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Neal Stephenson Returns with "Anathem" 248

Lev Grossman writes to tell us that Neal Stephenson, author of greats like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, has another novel due for release in September. The catalogue copy gives us a small glimpse at what may be in store: "Since childhood, Raz has lived behind the walls of a 3,400-year-old monastery, a sanctuary for scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians--sealed off from the illiterate, irrational, unpredictable 'saecular' world that is plagued by recurring cycles of booms and busts, world wars and climate change. Until the day that a higher power, driven by fear, decides that only these cloistered scholars have the abilities to avert an impending catastrophe. And, one by one, Raz and his cohorts are summoned forth without warning into the Unknown."
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Neal Stephenson Returns with "Anathem"

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  • This makes me happy (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rbanzai ( 596355 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @05:48PM (#22925284)
    I really enjoy his books. The strengths far outweigh the shortcomings for me. I usually feel smarter after reading his stuff, at least for a little while. He has a knack for weaving little interesting facts into his stories and that really appeals to me.
    • by gardyloo ( 512791 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @05:50PM (#22925314)
      Plus, it's usually up to the reader to provide the last chapter or so. Weave away, reader. It's a brilliant way to write books, because each one ends up being lovingly tailored to the individual reader's mindset.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 31, 2008 @07:40PM (#22926312)
        Ha exactly. I was going to ask if this one actually had an ending.
        After Diamond Age and Cryptinomican, I half expect any book I read by Stephenson to end in mid-sente
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by CastrTroy ( 595695 )
          I read about 2/3 of Cryptonomicon. Put it down for the summer because I use my bike instead of public transit for travelling to work, and I never picked it back up again. I keep on meaning to finish it, but it's been so long I fear that I'll have to start over from the beginning again. If there really is no ending, I might not bother, as I like my books to have some kind of conclusion.
          • by mcvos ( 645701 ) on Tuesday April 01, 2008 @07:40AM (#22929446)
            Of all his books that I read, Cryptonomicon is the only one that has something of an ending. Not a brilliant climax, perhaps, but definitely some sort of conclusion.

            Endings are definitely not Stephenson's strongest point, but the fact that this book at least has one, and every single one of the 1100 pages before that ending being exciting, thrilling, interesting and witty, has made Cryptonomicon my favourite book ever. It knocked Lord of the Rings off its throne, and is a must-read for every nerd who is even the slightest bit interested in computers, math, information warfare, submarines, treasure hunts, WW2, or reading.

            The only real downer in the book was the two consecutive descriptions of Manilla, one during WW2, the other in modern times. I'm sure the differences between the two descriptions should have been enlightening, but to me it was just boring twice in a row. The rest of the book is absolutely brilliant, however, and that brilliance far outshines these minor downsides.
      • Sounds pretty lazy to me. I'm from the old school where a book ought to have a resolution to the climax (and it should come AFTER the climax). And that the artistic contribution a writer makes is presenting her vision to the reader.
      • by 2short ( 466733 )

        So, I hear criticsm of Stephensons endings all the time, and it genuinely mystifies me.
        What book are you referring to? Between The Big U, Zodiac, Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and The Baroque Cycle I can't come up with any major unresolved plot elements at all. I'm genuinely curious if anyone can enlighten me... What did you want to know about a Stephenson plot that didn't get wrapped up?

        • This sounds an awful lot like Asimov's "Foundation" series. An awful lot.
    • by jd ( 1658 )
      You mean they stock his books at the Holliday Inn all those adverts were about?
    • by Sheriff Fatman ( 602092 ) on Tuesday April 01, 2008 @05:03AM (#22928950) Homepage

      I couldn't agree more. I think Stephenson, at his best, has a singular gift for conveying background information, often fairly technical stuff, without interrupting his narrative. Consider the passage in Cryptonomicon where he explains modular arithmetic using the broken spoke on Alan Turing's bicycle, or the gradual explanation of universal Turing machines that's woven into the second half of The Diamond Age.

      Sometimes I think he takes it a little far... the first half of The Confusion sometimes felt like it was trying to explain the entire political framework of sixteenth-century France, and not always succeeding (at least, not in my case) - but by and large it's an aspect of his writing I enjoy very much.

      (I also think it demonstrates an interesting contrast with another great sci-fi/'cyberpunk' author, William Gibson. Where Stephenson will take several pages explaining some neat gadget or system, Gibson just throws his technological ideas at you and lets you work out for yourself what he's talking about. Count Zero opens with the line "They sent a slamhound on Turner's trail in New Delhi, slotted it to his pheromones and the color of his hair."... and closes 333 pages later without ever telling you what a slamhound is or how you would go about slotting one.)

      I wonder if Enoch Root will be in this one...

  • by Stanistani ( 808333 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @05:48PM (#22925288) Homepage Journal
    "Hilarity ensues as the naive monks wander into an Orange County mall and are adopted by a gaggle of teenage girls."
  • Yes. (Score:5, Funny)

    by ScentCone ( 795499 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @05:51PM (#22925322)
    I think it's possible that Neal himself has been sealed in a Monastary for 3,400 years, actually. I don't know how else he could have written the Baroque Cycle, along with the works mentioned, and still have had time to come up for air and produce something new, too. Looking forward to it. Are you watching, George Martin? See? Wriiiite... publish!
    • Re:Yes. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ultramk ( 470198 ) <[ten.llebcap] [ta] [kmartlu]> on Monday March 31, 2008 @06:41PM (#22925784)
      Well, when I was at the $250m Sci-Fi Museum in Seattle, (imo, the only good thing to come out of Microsoft, as the place is derided by the locals as "Paul Allen's Basement") one of the most impressive displays (and the place is huge) was the complete hand-written manuscript for the Baroque Cycle, as well as all of the Montblanc fountain pens and refills it took to complete it.

      Yes, hand-written. I saw that huge stack of paper, and all the little pen nubs and such, and my wrists starting aching in sympathy.

      It might seem stupid to write in such a time-consuming way, but it seems to work for him. This rung a bell for me: I have a degree in sculpture, and one of the first and most lasting lessons I learned is that your choice of tools shape the final work just as much as your intention does, if not more. The process matters; it effects the end result in subtle, hard-to-identify ways. I did an experiment when I was a student, I carved two marble busts (1/3 life size, I was poor), both of the same model. With one I used only hand tools: chisels, rasps, sandpaper, picks, etc. With the second one, I used only power tools: air hammer, sander, dremel, etc. (yes, that one took about a 5th of the time) I was pretty equally skilled with both kinds of tools, and although I was intending to create the same piece each time, they came out very very different. You can't tell from looking which tools I used to make which bust, but one is far "harder".... more aggressive in the expression, people say it seems arrogant. The other looks wistful, serene, relaxed, playful. Obviously just an anecdote, but it made a big impression on me.

      Both from the same model, both from the same initial study I made in plasticene. The process matters.
      • Re:Yes. (Score:4, Interesting)

        by peacefinder ( 469349 ) <> on Monday March 31, 2008 @08:04PM (#22926530) Journal
        I caught a speech he did on the Quicksilver promo tour. To summarize and oversimplify what he said, apparently his hands can type faster than his brain can generate good prose. By switching to handwriting, he slowed his output rate to more closely match his composition rate. IIRC he said that the result was a much more polished first draft.
    • Are you watching, George Martin? See? Wriiiite... publish!
      Seriously. I understand RR may want to polish his next book until it is nice and shiny and perfect, but I think I speak for most Song of Ice and Fire fans when I say I'd rather sleep with a pockmocked whore than be celibate for the rest of my life.
  • by Otter ( 3800 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @05:52PM (#22925330) Journal
    I loved his earlier books, read a third of the way into Quicksilver, found it unreadable and gave up, glanced at the next one and thought it looked even worse, and stopped paying attention at all.

    Has he gone back to writing enjoyable books or are they still self-indulgent treatises that he's too important to allow editing of? (Judging from ScuttleMonkey's " of greats like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon...", the latter seems more likely.)

    • by agentkhaki ( 92172 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @05:55PM (#22925372) Homepage
      For what it's worth, Quicksilver was easily the driest of the three--it really felt like a history textbook, and I honestly don't blame anyone who gave up on the series (and possibly the author) after trying to make their way through it. I know it took me two tries, and even then it was a struggle. He started picking up steam with the second book though, and the third was quite excellent.
      • by gardyloo ( 512791 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @06:02PM (#22925422)
        Agreed. I really *did* enjoy Quicksilver, with no reservations. But the following two were less dry and more engaging, even though the individual scenes became a bit more violent and disturbing. Scattered throughout all three volumes were various little nuggets of Stephenson humor -- not just the people struggling with concepts we would consider old-hat (in the modern sense of the term, not that prevalent as slang as recently as the 1940s!) -- but modern euphemisms. If I remember correctly, these became more common in the later two volumes.
        • If I recall correctly (been a year or two since I finished it) the third one actually had around 50 pages of resolution that wrapped up MOST of the story lines (there was definitely some "then why the hell did they bother with all that other stuff????") I found the ending of the Baroque cycle to be very satisfying -- so just in case you were holding off on them because you were afraid he'd let pretty much everything from the past 2000 pages drop and finish in a couple paragraphs, its definitely not the cas
      • by mu_wtfo ( 224511 ) *
        Yes, Quicksilver was a hard read, my first time through. Then I began The Confusion, and quickly realized that it was Mr. Stephenson's way of saying "Thanks for making it through Quicksilver".
      • I don't know what to think of the news here as I've just started reading Quicksilver. It's been a slow start so far, but it wasn't unpleasant so I'll continue as long as my trust in Neal is strong. What I do question though is my ability to read the 3000 pages or so of the Baroque Cycle while also making progress on Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich [] (which for me appears to progress in real time) before Anathem is out. Oh well, I really enjoyed Cryptonomicon so I'll probably make it through Quicksliver too.
    • I phant'sy you're not alone in that one. I struggled through the whole of Quicksilver but couldn't get over the feeling of dread that I felt every time I thought about starting The Confusion.

      Let's hope this book is as good as his pre-Baroque Cycle stuff, if so then it should at least be worth reading.
  • No this has nothing to do with making music from corporate spreadsheets.
  • Interesting (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Paranatural ( 661514 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @05:54PM (#22925348)
    I've actually noticed how the people who are or at least consider themselves the 'intellectual elite', (And yes, this includes slashdotters, for the most part) tend to insulate themselves away from the more mundane world, even while sometimes bemoaning their own insulation.

    I'd never thought of putting it into an actual story with a more structured actual separation.

    Should be a good read. He can be rather better at predicting how people react to changes in technology rather than how most people think we'd react. (I.E. Relationship role changes and the way we interact fundamentally changed rather than just slightly bent.)
    • by jd ( 1658 )
      I've seen this idea done a few times as fiction. I forget the title of it, but there was one in particular I liked where anthropologists argue that if children growing up with wolves act like wolves, then children growing up with highly intelligent people should act highly intelligently. Ok, so it dives into fantasy - time-shifting, super-humans, etc, but it was still a very fun read.

      In the real world, the reason the ancient Greeks despised experimentation was because the real world was "dirty", and many

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 )
      Many elites are other peoples' masses. Slashdot-types (or at least a caricatured stereotype of them that might have some kernel of truth to it) might think of themselves as a kind of cerebral elite for certain types of technical-scientific abilities. For people with a strong background in the arts and literature, Slashdot tastes are very much of the masses, often naive and vulgar. Athletic types see the distinction between the elite and the masses in different terms, as well.

      Stephenson, among others, clearl
      • generally mediocre work

        Well, he might not be Shakespeare, but try reading, say, Dan Brown or Tom Clancy, and then tell me he's mediocre. When you're better than 90% of the tripe out there, sci-fi included, you've wandered away a little bit from "mediocre".

        As for Disch and Delany, never read 'em, unless they were in one of the many millions of sf short stories I devoured as a kid. All you need is Bradbury and Heinlein to get by anyway. Everything else is icing on the cake.

        Oh, and don't let anyo
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 )
          Well, he might not be Shakespeare, but try reading, say, Dan Brown or Tom Clancy, and then tell me he's mediocre. When you're better than 90% of the tripe out there, sci-fi included, you've wandered away a little bit from "mediocre".

          Fair enough. And to be honest, at times I've liked Stephenson - usually for short bursts at a time. His writing is often a pastiche of clever ideas and descriptions held together by - well, not really held together by anything at all. I think he's be more effective if he didn't
  • deja vu (Score:5, Funny)

    by s20451 ( 410424 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @05:54PM (#22925350) Journal
    That book was great the first time I read it, when it was called A Canticle for Leibowitz [].
    • In A Canticle for Leibowitz, there essentially was no outside world. Everything had gone in some apocalyptic event. From the Slashdot post, I get the impression that in Stephenson's new universe the outside world is technologically advanced (at times).
    • by ultramk ( 470198 )
      Yes, because everyone knows that similar themes or plot devices make everything that follows redundant.

      After reading Shakespeare, isn't everything since then redundant?

      We're all standing on the shoulders of giants, buddy. That's no reason to stop creating.
    • by glwtta ( 532858 )
      I'm not sure I see that much similarity.

      Both have monasteries, but lots of books have monasteries... If anything, Canticle was far more nuanced with the whole "propagation of knowledge through dark ages" thing than just a bunch of effete intellectuals cloistering themselves from the unwashed masses.

      Great book, though.
    • Canticle for Leibowitz is a terrific story. But when you read it now it seems a bit clichéd. The theme has been redone and redone again since 1960.
      So that's a bit like pointing to Tolkein to claim prior art on dwarfs and elves and magical quests.

      Also, whether Stephenson comes out and says he is rewriting Canticle..or he was just subconsciously inspired by it, I'll want to read Anathem.
    • It's not deja vu, but creepy nonetheless: I'm almost through reading A Canticle for Leibowitz right now. It's my dad's copy from a high school lit class and this is the first time I've seen it mentioned anywhere. It never occurred to me to check Amazon to see if it was still in print. You're right, fwiw; the synopsis does ring a bell :)
  • by Pike ( 52876 )
    After hearing about Stephenson for years (mainly on this site) I finally picked up a copy of Quicksilver during an airport layover. What a mistake. I trudged through it for about a week, thinking I might eventually stumble upon something more like a plot, you know, that would make you mildly curious about what comes next. Gave up about three quarters of the way through.

    Oh, and right away he barrages you with the laughable similes. Just check out the first page of the novel []: "her head forces [the noose] open
    • Quicksilver is the only Stephenson book I could not finish. I think a lot of Stephenson fans had difficulty with that one. Every single other one was a rip-roaring good read. Cryptomonicon in particular still remains one of my top 10 favorite novels.

      And speaking of similes, one of my most favorite lines from Cryptonomicon was where he referred to someone's close-cropped hair as "standing out from his head like a field of normal vectors." It was a great little geeky moment in a book full of great little

    • Hahaha, you had to go and pick that one :). For the record, I tried to like Quicksilver and some of it was ok, but I gave up on it before being halfway done for the same reasons you did.

      I absolutely loved (and still love after many, many re-reads) his previous best sellers. Read Snow Crash, Diamond Age or Cryptonomicon (preferably in that order) for pure Neal awesomeness.

      I guarantee you'll be hooked to Snow Crash by the end of the second chapter. Have faith in my words.
    • I agree with ObjetDart. Try Snow Crash. They can't all be gems.
  • I'm really happy to hear there's another book on the way.

    For the guys who hate anything since Snow Crash, well this will probably not be for you. Neal's obviously grown and changed as a writer, and his newer stuff is unlikely to engage you.

    According to something I read somewhere, the idea for Baroque Cyclecame about as an idea for a science fiction novel set in the historical past. A long, luxuriously, wonderfully rich read.

    For the rest of us, this is like christmas. The man is a gifted storyteller, no doub
    • Neal's obviously grown and changed as a writer

      Unfortunately, one can change but not not actually grow.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by ultramk ( 470198 )
        I strongly disagree. Compare the characters of "The Big U" with any of his more recent works. While entertaining, his early works were more sketches of characters, or walking, talking cliches than fully-realized, 3-dimensional individuals.
        • You disagree with my comment, or do you disagree because you believe I'm applying it to Neal Stephenson?
          • by ultramk ( 470198 )
            Well, that would be a reasonable assumption to make, since he is the topic under discussion, is it not?

            Both: either way you meant it, yes I disagree. I don't believe most of us stop growing, gaining skill and refinement at our chosen craft, until we give up or they stick us in the ground.

            Growth is change. Life is change. Growth is life.
    • by glwtta ( 532858 )
      For the guys who hate anything since Snow Crash, well this will probably not be for you.

      I actually liked Snow Crash the least out of all his books I've read. I really liked the style, but the story was more than a little preposterous; had this annoying tendency to snatch a few random, out of context tiny bits of science and history here and there, and then weave them together into this Grand Unifying Theory of Everything. Well, OK, but that leaves out the other 99.9999999999% of everything, ever. Fun
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ultramk ( 470198 )
        Cryptonomicon, on the other hand, was pure genius. ...unfortunately, a lot of the posters here seem to feel the exact opposite.

        I have to think that the reason for it is that Neal seems to have three distinct fanbases:
        1. The ones who never got over Neuromancer and only like the books where he's channeling Bill Gibson.
        2. The ones who appreciate the convoluted storylines and textured histories of Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle.
        3. The Venn-diagram overlap of the two, which appears to be tiny.

        I'm a #3, but
  • It seems to be slashdotted - I couldn't get the page to load. I look forward to reading it. But the name - Anathem? Sounds like someone lisping a headache remedy...


  • Sounds like a Hari Seldon moment happened to Stephenson. The Second Foundation all over again.
    • Sounds like a Hari Seldon moment happened to Stephenson. The Second Foundation all over again.

      Nah. We just have a new Cowboy Neal.
    • by Digi-John ( 692918 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @06:29PM (#22925680) Journal
      I can only hope it doesn't include something like that planet-o-hippies, the Gaians.
      The worst would be if he tried to tie the Baroque Cycle, the Cryptonomicon, and Snow Crash all together in this book, like Asimov did at the end of Foundation.
      Pity that S.F. authors seem to go a little nuts when they get old.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        "Pity that S.F. authors seem to go a little nuts when they get old."

        It isn't a pity, it is the way of things. A young S.F. can obscure the fact that he is, in fact, nuts by his creativity. The problem with age, is that it tends to bring less creativity and thus unable to hide that which was always there.
  • by Rosy At Random ( 820255 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @06:22PM (#22925608) Homepage
    Yes, he's a self-indulgent geek. And damnit, I love that. So am I.

    Reading his books, you can't help but feel that he's constantly nudging and winking at you, sharing the joke and deligt of writing as it were. I can see why some people would hate that, or not have the patience to wade through it, but I can't get enough of it.

    In that, he reminds me of Roger Zelazny. Lately, though, I find Charles Stross to feel rather similar.
  • why is that they set up the hero as having cohorts, armies, minions all the time ? its growing rather old.

    the forced need of self gratification by grandeur. too unrealistic when repeated that often and in every context.
    • by bskin ( 35954 )
      Um. So the story would be better if there were only one character who never interacted with anyone?
    • by glwtta ( 532858 )
      why is that they set up the hero as having cohorts, armies, minions all the time ? its growing rather old.

      I think they just meant "the other people at the monastery" by "cohorts"; could've as easily said "buddies" or "pals". Must the hero always be some kind of brooding solitary recluse?
  • His earlier books were great, but somewhere in Cryptonomicon he seems to have lost the plot, literally. I had a lot of trouble actually caring about the characters in Cryptonomicon... and I couldn't really care much about the background or plot either... it all seemed to be an excuse for him to write about the places he'd been as a hacker tourist and try and drum up geek cred... and he didn't seem to understand what bits of geek culture were things his allegedly competent protagonist should care about. The Baroque Cycle? I gave up halfway through the second one. It was like reading the "Swiss Family Robinson" version of the Renaissance. You know how "Swiss Family Robinson" was kind of like teenager's wish-fulfillment version of "Robinson Crusoe"? That's how I felt about Quicksilver... too many protagonists had too many convenient 20th century attitudes and too much 20th century understanding of biology and physics.
    • by luder ( 923306 ) *
      I'm still to finish Cryptonomicon, but my biggest complaint isn't the story. It seems I got the mass market paperback edition [], featuring 1168 pages of tiny text and lines crunched into each other. What a mess, it is the most unpleasant thing I tried to read... Did they ever heard of readability? It may be ok for smaller books, 200-400 pages, but for anything bigger it's a no, thanks. Stay away from this edition.
  • Yay! (Score:4, Funny)

    by fucket ( 1256188 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @06:48PM (#22925858)
    I was reading "The Baroque Cycle" for so long that when I finished it, there was a noticeable vacuum in my life. I struggled to remember a time when I *wasn't* reading "The Baroque Cycle" and searched in vain for something as dense, interesting and clever to fill my newly idle hours. I hope I speak for many others besides myself when I express hope that the new books compare favorably in both mass and density (and thus volume) to the old.
    • by JesseL ( 107722 ) *
      You too? I wrapped up The System of the World, and had to go back to rereading Cryptonomicon to catch all the references and foreshadowing (aft-shadowing?) that suddenly makes sense now.
  • If well Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon are good, i enjoyed much more the reading of Diamond Age (the best educative toy story after mimsy were the borogoves, and maybe even inspiration for the OLPC). Why those 2 are "the" books of Stephenson all over the story?
    • I wanted to post exactly that. Diamond Age is, IMHO, Stephenson's best novel. I'll give the editors a free pass on Zodiac tough.
  • by meehawl ( 73285 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <maps.lwaheem>> on Monday March 31, 2008 @08:47PM (#22926848) Homepage Journal
    Many scifi writers have been riffing on Herman Nesse's Glass Bead Game [] since he published it in the 1940s. See also: Iain Banks' Player of Games [] (I asked Banks about this directly and he confirmed that GBG was one of his favourite future history books).
  • Neal Stephenson's books seem to often have the trope of a mundane activity elevated to ridiculous levels []. "Snow Crash" had pizza delivery. "Cryptonomicon" had eating cereal.

    I wonder if there's going to be a similar moment in his new book?
  • by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Monday March 31, 2008 @09:27PM (#22927110)
    Gah, what awful stuff. It was like drinking urine

    Hush, don't give Neal any ideas for even more revolting sex/romance scenes.

    That's the one thing about his novels, the sex/romance scenes will make a normal person want to toss their cookies, or maybe contemplate joining an order with chastity vows. A list of gems and highlights might include sex orgy with pivot gangbang girl reduced to ashes and eaten to get result of computation, or description of guy deprived of sex or masturbation so long everything from his knees to his nipples becomes (in protagonist's mind) a giant sex organ and then he finally relieves himself when his virgin girlfriend impales herself onto his pole with a single extremely painful leap and he immediately ejaculates "a Canadian imperial gallon" (sic) into her, or the King of France getting his hemorrhoids cut off sans anaesthetic while a woman feigns moaning in orgasm so those outside won't know the king is having surgery, or where a guy with syphilis and a half-burned off penis gets his load blown with the kind help of a sympathetic women who wraps bung around her finger and jabs him in the prostate via the anus (at least we can be spared Neal's idea of foreplay).

    I could go on about Stephenson sex/romance but I think the point has been made. Stephenson sex is pain. My apologies to those of you of a more sensitive nature who read this and don't have your therapist on speed-dial.
  • I wonder what Stephenson will do with the premise. For many people, the assumption is that the people in the monastery are the people with the answers. But will it be so? Oftentimes the dumbest people are the most educated. Sometimes they become so knowledgable in their narrow interest that they start to imagine that they know more than they do in other fields. Or they become disdainful of the common man that they divorce themselves from reality. Most universities are overflowing with these two types.

"An open mind has but one disadvantage: it collects dirt." -- a saying at RPI