Neal Stephenson

The Diamond Age Miniseries

It appears that Neal Stephenson’s neo-victorian nanotech novel The Diamond Age will be a miniseries on the Sci-Fi channel:

Based on Neal Stephenson’s best-selling novel The Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, this six-hour miniseries is executive produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov of Smokehouse Productions. A prominent member of a conservative futuristic society grows concerned that the culture stifles creativity, and commissions a controversial interactive book for his daughter, which serves as her guide through a surreal alternate world. When the primer’s provocative technology, which adapts to the reader’s responses, falls into the hands of a young innocent, the girl’s life is accidentally reprogrammed with dangerous results. Neal Stephenson will adapt his own novel for this project, the first time the Hugo and Nebula winning author has written for the small screen.

I have mixed feelings about this. Stephenson is probably my favorite author, so I’m thrilled that his work is being adapted. However, adaptations are tricky, and I think part of the reason Stephenson’s books haven’t been adapted is that they’re probably more difficult than most. The choice of The Diamond Age is a baffling one, given that it’s universally seen as having an awfully abrubt ending (and has given the author an unfair reputation of writing bad endings). That it’s a Sci-Fi Channel original series isn’t exactly comforting either. They did a decent enough job with the Dune miniseries I guess, but honestly, this is that channel that brought us masterpieces like Man-Thing and Basilisk: The Serpent King (I’m serious, those two movies were both playing tonight.)

Stephenson’s involvement is somewhat heartening, but also a mixed blessing. For one thing, nothing guarantees that a great novel-writer will turn out to be a great screenwriter. It’s a different medium and, as such, different conventions and language apply. Given that we’re talking about a Sci-Fi Channel original, I’m sure his involvement won’t be a negative, but that leaves one other consideration: If he’s busy working on the screenplay for this series, he’s probably not working on his next book. Gah! It’s been a few years, and I want me some new Stephenson.

If it turns out good, I’ll be elated, but I’m wary. Think of this post as tempering my expecatations so that it can’t possibly be that much of a dissapointment. Incidentally, I just ran across Ben Thompson’s beautiful rant about Sci-Fi Channel Original Movies:

Nothing makes me happier when I’m flipping through the channels on a rainy Saturday afternoon than stumbling upon whatever god-awful original home-grown suckfest-and-craptasm movie is playing on the Sci-Fi Channel. Nowhere else can you find such a clusterfuck of horrible plot contrivances and ill-conceived premises careening face-first into a brick wall of one-dimensional cardboard characters and banal, inane, poorly-delivered dialogue. While most television stations and movie production houses out there are attempting to retain some shred of dignity or at least a modicum of credibility, it’s nice to know that the Sci-Fi Channel has no qualms whatsoever about brazenly showing twenty minute-long fight scenes involving computer-generated dinosaurs, dragons, insects, aliens, sea monsters and Gary Bussey all shooting laser beams at each other and battling for control of a planet-destroying starship as the self-destruct mechanism slowly ticks down and the fate of a thousand parallel universes hangs in the balance. You really have to give the execs at Sci-Fi credit for basically just throwing their hands up in the air and saying, “well let’s just take all this crazy shit and mash it together into one giant ridiculous mess”. Nothing is off-limits for those folks; if you want to see American troops in Iraq battle a giant man-eating Chimaera, you’ve got it. A genetically-altered Orca Whale the eats seamen and icebergs? Check. A plane full of mutated pissed-off killer bees carrying the Hanta Virus? Check.

Brilliant. Ironically, I’m more excited for The Diamond Age miniseries now that I read that. Something’s wrong with me.

A Spamtastic Mystery

One of the joys of maintaining a website is dealing with spam. Over the years, I’ve had to deal with several different varieties of spam here, including comment spam, trackback spam, even my old forum got inundated with spam. As such, countermeasures were deployed with varying degrees of success. Movable Type has improved its spam blocking capabilities considerably, and I use a plugin to close comments on posts older than 60 days, so the blog has remained relatively spam free for a while now. I replaced my forum with a new system that requires registration (ironically, even the new forum was spammed with a bizzarely intriciate scheme to sell, no joke, biodynamic cheese).

This leaves referrer spam. I don’t know that there’s anything to really be done about that short of banning IP addresses and the like, but I never really used my site’s raw referral logs that extensively, so even though I’m sure I get a decent amount of referrer spam, I don’t really see it. Instead, I use sitemeter, a popular web stats application that uses an image and javascript to collect the appropriate info (you can see the little multicolored image towards the bottom of every page on Kaedrin). I’m not sure if sitemeter does something on their end to prevent referral spam, or if spambots simply ignore the technology they use, but I get next to no referrer spam there.

Until this morning.

I awoke to find my site had several hundred hits overnight (much more than usual). When I looked at the referrals, I noticed that I was getting a huge amount of traffic from a bunch of sites that were all variations of the same domain. A sampling includes:

http://qfm96.listenernetwork.com/SearchWeb.asp

http://wmvx.listenernetwork.com/SearchWeb.asp

http://973thebrew.listenernetwork.com/SearchWeb.asp

http://98online.listenernetwork.com/SearchWeb.asp

As you can see, all the referrs are coming from some sort of search application. Going to the various “listenernetwork.com” home pages, it became obvious that they were all radio station sites that were apparently all using some central application to produce cheap, easy sites for themselves (they all use the same template with content and styles tailored towards individual stations). The sites and referrals were distributed all throughout the country. At a glance, they seemed to be legit stations. How odd.

All of the referrals were going to my Neal Stephenson category archive page, which was strange. At first, I thought, hey, maybe Neal Stephenson announced a new book on the radio this morning! Of course, that doesn’t make much sense, but I’m a sucker for Stephenson and so I wanted to believe. In any case, it immediately became obvious that something else was going on (damn!).

The most frustrating thing about these referrals is that they’re obviously coming from these radio station sites’ built-in search engine, which apparently uses a HTTP POST request instead of a GET request. Most search engines use GET requests because then the search parameters are contained in the URL, which allows users to bookmark searches. POST requests hide search parameters, so users can’t bookmark their searches and referred sites can’t see what the search terms are. So not only was I getting all this traffic from a mysterious search engine, but I didn’t even know what people were searching for…

Back to the logs I go. After rooting around a bit, I found some other search engines like ask and google were referring to the same Neal Stephenson page… but they had the search terms in their URL:

what unit of length used in nuclear physics is named after a famed manhattan project scientist?

Allright, so I’m making progress. My Stephenson category page contains most of those terms, so that kinda makes sense. I went to one of the refferring sites and was quickly able to reproduce the search on their site and see my page come up in the results. But this question is rather odd, and there were many people searching with that exact question. What the heck is going on here?

Confused and a little intrigued, I started clicking around one of the referring radio station’s sites hunting for clues. Then I found it. Apparently, all these stations run some sort of big national contest, and the mysterious question above was today’s “Really Hard Trivia” question. The site even conveniently notes: “Don’t know the answer? Search the web below.” Bingo.

So it appears that these are all indeed legitimate referrals, though I can’t imagine anyone becoming a reader, as they didn’t find the answer on my page. However, in the off chance that someone is still looking, the answer appears to be the Bohr Radius, named after Neils Bohr.

It turns out that I probably could have saved myself a good deal of effort by simply googling “listenernetwork referrer spam,” as this issue has apparently struck others before. Still, it was somewhat intriguing and I’m glad it didn’t turn out to be referrer spam…

Blogroll Call

Everyone loves to be on a bunch of blogrolls, but just because you’re there doesn’t mean you’ll get a lot of visitors. This becomes more true as the blogroll gets larger. Blogrolls are subject to an inverse network effect; the more blogs in the blogroll, the less valuable the link. Kaedrin gets a small amount of traffic, so even though I have a short blogroll, I’m guessing most of those blogs don’t get a ton of visitors coming from here. So I just figured I’d throw some additional links their way:

  • Transit of Mercury, Photoblogged: Jay Manifold takes some nice pics of the planet Mercury, as well as an amusing comparison of Manifold Observatory and Powell Observatory.
  • Team of Rivals: Andrew Olmsted reviews a recent book that chronicles Abraham Lincoln’s rise to the presidency, as well as the coalition he formed and maintained to fight the civil war:

    Lincoln’s ability to hold together a coalition of abolitionists, conservative Republicans, and war Democrats during the American Civil War stands as a signal feat of political dexterity that seems yet more impressive in light of more recent American history. … the book really hits its stride once Lincoln is elected and he assembles his Cabinet, beginning with his three rivals for the nomination. The contrast is particularly stark with modern politics, where Cabinets are formed from the victor’s circle of political allies. Lincoln, on the other hand, selected men who not only wanted the job he held, but who viewed him poorly at best in some cases. It’s hard to imagine a modern politician selecting men who viewed him with the kind of contempt Edwin Stanton viewed Lincoln, let alone getting the kind of results Lincoln did. Lincoln’s ability to get results from such disparate men is an impressive primer in leadership.

    Interesting stuff, and I think I’ll pick up the book at some point, as this seems to be an impressive example of compromise and tradeoffs (subjects that interest me) in action.

  • Ars Technica 2006 holiday gift guide: Make shopping for the geek in your family a little easier with this guide (sheesh, that sounded like advertising copy *shudders*). Most of the hardware and gadget gifts are pretty good, though expensive. However, they also include lots of interesting books and smaller gifts as well. Ars always has interesting articles though. I’ve already mentioned the Ars System Guide on the blog recently, but they also have reviews of the Wii and PS3 that are worth reading.
  • Casino Royale: Subtitle: Die almost never � nearly forever! Heh. Alexander Doenau’s take on the latest Bond flick is roughly in line with my own feelings, though one of these days I’ll get around to talking more about it on the blog.

    Which may beg the question of some audiences: where is the fun when there�s nary an insane scheme to be seen, and no psychedelically decorated gyrocopters? (thank you, Roald Dahl). The answer lies partly in Bond himself. Without the scary misogyny that Ian Fleming endowed Bond with 50 years ago, Daniel Craig plays Bond as an excellent bastard. This is a Bond so confident in his own skills that he doesn�t give a care who sees him because he has a licence to kill. This is probably the only Craig film we�ll see in which Bond is able to cut as loose as he did in Uganda, because part of the story involves developing a marginally more sensible and responsible MI6 agent, but he takes the sorts of risks that make the movie fun without being stupidly unbelievable.

    I love the description of James Bond as an “excellent bastard.”

  • Steven Den Beste has an interesting rating system (another subject I’ll tackle on the blog at some point). He uses a 4 star scale, but also includes a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” graphic (for obvious reasons). This is interesting because it allows him to recognize a technical accomplishment without actually recommending the film (for instance, I would give Grave of the Fireflies **** with a thumbs down because it is masterfully produced, but so heartbreaking that I can’t actually recommend it). In any case, if you scroll down on the link above (no permalinks there), you’ll see that Steven has started rating individual anime episodes for a series called Kamichu. For episode 6, he rated it zero stars with six thumbs down. I wonder if he liked it?
  • A collection of Jonathan Swift’s journalistic texts: Ralf Goergens over at Chicago Boyz makes an Jonathan Swift-related annotation to Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle:

    Attentive readers of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle will remember Daniel Waterhouse reading a a number of astonishingly vile newspapers. Some of the most acrimonious articles were from Jonathan Swift, writing for Tory papers. Stephenson didn’t make that part up, the articles can be found here.

    I didn’t have time to do more than a bit of browsing, but some of the historical characters from the Baroque Cycle are mentioned, like Marlborough, Bolingbroke, Harley and of course Queen Anne. There also are extensive footnotes explaining the concrete circumstances under which the articles appeared.

  • Weblog Awards: Kevin Murphy notes that since he was inexplicably passed over for the Weblog Awards, he might as well add a bunch of categories and simply declare winners. Normally, this would seem like the actions of a snarky blogger, but since Kaedrin won a Koveted Kevy, I’ll say it was the result of long-standing multifaceted research project considering nearly 2 billion blogs. Also, Kevin apparently knows something I don’t: Kaedrin won the Best Blog With A Japanese Word As Its Title. Hmmm. It would be pretty funny if it actually was a Japanese word (anyone know what it means?)
  • The New Threats: John Robb continues his incisive commentary on global guerillas:

    As the debate over the value of the Iraq study group’s report rumbles on, it’s important to reflect on larger frame within which this debate is taking place. This frame, little discussed, encapsulates nature of the threat we face in Iraq and will be increasingly likely to face in the future. With Iraq, we can catch a glimpse of the new class of threat that will increasingly define our future (and given that even a glimpse is enough to stump the establishment should be a dire warning). This new class of threat is characterized by its bottoms up pattern of growth rather than the familiar competition between nation-states. It percolates upwards through catalyzed organic growth until it overwhelms our ability to respond to it.

    My general reaction to Robb’s theories is that he is usually too pessimistic and that there must be a better way to fight these global guerillas, but he always makes for interesting and worthwhile reading.

  • Depressing Anime: Fledgling Otaku’s thoughts on Grave of the Fireflies are a little harsher than my own, but I have to say that he’s justified in calling it anime for emotional masochists. Don’t miss the comment threads on that post, the follow up post, and the recent post (in which he mentions my review). Like me, the more he learns of the context, the more he says he can appreciate its value as a work of art.
  • Tax Law Is Complicated, But Is It Vague? : James Edward Maule reads about a Judge who “struck down a portion of the Patriot Act on the ground that despite amendments to the provisions they remain ‘too vague’ to be understood by ‘a person of average intelligence’ and thus are unconstitutional.” As a professor of tax law, he wonders if the Internal Revenue Code is actually vague, and asks some interesting questions:

    If everything that could not be understood by a “person of average intelligence” were to be declared unconstitutional and removed from the planet, what would remain? Is there something wrong when a patient cannot understand a medical procedure used by a surgeon? Is there something wrong when a driver does not understand the engineering formulae used in designing the bridge over which the vehicle is crossing? Is there something wrong when someone enjoying a fine meal cannot understand the recipe?

  • Take my advice, or I�ll spank you without pants.: Johno over at the The Ministry of Minor Perfidy takes note of the glorious Chingrish of actual English Subtitles used in films made in Hong Kong. Some of my favorites:

    9. Quiet or I’ll blow your throat up.

    11. I�ll fire aimlessly if you don�t come out!

    18. How can you use my intestines as a gift?

    18. How can you use my intestines as a gift?

    19. This will be of fine service for you, you bag of the scum. I am sure you will not mind that I remove your manhoods and leave them out on the dessert flour for your aunts to eat. [sic, of course]

    20. Yah-hah, evil spider woman! I have captured you by the short rabbits and can now deliver you violently to your gynecologist for a thorough examination.

    21. Greetings, large black person. Let us not forget to form a team up together and go into the country to inflict the pain of our karate feets on some ass of the giant lizard person.

    This sort of thing is funny, but bad translations are also responsible for ruining a lot of decent foreign movies.

  • Extremely Cool: Indeed it is:

    The Antikythera Mechanism is a 2000-year-old device, somewhat resembling a clock, found in 1902 by sponge divers in the waters off a Greek island. It has long been believed that it was a form of analog computer, used for astronomical calculations, but its precise operating mechanism was not well-understood.

    Interesting stuff.

  • Not the intended market, but still fun: Fritz Schranck has been sucked into What Not To Wear (one of those smug reality shows that berate people for having bad style, then attempt to help them out). While I’ve never seen this show, similar reality shows do have that sorta “I can’t look away from this trainwreck” quality that makes them entertaining.
  • DM of the Rings: In terms of link love, I’ve been woefully neglectful of Shamus’s brilliant DM of the Rings comic, which somehow manages to be both humorous and insightful (well, in terms of RPG gaming anyway). Using screenshots from the movies, it’s essentially what the Lord of the Rings would have been like if it were played as a D&D game.

Holy crap, that took a while. I just realized that I would have probably been better off if I’d just done one or two a day. That way I’d have had posts every day for at least a week! In any case, stay tuned for the weekly Animation Marathon review (This week, it’s Akira. Review should be up Tuesday or Wednesday).

Travelling Link Dump

I’ll be on vacation this week, so Kaedrin compatriots Samael and DyRE will be posting in my stead, though they may not be able to post tomorrow. In any case, here are some links to chew on while I’m gone.

  • Bruce Schneier Facts: In the style of the infamous Chuck Norris Facts, some enterprising folks have come up with facts for security expert Bruce Schneier. “Bruce Schneier only smiles when he finds an unbreakable cryptosystem. Of course, Bruce Schneier never smiles.” and “There is an otherwise featureless big black computer in Ft. Meade that has a single dial with three settings: Off, Standby, and Schneier.” Heh, Cryptonerd humor.
  • Khaaan! [via the Ministry]
  • Neal Stephenson Q&A (.ram Real Video): I hate Real Player too, but it’s worth it to see the man in action. It’s from a few years ago, but it’s great stuff.
  • I Smell a Mash-Up: James Grimmelmann notes the irony of Weird Al Yankovic’s new song entitled Don’t Download This Song (available for free download, naturally) that parodies the RIAA’s anti-downloading efforts.
  • How to read: Nick Hornby tells us to read what we like:

    It’s set in stone, apparently: books must be hard work, otherwise they’re a waste of time. And so we grind our way through serious, and sometimes seriously dull, novels, or enormous biographies of political figures, and every time we do so, books come to seem a little more like a duty, and Pop Idol starts to look a little more attractive. Please, please, put it down.

    And please, please stop patronising those who are reading a book – The Da Vinci Code, maybe – because they are enjoying it.

    For a start, none of us knows what kind of an effort this represents for the individual reader. It could be his or her first full-length adult novel; it might be the book that finally reveals the purpose and joy of reading to someone who has hitherto been mystified by the attraction that books exert on others. And anyway, reading for enjoyment is what we should all be doing.

    …The regrettable thing about the culture war we still seem to be fighting is that it divides books into two camps, the trashy and the worthwhile. No one who is paid to talk about books for a living seems to be able to convey the message that this isn’t how it works, that ‘good’ books can provide every bit as much pleasure as ‘trashy’ ones.

That’s all from now. I hope everyone has a great week. I now leave you in the capable hands of the guest bloggers, Sam & DyRE….

The Big U and Journalists

I finished reading The Big U (Neal Stephenson’s first novel) tonight. Stephenson himself describes this as “a juvenile work,” and now that I have finished it, I can see where he’s coming from. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed it, but the story becomes a bit unhinged towards the end. At the beginning of the book, it’s obviously a satire, but as the story progresses things begin to slow down a bit and Stephenson starts to take the satire over-the-top in an attempt to compensate. Each chapter in the book corresponds to a month of the school year, starting in September and ending in May. By the time you get to November/December, things slow down a bit, and in March things begin to get a bit more absurd… this leads to a sudden (absurd) explosion of events in April, followed by the conclusion in May. Again, I enjoyed it, but I can see how some people would be turned off by the sudden turn of events. Sure, it’s ridiculous, but if you can get past that, there are still a few gems along the same lines as the ones I wrote about a few weeks ago

Spoilers ahoy, if you care…

So at the beginning of April, an all out war breaks out in the Plex (for those who don’t know what the plex is, see my last entry). By “all out war,” I mean a literal war, with guns and bombs and plenty of deaths. Various groups of students, administration officials, and the bizzarre Crotobaltislavonians (yet another of Stephenson’s fictional nationalities) have fought it out and carved up their own spheres of influence. Things have calmed down a bit, and the narrarator is making a trek towards the library to recover a fellow professor’s research notes (this is an absurd motive, but everything is so surreal at this point that I was willing to let it ride). To reach the library, they must cross several “stable academic blocs” including the journalism bloc. The journalists have negotiated several treaties with various other blocs in exchange for safe passage and weapons for their guards. In exchange for an interview and allowing a camera crew to follow them, our narrarator’s group is able to make it through the journalism zone. The narrarator has some questions:

“You’ve got a hell of a lot of firepower. You guys are the most powerful force in the Plex. How are you using it?”

The student shrugged. “What do you mean? We protect our crews and equipment. All the barbarians are afraid of us.”

“Right, obviously,” I said. “But I noticed recently that a lot of people around here are starving, being raped, murdered — you know, a lot of bum out stuff. Do those guards try to help out? You can spare a few.”

“Well, I don’t know,” he said uncomfortably. That’s kind of network-level policy. It goes against the agreement. We can go anywhere as long as we don’t interfere. If we interfere, no agreement.”

“But if you’ve already negotiated one agreement, can’t you do more? Get some doctors into the building maybe?”

“No way, man. No fucking way. We journalists have ethics.”

Heh. Again, this book was published in 1984. Was that considered over-the-top satire at the time? Seems rather tame by today’s standards.

Stephenson has a reputation for bad endings that just sort of happen without warning, but that doesn’t really happen here. To be sure, it’s not a great ending (like the rest of the book, it’s slightly absurd as it hinges off of one of the groups’ fanatical religious devotion to a giant neon sign), but it was better than expected. Overall, I’d say the book is worth reading for die-hard Stephenson fans and maybe geeky folks who don’t mind that he goes off the deep end about 200 pages in…

Megaversity

In an effort to exhaust the novelty of my current favorite author, Neal Stephenson, I’ve been reading his first novel, The Big U (I think I’ve covered everything else but his pseudonymous work). Stephenson himself describes this as “a juvenile work,” but I’m greatly enjoying myself. Filled with geeks pursuing… geeky pursuits, I’m reminded of the latter day portions of Cryptonomicon (though when you compare those two, I can see why The Big U would be called juvenile). It’s quite entertaining so far, though there does seem to be a lack of traditional plot points and I’m not expecting a particularly revelatory ending. The book is probably best described by it’s setting (American Megaversity) and characters (geeks). Some choice quotes are below:

Most of the facilities of the Big U are contained within a group of buildings refered to as the Plex:

The Plex’s environmental control system was designed so that anyone could spend four years wearing only a jockstrap and a pair of welding goggles and yet never feel chilly or find the place too dimly lit.

Sounds like a fun place, and it seems that Stephenson’s humor was fully in place when he started his writing career. I’ve also noticed that he seems to have a fascination with how smart people find one another in the throngs of normal people. For instance, two of the characters get lost in the Plex’s labyrinthine stairway system and end up exiting at the back of the building:

Later I was to think it remarkable that Casimir and I should emerge from those fire doors at nearly the same moment, and meet. On reflection, I have changed my mind. The Big U was an unnatural environment, a work of the human mind, not of God or plate tectonics. If two strangers met in the rarely used stairways, it was not unreasonable that they should turn out to be similar, and become friends. I thought of it as an immense vending machine, cautiously crafted so that any denomination too ancient or foreign or irregular would rattle about randomly for a while, find its way into the stairway system, and inevitably be deposited in the reject tray on the barren back side. Meanwhile, brightly colored graduates with attractively packaged degrees were dispensed out front every June, swept up by traffic on the Parkway and carried away for leisurly consumption…

Much the same situation brought Daniel Waterhouse and Isaac Newton together in Quicksilver. Other similar scenarios populate his various other books as well.

The book is obviously a satire, but I still can’t help but find a grain of truth in some of the absurdly bureaucratic obstacles that pop up for various students.

“I’m an English major. I know this stuff. Why are you putting me in Freshman English?”

The General Curriculum Advisor consulted little codes printed by the computer, and looked them up in a huge computer-printed book. “Ah,” he said, “was one of your parents a foreign national?”

“My stepmother is from Wales.”

“That explains it. You see.” The official had swung around toward her and assumed a frank, open body-language posture. “Statistical analysis shows that children of one or more foreign nationals are often gifted with Special Challenges.”

Sarah’s spine arched back and she set her jaw. “You’re saying I can’t speak English because my stepmother was Welsh?”

“Special Challenges are likely in your case. You were mistakenly exempted from Freshmen English because of your high test scores. This exemption option has now been retroactively waived for your convenience.”

“I don’t want it waived. It’s not convenient.”

“To ensure maintenance of high academic standards, the waiver is avolitional.”

Nothing that bad has ever happened to me, but there was that time the university lost my enrollment (in which I had very carefully picked what classes and professors I wanted) and, for my convienience, enrolled me in the remaining open courses that fulfilled my needs (at this point, though, everyone else had already registered, so the only classes that were open were the ones no one wanted to take). That was a fun semester.

It turns out that Freshmen English is being taught by a lunatic The student from the above excerpt gets a bad grade and decides to speak with the professor because other barely literate students got a better grade than her:

He took a long draw on his pipe. “What is a grade? That is the question.” He chuckled, but apparently she didn’t get it. “Some teachers grade on curves. You have to be a math major to understand the grade! But forget those fake excuses. A grade is actually a form of poetry. It is a subjective reaction to a learner’s work, distilled and reduced down to its purest essence-not a sonnet, not a haiku, but a single letter. That’s remarkable, isn’t it?”

Oh, but he’s not done yet. He actually goes on to describe how the barely readible grammar of a competing paper is better than Sarah’s:

“You aren’t necessarily a better writer. You called some of them functional illiterates. Well those illiterates, as you called them, happen to have very expressive prose voices. Remember that in each person’s own dialect he or she is perfectly literate. So in the sense of having escaped orthodoxy to be truly creative, they are highly advanced wordsmiths, while you are still struggling to break free of grammatical rules systems. They express themselves to me and I react with little one-letter poems of my own – the essence of grading! Poetry! And being a poet I’m particularly well suited for it. Your idea of tearing down these little proto-artists because they aren’t just like you smacks of a kind of absolutism which is very disturbing in a temple of academic freedom.”

They sat there silent for a while.

“You really said that, didn’t you?” she finally asked.

“I did.”

I think he perfectly captured the futility of Sarah’s quest in this scene. It’s masterful, really. The book was published in 1984, so it seems that this sort of PC lit-crit babbled newspeak was just as common and annoying then as it is now. It’s kind of reassuring, in a dejected way. When I hear about crazy professors going on about this or that these days, it’s always tempting to assume that the sky is falling and that we’re all doomed. But it appears that this has been going on for quite some time now, and while I don’t like it and it may be harmful, it probably doesn’t mean the end of the world either. Anyway, I’m only halfway through the book, but I thought I’d share my impressions, because I was expecting a lot worse…

Unintended Customers

The Art of Rainmaking by Guy Kawasaki: An interesting article about salesmanship and what is referred to as “rainmaking.” Kawasaki lists out several ways to practice the art of rainmaking, but this first one caught my eye because it immediately reminded me of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, and regular readers (all 5 of you) know I can’t resist a Stephenson reference.

“Let a hundred flowers blossom.” I stole this from Chairman Mao although I’m not sure how he implemented it. In the context of capitalism (Chairman Mao must be turning over in his grave), the dictum means that you sow seeds in many markets, see what takes root, and harvest what blooms. Many companies freak out when unintended customers buy their product. Many companies also freak out when intended customers buy their product but use it in unintended ways. Don’t be proud. Take the money.

This immediately reminded me of the data haven (a secure computer system that is protected by it’s lack of governmental oversight as well as technical means like encryption) in the “modern-day” segments of Cryptonomicon. Randy Waterhouse works for the company that’s attempting to sett up a data haven, and he finds that the most of his customers want to use the data haven to store money. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, most of the people who want to store their money their are criminals of the worst sort. I guess in that particular case, there is reason to freak out at these unexpected customers, but I thought the reference was interesting because while there may be lots of legitimate uses for a data haven, the criminal element would almost certainly be attracted to a way to store their drug money (or whatever) with impugnity (that and probably spam, pornography, and gambling). Like all advances in technology, the data haven could be used for good or for ill…

Veg Out

Neal Stephenson’s take on Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith in the New York times is interesting on a few levels. He makes some common observations, such as the prevalence of geeky details in supplementary material of the Star Wars universe (such as the Clone Wars cartoons or books), but the real gem is his explanation for why the geeky stuff is mostly absent from the film:

Modern English has given us two terms we need to explain this phenomenon: “geeking out” and “vegging out.” To geek out on something means to immerse yourself in its details to an extent that is distinctly abnormal – and to have a good time doing it. To veg out, by contrast, means to enter a passive state and allow sounds and images to wash over you without troubling yourself too much about what it all means.

Stephenson says the original Star Wars is a mixture of veg and geek scenes, while the new movies are almost all veg out material. The passive vegging out he describes is exactly how I think of the prequels (except that Episode III seems to have a couple of non-veg out scenes, which is one of the reasons I think it fares better than the other prequels). He also makes a nice comparison to the business world, but then takes a sudden sort of indirect dive towards outsourcing and pessimism at the end of the article, making a vague reference to going “the way of the old Republic.”

I’m not sure I agree with those last few paragraphs. I see the point, but it’s presented as a given. Many have noted Stephenson could use a good editor for his recent novels, and it looks to me like Stephenson was either intentionally trying to keep it short (it’s only two pages – not what you’d expect from someone who routinely writes 900 page books, including three that are essentially a single 2700 page novel) or his article was edited down to fit somewhere. In either case, I’m sure he could have expounded upon those last paragraphs to the tune of a few thousand words, but that’s what I like about the guy. Not that the article is bad, but I prefer Stephenson’s longwinded style. Ironically, Stephenson has left the details out of his article; it reads more like a power-point presentation that summarizes the bullet points of his argument than the sort of in-depth analysis I’m used to from Stephenson. As such, I’m sure there are a lot of people who would take issue with some of his premises. Perhaps it’s an intentional irony, or (more likely) I’m reading too much into it.

A tale of two software projects

A few weeks ago, David Foster wrote an excellent post about two software projects. One was a failure, and one was a success.

The first project was the FBI’s new Virtual Case File system; a tool that would allow agents to better organize, analyze and communicate data on criminal and terrorism cases. After 3 years and over 100 million dollars, it was announced that the system may be totally unusable. How could this happen?

When it became clear that the project was in trouble, Aerospace Corporation was contracted to perform an independent evaluation. It recommended that the software be abandoned, saying that “lack of effective engineering discipline has led to inadequate specification, design and development of VCF.” SAIC has said it believes the problem was caused largely by the FBI: specifically, too many specification changes during the development process…an SAIC executive asserted that there were an average of 1.3 changes per day during the development. SAIC also believes that the current system is useable and can serve as a base for future development.

I’d be interested to see what the actual distribution of changes were (as opposed to the “average changes per day”, which seems awfully vague and somewhat obtuse to me), but I don’t find it that hard to believe that this sort of thing happened (especially because the software development firm was a separate entity). I’ve had some experience with gathering requirements, and it certainly can be a challenge, especially when you don’t know the processes currently in place. This does not excuse anything, however, and the question remains: how could this happen?

The second project, the success, may be able to shed some light on that. DARPA was tapped by the US Army to help protect troops from enemy snipers. The requested application would spot incoming bullets and identify their point of origin, and it would have to be easy to use, mobile, and durable.

The system would identify bullets from their sound..the shock wave created as they travelled through the air. By using multiple microphones and precisely timing the arrival of the “crack” of the bullet, its position could, in theory, be calculated. In practice, though, there were many problems, particularly the high levels of background noise–other weapons, tank engines, people shouting. All these had to be filtered out. By Thanksgiving weekend, the BBN team was at Quantico Marine Base, collecting data from actual firing…in terrible weather, “snowy, freezing, and rainy” recalls DARPA Program Manager Karen Wood. Steve Milligan, BBN’s Chief Technologist, came up with the solution to the filtering problem: use genetic algorithms. These are a kind of “simulated evolution” in which equations can mutate, be tested for effectivess, and sometimes even “mate,” over thousands of simulated generations (more on genetic algorithms here.)

By early March, 2004, the system was operational and had a name–“Boomerang.” 40 of them were installed on vehicles in Iraq. Based on feedback from the troops, improvements were requested. The system has now been reduced in size, shielded from radio interference, and had its display improved. It now tells soldiers the direction, range, and elevation of a sniper.

Now what was the biggest difference between the remarkable success of the Boomerang system and the spectacular failure of the Virtual Case File system? Obviously, the two projects present very different challenges, so a direct comparison doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. However, it seems to me that discipline (in the case of the Army) or the lack of discipline (in the case of the FBI) might have been a major contributor to the outcomes of these two projects.

It’s obviously no secret that discipline plays a major role in the Army, but there is more to it than just that. Independence and initiative also play an important role in a military culture. In Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the way the character Bobby Shaftoe (a Marine Raider, which is “…like a Marine, only more so.”) interacts with his superiors provides some insight (page 113 in my version):

Having now experienced all the phases of military existence except for the terminal ones (violent death, court-martial, retirement), he has come to understand the culture for what it is: a system of etiquette within which it becomes possible for groups of men to live together for years, travel to the ends of the earth, and do all kinds of incredibly weird shit without killing each other or completely losing their minds in the process. The extreme formality with which he addresses these officers carries an important subtext: your problem, sir, is doing it. My gung-ho posture says that once you give the order I’m not going to bother you with any of the details – and your half of the bargain is you had better stay on your side of the line, sir, and not bother me with any of the chickenshit politics that you have to deal with for a living.

Good military officers are used to giving an order, then staying out of their subordinate’s way as they carry out that order. I didn’t see any explicit measurement, but I would assume that there weren’t too many specification changes during the development of the Boomerang system. Of course, the developers themselves made all sorts of changes to specifics and they also incorporated feedback from the Army in the field in their development process, but that is standard stuff.

I suspect that the FBI is not completely to blame, but as the report says, there was a “lack of effective engineering discipline.” The FBI and SAIC share that failure. I suspect, from the number of changes requested by the FBI and the number of government managers involved, that micromanagement played a significant role. As Foster notes, we should be leveraging our technological abilities in the war on terror, and he suggests a loosely based oversight committe (headed by “a Director of Industrial Mobilization”) to make sure things like this don’t happen very often. Sounds like a reasonable idea to me…

The Stability of Three

One of the things I’ve always respected about Neal Stephenson is his attitude (or rather, the lack thereof) regarding politics:

Politics – These I avoid for the simple reason that artists often make fools of themselves, and begin to produce bad art, when they decide to get political. A novelist needs to be able to see the world through the eyes of just about anyone, including people who have this or that set of views on religion, politics, etc. By espousing one strong political view a novelist loses the power to do this. Anyone who has convinced himself, based on reading my work, that I hold this or that political view, is probably wrong. What is much more likely is that, for a while, I managed to get inside the head of a fictional character who held that view.

Having read and enjoyed several of his books, I think this attitude has served him well. In a recent interview in Reason magazine, Stephenson makes several interesting observations. The whole thing is great, and many people are interested in his comments regarding an American technology and science, but I found one other tidbit very interesting. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t break with his attitude about politics, but it is somewhat political:

Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I’m afraid might turn out to be quite stable.

I took particular note of what he describes as a “triangular system” because it’s something I’ve seen before…

One of the primary goals of the American Constitutional Convention was to devise a system that would be resistant to tyranny. The founders were clearly aware of the damage that an unrestrained government could do, so they tried to design the new system in such a way that it wouldn’t become tyrannical. Democratic institions like mandatory periodic voting and direct accountability to the people played a large part in this, but the founders also did some interesting structural work as well.

Taking their cue from the English Parliament’s relationship with the King of England, the founders decided to create a legislative branch separate from the executive. This, in turn, placed the two governing bodies in competition. However, this isn’t a very robust system. If one of the governing bodies becomes more powerful than the other, they can leverage their advantage to accrue more power, thus increasing the imbalance.

A two-way balance of power is unstable, but a three-way balance turns out to be very stable. If any one body becomes more powerful than the other two, the two usually can and will temporarily unite, and their combined power will still exceed the third. So the founders added a third governing body, an independent judiciary.

The result was a bizarre sort of stable oscillation of power between the three major branches of the federal government. Major shifts in power (such as wars) disturbed the system, but it always fell back to a preferred state of flux. This stable oscillation turns out to be one of the key elements of Chaos theory, and is referred to as a strange attractor. These “triangular systems” are particularly good at this, and there are many other examples…

Some argue that the Cold War stabilized considerably when China split from the Soviet Union. Once it became a three-way conflict, there was much less of a chance of unbalance (and as unbalance would have lead to nuclear war, this was obviously a good thing).

Steven Den Beste once noted this stabilizing power of three in the interim Iraqi constitution, where the Iraqis instituted a Presidency Council of 3 Presidents representing each of the 3 major factions in Iraq:

…those writing the Iraqi constitution also had to create a system acceptable to the three primary factions inside of Iraq. If they did not, the system would shake itself to pieces and there was a risk of Iraqi civil war.

The divisions within Iraq are very real. But this constitution takes advantage of the fact that there are three competing factions none of which really trusts the other. This constitution leverages that weakness, and makes it into a strength.

It should be interesting to see if that structure will be maintained in the new Iraqi constitution.

As for Stephenson’s speculation that a triangular system consisting of libertarians, statists, and terrorists may develop, I’m not sure. They certainly seem to feed off one another in a way that would facilitate such a system, but I’m not positive it would work out that way, nor do I think it is particularly a desirable state to be in, all the more because it could be a very stable system due to its triangular structure. In any case, I thought it was an interesting observation and well worth considering…