Globe and Mail: "Drop that Alamanac and Put Your Hands Up!

#77 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2004, 01:24 AM:

There was one year that I took a highlighter pen to my World Almanac -- my home copy, not the library's -- and marked all the rivers, bridges, tall buildings, etc., that are in this tri-state area (western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and eastern Ohio) or that I'd been to. Didn't mean anything by it except curiosity and local pride. For instance, we seem to have in our area at least one of almost every kind of bridge there is except drawbridges.

When I heard about this bulletin, that's what came to mind. But that's the glory of lists of raw facts like that -- something for everyone, and different people can make or unmake of it as they will.

The FBI would have fun with my almanacs. I also have been known to mark such things as World Series, Super Bowls, and Stanley Cups won by the local pro sports teams, dates of Easter (both western and Orthodox), solstices and equinoxes, birthdays of some of my favorite celebrities (or celebrities with the good taste to have the same birthday as I do), the formula for "correcting" rise/set times for our area, and the perpetual calendar, which is one of the pages I use most. Not sure what use it would be, even in an FBI agent's most feverish imagination, for a terrorist to know that the Pirates won the 1960 World Series, but it's one of my favorite memories. (Sorry, Yankees fans. I rooted for your guys last year, though.)

#78 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2004, 03:02 AM:

Ed Cogswell! Maybe that was Ted Cogswell, and the Institute for Twenty-First Century Studies is alive and well -- we'll have to look to the next entry of the proceedings to find out!

#79 ::: Elric ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2004, 08:19 AM:

Maybe they should also expand to cover another way all those terrorists could find out about events in an area, what might attract crowds of wealthy and influential people, and what buildings are significant. Toss in details about food supplies, public transit, and maybe even the utility grid, and it's obvious: all those newspapers are far too dangerous.

How do I get a security bulletin issued? Or could that also give sensitive information to the Great Enemy?

#80 ::: Dan ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2004, 04:00 PM:

There's actually nothing new about almanac paranoia; this item is reported in the history section of the Old Farmer's Almanac site:

In 1942 a German spy was apprehended by the FBI after being landed on Long Island, New York, by a U-boat the night before. The impact of this event was felt all the way to Dublin, New Hampshire, because The Old Farmer's Almanac was found in his coat pocket. The U.S. government speculated that the Germans were using the Almanac for weather forecasts, which meant that the book was indirectly supplying information to the enemy.

Fortunately, Sagendorph managed to get the government to agree that there would be no violation of the "Code of Wartime Practices for the American Press" if the Almanac featured weather indications rather than forecasts. It was a close call that almost ruined the Almanac's perfect record of continuous publication.

#81 ::: michael dunkley ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2004, 05:07 PM:

(and furthermore, why would anyone go to all that trouble to smuggle 42 euros into the States?)

because the way things are going, that would be a fortune in d'oillars.

could this almanac affair be due to spelling issues?
perhaps they meant 'allah-maniac'!
now someone chip in to tell me that there really is a connection......
in italian the word for anger is 'rabbia'; we can all see the easy etymological link to rabies, but there is another one that comes to mind, especially when i see footage of mullah-whipped crowds frothing for the head of salman rushdie, or denouncing the great satan.....
to be angry is to be 'arrabiato', or in other words: 'arabed'
is the rage genetic?
arab horses are jumpier and more nervous than other breeds.
not PC to think this way, i know, but i can't help it.
it's scary sometimes to think of so many people who hate you that you don't even know.
discaimer: i know i'm not racist, (bin there, bin laden) and have to hope that others do not misunderstand my tongue-in-cheek attempts at humour..
newbie to your site, very enjoyable. muchos gracias.
i noticed on your blogroll that the black commentator was not mentioned. i highly recommend it, if you don't know about it already. some of the best writing around, imnsvhi.
happy.....fill in the blank!

#82 ::: Eric Mayer ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2004, 07:53 PM:

"...high-resolution terrain maps..."

Please don't give them ideas. First thing I wondered when I saw the story was how long it'll take for someone to get paranoid about orienteering maps which show details down to boulders and are typically of public parklands.

#83 ::: James J. Murray ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2004, 08:56 PM:

Having spent two weeks before Xmas reading "Cryptonomicon" and "Quicksilver," (one week per 900 pages) I can recommend them very highly to anyone interested in cryptography. I am in awe of Stephenson's ability to present so much information of such a deeply mathematical nature in such an entertaining manner.

#84 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2004, 09:24 PM:

James J. Murray:

Shouldn't you explain to "the Joy of Stitch" thread of this blog about how the heroine of "Quicksilver" cross-stitches an encrypted diary filled with espionage information (albeit in an imaginary language from an imaginary island/nation)? Or have most of these readers already known that?

#86 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2004, 07:51 AM:

oooohh ... So that's why I keep getting into trouble when I go for the pasta al'arrabiata at my local Italian place.

#87 ::: Kim Wells ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2004, 05:50 PM:

On the "customs/Canada crossing" comment-- I went to New York to give a speech about women writers-- including such radical anarchists as Virginia Woolf and Louisa May Alcott. I stayed in Canada (to see Niagara falls! duh!) and when I said I was there to give a speech (in New York, not Canada) the customs guy had a bit of a fit and gave me a third degree. At first, silly me, I thought he was just interested. Wow. I'm so clever that they want to know what my speech is on. Smug. But then I realized, after he asked me if I were handing out any pamphlets, that he was worried I was some sort of rabble-rouser.

So, the thing I take from these two fairly similar experiences is that if you have a job that involves anything remotely "different" just say you're a tourist. That oughta cover it. :) They must have had a memo about crazy people infiltrating through smarty-pants activities.

And I taught all my freshman writers one year about almanacs-- I really wish law enforcement would realize it's not the information and the reference that's dangerous. "Books don't kill people; people do."

#88 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2004, 03:11 AM:

Teresa: There's an interview with Kevin Seabrooke in the current issue of U.S. News and World Report. One good thing about this flap is that it's giving the World Almanac a lot of free publicity.

Kim: Your sentiment is echoed -- in slightly pithier, more bumpersticker-friendly form -- in this article from the American Library Association's own magazine: 93Almanacs don92t kill: People do.94 (I see I neglected to put a link to this when I mentioned it on my LJ yesterday. Must fix.)

Kevin Seabrooke is also quoted here: "in the January 2 Baltimore Sun [he noted] that everything in his publication is public information available online and in public libraries. 'In fact,' he added, 'the government is our biggest single supplier of information.'94

#89 ::: Denis Moser ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2004, 11:18 AM:

Hehehe...they can have my almanac when they pry of my cold, dead hands!

#90 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2004, 05:09 PM:

Kim, if you'd said "giving a talk" you might have had less of a problem. 'Speech' tends to mean a political speech, at least in the places I've been in the US. The academic one is either a 'talk' or a 'lecture'.

So he reacted out of his understanding of the word 'speech', which in his dialect (and mine) is almost always political (well, except when it's theatre jargon).

#91 ::: nerdycellist ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2004, 05:40 PM:

My Archivist friend had started to tell people she was a Librarian, since most people who were outside her circle of good friends and colleagues had never heard the term. I, on the other hand, ceased explaining to people that the Cello was "a large violin" when I was 9.

But back to the politics and paranoia at hand...

At this point, she is doubtful that "Librarian" would be seen as less dangerous to the Customs/DHS.

So the question is - if we "dumb ourselves down" to sound less suspicious, does the truth become inherently more suspicious? For example, if every Librarian who goes through customs states that they're a tourist, do the remaining Librarians who don't know the "code" seem even more exotic (read: dangerous) by their rarity?

#92 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2004, 11:42 AM:

Although I don't have any head at all for numbers, I am fascinated by cryptography. My husband and I both enjoyed "The Code Book" by Simon Singh, which covers codes from Greek and Roman times to quantum cryptography, and even had a picture of an Enigma machine. (I read the description in Cryptonomicon several times, but it made no sense to me, but seeing the picture helped.)

Upon finishing the book my husband commented that in the future when he captures enemies, he'll make sure to shave their heads, to search for secret messages.

#93 ::: Sean ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2004, 04:59 PM:

I'm a little concerned about the"tour guide" that you mention in our post, Teresa. Sleeper cells of Islamicists may very well be giving tours of the famous mob hits in Little Italy while planning something very, very, evil and almanacish.

#94 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 17, 2004, 12:42 AM:

Uh-oh. Go round up Bill Wagner.

#95 ::: Jonathan Shaw finds comment spam ::: (view all by) ::: August 29, 2004, 11:14 PM:

Is this how to notify this stuff?

#96 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2004, 10:14 AM:

Jonathan: looks pretty good to me.

#97 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2004, 01:10 PM:

Oh dear. Just noticed the sad news about Leo Marks, who I remember hearing interviewed recently (last year?). Perhaps it was a repeated show.

I only managed to read Between Silk and Cyanide last month after being interested in it for some while. Had been impressed, given a copy to a friend, etc.
Was considering sending letter of appreciation. Looks like I'll have to write it, then burn it to send the message to The Other Side, according to some traditions, now.

#98 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: August 30, 2004, 02:27 PM:

At least it's the right day for burning such tributes.


Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.