Like something out of a a Neal Stephenson novel.
Posts tagged ‘Neal Stephenson’
I hate excerpting Ken at Popehat in times like this, because I simply love reading all his prose and hope you will do so as well rather than settling for the excerpt only. I love Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon not because it is his best story (it's not) but because it has some of his best prose. Six pages on eating Cap'n Crunch and ten or so on getting a wisdom tooth extraction, and I was left begging for more. Ken is my blogging equivalent. I could read a whole book just with Ken calling out censorious lawyers for threatening bloggers to try to shut them up.
See, a legal threat like the one Charles Carreon sent — "shut up, delete your criticism of my client, give me $20,000, or I'll file a federal lawsuit against you" — is unquestionably a form of bullying. It's a form that's endorsed by our broken legal system. Charles Carreon doesn't have to speak the subtext, any more than the local lout has to tell the corner bodega-owner that "protection money" means "pay of we'll trash your shop." The message is plain to anyone who is at all familiar with the system, whether by experience or by cultural messages. What Charles Carreon's letter conveyed was this: "It doesn't matter if you're in the right. It doesn't matter if I'm in the wrong. It doesn't matter that my client makes money off of traffic generated from its troglodytic users scraping content, and looks the other way with a smirk. It just doesn't matter. Right often doesn't prevail in our legal system. When it does, it is often ruinously expensive and unpleasant to secure. And on the way I will humiliate you, delve into private irrelevancies, harass your business associates and family, disrupt your sleep, stomp on your peace of mind, and consume huge precious swaths of your life. And, because the system is so bad at redressing frivolous lawsuits, I'll get away with it even if I lose — which I won't for years. Yield — stand and deliver — or suffer."
Our system privileges Charles Carreon to issue that threat, rather than jailing or flogging him for it. And so Carreon supports bullying like that. He's got a license to do it. He knows that his licensed threats — coming, as they do, on the [slightly odd] letterhead of a lawyer — inspire far more fear and stress than the complaints of a mere citizen, and by God he plays it to the hilt.
By contrast, Charles Carreon doesn't like shows of force that you or I can muster. "I'm completely unfamiliar really with this style of responding to a legal threat," he sniffs. There's a whiff of Paul Christoforo of Ocean Marketing in there — the sentiment "how was I to know that I was picking on someone stronger than I am? Is that fair?" But what he means is "if the people I threaten don't have to dig into their pockets to go hire a lawyer, and spend unpleasant hours with that lawyer, and lay awake at night worrying, and rely on a lawyer who is part of my privileged culture, but can stand up for themselves . . . how can I intimidate them so easily?" Perhaps some rude Oatmeal followers did actually send true threats or abuse to Charles Carreon's office — which I condemn. That's morally wrong and not helpful to the cause of free speech; it's harmful. But I fail to see why Charles Carreon sending that threat letter is more legitimate, admirable, or proper than ten thousand Oatmeal fans sending back the message that Charles Carreon is a petulant, amoral, censorious douchebag. It doesn't take lawyers, it doesn't take law school, it doesn't take any special privilege conferred by the state — it only takes a robust right of free expression — sending it back by blogging it, tweeting it, posting it on Facebook, and posting it in comments on forums. Charles Carreon has power derived from an inadequate legal system and letters of marque from the State Bar; The Oatmeal has the power of goodwill and community respect earned by talent. There's no reason to exalt Carreon's power and condemn The Oatmeal's.
Read it all. The Oatmeal's response is also classic.
Jackalope Pursuivant takes off from my post yesterday about Pearl Harbor. If I were to give it a theme, I would call it "shock of the new." From time to time folks, for example in the military, may say that they understand a new technology, but the fact that a few smart staff officers "get it" does not mean that the military has really adjusted itself to it. Like any large organization, it has a culture and set of expectations and people who have been successful based on the old model of things. They may say they understand that naval aviation has changed things, but they don't really adjust themselves until Pearl Harbor and Clark Field and Guam and Singapore are full of smoking ruins of planes and ships.
Dan's observation about how quickly the US dusted itself off and recognized that the world had changed is a good one. One could argue that no one did this in WWI. The Europeans had every chance to see what the machine gun could do even before the war in a few African wars. Heck, the final year of the American Civil War around Petersberg was a preview of WWI, as was the ill-fated charge of the light brigade. But armies were still dominated by cavalries and plumed hats and bayonet charges and elan vital. Even in 1916 and 1917, when they should have learned their lesson, commanders were still obsessed with making full frontal charges. The Americans had the chance to watch the war for four years before they entered, and then promptly began committing the exact same mistakes based on the exact same faulty assumptions as in 1914. (Neal Stephenson has a great take on American flexibility to craft radically new combat doctrine based on new facts in WWII in Cryptonomicon, absolutely one of my favorite books).
As for Pearl Harbor, I am reminded of a quote that was attributed to Frank Borman (at least in the From the Earth to the Moon documentary) when he was testifying about the Apollo 1 fire. He called it "a failure of imagination" -- no one was even thinking about danger on the ground, all the focus was on space. At the end of the day, the ultimate answer for Pearl Harbor's negligence in readiness was a failure of imagination. They may have had war games and studies discussing Pearl Harbor attacks, and they may have addressed the possibility intellectually, but no one in command really believed that a couple of hundred aircraft would suddenly appear over peacetime Honolulu dropping bombs and torpedoes.
Well, I finished Reamde this weekend. It was only OK. It is a straight up modern adventure book, like perhaps a Vince Flynn novel, chasing terrorists around the globe. I enjoy Stephenson for his big, sometimes outrageous ideas, his witty prose, and his love affair with the geek culture. Except for the latter, none of this is in evidence in this book. It is certainly a more popularly accessible book, but that is certainly not what I want from Stephenson.
Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash are among my favorite novels. One of the reason I liked them were for the prose he brought to bear on even (or especially) trivial topics. His long passages on eating Cap'n Crunch or getting wisdom teeth removed in Cryptonomicon are classics. I got very little of this kind of thrill in Reamde, made worse by the fact that there were just too many main characters, none of whom were very well developed for me.
At some points, this book held my attention, and at some points it dragged. The book in some ways is almost the same structure as a comedic farce -- a whole bunch of characters who are dragged along by events into increasingly unlikely circumstances. There is no looming event or goal that drives the narrative in a, say, Clancy novel. Its just a lot of falling into one mess after another. Its also a bit unseriousness - it feels like the teens in Scooby Doo chasing terrorists. (One problem is that Stephenson's bad guys are too likable - they are always smart and ironic gentlemanly - so its hard to get as worked up about heading them off as one might in a classic thriller).
Some playwright or critic once wrote (sorry, can't remember the name) that if you put a gun out on the stage in Act 1, someone better use it in Act 3. (OK, it was Chekov, though why he said "gun" rather than "phaser" is beyond me). In this book, Stephenson leaves guns unused all over the stage. In particular, Stephenson comes up with one of his patented interesting-crazy ideas of using an MMRPG to crowd-source security analysis. I felt sure that in the manhunts that followed, that particular gun would be picked up and used to help drive to the climax, but we never hear of it again. In fact, we learn a lot of interesting things about this game in the book, which seems to be absolutely central to the plot, but in the end turns out to be entirely peripheral, an early macguffin to kick start the plot.
Another example is the HUGE amounts of the book go to talking about an interesting social realignment happening in the game, to absolutely no end. OK, so characters have abandoned the good and evil alignments put in by the game masters for a new emergent faction division. I thought sure we would see some kind of real-world parallel to this happening in the book, or some insight drawn from this that helps solve the real world problem. Nothing.
Overall, a disappointing book I would not have finished had it not been by Stephenson.
Postscript: If you become interested in the dynamics of the MMRPG in the book, where there are no character levels (only a skill system) and money and money making is central to the the game, the closest analog I have ever seen is not a fantasy game but EVE Online, a space-based game (also, to a lesser extent, Star Wars Galaxies as well, but that is now defunct). EVE Online probably has the most interesting economy of any MMRPG I have played and I know they employ an economist who sometimes writes articles about his work.
Those of you who have read Neal Stephenson's Crytonomicon may remember the side tale of Randy Waterhouse's molars. A lot of the fun of a Stephenson novel is not the plot but the side expositions on everything from number theory to Cap'n Crunch. This is perhaps doubly true of Cryptonomicon, whose plot is only so-so (hunting for Nazi gold, sort of) but whose prose and exposition are fantastic. Anyway, in that story, one of the main characters has a problem with these horrible wisdom teeth that are impacted so deeply in his skull that oral surgeons have to run out and have 2-3 cocktails to overcome the shivers of malpractice fear they get from just looking at the x-rays.
Fun exaggeration in the service of fiction, until we took my daughter to the dentist yesterday. My daughter already has a history of weird teeth. She had to have oral surgery before she was 10 to remove a baby tooth that somehow never emerged and was up deep in her head somewhere, upside down or sideways or something. So anyway, she still has 8 baby teeth in her head past their expiration date, and the orthodontist finally insisted they had to be removed.
No problem. Baby teeth are a layup to remove. Fifty bucks each says the dentist (which caused us to give our daughter a financial incentive -- we told her if she could wiggle them out beforehand, we would pay her half, which she did with two). Anyway, baby teeth are easy, no big roots, nature wants them out at this point anyway, etc.
And most of them were just that -- easy. Except for one. The dentist simply could not get it out. The appointment went on and on, because the dentist kept running back to the x-ray to make sure she was really pulling on a baby tooth and not some adult tooth.
Anyway, it eventually came out, after much pain and suffering on my daughter's part. One of her "normal" removed baby molars is on the right for comparison. The Ripley's tooth is on the left. It just sort of looks evil.
As both a computer geek and a WWII buff, I of course know something of Alan Turing's incredible contributions to both. I also knew he was gay, but didn't think much about it. What I didn't know was how horribly he was abused by the British government, actions for which the government has now appologized:
In 1952, he was convicted of "˜gross indecency' -- in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence -- and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison -- was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.
A lot more at the link. I am constantly amazed at how we tend to elevate the mediocre while treating the truly great so shabbily.
Postscript: The most entertaining way to learn something about Turing, albeit in fictionalized form, is to read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, one of my favorite books. The story is good (not great, but good) but the writing is just fabulous. Who else could entertain one for page after page on the physics of eating Cap'n Crunch cereal?
One of the problems with us libertarians is that we all sound like a bunch of academic dweebs when we talk. Well, thanks to YouTube and Human Advancement, I saw Mike Lee, who I found unpolished but curiously entertaining as a defender of individual rights (though he's bit hawkish internationally for my tastes). Anyone who can, in about 2 minutes, shift from Duke Lacrosse to North Korea to jury nullifaction has got to be interesting to listen to.
By the way, it is increasingly clear that Google and YouTube don't really want to be a free speech outlet, as they seem to be banning stuff as fast as it can be posted. They are private concerns, and so can do whatever they like, and I can understand from their perspective why they want to avoid controversy (though if they ban everything the RIAA wants banned and political groups of every stripe want banned and end up with just home videos of pet tricks, I am not sure it will remain as popular). This in turn got me thinking about Neal Stephenson (and I accused Mike Lee of rambling?)
In Cryptonomicon, one of the plot lines is a group of guys trying to create an offshore data haven free from threats by government censors, tax inspectors, and, I presume, copyright enforcers from the RIAA and the NFL. While such a comprehensive haven may be out of reach, I do think there could be a great role for an offshore blogging/podcasting/video haven that would protect identities and be immune or out of reach from third party censorship. The problem is that as an officer of such an endeavor, you would likely be subject to immediate arrest in many countries once you landed there. Oh, that would never happen in a free country like the US would it? Yeah, right.
Written in 1993 before the vast majority of us had even heard of the Internet, Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash continues to seem prescient. Check this out. Folks who have played MMRPG's (I played Asheron's Call for years) will know that this online second society with virtual assets that have real value has been around for a while.
I'm just hoping I don't start speaking in tongues... ba na vo ta no la ma si go