Cryptonomicon

So, today, I’m going to talk a bit about Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson.

Some information you might want to know before hand: this book was published in 1999, almost ten years ago. This was a fair bit before the time of blogs and, really, even before the time of popular internet usage the way we think of it today. This was back in the days when the gray blocks of Windows ’95 had only just been updated to the gray blocks of Windows ’98. A time when e-mail was still considered fairly impressive communication. Keep that thought in mind: focus on it.

Cryptonomicon, really, is two stories combined into one. Given that the book is 1000+ pages long, and very dense reading for most of those pages, this is a good thing—it splits the readers attention nicely.

One of these plots is set in WWII, where we follow the trail of Bobby Shaftoe, a United States Marine, and Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse, a mathematician who finds himself in the Navy (as a Glockenspiel player), and then through an odd twist of genius, as one of the single most important mathematicians in the allied forces, working on decrypting enemy messages.

The other story is set in modern times (remember: 1999) and mainly follows the hacker Randall Lawrence Waterhouse—the grandson of our WWII mathematician friend—and the company he works for, Epiphyte(2), as they seek to 1) increase shareholder value, 2) prevent all future holocausts, 3) find an entire mountain full of hidden Japanese gold and 4) use it to fund an entirely online form of currency, completely independent from taxation or regulation by any of the world’s governments.

So, if you didn’t catch it yet, the plot of this entire thing is very complex. The 1100 pages is well spent on Stephenson’s part. There’s not a lot of unnecessary narrative, and I actually felt that if it were any shorter, the book would have been hurried and confusing. Don’t be misled though: this isn’t a page-turner, Barnes&Noble best seller we’re dealing with here. This book takes time and energy to read, and isn’t one to be rushed through in one night.

Those familiar with Stephenson’s writing will know that he is very, very technical in the way he works. His roots are in science fiction, and unlike some authors of the genre, Stephenson always goes out of his way to explain the science portion, instead of just making up whatever technology he wants to suit his plot. Most of his books are equal parts educational and entertaining. Just by reading this one, you will automatically get a crashcourse in: WWII cryptology, modern information technology, computer architecture, basic economics, and a certain amount of sociology. It’s like going to a liberal arts college, only you might learn something from the gen. eds.

But don’t be completely discouraged, the reading isn’t like slogging through a textbook. We’ve got a nice little setup here, to keep the reading from getting bogged down too much. On the WWII front, we have the dual adventures of Bobby Shaftoe—always narrated in a rough and tumble sort of way that is well suited to a Marine, but not so crass and foolish as to be annoying to read—and the work of Waterhouse—who’s narrated in such a mathematical way that it almost implies a mental disorder. Bobby Shaftoe’s scenes are always beautifully narrated. Stephenson has a real talent with the language, no matter what he’s doing, but one of the places he really shines is when describing action. Action scenes are hard to write, because language is a naturally an intellectual medium of communication, rather than an emotional one, but Stephenson handles things with such clarity that you are never once bothered by the fact that you’re limited to only reading what’s happening. And on the other side, the mathematics are handled with an ease of explanation that even a layman could get it—most of the scenes of really heavy mathematics are utterly hilarious, although the humor might be a miss for some.

Same applies for the present day story, where we have action in the form of business intrigue and treasure hunting (and a little romance between Randy Waterhouse and Filipino diver and salvage worker, America Shaftoe), and intellectual stimulation from Randy’s computer-and-math oriented friends and coworkers, along with a bit of reflection from Randy himself, who has a mind not dissimilar to his grandfather’s.

(There is, for instance, a segment of about ten pages devoted entirely to Randy reflecting on the proper physics and engineering of the preparation and consumption of a quality bowl of Cap’n Crunch. I don’t often laugh out loud while reading, but this is one of many points in this book that I was rendered completely unable to read further until I regained the ability to breathe properly.)

So it’s good. Really good. On a purely linguistic level, not many can touch Stephenson: his sense of word placement, sentence structure, and style are completely top notch. The composition of this story is really ingenious too: in addition to all the above praise, it’s also completely enjoyable to watch how the WWII plot affects the modern day plot. Many of the present-setting characters are descendants of the WWII-setting, and the events between the two stories are absolutely interrelated; the present-day folks keep looking for the treasure the past-day folks hid. And, even more happily, the pacing of the two plots together is such that any plot twists you do figure out ahead of time are pleasant, rather than predictable.

With all that out of the way, there are some gripes: firstly, this book is dense. I, being a bit of a techie, really enjoyed some of the more mathematics/engineering oriented bits. They are excellently done, but might not necessarily be for everyone. Stephenson might teach well enough that even non-math-oriented people can understand, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will want too. For some, this book might be a bit more work than they’re wanting to put into a read. And another thing Stephenson is pretty famous for are letdown endings, and this isn’t quite the exception. No spoilers here; the ending isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it feels like it could have been a bit stronger, with a few more loose ends tied up.

Nevertheless, a subpar ending is an unpleasant blemish on an otherwise good book: noticeable, but forgivable.

You should pick up a copy of this: it’s a good book. Healthy doses of treasure hunting, WWII submarine warfare, mathematics and apocalyptic economic theory makes for a read that is entertaining, rewarding, and thoughtful—and getting all three of those in one go is pretty good in anyone’s book.

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Kindle the Flames of Revolution

I won a writing award at my school. It’s the Nancy Barcus Memorial Award, named after an ex-faculty member of Houghton. It’s not really an award just for writing, but also is a sign of general competency, a good attitude, and involvement with the Houghton College Writing Department. I feel very good about receiving it, perhaps as a sign that I actually do know what I’m doing after all.

That and it comes with three hundred dollars attached.

As honored as I am about the award, the three hundred dollars are what this post is about. I feel like I need to spend them on something writer-ish, like books and such. Or perhaps put it towards some journal subscriptions, making literary connections, etc.

I doubt I’m going to be putting towards any of those things.

Rather, I think very seriously about putting it towards Amazon’s new Kindle. What, you say, what is a Kindle? Kindle is Amazon’s new e-book reader. A convenient little hand-held gadget with wireless access which lets you download books and read them directly from the built in screen.

Now, e-readers aren’t very popular at the moment, especially amongst the writer crowd, for a number of reasons. The biggest practical reason I’ve heard is that people don’t like reading off of screens: it hurts their eyes. Well, that’s taken care of here. The Kindle doesn’t have a monitor. It has what they’re calling an Electronic Ink Display. Basically, when you load up a book, the data gets written to the display in a very literal fashion. It isn’t little glowing lights that shows you the text, the actual display itself changes colors. It’s like reading off of paper, only the paper can change it’s content. All the versatility of a monitor, all the clarity and smoothness of a page. So you have an entire book on a single sheet. More than just one book, really: Amazon.com has released over 10,000 titles for kindle download so far, all for $9.99 or less. More are coming out every day. Seems like a good deal to me, even though the piece of hardware itself is $399.99.

Despite it all, though, most of my writer-friends make small hissing sounds whenever I talk about it. Something about the concept still bothers them. I know exactly what it is to.

Written print is dying, slowly and surely. The internet in general (us bloggers, really) delivered the first blow. Kindle (or, perhaps a similar piece of hardware that will come after) is the box they’re going to bury it in. They don’t like it, they don’t want books to go away, because there’s something incredibly nice about having something in you hands as you read it: the rasp of paper, the creaking of a spine when you bend it a little to far, the little wrinkles that the paper gets when your hands are sweaty and you stay on one page too long. E-readers can’t replace books any more than blogs can replace manuscripts—which doesn’t mean they won’t try. Print as we know it is dying, not much to be done about it.

Personally, I can’t wait.

Now, now, before you all go throwing tomatoes at me, let me explain myself. The fact is that I love books, probably more so than the next guy. But I don’t look at them, like most do, as vehicles for information. I look at them as an art form, the book itself being a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, publishing companies nowadays are very much business oriented, not art-oriented. They care about profit, and distribution, and numbers. I don’t really blame them: they’re running a business, and there’s nothing to be done about it. But the end result is that books—the actual physical books, the paper, the binding, the ink and the like—are made as cheap as possible in order to maximize profit. Your standard commercial paperback is a tiny thing, not even half the size of an 8×11 sheet of paper. The words are crammed so full at every page that they’re an eyesore to read: I’d rather stare at a monitor all day. The pages are almost never acid free anymore, though, so any books you might have will crumble in twenty to thirty year’s time, anyway.

Trade paperbacks, the large ones, are only a little better. The text isn’t so smashed, and the books aren’t quite as fragile, but the acid’s still there, and even if they last long enough to crumble, you won’t be able to hand them to you grandchildren by any means. Hardcovers—did you know?—are trade paperbacks connected to cardboard siding via two pieces of paper. Look at the very front and back of a hardcover near you, where the ‘cover’ meets the actual ‘book.’ Those two sheets of paper that seem to hold everything together? Those really do hold everything together. Hardcovers are no more durable than anything else, and not really any nicer. It’s all done with glue and cheap paper nowadays, not a hint of stitching in a book to be seen.

But only, I say, for nowadays. Until print dies. Until all the Chicken Soup for the Tortured Soul readers, the Oprah fans, the people looking for Hillary Clinton’s latest biography have left the market, have gotten they’re kindles and won’t have anything to do with clunky, outdated books anymore. Then the ones that will be left will be the bibliophiles. The book lovers. Us.

Basic free-market principle: if there’s a market, someone will satisfy it. And the market that will be left over after print dies will be the market that is no longer satisfied with glue and acidic paper. The publishing houses that still make old fashioned books will do it right, they’ll stitch the pages together, give the books proper headbands again. Acid free paper will abound.

When Print dies, it won’t really die. It’ll just become what it should be—beautiful. Admittedly, prices will rise, because good books take money to make. But if you’re just looking for a cheap read, that’s what you’ve got a Kindle for.

So that’s why I’m considering buying a kindle—to add a bit of funding to the cause.

If I do end up getting one, I’ll let you know how it turns out. The product looks good in the demonstrations I’ve seen, but I’ll need to actually use one to get a feel for it. I’ll keep you posted.

~DK

Edit: Behold the Kindle here.

Paper or Binary?

I’ve been thinking about manuscripts lately. Or rather, I’ve been thinking about how computers have destroyed them.

I went to the Pierpont Morgan Library over Thanksgiving break several months ago. It’s basically the library and mansion of an old wallstreet baron (for those who don’t know who Pierpont Morgan was), converted into a museum showcasing all the stuff he has. There’s a lot of it: beautiful old hard-bound books of a quality that just doesn’t happen any more, and priceless pieces of art, and orthodox iconography. But more than anything else, it was the original manuscripts that fascinated me.

They had them in glass cases, old manuscripts of books that everyone knows at the time. They cycled what was on display, and so I found myself on the day that I went looking at the yellowing pages of The Picture of Dorian Grey, the original ink-marking made by Oscar Wild himself, on the actual pages. The script was elegant and cursive, obviously written with a fine-nib pen. There were some of the original essays written by Mark Twain, and some of Beethoven’s handwritten scores, the writing of the later fierce and jagged with angry little notes stabbed onto the pages.

There was something powerful about being in the manuscript room, as if there was some sort of physical presence to the paper that was much more powerful than just the mass of the pages on their own. It was like being able to share in genius.

My problem is, of course, that I don’t write on paper. My hand writing isn’t elegant. It isn’t even illegible, because at least with illegible writing you can claim a creative style. Mine is simply unsteady and awkward, like a third grader just learning the shapes of the letters. Not the writing suited to manuscripts. And I can’t even write very well on paper, either: my mind has synced with the feel of a keyboard, and I’ve never managed to reprogram it to work with anything else. When I try to shift to paper, the quality of my writing goes perceptibly down. It’s no fun whatsoever.

I’ve been fully raised on computers, and can’t manage to bring myself to that previous time where people wrote by hand. There aren’t going to be any manuscripts for me. There aren’t going to be manuscripts for hundreds of people in the coming generations. The keyboard has taken over.

Not only that, but even typewriters are outdated. The hard work of millions of people all over the world exits only as streams of binary: ones and zeros. There will be no physical record of the process of writing, only the final product.

Now, I should say: I’m a technical boy. I believe in computers, and in technology in general with a fierce intensity. They do make life better. But there is a cost, and the presence of manuscripts is one of them. I know not all authors are capitulating to this as easily as I am: Neil Gaiman, for instance, writes his manuscripts with quill and ink, by hand. Lots of poets I know go to great lengths to write things out longhand, just because it feels weird to them to write poetry on a computer. But for lots of us authors, especially the fiction writers, manuscripts are things of the past.

Every once in a while, I’ll buy a comp-book, or open my nice journal, and start writing something from the beginning out of admiration for those manuscripts I saw at the Morgan Peirpont Library. Truthfully, I would love to see one with my name on it in someone else’s famed collection one day. But it doesn’t work: not only because I’m lazy, but because I just don’t write well with a pen. I’m disorganized, and lose my comp-books, and things just don’t work.

Mostly, though, I wonder what’s going to replace the comp-book. Perhaps it’s what I’m doing right now—the blog is the journal and manuscript of tomorrow. It fulfills many of the same things form a literary standpoint: shows the process that a work went through before publication. But it’s not the same, there’s no physical product to it. People aren’t going to file into a museum just to see the IBM R50 that David King wrote Artifice.EXE on. And this blog is data: easily copied and distributed.

No, I think that the internet has ended a generation completely. We’ve lost something.

But then again, we’ve gained a world of technology. We’ve gotten word processing, and connectivity, and Wikipedia. We’ve gained things we won’t even know about until after they’re established as part of our lives. Some people don’t think it was worth it, but personally, I have a lot of faith in the new things to come.