Cryptonomicon
Monochrome cover is binary.

After an eight month ordeal, I finally got around to completing Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon. I started it in October, but given its 900+ pages and my short attention span when it comes to matters not involving a screen or beer, its consumption was delayed. Now this isn’t an indication of the book’s dullness, because, in truth, it is an engaging read with a mind-boggling amount of ideas crammed into its long length.

When the author analogizes an organism to the effect of a spaceship warping in Star Wars, you know you’re in male-oriented territory. Stephenson manages to put across a geeky intellectual perspective that I just love, such as describing the coldness of a women as an “emotional non-disclosure agreement”. He also obviously knows the subject matter whether it be mathematics or computing, without having to dumb down the material ala 24 or a Michael Crichton novel. For example, to describe the German’s Engima encryption scheme, he uses a bicycle spoke analogy that even a layman could understand. That is, if they have enough focus to read through a couple pages detailing the comparison. Who is this layman, anyway?

The story takes places in two eras; World War II and current day, traveling across locations around the world. Connections between characters in the past and modern times are shown as the plot progresses, highlighted by American marine Bobby Shaftoe who has a proclivity to injecting morphine and Randy Waterhouse, a modern-day hacker of sorts, who is discovering just exactly how deep his grandfather was involved with cracking cryptographic algorithms for the Allies. In a way, all the characters are very similar, rarely being unsure of their actions and always being badasses. It’s like you’re reading a story of low-key heroes. Except Bobby. He just run and guns.

The book goes through many descriptions of how information flows through the world, of which many asides and funny analogies are used to express points. Of course, one of the most well-known tangents the book contains is half a chapter devoted simply to the proper technique for eating Captain Crunch cereal, of which I’ve quoted below (p. 479):

But Randy has, over time, worked out a really fiendish Cap’n Crunch eating strategy that resolves around playing the nuggets’ most deadly features against each other. The nuggets themselves are pillow-shaped and vaguely striated to echo piratical treasure chests. Now, with a flake-type of cereal, Randy’s strategy would never work. But then, Cap’n Crunch in a flake form would be suicidal madness; it would last about as long, when immersed in milk, as snowflakes sifting down into a deep fryer. No, the cereal engineers at General Mills had to find a shape that would minimize surface area, and, as some sort of compromise between the sphere that is dictated by Euclidean geometry and whatever sunken-treasure-related shapes that the cereal-aestheticians were probably clamoring for, they came up with this hard-to-pin-down striated pillow formation. The important thing, for Randy’s purposes, is that the individual pieces of Cap’n Crunch are, to a very rough approximation, shaped kind of like molars. The strategy, then, is to make the Cap’n Crunch chew itself by grinding the nuggets together in the center of the oral cavity, like stones in a lapidary tumbler. Like advanced ballroom dancing, verbal explanations (or for that matter watching videotapes) only goes so far and then your body just has to learn the moves.

This is one of the many examples of someone hacking a piece of information, finding new ways to get a job done. There are plot points centred on Van Eck phreaking and the paranoia of working with sensitive material on a PC within possible proximity of others. Randy uses LED morse code to retrieve desired information from his PC with a possible phreaker being none-the-wiser. You may have noticed xkcd’s Online Communities comic containing its own Qwghlm reference, a tribute to Cryptonomicon’s imaginary country in the British Isles which has a grudge culture that jabs at Irish history; an Outer Qwghlm and Inner Qwghlm in their silent war with each other. The country’s language is without vowels, funny in its own right since all its written text looks like encrypted data. My favourite chapter is “Courting” (p. 543), wherein Lawrence Waterhouse uses graphs and formulas (involving limits) to explain mental clarity and his work productivity in relation to the number of days since his last climax, as he pursues his Qwghlmian love interest.

Overall, the book is quite funny and informative, however its length makes it a daunting task in our era of attention span 2.0. Most of the humour and subject matter is focused on the male geek, so this isn’t exactly transcendent material. It’s all about logic and purpose, so drop your emotional, empathic expectations at the door.

Working in reverse chronological order, I’m now on to Snow Crash.