Aside

Proust is annoying . I mean, it’s not JUST that he goes on at such
ridiculous length about such mundane things, it’s that it doesn’t
even make any sense! Ooh, I wake up and I have no memories! I
have no idea where I am! Then I still don’t know where I am but at
least I start to remember all the other rooms I’ve ever woken up in!
I’m too sleepy to move so I have to figure out from the way I’m lying
and how my arms and legs feel where all the walls and furniture in
the room are… Proprioception is my only sense, screw normal ones
like vision. And I’m immediately going to think I’m a child and in my
childhood home again, because of course I do.

I just started reading Swann’s Way and have no idea how people
get through this stuff.

If you really want to hear some truly epic digressions on all manner
of things that, nonetheless, has an actual story to digress FROM,
then go read The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. It narrates a
fictionalized history of the “pre-Enlightenment”, the dawn of the
Scientific Age. It prominently includes a lot of the real drivers of
history – Newton, Hooke, Leibniz, John Wilkins, Christopher Wren,
Louis XIV, William of Orange, just to name the major ones- and
introduces several fascinating original characters in the
Stephensonian mold. The series contains 3000 pages set in the late
17th- early 18th century, and ranges all the way from England to
France to Denmark to Vienna to Algiers to the Caribbean to Surat to
Malabar to the Arctic to California to Boston and back, with several
additional back and forths along the way. It is gripping throughout,
frequently hilarious without trying very hard, and always manages to
pull you back just when you think it’s safe to put it down.

It has now been 38 days since I came to this rig, and my manager
has finally said I can get off next Tuesday, which will make it 44,
which is more than enough time for anyone to spend on a metal
structure in the middle of the ocean. Hopefully, at that point my tone will become a lot less cranky.

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Odalarevu Diary

 

I am wallowing in the utter despair of being paid to loll around on a beachfront sipping beer, making my way through The War of the End of the World (Mario Vargas Llosa) and not being able to put any of it up on Facebook. Or do anything online, for that matter. Or charge my iPad, which refuses to acknowledge that it is being charged even if you connect it up and the little red light on the USB-power adapter blinks bright enough to disturb my sleep.

My grandmother thinks I should write some barebones description of the places that I travel to for work, so here goes:

Assam is wet and green and pot-holed and populated entirely by paan-chewers. Abu dhabi is dry and sandy and glitzy, even if it’s less glitzy than Dubai. The Krishna-Godavari basin in Andhra Pradesh, currently being developed (exploited, if you prefer) for oil at a feverish pace, is also green, but less pointedly so. It has very long bridges across very wide rivers. And some very nice, empty beaches with jack-up rigs dotting the horizon.

Mumbai is Mumbai and enough has been said about it elsewhere. Stick to the western suburbs if you want some semblance of livability, else find some expensive wholly redeveloped area, carved out and separated from the rest of the city, like the one my company crams us into.

Going back to parts of Kerala from most indian cities one has the feeling that one is going to an altogether different country, not because of any geographical distinctness- this Andhra beach is as white, as studded with coconut palms, and the fields around as green- but because the culture and general prosperity, not to mention idleness, seems akin to, say, the south of France (which I should point out i have never actually been to.) It’s a little enclave from the rest of this “developing country”, really, some half-baked realization of Keynes’s hope of a prosperous future where people work only 20 hours a week and use the productivity gains from technological advancement (in this case, technological advancement elsewhere, and the oil in the middle east that fuels it, and the double shift working non-resident keralite who forms the backbone of that economy) to live a comfortable if not luxurious life. You could point out that we have virtually no industry, that easily 20% of the economy consists of remittances, and that youth unemployment typically hovers around 25%, but that’s really just a problem with your metrics, counting all the young men taking several years off before they find their fortunes in “Gelf” as unemployed.

Aside from Meg Cabot’s oeuvre of teenage romances, over the past several weeks I read Neal Stephenson’s “In the Beginning was the Command Line”. It’s a slim booklet explaining the history of and differences between Windows, Macintosh, Linux, and BeOS, which was actually a contender at the time; according to Neal and many others, it seems to have been really worth trying, and I regret that I didn’t have the chance before it went bust for good. The book is rather dated, but it is worth reading for precisely that reason: it was written at an interesting time in the history of Operating Systems, and should prove fascinating to even the least geeky member of my audience. As with anything else written by Stephenson, it zooms in and out an pans all over the place over the course of completing its central narrative. Excerpt (yes, endorsed):

“The global anti-culture that has been conveyed into every cranny of the world by television is a culture unto itself, and by the standards of great and ancient cultures like Islam and France, it seems grossly inferior, at least at first. The only good thing you can say about it is that it makes world wars and Holocausts less likely–and that is actually a pretty good thing!

The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being. And–again–perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won’t nuke each other.”

Makes sense, right?

 

Snow Crash

Snow Crash is a novel about hackers. This is fairly obvious, although like in many dramatizations these hackers are not particularly realistic-one is a champion swordsman, which is hard enough to take, and another is a hot chick, which we all know is utterly ridiculous. It is, in fact, a book where they are the elite, or close to it; most of the rich and famous spend a considerable amount of their time plugged into a virtual reality “Metaverse”, and since hackers built it, they exert more influence there. It is also a book about (as the wikipedia page suggests) history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography and philosophy. But while all of these concepts have been dissected and discussed at length in various intellectual circles after the book was published, none of these are the themes of Snow Crash. This is because the true theme of the book is one of those things that are anathema to serious literary critics everywhere.

The theme of Snow Crash is badassery.

But of course, this is obvious, too. How else could it possibly contain [SPOILER ALERT] the aforementioned hacker/greatest swordsman in the world(where “the world” actually refers to the Metaverse: this feat is a lot more understandable given that he wrote the program that simulates sword-fighting in the Metaverse in the first place), 15 year old “air-skateboarding”(for lack of a better term) couriers, pleasantly “reasonable”( a word that will be understood in the intended sense by anyone who has seen/read The Godfather) and understatedly awesome mafia bosses, allusions to 6,000 year old Sumerian mind-hacker(another term that, really, you should just read the book to figure out) gods, induced glossolalia( i.e. being made to speak in tongues, like the early Pentecostals), Aleutian bikers in the mold of Chuck Norris(or Rajinikanth, if you prefer) and…oh, much, much more. The downside is that the plot requires that you either be completely technically ignorant, or read enough science fiction and fantasy to induce that willing suspension of disbelief.

To summarize: in the post-governmental future, the aforementioned unbelievably cool hacker-aptly named Hiro Protagonist- is slumming it by doing odd jobs because he’s too cool to work in “programmer factories”, and finds that his fellow hackers are being brainwashed by a new virus-yes, a computer virus- called “Snow Crash”. Which is also the name of a real world drug. He finds that this is all part of a conspiracy to take over the world:not one that has been going on for several thousand years, like in Foucalt’s Pendulum and the like, just one that USES “technology” from several thousand years ago, which is of course so much more believable. He then proceeds to be awesome and with the help of his equally awesome fellow rebels, takes on the Big Baddy(a larger-than-life Texan media baron with evangelical leanings) and emerges triumphant, rich and paired up with the hot hacker chick.
[/SPOILER ALERT]

Obviously, there is a lot more to the book besides the central plot-line. There are interesting illustrations of life in a world where technology renders governments redundant (hardly a libertarian paradise, but not exactly dystopic,either), the idea of viruses/memes/genes in several domains (among others, the concept of franchises as extended from our familiar abbreviations (McDs and KFCs and CCDs) to replace even what we today consider core functions of the state, and of course the kind of biological and informational/computer viruses that are at the core of the book), meta-viruses, panspermia, and many others. There are a whole collection of grotesquely but hilariously stereotyped characters-in fact, there are nothing BUT stereotyped characters, which ought to offend (especially since many of them are ethnic), but don’t.

This is not really a balanced review of the book, and it is very incomplete in some respects. That is because this is the kind of book that it’s very hard to write a “balanced” review about. Many of you will love it. Just as many are likely to hate it. But for those who have a “thing” for science fiction/fantasy/”badassery”, it is definitely worth a read.

A note on the author: Neal Stephenson is a rather famous speculative fiction author who looks like the Emperor Ming from Flash Gordon. What else do you need to know, really? But just in case:

  1. He comes from a family of engineers and hard scientists, who he calls “propellerheads”.
  2. Apart from speculative fiction, he writes articles on technology for Wired.
  3. His books “tend to have elaborate, inventive plots drawing on numerous technological and sociological ideas at the same time”, according to wikipedia.
  4. He writes baroque SF. No, seriously.  He wrote a whole trilogy of them, called, what else, “The Baroque Cycle”.
  5. One of his novels, Cryptonomicon, includes “a lengthy erotic story about antique furniture and stockings.”