The recent kerfuffle about a nuclear power station brought this trip, from 2013, to mind. It’s just south of it. The area marked as “Settlement” in the ordnance survey map is an ancient town. (Likely pre-Saxon and pre-Roman) This small village, not far from Bristol, has a long history, even by English standards.

It’s a nice walk, there’s a pub in the village (which we didn’t sample, unfortunately). 2013 was hot, much hotter and drier than 2016, so there weren’t as many nice pictures to take. Brown grass on a earthwork, even an ancient earthwork, is brown grass. Simply not photogenic.

DSC_0881 The shade by Saint Arilda’s Church was a welcome relief from the hot sun. The church, itself, is on a hill just to the south of the village. It’s something of a conundrum why there isn’t a castle ruin, because it’s an obvious place to put a defensive structure. The church community, in typical English fashion, was having a sale of used books, CD’s and nicknacks. It sat on the side of the road, and was on the honour system. I picked up a CD of bagpipe music to play in the car when the bairns misbehave.
DSC_0890 The view from the church toward the nuclear power plant.





The Severn bridge is in the distance.

On Poodle Byng. #regency #amwriting

Frederick Gerald Finch Byng (AKA Poodle) makes an appearance in two books I’m working on. I’m searching for a publisher for, The art of deception, and the other, A formulaic romance, is nearing a complete first draft.

It’s sort of fun to search for historical information about him. There are three different stories about how he got the sobriquet Poodle. The most likely one is that Georgiana the Duchess of Devonshire gave it to him when he was courting her. Given what I can find about his character, he probably was a very dogged suitor and sat there like an expectant puppy. He treated the name with good humour and went everywhere with a dog. Unfortunately the dog’s name is lost to history, and the one drawing I’ve found doesn’t look like a poodle.

He worked for the foreign office, and after the deaths of his daughters became very interested in sewers. (He was actually a member of the Westminster Commission of Sewers.) My guess is that they died from a water-borne illness.

He seduced, made pregnant, and then (after she survived childbirth) married Catherine Neville. Catherine was his mother’s maid. She was not liked by London society. In fact, it was referred to as his great sacrifice. This makes it very difficult to find much about her. Although apparently she and Poodle were a good match. Both were prone to say inappropriate things at awkward times. It’s just that as a nobleman he was forgiven.

It was only London “high” society that shunned her. There are references to her and him visiting Paris and being entertained by French nobility. (Of course you can never tell with these foreigners ;-> ) They gave small dinner parties for friends, most of whom were members of society. Thomas Creevey says in his memoir that he could not give countenance to “such tits”, but went along for the company.

Occasionally you’ll find a reference to “a daughter who died soon after they were married.” Actually there were two, Elizabeth (1817-1827) and Frederica (1819-1831).

Oliver the spy.

Historical Research.

I pride myself on being reasonably accurate in my historical fiction. I say reasonably, because I do make mistakes, but never intentionally. It’s quite hard, indeed impossible, to get it right – the way it really was. Simply because there was no ‘the way it was’ and everyone’s experience was their own. The documentation is also contradictory and has to be used with caution.

As an aside, many things that people think are ‘mistakes’ are actually correct – Sir William Knighton, Doctor to the King and the Ton, almost certainly had what could best be described as a poor understanding of disease, physiology and health. So you probably would be better off with a boy scout who has just passed 1st class first aid than the ‘best’ doctor of the age. And, yes, you could get from Bath to London in a day in 1810 – though you did stop to change horses at every stage (roughly every hour).

Those snide comments aside, how do you get it right?

The answer is research.

I’ve been writing a work, set in 1816, later than most of my recent work. Napoleon has been vanquished completely, banished to St. Helena and all is right in the world. Well, no. England, without the stimulus spending of the war, and in the throes of the first industrial revolution, is in dire straits. The government structure is mired in a mixture of medieval and Georgian incompetence. In other words, time was ripe for a revolution.
It really was ripe for reform, where radical ideas like one-man one vote were past due. (Even one propertied man one vote, saying nothing about one-woman one vote).

Unfortunately the government did not like this idea. Not one little tiny bit. And so they came up with an idea that was worthy of a conspiracy theory that would make the speculation about JFK’s assassination or our president’s birth certificate look like pikers. They would use agents to start rebellions, crush the rebellions with military force (had to do something with those soldiers, you know) and use that as an excuse to enact Draconian legislation.

Enter William J Richards or William Oliver. Better known as Oliver the spy. After being released from debtor’s prison, he spent the spring of 1817 travelling around the midlands, setting a pace that would be hard to do with an automobile today, and hitting every reform meeting he could. (When he didn’t stop at Sir John Byng’s regiment to arrange for backup and keep the authorities informed.) Eventually he struck gold, and fomented the Pentridge (Pentrich) rebellion. Oliver was a bit lucky here, had the leader of the Pentridge rebellion been in Nottingham the week before, he would have known Oliver was a spy. It, of course, was crushed – by the 15th Hussars (of Peterloo fame) – and the ring leaders duly hung or transported.

It and related events allowed Parliament to pass the ‘six  acts’ in 1819. Laws that restricted assembly, freedom of speech and other things we take for granted. Even when the laws were vaguely sensible, they had nasty features such as eliminating the need for a search warrant.

The preamble, quoted below, says it all.

 every meeting for radical reform is an overt act of treasonable conspiracy against the King and his government

Thrilling times.

The featured image shows his signed deposition.

Upon Shark #poem

Robert Herrick, 1591 – 1674

Shark, when he goes to any publick feast,
Eates to ones thinking, of all there, the least.
What saves the master of the House thereby?
When if the servants search, they may descry
In his wide Codpeece, (dinner being done)
Two Napkins cram’d up, and a silver Spoone.

Robert Herrick is better known for the line “Gather thee rosebuds while ye may.” He wrote many more poems and some, like this one, are biting. (pun intended) I wonder who “Shark” is, but could imagine were they English any of the three musketeers doing this to raise the money for drink.

Training the Next Generation

My day job involves warping, um teaching young minds the art of computer programming. Every now and then I get to slip in something fun.

This assignment is one where the students do a completely automated decryption of what was up until well after WW2 a state of the art cryptosystem.  While I did weaken it a little (a short key rather than a very long one), the linearity of the cipher is a fundamental weakness. More than a few of the students did the whole project, and at least one found it pretty cool. Cool enough to think about working for one of those un-nameable three letter agencies.

The basic techniques were used at Bletchley Park both for Enigma and Lorenz.


Although largely by hand (until they built the machines) in small dark offices like this one. (Turing’s). Could you do it?

Assignment 8


due November 5 2015

Another encryption assignment

  1. Vernam Encryption Write a program in C that will encrypt a file use XOR and a Vernam key. A Vernam key is a short string. (The real system used a much longer random sequence.) Read the input at low level, as binary data (hint unsigned char is useful here.) Then xor each character in the binary data with the character in the key. When you get to the end of the key reuse the key from the beginning.

The program should take command line arguments for the key, input and output.

./vern abc input.clear output.encrypted

Note that the cipher should decrypt its own output. The command:

./vern abc output.encrypted input.clear

should recover the original input. If you use open to create the output file, you may want to also set O RDWR or O WRONLY as well as O CREAT. You could also use fread and fwrite for this problem.

  1. Finding the period

This cipher is vulnerable if the key repeats, and with a short key, like abc above, it will repeat many times for any reasonably sized input.

The incidence of coincidence slides the cipher along itself and counts the number of times the same symbol is seen.

ABCABCABC            count is 9

ABCABCABC then shift 1 ABCABCABC        count is 0

ABCABCABC then shift 2 ABCABCABC      count is 0

ABCABCABC then shift 3 ABCABCABC    count is 6


Clearly the period is 3.

Write the code to do that. The file classcipher.vrn is in my directory for this.

  1. EXTRA CREDIT The character ’ ’ (space) is most common in English text. After finding the period count the most common character for each period and recover the key by XOR’ing it with ’ ’.

Nondescript, but vitally important 70 years ago.

A few pictures, no words

Why was it so important?

DSC_0345 DSC_0302
DSC_0319 DSC_0317
DSC_0323 DSC_0306
DSC_0303 DSC_0304

There’s a literary connection as well a the computer science one.