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.

Emacs editing everywhere in Gnome

Quick tip: If you do the majority of your typing in Emacs, it can feel gratingly clumsy to type anywhere else, like in browser text fields and IM windows.

I discovered today that GTK has an option to enable common Emacs editing keys in text fields everywhere on your system. This is amazing–it means no browser extensions or hacks are needed to type over four lines without cursing.

The setting is buried at ‘desktop/gnome/interface/gtk-key-theme’ in the gconf-editor; change its value to “Emacs”, or paste this in a terminal:

gconftool-2 --set /desktop/gnome/interface/gtk_key_theme Emacs --type string

Most common navigation and editing keys work just as they do in terminal emulators: C-{n,p,f,b}, M-{f,b,d}, C-{a,e}, C-k and C-y, C-{w,h,d}.

The CUA keys C-x, C-c and C-v continue to cut, copy and paste respectively.

Snow Crash

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.

This has happened only once to me

It reminds me of Slouching Towards Bedlam, a fantastic horror themed piece of interactive fiction set in a mental asylum, with steampunk robots and an ominous sense of unspeakable horror. 1

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.

  1. Of course, I have my references backwards. SLB came out just a few years ago, and had a very small audience.

  2. In time, too. Events in the book peg the timeline in the 2000s.


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)



foible (flaw)


rictus (think maw)


Skill #13

From my previously detailed List Of Skills To Acquire Before I Grow Old, the LOSTABIGO:

13. Run six miles in under an hour.

Should have written: Six miles in under an hour, with minimal fatigue.
58 minutes, ~40 seconds

I need a new #13 now.

Evolutionary divergence

Suppose we start with two sexes that have none of the particular attributes of males and females. Call them by their neutral names A and B. All we need specify is that every mating has to be between an A and a B. Now, any animal, whether an A or a B, faces a trade-off. Time and effort devoted to fighting with rivals cannot be spent on rearing existing offspring, and vice versa. Any animal can be expected to balance its effort between these two rival claims. The point I am about to come to is that the As may settle at a different balance from the Bs and that, once they do, there is likely to be an escalating disparity between them.

To see this, suppose that the two sexes, the As and the Bs, differ from one another, right from the start, in whether they can most influence their success by investing in children or by investing in fighting (I’ll use fighting to stand for all kinds of direct competition within one sex). Initially the difference between the sexes can be very slight, since my point will be that there is an inherent tendency for it to grow. Say the As start out with fighting making a greater contribution to their reproductive success than parental behaviour does; the Bs, on the other hand, start out with parental behaviour contributing slightly more than fighting to variation in their reproductive success. This means, for example, that although an A of course benefits from parental care, the difference between a successful carer and an unsuccessful carer among the As is smaller than the difference between a successful fighter and an unsuccessful fighter among the As. Among the Bs, just the reverse is true. So, for a given amount of effort, an A can do itself good by fighting, whereas a B is more likely to do itself good by shifting its effort away from fighting and towards parental care.

In subsequent generations, therefore, the As will fight a bit more than their parents, the Bs will fight a bit less and care a bit more than their parents. Now, the difference between the best A and the worst A with respect to fighting will be even greater, the difference between the best A and the worst A will be even less. Therefore an A has even more to gain by putting its effort into fighting, even less to gain by putting its effort into caring. Exactly the opposite will be true of the Bs as the generations go by. The key idea here is that a small initial difference between the sexes can be self-enhancing: selection can start with an initial, slight difference and make it grow larger and larger, until the As become what we now call males, the Bs what we now call females. The initial difference can be small enough to arise at random. After all, the starting conditions of the two sexes are unlikely to be exactly identical.

From The Selfish Gene. A fantastic explanation of the fundamental difference between the sexes, and why you would expect the asymmetry to arise1. This explains the evolution of the male and female gametes; which in turn explains the disparate strategies adopted by male and female members of a species when it comes to mating.

Evolution is amazing.


1. The only problem with arguments without numbers, such as this one, is I can never be sure if I’m missing a flaw well ensconced in the smooth, convincing wording. I’ve fallen for them too many times!