Newsletter: 10th June 2019

Crypto-Sutra Edition

Cryptography as a weapon, as fiction, and as a lifestyle choice

Press Any Key!

For the last five weeks I’ve been doing a writing course, called Write of Passage. Ironically, it has slowed down the rate I post stuff to my blog. I’m hoping it’s because my standards are higher. The final piece of writing I did for the course is The Laptop Luftwaffe, the long-promised and much-delayed piece on cyberwarfare.

The thesis is that the shift from explosive power to computing power is as big as the shift from swords to gunpowder. I take a stab at what that change might mean but, “it’s tough to make predictions,” as Yogi Berra noted, “especially about the future.”

Writing is a type of thinking. The reason I write about the way technology is changing the world is not because I know the answer but because I want to know and writing about it is part of the discovery process. Feedback is part of that process too, so if any of these articles spark curiosity, further research, or disbelief at how wrong I am, please reply.

In the meantime, press any key to continue…


A Race Against Time

This morning I finished the second book in Quicksilver, the first volume of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. The series is a sprawling monster of a story, set at the birth of the modern world. The frame for the story is the battle between Newton and Leibniz and it covers computation, cryptography, gold, plague, alchemy, wars, and slavery. It’s populated by kings, puritans, pirates, and vagabonds. Reviews have varied from “magnificent” to “ridiculous” and I love it.

Stephenson has a new book, Fall, or Dodge in Hell, out. I was hoping to get through the Baroque Cycle before Fall arrived but, at a nightstand-busting 3000 pages, it was never going to happen.


One of the less likely-sounding pieces of press for Fall is this one from Reason: If We Told You Neal Stephenson Invented Bitcoin, Would You Be Surprised? Er, yes, I would, but not because he couldn’t. He’s probably too busy smashing out the next thousand-page epic.

The Crypto-Sutra

The Kama Sutra isn’t all eroticism, despite what you may have seen carved into the pillars of Hindu temples. It contains advice on all aspects of good living and contains a list of the arts and sciences to be studied by all men and women. Number 44 on the list is mlecchita vikalpa, or “the art of understanding writing in cypher.” Cryptography isn’t just for princes and generals, it’s for anyone who wants to live the good life.


Everyone should be able to leave saucy notes for their lovers without the neighbours reading over their shoulders, which is why mlecchita vikalpa makes it into the top-64 life skills list. As a society we have laws respecting confidentiality between patients and doctors and clients and lawyers. When we sent letters through the post, we use envelopes; we don’t write everything on postcards.

We also expect our financial dealings to remain private. Number 36 on the Kama Sutra’s essential arts and sciences list is “knowledge about gold and silver coins.” I can’t promise to help you with dancing, sword-fighting, or teaching parrots to speak – a Neal Stephenson book is where you go for that sort of variety – but this newsletter will at times cover both money and writing in cypher, two essential life skills for the price of one.

Grab an acidulated drink or spirituous extract with proper flavour and colour (life skill #24) and join me.

Thanks for reading,


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