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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.

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Pub Date: March 25, 2014

ISBN: 978-0300179255

Page Count: 392

Publisher: Yale Univ.

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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Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.



Rootin’-tootin’ history of the dry-gulchers, horn-swogglers, and outright killers who populated the Wild West’s wildest city in the late 19th century.

The stories of Wyatt Earp and company, the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and Geronimo and the Apache Wars are all well known. Clavin, who has written books on Dodge City and Wild Bill Hickok, delivers a solid narrative that usefully links significant events—making allies of white enemies, for instance, in facing down the Apache threat, rustling from Mexico, and other ethnically charged circumstances. The author is a touch revisionist, in the modern fashion, in noting that the Earps and Clantons weren’t as bloodthirsty as popular culture has made them out to be. For example, Wyatt and Bat Masterson “took the ‘peace’ in peace officer literally and knew that the way to tame the notorious town was not to outkill the bad guys but to intimidate them, sometimes with the help of a gun barrel to the skull.” Indeed, while some of the Clantons and some of the Earps died violently, most—Wyatt, Bat, Doc Holliday—died of cancer and other ailments, if only a few of old age. Clavin complicates the story by reminding readers that the Earps weren’t really the law in Tombstone and sometimes fell on the other side of the line and that the ordinary citizens of Tombstone and other famed Western venues valued order and peace and weren’t particularly keen on gunfighters and their mischief. Still, updating the old notion that the Earp myth is the American Iliad, the author is at his best when he delineates those fraught spasms of violence. “It is never a good sign for law-abiding citizens,” he writes at one high point, “to see Johnny Ringo rush into town, both him and his horse all in a lather.” Indeed not, even if Ringo wound up killing himself and law-abiding Tombstone faded into obscurity when the silver played out.

Buffs of the Old West will enjoy Clavin’s careful research and vivid writing.

Pub Date: April 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-250-21458-4

Page Count: 400

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2020

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