Non-Fiction

Missing the Dark Satanic Mills

16 September 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

Practically from the start of industrial manufacturing, gawkers appeared to marvel at the sight. The cotton mills of sooty Manchester were an obligatory stop for every clued-in visitor to that city. In the summer of 1915, Henry Ford’s Highland Park factory in Michigan, the first with a continuous assembly line, drew three to four hundred visitors a day. So prominent a feature of the industrial landscape were factory tourists that Diego Rivera painted them into his mural sequence Detroit Industry (1932–1933). In one panel, the throngs at Ford’s River Rouge plant (young, old, women, men, Dick Tracy among them) look on, their mouths downturned, as the line of chassis—pierced by steering wheels and ministered to by bent-over, jumpsuited workers—rolls by. In 1971, 243,000 people visited River Rouge. Later that decade, the Commerce Department’s USA Plant Visits, 1977–78, a compendium of factories that offered tours, ran to 153 pages.

Although American manufacturing output today is near a historic high, the percentage of manufacturing jobs drifted steadily downward in the decades after World War II, and then in 2000 plunged sharply. Factories currently employ less than 8 percent of the American workforce, a consequence of offshoring as well as automation. Perhaps because there is not much romance in watching robots go about their day, the factory tour pickings are now more meager. In the Chicago area in the 1960s, you could have seen how steel, furniture, newspapers, pottery, automobile parts, hosiery, and, yes, sausages were made. Today, the only factory tours left in the city are epicurean: craft distilleries, artisanal chocolateries, and a popcorn factory. If you want to have a look at manufacturing of the Make-America-Great-Again variety in Illinois, you will need to drive nearly two and a half hours to Moline, where the John Deere company, headquartered there since 1848, still provides free tours of the harvester works.

With nostalgia for manufacturing jobs now thoroughly weaponized in American politics, Joshua Freeman’s Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World is timely. Freeman, a historian of American labor and the author of American Empire, the Penguin history of the post–World War II United States, takes as his subject huge factories, the behemoths of his title: River Rouge; the Soviet steel complex Magnitogorsk, east of the Urals; and China’s Foxconn City, with its hundreds of thousands of workers, arguably the largest factory ever in operation. Focusing on these giants, Freeman suggests, reveals what happens when concentrated production and economies of scale are taken to the showiest extreme. It also helps to explain the hold that factories have had on the imagination over the past 250 years: the promise (largely delivered on) that industrialization would lift billions out of poverty, competing with the fears (also realized) that it would wreck the environment and sharpen social conflicts.

. . . .

The rise of the factory was the consequence of three interrelated developments: machinery that was so large or expensive that production could not be carried out at home, technological expertise that similarly exceeded the capacity of the individual household, and entrepreneurs who wished to directly supervise their workers. By the time factories appeared in Lancashire and the East Midlands, the transition to an industrial economy was already underway, and the task of making sense of this new system of manufactures fell first to the British. The perils were apparent: the exploitation of child labor and the thick forest of chimneys pumping out smoke and gasses, the filth of the overcrowded cities and the subjugation of workers to new forms of discipline that critics likened to slavery.

But just as obvious was the wonder. It was not simply about the goods produced—a quantity of textiles measured in miles rather than yards—but the factories themselves, of which Joseph Wright’s 1783 painting of Richard Arkwright’s cotton mills at night provides a glimpse. Outshining the moon in Wright’s picture is the factory, each one of its rectangular, symmetrical windows ablaze, a scene of harmonious, heavenly creation in the Derwent Valley. To describe what they were seeing, writers pressed far-fetched metaphors into service: Robert Southey thought the new factories looked like convents, Alexis de Tocqueville called them “huge palaces,” while Charles Dickens, describing the steam engine, likened its pistons to “the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness” and the smoke it produced to “monstrous serpents.”

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

When he was much younger, PG enjoyed factory tours. His favorite was probably the printing plant of a couple of large Chicago newspapers. Lots of moving machinery, huge rolls of paper and streams of uncut newspapers going all over the place. And some of the press workers wore little caps made from folded newspaper.

His tour through a large meat processing plant was less edifying, although that’s where the beef and pork many people enjoy is produced.

One summer, he worked in a small soft drink bottling factory and it was pretty boring.

 

The dark history of our obsession with productivity

12 September 2018

From Fast Company:

You know it’s bad when you start typing “obsession with” in the Google search bar and the first auto-completion prompt is “productivity.”
As workers, we are obsessed with getting stuff done. No wonder there seems to be a bottomless well of advice, filled with evangelists, gurus, and thought leaders proferring hacks, tools, tricks, and secrets to help us pack more output into the waking hours of our workdays. Productivity software alone accounts for an $82 billion market, according to IBISWorld research.

But where, exactly, did this lust for wringing greater efficiency from every possible second originate?

. . . .

There’s no definitive source, but we start to see historical mentions of productivity in that classic economics text Wealth of Nations, written by Adam Smith in 1776. In it, Smith contended that there were two kinds of labor: productive and unproductive.

There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed; there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labor. Thus the labor of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing . . . A man grows rich by employing a multitude of manufacturers; he grows poor by maintaining a multitude of menial servants. The labor of the latter, however, has its value, and deserves its reward as well.

Benjamin Franklin, a contemporary of the Scottish economist with plenty of productivity theories of his own, put forth what might be considered the first “to-do” list in 1791. The productivity measure in Franklin’s list of tasks (wash, work, read, work, put things in their places) was less likely to be measured in hard numbers like Smith’s. Franklin’s assessment was simple: Start the day asking what good shall be done, and at the end of the day evaluate based on what was accomplished. Lofty, to be sure, but an interesting measure nevertheless.

. . . .

The notion of planning’s role in increasing productivity was enjoying a moment during the rumblings of the Industrial Revolution. A Boston Globe report reveals that by 1850, day planners were not only proliferating, their makers were making bank. An 1844 list of wealthy taxpayers shows that among the two Boston businessmen with $100,000 or more was a blank book manufacturer. Productivity became inexorably linked to the virtue of working hard at this time, too. Etiquette manuals of the era suggested that the daily planner was a means to self-improvement.

Although the 20th century was rocked by two World Wars and the Great Depression, productivity was a focal point for manufacturing of goods needed to support military efforts and later, to satisfy the demands of the U.S.’s growing middle class.

. . . .

So it was ripe for the rise of the earliest efficiency expert, an industrial engineer from Philadelphia named Frederick Winslow Taylor. Nicknamed Speedy Taylor, he would get himself a consulting gig with a company, observe its workers, and calculate how they could do their jobs faster (and then charge a hefty sum for the report).

. . . .

Let’s not forget Bill Smith, an engineer at Motorola who introduced Six Sigma in 1986 as “a disciplined, data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating defects (driving toward six standard deviations between the mean and the nearest specification limit) in any process–from manufacturing to transactional, and from product to service.”

According to Six Sigma, “Productivity is much more important than revenues and profits of the organization because profits only reflect the end result, whereas productivity reflects the increased efficiency as well as effectiveness of business policies and processes. Moreover, it enables a business to find out its strengths and weaknesses. It also lets the business easily identify threats as well as opportunities that prevail in the market as a result of competition and changes in business environment.”

. . . .

The thing is that in the frenzy to be more productive, we as a nation have become a little less so. Economist Robert Gordon of Northwestern University chalks this up to the fact that we are using methods and procedures that are over a decade old. He told the Atlantic, “We had a great revolution in the 1980s and ’90s as businesses transitioned from paper, typewriters, file cabinets to personal computers with spreadsheets, word-processing software. And then that revolution was accompanied in the 1990s by the internet, by free information through search engines, through e-commerce, and doing away with paper.”

. . . .

As Leila Hock points out: “It’s not hard work–work is work, and yes, some work requires more brain power, but most of us smart people like that and want more of it, so let’s stop calling it hard. Let’s call it productive. Effective. Valuable. Anything that speaks to nature over quantity, because that’s what we need more of.”

Link to the rest at Fast Company

Aquarius Rising

9 September 2018

From The New York Review of Books:

Certain years acquire an almost numinous quality in collective memory—1789, 1861, 1914. One of the more recent additions to the list is 1968. Its fiftieth anniversary has brought a flood of attempts to recapture it—local, national, and transnational histories, anthologies, memoirs, even performance art and musical theater. Immersion in this literature soon produces a feeling of déjà vu, particularly if one was politically conscious at the time (as I was).

Up to a point, repetition is inevitable. Certain public figures and events are inescapable: the tormented Lyndon Johnson, enmeshed in an unpopular, unwinnable war and choosing to withdraw from the presidential stage; the antiwar candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy; the intensifying moral challenges posed by Martin Luther King; the assassinations of King and Kennedy; the racially charged violence in most major cities; the police riot against antiwar protesters (and anyone else who got in their way) at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the emergence of right-wing candidates—George Wallace, Richard Nixon—appealing to a “silent majority” whose silence was somehow construed as civic virtue. And the anticlimactic election: the narrow defeat of Hubert Humphrey by Nixon, who promised to “bring us together” without specifying how.

What togetherness turned out to mean was an excruciating prolongation of the war in Vietnam, accompanied by an accelerating animosity toward dissent. The effort to satisfy the silent majority by exorcising the demons of 1968 would eventually lead to the resurgence of an interventionist military policy, the dismantling of what passed for a welfare state, and the prosecution of a “war on drugs” that would imprison more Americans than had ever been behind bars before.

Revisiting this story is important and necessary. But difficulties arise when one tries to identify who those demons actually were. The conventional accounts of radical protest all feature the usual suspects: Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd, Abbie Hoffman, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panthers, the Maoists, the Yippies, the devotees of Che. According to this narrative, nearly all the white protesters are privileged draft dodgers from a northern tier of universities that stretched from Cambridge and New York through Ann Arbor and Madison to Berkeley. As hopes for electing an antiwar president fade, they descend into pseudo-Marxist posturing and self-destructive fantasies of violent revolution. A few hapless Weathermen, sectarian spinoffs from the SDS, provide a coda to this story by blowing themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970.

This account provides a comforting balm for supporters of status quo politics, but it misses the larger meanings of radical protest—its pervasiveness, its heterogeneity, above all its religious roots and significance. The religious dimension of American radicalism was what separated it from the student uprisings in Paris and other European cities during the spring of 1968. American radicals lacked the anticlerical animus of Europeans; priests, rabbis, and ministers enlisted in the front ranks of the civil rights and antiwar movements. King’s decision to bear witness against the war was central to legitimating resistance to it, while provoking government counterattacks as well as denunciations from both liberals and conservatives.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

Perhaps he’s not accompanied by many, but for PG, 1968 was anything but numinous.

He could go on for a long time, but the end of the Johnson presidency and the beginning of the Nixon presidency, the death and mental destruction of friends in Vietnam did and do not give PG warm fuzzies. For him, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius seemed like a product of a drug-filled party that lasted too long and became really weird at the end.

But others remember the time differently.

840 new dictionary entries to help you speak better gen Z

4 September 2018

From Fast Company:

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has just added 840 new entriesto our ever-expanding language, including adorbs, Instagramming, rando, TL;DR, GOAT, Latinx, avo, bingeable, time suck, hangry, salty (as in, salty), bougie, and CBD. Basically, every word that you need to keep up a convo with the gen Z kiddos in your life—and generation Z was added to the dictionary, too.

There are also a bunch of new foodie terms to play in Scrabble, including guac, mocktails, zoodles, gochujang (that’s the Korean chili paste that accompanies bibimbap), mise en place, the French term familiar to anyone who watches Hell’s Kitchen, and flight, as in the craft beer tasting menu that your favorite hophead downs at the brewery.

The dictionary isn’t just an internet translation guide for the Olds, though. It has also added an important batch of science terms like acephalgic migraine, bashful bladder and shy bladder, biohacking, fintech, nanobot, and parusis, and haptics, which is the science of touch, which is behind the good vibration of a smartphone responding to your finger touch.

Link to the rest at Fast Company

The 22-Year-Old Who Wrote Barack Obama’s Letters

29 August 2018

From The Atlantic:

In a small office on the top floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a young woman sat at a desk covered with letters to the president of the United States. There were hundreds, each stamped with back from the oval and crowned at the top with “Reply” in Barack Obama’s handwriting.

Most White House staff members didn’t even know of this tiny office, accessible primarily by staircase and home to the writing team for the Office of Presidential Correspondence (OPC). Composed of nine staff members—a very small portion of the overall OPC—the writing team was in charge of answering the 10,000 letters and messages that arrived each day for the president.

While the majority of these letter writers received personalized form letters, 10 of them were chosen for Obama’s daily reading and, depending on the president’s wishes, required a personal reply, a process Jeanne Marie Laskas describes in a new book, to be published next month, To Obama: With Love, Joy, Anger, and Hope. Laskas pulls back the curtain on this impressive letter-writing machine to reveal not a wizard but a would-be Dorothy, Kolbie Blume. In her first job out of college, swamped at her desk with letters to the president in need of reply, Blume served as the president’s voice.

Her job, as Blume explained to me in a recent interview, was to understand not only the letter writer, but also how the president must have felt reading the letter, which she often gathered from punctuation he added or sentences he underlined. She didn’t consider herself “the voice of the president,” but rather someone who pulled together Obama’s language from his books, speeches, letters, and other material, trying to achieve a tone, not unlike her own, that combined the president’s idealism and humility. Her official bureaucratic title, from August 2015 to the end of Obama’s second term, in January 2017: director of writing for sampled correspondence. In other words, Blume wrote personal letters to citizens on behalf of the president, responding to the sacred 10 letters a day, or 10lads in the parlance of the OPC, that Obama read religiously each night.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Dance Halls, Derelicts and Condos

26 August 2018

From The Wall Street Journal:

A musical that opened on Broadway in late 1891 featured a song about a notorious stretch of Manhattan where, as the lyrics went, “I had one of the devil’s own nights. . . . The Bowery! The Bowery! / They say such things and they do strange things.”

The ditty took America by storm, according to “Devil’s Mile,” an intermittently engaging cultural history of the Bowery by Alice Sparberg Alexiou, the author of a previous book about the Flatiron building. Fans snapped up the sheet music and danced to the song in dives and drawing rooms.

It became too much for certain Bowery merchants, who insisted the tune was scaring customers away and futilely petitioned New York’s Board of Aldermen to change the street’s name. Cooper Avenue and Central Broadway were rejected. “Wot’s der matter wid der ‘Bowery’?” a local denizen demanded of a New York Times reporter. “I suppose you guys would like ter see it called der Foubourg St. Germain?”

The street wasn’t always a synonym for dissipation and degradation. The Bowery—both a street and a neighborhood in the southern part of Manhattan—began as a footpath marked out by the Lenape Indians. When, in the 1620s, the Dutch came ashore to found New Amsterdam, they widened the path for use as a highway and built farms nearby. The name “Bowery” derives from “bouwerij,” the old Dutch word for “farm.”

. . . .

Composer Stephen Foster has a cameo role in “Devil’s Mile,” as a sometime Bowery resident and as the composer of a song (“Swanee River”) that accompanied a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at a Bowery theater. So does Charles Dickens, whose “American Notes,” an account of his travels in the U.S., included a visit to the Bowery, where he was gobsmacked by the moves of William Henry Lane (known as “Master Juba”), a seminal figure in the creation of tap dancing.

As time went on, the Bowery became, by day, a place to buy inexpensive household goods; by night it was an adult playground. Beer gardens, dance halls, dime museums and shooting galleries proliferated, and love, whatever your inclination, was for sale. The street was lined with flophouses and soup kitchens, the last stop for the downtrodden and down-on-their-luck.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The Bowery Theater

The Bowery Theater after its rebuilding in 1845

Elevated railroads in the Bowery, 1896

profundify, v.

22 August 2018

From The Oxford English Dictionary:

profundify, v.

. . . .
To make intellectually profound.

1821 – Blackwood’s Edinb. Mag. May 198/1   They are provoked by droppings of inspiration from a stone, in which the measure and the meaning are most happily profundified.

Link to the rest at The Oxford English Dictionary

The Women Code Breakers Who Unmasked Soviet Spies

22 August 2018

From The Smithsonian:

Numbers came easily to Angeline Nanni. As a girl of 12 in rural Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, she kept the books in her father’s grocery store. In high school, she took all the accounting classes on offer. Enrolled in beauty school after graduation—cosmetology being one of the few fields open to women in the 1940s—Angie focused on the business side while her sisters, Mimi and Virginia, learned to style hair. Before the war, the three Nanni sisters had opened a beauty parlor in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, and Angie ran it. So yes, numbers were her calling.

But the numbers on this test were like nothing she had ever seen.

Angie—intent, graceful, unflappable—was seated in a small classroom in a large, ill-built temporary structure. The year was 1945, and World War II was over. The Nanni sisters had moved to Washington, D.C. to take jobs in the war effort, but now the beauty shop in Blairsville beckoned. Angie, though, wanted to stay. This test would determine whether she could.

It was being administered at a secret government facility in Arlington, Virginia. Around Angie were eight or nine other women, all contemplating the same set of numbers, wearing various expressions of alarm. Most, Angie thought nervously, had attended college. She had not. On a piece of paper before her were ten sets of numbers, arranged in five-digit groups. The numbers represented a coded message. Each five-digit group had a secret meaning. Below that row of 50 numbers was another row of 50, arranged in similar groups. The supervisor told them to subtract the entire bottom row from the top row, in sequence. She said something about “non-carrying.”

Angie had never heard the word “non-carrying” before, but as she looked at the streams of digits, something happened in her brain. She intuited that the digit 4, minus the digit 9, equaled 5, because you just borrowed an invisible 1 to go beside the top number. Simple! Angie Nanni raced through, stripping out the superfluous figures to get down to the heart of the message.

“I don’t know how I did it,” says Angie, who was 99 years old when we talked in March. “I just said, ‘Oh, that’s going to be easy.’” The supervisor came around and saw that she had finished before anybody else. “That’s right, Angie! That’s right!” she cried. Then she ran out of the room to tell her superiors they had a new candidate for the Russian code-breaking project.

That moment—and Angie Nanni’s instinctive grasp of an unusual form of math called non-carrying addition and subtraction—changed the trajectory of her life. It also helped seal the fate of other Americans, such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. Their conviction was based in part on the work of Angeline Nanni and a group of other extraordinary American women.

Their persistence and talent brought about one of the greatest counterespionage triumphs of the Cold War: Venona, the top-secret U.S. effort to break encrypted Soviet spy communications. For nearly 40 years, Angie and several dozen colleagues helped identify those who passed American and Allied secrets to the Soviet Union during and after World War II. Their work unmasked such infamous spies as the British intelligence officer Kim Philby, the British diplomat Donald Maclean, the German-born scientist Klaus Fuchs and many others. They provided vital intelligence about Soviet tradecraft. Their work was so highly classified that President Harry Truman likely did not know about it.

In 1995, when Venona was declassified, the public face of the project was male. The most celebrated name was that of a man, Meredith Gardner, a linguist who deciphered names and words, working closely with FBI agent Robert J. Lamphere. But in the cryptanalytic unit—where the tough analytic math was done, where the messages were prepared and matched, where the breakthroughs happened, where the numbers were so painstakingly stripped—the face of Venona was different: “Most of the people working on it were women,” says Robert L. Benson, a retired historian for the National Security Agency.

. . . .

Even now, talking about her career makes Angie Nanni nervous: “I still don’t if I can help it,” she says. She and her colleagues—young women from rural towns—were privy to some of the most closely held secrets of Cold War espionage. In the 1950s and ’60s, as the Soviets attempted to learn about U.S. weapons and America was convulsed by the toxic chaos of McCarthyism, these women were among a tiny handful of Americans who knew the truth.

. . . .

In 1945, the American intelligence establishment began to grasp the scope of Soviet spying against the United States. Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet code clerk working the GRU system, defected and told Canadian authorities that the Soviets had penetrated the Manhattan Project. Under interrogation by the FBI, Whittaker Chambers, a former GRU agent, named Americans spying for the Soviets. By November the Truman administration knew of allegations against Lauchlin Currie, a White House aide; Duncan Lee, executive assistant at the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA; and assistant treasury secretary Harry Dexter White. Around the same time, a former Soviet agent, Elizabeth Bentley, gave the FBI a stunning 107-page statement detailing spies in the State and Treasury departments, the OSS, the Pentagon, even the White House.

The problem was that Bentley had a lot to say, but no documentation to back it up. That is where Venona came in.

By the time Angie Nanni was brought on in the fall of 1945—one of the few non-college-educated staffers—the section was in high gear. The Russian unit comprised a traffic section, two “reading” sections and a “back room,” a high-level troubleshooting section where Gene Grabeel was now one of the most experienced workers. “We all loved Gene,” says Angie, who worked in traffic. “She was very nice—very quiet….A lot of times, if we weren’t sure about something, we felt free enough to go to her.”

. . . .

At about the same time, a bright young home economics teacher was becoming discontented with the charms of rural southwest Virginia. Gene Grabeel, 23, had grown up in Lee County. Her hometown, Rose Hill, had 300 people, a grocery, a church and a service station. Her mother raised chickens and sold eggs, and her father farmed tobacco and worked a variety of jobs. The Grabeels had a tradition of sending their girls to college. Gene went to Mars Hill, a two-year school in North Carolina, then to State Teachers College (later called Longwood) in Farmville, Virginia.

At the time, the only job a female college graduate could reliably expect was teaching school, and Gene taught home economics to teenage girls in Madison Heights, Virginia. When she told her father she hated it, he urged her to find work that made her happy. At a holiday dance in her hometown during the Christmas season in 1942, she chatted with a childhood acquaintance, Frank Rowlett, who was now a top official in the Signal Intelligence Service. Rowlett confided that there was better work in Washington.

By that time, the Army had sent a handful of officers out to seek recruits for its code-breaking operation. Since most of the men were off fighting, the recruiters focused on women. (Ninety percent of Arlington Hall code breakers would be women.) Grabeel traveled to the post office in Lynchburg to hand her application for war work to a recruiter named Paavo Carlson. He offered her a job—doing what, he could not say, because nobody had told him, either—and asked her to head for the capital as soon as she could. Grabeel’s father agreed she would be happier in Washington “shuffling paper” for six months—her likely task, they both assumed—so she took the job. On Sunday, December 28, 1942, she arrived by train and took a cab to Arlington Hall, where she was given hasty training in the art and science of breaking codes.

At Arlington Hall, most work focused on Japanese Army codes, but Grabeel, four weeks after arriving, was directed to attack the Soviet intercepts, an immensely secret and sensitive task even in that secret and sensitive place. It’s likely she was chosen because Rowlett knew her as a solid citizen with an unimpeachable family background. Her code-breaking partner was Second Lt. Leonard Zubko, a 1942 Rutgers graduate fresh out of infantry school at Fort Benning. Eager to command troops, Zubko later figured he got this desk job because he knew Russian. He did not enjoy it. He and Grabeel were seated in one corner of a room and told to speak only in whispers. The other occupant was a British liaison officer—an odd allotment of office space, as the British were not to know what was going on.

And so Venona began: two junior analysts laboring at a table in a building that was alternatively hot and cold and always crowded, with huge open bays occupied by teams working on other projects. The first thing Grabeel and Zubko did was try to get a grip on what, exactly, they had. They began sorting the tangle of messages by date as well as by “lane,” the communications circuit over which they had been sent. Before long, Zubko was replaced. Other men came and went. Grabeel stayed put.

. . . .

The Soviets’ code system was widely considered unbreakable because it had so many layers. To encode a message, a clerk would consult a code book, a kind of dictionary that provided a four-digit code group. Each code group stood for a word or letter. To make snooping much more difficult, those numbers were converted into five-digit figures (see “How to Cipher Like a Soviet,”) and then enciphered by adding a second set of numbers, known as “key” or “additive.” (This is where the non-carrying arithmetic came in.) The Soviets drew their additives from a “one-time pad”: pads of pages, each containing about 50 random additives, each page never to be reused.

The one-time pad was believed to make the system watertight. That’s because breaking a complicated code requires “depth,” which is the term for lots of messages enciphered using the same page from an additive book. It is depth that enables code breakers to locate patterns and find a way in. With a one-time pad, there is no depth, no ability to compare.

But Arlington Hall had such huge success breaking Japanese and German codes that officials were optimistic. Over the summer of 1943, they funneled fresh recruits into the tiny Russian unit.

. . . .

In October 1943 the code breakers began doing “machine runs” under the supervision of Mary Joe Dunning, a studious, short-haired woman who had been working for the Army code-breaking operation since the late 1930s and knew everything there was to know about how machines could simplify and hasten even the most daunting code-breaking challenge. At this early, laborious, “brute-force” stage, they used IBM punch-card machines to compare early code groups in thousands of messages that had been sent over trade channels. Thanks to this repetitive, painstaking analysis, the team began to realize that there was, in fact, a tantalizing trace of “depth”: Some pairs of messages appeared to have been enciphered using the same pad. This insight was the core achievement of Venona: The Soviets had used some of their one-time pads twice.

How could the Soviets, so expert at espionage, have committed such a basic blunder? After the Germans invaded Russia on June 22, 1941, entire factories’ worth of equipment were packed up in Moscow and put on trains to the Urals. Amid the chaos, resources became scant. In desperation, someone decided to manufacture, briefly, some duplicate sets of pads.

. . . .

The extent to which the Venona code breakers were quarantined stood out even in the top-secret environment of Arlington Hall and, later, the NSA building in Fort Meade. No one was permitted to enter the Russian unit except for those who worked there. And even that level of security wasn’t enough.

William Weisband, a native Russian speaker who had become a U.S. citizen, worked as a “linguistic adviser” to the unit. He had a tendency to look over his colleagues’ shoulders. “When I saw him coming, I would put things over anything” she was working on, Nanni says. “He stopped at my desk, and I said, ‘May I help you?’ He took off.”

Her suspicion was well founded: Weisband was, in fact, an NKVD agent. He was identified and suspended in 1950—but never prosecuted for espionage, to preserve what was left of Venona’s secrecy. He sold insurance until he died, in 1967.

Link to the rest at The Smithsonian

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