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Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, Ten Years Later

April 23, 2009 1 comment

“Hey, I finally saw Heat!”
“Heat? I saw that six years ago…”
“Yeah, but I wanna talk about it now!”
~Jim Gaffigan

Ten years ago, we were all agog over The Matrix. Cyberpunk, electronica, and people in fetishistic vinyl clothing were suddenly everywhere. Me? I was still in my final years of high school. I admit, I never saw The Matrix in the theater. I, like many others who didn’t, kicked myself later for not doing so.

But this isn’t about The Matrix. Nope. It’s about a book. You know, those papery things they used to make before we all got addicted to our screens, phones, and Xboxen?

That book is Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. Had I read this book when it came out, like some of my friends did, I might have a different view of it, but now, ten years later, we can look back on its trademark cutting-edge technology and see how well it has weathered the times.

First, some basic plot and character points. The book is one story, told over two time periods, with concentric story layers. Some characters occupy both timelines, some occupy just one, but they are all interconnected in some way. If you’ve stumbled this far into the internet to find my little corner, you’ve probably seen or heard of the book, but I’m going to try not to divulge too many secrets (well, no more than are in the book’s own synopsis…)

The Waterhouse clan is our main protagonist group in the story, given here in the forms of Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse and his grandson, Randall Lawrence Waterhouse, or Randy for short. Randy is a professional hacker; he builds networking code. Really good networking code. His grandfather was likewise gifted with numbers; the elder Waterhouse was a cryptographer in World War II. So what we end up with is a single story, told in bits and pieces, in two different time periods, but involving the same family. Oh, sorry: families.

See, Randy ends up contracting Doug Shaftoe and his daughter Amy to do some underwater cable work. Turns out Doug Shaftoe’s dad, Bobby Shaftoe, did some work with old man Waterhouse back in the day, in the super-secret Detachment 2702. They also worked with the mysterious Enoch Root, and together did all sorts of cat-and-mouse, cloak-and-dagger stuff with the Germans (and Japanese, I suppose) during the war.

But why would this mean anything? Well, there’s a lot of talk involving Randy’s new business venture, Epiphyte(2)– the 2 denoting that this is the second company called “Epiphyte” that he and his friends have concocted. Basically, Ephiphyte is building a data haven–a place where people can deposit their secret information without the prying eyes of governments or other entities seeing it. Eventually this whole operation gets turned upside down, thanks to operations and pacts made in the past… things that the elder Waterhouse, Shaftoe, and Root know about. The key to all of this is a mysterious set of computer punch cards that show up in the possession of Randy’s family.

Add to this some smatterings of Dr. Alan Turing (the computer guy), Gen. Douglas MacArthur (the Army guy), and some German conspirators that may or may not have lived, plus some Japanese engineers, and it all adds up to a century’s worth of awesome sauce.

Of course, the book is complex in ways other than its structure. There is some pretty complicated math in the book, plus there’s the added bonus of a lot of networking, business, and hacker lingo. What dates the book is precisely these things. The networking technology at this point was so far behind where we are today, when wireless networking is something you can get on just about any phone, GPS navigation is standard issue in many cars, and encryption is as easy as flipping a check box in a Windows dialog box. Back then, all these things must have seemed so bizarrely ahead of their time. The concept of servers and T1 lines and internet banking are all perfectly normal conversation in many circles now, no longer relegated to the annals of computer science buildings.

Now, I’m 27 years old. I have a pretty good grasp on network architecture, and I know a thing or two about Linux. But the math in some parts of the book is so far beyond my own abilities that I just let it pass. Whatever, I figure Stephenson probably had someone check it to make sure it worked. And that’s the thing about the details the book has: they don’t get in the way of the story. No matter how technical it wants to get, the book breaks down to Good vs. Evil, good ol’ treasure hunting, and the guy getting the girl.

The main thing that kept me coming back to the book (especially the second half, which I consumed in about three days–no small feat for being a 900+ page book) was the style. Think about it this way: if somehow Warren Ellis’ brain consumed all of Tom Clancy’s technical knowledge and then spit it out as both detailed and hilarious, that’s how this book would read. Like a technological Hunter S. Thompson. Which probably means I’ll have to add Stephenson to my list of People That Are Influencing My Fiction Writing.*

Since it is written in present-tense third-person, the book has an immediacy all the way through it that is hard to deny, and is probably what lent itself to such voracious consumption in the second half. And given that Stephenson wrote quick, simple chapters, with utterly fantastic cliffhangers, and structured the pacing in such a way that you didn’t know which plotline was going to be next, it was difficult to put the book down. It went from being a “chapter at a time” book to a “couple hundred pages at a time” book, and I was so consumed by it in the second half that I was emotionally invested in nearly every character in the book, from the lowest Chinese slave camp laborer to the highest German admiral to the nerds at Bletchly Park.

And so, ten years later, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon stands the test of time not because it was an ahead-of-its-time cyber-thriller, but because it tells a pretty good story in a relatively unique way with a ton of fantastic copy. Sure, there are only so many stories to be told, but this one tells a few of them, at breakneck pace, with a fantastic sense of humor. Its details may be a little sketchy now, but it’s heart is definitely still in the right place.

This book may be ten years old, but Cryptonomicon is well worth the wait.

*The list so far: Hunter S. Thompson, Warren Ellis, Neal Stephenson

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Oh, Is That All? (Part One)

July 10, 2008 Leave a comment

I’m lucky in that I can call a very creative group of people my friends. I know two web developers (one of which is a particularly lucid writer), a novelist that’s working in television, a theater technician, poets, and countless musicians. All of them have big hopes of becoming something Important. What I’m wondering, though, is what will ultimately push them over the edge into profitability and/or notoriety? And for that matter, what about any other random blogger in the world?

One problem with being a producer of a creative piece of work, be it fine art, writing, blogging, music, whatever, is that, ultimately, you’re trying to sell something to someone. Unfortunately, most of the time, that something is information. Images, ideas, or expressions that aren’t easily wrangled or tangibly owned the way, say, your couch is. Without being able to extract some sort of easy monetary benefit out of a product like a blog post, being creative is generally a pretty piss poor way of making a real living. So how do we fund ourselves, as bloggers, or writers, or photographers, as creators? Advertising.

Not our own, of course. Not advertising our own product with our product, but advertising someone else’s product with our product.

There’s countless websites out there telling you how to create traffic and therefore generate revenue for yourself through your blog. Most of them make the claim that the best way to create traffic is to have good content, and the rest will come naturally. But will it really? Most of these sites say that, in order to have good content that you need to do a few things to really get people to notice, most notably specialization and personal branding. Selling yourself to sell certain ads to certain people, essentially.

While I agree that there are advantages to specialization, what happens if you’re one of those people who simply can’t keep tied down to one subject type or beat? What happens if you have a really good idea that you just have to write about? Do you put it on the shelf for later, or for someone else to publish for you? Do you start multiple blogs and spread out your workload? I contend that you shouldn’t have to. Sure, market saturation and trends will tell you that that should get more people to your site, but will it really?

This is where my real point begins. In all that specialization, and pandering to your audience and advertisers, what’s to guarantee that you’ll get any traffic at all? Sure, there are people that blog or write or take pictures or paint solely for the joy of it, but anyone trying to make a living though creative arts generally have to jump through so many hoops just to get noticed that it’s enough to make any self-respecting writer jump ship and work as a day laborer for the rest of their lives (or until their bodies give out.)

Should we just write, put it out there, and hope to get noticed? You’ll be waiting a long time for that to happen, I think. You could pimp the hell out of your work to your friends and anyone that has an internet connection, but I still don’t think that will guarantee any staying power. Look at the webcomic industry. Is there really any rhyme or reason as to which comics are popular and profitable versus the flashes in the pan? What is it that makes Drudge one of the most popular websites in the world when all he does 90% of the time is simply repost stories, like just about any other schlub could do?

For an answer to questions like these, I’ll be using one of those generic “Get Traffic Quick” strategies. I’ll be sending out an e-mail interview/questionairre to some of my aforementioned creative people and see what is important to them in a blog, what gets them to come back, and finally, what they are doing to further their creative presence on the web. Hopefully I’ll have the project completed within the next couple weeks, so keep your eyes on this space.

Ant Wheels: When Ideas Change

May 20, 2008 Leave a comment

I was originally going to write this about Nine Inch Nails’ The Slip. And then I read the newest Rolling Stone, and lo and behold, there’s a big, fat review of the album. I’ve read a dozen or more reviews of the album at Warren Ellis’ Whitechapel Forums. So what this leads me to is how do I, the casual blogger, really get a good, timely, post out there? Well, up here. Anyway.

I think the short answer is that I don’t. Nearly all the posts I’ve made in this blog have been months or weeks out of date. Maybe I don’t rely on my feeds enough. Maybe I rely on them too much. I don’t think I’ve hit that magic spot where I’m reading enough yet not reading too much.

The unfortunate thing about the internet, that I’ve found, anyway, is that what you’re trying to say has probably already been said. Political commentary is being parroted by half a dozen news stations, innumerable websites, TV news, radio news, and the hundreds, nay, thousands of bloggers* just itching to complain or canonize some snippet of news. I am not an investigative journalist. Not often, anyway.

All I can do is give my opinion, which 90% of the time is made up of 80% uninformed bitching and 15% lies (that’s not true) in an attempt to up the word count of my post to keep some sorry bastard (you?) keep reading.

And if I’m doing that somewhere between once and four times a month, what about the people that do it every day?

I can’t maintain a link blog. I find it an indulgence anyway. Yet I use Twitter for the sole purpose of feeling important. Is that what all of us in Web 2.0 are doing? Is this creating a shit-ton of content that really doesn’t mean anything? I submit that it is. That’s not to say there’s no real content out there, but I think someone needs to figure out a way to dig into my brain and find what I want to say when I want to say it, as well as parse the entire internet into a digestible portion that I’m interested in. I’m slowly integrating bits of information intake organization; I’ve started using Google’s applications to organize my RSS, and its Calendar application so I know what the hell I’m doing and when I’m doing it (so long as there’s internet access where I happen to be at any given moment.)

I realize at this point that my whole post is a product of the mindless blather that is the internet. It’s some sort of self-perpetuating cycle. “Add something that readers would have an interest in.” “Bring something new to the table.” It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? But is it really?

Take, for example, the New York Times. There’s this really neat thing that they use called RSS, but their various feeds run the same stories. Does this make sense? Do they run the same stories in different sections in the physical newspaper? I bet they don’t, because that would make the paper weight a thousand pounds apiece and drive the costs through the roof, not to mention that it would be an unwieldy beast to read. So why do they make you see the same headlines four times in four “different” feeds? Is that economical for anyone involved? Wouldn’t I save time only looking at one headline? Wouldn’t the NYT save time by only running a headline once? Wouldn’t the webteam* accomplish more if they weren’t adding the same stories to half a dozen feeds?

This, I think, is the whole point of this post… everyone is trying to get as much junk out there as they can, trying to get their voice heard. “The internet has given everyone a voice, and apparently everyone wants to bitch about movies,” I think, is a paraphrase from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. I’m quoting from a mildly successful Kevin Smith movie, I realize, but there’s a lot of truth in that. But it’s more than just movies. Everyone gets together to bitch about… everything. I mean, you’re reading my bitching about other people’s bitching? How fucking inbred is that? This whole post is cyclical and parasitic.

Sorta like the internet, and media in general.

I read in a Magic: The Gathering article by Patrick Chapin about an idea called information cascade. One person reads something from a source they trust and simply assume that, since it comes from a trustworthy person, the information is true. Then someone else hears from the new person, and so on, until nearly everyone simply assumes something to be true. Chapin puts it this way:

“The information cascade is a chain reaction of decision-making where almost everyone involved is basing their decision on the decisions of others, who in turn base their decisions on others, regardless of personal information. Now, often these cascades carry a useful message to everyone quickly (such as when you are at a street corner and everyone starts crossing. Even if you can’t see the walk sign, it is a fairly safe bet that the crowd knows what it is doing). However, if the first couple of people were in error, the cascade can send a harmful signal to all (everyone panicking and trying to run out of a movie theater when someone yells “Fire”). “

The old example is the “ant wheel,” wherein ants simply follow the ant in front of them, and if the front of the line finds a new ant, they follow that ant… which may very well be the rear ant in the line that he himself is leading. It’s the ant equivallent of staring at your own bellybutton. I think that any system that relies on others and their leadership can run into this sort of thing.

So media, in a way, is just everyone repeating what someone else has already said about something. And that’s how I got here. I can’t seem to write a review of Nine Inch Nails’ The Slip without saying something someone already said, or might have already said. And then someone reads this and (well, hopefully) assumes I’m right, and they tell someone what I said, and everything goes cyclical.

I’m not doing that. I refuse to. I’m not bringing down the internet. And neither, Mr. Bloggerpants, should you.

*I find it ironic that Firefox claims that “bloggers” is not a word, and thus underlines it to tell me so. As well as “doesn’t.” Interestingally, “webteam” is a word.