Posts tagged ‘Snow Crash’

Neal Stephenson's Reamde: Disappointing

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.

Let GM Fail!

This is a reprise of a much older post, but it struck me as fairly timely.

I had a conversation the other day with a person I can best describe as a well-meaning technocrat.  Though I am not sure he would put it this baldly, he tends to support a government by smart people imposing superior solutions on the sub-optimizing masses.  He was lamenting that allowing a company like GM to die is dumb, and that a little bit of intelligent management would save all those GM jobs and assets.  Though we did not discuss specifics, I presume in his model the government would have some role in this new intelligent design (I guess like it had in Amtrak?)

There are lots of sophisticated academic models for the corporation.  I have even studied a few.  Here is my simple one:

A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential.  These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc.  In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.  This is not the case - Just ask Ross Perot.  You could fire the top 20 guys at GM and replace them all with the consensus all-brilliant team and I still am not sure they could fix it.

All these management factors, from the managers themselves to process to history to culture could better be called the corporate DNA*.  And DNA is very hard to change.  Walmart may be freaking brilliant at what they do, but demand that they change tomorrow to an upscale retailer marketing fashion products to teenage girls, and I don't think they would ever get there.  Its just too much change in the DNA.  Yeah, you could hire some ex Merry-go-round** executives, but you still have a culture aimed at big box low prices, a logistics system and infrastructure aimed at doing same, absolutely no history or knowledge of fashion, etc. etc.  I would bet you any amount of money I could get to the GAP faster starting from scratch than starting from Walmart.  For example, many folks (like me) greatly prefer Target over Walmart because Target is a slightly nicer, more relaxing place to shop.  And even this small difference may ultimately confound Walmart.  Even this very incremental need to add some aesthetics to their experience may overtax their DNA.

Corporate DNA acts as a value multiplier.  The best corporate DNA has a multiplier greater than one, meaning that it increases the value of the people and physical assets in the corporation.  When I was at a company called Emerson Electric (an industrial conglomerate, not the consumer electronics guys) they were famous in the business world for having a corporate DNA that added value to certain types of industrial companies through cost reduction and intelligent investment.  Emerson's management, though, was always aware of the limits of their DNA, and paid careful attention to where their DNA would have a multiplier effect and where it would not.  Every company that has ever grown rapidly has had a DNA that provided a multiplier greater than one... for a while.

But things change.  Sometimes that change is slow, like a creeping climate change, or sometimes it is rapid, like the dinosaur-killing comet.  DNA that was robust no longer matches what the market needs, or some other entity with better DNA comes along and out-competes you.  When this happens, when a corporation becomes senescent, when its DNA is out of date, then its multiplier slips below one.  The corporation is killing the value of its assets.  Smart people are made stupid by a bad organization and systems and culture.  In the case of GM, hordes of brilliant engineers teamed with highly-skilled production workers and modern robotic manufacturing plants are turning out cars no one wants, at prices no one wants to pay.

Changing your DNA is tough.  It is sometimes possible, with the right managers and a crisis mentality, to evolve DNA over a period of 20-30 years.  One could argue that GE did this, avoiding becoming an old-industry dinosaur.  GM has had a 30 year window (dating from the mid-seventies oil price rise and influx of imported cars) to make a change, and it has not been enough.  GM's DNA was programmed to make big, ugly (IMO) cars, and that is what it has continued to do.  If its leaders were not able or willing to change its DNA over the last 30 years, no one, no matter how brilliant, is going to do it in the next 2-3.

So what if GM dies?  Letting the GM's of the world die is one of the best possible things we can do for our economy and the wealth of our nation.  Assuming GM's DNA has a less than one multiplier, then releasing GM's assets from GM's control actually increases value.  Talented engineers, after some admittedly painful personal dislocation, find jobs designing things people want and value.  Their output has more value, which in the long run helps everyone, including themselves.

The alternative to not letting GM die is, well, Europe (and Japan).  A LOT of Europe's productive assets are locked up in a few very large corporations with close ties to the state which are not allowed to fail, which are subsidized, protected from competition, etc.  In conjunction with European laws that limit labor mobility, protecting corporate dinosaurs has locked all of Europe's most productive human and physical assets into organizations with DNA multipliers less than one.

I don't know if GM will fail (but a lot of other people have opinions) but if it does, I am confident that the end result will be positive for America.

* Those who accuse me of being more influenced by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash than Harvard Business School may be correct.
** Gratuitous reference aimed at forty-somethings who used to hang out at the mall.  In my town, Merry-go-round was the place teenage girls went if they wanted to dress like, uh, teenage girls.  I am pretty sure the store went bust a while back.

Two Old Favorites Re-Discovered in the Same Day

The other day, I was sorting through my bookshelves trying to find something for my son to read.  He just blew through the four books of the Hyperion series and was looking for fresh meat.  As I was browsing, I picked up Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash, which I have not read in several years.  Despite reading the book twice before, I was immediately engulfed by the first chapter.  I know I am a geek, but I honestly think that the first chapter of Snow Crash may be the best opening of any book I have ever read.

I seldom watch TV, but later that day I had just finished watching the A&E remake of Andromeda Strain, which was a favorite of mine when I was a boy.  I happened across the Redford-Dunaway movie "Three Days of the Condor."  This is one of my favorite spy movies, and not just because I am a sucker for Faye Dunaway (I always thought the young Faye Dunaway would have been a great Dagny Taggert in Atlas Shrugged.)  One of the reasons I like the movie is its pacing.  I enjoy a full-speed ahead never-take-a-breath action movie as much as the next person, but do they all have to be that way.  This was a thriller with an almost languid pace. 

Why I Love America

Today I was in Times Square and, unsurprisingly, was approached on the street by a young huckster attempting to get me to check out his establishment.  However, I was floored to see what was in the building.  In an attempt to meet a strong public need (the city of New York has been debating the lack of public restrooms for years to no effect) and to gain some marketing exposure, P&G has leased out storefront space in Times Square to open a Charmin-branded public restroom.  It is truly an odd experience, a cross between a bathroom and a Disney attraction.  There are games and entertainers and a gift shop, and, of course, twenty very nice private bathrooms that are cleaned by the staff after each use.  All my son and I could think to say when we were done was "We love America."

Here is more on the bathrooms and the promotion, open just for the holidays.

Someone has also posted a Youtube video of the entire experience:


Update: 
After visiting again, I can't shake the parallel (despite the fact that these bathrooms are free) to the public restroom company in Snow Crash.  I know there are a lot of folks who rebel against the cyberpunk genre, and I have always been more of a space-opera traditionalist (Foundation, Mote in Gods Eye, Louis McMaster Bujold, Hyperion, etc.) but over time Snow Crash may well become my favorite Sci-fi book.

Science Fiction as Literature

A while back, a question went around the blogosphere:  Are there any science fiction writers that we might legitimately label "literature" in fifty or a hundred years?  I think there may be several, but my first nomination is for Neil Stephenson.  Now, its hard to call him a purely science fiction writer, since he bounces around between future, present, and past, but anyone who wrote the incredible "Snow Crash" has got to be labeled, at least partially, a science fiction writer.

I just re-read Cryptonomicon for the second time, and what struck me, beyond just being an engaging story, is the incredible quality of his writing.  In an bit of good timing, Catallarchy actually has a post up with some short excerpts from Cryptonomicon.

More on Virtual Assets

The other day I posted on Second Life, which seems to be trying to do something eerily similar to the virtual world in Snow Crash.  TJIC has more, from an article in the WaPo:

"¦Earlier this month, U.S. Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner visited
Second Life, appearing as a balding, bespectacled cartoon rendering of
himself, and addressed a crowd of other animated characters on a range
of legal issues, including property rights in virtual reality. Posner
stressed that it was in Linden Lab's interest to ensure due process and
other rights.

"They want people to invest in Second Life, and we know
people won't invest if their rights are not reasonably secure," he told
the audience, which included a giant chipmunk and several supermodels.
He went on to predict the eventual emergence of an "international law of virtual worlds" similar to international maritime law"¦

Neal Stephenson On Target

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