From parlor trick to weapon of war, invisible ink and other means of hidden writing emerge as one of mankind’s more intriguing inventions in this lively history.
Georgia Tech history professor Macrakis (Seduced by Secrets, 2008) surveys 2,000 years of secret messages penned with an improbable variety of substances and methods: lemon juice, various bodily fluids and other liquids that dry invisibly on the page but turn brown when exposed to heat. Gall-nut extract, for instance, a traditional ink used by George Washington’s agents, turns black when brushed with iron sulfate, and cobalt solutions painted on fire screens blossom into brilliant green foliage when warmed. Some modern inks require four different chemical treatments to develop; an invisible ink invented by Linus Pauling shows up only when treated with a specific antibody. Aside from chemical compounds, microdots can cram pages of documents into a tiny spot the size of the period at the end of this sentence, and digital encoding techniques allow messages to be inserted into Internet porn. Macrakis offers lucid explanations of the chemistry and optics underlying the seemingly magical properties of invisible inks, and she even appends recipes that guide readers in making some of the simpler varieties. The heart of her book, though, is the cat-and-mouse game between spies who conceal their reports in plain sight and counterintelligence officials trying to intercept and detect them, a saga she follows from the subterfuges of Mary Queen of Scots to dueling Cold War intelligence agencies. Her chronicle luxuriates in colorful characters—Jesuits plotting to escape from the Tower of London, James Bond–ian playboy-spies and Mata Hari–like femmes fatales—and intricate cloak-and-dagger featuring inks secreted in fake molars and infused into garments. It’s also a story of government surveillance at a level that would make Edward Snowden cringe: During the world wars, Britain and the U.S. opened millions of letters and tested them for invisible messages. Macrakis unearths a wealth of information, including secret documents she mined from East Germany’s Stasi archives, weaving it together with engaging prose that illuminates a seldom-seen aspect of espionage.

An engrossing study of unseen writing and the picaresque misadventures of those who employ it.



Pub Date: March 25, 2014

ISBN: 978-0300179255

Page Count: 392

Publisher: Yale University Press

Review Posted Online: July 2, 2014

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.


“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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