Results tagged “Neal Stephenson” from kwc blog

Talk: Neal Stephenson, Anathem

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cvr_anathem.jpgThe Anathem book launch event sponsored by the Long Now Foundation was a bit of an organizational disaster, but I still found it a fun new experience among the many, many book talks I've been to. I love the Long Now foundation for attempting an ambitious event, including live performances of the Anathem soundtrack, cellular automata enactments, and shovel-fu, but the failures in execution were hard to overlook:

  • the event started a full hour late due to audio difficulties
  • the audio difficulties were never solved, leading to a persistent audio hum that ruined the singing
  • Danny Hillis, as important as he is, seemed to think the event was as much about him as it was Neal Stephenson, leading to annoyances like taking the microphone away from Neal Stephenson mid-answer to interject his own rambling, incoherent thoughts

Stewart Brand was much better in his role and surprisingly coherent given all that I've read about his past history. Unfortunately I missed any cellular automata enactments and shovel-fu as the delays in the event meant that it was time to get home (they weren't going to happen until after Stephenson finished signing books).

So why, then, did I have so much fun? Much of the credit goes to Susanne and Ed. As you'll read in the lengthy acknowledgements -- I joked they were put on the Web in order to save $2/book in printing costs -- Ed Zalta's work on abstract objects was part of the philosophical underpinnings of the books. Anathem's philosophy, I am told, is infused with a healthy dose of Platonism and if you try to look for contemporary works (i.e. post-Godel) in the Mathematical Platonist realm, you're bound to land at Ed's office door. Among Ed's influences in the book:

... the tree-dwelling, loincloth-wearing fraas mentioned during the Aut of Inbrase at Tredegarh are carrying out--albeit very slowly--a computation along the lines of what PROVER9 does.

How many of us can say that our computer programs come with interpretive dances?

Stephenson met with Ed during his research for the book and read his papers. He then did what novelists do, which is to mix it with theories from a bunch of different fields -- quantum mechanics, philosophy of the mind, etc.. -- and wrap a story around it. Neither Ed nor Susanne seemed offended by the end product, so it would seem that Stephenson is well-read.

I often groan as soon as the Q&A starts and someone asks, "So how do you come up with the ideas for your book?" which leads to the exact general answer you hear at any event. In this case, I got a real answer to that question, which started way back when Susanne first e-mailed me that she had an Advanced Reading Copy of the book -- she knew it would kill me inside with jealousy. It continued with discussions in our car ride up to the event, through the hours we had to kill and then the event itself. The car ride back seemed so quick as we were given one last opportunity to digest the synthesis of it all.

The interplay between popular literature and science is a creative genesis for both fields, with Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash and the Metaverse being one obvious example. We joked about the grad students that will be knocking on Ed's door in 2-3 years -- or however long it takes them to slog through 900 pages -- inspired by the new hipness of Mathematical Platonism. I've usually approached Stephenson's recent gigantic tomes with trepidation, but I'm really excited to dive into a foreign world with invented languages and synthesized philosophy. If Stewart Brand and Susanne can read it twice I think I certainly can manage it at least once.

Book: Quicksilver

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It took me two years, four months to finish this book. It's huge. So huge that I have to read it on weekends in coffee shops because it's too big to carry in my backpack. I can hardly remember the beginning as there's been many dozens of books I've read since I read the first page of this book and I can barely remember going to Stephenson's Quicksilver talk where I bought it. And it's not like I'm actually finished. I still have two thousand pages to go with Confusion and System of the World. Stephenson actually divides the Baroque Cycle into eight books, which I wish his publisher did because I might have been able to psychologically deal with its heft better.

I would feel more satisified if I felt that Quicksilver were anything more than exposition for the rest of the series. I can't actually call it exposition because I have not read the other two books, so I am not certain yet that Stephenson has a plot in mind. As far as I can tell, Quicksilver takes a thousand pages to explain the first chapter. I think it could have been done in fewer.

Quicksilver was fun, otherwise I would have abandoned mid-course. Jack Shaftoe's entry into the series helped pace things forward. But next time I'm buying the paperback edition and cutting it into three smaller books.

Talk: Author of Quicksilver

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The author of Quicksilver gave a talk at a bookstore in Menlo Park to promote his latest book, Quicksilver, which is part of the Baroque Cycle. In an interesting social experiment, he will be running a Wiki for the book at Metaweb.

If you're wondering why I'm using pronouns and allusions to the identity of the author, it is because he began his talk by requesting that a new social convention be honored and observed during his talk. The author hopes that this convention will be called grith, which is an Old English term referring to protection/santuary. In modern parlance, he hopes that this term will spawn a new convention. In essence, if a person invokes grith, he is asking that he be able to speak frankly without fear of being recorded in any manner.

In the future he imagines that people will become more and more reticent to speak openly in public settings (much like politicians nowadays), and more and more information becomes accessible and free. Anecodotally, he spoke of his fear that his off-the-cuff remarks being videotaped and immediately placed on the Web, where it will remain until the Earth spirals down into the Sun. The fear makes it much more difficult for him to be open with audiences, as he knows that anyone might be carrying a small deck-of-cards-sized camcorder. He also related the story of another person who had someone ten thousand miles away take issue with an off-the-cuff remark he gave in a guest lecture.

In accordance with his invoking of grith, let me state that what follows in this entry is not a transcription of this author's talk; rather, it is a partial transcription of my imaginings of what he might say if these questions were asked of him, and I have not taken the time to note the many gaps. Also, as with anything that only occurs in one's mind, I didn't have a tape recorder or TiVo to replay my thoughts, and anything with "quotes" should not be construed as an actual quote of a fictitious character in my head. Instead, it should interpreted as the faulty transcriptions of an imaginative mind.

Finally, please also note that anything up and to this point was before he invoked the right of grith, or made permissible -- He was asked if it was alright to blog about grith, to which he responded, after some wavering, "go ahead - but don't quote me on that." I'm sure that anyone who was audience to this imaginary talk in my head will be intelligent enough to search google for "grith" if they wish to find me notes.

Book: Snowcrash - World

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Second set of notes for Snowcrash. This set describes the "real world" portion of Stephenson's novel.

Book: Snowcrash - Metaverse

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I separated the notes for this book into several sections. The level of detail that Stephenson put into describing the Snowcrash world is so amazing that I felt like outlining it. This section of notes describes the Metaverse.