Category: Observations


When someone says “You’re just being modest!”, what do they mean?

Do they mean that your estimation of the relevant aspect of your person is off, lower than in reality, or at least lower than their estimation of the same? Or do they mean that your self-reported estimate is lower than what you really believe it is, which is to say you are lying?

I see no third possibility here. So why is modesty a desirable trait? It’s inaccurate (in their eyes) and/or a lie. If it’s inaccurate there are two possibilities: Your standards are too high or theirs are too low.

If you are striving to hold yourself to reasonably high standards and be as accurate and truthful as possible in your speech, it does not help to strive to be modest.

What it’s about is social grace. In a culture of modesty, accurate self-assessment is read as arrogance. In a culture of braggadocio, it’s read as modesty, often false. This is a game you can choose to play, or just be accurate and let the chips fall where they may. Depending on what’s on the line, the latter approach can be simple and appealing.


The Rereading: Hyperion

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.

Monty Hall

So, the Monty Hall problem, in three sentences.

If you don’t switch doors, you win 1/3 of the time, because nothing the host does changes anything.

If you switch doors, you win if you originally selected a door with a goat. That happens 2/3 of the time because there are two doors hiding goats.

That’s about it. I hope I never have to explain this to anyone again.

Anathem (Coda)

SPOILERS AHEAD (next two paragraphs)
The central mystery, is of course, the identity and purpose (if such a term were germane) of the otherworldly visitors to Arbre, content to park in orbit and observe, provoking the powers-that-be to act, apparently smug in their possession of infinitely superior armament.
While Anathem (and the avout specifically) make no assumptions about the nature of the Geometers (their moniker), it is revealed that their identities are impossibly similar to their specimens. They differ in subtle but crucial ways, such as possessing bodies of star-stuff born of different, extracosmic physics.

A generous chunk of the third act is set in space; by far the most dynamic and wonderful bits of the book. This is not your man-the-guns (pew-pew) space battle, nor is it about the chilling isolation and dread foisted upon by light-lag and the endless void; although that factors in somewhat. It’s the engineer’s space adventure, with nifty mechano space suits, space scaffolding, construction kits and camouflage, and with orbit transfers right out of a handbook of celestial mechanics. It drives home aspects of the strangeness of space that few works touch on because they are the least romantic and the hardest to describe: Maneuvering.


The end of the book contains one final twist, a denouement of a plot thread that rears its head often through the book: The Payoff, if you’ve been paying attention to the numerous diversions from before. It’s a grand tale in that the world of Arbre is irreconcilably different by the end. I would call it a thinking man’s coming-of-age, first contact story that has some social commentary, epistemology and rationalism thrown in, but that would be a colossal undersell. It’s a big-picture novel that sweats the details. It’s imaginative, funny and has a plethora of a-ha moments. It’s masterful. Go read it.

Anathem (768)

It is impossible to get a handle on what is going on in the first few chapters, and a lot of the dialogue is thus expository, drowning the reader in infodumps of tale after tale from Arbre’s colourful history. This is fine, except in that everything blends into a haze of names and events without anything to relate them to. Fortunately, the book gets much better.

Anathem uses a couple of old storytelling tricks. One: Erasmus, the protagonist, is always a bit out of place, an underachiever, very nearly (and then actually) an outcast. To someone looking in from outside Anathem’s segregated society, Erasmas is a perfect lens, an easy pair of eyes to peer through. Two: About one-third of the way through the story moves out of the monastic environs (the “concent”), and the tone of the novel switches from exposition to discovery. The reader and Erasmas possess the same knowledge at this point, and are perfectly in sync from then on.

The narrative is the usual (for Stephenson) genre-hopping skein, veering from philosophical discourses to arctic escapades. None of it is spectacular, but you can’t fault it for not being clever or gritty.

The “universals” of knowledge continue to pop up, now at higher levels of abstraction: The traveling salesman problem becomes the lazy peregrin, long since solved in Finite Time on Arbre on quantum computers (Saunt Grod’s machines). The adrakhonic theorem of right angled triangles (guess) rears its head in the plot proper.

The most surprising bits of theorizing are in fact on the nature of consciousness, which is one of the struts propping up Anathem’s central mystery. Stephenson spins a yarn about the brain using quantum effects to construct models of physical reality, which is a lot to swallow but does work if you don’t pay too much attention. (A lot of philosophy feels this way.) Another strut is the existence of the polycosmi, alternate realities forking at the resolution of each quantum event. It’s a bit too much to take in at once, but some elegant phase space (“Hemn space”) justifications make it palatable. (Readers of Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind will feel right at home here, inasmuch as it is possible to feel at home with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.)

The mystery is pretty much resolved at this point; plot threads joining up slowly. Without dipping into spoiler material, it’s hard to see how this will end, though.

Anathem (256)

(Notes on Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, 256 pages in as I come up for air. Obviously, the description is going to involve plot red herrings, but that is the point of it: To explain what I think of it right now, before the story meanders away into grander seas.)

The promise of a novel is a sojourn in an alternate world, one that differs from reality in at least some describable (if minor) and interesting way.

Now imagine a bizarro post-enlightenment Earth that discovered the sciences in a long sequence of events only subtly different from our own experiences; at times sharing everything with our collective history except the names. This world is past its technological age, and a stable segregation exists in society, Morlocks and Eloi style. The sequestered philosophers and scientists eschew technology and weather economic and structural collapses of civilization outside their cloisters, venturing outside only once in centuries or millenia, and bent on uncovering the secrets of the universe through the socratic method.

Arbre is that world, and Anathem is the promise: a giant what-if, a delicately constructed musing on what could have been of us, and on what we will possibly face in the coming centuries. It’s easily the most erudite opus of speculation I’ve ever dived into, and I’ve only just dived in.

This strange setting highlights the universals of knowledge and discovery: If we rebuilt civilization, what ideas from today would we rediscover in nearly identical form? Occam’s Razor becomes Haldan’s Steelyard, phase spaces and Poincaré maps become Hemn configurations, action principles remain action principles (The more abstract ideas retain their earth-names to avoid overwhelming the reader.)

Anathem delights in wordplay. In keeping with the overall feel (everything’s a little off), places and things have evocative names: a math is a collection of scholars, a concent is a collection of math, an aut is a ceremonial act; Anathem is an invocation (anthem) and an aut of excision (anathema). It’s just the right amount of strange to let the reader know that the rules are different here.

The most surprising thing about Anathem, coming from Stephenson’s previous novels, is the normalcy of its story. True, it’s peppered with the usual amusing and instructive asides 1, and even with appendices explaining mathematical concepts and theorems. Most of the novel so far, though, is an account of the monastic life of the protagonist and his friends–of the structure of the institution and the politicking within. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say it reads like Harry Potter with underpinnings of math and philosophy instead of magic 2. Stephenson is always intriguing, but Anathem, with its fast developing central mystery, is exciting.

Many elements of the world remain unclear at this point:

  • Why do the centenarian and millenarian maths exist? If they sequestered themselves with some grand purpose in mind, it’s not clear why.

  • Who are the various orders vying for power? What is the sæcular power?

Bar a quibble or two (dialogue is often overly expository, but I don’t see it working any other way), reading Anathem is a superlative experience, a philosophical flight of fancy piggybacking on a personal story. As the tale moves out of the monastery, I’m going to relish seeing where it goes.

  1. Although none as memorable as the bicycle chain modulo arithmetic from Cryptonomicon.

  2. This is true right down to the large vocabulary learnt from context in the books. Of course, the similarity is probably to set up the stark contrast between life in the concent and later events of much larger scale.