Tag Archives: information technology

“Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson

Goodness, I haven’t blogged for many weeks! I’m happy to report that most of this delay resulted from good things happening in my life, like travel. Then there were some troubles, but nothing really far out of the ordinary.

BUT also, I read a book that brought me to a bemused halt! Yes, Cryptonomicon.

First, it’s huge – 900+ pages. Perfect if you are crossing Siberia by train in winter. (I wasn’t.) And it’s written in a style that mixes fact and fiction, cutting back and forth through time.

The mixture of fact and fiction makes me wonder if Stephenson wants his work to be accessible only to cognoscenti. His description of, for example, the Hindenburg explosion might be incomprehensible to many people. (And maybe I misunderstood…)

One message of the book is “war is hell”, to which I reply (as usual) “If so, why wrap it in fiction?” I was somewhat reminded of Catch 22 by  Joseph Heller, but that was more linear in narrative style.

Why did I keep reading this sprawling, often confusing novel? For the characters and their relationships. And because I’m interested in “contemporary” history, the times I (and my parents) lived through.

I have not delved into the reviews of this book. On Amazon.com alone they number 1,685, cumulatively awarding Cryptonomicon 4+ stars out of five.

I read (and blogged about) three other books by Neal Stephenson: Anathem, Snow Crash and Seven Eves. Anathem was my favorite, closely followed by Seven Eves. I will await recommendations from friends before I tackle another.


“Cities are Good for You – the Genius of the Metropolis” by Leo Hollis, part 1.

I’ve read 4 of 11 chapters in this book. Both my sons live in cities, and here I sit in the countryside… I’ve never lived in an American city. I remember my months in Berlin (inside the Wall) with special fondness. I know the arguments in favor of higher density living, but cities make me nervous.

One of Hollis’s opening arguments pertains to “second tier” friends. He says city and country people have about the same number of “first tier” friends and relatives, the people with whom we work, play and live. But he asserts that city folks have more “second tier” friends – former colleagues, acquaintances, casual contacts, slightly known neighbors – and these people improve the quality of life. Evidently this can be documented in the job search arena. 

Hollis moves on to discuss the city as a hive, and there, I think, violates logic. He references ant biologist E O Wilson (again! see my post of August 1) in a discussion (over my head) of complexity theory. A few pages later, Hollis casually informs us that a bee hive is a “democracy”. What?! The concept of “democracy” is so saturated with political and sociological assumptions that applying it to an insect (no bones, not much brain, etc.) is just wacko. It’s like hearing someone announce that they are going out to milk the cow, then seeing them walk off with a full set of welding tools. It’s not going to work…

So, who else turns up in Hollis’s book? He disliked Robert Moses, who so shaped (deformed?) New York City. I agree with him, but that’s based only on the Robert Caro biography of Moses. (New York City makes me particularly anxious…)

Hollis is uncritically approving of Cory Booker, the popular mayor of Newark, NJ. I am reserving my opinion on Booker, and Newark for that matter. (I’ve been there just once.) I wonder if Hollis was surprised at Booker’s Senate candidacy.

Hollis devotes an interesting chapter to creativity, using that term to apply broadly, to arts, technology and innovation in general. He discusses, with many examples, how cities re-invent themselves, which often seems to involve arts or information science. When it works, is it because someone made and implemented a good plan, or is it because the right number of bright, high energy people were in the same place at the same time? Does it happen from the bottom up, or the top down? Do professional planners and architects help or hinder? I know some artists with whom I want to discuss this.

I decided to take a break from reading and write about this book now, because it’s so full of ideas I may not be able to keep them all straight. More to follow…