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Neal Stephenson Responds With Wit and Humor 684

Posted by Roblimo
from the this-guy-ought-to-turn-pro dept.
There is nothing better than a Slashdot interview with someone who not only reads and understands Slashdot but can out-troll the trolls. Admittedly, the questions you asked Neal Stephenson were great in their own right, but his answers... Wow! let's just say that this guy shows how it's done.
1) right to keep and bear code - by arashiakari

Do you think that hacking tools should be protected (in the United States) under the second amendment?


Neal:

Such is the intensity of issues like this that I can't tell whether this is a troll. I'm going to assume it's not, and answer the question seriously.

I'm no constitutional scholar but I'm pretty sure that the Founding Fathers were thinking of flintlocks, not perl scripts, when they wrote the Second Amendment. Now you can dispute that and say "No, anything that enables citizens to defend themselves against an oppressive government is covered by the Second Amendment." There might be something to such an argument. But pragmatically, the question is whether you can get nine (or at least five) non-hacker Supreme Court Justices to see it that way. I suspect the answer is no. It's just too easy for them to say "it is not a weapon." To me it seems a lot easier simply to invoke the First Amendment.

Also, remember that there might be unwanted side effects to classifying code as weapons. In the U.S., where the right to bear certain weapons is written into the Constitution, it might seem like a clever way to secure access to such code. But authorities in other countries might say "look, even the U.S. Government defines this string of bits as a weapon---so we are going to outlaw it."

It's difficult to form an intelligent opinion on issues like this without doing a lot of work. One has to learn a lot about the issues and then think about them pretty hard. I haven't really done so, and so I'm inclined to trust people who have, like Matt Blaze. At crypto.com he has posted some interesting material that is germane to this topic.

See http://www.crypto.com/masterkey.html

and especially

http://www.crypto.com/hobbs.html

To make a long argument short, what I have learned from Matt's writings on the topic is that (1) it's not a new issue, (2) it's a First Amendment issue, and (3) it's best in the long run, for all concerned, if vulnerabilities are exposed in public.

2) The lack of respect... - by MosesJones

Science Fiction is normally relegated to the specialist publications rather than having reviews in the main stream press. Seen as "fringe" and a bit sad its seldom reviewed with anything more than condescension by the "quality" press.

Does it bother you that people like Jeffery Archer or Jackie Collins seem to get more respect for their writing than you ?


Neal:

OUCH!

(removes mirrorshades, wipes tears, blows nose, composes self)

Let me just come at this one from sort of a big picture point of view.

(the sound of a million Slashdot readers hitting the "back" button...)

First of all, I don't think that the condescending "quality" press look too kindly on Jackie Collins and Jeffrey Archer. So I disagree with the premise of the last sentence of this question and I'm not going to address it. Instead I'm going to answer what I think MosesJones is really getting at, which is why SF and other genre and popular writers don't seem to get a lot of respect from the literary world.

To set it up, a brief anecdote: a while back, I went to a writers' conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we'd exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me "And where do you teach?" just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another "And which distro do you use?"

I was taken aback. "I don't teach anywhere," I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. "Then what do you do?"

"I'm...a writer," I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

"Yes, but what do you do?"

I couldn't think of how to answer the question---I'd already answered it!

"You can't make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?" she tried.

"From...being a writer," I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn't snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

And once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.

The great artists of the Italian Renaissance were accountable to wealthy entities who became their patrons or gave them commissions. In many cases there was no other way to arrange it. There is only one Sistine Chapel. Not just anyone could walk in and start daubing paint on the ceiling. Someone had to be the gatekeeper---to hire an artist and give him a set of more or less restrictive limits within which he was allowed to be creative. So the artist was, in the end, accountable to the Church. The Church's goal was to build a magnificent structure that would stand there forever and provide inspiration to the Christians who walked into it, and they had to make sure that Michelangelo would carry out his work accordingly.

Similar arrangements were made by writers. After Dante was banished from Florence he found a patron in the Prince of Verona, for example. And if you look at many old books of the Baroque period you find the opening pages filled with florid expressions of gratitude from the authors to their patrons. It's the same as in a modern book when it says "this work was supported by a grant from the XYZ Foundation."

Nowadays we have different ways of supporting artists. Some painters, for example, make a living selling their work to wealthy collectors. In other cases, musicians or artists will find appointments at universities or other cultural institutions. But in both such cases there is a kind of accountability at work.

A wealthy art collector who pays a lot of money for a painting does not like to see his money evaporate. He wants to feel some confidence that if he or an heir decides to sell the painting later, they'll be able to get an amount of money that is at least in the same ballpark. But that price is going to be set by the market---it depends on the perceived value of the painting in the art world. And that in turn is a function of how the artist is esteemed by critics and by other collectors. So art criticism does two things at once: it's culture, but it's also economics.

There is also a kind of accountability in the case of, say, a composer who has a faculty job at a university. The trustees of the university have got a fiduciary responsibility not to throw away money. It's not the same as hiring a laborer in factory, whose output can be easily reduced to dollars and cents. Rather, the trustees have to justify the composer's salary by pointing to intangibles. And one of those intangibles is the degree of respect accorded that composer by critics, musicians, and other experts in the field: how often his works are performed by symphony orchestras, for example.

Accountability in the writing profession has been bifurcated for many centuries. I already mentioned that Dante and other writers were supported by patrons at least as far back as the Renaissance. But I doubt that Beowulf was written on commission. Probably there was a collection of legends and tales that had been passed along in an oral tradition---which is just a fancy way of saying that lots of people liked those stories and wanted to hear them told. And at some point perhaps there was an especially well-liked storyteller who pulled a few such tales together and fashioned them into the what we now know as Beowulf. Maybe there was a king or other wealthy patron who then caused the tale to be written down by a scribe. But I doubt it was created at the behest of a king. It was created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn. And there was no grand purpose behind its creation, as there was with the painting of the Sistine Chapel.

The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge. The great serialized novelists of the 19th Century were like rock stars or movie stars. The printing press and the apparatus of publishing had given these creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture and connect directly to a mass audience. And the economics worked out such that they didn't need to land a commission or find a patron in order to put bread on the table. The creators of those novels were therefore able to have a connection with a mass audience and a livelihood fundamentally different from other types of artists.

Nowadays, rock stars and movie stars are making all the money. But the publishing industry still works for some lucky novelists who find a way to establish a connection with a readership sufficiently large to put bread on their tables. It's conventional to refer to these as "commercial" novelists, but I hate that term, so I'm going to call them Beowulf writers.

But this is not true for a great many other writers who are every bit as talented and worthy of finding readers. And so, in addition, we have got an alternate system that makes it possible for those writers to pursue their careers and make their voices heard. Just as Renaissance princes supported writers like Dante because they felt it was the right thing to do, there are many affluent persons in modern society who, by making donations to cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called "literary" as opposed to "commercial" but I hate that term too, so I'm going to call them Dante writers. And this is what I mean when I speak of a bifurcated system.

Like all tricks for dividing people into two groups, this is simplistic, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But there is a cultural difference between these two types of writers, rooted in to whom they are accountable, and it explains what MosesJones is complaining about. Beowulf writers and Dante writers appear to have the same job, but in fact there is a quite radical difference between them---hence the odd conversation that I had with my fellow author at the writer's conference. Because she'd never heard of me, she made the quite reasonable assumption that I was a Dante writer---one so new or obscure that she'd never seen me mentioned in a journal of literary criticism, and never bumped into me at a conference. Therefore, I couldn't be making any money at it. Therefore, I was most likely teaching somewhere. All perfectly logical. In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she'd never heard of me was because I was famous.

All of this places someone like me in critical limbo. As everyone knows, there are literary critics, and journals that publish their work, and I imagine they have the same dual role as art critics. That is, they are engaging in intellectual discourse for its own sake. But they are also performing an economic function by making judgments. These judgments, taken collectively, eventually determine who's deemed worthy of receiving fellowships, teaching appointments, etc.

The relationship between that critical apparatus and Beowulf writers is famously awkward and leads to all sorts of peculiar misunderstandings. Occasionally I'll take a hit from a critic for being somehow arrogant or egomaniacal, which is difficult to understand from my point of view sitting here and just trying to write about whatever I find interesting. To begin with, it's not clear why they think I'm any more arrogant than anyone else who writes a book and actually expects that someone's going to read it. Secondly, I don't understand why they think that this is relevant enough to rate mention in a review. After all, if I'm going to eat at a restaurant, I don't care about the chef's personality flaws---I just want to eat good food. I was slagged for entitling my latest book "The System of the World" by one critic who found that title arrogant. That criticism is simply wrong; the critic has completely misunderstood why I chose that title. Why on earth would anyone think it was arrogant? Well, on the Dante side of the bifurcation it's implicit that authority comes from the top down, and you need to get in the habit of deferring to people who are older and grander than you. In that world, apparently one must never select a grand-sounding title for one's book until one has reached Nobel Prize status. But on my side, if I'm trying to write a book about a bunch of historical figures who were consciously trying to understand and invent the System of the World, then this is an obvious choice for the title of the book. The same argument, I believe, explains why the accusation of having a big ego is considered relevant for inclusion in a book review. Considering the economic function of these reviews (explained above) it is worth pointing out which writers are and are not suited for participating in the somewhat hierarchical and political community of Dante writers. Egomaniacs would only create trouble.

Mind you, much of the authority and seniority in that world is benevolent, or at least well-intentioned. If you are trying to become a writer by taking expensive classes in that subject, you want your teacher to know more about it than you and to behave like a teacher. And so you might hear advice along the lines of "I don't think you're ready to tackle Y yet, you need to spend a few more years honing your skills with X" and the like. All perfectly reasonable. But people on the Beowulf side may never have taken a writing class in their life. They just tend to lunge at whatever looks interesting to them, write whatever they please, and let the chips fall where they may. So we may seem not merely arrogant, but completely unhinged. It reminds me somewhat of the split between Christians and Faeries depicted in Susannah Clarke's wonderful book "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell." The faeries do whatever they want and strike the Christians (humans) as ludicrously irresponsible and "barely sane." They don't seem to deserve or appreciate their freedom.

Later at the writer's conference, I introduced myself to someone who was responsible for organizing it, and she looked at me keenly and said, "Ah, yes, you're the one who's going to bring in our males 18-32." And sure enough, when we got to the venue, there were the males 18-32, looking quite out of place compared to the baseline lit-festival crowd. They stood at long lines at the microphones and asked me one question after another while ignoring the Dante writers sitting at the table with me. Some of the males 18-32 were so out of place that they seemed to have warped in from the Land of Faerie, and had the organizers wondering whether they should summon the police. But in the end they were more or less reasonable people who just wanted to talk about books and were as mystified by the literary people as the literary people were by them.

In the same vein, I just got back from the National Book Festival on the Capitol Mall in D.C., where I crossed paths for a few minutes with Neil Gaiman. This was another event in which Beowulf writers and Dante writers were all mixed together. The organizers had queues set up in front of signing tables. Neil had mentioned on his blog that he was going to be there, and so hundreds, maybe thousands of his readers had showed up there as early as 5:30 a.m. to get stuff signed. The organizers simply had not anticipated this and so---very much to their credit---they had to make all sorts of last-minute rearrangements to accomodate the crowd. Neil spent many hours signing. As he says on his blog

http://www.neilgaiman.com/journal/journal.asp

the Washington Post later said he did this because he was a "savvy businessman." Of course Neil was actually doing it to be polite; but even simple politeness to one's fans can seem grasping and cynical when viewed from the other side.

Because of such reactions, I know that certain people are going to read this screed as further evidence that I have a big head. But let me make at least a token effort to deflect this by stipulating that the system I am describing here IS NOT FAIR and that IT MAKES NO SENSE and that I don't deserve to have the freedom that is accorded a Beowulf writer when many talented and excellent writers---some of them good friends of mine---end up selling small numbers of books and having to cultivate grants, fellowships, faculty appointments, etc.

Anyway, most Beowulf writing is ignored by the critical apparatus or lightly made fun of when it's noticed at all. Literary critics know perfectly well that nothing they say is likely to have much effect on sales. Let's face it, when Neil Gaiman publishes Anansi Boys, all of his readers are going to know about it through his site and most of them are going to buy it and none of them is likely to see a review in the New York Review of Books, or care what that review says.

So what of MosesJones's original question, which was entitled "The lack of respect?" My answer is that I don't pay that much notice to these things because I am aware at some level that I am on one side of the bifurcation and most literary critics are on the other, and we simply are not that relevant to each other's lives and careers.

What is most interesting to me is when people make efforts to "route around" the apparatus of literary criticism and publish their thoughts about books in place where you wouldn't normally look for book reviews. For example, a year ago there was a piece by Edward Rothstein in the New York Times about Quicksilver that appears to have been a sort of wildcat review. He just got interested in the book and decided to write about it, independent of the New York Times's normal book-reviewing apparatus. It is not the first time such a thing has happened with one of my books.

It has happened many times in history that new systems will come along and, instead of obliterating the old, will surround and encapsulate them and work in symbiosis with them but otherwise pretty much leave them alone (think mitochondria) and sometimes I get the feeling that something similar is happening with these two literary worlds. The fact that we are having a discussion like this one on a forum such as Slashdot is Exhibit A.

3) Singularity - by randalx

What are your thoughts on Vernor Vinge's Singularity prediction. Is it inevitable? Will humans become a part of it or be left behind by this new "species"?


Neal:

I can never get past the structural similarities between the singularity prediction and the apocalypse of St. John the Divine. This is not the place to parse it out, but the key thing they have in common is the idea of a rapture, in which some chosen humans will be taken up and made one with the infinite while others will be left behind.

I know Vernor. To know him is to respect him. He kicked my ass (as well as J. K. Rowling's and Greg Bear's and a few other people's) at the 2000 Hugo Awards, and on top of that he knows more physics than I ever will. So I don't for a moment think that he is peddling any such ideas with his prediction of a singularity. I am only telling you why I have a personal mental block as far as the Singularity prediction is concerned.

My thoughts are more in line with those of Jaron Lanier, who points out that while hardware might be getting faster all the time, software is shit (I am paraphrasing his argument). And without software to do something useful with all that hardware, the hardware's nothing more than a really complicated space heater.

4) Who would win? (Score:5, Funny) - by Call Me Black Cloud

In a fight between you and William Gibson, who would win?


Neal:

You don't have to settle for mere idle speculation. Let me tell you how it came out on the three occasions when we did fight.

The first time was a year or two after SNOW CRASH came out. I was doing a reading/signing at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Gibson stopped by to say hello and extended his hand as if to shake. But I remembered something Bruce Sterling had told me. For, at the time, Sterling and I had formed a pact to fight Gibson. Gibson had been regrown in a vat from scraps of DNA after Sterling had crashed an LNG tanker into Gibson's Stealth pleasure barge in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. During the regeneration process, telescoping Carbonite stilettos had been incorporated into Gibson's arms. Remembering this in the nick of time, I grabbed the signing table and flipped it up between us. Of course the Carbonite stilettos pierced it as if it were cork board, but this spoiled his aim long enough for me to whip my wakizashi out from between my shoulder blades and swing at his head. He deflected the blow with a force blast that sprained my wrist. The falling table knocked over a space heater and set fire to the store. Everyone else fled. Gibson and I dueled among blazing stacks of books for a while. Slowly I gained the upper hand, for, on defense, his Praying Mantis style was no match for my Flying Cloud technique. But I lost him behind a cloud of smoke. Then I had to get out of the place. The streets were crowded with his black-suited minions and I had to turn into a swarm of locusts and fly back to Seattle.

The second time was a few years later when Gibson came through Seattle on his IDORU tour. Between doing some drive-by signings at local bookstores, he came and devastated my quarter of the city. I had been in a trance for seven days and seven nights and was unaware of these goings-on, but he came to me in a vision and taunted me, and left a message on my cellphone. That evening he was doing a reading at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus. Swathed in black, I climbed to the top of the hall, mesmerized his snipers, sliced a hole in the roof using a plasma cutter, let myself into the catwalks above the stage, and then leapt down upon him from forty feet above. But I had forgotten that he had once studied in the same monastery as I, and knew all of my techniques. He rolled away at the last moment. I struck only the lectern, smashing it to kindling. Snatching up one jagged shard of oak I adopted the Mountain Tiger position just as you would expect. He pulled off his wireless mike and began to whirl it around his head. From there, the fight proceeded along predictable lines. As a stalemate developed we began to resort more and more to the use of pure energy, modulated by Red Lotus incantations of the third Sung group, which eventually to the collapse of the building's roof and the loss of eight hundred lives. But as they were only peasants, we did not care.

Our third fight occurred at the Peace Arch on the U.S./Canadian border between Seattle and Vancouver. Gibson wished to retire from that sort of lifestyle that required ceaseless training in the martial arts and sleeping outdoors under the rain. He only wished to sit in his garden brushing out novels on rice paper. But honor dictated that he must fight me for a third time first. Of course the Peace Arch did not remain standing for long. Before long my sword arm hung useless at my side. One of my psi blasts kicked up a large divot of earth and rubble, uncovering a silver metallic object, hitherto buried, that seemed to have been crafted by an industrial designer. It was a nitro-veridian device that had been buried there by Sterling. We were able to fly clear before it detonated. The blast caused a seismic rupture that split off a sizable part of Canada and created what we now know as Vancouver Island. This was the last fight between me and Gibson. For both of us, by studying certain ancient prophecies, had independently arrived at the same conclusion, namely that Sterling's professed interest in industrial design was a mere cover for work in superweapons. Gibson and I formed a pact to fight Sterling. So far we have made little headway in seeking out his lair of brushed steel and white LEDs, because I had a dentist appointment and Gibson had to attend a writers' conference, but keep an eye on Slashdot for any further developments.

5) What are you reading these days? - by IvyMike

Since you're Neal Stephenson, I suspect the answer could be something like "surveys of ancient Sumerian accounting systems".

If that's the case, please include a work of modern fiction or two in your list; something you think that a fan of your work might also enjoy. :)


Neal:

Fiction I have lately read and enjoyed:

Set this House in Order by Matt Ruff
Ilium by Dan Simmons
Iron Council by China Mieville
Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart
The I Love Bees alternate reality game
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke
The Fool's Tale by Nicole Galland (in galleys; soon to be published)
Short story collections by Etgar Keret: The Bus Driver who Wanted to be God, and The Nimrod Flip-out. Last time I checked, The Nimrod Flip-out was only available from an Australian publisher named Picador, but this should pose only the most minor of challenges to Slashdot readers. Keret is a young Israeli writer who has also done some work in film and graphic novels.

Nonfiction:

Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates and Lincoln's Cooper Union address
Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

6) storygramming -by Doc Ruby

You programmed computers before you wrote novels. Greg Egan shares that hyphenated career, and continues to illustrate his stories with Java applets [netspace.net.au]. Do you still program, possibly targeting the same subjects with your word processor as your compiler?

As _Snow Crash_ was originally designed as an interactive game, and such landmarks as _Myst_ have regenerated as (usually bad) novels, do you see the arrival of a truly multimedia story, delivered simultaneously in multiple media, anytime soon? By whom, specifically or generally?


Neal:

It has already happened in the form of the I Love Bees alternate reality game, which, as many of you must know, is a promotional campaign for Halo 2. I know the people who did it, but I have lost track of what I promised not to reveal publicly, and so will shut up for now.

I still program, but I tend to do it as a diversion from writing, and so there is little crossover between it and fiction writing. Modern programming is hairy and difficult for me to get a grip on. This is because (1) there is so much user interface code, which kind of makes my eyes glaze over, and (2) GNU type code is crammed with macros, compiler directives and switches that make it very difficult for me to read the source files. Lately my platform of choice has been Mathematica, which is expensive (compared to gcc) but makes it easy to do anything with a few lines of code. Mathematica makes it easy to do proper documentation, in that you can mix narrative material freely with executable statements.

For Cryptonomicon I needed to generate some illustrations of a cutaway view of the mountain where Goto Dengo was building his tunnels. It needed to have a rough, natural-looking profile that maintained its roughness, but still had the same overall shape, when I zoomed in on it for more detailed illustrations. I did this with a Mathematica notebook that used the classic fractal technique of midpoint displacement.

For the Baroque Cycle books I needed to convert my manuscripts, which were all TeX files, into a Quark format used by the publisher. So I wrote an emacs lisp program that churned through the TeX files looking for TeX escape codes and converting them to their equivalents in Quark. This was nasty and tedious but, in the end, reasonably satisfying.

7) Money - by querencia

One of the major themes in Cryptonomicon that carried over (in a big way) to The Baroque Cycle is money. You introduced some "futuristic" views of currency and of where money might be going in Cryptonomicon, and you skillfully managed to do the same thing, while explaining some of the history of modern monetary systems, in the most recent books.

You've obviously spent a lot of time thinking about money lately. Is there anything going on in the modern world with monetary systems (barter networks, for example) that you find particularly interesting?


What do you see on the horizon with respect to money?

Neal:

Actually, what's interesting about money is that it doesn't seem to change that much at all. It became fantastically sophisticated hundreds of years ago. Back before people knew about germs, evolution, the Table of Elements, and other stuff that we now take for granted, people were engaging in financial manipulations that seem quite modern in their sophistication. So if I had to take a wild guess---and believe me, it is a wild guess---I'd say that money and the way it works is going to be a constant, not a variable.

8) BeOS - by Coryoth

When you wrote "In the Beginning was the Command Line," you were very much in love with BeOS. As nice as BeOS was, it is now mostly gone. Do you still use BeOS 5, or have you acquired YellowTab from Zeta? Or, instead have you embraced the new UNIX based MacOS X as the OS you want to use when you "Just want to go to Disneyland"?


Neal:

You guessed right: I embraced OS X as soon as it was available and have never looked back. So a lot of "In the beginning was the command line" is now obsolete. I keep meaning to update it, but if I'm honest with myself, I have to say this is unlikely.

9) Travel tips for modern primitives? - by timothy

Mr. Stephenson:

I greatly enjoy your travel stories, both non-fiction (Mother Earth, Motherboard) and in particular your descriptions of the Philippines in Cryptonomicon.

Can you share some of the ideas you've developed for savvy trav'lin? For instance, how do you deal with carrying sufficient technology (whatever level you deem this to be) while minimizing the risk of theft, breakage, or loss by other means? Do you dress native or carry your entire wardrobe? [And broader, do you travel with something close to nothing, picking up necessary items as the need arises? What do you not leave home without?]

Do you carry any sort of self-defense means in some places, and if so What and Where?


Neal:

I haven't done that much in the way of adventuresome travel lately. Even when I was doing so, I was never the sort of hardened third-world travel geek that you are imagining. The thing is that when you go to such countries you can typically get a room in a five-star hotel for less than a hundred bucks a night. At that rate, it's easy to be a sellout and wallow in luxury. Staying in a dive is more romantic, but makes it harder to write. My excuse (if I need one) is that typically I'm not writing about backpackers and rural people in those countries; I'm writing about well-heeled expats whose natural habitat is airport bars and Shangri-La hotels. So that's where I tend to end up.

Re "self-defense means:" I am reminded of a history book I read recently entitled "Skeletons on the Zahara" by Dean King. It is about some American sailors who get shipwrecked on the Atlantic Coast of Africa and go through hell. Eventually most of them make it back to freedom with the help of some Arab traders based in Morocco. These traders range across the Sahara on incredibly arduous journeys. They are just about the toughest and meanest hombres you can possibly imagine. They've been through all kinds of fights and ambushes, plagues of locusts, sandstorms, etc. and come out on top. Because of their success they have acquired camels, horses, and weapons: not only swords and daggers but rifles and shotguns too. After having rescued the Americans, these guys go out on another journey in the desert, and find themselves surrounded by a few dozen people who are wretched even by the standards of the Sahara: no animals, little in the way of clothing, and no weapons except for bags containing stones. A fight breaks out. The traders discharge their weapons and kill everyone they shoot at: maybe half a dozen. Then before they can reload they are all killed by flying stones.

The best "self-defense means" when you are surrounded by a hundred million people of some other culture is to avoid dangerous places and figure out some way to get along with the folks around you.

10) Confidential Proposal, Off shore data haven (Score:5, Funny) - by SlashDread

Greetings to you in the name of the most high God, from my beloved country Nigeria.

I am sorry and I solicit your permission into your privacy. I am Barrister Leonardo Akume, lawyer to the late Dr. Koffi Abachus, a brilliant Nigerian mathematician.

My former client, late Dr. Koffi Abachus, died in a mysterious plane crash in the year 1994 on the way to a scientific conference to make an announcement of the utmost importance to mankind.

He was planning to present a paper regarding his extensive work on data storage. It is said the data storage device he had developed, would be roughly ten times more secure compared to the latest quantum excyption techniques. The device was about the size of a steamer trunk, and stored on a privately owned island close to the coast of Nigeria. Dr Koffi Abachus is also the King of the local tribe by heritage...


Neal:

Your proposition sounds quite reasonable. In order for me to provide you with the support that you need, I will need for you to wire $100,000 into my Swiss bank account...

Oh well.. Should there BE a data haven? If so, where?

Neal:

At this point, that is probably a technical question that I might not be competent to answer. I can carry a gig of encrypted data on a thumb drive now, and it doesn't cost much. Soon it'll be smaller and cheaper. Millions of people in different countries carrying gigs of data on thumb drives, iPods, cellphones, etc. make for a pretty robust distributed data storage system. It is difficult to imagine how one could build a centralized, hardened facility that would be more robust than that. But perhaps there's some technical or regulatory angle that I'm failing to appreciate here. I have not kept up to speed on this since Cryptonomicon.

11) Blue Origin - by Concerned Onlooker

The Wikipedia lists you as a part-time advisor for Blue Origin [blueorigin.com], a company that is working to "develop a crewed, suborbital launch system." What is it that you do for them and has the recent winning of the X-Prize by the Spaceship One team had any effect on Blue Origin's plans? What are your visions of future private space flight?


Neal:

Like Spock on the deck of the Enterprise, I sit in the corner and await opportunities to jump out and yammer about Science. Unlike Spock, I don't have anyone reporting to me and I never get to sit in the captain's chair and aim the phasers. This is probably good.

Though the X-Prize is cool and good, Blue Origin never intended to compete for it. Consequently, it has had no effect, other than destroying productivity whenever a SpaceShipOne flight is being broadcast.

As for my visions of future private space flight: here I have to remind you of something, which is that, up to this point in the interview, I have been wearing my novelist hat, meaning that I talk freely about whatever I please. But private space flight is an area where I wear a different hat (or helmet). I do not freely disseminate my thoughts on this one topic because I have agreed to sell those thoughts to Blue Origin. Admittedly, this feels a little strange to a novelist who is accustomed to running his mouth whenever he feels like it. But it is a small price to pay for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a minor character in a Robert Heinlein novel.

12) Do new publishing models make sense? - by Infonaut

Have you contemplated using any sort of alternative to traditional copyright for your works of fiction, such as a flavor of Creative Commons [creativecommons.org] license? Do you feel that making money as a writer and more open copyright are compatible in the long term, or do you think that writers like Lessig who distribute electronically via CC are merely indulging in a short-lived fad?


Neal:

Publishing is a very ancient and crafty industry that existed and flourished before the idea of copyright even existed. When copyright came into existence, the publishing industry dealt with it and moved on. My suspicion is that everything that's been going on lately will amount to a sort of fire drill that will force publishing to scurry around and make some new arrangements so that they can get back to making money for themselves and for authors.

You can use the brick-and-mortar bookstore as a way to think about this. There was a time maybe five years ago when many people were questioning whether brick-and-mortar bookstores were going to survive the onslaught of online retailers. Now, if you take the narrow view that a bookstore is nothing more than a machine that swaps money for books, then it follows that there's no need for a physical store. But here we are five years later. Some bookstores have gone out of business, it's true. But there are big, beautiful bookstores all over the place, with sofas and coffee bars and author appearances and so on. Why? Because it turns out that a bookstore is a lot more than a machine that swaps money for books.

Likewise, if you think of a publisher as a machine that makes copies of bits and sells them, then you're going to predict the elimination of publishers. But that's only the smallest part of what publishers actually do. This is not to say that electronic distribution via CC is just a fad, any more than online bookstores are a fad. They will keep on going in parallel, and all of this will get sorted out in time.
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Neal Stephenson Responds With Wit and Humor

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  • Wow, big shock (Score:0, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @12:25PM (#10576445)
    Slashdot editor "Timothy" gets one of his own questions selected and answered.
  • Thanks, Neal! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by American AC in Paris (230456) * on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @12:25PM (#10576447) Homepage
    The best "self-defense means" when you are surrounded by a hundred million people of some other culture is to avoid dangerous places and figure out some way to get along with the folks around you.

    ...unless, of course, you happen to bump into Bruce Sterling.

    You're spot-on, though. An open eye, a well-guarded money-belt, and a careful itinerary are your best defenses overseas. Shockingly enough, the vast minority of the world's population wants to attack tourists.

    (I don't know whether or not Baltimore qualifies as a foreign land, but the missus and I would be happy to act as local guides next time you're in town. We know where the good beer is...)

  • Superb (Score:5, Interesting)

    by kalidasa (577403) * on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @12:35PM (#10576529) Journal
    The best interview with a writer I've read in a long time. I have never read any of Stephenson's books (only "In the Beginning was the Command Line"), but will run out and buy the three Baroque cycle books.
  • Re:Ouch! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by capt.Hij (318203) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @12:48PM (#10576673) Homepage Journal
    Actually this quote was way off base. The director of the scientific computing/applied math program at Columbia has a set of graphs he uses in his talks. One graph demonstrates the computational power as a function of time due to hardware advances. The other demonstrates the time it takes to invert large, linear systems over time due to advances in mathematics. Over time the mathematicians are doing as good as or better than the hardware advances. The conclusion is that we can't solve the big problems without investing both in hardware and algorithm development.
  • Re:Thanks, Neal! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mekkab (133181) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @12:53PM (#10576720) Homepage Journal
    Just don't go to the brewers art late on a sunday night; my sis got to watch a firefight (Something I missed in my 5 years as a Baltimoron).

    That being said, yeah; if you crawl around the streets late at night looking like you don't fit in you will get trouble. If you stick to the safe tourist spots the only thing you have to worry about are the pickpockets.

    Speaking of pickpockets, in a UK station (Victoria?! I have no idea!) warning people about pickpockets, and one of the comments on the sign is to know where your wallet is at all times. Pickpockets watch people reading the sign; typically they will put their hand on where they keep their wallet! (breast pocket, back right pocket, wahtevet) Then they know where to hit! ;)
  • Re:Superb (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Txiasaeia (581598) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @12:55PM (#10576739)
    With respect to Mr. Stephenson, you might do better to find a copy of _Snow Crash_. Not that the Baroque cycle isn't entertaining, but Snow Crash is far, far superior.
  • Never read him, but: (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RealProgrammer (723725) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @12:57PM (#10576767) Homepage Journal
    From Q.2:
    ...the system I am describing here IS NOT FAIR and that IT MAKES NO SENSE and that I don't deserve to have the freedom that is accorded a Beowulf writer when many talented and excellent writers---some of them good friends of mine---end up selling small numbers of books and having to cultivate grants....

    I understand his position, and why he has to say that, but the system does make sense in this way: he took the risk. The academic writers have worked very hard to get where they are, but their career choices have followed a path of risk avoidance.

    I work in academia, and I have made the same decisions they have. Do I work on writing software that people (the masses) will use and pay for, or do I cling to the safety of Alma Mater? I'm still here, clinging, critiquing other people's work instead of taking the risks of failure and rejection by writing my own.

    Real programmer? Ha.

  • Re:Thanks, Neal! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by American AC in Paris (230456) * on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @01:09PM (#10576905) Homepage
    Yeah, I've yet to witness one myself. Shame--Brewers' Art is good stuff.

    Professional pickpockets are damn good at what they do. We'd wear money belts on a daily basis when travelling overseas--when worn down the front of your pants, they're hard enough to get at that the pickpockets won't even bother with you.

    You're right--it is all about blending in. Way back when, we met and talked with an old Scot one night at our local haunt in Paris. He was part of a group visiting for the Rugby World Cup, and mentioned how three of the ladies in their group had their purses picked whilst visiting Notre Dame that day, and that he couldn't figure out why they'd had such bad luck. We sympathized with him but had to surpress a bit of a grin--as he (and many of his compatriots) were decked out in kilts, caps, and face paint...

  • by soliptic (665417) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @01:11PM (#10576933) Journal
    And I'm only half way through Question 4.

    For anyone preparing themselves to shout "fanboy!" - I've never read any of this guy's books in my life. I think that might have to change now ;)

  • by Denyer (717613) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @01:13PM (#10576977)
    ...especially to myself, as I'm more of an English geek than a computer one: I'd never heard of Neal Stephenson either.

    So, time to do a little digging. The design of his website is painful to navigate, but I have every intention of tracking down a book or two by him because that interview was one of the most interesting things I've read on Slashdot in four years. In particular the bifurcation and accountability issues raised in question two--that's a useful and engaging summary for writing class students.

    it turns out that a bookstore is a lot more than a machine that swaps money for books.

    People who've read The Salmon of Doubt should appreciate that line all the more. :)

  • by ahfoo (223186) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @01:23PM (#10577147) Journal
    I thought the same thing. I really enjoyed the answers. It was genuinely a pleasure to read up until the end.
    I was just at one of the giant chain bookstores in town, these have replaced several of the smaller ones that are already gone. They do the overpriced coffee thing and it does have the function as a public space, but I'm not sure this is a long term sustainable business. There were tons of people reading books as though it were a library and the books looked like library books as well, the pages were well thumbed through and most wrapped books had long since been unwrapped. So, it was filled with people, but I noticed that for the few hours I was there practically nobody purchased a thing and the four check-out lanes were occupied by staff chatting amongst themselves. Perhaps they make it up by volume?
    And as for publishers. Well, that seems to have been conveniently skipped over. I mean I happen to have some small publishers in my family and in my experience they're first and foremost precisely about changing books for money and that role is indeed quite threatened by the Net. That's a good thing as far as I'm concnered despite the fact that it means people I love need to get a new business and go through rough times. I still believe it is for the better. It would have been nice to see some more thoughtful reflection on what's really going on here.
    Actually though, that criticism also applies to his lack of originality on the future of money. Money is not such an ancient or impenetrable concept really. There are many many ways to distribute wealth in societies besides paper currency.
    But overall it was quite entertaining.
  • by darthtuttle (448989) <meconlen@obfuscated.net> on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @01:42PM (#10577381) Homepage
    Neal's last answer about the book industry makes a point that the Music industry has been missing, and more to the point the "downloadable music" industry is missing. The internet will not destroy the music industry because they do more than make and distribute CDs. They promote. They are the ones who get you air time on the radio stations (those playlists come from somehwere). They get the concert tours together. They get you gigs at the festivals. They make things happen that all have the end result of people buying a CD they otherwise wouldn't. That's called Marketing (cynically, it's making you buy something you don't want to).

    But blogs, but user communities, but but but! you say!

    The average person on the street doesn't do all those things. If you want someone to buy your book or buy your CD you have to get to them where they live, not make them come to you. In the book industry this may be done with reviews in well read magazines and getting your book on Oprah. With music it's done through Clearchannel and MTV.
  • by The Fun Guy (21791) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @01:54PM (#10577572) Homepage Journal
    Thank God I'd fully swallowed that mouthful of coffee before reading this, or I'd have choked to death. As it was, I salute you for your humor, sir.
  • Re:He dodged it (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Azghoul (25786) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @01:57PM (#10577617) Homepage
    Actually yes, one of the more enlightened responses I've heard to that sort of question in a while.

    The upshot: Who cares?? It'll get figured out eventually, and we'll all be okay.
  • Re:Ouch! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @01:59PM (#10577642)
    Sorry, can you please explain what advances in mathematics over the last 15 years has given a 1000-fold improvement in performance of the inversion of linear systems that would match Moore's law?

    I'd say the answer is none. Sure, we can solve specific cases faster, but in the general case the basic algorithms have existed and not been improved for hundreds of years.

    Surely? Or am I missing some developments (I graduated over 10 years ago, I must confess!)
  • Eco-thriller (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Scrameustache (459504) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @02:02PM (#10577683) Homepage Journal
    Depending on the sort of person I'm aiming my book-recommendation-gun at, I sometimes use Zodiac as the payload, if the person is not a True Geek. It takes place in a modern city and keeps the sci-fi stuff to a managable level for "normal" people.
    Also, its a damn good book, and short too.

    The Baroque cycle is for freaks whith good wrist, to support the huge weight of its massive volumes. Snowcrash and Diamond Age are for science fiction afficionados, Cryptonomicon is for engineers and Lord of the Rings fans.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I've just been made aware that perfecting the Red Lotus incantations would not suffice to bring down my target... how foolish I've been. Back to the dojo!
  • Re:Second Amendment (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Edward Faulkner (664260) <ef.alum@mit@edu> on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @02:07PM (#10577751)
    The second amendment was primarily intended so that people could have another revolution if they ever needed to.

    And what country can preserve its liberties, if it's rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure. - Thomas Jefferson, November 13, 1787

    Actually, there was another revolution about 80 years later, but unfortunately it lost to a brutal dictator named Lincoln.

  • Thomas Pynchon (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ChiralSoftware (743411) <info@chiralsoftware.net> on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @02:15PM (#10577866) Homepage

    Of course, no answer to my question re: the strong connections between Stephenson's work and Pynchon's. Let's do a quick comparison chart:

    Mason & Dixon

    • Pawns of the Royal Society are dispatched on perilous ocean voyages around the world that they don't really understand
    • Powerful people are attempting to use science and technology extend their control of the world.
    • Slavery is the major theme
    • The language is 18th-century, but with some modern puns thrown in
    • The book involves an huge number of sub-plots and minor characters

    The Baroque Cycle

    • Pawns of the Royal Society are working for powerful people they don't really understand, and one of them in particular gets dispatched on ocean voyages
    • Powerful people are attempting to use science and technology extend their control of the world.
    • Slavery is the major theme
    • The language is 18th-century, but with some modern puns thrown in
    • The book involves an huge number of sub-plots and minor characters

    I think I could write up a similar chart about Gravity's Rainbow and Cryptonomicon.

    I wish Stephenson had answered some questions about this. This isn't intended as trolling, it's just that very few people have read the Pynchon books so most people may not be aware of the strong connections between these two authors.

  • Re:Beowulf writers (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Paul Lamere (21149) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @02:22PM (#10577952) Homepage Journal
    Tolkien was dogged throughout his career by the literary critics that felt that the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings was beneath the dignity of an Oxford professor (and certainly not worthy of their attention let alone praise). Perhaps Neal picks the term 'Beowulf' as a nod to Tolkien who was the preeminent Beowulf translator and scholar of the 20th century.
  • Re:Second Amendment (Score:2, Interesting)

    by OldAndSlow (528779) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @03:07PM (#10578499)
    because the rule is found in the second clause

    True. But if you look up the phrase "to bear arms" in the Oxford English Dictionary, you will find that the definition current at the time of the writing of the Second Amendment (indeed, the only definition the phrase has ever had) is "to serve as a soldier, to fight."

    Here's a statement that shows similar sentence structure: "Since all clowns are purple, you must clean your room." The truthfulness of whether or not all clowns actually are purple doesn't affect whether or not you must clean your room.

    You misparse the Second Amendment. What you call the first clause is actually a nominative absolute (NA). NAs are descended from the Latin ablative absolute, and serve to set the conditions of the sentence. An example NA is, "The weather being fair, we decided to have a picnic." The main sentence (the picnic decision) is embedded in the fact that the weather was nice. So the right to bear arms is colored by the the necessity of well-regulated militias.

    There was also a bit of social nose-thumbing going on, because in England you had to be at a certain level in the hierarchy of the aristocracy before you were allowed to bear arms. The new Americans were turning that bit of snobery on its head.

  • Re:Superb (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gamgee5273 (410326) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @03:21PM (#10578646) Homepage Journal
    A lot of us would disagree. I personally find that Stephenson grows as a writer with each book. Snow Crash was a good story, yes, but Cryptonomicon and the Baroque cycle are examples of strong writing.

    I loved Snow Crash when I was 21. I like it now that I'm 31, but my respect for Stephenson as an author comes from his past four novels, not SC.

  • by pbrewer (141436) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @03:31PM (#10578755) Homepage Journal
    You're right to an extent--there are lots of other activities that book publishers and record companies do to contribute to the eventual success of the book or record. But you've missed the most important one.

    All the ones you've listed can be, and increasingly are, outsourced. Talent scouts or agents bring in authors or acts. Publicists and more specialised people handle promotion. Engineering, editing, printing, etc. are done by third parties.

    The main thing that can't be outsourced is the advance: Publishers are specialized venture capital firms.

    That's the value-add that will keep publishing firms (books or music) in business, even as blogs and other ultra-low-cost marketing efforts become more and more important. Somebody who can front money to get the book written and printed (or the CD recorded and produced) will always have an advantage. They will soon learn that it's the one big advantage they have left.

  • Re:Second Amendment (Score:3, Interesting)

    by drwho (4190) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @03:48PM (#10578913) Homepage Journal
    Remember this document was written by people who had just won a war, by a long shot, against the most powerful and oppressive empire in their world.



    No, they didn't. The U.S. has yet to fight the Roman Catholic Church, and seems less likely to do so each year (unfortunately).

  • by Ohreally_factor (593551) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @06:57PM (#10580935) Journal
    Apparently, you haven't heard of the movement to teach Intelligent Design [ydr.com] in public schools alongside Evolution.
  • Re:Thanks, Neal! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Grab (126025) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @07:34PM (#10581254) Homepage
    Lewis was certainly a college Prof. But he was also an incredibly well-known front-man for Christianity, and all his novels were written on thinly-disguised Christian themes, to sell based on his existing fan-base. Can you say "Beowulf"? I knew you could... ;-)

    Tolkein came from another angle, though. He was doing the whole thing for his own intellectual enjoyment, and it just happened that he wrote the most popular novel of the 20th century. His main gig was ancient European languages and the myths of those cultures. Creating his own "ancient culture" and populating it with his own myths was done entirely because that's the kind of thing he was interested in. He wrote his books to be evaluated by the same standards as the Norse Sagas, for example - in other words, writing books to be studied by the literary circle of which he was a member. And the fact that it made him heaps of money afterwards is irrelevant - at the time he wrote it, he was supported by his university work, and he kept doing the university work even when the books started jumping off the shelves. Dante author.

    As for your point about patronage, I quote: "Commercial artists have a publisher, who decides whether or not to print their books based on the opinion of whether or not they will sell" (emphasis mine). So the publisher is accountable to the bunch of drunken Frisians, and you're accountable to the publisher. So unless you're writing books that appeal to drunken Frisians, you're SOL. That makes you as accountable to the drunken Frisians as if you were personally reciting it to each of them.

    Certainly there are some Beowulf authors who don't write stuff with mass appeal and so don't get published (or get kicked out of the bar by the drunken Frisians, or by the bartender who caters for the drunken Frisians). But NS was talking about *successful* writers in this question, not about no-hopers who can't sell their books.

    Grab.

    PS. I *love* the drunken Frisians analogy. Can I say it again? Drunken Frisians, drunken Frisians, drunken... (fade) ;-)
  • by k2enemy (555744) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @09:09PM (#10581853)
    The Baroque cycle is for freaks whith good wrist, to support the huge weight of its massive volumes.

    this may sound weird, but i think the roughcut hardcover edition of the baroque cycle books are physically the nicest books i've ever held. everything from the paper texture and weight to how easily the books sit flat on a table while open.

  • Re:Second Amendment (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Teancum (67324) <robert_horning@@@netzero...net> on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @09:43PM (#10582057) Homepage Journal
    The analogy is actually much more accurate than most Americans really care to give it. Lincoln was given war powers that were more along the lines of the Roman Emperors than a beneveolent "first citizen" (hence President) of the country.

    Mistakes were made by both the North and the South, with the major Confederate mistake being trying to fight the issue of succession with arms than trying to fight it through treaties and legal means. It would have been real interesting to see what the USA would be like had South Carolina, for instance, tried to get the SCOTUS to agree that its seccession was legal.

    The Confederacy thought they had the upper hand, and at the beginning of the Civil War they certainly seemed to have the superior military force. It wasn't until the Northern states got into a war economy in a style more recognizable in the 20th Century and flooding Dixie with superior weapons, massive numbers of soldiers, and improved logistics (notably with a superior infrastructure of railroads).

    BTW, most of the fighting happened in the 1860's, with most of the fighting over by the beginning of Lincoln's second term in 1864. The 1870's were noted as being quite bloody in Dixie as well, and throughout most of the rest of the 19th Century as the Klu Klux Klan fought against blacks (African-Americans), often with pitch battles between the two groups. There is some reason to believe that almost as many casualties occured from these actions as occured in open combat during the Civil War, although certianly not in as organized of military units as was seen during the Civil War itself. Keep in mind that black groups weren't exactly unarmed either, nor without simpathizers in the North.
  • by ^_^x (178540) on Wednesday October 20, 2004 @11:45PM (#10582702)
    The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge.

    What does he consider "new" or "art?"

    The "Hyakumanto Darani" was a printed document reproduced in Japan in the 760s. [honco.net]The Tale of Genji was released around 1010. That's almost a millenium ago. Gutenberg demonstrated movable type in 1448. New compared to cave paintings? Not really, but compared to the numerous contemporary art forms, printed novels are pretty old hat.
  • by aug24 (38229) on Thursday October 21, 2004 @09:22AM (#10585508) Homepage

    Actually, I think it (money and money-relationships) recently changed and could therefore change again.

    Until only a few years ago, owning a large amount of money was not a stable position. Typically, money had to be paid to protect money - negative interest. If you didn't pay someone to protect your money, it would be more likely to be stolen - still negative. Money had to be used just to keep it.

    With the abstraction of money into just numbers, and the advent of banks which invest their customers' money, we have the opposite effect. Money is not easily stolen, is easily protected, and, crucially, it grows.

    It strikes me that this is an enormous change that will have ramifications for generations... the rich (above some threshold) will now get richer by doing nothing at all, where previously they had to continue making money in order to stay in the same place.

    Comments? Neal?

    Justin.

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