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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

V is For ... Eugene Francois Vidocq: A To Z Challenge 2017


Vidocq. Public domain

You may have heard the saying: "Set a thief to catch a thief"?

Eugene Francois Vidocq, now known as the father of modern criminology, began as a thief and a con artist. When he began his group of undercover agents in Paris, the men he chose also had criminal backgrounds. 

Born in Arras, France, in 1775, the son of a wealthy baker and corn dealer, Vidocq committed his first theft at thirteen, when he stole silver plate from his parents. It was not to be the only time he stole from them. Over the next few years he got into a lot of scrapes, even, at one time, stealing money to help him get to America. That voyage never happened. If it had, perhaps he would have founded a police department there instead. Or maybe he would have remained a crook. 

Before he was out of his teens he had joined the army and fought in two major battles; the second one was fought after he had deserted one regiment and forged new records to allow him to join another! 

I'll leave you to look up the details here, in Wikipedia. 

Let's just say that Vidocq was a very naughty boy and spent a lot of time in prison - deservedly so - before 1809 when he decided he had had enough and offered to do some spying for the state. Oddly enough, he was doing his spying behind bars, serving a real sentence. For twenty-one months he was feeding information about unsolved mysteries to the authorities from his cell at La Force Prison in Paris, through a woman called Annette. As he couldn't get away with it forever, the police chief, Jean Henry, arranged for him to "escape."  The trouble was, he still had to act as an agent. He was too useful to be allowed to go free. He knew his way around the underworld. That helped him as a spy. 

In 1811, he began working properly for the police force, founding a plainclothes branch of the police that would become the Surete Nationale, the detective branch of the French police force still around today. 

As head of the Surete, he trained his undercover agents in disguising themselves. Sometimes he went out in disguise himself. For eighteen years he worked for the police in a France which had constant changes - from Napoleon to Louis XVIII and then changes of King. His boss retired and he didn't get on well with the next. He even found himself facing serious charges from his previous life.

Finally, when he was fifty-two, he handed in his resignation. He tried life as an entrepreneur, founding a business which was a flop. The monarchy changed again and after handing over some useful information Vidocq was back in business, once more in charge of the Surete in 1832. 

It didn't last. There was a general feeling of "once a crook, always a crook" and the pressure was on for him to resign. The Surete was re-established, criminal-free. 

Now he started the world's first private detective agency, using ex-crooks as detectives. That might have worked, but questions were asked about his methods, which were dubious to say the least, if successful.

Eventually he retired and lived to be eighty-one. 

You might be interested to know that some of France's top novelists, such as Balzac and Victor Hugo,  wrote him into their fiction. Balzac created a Vidocq character called Vautrin and Hugo used him in Les Miserables, with elements of him in both Jean Valjean and Javert - who would have thought it? The hero AND the villain inspired by the naughty boy from Arras who became a top undercover police agent!

By the way, a fantasy film, Vidocq, in which he was a character was made in 2001, with Gerard Depardieu in the role. 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Rereading...The First Third by Will Kostakis

I've read three Will Kostakis novels - I believe there's a fourth, but it's part of a publisher series and I seem to have missed it somehow - and they were all wonderful. Loathing Lola was about those fifteen minutes of fame and how little they bring you,  written by a young man still at school himself at the time, who went on to work for the Big Brother TV reality show. The Sidekicks was a beautifully written story with three different viewpoints to it, with three boys who have only one thing in common, friendship with a boy who has died, learning about themselves through it.

All wonderful books and I loved them all.

But for me, this is the author's masterpiece so far. It's not controversial like The Sidekicks, which saw the  author's invitation to speak withdrawn unless he skipped that one. (Why? Really, why? I can only hope it sold lots more copies as a result!)

It is, however, gentle, funny, sad and wise and it's giving me comfort as I reread. I got this copy at a Reading Matters conference, where it was part of the showbag. It's an uncorrected proof, but I haven't spotted any errors so far. I thought I'd donated it to my library, but no. When it turned up on my pile of  bedside books, I simply started reading it again, and loving again the story of Billy Tsiolkas, who has to complete the bucket list of his wise and lovable grandmother, his Yiayia, to get his divorced mother a husband, to bring his big brother back home to Sydney and fix the problem that is keeping his younger brother from communicating with his family.

While he's about it, he needs to get himself a girlfriend and help his delightful, wise friend Lukas aka Sticks to get a boyfriend despite his physical disability.

It's about family, friendship, kindness and being Greek. Actually, being ethnic. My family are from Eastern Europe and felt the connection!

And I'm loving the reread. Really. If you've missed this one, go and get it. 

T Is For...Harriet Tubman, Civil War Heroine: A To Z Challenge 2017


Reward notice for Harriet(Minty) and her brothers. Public Domain

Today's post is brought to you by the letter T, for Harriet Tubman.

Woodcut of Harriet with her gun. Public Domain

You may well have heard of Harriet Tubman, the woman called Moses, the conductor on the Underground Railroad, who never lost a "passenger." Harriet Tubman, leader of Union troops during the war. Harriet Tubman the feminist who found a new cause after the war, fighting for women's right to vote. Harriet Tubman, the ... spy? 

Harriet in 1885. Public Domain

An amazingly successful one, actually. 

Born into slavery in the 1820s as Araminta Ross, Harriet suffered narcolepsy for the rest of her life after a lead weight thrown at another slave hit her in the face. She had a back full of scars from whippings. She married a free African American called John Tubman, but that didn't make her free, and any children she had would belong to her owners. She escaped in 1849, when she was about to be sold - John disagreed, so she simply left him - and then went back, first for her family, then for others - hundreds of others. She volunteered to work for the Union army as a scout and a spy. 

Her spying career began in 1862, with a visit to a Union camp in South Carolina where there were many liberated slaves for her to speak with. It wasn't easy. For one thing, she didn't speak their language - they spoke a sort of mixture of English and African languages. They laughed at her attempts at communication. Then they resented the rations she was getting when they weren't. She won their trust by giving up the rations and making a living selling pies and root beer to the troops, and running a laundry, something male spies probably didn't have to do.  But she had a mission.

Finally, she was ready to go, and she chose around a hundred scouts to get the lay of the land to avoid traps in Confederate territory, doing some scouting herself. She even had a budget for paying for useful information!  As a result, she was able to organise an 1863 raid by boat along the Combahee River, with black troops. They knew about mines laid in the river due to the information she had acquired. This raid, as well as fulfilling its military objectives, liberated seven hundred people, who rushed for the boats with great enthusiasm. A hundred of them later joined the Union army. 

As I've mentioned in another post, it wasn't hard for African American slaves to overhear secrets. They were almost invisible. Their owners had no more hesitation about speaking freely in front of them than they did about speaking in front of the sofa or the cows. That made them very useful sources of information for spies such as a disguised Harriet Tubman. For the same reason, Harriet and other African Americans made good spies. They were much less likely to be noticed than white spies. Which didn't mean it wasn't extremely dangerous, especially for Harriet Tubman, who was well known for what she was doing. She would have died horribly if she had been caught. 

But she wasn't caught. She survived the war, found a new cause and lived to a ripe old age. It would be nice to say she was appreciated by the government she had helped to win the war, but she wasn't. She had help from admirers, but only a small pension from her husband's war service and a very small one for her service as a nurse, not as a spy - and she had to fight for that. When she died of pneumonia in 1913, she was buried with semi-military honours at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, where she had settled with her family.

There is now an asteroid named for her, and I hear she is going to replace President Andrew Jackson on the twenty dollar bill in 2020. As she might have said, like Hedy Lamarr, "Hmph! About time!" 

If you'd like to read and view some more, here are a couple of my sources: 

and which has a couple of videos as well as an article. 

I started this from a chapter in my book Your Cat Could Be A Spy, but it was a very short one and the book was published in 2006, a long time ago, so I thought I'd look again and see if the information had changed since then. 

U Is For... Undercover Agents: A To Z Challenge 2017


Free to use clip art from

Undercover agents are a kind of spy who work for the police force. The first organised group of undercover agents was started by an amazing man called Eugene Vidocq in France, but I'll tell you about him tomorrow. He deserves his own post.

Undercover agents have the job of infiltrating groups of criminals or terrorists, or sometimes befriending individual crooks, then turning them in at the appropriate time.

According to Wikipedia, this can often be a problem for the agent. You are under stress, in danger all the time, away from your family and friends - and sometimes you end up feeling bad for the person you're about to betray or even, heaven forbid, joining them! 

You'd have to be a very good actor and quick-thinking to do this job, like other types of spy. You'd have to hope that nobody you know saw you and blew your cover!  

In fact, one retired FBI agent, interviewed here, did once see some people he knew in a hotel lobby where he was with the people he was investigating. He hadn't seen them in years and they came from a long way off - how likely was he to have run into them? Fortunately, he was able to make them undrstand with a hand gesture that now was not a good time to approach him.

And if you were doing it for a while, you'd really have to hope that nobody who could harm your family would find you out! 

On the other hand, it isn't always what you might think. In this interview with a Department of Homeland Security agent who did undercover with drug cartels, he points out that, unlike in the movies, it isn't in their best interests to kill you when they suspect you might be an agent, or demand that you prove yourself by killing someone or taking drugs(though, he says, if you have to smoke something to prove yourself, the Department will understand). If they get caught smuggling drugs, the worst they can expect in the U.S. is a trip to court, where they can fight it. They are, he says, more likely to try to convince you that they aren't doing anything wrong than kill you. Murder might be a bit harder to get away with. 

Still, it's a dangerous job, which, at the very least, might make you feel sick with disgust, such as the time when the FBI agent was penetrating a pedophile ring, though he was in no physical danger from that kind of criminal. 

 Well, somebody's got to do it. You have to be a certain type of person. And this man admits that he misses the adrenaline rush he got out of it when he was working. 

What do you think - would you make a good undercover agent? 

Friday, April 21, 2017

S Is For Clifford Stoll And The Hanover Hacker: A To Z Challenge 2017

The year was 1986. In the Lawrence Berkeley Lab the computers had impressive amounts of disk space and memory - a hundred megabytes of disk space and one hundred and twenty eight k of memory. They were huge machines too, a long way from the little smart phone in your pocket or even your laptop computer. 

In this day and age, computer hacking has become a large part of spying, but in those days it was new. The Internet was in its infancy.  

An astronomer called Clifford Stoll was just starting a new job in computer programming when he was brought a puzzle to solve, a small accounting error of an unpaid 75 cents. He thought at first a student had been fooling around, but it was more than that. Much more. 

Someone was logging into the network with system manager privileges, under the name "Hunter" which belonged to a staff member who hadn't been there for a year. The system was being used to enter other networks. 

Networks that had access to military secrets. 

Cliff sometimes slept in the lab because the hacker was logging in at night. Over ten months he got piles of printouts which showed the mysterious hacker logging into military bases. He could have blocked the hacker, but they would only have found another way in and then he would have lost track of them. 

It took a while to get the interest of the CIA and FBI. It was all so new - who had even heard of hacking in those days? But with their unofficial help, the hacker was traced to Bremen in Hanover in West Germany. He was a man called Markus Hess, who, with a group of four others, was selling information to the KGB. 

Cliff had an idea. If the hacker wanted military secrets, he'd supply them. They didn't have to be real military secrets, of course. A trap was set, a fake military network called SDInet. SDI was the official name for the Reagan program nicknamed Star Wars. It was what Hess had shown most interest in. 

The confirmation came in the mail to "SDInet", through a Bulgarian spy, using nonsense from the fake files, from Markus Hess's customers, trying to check they were getting their money's worth. 

Hess and his fellow hackers went on trial, but before they could serve their long sentences the Berlin Wall fell and among all the fuss they only received a two year suspended sentence for what they had done. One had apparently committed suicide - if only he had waited...

Clifford Stoll received only a thank you certificate from the CIA for what he had done, but he also wrote a bestselling book about it all, The Cuckoo's Egg,  so that was all right. And eventually he began making quirky items called Klein bottles, three-D Möbius strips which sell very well to mathematicians. 

Interestingly, these days he is not a great fan of the Internet, which he feels is destroying communication rather than improving it, and is putting people like me(librarians) out of work. I do have to disagree with him about library card catalogues, which he thought were beautiful. If he'd ever had to spend hours first writing out five or more catalogue cards for one book, typing, filing them, then pulling them all out if the book turned out to be missing during stocktake, he would, like us, embrace the library computer technology he sneers at. And by the way, we used to throw out those beautiful artistic cards ourselves when they weren't needed because someone had stolen the book they described! 

However, it is fascinating to wonder how a twenty-first century Clifford Stoll would handle a spy-hacking case. I believe hackers are actually hired to point out weaknesses in security systems these days, but it goes on. With the Internet and constantly improving computer technology, the genie has really been let out of the Klein bottle. 

For an interview with Clifford Stoll, one of my sources for this post, check out this link.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

R Is For Roman Espionage


In an earlier post, I mentioned the Romans and their spying methods, such as the frumentarii, supply sergeants who were a useful source of intelligence, and Julius Caesar's private spy network, which brought him a list of the assassins moments before he was killed, a list he didn't read.

I felt that Roman spying deserved its own post - besides, it was that or the Rosenbergs and I found that topic too depressing for me. 

The Romans were big on winning by fighting - and they were very good at it, as we all know. Before they started conquering other countries, they began at home, with the other nations located on the Italian peninsula. 

And what does an army need? Good intelligence gathering, of course! Roman scouts did a good job of finding out what was needed, but there were other methods. There were the frumentarii, of course, who worked for the army, collecting wheat for the soldiers and information for their commanders while they were about it. I believe they were involved in tracking down Christians during the persecutions; fortunately, the Christians had their own information-gathering networks. But these came later, from about the reign of Hadrian onward. 

Hannibal Crossing The Alps. Poussin. Wikipedia Commons

During the Punic Wars, fought against Carthage, the Romans learned about spying from someone who really knew the job: Hannibal. His agents were good. They had to be; one unlucky spy who sent his army to the wrong city instead of one with a similar name, was crucified for his mistake. Whoops! 

Scipio Africanus. Rubens. Wikimedia Commons

But Scipio Africanus, the Roman leader, had his own methods. In one case, he sent officers to an enemy camp to discuss a truce. They took along a bunch of "slaves", actually officers in disguise. One of them was an officer who might have been recognised and he needed the freedom to snoop around the camp. He was given a sound beating. The Numidians, whose camp it was, were never going to believe a man of standing would allow that sort of thing to be done to him, so they paid no attention. The so-called slaves were now free to poke their noses into the layout of the camp, numbers and such, while their colleagues were keeping the enemy talking. 

Actually, the Romans had a lot of spies and spying, but not really anything that would correspond to MI6 or the CIA. This is because, apart from the agents working for the Emperors, there were a lot of private networks. Every highborn Marcus, Gaius and Gnaeus had his own people working to find out what was going on somewhere else and protect him. Some of them employed people to keep track of what was going on in their own homes! It was a messy system. 

And even the ones who did work for the state had two jobs rather than a cover identity.  There were the above mentioned frumentarii, for example. Augustus started a postal and courier service that provided a chance to communicate vital secret information. I keep getting this vision of a postie carrying state secrets in his bag... 

Those working for the Emperors were working specifically for the Emperors, to keep them alive. 

Did it work? Not really. It has been estimated that about seventy five per cent - three quarters - of Roman Emperors were assassinated. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bryce Fegan: A Guest Post On Fairytales

As a brief break from the A to Z Challenge, I thought it might be interesting to give you a guest post by Bryce Fegan, whose picture storybook The Grumpface will be available in the next couple of weeks. Bryce is an Aussie writer living in Canberra, and thought the post by fellow Canberra-dweller Gillian Polack was fascinating, though, of course, unconnected with children's fiction. He is sharing his thoughts about the importance of fairytales and explaining how this entered his book. Enjoy!

Where did all the Happily-Ever-After’s Go?
Books have long been portals into worlds otherwise inaccessible to us. They take us to places of incredible depth and wonder, and make us long for the adventures and meaning our protagonists inevitably find. Books often describe worlds that not even major films can fully capture. In books we are free to experience these worlds at our own pace. We are free to dwell in moments of inspiration, wonder or emotion. We are free to let our imaginations soar – constructing scenes that have meaning to our own experiences and our own desires. These small, rectangular objects are precious, because in the complex and changing world around us, they not only offer us refuge but they allow us to escape into another dreamer’s imagination. It is here that hope abounds. Hope for a better world, a more exciting world, a world of meaning. It is here that we are confronted with the strange reality – that despite the acceptance we have for the world around us, we all yet have a deeper hope that there might be something more. 
What makes fairy tales so powerful, is that they generally distil this deeper hope into the simplest of narratives. They don’t try to be outstandingly clever or to produce tear-inducing twists. They are safe and accessible stories. Stories that have an undefinable magic to them. Stories that feel cosy and warm, while describing scenes that are otherwise dark and cold. They are stories that are constructed so simply, they can be understood by young children, yet so deep, they somehow maintain their pull on us, well into adulthood.
Fairy tales tend to capture our hopes in broad and relatable terms. They often echo our natural desire that good always wins over evil, that success comes with hard work, and that the fantastical exists in even the most mundane places. They reach into our deepest yearnings, and whisper to us through the dark – that magic may yet exist, that our true destiny may yet be revealed, and that our life may yet have an incredible purpose. It is the ability of a fairy tale to play so masterfully upon these hopes that makes them so timeless. 
Unfortunately, by and large, the magic of fairy tales have been eroded by our modern reality. Replaced by narratives that prefer to reflect on ‘issues of the day’, or the harsh realities of life. Even the emerging trend of ‘modern fairy tales’ or ‘fairy tales with a twist’ tend to reflect the idea that our evolved societies are required to update the simplicity and relevance of these narratives to reflect our more mundane, daily struggles. Certainly there is nothing wrong with these modern styles of books – many are written very well and are indeed quite relevant. Yet I would argue that many of these modern retellings borrow only the surface-elements of a fairy tale, while leaving behind the very thing that has made our traditional favourites so transgenerational.
I have already touched on some of the broad hopes that are injected into every memorable fairy tale. However many fairy tales will also include additional concepts that contribute to their uniqueness. The most obvious, is that they tend to be made up of morally consistent characters. These morals will inevitably dictate their destiny. So naturally, the honest, pure-of-heart and caring characters will always win. The evil, selfish and greedy will always be stronger, but without a change of heart, will always lose. The greatest fairy tales throughout history are often those with characters that exist in relative obscurity, only to rise (against all odds) to the heights of mastery or true-purpose. And this, is perhaps the most important hope that fairy tales play upon. Put another way, fairy tales provide us with the hope that happily-ever-afters really are possible.
The Grumpface
I decided to write The Grumpface after looking through a number of modern fairy tales and feeling as though they were missing something crucial. It took some contemplation but it appeared to me that these modern tales had traded that deeper hope we tend to see in Andersen, Perrault and Grimm, in order to appeal to the sensibilities of our time. Some were fantastic books in their own right, yet none of them contained that deeper magic (to borrow from C.S. Lewis). I yearned for new titles with the familiar enchantments of those older tales, and having been one of those people who has written fiction their whole life, I turned my attention to filling this void.
The Grumpface is a fairy tale that (at the very least, attempts) to hark back to those familiar stories we grew up with. It is about a clumsy young inventor’s quest for love, and the challenges he must face to find it. But it is also a tale of bravery, absurdity and happiness, and the power of these qualities over negativity and sheer grumpiness.
Our tale begins in a small village that sits beside a dark forest. Dan, the hero of our story, is an optimistic, young inventor who suffers the unfortunate trait of being clumsy. Working day and night on his inventions, he hopes that his efforts might gain the attention of Bella, a flower girl whom he secretly admires.
When it comes to his attention that Bella has no more roses to sell, he decides to brave the dark forest in order to find her one. The only problem is that the forest is inhabited by a grumpy creature known as the Grumpface, and this creature is not known for his kindness to lost travellers.
It doesn’t take long before our poor hero is confronted by the Grumpface who quickly challenges the young inventor to three tasks. If he is able to pass even a single challenge, he will be freed, if not, he will remain forever in the forest.
It is my hope that this tale is enjoyed by children and adults alike. After all, most good fairy tales are. I have also tried my best to inject that magic and wonder that these tales are known for. Yet if there is one thing I hope The Grumpface does more than anything else, it is that it reconnects those who read it with that deeper hope. 
The Grumpface will be available in Kindle, ePub, Hardcover and Paperback from most online bookstores from May 1.

About the Author
BCR Fegan is an Australian author who has written a number of fairy tales and fantasies for children and young adults. He is inspired by stories that resonate deeply with our desire for adventure, yearning for magic and search for meaning.

N Is For ... Ninja! A To Z Challenge 2017


Ninja, Hokusai print. Public domain

There has been a lot of nonsense spoken and written about the ninja, the professional spies and mercenaries of Japan. My favourite idiocy is the story of the dwarf ninja who came up from a toilet pit and killed his victim while he was relieving himself. Ouch! Also, they were supposed to have mystical, magical powers.

Actually, I imagine the ninja clans would have been only too happy for people to believe they had magical powers - it made for good marketing. If you want to read some wonderful fiction set in a world in which the ninja actually do have supernatural powers, I recommend Lian Hearn's series Tales Of The Otori. But that's fantasy fiction. 

But the stories were spread because they were very good at what they did do - espionage, arson, assassination, mercenary soldiering, etc. Their disguises were excellent. If they had spent all their time in those cool black costumes we imagine them wearing, they might have had trouble convincing anyone they were not spooky assassins! 

In feudal Japan, you couldn't ask samurai, the equivalent of European knights, to go sneaking around spying and killing people without facing them "mano a mano". That was - tacky. Worse, it was dishonourable. So the daimyos, the lords, had to hire professional spies. If caught, they would die horribly, like the vile, dishonourable, loathsome creatures they were. But hey, it was a living! 

There were two clans, from the Iga and Koga areas of Japan, who set up training in remote villages. A ninja - or shinobi as they're known within Japan, from a word meaning "hidden" - started training in childhood. They learned martial arts, of course, and did a lot of tough exercises, but also learned a regular occupation they could carry out while gathering information. Medicine was useful as an occupation, for obvious reasons. But there were plenty of others. 

Not that there weren't security efforts going on. For example, there were the famous squeaky nightingale floors, so called because they "sang" when someone stepped on them. That would definitely get the attention of the guards. But what could you do when the ninja you wanted to avoid were actually living in the castle as sleeper agents? And while they couldn't actually walk through walls, as legend had it, there were plenty of crawl spaces for those who knew where they were. 

And then there were ninja working for the lord of the castle. In the case of one siege, a ninja slipped out into the enemy camp and stole the banner. Next morning it was waving from the castle walls. Maybe it would have been more useful to simply kill the enemy leader, but that kind of psychological "Nyah, Nyah!" worked too. 

In the 1400s there were around seventy ninja clans on Honshu, the main island of Japan. The leaders were jonin, the middle men the chunin, whose job was to arrange contracts with employers. The genin were the actual fighters, who often didn't know who their boss was, probably wise. 

There were ninja working for just one noble family. The most famous ninja leader, Fuma Kotaro Noboyuki, was part of the Fuma clan who were working for the Hojo family. He lived in the sixteenth century and has become a part of Japanese folklore. Kotaro led a group of 200 ninja. Apart from the spying, he led them in a night attack on the Takeda forces. First, they faked an attack, sending in horsès with straw dummies as riders, while the real ninja smuggled themselves in. In the dark and confusion, the Takeda were doing the ninjas' job for them, killing each other instead of Kotaro's men. 

I can imagine the enemy leaders crying out, "Oh, the cads! That is completely dishonourable!"

Sneaky but smart!

Tomorrow: O is for Odysseus!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Q Is For... Q! Gadget-Maker Supreme: A To Z Challenge 2017


Did you know there actually is a Q? You know, the geek who builds fascinating spy gadgets for secret agents? Well, of course, there has to be someone doing it, but a newspaper article I stumbled across while looking for something starting with Q actually said that the current Q working for the British intelligence agency MI6 is a woman. It didn't mention her name and most of the article was about how women are now doing well in the intelligence services in general - here's the link if you want it - but it tells me that Q stands for Quartermaster. Who would have thought it? Though it does fit in nicely with the Roman frumentarii - wheat collectors - who worked as spies while doing their jobs as quartermasters(see I is for Inte resting Spy Bits And Pieces). They didn't make gadgets, though.

I guess it makes sense, though. You go to a quartermaster in the army to get uniforms and supplies, so why not supplies of gadgets?

What would it take to be one of these people, I wonder? In this day and age, we're a lot more technologically sophisticated than during the Cold War. As someone commented in my gadgets post, it might be a bit difficult to get a lipstick gun through customs these days! And technology has improved since the Cold War. Computer hacking is more common than sneaking around dark offices getting information from filing cabinets. It's safer too, for the agents concerned. So, no need for glow-in-the-dark mini-cameras in rings or whatever.

But still plenty to do. You'd need a real technical genius with imagination. And they exist.

Because I'm a reader and viewer I'm going to divert for a few fictional Q characters.

There is Smithers in Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider YA fiction. He's a very fat man who is very good with his gadgets. In Stormbreaker, the first novel, he supplies the young spy with such items as a yoyo that is motorised, clips to the belt and has 30 metres of very strong thread for climbing, a jar of zit cream that can be used for picking locks when the cream touches metal and a Game Boy that has four games on it, each of them doing something that is definitely not about game-playing.

Toby Venables has done a series set in mediaeval England, Hunter of Sherwood, with Guy of Gisburne, the villain of the Robin Hood stories, as the unlikely hero. This Gisburne is more or less a cross between James Bond and Indiana Jones, according to the author. He is working for Prince John, who is basically his M, and has his own Q, a Welshman called Llewellyn, who gives him all sorts of useful stuff to take on his adventures.

Terry Pratchett's History Monk Qu creates gadgets for the monks to take when they go out into the world to fix problems in time. He likes things that go bang. In Thief Of Time he is working on a begging bowl that can be turned into a deadly weapon, and you can also eat rice from it.

The gadget maker in Get Smart is Carlson. His gadgets are sometimes over-the-top, such as the car phone disguised as a cigarette lighter and cigarette lighter disguised as a phone. Max drives him crazy by wrecking his gadgets before they're used, eg the spy fly and the gun umbrella, which goes off when Max opens it.

Navy SEALs wearing diving gear. Public domain

Now, back to the real world. Check out this interview in Gizmodo, with a real-life Q. Ralph Osterhout says he started life with a love of all things James Bond. He learned to shoot, drive and fight. When he was only twenty-two, he says, he even built a mini-submarine because of one he'd seen in a Bond movie. True? Well, that's what he tells the interviewer. I don't imagine it was one you could do a lot with, but young geeky fannish types can do the most amazing stuff. I know a guy who does high-quality props for the movies; before that, he created a K9 robot dog that was better than the original one in Dr Who (it did three movements - the one on TV was actually three props that did one thing each), just so he could dress as Tom Baker for science fiction conventions. I went to a convention where the guest of honour was Jeremy Bulloch, who played Boba Fett in Star Wars. For fun, he put on a suit of Boba Fett armour made by a fan in the audience and wore it up the aisle as he approached the podium. As he stripped it off, he said that was better than the one he'd worn in the movie! Ralph Osterhout was just another fan who was even better than the ones I've mentioned - though I think those two guys I've mentioned could probably make gadgets for spies if they wanted to. It's a tech thing and a lot of kids I know even now would be able to have a go, at least. Fans go over the top, creating stuff you can use in real life, rather than props that are just good enough to convince viewers in films, so they can use them at SF conventions. Of course, there's CGI now, but they can do that too.

Ralph didn't actually work for the government until he had already been making underwater gadgets that they decided they could use. By that time, he was running a company making high-tech underwater gear. He built night-vision goggles for Desert Storm and two dive vehicles he had built were used in James Bond movies, though those would surely have been just props.

Ralph can't share all the gadgets he has made, but told his interviewer some fascinating stuff. There's one bug that is disguised as bird poop that lands on a window. Mind you, I'd want to wash my window if I saw something disgusting on it, but if you're several floors up and in an office, you leave it till the window washers can get to it and by that time it would have done its job.

I'll let you read the interview - no point in telling you everything he said!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

P Is For Popov...Dusko Popov: A To Z Challenge 2017



Dusko Popov 1940. Public domain.

"The name is Popov. Dusko Popov."

He probably never said that, but Yugoslav lawyer Dusko Popov may well have been one of the inspirations for the fictional agent James Bond. Like Bond, he enjoyed the good life, wine, women and song, not to mention fast cars. Early in the war, he offered his services to British Naval Intelligence, which accepted him. He had already agreed to spy for the Nazis, so he would be a useful double agent. Fortunately, he was a double agent for the British. 

At this time, the U.S. was not in the war. It didn't join until after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, in December 1941. If the U.S. authorities had paid attention to one of his reports - a warning about the impending attack - history might have been very different. At the very least, the death and destruction left by the bombing raid could have been avoided, even if it was then decided that the attack plans warranted the U.S. entering the war anyway. He had been sent to the U.S. by the Nazis to find out details of the fortifications at Pearl Harbor. But J. Edgar Hoover, in charge of the FBI, didn't trust him, knowing he was a double agent, and didn't pass on the information to his superiors. 

Dusko passed on fake information to the Nazis, which helped win the war for the Allies. For example, he told them the Allies would land at Calais rather than Normandy. After the war, he settled down in France and got married. His wife and children didn't know anything about his wartime adventures until he released an autobiography in 1974, Spy/Counterspy. The autobiography was apparently mostly accurate, with a few colourful bits of fiction thrown in. 

Dusko Popov lived till 1981, when his smoking and drinking finally caught up with him and he died at the age of 69.

So, what about his James Bond connections? He used to call his uncle for advice on the phone number 26-007

And the British Naval Intelligence officer who hired him was called Fleming. Ian Fleming. 

O Is For...Odysseus: A To Z Challenge 2017


Odysseus and the Sirens. Public domain.

Today we're going to take a trip into the world of Greek mythology.

You've probably heard of Odysseus, the King of the small island kingdom of Ithaca. He is known more often by his Roman name of Ulysses. He was the guy who came up with the idea of constructing the Trojan Horse. (And we still have that term for a piece of computer malware used to hack into your computer account!)

But before that, Odysseus did a bit of spying. He was the smartest of the Greek heroes. In my opinion, he may have been the only one of them who had a brain, actually. Odysseus had never wanted to join the expedition to Troy. He had a kingdom to run, a wife he loved and a baby son, Telemachus. But he had been part of a group agreement meant to stop the suitors of Helen of Sparta from getting into a war with each other. In fact, the agreement had been his idea. 

Trying to get out of it and failing, he reluctantly went off to the Trojan War. When it had been going for ten years, Odysseus had had enough. More than enough. There was a prophecy that Troy would never fall until the Palladium, a stone sacred to the goddess Athena, was removed from its hiding place under the city. Odysseus didn't fancy another ten years or more parked outside those walls.

He disguised himself as a grubby old beggar and sneaked in. After ten years, presumably there were holes and tunnels and I bet there were lower-class Trojans and Greeks selling each other supplies. Anyway. He got in and went off to find out where the stone that could help him get home was located. While he was about it, he looked around him.

Queen Helen saw and recognised him.  That was actually good news for him, because she, too, had had enough. Helen took him to where the stone was located and helped him get out of town.

The rest is mythology. Without its magical protection, Troy fell to Odysseus's next bright idea,the Trojan  Horse, with some help from another Greek spy, Sinon, planted to tell the Trojans that he'd been left behind and the Horse was an offering to the gods. 

Unfortunately for Odysseus, he was stuck with ten years more of travel before he finally made it home and then he disguised himself again, to make sure of his welcome. He didn't fool his old hunting dog, which recognised him through the disguise and licked his hand before finally dying... He did fool nearly everyone else.

Odysseus would have made a good professional spy, no? 

L Is For...Hedy Lamarr: A To Z Challenge 2017

Hedy Lamarr. Public domain image

Hedy Lamarr was a beautiful glamour star in Hollywood in the 1940s. She had been in some German films before fleeing Europe, but her career really took off when she reached the U.S.

But she wasn't just a pretty face. As the trophy wife of an arms dealer working for the Nazis in her native Austria, she was taken to meetings to be shown off. Like other possessors of trophy wives, her husband never thought she might actually be listening to the secrets he and his customers were discussing. No doubt he thought that any brain in that beautiful head was occupied with clothes, make-up and the next party. 

Little did he know...

Hedy - then Hedwig Kiesler - had a very good brain, one she was not going to use in support of the Nazis. She ran off to Paris(there's a story about her drugging her maid in her escape). There, she met Hollywood producer Louis B Mayer, who offered her a contract. 

In the U.S. she wanted to become a part of the National Inventors' Council. Instead, she was asked to raise money for the war effort by selling kisses. She did this, raising a lot of money in one night by selling kisses at $25,000 each! Her lips must have needed a retread after all that... 

Hedy Lamarr was not a spy. What she did was contribute - potentially, anyway - to blocking enemy interference with, or eavesdropping on, submarines. At a party she met a composer called George Antheil. Between them, the composer and the actress worked out something based on player piano rolls. It's called frequency hopping and it's still in use, but not for counter-intelligence or blocking the enemy.

It was not adopted by the U.S. Navy till the patent ran out, well after the war.

Nowadays, you use the invention of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil every day, whenever you use your smart phone. The principles went into WiFi, CDMA and Bluetooth. As a result, the two of them were inducted into the Inventors' Hall Of Fame. 

When the elderly Hedy was invited to come and collect an award for contributions to science, she snorted, "Hmph! About time!"

It certainly was. And nice to know that someone who could have been a femme fatale spy instead became an inventor. 

Tomorrow: M is for Herbert Dyce Murphy, the Aussie Cross-Dressing Spy