Technologica
By Dwip January 19, 2008, 11:30 pm Comments Off on Technologica RSS Feed for this post

I’m going to ramble a lot in here, but bear with me. There IS a unified theme here, and his name is Neal Stephenson, whose book Snow Crash is both the prompter of this post and the destroyer of a day or so of my time. In a good way. In a way that tells you to, honestly, stop reading now, and just go read the book, because it’s awesome. The fact that it discusses what it does in 1991 is, as my Dad points out, pretty amazing.

Without going into too many plot details, because that would reveal too much, and would be, you know, telling, apparently the future is a dystopia, wherein corporations have replaced national governments, and the internet is now the Metaverse, which is sort of like what Second Life would be if only it looked like the Matrix crossed with the Wired from Serial Experiments: Lain.

We’ve seen all that before, but I find it fascinating that Neal Stephenson can write about, say, a gigantic boat city full of poor, murderous refugees moored to an aircraft carrier, and make me say “Oh, cool, I want to go there!” as opposed to, say, the reality of the Matrix, where I would just as soon stay in the Matrix, thanks, or of Ghost In the Shell, where the government is Really Damn Creepy, and while the stuff is cool (Sarah, I’d REALLY like a Tachikoma for next Christmas, pleasepleaseplease?), I’d just as soon not live there.

In general, this holds true for all of Stephenson’s writing, from Snow Crash to Cryptonomicon to the Baroque Cycle. If Guy Gavriel Kay can make me yearn for the legendary tapeworm kingdoms of yore, Neal Stephenson’s gift is to make me want the actual tapeworm, meanwhile describing to me the exact functioning of every part of the tapeworm, while the tapeworm is doing something incredibly cool, like having a sword fight on a motorcycle.

For example:

– The main character is named Hiro Protagonist. Which by itself should make you laugh. He is also, among other things, a half black, half-Korean-by-way-of-Japan samurai of a sort, a hacker (in the oldschool talented programmer sense), and a pizza delivery guy for the Mafia. Trust me when I say that pizza delivery has never been this awesome before, and never will be again.

– And yes, he gets in a sword fight on a motorcycle.

– He also discusses linguistics and Sumerian history on a different motorcycle, among other exotic locales. This is by far and away much niftier than you might suspect.

– In addition to the motorcycle fighting thing, there is also a gatling gun duel between a man and an aircraft carrier. This is also cool. You may notice a trend.

– There is a character, name given solely as “Y.T.’s mother” who gets multiple chapters to herself, but no name, which strikes me as bleak yet amusing.

Also a few quotes, which should sum up much of what I like about the book:

– “Hiro watches the large, radioactive, spear-throwing killer drug lord ride his motorcycle into Chinatown.”

– “He is holding a one-meter-long piece of heavy rebar with tape wrapped around one end to make a handle.  The rebar approximates a katana, but it is very much heavier.  He calls it redneck katana.”

– “What is this, a quadrillion dollars?”  “One-and-a-half quadrillion.  Inflation, you know.”

Among others, of course.

I won’t actually discuss any of the underlying themes, except to say that, while I like them, and they serve to build a good book around, I don’t actually believe any of them. Especially the linguistics thing, which gets…strange. But that’s really ok. The rest is worth it, trust me.

As something of a side note, doing random internet reading on Snow Crash led me to another Stephenson writing, from 1999, entitled In the Beginning…Was the Command Line, which was further commented on here. A useful Wikipedia summary is here.

While I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time on it, and I think Garrett Birkel’s commentary is by and large spot on, I will note two things:

– Over the course of the essay, Stephenson reveals himself to be a technological elitist of sorts, of a form recognizable to anyone who’s hung around Linux people too long, and likes cool things for the sake of cool things, which is something recognizable to anybody who’s hung around Apple people too long. On the one hand, this reveals interesting things about the book I just read, such as why Snow Crash’s burbclaves are what they are. On the other hand…

– Stephenson’s basic argument seems to be that we should all go back to using the command line, because GUIs are needless seperation from our relationship with the computer. He proceeds to wax philosophical about the greatness of hand editing text files in Linux. Which, in my mind, reveals him to essentially be on crack, even considering that the main competition to Linux at the time was Windows 98.

While command lines and hand editing text files to make hardware work can be fun things to know, and make you cool in a way, and yes I’ve got a certain amount of street cred here, Birkel makes the very good point that sometimes people want to, say, get some damn work done, as opposed to, say, learning the entire set of Unix/Linux commands, which, bizzare discussions about the utility of ls versus dir aside, are pretty much incomprehensible, and pointless for most people when you can click an icon and get the same result, and faster because you’re not trying to remember what all the command switches are.

(and yes, I know there are *nix GUIs. So does Stephenson. Not his point.)

Too, you know how many more people are getting things done better and faster with GUI interfaces than command line? It’s a lot. Bizzare arguments about icon design aside (there’s a great one over the Windows control panel icon), it turns out that the GUI is generally more intuitive and easier to learn than command line, which means that, yes, more people get things done faster.

There’s also a fun little argument about feature bloat in there, which I am not unsympathetic with, but Stephenson chooses to use as his example word processing programs, saying that you waste more time worrying about font and formatting than actually writing. Three things about that:

– If you’re messing with fonts instead of writing, chances are you weren’t writing anything good in the first place;

– You know what? I used a variety of command line text editors too, from vi to old versions of Appleworks and Word Perfect. And you know what? They were all clunky and hard to use, never mind being hard to read, which leads me to my next point, which is that

– Have you ever tried to read a whole page of old fixed width font stuff with minimal formatting on page or on screen? A little tough? Find yourself longing for some good 12 point Times New Roman? Me too.

Of course, Stephenson then goes on to destroy his whole feature bloat argument by praising VBScript in MS Office, which, well…yeah. About that.

Many other fun things abound, such as:

– Complaints about losing documents on floppies from 1985 ten years later, or having them render badly in MS Word of the time. While we have to acknowledge Microsoft’s less than perfect track record there (though I’ve never had a problem), it’s inconcievable to me that somebody who hand edits text files in Linux and who learned computers in the age of the teletype doesn’t know about failure rates on floppy disks.

– Complaints about losing files in bizzare hard drive failures. While I, being the sort of person who has such a high drive failure rate that I no longer consider a system properly initiated until a drive dies, am pretty sympathetic to that, I also note that, again, the idea of backing one’s work up wasn’t invented 5 minutes ago.

– Birkel had some fun links, including one about a Windows machine being infected 20 seconds after internet connection by a virus, which are fun, but even in 2004 when those comments were made, it was pretty common knowledge to, you know, use an anti-virus program and some form of firewall. Just saying. Of course, the whole thing was a partisan pro-Mac thing in the first place, but hey.

Anyway. It’s an interesting read, and probably not nearly as bad as I make it out to be. Just puzzling in spots. Though I sometimes feel like the only person in the world who actually LIKES my Windows XP box.


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