Neal Stephenson speaks

Neal Stephenson, a personal favorite and author of Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and the (slightly disappointing) Baroque Cycle trilogy that was set in the seventeenth century talks about technology, geeks and politics in this freewheeling interview with Reason Online.

One thing I did like about the Baroque cycle was the incredible amount of interesting information it contained on scientists I knew little about. Stephenson is the unquestioned king of covert edification – a joke here, some pun there, a little bit of explaining and lo! You’ve actually learnt something, without realizing it. And nowhere is this talent more obvious than in the Baroque Cycle. Wilkins, Hooke, Leibniz and Newton were all characters in the books, and they were treated with typical Stephenson irreverence – making them seem almost human. Wish he wrote my science textbooks.

This excerpt is a loose summary of the broad themes underlying the Baroque Cycle.

The initial surprise was that Leibniz had done so much computer-related work so early. I got that from George Dyson’s Darwin Among the Machines. When I began to read about the period, I was surprised by the sophistication of the Amsterdam stock market and the complexity of the Lyonnaise financial system. But the greatest single surprise for me was the welter of ideas contained in [Robert] Hooke’s Micrographia. Hooke talks about an incredibly wide range of topics in that volume.

One is how we ought to define thinking—what is intelligence? He cites the way that flies are drawn to the smell of meat, which seems like intelligent behavior. But then he cites the counterexample of a trap that kills an animal. To a primitive person who didn’t know that the trap had been invented by a person, it might seem that the trap itself possessed intelligence and will. Of course, this isn’t really the case; it’s just a dumb mechanism reflecting the intelligence of him who created it. But, Hooke says, who are we to say that a fly isn’t just a more complicated mechanism that is designed to fly toward the smell of meat? In which case it isn’t being intelligent at all, only reflecting the intelligence of the Creator.

The final surprise I’ll mention is that Leibniz’s system of doing physics, which is based on fundamental units called monads, has got a few things in common with the modern notion of computational physics, or “it from bit.” Furthermore, Leibniz’s rejection of the concept of absolute space and time, which for a long time seemed a little bit loony to people, enjoyed a revival beginning with Ernst Mach.

One could argue that people like Leibniz and the others were able to come up with some good ideas because they weren’t afraid to think metaphysically. In those days, metaphysics was still a respected discipline and considered as worthwhile as mathematics. It got the stuffing kicked out of it through much of the 20th century and became a byword for mystical, obscurantist thinking, but in recent decades it has been rehabilitated somewhat.

At bottom, anyone who asks questions like “Why does the universe seem to obey laws?” or “Why does mathematics work so well in modeling the physical universe?” is engaging in metaphysics. People like Newton and Leibniz were as well-equipped for this kind of thinking as anyone today, and so it is interesting to read and think about their metaphysics. Seventeenth-century chemistry may have been rudimentary, and of only historical interest today, but 17th-century philosophy is highly developed and still interesting to read.

Link through Amit Varma’s Middle Stage.


Looks like Margaret Atwood, whose day job involves writing a curiously intoxicating blend of science fiction, feminism and mythology, invents gadgets by night.

A remote book signing machine that she has prototyped is the Online Answer to Writer’s Angst , particularly when such angst originates from having to sign a lot of books when on tours.

“Last time I did a tour in Britain it was pretty horrendous,” she said. “This will mean a lot less angst, inconvenience, starvation, sitting in airports and eating out of minibars.”

Can’t blame her: Book signings can tire even a pumped up Jose Canseco. I might even buy one of the machines (whatever they end up being called) from her, if she promises not to write the instruction manual the way she talks here.

And she insists that there will be no appreciable lessening of an autograph’s authenticity, because writing is already only a distant cousin of thought. “The mind is the device that is thinking out the signature,” she said. “The hand is the extension of the mind, and the pen is the extension of the hand—so the pen is at two removes from the author’s mind already. This thing is just another remove.”

How profound! Makes you wonder how many removes blogging is.

The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was

Wendy Doniger is a scholar of Hinduism at the University of Chicago. She frequently throws a few religious texts from India on her couch, and psychoanalyzes their content. I guess she had trouble getting straight answers out of the Gita, and couldn’t help concluding that the “the Gita is a dishonest book.” A friend once told me about conclusions drawn by people who interpret movies revealing more about themselves than the movie. Not that this has any relevance in this context – that was about movies, and we are talking books – but I just thought I’d throw it out here.

So now, Wendy decides to write a book and the New York Times reviews it. From the review, I could gather three important things:

1) The book seems to have a lot of sex in it.

2) The book was written by Wendy Doniger, who was (gasp) criticized for her views on Hinduism.

3) Wendy’s photo on the jacket is cool. Very sensuous. And because she used an old photo of her on the jacket, Wendy is incurably playful. There was so much wry humor in that photo.

How could I not go out and buy the book?

Manish Vij writes wonderfully about this at Sepia Mutiny.

Books : Life of Pi

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Winner of the Man-Booker prize for 2002.

 Life of Pi is a book that can be difficult to pigeonhole: it could be a modern day fable, a fantasy with shades of magic realism or just a simple tale of great adventure. But one thing it surely is : a great read.

The protagonist of the book is a young man named after a French swimming pool – Piscine (pissin’) Molitor Patel, son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry. In the first 16 years of his life, Piscine manages to shorten his name to Pi, starts practicing Hinduism and Christianity and Islam, and picks up a few nuggets of animal psychology from his father (including “You can never befriend a tiger”) – all of which stand him in good stead as his family packs their bags (and a few animals) and leaves for Canada.

Enroute to Canada, a shipwreck leaves Pi stranded on a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, an injured zebra and an adult Bengal tiger called Richard Parker for company. Soon, all the other animals either eat each other or manage to get eaten by Richard Parker, leaving only Pi and him remaining. The rest of the book is a fascinating account of how the two manage to survive over 200 days in the Pacific, with a flimsy tarpaulin used to demarcate their territories on the lifeboat.

We know Pi is going to survive the ordeal, but it is a tribute to Martel’s narrative that he manages to keep the readers curiosity piqued almost constantly. Every thing that happens on the ocean rain, no rain, day, night all bring a different kind of adventure with them : a new set of dangers for Pi, and new ways in which he must overcome them.

When he finally reaches the coast of Mexico with Richard Parker, after traversing through an Utopian island – probably Martel’s nod to magic realism – Parker runs away to leave Pi to do the explaining to a bunch of incredulous Japanese assessors. And then Martel throws us a curveball – a retelling of the tale that will leave you stunned (and perhaps a little perplexed). So what is the truth?

The conversations of the author with the present day Pi (that are peppered throughout the book), and the initial encounter with an old man who points Martel to the story add a lot to the aura of believability that the book creates. The only thing that detracts from the book is the occasional preachy tone that it adopts. And the Hindu-Christian-Muslim parts at the start were downright corny. And… no, I shouldn’t be nitpicking. This is a wonderful book – one of the very best I read last year.

Books : Laboring through the Baroque Cycle

I like Neal Stephenson a lot. His Snowcrash and Diamond Age were my introduction to Cyberpunk, and the follow up to these books – Cryptonomicon turned out to be a bestseller and possibly his best book to date. I loved the numerous digressions , the insider geek-jokes, and the irreverent tone of the book. Whole pages (and sometimes chapters) were dedicated to things had at best a tangential relationship to the plot. Like a whole chapter filled with a bad short story written by one of the characters. Or (really) Perl source code for a cryptographic algorithm he describes in the book.

And so I looked forward to the Baroque Cycle, a 3000-page trilogy about the Baroque Age. Quicksilver, Confusion and The System of the World – one book every six months, starting October 2003. Stephenson’s fictional creations cohabiting the book with Hooke, Wilkins, Newton and Leibnitz. This was going to be so good.

Not really. The Baroque cycle is a bit of a letdown.

Sure, there were some good segments. Jack Shaftoe was cool. So was Eliza. The board game that Eliza organizes for French noblemen to explain financial concepts was hilarious. The Royal Society sounded like a fun place to work in: Hooke seemed like a cool dude, and Newton a grumpy old bastard. A big chunk of the second book was devoted to India, and there were some intersting nuggets that I didn’t know. I’m not sure if this is true, but apparently, the women of Malabar (Kerala today) were so sexually promiscuous that most of the time kids didn’t know who their dads were. And thus started the tradition of children taking the mother’s last name. But I digress: In between the good parts, there was so much pointless fluff that any half-decent editor would have gotten rid off. And try as hard as I did, I couldn’t find a plot. Sometimes the book felt like I was reading a smart schoolboy’s scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings from the 17th century. The whole is so much less than the sum of its parts.

Note to Neal: Digressions are cool and all that, but digressions don’t make a book. Not a 3000-page book. And you forgot the plot!