Neal Stephenson

Arranging Interests in Parallel

I have noticed a tendency on my part to, on occasion, quote a piece of fiction, and then comment on some wisdom or truth contained therein. This sort of thing is typically frowned upon in rigorous debate as fiction is, by definition, contrived and thus referencing it in a serious argument is rightly seen as undesirable. Fortunately for me, this blog, though often taking a serious tone, is ultimately an exercise in thinking for myself. The point is to have fun. This is why I will sometimes quote fiction to make a point, and it’s also why I enjoy questionable exercises like speculating about historical figures. As I mentioned in a post on Benjamin Franklin, such exercises usually end up saying more about me and my assumptions than anything else. But it’s my blog, so that is more or less appropriate.

Astute readers must at this point be expecting to recieve a citation from a piece of fiction, followed by an application of the relevant concepts to some ends. And they would be correct.

Early on in Neal Stephenson’s novel The System of the World, Daniel Waterhouse reflects on what is required of someone in his position:

He was at an age where it was never possible ot pursue one errand at a time. He must do many at once. He guessed that people who had lived right and arranged things properly must have it all rigged so that all of their quests ran in parallel, and reinforced and supported one another just so. They gained reputations as conjurors. Others found their errands running at cross purposes and were never able to do anything; they ended up seeming mad, or else percieived the futility of what they were doing and gave up, or turned to drink.

Naturally, I believe there is some truth to this. In fact, the life of Benjamin Franklin, a historical figure from approximately the same time period as Dr. Waterhouse, provides us with a more tangible reference point.

Franklin was known to mix private interests with public ones, and to leverage both to further his business interests. The consummate example of Franklin’s proclivities was the Junto, a club of young workingmen formed by Franklin in the fall of 1727. The Junto was a small club composed of enterprising tradesman and artisans who discussed issues of the day and also endeavored to form a vehicle for the furtherance of their own careers. The enterprise was typical of Franklin, who was always eager to form associations for mutual benefit, and who aligned his interests so they ran in parallel, reinforcing and supporting one another.

A more specific example of Franklin’s knack for aligning interests is when he produced the first recorded abortion debate in America. At the time, Franklin was running a print shop in Philadelphia. His main competitor, Andrew Bradford, published the town’s only newspaper. The paper was meager, but very profitable in both moneys and prestige (which led him to be more respected by merchants and politicians, and thus more likely to get printing jobs), and Franklin decided to launch a competing newspaper. Unfortunately, another rival printer, Samuel Keimer, caught wind of Franklin’s plan and immediately launched a hastily assembled newspaper of his own. Franklin, realizing that it would be difficult to launch a third paper right away, vowed to crush Keimer:

In a comptetitive bank shot, Franklin decided to write a series of anonymous letters and essays, along the lines of the Silence Dogood pieces of his youth, for Bradford’s [American Weekly Mercury] to draw attention away from Keimer’s new paper. The goal was to enliven, at least until Keimer was beaten, Bradford’s dull paper, which in its ten years had never puplished any such features.

The first two pieces were attacks on poor Keimer, who was serializing entries from an encyclopedia. His intial installment included, innocently enough, an entry on abortion. Franklin pounced. Using the pen names “Martha Careful” and “Celia Shortface,” he wrote letters to Bradford’s paper feigning shock and indignation at Keimer’s offense. As Miss Careful threatened, “If he proceeds farther to expose the secrets of our sex in that audacious manner [women would] run the hazard of taking him by the beard in the next place we meet him.” Thus Franklin manufactured the first recorded abortion debate in America, not because he had any strong feelings on the issue, but because he knew it would sell newspapers. [This is an exerpt from the recent biography Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson]

Franklin’s many actions of the time certainly weren’t running at cross purposes, and he did manage to align his interests in parallel. He truly was a master, and we’ll be hearing more about him on this blog soon.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this subject before either. In a previous post, On the Overloading of Information, I noted one of the main reasons why blogging continues to be an enjoyable activity for me, despite changing interests and desires:

I am often overwhelmed by a desire to consume various things – books, movies, music, etc… The subject of such things is also varied and, as such, often don’t mix very well. That said, the only thing I have really found that works is to align those subjects that do mix in such a way that they overlap. This is perhaps the only reason blogging has stayed on my plate for so long: since the medium is so free-form and since I have absolute control over what I write here and when I write it, it is easy to align my interests in such a way that they overlap with my blog (i.e. I write about what interests me at the time).

One way you can tell that my interests have shifted over the years is that the format and content of my writing here has also changed. I am once again reminded of Neal Stephenson’s original minimalist homepage in which he speaks of his ongoing struggle against what Linda Stone termed as “continuous partial attention,” as that curious feature of modern life only makes the necessity of aligning interests in parallel that much more important.

Aligning blogging with my other core interests, such as reading fiction, is one of the reasons I frequently quote fiction, even in reference to a serious topic. Yes, such a practice is frowned upon, but blogging is a hobby, the idea of which is to have fun. Indeed, Glenn Reynolds, progenitor of one of the most popular blogging sites around, also claims to blog for fun, and interestingly enough, he has quoted fiction in support of his own serious interests as well (more than once). One other interesting observation is that all references to fiction in this post, including even Reynolds’ references, are from Neal Stephenson’s novels. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out what significance, if any, that holds.


The new Slashdot interview with Neal Stephenson is an unexpected treat. Not only are the questions great, but Stephenson’s responses are witty and somewhat more profound (and much longer, as he had time to compose answers to some of the more difficult questions). As Nate points out, one of the more enlightening answers deals with the much rumored feud between Stephenson and William Gibson:

I was doing a reading/signing at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Gibson stopped by to say hello and extended his hand as if to shake. But I remembered something Bruce Sterling had told me. For, at the time, Sterling and I had formed a pact to fight Gibson. Gibson had been regrown in a vat from scraps of DNA after Sterling had crashed an LNG tanker into Gibson’s Stealth pleasure barge in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. During the regeneration process, telescoping Carbonite stilettos had been incorporated into Gibson’s arms. Remembering this in the nick of time, I grabbed the signing table and flipped it up between us. Of course the Carbonite stilettos pierced it as if it were cork board, but this spoiled his aim long enough for me to whip my wakizashi out from between my shoulder blades and swing at his head. He deflected the blow with a force blast that sprained my wrist. The falling table knocked over a space heater and set fire to the store. Everyone else fled. Gibson and I dueled among blazing stacks of books for a while. Slowly I gained the upper hand, for, on defense, his Praying Mantis style was no match for my Flying Cloud technique. But I lost him behind a cloud of smoke. Then I had to get out of the place. The streets were crowded with his black-suited minions and I had to turn into a swarm of locusts and fly back to Seattle.

Heh. Stephenson apparently fought Gibson two times after that, and the interview is worth reading just because of that answer… but the whole thing is worth reading, especially his answer regarding why genre and popular writers don’t get the literary respect they deserve (or don’t, depending on your point of view). [Thanks again to Nate for pointing this out to me, who, in my work induced haze, had missed it entirely]

Update: Just for fun, I checked out Stephenson’s homepage and found this picture of the entire Baroque Cycle manuscript:


Again Update: Holy Crap! Stephenson t-shirts? And they look cool too! Why was I not informed? Damn you monkey research squad!

The Unglamorous March of Technology

We live in a truly wondrous world. The technological advances over just the past 100 years are astounding, but, in their own way, they’re also absurd and even somewhat misleading, especially when you consider how these advances are discovered. More often than not, we stumble onto something profound by dumb luck or by brute force. When you look at how a major technological feat was accomplished, you’d be surprised by how unglamorous it really is. That doesn’t make the discovery any less important or impressive, but we often take the results of such discoveries for granted.

For instance, how was Pi originally calculated? Chris Wenham provides a brief history:

So according to the Bible it’s an even 3. The Egyptians thought it was 3.16 in 1650 B.C.. Ptolemy figured it was 3.1416 in 150 AD. And on the other side of the world, probably oblivious to Ptolemy’s work, Zu Chongzhi calculated it to 355/113. In Bagdad, circa 800 AD, al-Khwarizmi agreed with Ptolemy; 3.1416 it was, until James Gregory begged to differ in the late 1600s.

Part of the reason why it was so hard to find the true value of Pi (π) was the lack of a good way to precisely measure a circle’s circumference when your piece of twine would stretch and deform in the process of taking it. When Archimedes tried, he inscribed two polygons in a circle, one fitting inside and the other outside, so he could calculate the average of their boundaries (he calculated ? to be 3.1418). Others found you didn’t necessarily need to draw a circle: Georges Buffon found that if you drew a grid of parallel lines, each 1 unit apart, and dropped a pin on it that was also 1 unit in length, then the probability that the pin would fall across a line was 2/π. In 1901, someone dropped a pin 34080 times and got an average of 3.1415929.

π is an important number and being able to figure out what it is has played a significant factor in the advance of technology. While all of these numbers are pretty much the same (to varying degrees of precision), isn’t it absurd that someone figured out π by dropping 34,000 pins on a grid? We take π for granted today; we don’t have to go about finding the value of π, we just use it in our calculations.

In Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson portrays several experiments performed by some of the greatest minds in history, and many of the things they did struck me as especially unglamorous. Most would point to the dog and bellows scene as a prime example of how unglamorous the unprecedented age of discovery recounted in the book really was (and they’d be right), but I’ll choose something more mundane (page 141 in my edition):

“Help me measure out three hundred feet of thread,” Hooke said, no longer amused.

They did it by pulling the thread off of a reel, and stretching it alongside a one-fathom-long rod, and counting off fifty fathoms. One end of the thread, Hooke tied to a heavy brass slug. He set the scale up on the platform that Daniel had improvised over the mouth of the well, and put the slug, along with its long bundle of thread, on the pan. He weighed the slug and thread carefully – a seemingly endless procedure disturbed over and over by light gusts of wind. To get a reliable measurement, they had to devote a couple of hours to setting up a canvas wind-screen. Then Hooke spent another half hour peering at the scale’s needle through a magnifying lens while adding or subtracting bits of gold foil, no heavier than snowflakes. Every change caused the scale to teeter back and forth for several minutes before settling into a new position. Finally, Hooke called out a weight in pounds, ounces, grains, and fractions of grains, and Daniel noted it down. Then Hooke tied the free end of the thread to a little eye he had screwed on the bottom of the pan, and he and Daniel took turns lowering the weight into the well, letting it drop a few inches at a time – if it got to swinging, and scraped against the chalky sides of the hole, it would pick up a bit of extra weight, and ruin the experiment. When all three hundred feet had been let out, Hooke went for a stroll, because the weight was swinging a little bit, and its movements would disturb the scale. Finally, it settled down enough that he could go back to work with his magnifying glass and his tweezers.

And, of course, the experiment was a failure. Why? The scale was not precise enough! The book is filled with similar such experiments, some successful, some not.

Another example is telephones. Pick one up, enter a few numbers on the keypad and voila! you’re talking to someone halfway across the world. Pretty neat, right? But how does that system work, behind the scenes? Take a look at the photo on the right. This is a typical intersection in a typical American city, and it is absolutely absurd. Look at all those wires! Intersections like that are all over the world, which is the part of the reason I can pick up my phone and talk to someone so far away. One other part of the reason I can do that is that almost everyone has a phone. And yet, this system is perceived to be elegant.

Of course, the telephone system has grown over the years, and what we have now is elegant compared to what we used to have:

The engineers who collectively designed the beginnings of the modern phone system in the 1940’s and 1950’s only had mechanical technologies to work with. Vacuum tubes were too expensive and too unreliable to use in large numbers, so pretty much everything had to be done with physical switches. Their solution to the problem of “direct dial” with the old rotary phones was quite clever, actually, but by modern standards was also terribly crude; it was big, it was loud, it was expensive and used a lot of power and worst of all it didn’t really scale well. (A crossbar is an N� solution.) … The reason the phone system handles the modern load is that the modern telephone switch bears no resemblance whatever to those of 1950’s. Except for things like hard disks, they contain no moving parts, because they’re implemented entirely in digital electronics.

So we’ve managed to get rid of all the moving parts and make things run more smoothly and reliably, but isn’t it still an absurd system? It is, but we don’t really stop to think about it. Why? Because we’ve hidden the vast and complex backend of the phone system behind innocuous looking telephone numbers. All we need to know to use a telephone is how to operate it (i.e. how to punch in numbers) and what number we want to call. Wenham explains, in a different essay:

The numbers seem pretty simple in design, having an area code, exchange code and four digit number. The area code for Manhattan is 212, Queens is 718, Nassau County is 516, Suffolk County is 631 and so-on. Now let’s pretend it’s my job to build the phone routing system for Emergency 911 service in the New York City area, and I have to route incoming calls to the correct police department. At first it seems like I could use the area and exchange codes to figure out where someone’s coming from, but there’s a problem with that: cell phone owners can buy a phone in Manhattan and get a 212 number, and yet use it in Queens. If someone uses their cell phone to report an accident in Queens, then the Manhattan police department will waste precious time transferring the call.

Area codes are also used to determine the billing rate for each call, and this is another way the abstraction leaks. If you use your Manhattan-bought cell phone to call someone ten yards away while vacationing in Los Angeles, you’ll get charged long distance rates even though the call was handled by a local cell tower and local exchange. Try as you might, there is no way to completely abstract the physical nature of the network.

He also mentions cell phones, which are somewhat less absurd than plain old telephones, but when you think about it, all we’ve done with cell phones is abstract the telephone lines. We’re still connecting to a cell tower (which need to be placed with high frequency throughout the world) and from there, a call is often routed through the plain old telephone system. If we could see the RF layer in action, we’d be astounded; it would make the telephone wires look organized and downright pleasant by comparison.

The act of hiding the physical nature of a system behind an abstraction is very common, but it turns out that all major abstractions are leaky. But all leaks in an abstraction, to some degree, are useful.

One of the most glamorous technological advances of the past 50 years was the advent of space travel. Thinking of the heavens is indeed an awe-inspiring and humbling experience, to be sure, but when you start breaking things down to the point where we can put a man in space, things get very dicey indeed. When it comes to space travel, there is no more glamorous a person than the astronaut, but again, how does one become an astronaut? The need to pour through and memorize giant telephone-sized books filled with technical specifications and detailed schematics. Hardly a glamorous proposition.

Steven Den Beste recently wrote a series of articles concerning the critical characteristics of space warships, and it is fascinating reading, but one of the things that struck me about the whole concept was just how unglamorous space battles would be. It sounds like a battle using the weapons and defenses described would be punctuated by long periods of waiting followed by a short burst of activity in which one side was completely disabled. This is, perhaps, the reason so many science fiction movies and books seem to flaunt the rules of physics. As a side note, I think a spectacular film could be made while still obeying the rules of physics, but that is only because we’re so used to the absurd physics defying space battles.

None of this is to say that technological advances aren’t worthwhile or that those who discover new and exciting concepts are somehow not impressive. If anything, I’m more impressed at what we’ve achieved over the years. And yet, since we take these advances for granted, we marginalize the effort that went into their discovery. This is due in part to the necessary abstractions we make to implement various systems. But when abstractions hide the crude underpinnings of technology, we see that technology and its creation as glamorous, thus bestowing honors upon those who make the discovery (perhaps for the wrong reasons). It’s an almost paradoxal cycle. Perhaps because of this, we expect newer discoveries and innovations to somehow be less crude, but we must realize that all of our discoveries are inherently crude.

And while we’ve discovered a lot, it is still crude and could use improvements. Some technologies have stayed the same for thousands of years. Look at toilet paper. For all of our wondrous technological advances, we’re still wiping our ass with a piece of paper. The Japanese have the most advanced toilets in the world, but they’ve still not figured out a way to bypass the simple toilet paper (or, at least, abstract the process). We’ve got our work cut out for us. Luckily, we’re willing to go to absurd lengths to achieve our goals.

Error, Calibration, and Defiant Posturing

I’m still slogging my way through Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, and I recently came across a passage that I found particularly insightful (or, at least, that overlaps some of my interests). I’m tempted to reproduce the entire chapter, but will limit it for the sake of brevity. The two characters involved in the scene are an ambitious former-slave woman named Eliza, and famed astronomer, mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens. Huygens is observing the sun so as to correct any error in his clocks (even a well made clock drifts and must be calibrated from time to time) and this act is used as a metaphor to describe people. The quote is from pages 715-716 of my edition:

   “…Imagine my parents’ consternation. They had taught me Latin, Greek, French and other languages. They had taught me the lute, the viol, and the harpsichord. Of literature and history I had learned everything that was in their power to tech me. Mathematics and philosophy I learned from Descartes himself. But I built myself a lathe. Later I taught myself how to grind lenses. My parents feared that they had spawned a tradesman.”

   “No one is more pleased than I that matters turned out so well for you,” Eliza said, “but I am too thick to understand how your story is applicable to my case.”

   “It is all right for a clock to run fast or slow at times, so long as it is calibrated against the sun, and set right. The sun may come out only once in a fortnight. It is enough. A few minutes’ light around noon is all that you need to discover the error, and re-set the clock–provided that you bother to go up and make the observation. My parents somehow knew this, and did not become overly concerned at my strange enthusiasms. For they had confidence that they had taught me how to know when I was running awry and to calibrate my behavior.”

   “Now I think I understand,” Eliza said. “It remains only to apply this principle to me, I suppose.”

   “If I come down in the morning to find you copulating on my table with a foreign deserter, as if you were some sort of Vagabond,” Huygens said, “I am annoyed. I admit it. But that is not as important as what you do next. If you posture defiantly, it tells me that you have not learned the skill of recognizing when you are running awry, and correcting yourself. And you must leave my house in that case, for such people only go further and further astray until they find destruction. But if you take this opportunity to consider where you have gone wrong, and to adjust your course, it tells me that you shall do well enough in the end.”

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, only applied to systems rather than clocks or people. One of the things I left out of this quote is actually quite important: “Of persons I will say this: it is difficult to tell when they are running aright but easy to see when something has gone awry.” And the same goes for systems, too. I’ve often commented on the intelligence community, and one of the truisms of intelligence is that when it is going well, it is transparent – you don’t know it is there. We don’t reveal intelligence successes, because to do so would prevent us from further exploiting an asset, and so on. But when there is an intelligence failure, it is quite obvious to all, even if it was debatably unavoidable.

One could go crazy applying this concept to the world of current events, but I suppose that it is such an interesting point precisely because it is so broadly applicable.

Update: Removed some of the specific current events originally referenced in this post, as they distracted from the general point and I wanted to be able to refer back to this without worrying about that.

Stephenson Abound

Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Quicksilver, is due to be released later this month. It is both a sequel to his brilliant novel Cryptonomicon, and the first in a trilogy of novels known collectively as The Baroque Cycle (to be published at six month intervals).

On the front page of the Baroque Cycle website is a rather interesting cryptographic puzzle (not quite up to the level of some other promotional games or puzzles, but an interesting foray nonetheless) which appeared without fanfare or instructions (well, sort of). Todd Garrison solved the puzzle, and how he did so makes for fascinating reading. Countless setbacks and dead ends eventually led the patient Mr. Garrison to a “Philosophical Language” invented by John Wilkins and expressed in what was called “Real Character.”

Also of note is a new Stephenson interview in Wired. Its short but its good:

During the information revolution, it became possible for those with an engineering mentality to control large amounts of capital. So people who, if they’d been born a generation or two earlier, would’ve ended up sitting in a little office at IBM pushing a T-square around ended up becoming captains of industry. From that point of view, it seems like there’s been this revolutionary change that’s occurred within our lifetimes, but there are precedents. The power of engineers and scientists waxes and wanes. In the ’90s, we went through a period when that influence became very large, but those times may be over, at least for a little while.

Good stuff.

Security & Technology

The other day, I was looking around for some new information on Quicksilver (Neal Stephenson’s new novel, a follow up to Cryptonomicon) and I came across Stephenson’s web page. I like everything about that page, from the low-tech simplicity of its design, to the pleading tone of the subject matter (the “continuous partial attention” bit always gets me). At one point, he gives a summary of a talk he gave in Toronto a few years ago:

Basically I think that security measures of a purely technological nature, such as guns and crypto, are of real value, but that the great bulk of our security, at least in modern industrialized nations, derives from intangible factors having to do with the social fabric, which are poorly understood by just about everyone. If that is true, then those who wish to use the Internet as a tool for enhancing security, freedom, and other good things might wish to turn their efforts away from purely technical fixes and try to develop some understanding of just what the social fabric is, how it works, and how the Internet could enhance it. However this may conflict with the (absolutely reasonable and understandable) desire for privacy.

And that quote got me to thinking about technolology and security, and how technology never really replaces human beings, it just makes certain tasks easier, quicker, and more efficient. There was a lot of talk about this sort of thing around the early 90s, when certain security experts were promoting the use of strong cryptography and digital agents that would choose what products we would buy and spend our money for us.

As it turns out, most of those security experts seem to be changing their mind. There are several reasons for this, chief among them fallibility and, quite frankly, a lack of demand. It is impossible to build an infallible system (at least, it’s impossible to recognize that you have built such a system), but even if you had accomplished such a feat, what good would it be? A perfectly secure system is also a perfectly useless system. Besides that, you have human ignorance to contend with. How many of you actually encrypt your email? It sounds odd, but most people don’t even notice the little yellow lock that comes up in their browser when they are using a secure site.

Applying this to our military, there are some who advocate technology (specifically airpower) as a replacement for the grunt. The recent war in Iraq stands in stark contrast to these arguments, despite the fact that the civilian planners overruled the military’s request for additional ground forces. In fact, Rumsfeld and his civilian advisors had wanted to send significantly fewer ground forces, because they believed that airpower could do virtually everything by itself. The only reason there were as many as there were was because General Franks fought long and hard for increased ground forces (being a good soldier, you never heard him complain, but I suspect there will come a time when you hear about this sort of thing in his memoirs).

None of which is to say that airpower or technology are not necessary, nor do I think that ground forces alone can win a modern war. The major lesson of this war is that we need to have balanced forces in order to respond with flexibility and depth to the varied and changing threats our country faces. Technology plays a large part in this, as it makes our forces more effective and more likely to succeed. But, to paraphrase a common argument, we need to keep in mind that weapons don’t fight wars, soldiers do. While technology we used provided us with a great deal of security, its also true that the social fabric of our armed forces were undeniably important in the victory.

One thing Stephenson points to is an excerpt from a Sherlock Holmes novel in which Holmes argues:

…the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful country-side…The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish…But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the


Once again, the war in Iraq provides us with a great example. Embedding reporters in our units was a controversial move, and there are several reasons the decision could have been made. One reason may very well have been that having reporters around while we fought the war may have made our troops behave better than they would have otherwise. So when we watch the reports on TV, all we see are the professional, honorable soldiers who bravely fought an enemy which was fighting dirty (because embedding reporters revealed that as well).

Communications technology made embedding reporters possible, but it was the complex social interactions that really made it work (well, to our benefit at least). We don’t derive security straight from technology, we use it to bolster our already existing social constructs, and the further our technology progresses, the easier and more efficient security becomes.

Update 6.6.03 – Tacitus discusses some similar issues…

explicit discouragement

Why I am a Bad Correspondent by Neal Stephenson : A perfectly reasonable document that tries to explain why he is not very diligent about answering his mail, and why he doesn’t accept speaking engagements. He gives a summary:

“I am not a recluse or a misanthrope or a grouch. I simply cannot respond to all incoming stimuli unless I retire from writing novels. And I don’t wish to retire at this time.”

I found the document at Stephenson’s webpage, which is, in itself, a plea for people to leave him alone so that he may write his next novel. He cites the quote “We live in an age of continuous partial attention.” and goes on to explain that writing novels is one of those activities that requires ALL one’s attention. I find the idea of “continuous partial attention” to be a fascinating one, as it is something I try to avoid whenever possible. There is a certain attitude in our culture that expects us to be able to do everything at once and be happy about it. Personally, I would rather do one thing really well than do many things averagely. So I can see where Mr. Stephenson is coming from, I recognize it as a completely reasonable request and I am determined to do my part in helping him achieve his goal. That is to say, I am going to do nothing.

Nothing except link to The Big U, Stephenson’s first novel, self described as: a first novel written in a hurry by a young man a long time ago. Which basically means its not that good. I only mention it because its reproduced there in its entirety, and, until recently, its a hard book to find.