Surveillance in Snowcrash

This is my offering for Blog Action Day. This year’s theme is Human Rights, so a post about surveillance and my ongoing notes on ‘Everday Human Rights’ seems appropriate (if obvious).

Snowcrash is Neal Stephenson’s break-out novel. It was published in 1992, when the World Wide Web was still a nascent and obscure technology. Nevertheless, it is a remarkably prescient book that predicts the ‘always on’ internet we have today, especially the Massive Multiplayer Online Games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. It also predicts the rise of cyber-attacks and the need for security in this area.

However, the passage that has stuck in my mind since I read the book a few years ago is an amusing piece of ‘world building’ that Stephenson constructs around one of his minor characters. Through the morning of ‘Y.T.’s Mom’ he describes the oppressive atmosphere of having to live and work under constant surveillance. Continue reading “Surveillance in Snowcrash”

7 free OCR apps for the iPhone reviewed

In my opinion, English OCR has the simplest and best interface.

Yesternight I went looking for Optical Character Recognition (OCR) apps.

For the jargon wary and the jargon weary, OCR is the process by which a computer converts a scanned image of some text to actual editable, malleable computer text. It’s a useful tool to have on hand, especially if your work (or play) deals with anything literary or historical.  Like speech recognition software, its also a bit magical.

I wanted to transcribe a few noteworthy pages of a novel, to paste into my Commonplace Book. Rather that wait a few hours until I could use my office facilities to scan and convert the text, I sought recommendations online and did a search of Apple’s App Store.

Continue reading “7 free OCR apps for the iPhone reviewed”

Neal Stephenson Misses a Trick

Stephenson seems to place the handling of a gun over the handling of a keyboard.

Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis

I’ve just finished REAMDE, Neil Stephenson’s latest tome. It continues his tradition of book titles which look like words from the dictionary, but aren’t, like Cryptonomicon and Anathem. It also continues the welcome trope of being centred around geeky heroes: Lawrence Waterhouse (codebreaker) and Randy Waterhouse (programmer) in Cryptonomicon; Erasmus/Ras, the science-monk in Anathem.

All three books have elements of the thriller genre about them. In all three stories the main characters find themselves forced to trek halfway across the globe (and beyond) to save the world and their own lives. Furthermore, the protagonists use their skills to affect the outcome of their adventure. However, REAMDE compares unfavourably to the other two books, in that these technical skills are secondary to the more worldly talents of gun fighting. It therefore reads much more like a Tom Clancy process thriller, than a book that examines the implications of new ideas and technologies on how we think. Continue reading “Neal Stephenson Misses a Trick”

Big Geeky American Novels

I’m glad to see Infinite Jest mentioned alongside Cryptonomicon, because there are some obvious similarities.

Over at Infinite Summer, there’s an interesting and personal post by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who knew David Foster Wallace and now teaches a course on his work.  She also taught Infinite Jest as past of another course called ‘The Big Novel’.

I’d taught Infinite Jest twice before, as part of a course called The Big Novel. In that one, we read Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and Cryptonomicon, attempting to think through the impulse of a subset of recent authors toward producing such encyclopedic novels, and what they have to do with the state of U.S. culture after World War II.

I’m glad to see Infinite Jest mentioned alongside Cryptonomicon, because there are some obvious similarities.  There are plenty of time-line shifts and digressions in Cryptonomicon, of which the reader must keep abreast, although Stephenson doesn’t lose himself in cross-refencing and footnotes as Foster Wallace does.  Both authors have a penchant for describing and revelling in technological advances, both real and extrapolated, in a little more depth than your average novellist would be comfortable with.

There is also an undeniably lustre of geekyness to the prose of both, I find.  Is geekyness the right word?  To elaborate: both texts are centred around the doings and thinkings of earnest and high functioning American males, fin du millénaire.  And although both novels have a third-person narrator, there is the sense that we are nevertheless hearing the story from the direct p.o.v. of the protagonists (this is something that Stephenson excels at, the skill more evident in the Baroque Cycle trilogy and Anathem, where the characters’ language, and therefore the narrators, is much further removed from twentieth century North American norms).  Both text are peppered with the idioms and slang that mark them as the work of someone comfortable and practised in the ways of modern technology, and the associated culture.

Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis
Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis