Book Review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson


Author: Neal Stephenson
Title: Cryptonomicon
Publication Info: New York : Avon Press, 1999.
Previously Read by the Same AuthorQuicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, Odalisque, Bonanza, The Juncto, Solomon’s Gold, Currency, and The System of the World
Summary/Review:

A decade or so ago I read and enjoyed Neal Stephenson’s 8-book series, The Baroque Cycle.  I’ve finally followed up on reading this single-volume tome that has connections to that series, albeit set in a different time.  All of these books are historical novels that incorporate Stephenson’s interests in cryptography, mathematics, currency, banking, and philosophy.  They also include characters from the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families and the mysterious Enoch Root.  Cryptonomicon was published prior to The Baroque Cycle, but the latter is set in the 17th and 18th centuries, while Cryptonomicon is a 20th century story.

Cryptonomicon features two interweaving plot lines.  The first story is set during World War II and focuses the Allies’ effort to win the war by breaking Germany’s enigma code.  Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse is an American mathmetician who works with the historical figure Alan Turing at Bletchley Park and is put in charge of a detachment that stages events behind enemy lines to deceive the Germans on how the Allies are gathering intelligence, when in actuality they’ve broken Enigma.  Bobby Shaftoe is an experienced Marine Raider drafted into the detachment who has various adventures around the world – many of them ludicrous.  Goto Dengo is a Japanese officer and engineer who suffers some of the worst effects of the Allies cryptographic knowledge in some of the most gruesome descriptions of war in the book, and then is put in charge of Japan’s efforts to bury gold in caverns in the Phillipines.

The other storyline is set in the 1990s and tells the story of a tech startup company co-lead by Randy Waterhouse (Lawrence’s grandson).  His company sets up a data haven on fictional island sultanate near the Phillipines.  He hires Vietnam veteran Doug Shaftoe (Bobby’s son) and his daughter Amy to do the underwater surveying for laying cables.  Complications arise when the discover gold under the sea. The ageless Enoch Root plays a part in both stories.

I found the World War II story more interesting than the 1990s story.  There just isn’t much that grabbed me aboutthe tech-bros and the nerd culture only faintly hides a toxic masculinity.  In fact, this book is a sausage fest, with Amy Shaftoe the only promiment female character, and her major role is as Randy’s love interest.  The Baroque Cycle was also tilted heavily toward male characters but it least it had Eliza who had agency as a spy and financier and was a major driver of the plot.

So I guess this is a half-good novel? Albeit the signifigance of the WWII story would be less apparent without the 1990s story.

Favorite Passages:

Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker’s game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.


“You know what this is? It’s one of those men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from-Venus things.” “I have not heard of this phrase but I understand immediately what you are saying.” “It’s one of those American books where once you’ve heard the title you don’t even need to read it,” Randy says. “Then I won’t.”


“Some complain that e-mail is impersonal—that your contact with me, during the e-mail phase of our relationship, was mediated by wires and screens and cables. Some would say that’s not as good as conversing face-to-face. And yet our seeing of things is always mediated by corneas, retinas, optic nerves, and some neural machinery that takes the information from the optic nerve and propagates it into our minds. So, is looking at words on a screen so very much inferior? I think not; at least then you are conscious of the distortions. Whereas, when you see someone with your eyes, you forget about the distortions and imagine you are experiencing them purely and immediately.”


“But before this war, all of this gold was out here, in the sunlight. In the world. Yet look what happened.” Goto Dengo shudders. “Wealth that is stored up in gold is dead. It rots and stinks. True wealth is made every day by men getting up out of bed and going to work. By schoolchildren doing their lessons, improving their minds. Tell those men that if they want wealth, they should come to Nippon with me after the war. We will start businesses and build buildings.”

Rating: ***

Book Review: What If? by Randall Munroe


Author: Randall Munroe
Title:What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
Summary/Review:

This book contains the sentence: “Aroldis Chapman could probably throw a golf ball about sixteen giraffes high.” That alone makes it worth reading. The creator of the webcomic xkcd, Randall Munroe uses math and science to investigate cornball questions from his readers.  If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if a baseball were pitched at the speed of light, what would happen if every person in the world jumped at the same place at the same time (say, Rhode Island), or what place on earth would allow for the longest free fall, this book is for you.  In addition to Munroe’s humorous, but mathematically explicit, explanations there are plenty of whimsical illustrations.  There are also a series of questions too weird and worrying for even Munroe to answer.
Favorite Passages:

Our plastic will become shredded and buried, and perhaps some microbes will learn to digest it, but in all likelihood, a million years from now, an out-of-place layer of processed hydrocarbons—transformed fragments of our shampoo bottles and shopping bags—will serve as a chemical monument to civilization.

 

If humans escape the solar system and outlive the Sun, our descendants may someday live on one of these planets. Atoms from Times Square, cycled through the heart of the Sun, will form our new bodies. One day, either we will all be dead, or we will all be New Yorkers.

 

So we shouldn’t worry too much about when computers will catch up with us in complexity. After all, we’ve caught up to ants, and they don’t seem too concerned. Sure, we seem like we’ve taken over the planet, but if I had to bet on which one of us would still be around in a million years—primates, computers, or ants—I know who I’d pick.

 

if an astronaut on the ISS listens to “I’m Gonna Be,” in the time between the first beat of the song and the final lines . . .  . . . they will have traveled just about exactly 1000 miles.

 

Rule of thumb: One person per square meter is a light crowd, four people per square meter is a mosh pit.

 

Al Worden, the Apollo 15 command module pilot, even enjoyed the experience. There’s a thing about being alone and there’s a thing about being lonely, and they’re two different things. I was alone but I was not lonely. My background was as a fighter pilot in the air force, then as a test pilot—and that was mostly in fighter airplanes—so I was very used to being by myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t have to talk to Dave and Jim any more . . . On the backside of the Moon, I didn’t even have to talk to Houston and that was the best part of the flight. Introverts understand; the loneliest human in history was just happy to have a few minutes of peace and quiet.

Recommended books: 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brooks, What’s next? : dispatches on the future of science : original essays from a new generation of scientists by Max Brockman, and Feynman by Jim Ottiavani
Rating: ****

Book Reviews: The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow


Author: Leonard Mlodinow
Title: The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
Publication Info: Your Coach In A Box (2009), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
ISBN: 1596592796

Previously Read By Same Author: Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life

Summary/Review:  Mlodinow explores the role of randomness in our lives and probability and how the brains of human beings are unskilled at detecting such things.  In addition to a lively and richly illustrated discussion of statistics there is a considerable amount of the history of mathematics and science, which the history geek in me enjoyed.  A good book with a good message I’m sadly certain I’ll soon forget.

Recommended booksThe Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Numbers Game: Baseball’s Lifelong Fascination with Statistics by Alan Schwarz, How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, UnSpun : finding facts in a world of disinformation by Brooks Jackson and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a difficult book to review.  I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t really understand all that this book is about but have hopes that reading it may have broadened my knowledge some and will be an incremental step in understanding similar works in the future.  Not that I can predict the future, that appears to be something that NNT feels strongly about.

Here are a few other things that Nassim Nicholas Taleb doesn’t like:

  • ludic fallacy
  • Platonicity
  • pompous academics
  • the bell curve (this won big points with me)
  • the narrative fallacy
  • financial consultants
  • and, putting things into categories (oops)

The idea of the black swan is that there are events that are rare & hard-to-predict with huge impact in just about every endeavour including science, finance, and mathematics.  The name comes from the belief among Europeans in past centuries that all swans are white because all the swans ever observed were white, a theory busted by the discovery of black swans in Australia.  Black swans may be beneficial or disasterous but have in common that people will generally ignore theses outliers until they happen and then try to create a reason for their happening.

NNT (he calls himself by these intials, btw) writes in a style mixing an essay-style discourse with narrative stories, often rather silly.  He also has kind of an arrogant, sarcastic tone that can be off-putting, but mostly I liked it since what he writes is pretty interesting.

Taleb, Nassim.
The black swan : the impact of the highly improbable / Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
New York : Random House, c2007.