When asked to recommend some science fiction recently, I pulled a Hitchhiker’s Guide and summed up Hyperion as “Good Drama”. Indeed, my memory of it was that of a fabric of pseudo-babble soaked in and facilitating some remarkable characterization, gray morality, complex motivations and sporting an emotional range set to wideband. That, and frequent descriptions of the skies of various worlds (“lapiz-lazuli”, “hushed with emerald green”, “harsh golden hues”) with a frequency skirting the tiresome.
So it wasn’t too surprising to discover upon rereading it that I had no recollection of major plot twists that come in a tumble towards the end. But on reflection, Hyperion is good science fiction too. It’s a cosmopolitan look at one possible messy future for humankind, where world-building and the design of technology that are interesting in their own right instead serve to accentuate the callous, hubristic, fractious aspects of human nature. The drama is so poignant and the characters so interesting that the heady scent of strong personalities, convictions and causes simply overpowers the mild and vague aroma of wormholes, singularities, Hawking drives and AI collectives. (You, there–I see you wave your hands. It’s not semaphore, you know, just because you wave them.)
This is a book where, by the end, each of the six protagonists is at ideological odds with all the others, but shaped by experiences that are as relatable as they are sometimes bizarre. You really cannot bring yourself to disagree with any of the pilgrims. By the end, neither can they.
But wait–the twists. There aren’t as many as I might have led you to believe, and real resolutions are relegated to the rest of the Hyperion Cantos anyway, waiting in books I’m yet to read. Hyperion sets the stage but drops a hint or two, mostly by way of painting the Hegemony, the de facto collective ruling the web of worlds, as a miscible, opaque mix of a stumbling, blinded giant born of providence and a directed, malevolent plague guided by an invisible hand. To wit–no one is innocent, nothing is what it seems, and these two things might not even matter in the end.
Coming from the idea-fount school of science fiction (Accelerando, Snow Crash), Hyperion feels like a strange beast.
I remembered only the emotional beats of the story (stories?) and not their causes, only the dour mood of the doomed pilgrimage, resigned to hopelessness, that frames the novel and none of the complex politicking or its surprising outcomes. It’s the kind of book that I will forget and rediscover many times in the decades to come, I think. If you’ve ever felt the sense of loss that comes with being unable to rediscover your favorite imagined haunt for the first time, the elation of having your synapses rewired the way they were that one time you disappeared into the cosmos that book wove in your head, Hyperion is probably a solution. It might not be to your tastes (and wasn’t entirely to mine), but given the rich thematic overlaps that ensure you’ll miss at least some, you might get to rediscover it for the first time again.
Hyperion is a tale of strife, sadness, hope and resolve steeped in enough elements of science fiction to make it, despite its blatant twentieth century allusions, more than a retelling of a story of this age. This tale couldn’t exist anywhere but in its own weird kitchen-sink universe, and in that it fulfils the very promise of science fiction.
Have you read these popular descriptions on the Internet that go: “You know you’re a geek when…”?
If you already identify yourself as being part of this group, you will have proceeded to skim through the bullets, checking off points in succession, feeling perhaps some sense of satisfaction, maybe even pride. Sometimes, you silently alter some aspect of your self-perception to fit with the list. You quietly disregard a statement on the list that is at odds with some strongly held opinion. It ends with a smug smile, and you’re not sure if you’re smiling at yourself or at the list.
I know this, because I used to do this often as a teenager. In other cases, it’s not a list at all, but prose of some kind, like a log of a discussion, an essay, or (ahem) a blog post. Perhaps it’s about something else entirely, like the benefits of eating the kind of food you already do. The reaction is the same.
When you read the word “teenager”, you probably dismissed this activity as something kids do, searching for a group of their own. Something that perhaps even you did, before you knew better. If you are a teenager, you’re trying to remember if you’ve done something like this lately. Part of you is wondering how the opening lines were intended–figuring out where you stand on this issue, or even whether you have a stand.
There are several problems with this kind of thinking, and several factors at work here. The first problem is that we lose information when we do this, collapsing our rather high dimensional personalities onto smaller ones, like projecting a vector onto another. Over time, we start seeing ourselves as the projection, and eliminating (or ignoring) any components that don’t align. The second problem is that you and I believe we no longer do this, even though we used to at some point. And there is a third problem, the thrust of this essay, mentioned towards the end.
One factor causing this is confirmation bias. Even a slightly held opinion is progressively magnified by reading and agreeing with something that echoes the opinion. Anything that opposes the opinion is quietly disregarded. You know of this; we do it all the time.
The second factor is the tribe. We love to congregate into tribes of like-minded individuals. This is what online communities are. Some of them are places you go to for information, but mostly they’re cliques, breathing life into Enrico Fermi’s quip:
Never underestimate the joy people derive from hearing something they already know.
Everyone wants to be told something they know, and one way to do this is to call yourself a geek and associate with others who do the same.
My thesis is more general, but let’s talk some more about the example here, that of being a geek.
One problem with the term geek is that it is something you are. It’s a descriptor: You’re not so much a geeky person anymore as you are a geek. Here’s a little context, from the brilliantly rambling In The Beginning Was The Command Line:
Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, except that it’s been turned upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it’s the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. So many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we’ve evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.
Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free versions: highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that’s no problem because Eloi like to be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.
When Stephenson writes about the distinction between the Morlocks and the Eloi–geeks and laymen, he is careful not to use the latter terms. It may just be authorial style, or it may be that there is more to this than meets the eye:
The boundary between these two classes is more porous than I’ve made it sound. I’m always running into regular dudes–construction workers, auto mechanics, taxi drivers, galoots in general–who were largely aliterate until something made it necessary for them to become readers and start actually thinking about things. Perhaps they had to come to grips with alcoholism, perhaps they got sent to jail, or came down with a disease, or suffered a crisis in religious faith, or simply got bored. Such people can get up to speed on particular subjects quite rapidly.
Geeks are not a tribe. The difference is like that between time and space averages: A large group doing mentally stimulating, creative and (or) highly logical tasks in some of their time produces output similar to a splinter of them doing it all the time. Even if the composition of this splinter is ever-changing.
The second aspect–not so much a problem–of the term is that it is entirely American. This works for a significant chunk of the Internet, but not for the rest. The term embodies a set of assumptions that I don’t agree with, or even understand. For instance, people often apologize for being geeky, which always strikes me as disingenuous. I think the true reason for this, if one exists, is mired in the last few decades of American history. Maybe it is sociological; maybe they do not know why they do it, except that many others do.
You’re buying into these cultural assumptions when you adopt the term; even more so when you apply it to yourself.
The opening example could have been a variety of things, like “How to tell if you’re a programmer”, or a Banker, or an Australian, or something more esoteric, like RTS gamer. I chose “geek” because someone asked me recently why I rarely use that word, and I thought the answer is best told in a larger context. (On the other hand, the opening example was a serious explanation of a facetious turn of phrase, and maybe I’m just overthinking it.)
You might think I’m making a case for individuality here. But that’s not it, not exactly. Anyone who is geeky in the sense of the word discussed here is also likely to be strongly individualistic. I’m talking of an orthogonal problem, where we assert our individuality by assigning labels to ourselves.
Labels are dangerous things. The more closely you associate yourself with something, the more muddled your thinking becomes in that subject. An easy way to see this is to think of something you call yourself that ends in an -ian, an -er or an -ist. A school, a town, a religion, a country. How do you react when you sense an attack on any of these labels? How long does it take before debate goes out the window and you’re responding to the attack in kind?
That’s not to say that you can’t feel strongly about something. Ideas and institutions are well worth preserving, but the deeper they live in your psyche, the more atavistic and irrational your response when they are threatened. In his hilarious talk at TED (which you’ve no doubt seen), Sir Ken Robinson quotes a fine example:
I have an interest in education–actually, what I find is everybody has an interest in education. Don’t you? I find this very interesting. If you’re at a dinner party, and you say you work in education–actually, you’re not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education. You’re not asked. And you’re never asked back, curiously. That’s strange to me. But if you are, and you say to somebody, you know, they say, “What do you do?” and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They’re like, “Oh my God,” you know, “Why me? My one night out all week.” But if you ask about their education, they pin you to the wall. Because it’s one of those things that goes deep with people, am I right? Like religion, and money and other things.
This, then, is the third problem with the kind of thinking in the opening sentences, and with the label of “geek”, although–of course–this is also a problem with most labels you assign in constructing your identity.
Keeping our stack of labels small and consciously avoiding confirmation biases all the time is a tall order, and of course I haven’t a clue as to how it’s done. But I think it’s one of those ideas worth preserving.
So, Snow Crash, then.
It’s surprising how heavily the experience of consuming something can be skewed by the expectations you carry going into it. For all its acclaim and weight, for its status as a beacon of cyberpunk fiction, Snow Crash is run-of-the-mill wacky dytopian satire, visiting and ricocheting off several cyberpunk tropes too fast to allow any kind of coherence to develop.
But maybe that’s the point.
There isn’t much to the story. Here, let me sum it up in one sentence for you:
(Spoiler, obv. It’s safe to read from the image.)
Megalomaniac media mogul creates cult using a brain virus to take over the world but is foiled by enterprising hacker, spunky kid and rival conglomerates.
All right, there’s a little more to it. The explanation is that the “brain virus” exploits a flaw in the deepest constructs of the human brain, activating a failsafe that overrides all conscious thought (“snow crashes” the brain) and makes it susceptible to carefully administered low-level input, typically in the form of Glossolalia.
Enter a wobbly connection of this virus to the description of ancient Sumer, and its liberation from it by the hacker-priest Enki, who managed to reverse-engineer and lock out these lower levels of functioning of the human brain.
Propping up the above description is the concept of a “metavirus“, an entity that affects any sufficiently advanced system capable of computation by exploiting systemic flaws. A virus that can create and tailor viruses, floating freely across the cosmos. Again, a nebulous and sketchy idea. It was, to say the least, disappointing to not see a mention of Gödel’s undecidability theorem (hypothetically) applied to the human mind. That’s one hell of a hook. Or, perhaps, the concept of a meme, an old idea which described perfectly what Stephenson repeatedly swept under the umbrella term of virus.
It was intriguing, but it lacked any kind of hook, one foot in something known. The main plot was too hypothetical to provide any kind of food for thought. And boy, am I looking for food for thought on these things.
Then there’s the concept the book is best known for. It’s hard for my generation to imagine what Stephenson’s Metaverse meant to the world back in 1992. When Second Life was launched, its creators envisioned it as their metaverse. They even borrowed the name “avatar” for virutal selves. Barring the advanced user interfaces, we’re there, pretty much. 2
It was the single most memorable idea in the book, the one thing you’ll never forget.
Everything except the substance of the thin main plot gets a mention on the back of the book. Mixed in there are large servings of virtual reality, Sumerian myth, neurolinguistics and swashbuckling. Hiro Protagonist gets only about half the attention his name demands. It makes sense. The book is about the wacky world of emasculated governments and of corporations and triads gone out of control. About the Metaverse, the alternate plane of existence that is in constant flux where hackers are demigods. About the bizarre tech, like quadriped dog-cyborg radioactive isotope driven watchmen rat things that dream perpetually of steak and frisbees, live in freon coolers and dash at supersonic speeds. About satire set in a free-for-all slugfest, an anarchy.
In the acknowledgments, Neal Stephenson mentions that this book was originally constructed as a graphic novel. That explains all the weirdness, really. It would have been a cracker of a graphic novel. I went into it expecting a wacky cyberpunk adventure with historical segues and insightful asides, a la Cryptonomicon. It turned out to be a long piece of amusing (sometimes hilarious) satire with a single gripping conceit and several half-baked ones. It packs a hefty punch; not the knuckle-popping crack of a worn, bandaged fist, but the fwump of a bright red glove-in-the-springbox.
Vol V, this time collated from searches across an increasingly unmanageable number of devices.
pleonastic (as opposed to terse)
spoor (trail of the hunted)
ersatz (in place of)
quotidian (think quota)
rictus (think maw)
Young cousins are a hyperactive lot. In an effort to keep the runts engaged, I improvised a game played with marbles (the only props at hand at the time that could pass for toys). It was a two-minute affair, and the game was chancy, full of loopholes and not likely to amuse anyone for over a few minutes. So I was surprised to see them playing it with religious fervour two years from that boring afternoon.
I mentioned to them in passing that this has happened before, with a classroom game now known as Penfight. The expression on their faces led me to believe that I’d said something profound. I confirmed to their flabbergasted countenances that yes, I did indeed invent this game- at school in Delhi sometime around the latter half of 1997, although I was not the one who named it so.
Apparently, it has grown into something of a phenomenon in Indian high schools- venues otherwise known for inducing ennui, encouraging overt passiveness and for their deadpan deliverance of useless infodumps. As a somnolent sixth grader, I possessed not the enthusiasm for flinging paper balls tied with rubber bands around the classroom, which was what most boys in the class got around to in the absence of a teacher. Watching a classmate trying to attack a half-hammered nail on his desk with his pen, I realized there was pastime to be had here. Soon we were trying in turns to knock each others pens off his desk by flicking them.
Penfight in its original form is a simple game. There are two or more pens on the surface of a table, one per player. Players take turns trying to knock all pens except their own off the table by flicking their pen with their forefingers, much like one propels the striker in Carroms.
As a competitive sport, Penfight was perfect. In retrospect, I realize that it had all the elements of a classic- it required skill, and a fair knowledge of the playing surface’s irregularities. It was easy to get better at, but hard to be really good, as luck was a terrific equalizer. Knocking pens off a table was addictive. There was room for strategy- many of us could gang up against a strong player and then fight it out amongst ourselves. (Facing a much stronger opponent by yourself, you could attempt a kamikaze charge and end the round in a draw.) It required no time to set up and not much energy to play. It was short, perfect for that three minute interval between classes. It scaled well; a single desk could accommodate up to five players (and pens), and you could join adjacent desks to make more room. Most importantly, it was fun!
I didn’t have a name for it- heck, I didn’t know for sure what we were doing. Soon everyone in the classroom was playing it. Tournaments were held, and whatever advantage I possessed owing to an early start was lost. In a few months, everyone was playing better than me, and by the end of the year, people were gambling on the pens themselves. By this point I had given up on the game and taken to reading comics in class instead. (I think this marked the birth of my introversion, a characteristic that’s remained with me since.)
1998 was a different time, and I was at a different place. More boredom struck at my new school in Bangalore, and I decided to try my hand (fingers) at Penfight again. (I still didn’t have a name for it.) I caught hold of a couple of classmates and got them to play with me- and boy, did it catch on! Once again, I lost whatever advantage I possessed in a few weeks. Apparently, everyone had a better intuitive understanding of angular momentum and centers of mass than I. This time around, people started bringing in heavy duty pens to aid their cause- metal dreadnoughts, relics from bygone ages with plenty of ballast; I was well and truly out of the game.
I lost track of what happened to this phenomenon after my tenth grade. By then, I’d heard the name Penfight being tossed around. I’d lost all interest in classroom pastimes, and I’d all but forgotten about it until my cousins (who attend a different school) informed me, twelve years from the first time ever (probably) a round of penfight was played, that their school has had notices put up stating “PENFIGHT DURING SCHOOL HOURS IS BANNED”. Ha! It’s part of the high school student’s, and better yet, the school’s vocabulary now.
It’s not a hard game to cook up- any sufficiently bored enterprising schoolkid could invent something of the sort, so it is quite likely that Penfight was invented at several places around the country at roughly the same time, and that this reminiscence is one of many histories of Penfight. I’m not proud of it- partly because I don’t find it particularly clever, and partly because I’ve always been rubbish at the game.
But yeah, for the record, I (co-)invented Penfight.
If you’ve been through the farcical ordeal that is high school in the past decade, perhaps you have engaged in Penfighting. If you have, what is your Penfight story?
Cryptonomicon is bat-shit crazy.
It’s compressed hyperbole described in such deadpan overtones you have no choice but to run with it. And boy, does it run. It runs a skein across generations and across genres, romping through at least one country every fifteen degrees in latitude, spanning descriptions of hacker culture, the origins and evolution of crypto, fantasy role-playing, the pacific in WW-II (culminating in General Douglas McArthur’s curb-stomping of the Nippons), Tolkienesque metaphors, Haiku, digs at venture-capitalism, mafia machinations, number theory, an irreverent deconstruction of Greek theology, treasure hunts for war gold, and the first ever digital computer with mercury columns in thirty-feet lead pipes serving as RAM.
There’s more of this, but Ares himself couldn’t drag me back to that tome in search of better examples.
If the outrageous awesomeness isn’t getting through to you, consider this: The lead characters are (i) A gung-ho marine in the hobby of reading Japanese poetry who runs halfway across the world engineering fake accidents for the Germans to discover, including ramming a battleship bow-first into the Norweigan ice shelf (ii) A UNIX system administrator who fools an entire battalion of high-tech eavesdroppers by reading text files by flashing the LEDs on his keyboard in Morse, and (iii) A clique of world war II mathematicians headed by Alan Mathison Turing. Yes, Alan Turing is a lead character in Cryptonomicon.
Cryptonomicon isn’t recommended reading. It’s the kind of reading required when you think the world is not crazy-awesome and need someone to bash in your ill-conceived preconceptions with a sledgehammer, which for me is admittedly most of the time.
Several browser cache wipes later, this is all that remains define:’d.
Eugenic (It troubles me to see smarter nephews around.)
Knaves (surprisingly, phonetically similar to naive)
Obscura (not a word.)
Petulant (campsite, insect bite)
Simulacrum (similar, not)
Cassandra (Aren’t we all?)
Tenebrous (murky. No wit this time.)
Interesting side note: I encountered three of the above words in Anime fansubs. It’s a paradox of sorts- Terrible-to-mediocre translations with surprisingly precise obscure wording. I suppose Japanese is embedded far too deep in the context of its culture to lend itself to meaningful literal or semantic translation.
It is instructive to compare the amount of time spent learning the tools of a trade to the time spent practising the trade; You’re almost certainly doing something wrong, in the short term, if the former is disproportionately longer than the latter.
Case in point? I spend over two months looking for the perfect blogging client, nitpicking things like keyboard shortcuts (and their absence, thereof), GTK dependency bloat and ‘Movable Type’ support. I don’t even have a movable type blog. The search for the ultimate blogging client has been more-or-less consummated, but at the expense of an indelible fallow period.
My drive to learn the tools of general PC frippery far outweighs that to engage in the frippery itself- it’s the ultimate malaise. Two years on a Linux box have been witness to five desktop environments, six window managers, five (or more) terminal emulators, two text editors (yeah, Vi and Emacs), three content publishing systems (with little published content)- even three metadata taggers- and while we’re at it, several distros. It’s a wonder I got any work done.
A conservative estimate of the number of application keyboard shortcuts/commands I’ve memorized over the years (excluding Alt-Tabbing and other Windows keys) suggests a figure between six and eight hundred key combinations and commands. If that sounds unreal- here’s the Ratpoison (window manager) cheat sheet. That’s one of several.
The truly egregious excesses, though, have been the misadventures in the murky depth of scripting language hell. What began as a simple mass renaming requirement led to a whirlwind tour of Bash scripting, Sed, Perl, Scheme, Emacs-Lisp, Python, and for reasons baffling in retrospect, GNU-Octave and GNUplot. The Sisyphean task of writing the mass renaming script was carried out over a period of sixteen months, culminating in four lines of code, at the cost of losing the ability to code in one scripting language without involving the syntax of all of the above- a rosy state of affairs.
In the long term, versatility in fooling around might be a good thing- I haven’t been doing this long enough to become blindingly proficient at it- but clearly, taking sixteen months to rename three hundred files rips apart the threadbare argument.
No matter. A near perfect lightweight blogging client is now at hand, and fittingly enough, the inaugural post is a reflection on the tendency to value the tools over the trade.
A resolution of sorts, then. Fewer tools, more work.
“define:” searches for the past two months:
Ablative (Ab, from)
Apotheism (A-ha! I’ve been looking for this word)
Bellcross (of the Greek hero cult; despite the name, sadly not a demigod)
Causative (Causative for? Causative of?)
Chortle (Is too close (phonetically) to choke for my liking)
Concubinage (You can figure this one out)
Dongle (D-R-M. Hehe)
Enamored (Yeah. Like Fallout 3 and me)
Fandango (Hence the GRIM!)
Heathen (Pagan. I think)
Indelible (Like your presence on the Internet.)
Lentil (I’ve never seen these)
Rodomontade (Talk about obscurantism…)
Verdant (Don’t say Vista)
Virtuosity (I have no idea)
Wino (It’s an actual word!)
Volume I is here.
I’ve listed this month’s “define:” searches below. Same format, word followed by comments in parentheses:
Celerity (Think Acceleration)
Denouement (French is weird)
Frisian (Neal Stephenson giving an analogy.)
Germane (NOT Teutonic! That association wouldn’t be germane.)
Judas Cradle (Eh?)
Lye (Fight Club!)
Patternless (It exists! Apparently, saying “Random” doesn’t cut it anymore)
Posit (Opposite of Deposit?)
Trilby (Fedora, now Trilby. Any more hats I should know of?)
Baroque (17th century art, type of pearl, stained glass, and more; Meanings overload!)
CMB (Yeah. Of the “Science. It works” fame)
Diddle (Um, yeah. I thought it was a musical instrument.)
Homounculus (Full Metal Alchemist)
Prosaic (as opposed to esoteric?)
Recondite (is itself recondite)
Seditious (as opposed to subversive)
Trenchant (Trenchant? Trenchant?)