Some Remarks
Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson

These pages: from Some Remarks:
Metaphysics in the Royal Society 1715–2010
Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out
Gresham College Lecture
In the Kingdom of Mao Bell
Mother Earth, Mother Board
The Salon Interview
Blind Secularism
Time Magazine Article About Anathem
Locked In
Innovation Starvation

index pages:

Metaphysics in the Royal Society 1715–2010

Copyright © 2010 by Neal Stephenson

It’s not the point of this chapter, in other words, to argue that Leibniz was right, much less that Newton was wrong. Leibniz was not even doing science as we now define the term. My conclusions are two. First of all, that the infamous duel between Newton and Leibniz—which was only superficially about who had invented the calculus—came back from the dead a hundred years ago to exert remarkable influence over the course of modern science. Secondly, that Leibniz’s most fundamental assumption, namely that the universe makes sense and that the human has the power to make sense of it and that, consequently, pure metaphysics is no waste of time, remains perhaps the central question of all science.



text checked (see note) May 2013

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Mother Earth, Mother Board

Copyright © 1996 by Neal Stephenson

Wires warp cyberspace in the same way wormholes warp physical space: the two points at opposite ends of a wire are, for informational purposes, the same point, even if they are on opposite sides of the planet. The cyberspace-warping power of wires, therefore, changes the geometry of the world of commerce and politics and ideas that we live in. The financial districts of New York, London, and Tokyo, linked by thousands of wires, are much closer to each other than, say, the Bronx is to Manhattan.

Today this is all quite familiar, but in the 19th century, when the first feeble bits struggled down the first undersea cable joining the Old World to the New, it must have made people’s hair stand up on end in more than just the purely electrical sense—it must have seemed supernatural. Perhaps this sort of feeling explains why when Samuel Morse stretched a wire between Washington and Baltimore in 1844, the first message he sent with his code was “What hath God wrought!”—alsmost as if he needed to reassure himself and others that God, and not the Devil, was behind it.



Some of the early technologies were, in retrospect, flaky: one early inventor wanted to use 26-wire cables, one wire for each letter of the alphabet. But it quickly became evident that it was best to keep the number of individual wires as low as possible and find clever ways to fit more information onto them.

This requires more ingenuity than you might thin. Wires have never been perfectly transparent carriers of data; they have always degraded the information put into them. In general, this gets worse as the wire gets longer, and so as the early telegraph networks spanned greater distances, the people building them had to edge away from the seat-of-the-pants engineering practices that, applied in another field, gave us so many boiler explosions, and toward the more scientific approach that is the standard of practice today.

Both Penang and the Internet were established basically for strategic military reasons. In both cases, what was built by the military was merely a kernel for a much vaster phenomenon that came along later. This kernel was really nothing more than a protocol, a set of rules. If you wanted to follow those rules, you could participate, otherwise you were free to go elsewhere. Because the protocol laid down a standard way for people to interact, which was clearly set out and could be understood by anyone, it attracted smart, adaptable, ambitious people from all over the place, and at a certain point it flew completely out of control and turned into something that no one had ever envisioned: something thriving, colorful, wildly diverse, essentially peaceful, and plagued only by the congestion of its own success.

After a stiff exchange of pleasantries with the other cable layers on the beach, he goes to the brink of the trench and begins bossing around the man with the half-pipes, who, knowing what’s good for him, just keeps his mouth shut while maintaining a certain bearing and dignity beside which the executive’s suit and umbrella seem pathetic and vain.

To a hacker tourist, the scene is strikingly familiar: it is the ancient hacker-versus-suit drama, enacted for the millionth time but sticking to its traditional structure as strictly as a Noh play or, for that matter, a Dilbert cartoon. Cable layers, like hackers, scorn credentials, etiquette, and nice clothes. Anyone who can do the work is part of the club. Nothing else matters. Suits are a bizarre intrusion from an irrational world. They have undeniable authority, but heaven only knows how they acquired it.

The Victorian era was an age of superlatives and larger-than-life characters, and as far as that goes, Dr. Wildman Whitehouse fit right in: what Victoria was to monarchs, Dickens to novelists, Burton to explorers, Robert E. Lee to generals, Dr. Wildman Whitehouse was to assholes. The only 19th-century figure who even comes close to him in this department is Custer. In any case, Dr. Edward Orange Wildman Whitehouse fancied himself something of an expert on electricity. His rival was William Thomson, 10 years younger, a professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow University who was infatuated with Fourier analysis, a new and extremely powerful tool that happened to be perfectly suited to the problem of how to send electrical pulses down long submarine cables.

On a good day, the cable could carry something like one word per minute. This fact was generally hushed up, but the important people knew about it—so the pressure was on Wildman Whitehouse, whose theories were blatantly contradicted by the facts.

Whitehouse convinced himself that the solution to their troubles was brute force—send the message at extremely high voltages. To that end, he invented and patented a set of 5-foot-long induction coils capable of ramming 2,000 volts into the cable. When he hooked them up to the Ireland end of the system, he soon managed to blast a hole through the gutta-percha somewhere between there and Newfoundland, turning the entire system into useless junk.

Whitehouse disappeared into ignominy. Thomson ended up being knighted and later elevated to a baron by Queen Victoria. He became Lord Kelvin and eventually got an important unit of measurement, an even more important law of physics, and a refrigerator named after him.

Eight years after Whitehouse fried the first, a second transatlantic cable was built to Lord Kelvin’s specifications with his patented mirror galvanometers at either end of it. [...]

Kelvin went on to design and patent other devices for extracting bits from the end of cables, and other engineers went to work on the problem, too. By the 1920s, the chore of translating electrical pulses into letters had been largely automated.

To the hacker, the most interesting thing about the pyramids is their business plan, which is the simplest and most effective ever devised:
  1. Put a rock on top of another rock.
  2. Repeat (1) until gawkers arrive.
  3. Separate them from their valuables by all conceivable means.



The Mediterranean may look small on a world map, but from Pharos to its horizon seems just as infinite as the Pacific seen from Miura. Back then, knowing how much of the human world was around the Mediterranean, the horizon must have seemed that much more vast, threatening, and exciting to the Alexandrians.

Building the lighthouse with its magic lens was a way of enhancing the city’s natural capability for looking to the north, which made it into a world capital for many centuries. It’s when a society plunders its ability to look over the horizon and into the future in order to get short-term gain—sometimes illusory gain—that it begins a long slide nearly impossible to reverse.

The collapse of the lighthouse must have been astonishing, like watching the World Trade Center fall over. But it took only a few seconds, and if you were looking the other way when it happened, you might have missed it entirely—you’d see nothing but blue breakers rolling in from the Mediterranean, hiding a field of ruins, quickly forgotten.

In any event, this library was burned out by the Romans when they were adding Egypt to their empire. Or maybe it wasn’t. It’s inherently difficult to get reliable information about an event that consisted of the destruction of all recorded information.

The second library was called the Library of Cleopatra and was built around a couple of hundred thousand manuscripts that were given to her by Marc Antony in what was either a magnificent gesture of romantic love or a shrewd political maneuver. Marc Antony suffered from what we would today call “poor impulse control,” so the former explanation is more likely. This library was wiped out by Christians in AD 391. Depending on which version of events you read, its life span may have overlapped with that of the first library for a few years, a few decades, or not at all.

Whether or not the two libraries ever existed at the same time, the fact remains that between about 300 BC and AD 400, Alexandria was by far the world capital of high-quality information. It must have had much in common with the MIT campus or Stanford in Palo Alto of more recent times: lots of hairy smart guys converging from all over the world to tinker with the lighthouse or to engage in pursuits that must have been totally incomprehensible to the locals, such as starting down wells at high noon and raving about the diameter of the earth.



The Cecil is one of those British imperial-era hotels fraught with romance and history, sort of like the entire J. Peterman catalog rolled into one building. British Intelligence was headquartered there during the war, and there the Battle of El Alamein was planned.

Living as they do, however, in a country choked with old stuff, the Egyptians have adopted a philosophy toward architecture that is best summed up by the phrase: “What have you done for me lately?”



The granite pillar honors the Roman emperor Diocletian, who was a very bad emperor, a major Christian-killer, but who gave Alexandria a big tax break. The citizenry, apparently just as dimwitted as modern-day Americans, decided that he was a great guy and erected this pillar. Originally there was a statue of Diocletian himself on the top, riding a horse, which is why the Egyptians call it, in Arabic, The man on horseback. The statue is gone now, which makes this a completely mystifying name.

One can argue that, in the end, the British Empire did Britain surprisingly little good. Other European countries that had pathetic or nonexistent empires, such as Italy, have recently surpassed England in standard of living and other measures of economic well-being. Scholars of economic history have worked up numbers suggesting that Britain spent more on maintaining its empire than it gained from exploiting it. Whether or not this is the case, it is quite obvious from looking at the cable-laying industry that the Victorian practice of sending British people all over the planet is now paying them back handsomely.

The current position of AT&T versus Cable & Wireless reflects the shape of America versus the shape of the British Empire. America is a big, contiguous mass, easy to defend, immensely wealthy, and basically insular. No one comes close to it in developing new technologies, and AT&T has always been one of America’s technological leaders. By contrast, the British Empire was spread out all over the place, and though it controlled a few big areas (such as India and Australia), it was basically an archipelago of outposts, let us say a network, completely dependent on shipping and communications to stay alive. Its dominance was always more economic than military—even at the height of the Victorian era, its army was smaller than the Prussian police force. It could coerce the natives, but only so far—in the end, it had to co-opt them, give them some incentive to play along. Even though the Empire has been dissolving itself for half a century, British people and British institutions still know how to get things done everywhere.

It is not difficult to work out how all of this has informed the development of the submarine cable industry. AT&T makes really, really good cables; it has the pure technology nailed, though if it doesn’t stay on its toes, it’ll be flattened by the Japanese. Cable & Wireless doesn’t even try to make cables, but it installs them better than anyone else.

Hackers with ambitions of getting involved in the future expansion of the The Computer could do a lot worse than to power down their PCs, buy GPS receivers, place calls to their favorite travel agents, and devote some time to the pursuit of hacker tourism.

The motherboard awaits.

text checked (see note) May 2013

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Locked In

Copyright © 2011 by Neal Stephenson

Rockets and H-bombs were made for each other. The rockets of the 1950s and 1960s were so expensive, and yet so inaccurate, that their only effective military use was lobbing bombs of inconceivably vast destructive power in the general direction of large urban areas.

Conversely, because those bombs were so destructive (making it tricky to drop them out of a manned aircraft without killing the crew) and the consequences of a first strike so dire, ICBMs—which could be launched from hardened, dispersed silos, as contrasted with bombers, which must take off from concentrated, vulnerable air bases—were the best way to deliver them.

To recap, the existence of rockets big enough to hurl significant payloads into orbit was contingent on the following radically improbable series of events:

1. World’s most technically advanced nation under absolute control of superweapon-obsessed madman

2. Astonishing advent of atomic bombs at exactly the same time

3. A second great power dominated by secretive, superweapon-obsessed dictator

4. Nuclear/strategic calculus militating in favor of ICBMs as delivery system

5. Geographic situation of adversaries necessitating that ICBMs must have near-orbital capability

6. Manned space exploration as propaganda competition, un-moored from realistic cost/benefit discipline.

The above circumstances provide a remarkable example of path dependency. Had these contingencies not obtained, rockets with orbital capability would not have been developed so soon, and when modern societies became interested in launching things into space they might have looked for completely different ways of doing so.

Before dismissing the above story as an aberration, consider that the modern petroleum industry is a direct outgrowth of the practice of going out in wooden, wind-driven ships to hunt sperm whales with hand-hurled spears and then boiling their heads to make lamp fuel.

We move now to the phenomenon of lock-in.

Space travel has not proved nearly as useful to the human race as boys of my generation were once led to believe, but it does have one application—unmanned satellites—that is extremely lucrative to the civilian economy and of the highest imaginable importance to the military and intelligence worlds.

Rockets of the old school aren’t perfect—they have their share of failures—but they have enough of a track record that it’s possible to buy launch insurance. The importance of this fact cannot be overestimated. Every space entrepreneur who dreams of constructing a better mousetrap sooner or later crunches into the sickening realization that, even if the new invention achieved perfect technical success, it would fail as a business proposition simply because the customers wouldn’t be able to purchase launch insurance.

To employ a commonly used metaphor, our current proficiency in rocket-building is the result of a hill-climbing approach; we started at one place on the technological landscape—which must be considered a random pick, given that it was chosen for dubious reasons by a maniac—and climbed the hill from there, looking for small steps that could be taken to increase the size and efficiency of the device. Sixty years and a couple of trillion dollars later, we have reached a place that is infinitesimally close to the top of that hill. Rockets are as close to perfect as they’re ever going to get. For a few more billion dollars we might be able to achieve a microsopic improvement in efficiency or reliability, but to make anyt game-changing improvements is not merely expensive; it’s a physical impossibility.

There is no shortage of proposals for radically innovative space launch schemes that, if they worked, would get us across the valley to other hilltops considerably higher than the one we are standing on now—high enough to bring the cost and risk of space launch down to the point where fundamentally new things could begin happening in outer space. But we are not making any serious effort as a society to cross those valleys. [...] Admittedly, there are many who feel a deep antipathy for expenditure of money and brain-power on space travel when, as they never tire of reminding us, there are so many problems to be solved on earth. So if space launch were the only area in which this phenomenon were observable, it would be of concern only to space enthusiasts. But the endless BP oil spill of 2010 highlighted any number of ways in which the phenomena of path dependency and lock-in have trapped our energy industry on a hilltop from which we can gaze longingly across not-so-deep valleys to much higher and sunnier peaks in the not-so-great distance.



text checked (see note) May 2013

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