Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson

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science fiction

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This novel includes an interesting encryption system using a deck of cards, invented by Bruce Schneier.

There’s a Perl script implementing the algorithm in the book, but printers have a tendency to typo it to death.


Copyright © 1999 by Neal Stephenson


The basic problem for Lawrence was that he was lazy. He had figured out that everything was much simpler if, like Superman with his X-ray vision, you just stared through the cosmetic distractions and saw the underlying mathematical skeleton. Once you found the math in a thing, you knew everything about it, and you could manipulate it to your heart’s content with nothing more than a pencil and a napkin. He saw it in the curve of the silver bars on his glockenspiel, saw it in the catenary arch of a bridge and in the capacitor-studded drum of Atanasoff and Berry’s computing machine. Actually pounding on the glockenspiel, riveting the bridge together, or trying to figure out why the computing machine wasn’t working were not as interesting to him.

Consequently he got poor grades. From time to time, though, he would perform some stunt on the blackboard that would leave his professor weak in the knees and the other students baffled and hostile. Word got around.



They gave him an intelligence test. The first question on the math part had to do with boats on a river: Port Smith is 100 miles upstream of Port Jones. The river flows at 5 miles per hour. The boat goes through water at 10 miles per hour. How long does it take to go from Port Smith to Port Jones? How long to come back?

Lawrence immediately saw that it was a trick question. You would have to be some kind of idiot to make the facile assumption that the current would add or subtract 5 miles per hour to or from the speed of the boat. Clearly, 5 miles per hour was nothing more than the average speed. The current would be faster in the middle of the river and slower at the banks. More complicated variations could be expected at bends in the river. Basically it was a question of hydrodynamics, which could be tackled using certain well-known systems of differential equations. Lawrence dove into the problem, rapidly (or so he thought) covering both sides of ten sheets of paper with calculations. Along the way, he relized that one of his assumptions, in combination with the simplified Navier-Stokes equations, had led him into an exploration of a particularly interesting family of partial differential equations. Before he knew it, he had proved a new theorem. If that didn’t prove his intelligence, what would?



Novus Ordo Seclorum

“The Philippines is one of those post-Spanish countries with no clear boundaries between business and personal relationships,” Avi says. “I don’t think you can secure lodgings there without marrying into a family with a major street named after it.”

They are watching an educational video about how to get mugged in foreign countries.

By turning those transistors on and off according to some systematic plan, meaning is conveyed to Randy Waterhouse. A good filmmaker could convey a whole story to Randy by seizing control of those transistors for a couple of hours.

Unfortunately, there are a lot more laptop computers floating around than there are filmmakers worth paying attention to. The transistors are almost never put into the hands of human beings. They are controlled, instead, by software. Randy used to be fascinated by software, but now he isn’t. It’s hard enough to find human beings who are interesting.

The Spawn of Onan The pro-consensus, anti-confrontation elements then seized control of the conversation and broke it up into numerous small clusters of people all vigorously agreeing with one another.




RESPECT THE PEDESTRIAN, the signs say, but the drivers, the physical environment, local land use customs, and the very layout of the place conspire to treat the pedestrian with the contempt he so richly deserves. Randy would get more respect if he went to work on a pogo stick with a propeller beanie on his head.

Nightmare Having now experienced all the phases of military existence except for the terminal ones (violent death, court-martial, retirement), he has come to understand the culture for what it is: a system of etiquette within which it becomes possible for groups of men to live together for years, travel to the ends of the earth, and do all kinds of incredibly weird shit without killing each other or completely losing their minds in the process. The extreme formality with which he addresses these officers carries an important subtext: your problem, sir, is deciding what you want me to do, and my problem, sir, is doing it. My gung-ho posture says that once you give the order I’m not going to bother you with any of the details—and your half of the bargain is that you had better stay on your side of the line, sir, and not bother me with any of the chickenshit politics that you have to deal with for a living. The implied responsibility placed upon the officer’s shoulders by the subordinate’s unhesitating willingness to follow orders is a withering burden to any officer with half a brain, and Shaftoe has more than once seen seasoned noncoms reduce green lieutenants to quivering blobs simply by standing before them and agreeing, cheerfully, to carry out their orders.




“Have you forgotten the second part of my order, Sergeant?”

“Sir, yes, sir!” No point in lying about it. Officers actually like it when you forget their orders because it reminds them of how much smarter they are than you. It makes them feel needed.


He’s already made up his mind that human society is one of these cycles-within-cycles things* and now he’s trying to figure out whether it is like Turing’s bicycle (works fine for a while, then suddenly the chain falls off; hence the occasional world war) or like an Enigma machine (grinds away incomprehensibly for a long time, then suddenly the wheels line up like a slot machine and everything is made plain in some sort of global epiphany or, if you prefer, apocalypse) or just like a rotary airplane engine (runs and runs and runs; nothing special happens; it just makes a lot of noise).

*He has no hard data to back this up; it just seems like a cool idea.

Qwghlm House The first room, it becomes clear, was actually a preäntepenultimate room, so it is a while before they can be said to be definitely inside Qwghlm House.



Sultan It is the kind of thing you’d get if you went to a Finnish designer with a shaved head, rimless glasses, and twin Ph.D.s in semiotics and civil engineering, wrote him a blank check, and asked him to design a throne.

They saw that they were wrong, they admitted their mistake, they came up with a new idea. The new idea was accepted and embraced all the way up the chain of command. Now they are using it to kill their enemies.

No warrior with any concept of honor would have been so craven. So flexible.


“You had to work with the available technology,” Lawrence says.

“Oh, Lawrence! I’m surprised at you! If it will take ten years to make the machine with available technology, and only five years to make it with a new technology, and it will only take two years to invent the new technology, then you can do it in seven years by inventing the new technology first!”




Waterhouse thinks that really the RCA Radio Tube Manual is like a ball and chain holding Alan back. If he would just work with pure ideas like a proper mathematician he could go as fast as thought. As it happens, Alan has become fascinated by the incarnations of pure ideas in the physical world. The underlying math of the universe is like the light streaming in through the window. Alan is not satisfied with merely knowing that it streams in. He blows smoke into the air to make the light visible. He sits in meadows gazing at pine cones and flowers, tracing the mathematical patterns in their structure, and he dreams about electron winds blowing over the glowing filaments and screens of radio tubes, and, in their surges and eddies, capturing something of what is going on in his own brain. Turing is neither a mortal nor a god. He is Antaeus. That he bridges the mathematical and physical worlds is his strength and his weakness.
Phreaking But the video timing of a laptop screen is still patterned after that of a cathode-ray tube screen anyway. (This is simply because the old technology is universally understood by those who need to understand it, and it works well, and all kinds of electronic and software technology has been built and tested to work within that framework, and why mess with success, especially when your profit margins are so small that they can only be detected by using techniques from quantum mechanics, and any glitches vis-á-vis compatibility with old stuff will send your company straight into the toilet.)

“Commemorating the Holocaust is not, not not not not not, the same thing as fighting to prevent future holocausts. Most of the commemorationists are just whiners. They think that if everyone feels bad about past holocausts, human nature will magically transform, and no one will want to commit genocide in the future.”

“I take it you do not share this view, Avi?”

“Look at Bosnia!” Avi scoffs. “Human nature doesn’t change, Randy. Education is hopeless. The most educated people in the world can turn into Aztecs or Nazis just like that.” He snaps his fingers.

“So what hope is there?”

“Instead of trying to educate the potential perpetrators of holocausts, we try to educate the potential victims.”



“In the clear?”

“Yeah. I keep bothering him to get Ordo and encrypt his e-mail, but he won’t.”

“That is really unprofessional,” Avi grumbles. “He needs to be more paranoid.”

“He’s so paranoid that he doesn’t even trust Ordo.”

Avi’s scowl eases. “Oh. That’s okay then.”


Logic (examples)



“May God have mercy on their souls.”

In other circumstances, the religious reference would make Randy uncomfortable, but here it seems like the only appropriate thing to say. Think what you will about religious people, they always have something to say at times like this. What would an atheist come up with? Yes, the organisms inhabiting that submarine must have lost their higher neural functions over a prolonged period of time and eventually turned into pieces of rotten meat. So what?




Santa Monica

The United States Military (Waterhouse has decided) is first and foremost an unfathomable network of typists and file clerks, secondarily a stupendous mechanism for moving stuff from one part of the world to another, and last and least a fighting organization.

Crunch World-class cereal-eating is a dance of fine compromises. The giant heaping bowl of sodden cereal, awash in milk, is the mark of the novice. Ideally one wants the bone-dry cereal nuggets and the cryogenic milk to enter the mouth with minimal contact and for the entire reaction between them to take place in the mouth. Randy has worked out a set of mental blueprints for a special cereal-eating spoon that will have a tube running down the handle and a little pump for the milk, so that you can spoon dry cereal up out of a bowl, hit a button with your thumb, and squirt milk into the bowl of the spoon even as you are introducing it into your mouth.




She is the only woman Waterhouse has ever seen. She is the only other human being in the universe actually, and when she stands up to shake his hand, his peripheral vision shuts down as if he has been sucking on a tailpipe. Black curtains converge across a silver cyclorama, shuttering down his cosmos to a vertical shaft of carbon-arc glory, a pillar of light, a heavenly follow-spot targeted upon Her.




“In the old days—the early days—when no one knew what the Gestapo was, and no one was afraid of it, this four in the morning business was clever. A fine way to exploit man’s primal fear of the darkness. But now it is 1942, almost 1943, and everyone is afraid of the Gestapo. Everyone. More than they are of the dark. So, why don’t you work during the daytime? You are stuck in a rut.”


“So you can imagine how it looked.”

“I guess so. Assuming you have no faith in me whatsoever.”

Weirdly, the ones who adopted the sternest and most terrible Old Testament moral tone were the Modern Language Association types who believed that everything was relative and that, for example, polygamy was as valid as monogamy.
Randy hadn’t the faintest idea what these people thought of him and what he had done, but he could sense right away that, essentially that was not the issue because even if they thought he had done something evil, they at least had a framework, a sort of procedure manual, for dealing with transgressions. To translate it into UNIX system administration terms (Randy’s fundamental metaphor for just about everything), the post-modern, politically correct atheists were like people who had suddenly found themselves in charge of a big and unfathomably complex computer system (viz. society) with no documentation or instructions of any kind, and so whose only way to keep the thing running was to invent and enforce certain rules with a kind of neo-Puritanical rigor, because they were at a loss to deal with any deviations from what they saw as the norm. Whereas people who were wired into a church were like UNIX system administrators who, while they might not understand everything, at least had some documentation, some FAQs and How-tos and README files, providing some guidance on what to do when things got out of whack. They were, in other words, capable of displaying adaptability.



Seattle Your younger nerd takes offense quickly when someone near him begins to utter declarative sentences, because he reads into it an assertion that he, the nerd, does not already know the information being imparted. But your older nerd has more self-confidence, and besides, understands that frequently people need to think out loud. And highly advanced nerds will furthermore understand that uttering declarative sentences whose contents are already known to all present is part of the social process of making conversation and therefore should not be construed as aggression under any circumstances.



Charlene and his friends used to heckle him for being a Platonist, but everywhere he goes he sees the same few ideal forms shadowed in the physical world. Maybe he’s just stupid or something.

The introduction to the Cryptonomicon was written, probably before Pearl Harbor, by a guy named William Friedman, and is filled with aphorisms probably intended to keep neophyte code-breakers from slapping grenades to their heads after a long week of wrestling with the latest Nipponese machine ciphers.

The fact that the scientific investigator works 50 percent of his time by nonrational means is, it seems, quite insufficiently recognized.

Intuition, like a flash of lightning, lasts only for a second. It generally comes when one is tormented by a difficult decipherment and when one reviews in his mind the fruitless experiments already tried. Suddenly the light breaks through and one finds after a few minutes what previous days of labor were unable to reveal.

And, Randy’s favorite,

As to luck, there is the old miners’ proverb: “Gold is where you find it.”




Attorney Alejandro says, rhetorically, “Why ‘Death to Drug Smugglers’?” Randy hasn’t asked why, but Attorney Alejandro wants to share something with him about why. “The Americans were very angry that some people in this part of the world persisted in selling them the drugs that they want so very badly.”



Metis “Mr. Wing has the ability to shut off the electricity to just about any home or factory or even military base in China, and by Chinese standards this makes him into a distinguished elder statesman.”

“Hilbert, Russell, Whitehead, Gödel, all of them were engaged in a monumental act of tearing mathematics down and beginning from scratch. But the Nazis believed that mathematics was a heroic science whose purpose was to reduce chaos to order—just as National Socialism was supposed to do in the political sphere.”

“Okay,” Randy says, ”but what the Nazis didn’t understand was that if you tore it down and rebuilt it, it was even more heroic than before.”

“Indeed. It led to a renaissance,” Root says, “like in the seventeenth century, when the Puritans tore everything to rubble and then slowly built it back up from scratch. Over and over again we see the pattern of the Titanomachia repeated—the old gods are thrown down, chaos returns, but out of the chaos, the same patterns reemerge.”

“Okay. So—again—you were talking about civilization?”

“Ares always reemerges from the chaos. It will never go away. Athenian civilization defends itself from the forces of Ares with metis, or technology. Technology is built on science. Science is like the alchemists’ uroburos, continually eating its own tail. The process of science doesn’t work unless young scientists have the freedom to attack and tear down old dogmas, to engage in an ongoing Titanomachia. Science flourishes where art and free speech flourish.”

“Sounds teleological, Enoch. Free countries get better science, hence superior military power, hence get to defend their freedoms. You’re proclaiming a sort of Manifest Destiny here.”

“Well, someone’s got to do it.”

“Aren’t we beyond that sort of thing now?”

“I know you’re just saying that to infuriate me. Sometimes, Randy, Ares gets chained up in a barrel for a few years, but he never goes away.”




Akihabara Middle-class prosperity is lapidary; the flow of cash rounds and smooths a person like water does riverbed stones. The goal of all such persons seems to be to make themselves cuddly and nonthreatening. [...] Black leather, studs, and handcuffs-as-accessories are the marks of the powerless lower classes, the people who tend to end up in the pokey in Manila, and not of the person who actually dominate the world and crush everything in their path.




“The world is bleeding. It needs medicine and bandages. These cost money.”

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


“What of the man who cannot get out of bed and work, because he has no legs? What of the widow who has no husband to work, no children to support her? What of children who cannot improve their minds because they lack books and schoolhouses?”

“You can shower gold on them,” Goto Dengo says. “Soon enough, it will all be gone.”

“Yes. But some of it will be gone into books and bandages.”


An idea springs out of his forehead fully formed, with no warning. This is how all the best ideas arrive. Ideas that he patiently cultivates from tiny seeds always fail to germinate or else grow up into monstrosities. Good ideas are just there all of a sudden, like angels in the Bible. You cannot ignore them just because they are ridiculous.

text checked (see note) Dec 2005

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