Review of The Cobweb by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George

He understood why Desiree spent so much time on this – you had to get a few hundred of these things under your belt so that you could sort out the nonsense from the wisdom.
The Cobweb, Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George

I read The Cobweb in between Anathem and The Big U – and those might be three of Stephenson’s most-different books. Having now read Cryptonomicon, I’m really starting to recognize Stephenson’s ‘real’ style – it’s extremely heavy on detail, light on explicit exposition, and dense. It’s hard to summarize his points – I barely scratched the surface of Cryptonomicon, yesterday – because he’s more than willing to say the same thing forty times, take forty pages to say it each time, and say it in such a fascinating way each time that it feels like a travesty to leave anything out.

That’s impressive, and it allows him to do things lesser (or less patient) writers can’t. In The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, and Anathem, he freewheels through his plots and themes alike, letting them weave in and out of each other. No single scene, or single arc, or single character has to represent anything concrete, because the big ideas are the currents they all swim through.

It’s as if Stephenson told a hundred compelling stories about different kinds of fish, in fine detail, tracking their interactions and showing you what it was like to be such a fish. After 1100 pages of this, you realize you understand pools and rocks and currents in a way that’s different from, and perhaps deeper than, you would from reading a book about streams. But it’s hard to distill that knowledge, hard to make it succint.

Anyway, The Cobweb is not really like that.

(Sorry. You’ll be getting my larger Stephenson-analysis mixed in with individual reviews as I get farther into his corpus.)

This is just a really good detective story, backed by a bit of political and bureaucratic critique. The big shape of the plot is never very hard to see in advance, but each character’s reaction unfolds like a good joke – just surprising enough, so obvious in retrospect. The whole novel is that way, and if you enjoy Stephenson’s style, it’s delightful.

Memorable quotes:

It seemed like a good bet that if the writer of such a book was a fool, this fact would be bound to come out somewhere in its several hundred pages. Like a feckless student shoplifting his way through an academic year at EIU, a fool writing a book would be bound to screw up somewhere along the line. Clyde read the books with the relentless penetrating scrutiny of a detective, not looking for information so much as evidence.

There was no lack of smarts among the analysts, either. But the six-level editorial process so distorted what they wrote that several times Betsy could not recognize items that were attributed to her in the President’s Daily Briefing.
The problem was the managers. Not for them the open struggle of ideas in the marketplace of policy. It was turf politics, building alliances not to further the general good of the body politic, but to cement advantage to gain entrance to the exalted level of the Senior Executive Service Corps, to use whatever administration that was there to feather their own nests—not to solve problems, but to use problems to strengthen their position.
The Cobweb, Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George

Review of Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

“It would be interesting to approach this as a problem in information theory,” he announces. “How can data flow back and forth between nodes in an internal network” – Randy knows that by this Eb means people in a small corporation – “but not exist to a person outside?”

“What do you mean, not exist?”

“How could a court subpoena a document if, from their reference frame, it had never existed?”
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

Finally, five books in (review for The Cobweb upcoming), we come to Cryptonomicon. This and Snow Crash were the two Stephenson books I’d heard the most about before starting his oeuvre myself, and it lived up to the hype.

As always, it’s hard to discuss Stephenson books without spoilers, because “the big ideas at the heart of this book” is one of the mysteries you have to discover as you go. I’m going to spoil those, so stop here if you plan on reading the book soon.

1. Information Theory

The sample messages used are like ONE PLANE REPORTED LOST AT SEA AND TROOPS HAVING DIFFICULTY MAINTAINING CONNECTION WITH FORTY FIFTH INFANTRY STOP which Randy finds kind of hokey until he remembers that the book was written by people who probably didn’t know what “hokey” meant, who lived in some radically different pre-hokiness era where planes really did get lost at sea and the people in those planes never came back to see their families and in which people who even raised the issue of hokeyness in conversation were likely to end up pitied or shunned or maybe even psychoanalyzed.

In turn, the water swirling around Waterhouse’s feet carries information about Nip propeller design and the deployment of their fleets—if only he had the wit to read it. The chaos of the waves, gravid with encrypted data, mocks him.
– Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

The first and most blatant theme of Cryptonomicon is information theory – specifically cryptography, which is the art of hiding information from some while revealing it to others. Very quickly we are taught that this is not as simple as it seems. The novel’s protagonists are like blind spiders hunting each other across the same web – every step produces vibrations that tell the enemy where you are, what you’re doing. On the other hand, vibrations are all you see – every player is trying to reconstruct the other player from distorted patterns at distant remove. What’s shocking is how often this is possible.

2. Information Theory and the Physical

“My DISINTER [Agon: a function for retrieving a stored piece of data. Lawrence is building one of the first digital computers.] works better than our shovel expeditions,” Lawrence says. “Did you ever find those silver bars you buried?”
“No,” Alan says absently. “They are lost. Lost in the noise of the world.”

And, Randy’s favorite,
As to luck, there is the old miners’ proverb: “Gold is where you find it.”
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

The first one was easy. A book about cryptography deals with information theory. In an 1100+ page novel Stephenson isn’t going to stop there.

Buried in the messages about information theory (appropriately) is another, deeper message about the physical world. This book is in part about digital computers, and in part about buried treasure. Half of it takes place during World War II, and half of it takes place in the modern day. In World War II, a massive amount of Japanese war gold is being hidden in the Philippines. In the modern day, an enormous data haven – like an offshore bank account for data storage – is being built in the Philippines. The verbs used for “save data” and “retrieve data” in the newborn digital computers? BURY and DISINTER.

(This is how you do symbolism, guys. It seems heavy-handed when I call it out here, but buried in these interwoven plots – like an encoded message buried in a sea of white noise – it’s just subtle enough to really smack you when it does.)

The universe is, for all practical purposes, a big hard disk. Extrapolate from there as you feel appropriate – it sets us up for our next point.

3. Information Theory and Identity

“Enoch…why are you here?”

Why has my spirit been incarnated into a physical body in this world generally? Or specifically, why am I here in a Swedish forest, standing on the wreck of a mysterious German rocket plane while a homosexual German sobs over the cremated remains of his Italian lover?”

“So what’s your explanation of how I recognized you?”

“I would argue that inside your mind was some pattern of neurological activity that was not there before you exchanged e-mail with me. The Root Representation. It is not me. I’m this big slug of carbon and oxygen and some other stuff on this cot right next to you. The Root Rep, by contrast, is the think that you’ll carry around in your brain for the rest of your life, barring some kind of major neurological insult, that your mind uses to represent me. When you think about me, in other words, you’re not thinking about me qua this big slug of carbon, you are thinking about the Root Rep. Indeed, some day you might get released from jail and run into someone who would say, ‘You know, I was in the Philippines once, running around in boondocks, and I ran into this old fart who started talking to me about Root Reps.’ And by exchanging notes (as it were) with this fellow you would be able to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the Root Rep in your brain and the Root Rep in his brain were generated by the same actual slug of carbon and oxygen and so on: me.”

   “And this has something to do, again, with Athena?”

“If you think of the Greek gods as real supernatural beings who lived on Mount Olympus, no. But if you think of them as being in the same class of entities as the Root Rep, which is to say, patterns of neurological activity that the mind uses to represent things that it sees, or thinks it sees, in the outside world, then yes.
Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

Alright – still with us?

  1. Every action produces waves of information, telling the rest of the universe what happened. Blind spiders sense each other through vibrations in the web. (In The Cobweb, if you will! But I haven’t written that review in the time between mentioning it above and now).
  2. Now forget that light ever existed. There is only vibrations – the universe is just a web of information, bouncing around, bumping into us so that we ‘know’ things. We never see the other spider.
  3. (Buckle up). There is no other spider. To us, there is only the vibration – and maybe we learn to recognize, by repeating patterns in the vibration, something at the other side of the web that tends to move in certain ways. We (Spider One) name that vibration-causing-thing Spider Two (or ‘Enoch Root’, in the book).
  4. What if, silently and undetectably (to us – you can be damn sure Spider Two is going to feel it), Spider Two gets picked off the web by a bird and replaced by Spider Three? What if Spider Three’s behavior sends the same vibrations to us?

I should note here that this interpretation is based only on Cryptonomicon. I haven’t yet read The Baroque Cycle, where Enoch Root’s identity is revealed in more detail, but I think this is accurate to what Stephenson is trying to express both here and in Anathem.

In Cryptonomicon, most of the main characters are present in both the World War II story and the modern day story – but some of them are actually new people. Try to follow this jump towards the meta (and comment if it totally lost you, because if it did, it’s my fault:)

  • A character in a book is a “pattern of impressions passed onto the reader, which quickly become grouped together in the reader’s brain as, e.g., ‘the badass marine'”.
  • person in a book is a named, discrete entity that theoretically exists in the ‘real world’ of the book, eg, ‘Bobby Shaftoe’.
  • A character is a pattern of vibrations. A person is Spider N.

Throughout Cryptonomicon, a single pattern of vibrations (‘the badass marine’) is played by multiple characters (‘Bobby Shaftoe’, ‘Doug Shaftoe’, ‘Marcus Aurelius Shaftoe’). It doesn’t really matter to us, because we just feel the vibrations.

Enoch Root is this concept made explicit – he dies and reappears throughout the book, we are not told how this happens, and in the dialog above Enoch himself reminds us that it doesn’t matter how this happens. He is, to us, a pattern of incoming data, and if we mistake that thing for a human that can’t keep sending data after it dies, that’s our mistake.

An easy mistake to make as Enoch appears human in every other way, but a mistake, nonetheless.

And here I will end, though of course there is more. This was the most fascinating of the several arcs Stephenson develops in Cryptonomicon. I highly suggest reading it, taking notes, and seeing what patterns emerge.

Miscellaneous extras:

“You bent my words again,” says Goto Dengo.

“You spoke crooked words and I straightened them,” snaps Father Ferdinand.

Randy wonders if he’s ever had a serious experience in his life, an experience that would be worth the time it would take to reduce it to a pithy STOP-punctuated message in capital letters and run it through a cryptosystem.

The original writers of the Cryptonomicon actually had to decrypt and read these goddamn messages in order to save the lives of their countrymen. But the modern annotators have no interest in reading other people’s mail per se; the only reason they pay attention to this subject at all is that they aspire to make new crypto systems that cannot be broken by the NSA, or now this new IDTRO thing. The Black Chamber. Crypto experts won’t trust a cryptosystem until they have attacked it, and they can’t attack it until they know the basic cryptanalytical techniques, and hence the demand for a document like this modern, annotated version of the Cryptonomicon. But their attacks generally don’t go any further than demonstrating a system’s vulnerabilities in the abstract. All they want is to be able to say in theory this system could be attacked in the following way because from a formal number-theory stand point it belongs to such-and-such class of problems, and those problems as a group take about so many processor cycles to attack. And this all fits very well with the modern way of thinking about stuff in which all you need to do, in order to attain a sense of personal accomplishment and earn the accolades of your peers, is to demonstrate an ability to slot new examples of things into the proper intellectual pigeon-holes.

But the gap between demonstrating the vulnerability of a cryptosystem in the abstract, and actually breaking a bunch of messages written in that cryptosystem, is as wide, and as profound, as the gap between being able to criticize a film (e.g., by slotting it into a particular genre or movement) and being able to go out into the world with a movie camera and a bunch of unexposed film and actually make one.

“My son tells me that you want to dig a grave there.”

“A hole,” Randy ventures, after much uncomfortableness.

“Excuse me. My English is rusty,” says Goto Dengo, none too convincingly.

But now he knows how Alan must have felt after they turned decryption into a mechanical process, industrializing Bletchley Park. He must have felt that the battle was won, and with it the war. The rest might seem like glorious conquest to people like the General, but to Turing, and now to Waterhouse, it just looks like tedious mopping-up. It is exciting to discover electrons and figure out the equations that govern their movement; it is boring to use those principles to design electric can openers. From here on out, it’s all can openers.

He concludes that these are all consumer-grade diving books written for rum-drenched tourists, and furthermore that the publishers probably had teams of lawyers go over them one word at a time to make sure there would not be liability trouble. That the contents of these books, therefore, probably represent about one percent of everything that the authors actually know about diving, but that the lawyers have made sure that the authors don’t even mention that.

Alan is not satisfied with merely knowing that it [light] streams in. He blows smoke into the air to make the light visible.

Waterhouse says, “The new curve looks a little better because I filled in that gap, but it’s not really bell-shaped. It doesn’t tail off right, out here at the edges. Dr. von Hacklheber will notice that. He’ll realize that someone’s been tampering with his channel. To prevent that from happening I would have to plant more fake records, giving some unusually large and small values.”

“Invent some fake girls who were exceptionally short or tall,” Chattan says.

“Yes. That would make the curve tail off in the way that it should.”

Chattan continues to look at him expectantly.

Waterhouse says, “So, the addition of a small number of what would otherwise be bizarre anomalies makes it all look perfectly normal.”

“As I said,” Chattan says, “our squad is in North Africa—even as we speak—widening the bell curve. Making it all look perfectly normal.”

Actually, they have not been talking so much as mentioning certain ideas and then leaving the other to work through the implications.

By the time they reach their seats in the top of the Bubble, all of the others are in awe of Goto Dengo, and ready to do whatever he says. He senses this. It fills him with unutterable misery.

“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.”

where i = (1, 2, 3,… [infin])
more or less, depending on how close to infinitely long Turing wants to keep riding his bicycle. After a while, it seems infinitely long to Waterhouse. [Agon: he’s not talking about this review. I promise.]
-Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

Another Little Demon

Whenever a thing is done for the first time, it releases a little demon.
– Emily Dickinson (or possibly Dave Sim? I am having a really hard time sourcing this quote.)

The release of Good Reviews, limited as it is, marks the first time I’ve ever publicly published one of my programming side projects. Barring little utilities for my friends, family or coworkers, nothing I’ve written outside of work or school has ever seen the light of day.

Sometimes this is because I don’t finish, and other times it’s because it’s not useful, and other times it’s because I keep moving the goalposts of “finished” and “useful” and never get satisfied enough. Releasing something to the public is scary and embarrassing and has all the potential for shame that, say, dancing or wrestling does. More, maybe, because nerds on the internet are some of the most vicious animals known to man.

Also – like dancing or wrestling – it’s effectively impossible to get a significant piece of code 100% right on its first time out the door. Finding one or two significant issues, five or six minor ones, and fifteen areas for improvement is par for the course on a good release (where “release” means “first time someone other than you uses the code”).

That’s one of the ways coding is like writing. You have to do it alone, deep inside your own head, but you won’t really do anything good until that inner creation has collided with the outside world a dozen times, been dented and broken and reshaped into something that actually works outside its author’s brain.

Well, I’ve done that. Again. The eBook was the first time I released my writing for general public consumption (and people bought it! and liked it!). Now, Good Reviews is the first time I’ve released my code for the same (not counting all those times I’ve done it at work – it’s a permission thing. Unlike my work product, I’m the only one responsible for this beast).

It’s appropriate that these two things were so closely related. They were both arts I’ve practiced in private my whole life; they both took longer than I thought; the temptation to improve forever on both of them was very strong. In the grand scheme of Writing and Programming, neither is a huge triumph, but I’m very proud of both of them.

What’s most important is that this year – for the first time – I have been all the way down the path. From “maybe I should do this” to a blog post proudly announcing “this is done”. In jiu jitsu, in writing, and now in coding.

That alone would have been worth it, even if each project had turned out worthless. (They haven’t).

If you’ve never told the world at large “here is a thing I did – no one told me I could do it, but I did it anyway”, I suggest you try it. Just finish something, and tell us – hell, tell me – even if you have to take the garden path. Just knowing the destination exists is worth the first trip.

And once that little demon is out, who knows what he’ll do?

Trapped by Comfort (Again)

There is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure.
– Winston Churchill

The last few months went by too quickly, with not enough to show for them. I was busy as hell, but I wasn’t making big leaps forward the way I always want to be. Progress was real, but slow and incremental. This is why. I was working on it during about 60% of my ‘free’ time.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I learned a ton on that project, I’m excited to have finished it, and I think it was worthwhile. I’ve already used it to connect to some cool people and get some great feedback on my book, and it’s given me a lot of ideas for other apps I’d like to create (that will be even easier with the experience I’ve gained here).

That’s all true, but it’s not what I’m going to talk about today. Today I want to focus on the downsides – how could I have done better over the last three months? How could I be farther along?

As ever, I think the answer has to do with fear.

I’m a full-time, salaried web developer, I have a four-year Computer Engineering degree, and I’ve been fucking around with computers since before puberty. I’m good at this stuff, and it’s because I’ve been doing it all the time, for a long time.

That’s the problem. This project was so completely within my wheelhouse that I forgot, sometimes, to be Agon – I slipped into my “average programmer” persona, who has a half dozen unfinished projects on his hard drive and six more that only exist in his head. He uses these projects to learn new skills, yes, and to relax in a productive way – but he also uses them to numb himself, to alleviate the frustration with his 9-5, to imagine a bigger salary and more exciting career somehow, someday. I used to be that guy, and he’s not entirely dead in my psyche.

In that sense, the programmer with his shelf of half-finished creations is a lot like the ‘author’ with his two hundred blog posts and no book. These little side projects offer practice, let us access the deep rewards associated with building something, and give us something to show our friends to prove we’re serious. That’s all well and good – but what they usually don’t do is free us from our salary jobs, manifest the art inside us, or catapult us to the next level in any of our ventures.

Blogs and side projects are critical tools, and they are very often part of the path to success. They’re just not enough on their own. The internet is an endless graveyard for stillborn dreams, each tomb marked by a brand new blog or GitHub page.

I shudder when I see that graveyard, because I know how easily I could have been buried there, and I know I’m not out of the woods yet. These past three months were a grim reminder – the comfort, stability, and familiarity of one strategy can make it hard to see its drawbacks. The garden path looks all too tempting when the shortcut is a goat trail along a cliff.

So before you commit, even mentally, to a long project, ask yourself:

  • Do I really need to write a web app, or should I be pursuing consulting today?
  • Will another blog post get me closer than another chapter of The Book, or another publisher query?
  • Am I picking the scariest possible option? If I’m not, am I god-damned sure that I’m not choosing based on fear?

That’s it. Tomorrow, the upside.

How to Check Your Kindle Sales History

He is now rising from affluence to poverty.
– Mark Twain

Like previous posts in this series, this is a thinly-veiled excuse to brag about my outstanding results.

Some setup:

Having grown up in the Web 2.0 era, for some reason I assumed Amazon would notify me of sales of my ebook – at least send me some kind of monthly report, or something. Isn’t the whole point to get me hooked on little dopamine hits? I guess not – Amazon is making its money by actually selling things.

While coding, reading Neal Stephenson or going to the gym, I cheerfully ignored their “We can’t pay you” emails, assuming there was nothing to pay. In retrospect, that was a foolish assumption – but it did allow me to be pleasantly surprised when I finally checked my results.

To view your sales history, you have to log in to your kdp bookshelf and click Reports, at the top. Or just click this link:

The first view is a slick little graph, which unfortunately only shows up to the past 90 days:

Note the free downloads! That's on til Sunday, get yours

100 + free downloads – that’s on til Sunday, get yours

Note three sales in the past month. That moderately blew my mind – I actually didn’t think I’d sold any copies, so seeing this drove me to check the rest of the sales history.

Unfortunately that’s not as easy – to see sales from further than 90 days back, you have to click “Prior Months Royalties” near the top, and all that gets you is a list of downloadable Excel files:

Prior Months

As a web developer, a big part of my job is generating this kind of report for our clients. When we want to show you something but we don’t want to bother actually coding a page to make it pretty, we write a database query and shit out an Excel sheet like these. They suck:

This sucks, right?

This sucks, right?

And in addition to sucking, they’re only available for one month at a time, so to get your totals you have to shittily sum everything together yourself across multiple files. I’m not sure what’s going on in their data warehouse that makes this the best they feel like doing…but I digress.

For the curious, in total I sold 6 in the USA, 5 in the UK, 1 in Germany, 1 in Canada, and 1 in Japan, for a total of 14 sales and roughly $29 in royalties.

That’s goddamned right – almost $30 from book royalties. I am author.

Also, I had someone in the UK buy the book, then get a refund. Fuck you too, buddy.

Good Reviews

Give me six hours to chop a tree down and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
– Abraham Lincoln

Give me a week to send some Goodreads messages and I will spend the first three months writing the Javascript.
– Agon

Well, it’s done. I’ve finished the Alpha version of a Node.js application that I’ve cleverly named “Good Reviews“. It allows you to automate the sending of Goodreads messages about users’ reviews – you log in to your Goodreads account:

Log In

You go to a book’s Goodreads page and find its Goodreads id, that first number in its url (this link NSFW):


You slap that in here:

Add Book

Click on the book and you get this:


Then you smack in a template for the message you want to send to your unsuspecting potential reviewers. The format string {{author}} will be replaced by the author’s name, in both the subject and body, so you can do stuff like this:

Subject: Hey {{author}}
Body: You, {{author}}, are my favorite blogger.

And that’ll get interpolated into

Subject: Hey Agon
Body: You, Agon, are my favorite blogger.

(if you’re sending a message to me, that is. Btw, please do!)

My message looked like this:

Ready to Send

And that’s it! You hit “send all” and a bunch of magic happens behind the scenes, formatting and sending these messages to however many hopefully-friendly reviewers the book you’ve chosen had.

That’s really all there is to it. For this particular book, I sent 7 inquiries (one for each of the 7 reviews on this book) and it took about two minutes.


  • Full automation requires an account with and some available credits there. This is the part where you might get your identity stolen, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you don’t have a deathbycaptcha account, you’ll have to solve each captcha manually.
  • I accept no blame for any hatred this generates, towards you, from the people you message. I’m honestly looking for connections and feedback, so I suggest you move along unless you’re doing the same. This isn’t intended for spamming.
  • For a handful of reasons, including:
    • Security
    • Performance
    • Laziness A “ship it” attitude
  • I decided to release this thing without multi-user, web-deployed support. Instead, you can just run the Node program on your local computer and not worry about me snooping your passwords or someone hacking my server and stealing your data or anything like that.

Plus you can hack teh codez to fix or improve any of the behaviors you find lacking, if you’re a programmer.

If you’re not a programmer, feel free to contact me with any feedback you have about this thing. I’d love to help you install and use it.

Here’s that github link again. Let me know what you think!

How to Make Your Amazon eBook Temporarily Free

No one has ever become poor by giving.
– Anne Frank

(Just kidding, I can’t use an Anne Frank quote without making a joke about it and I can’t make a joke about it without being an asshole.)

The essence of all art is to have pleasure in giving pleasure.
– Dale Carnegie

(Heh heh heh.)

Months later, I have finally finished my Goodreads-review-message-sending Nodejs app. ‘Finished’ is a relative term in the software world, and what I really have here is an unpolished “alpha” minimum-viable-product. It’ll take a week’s worth of posts to recap all that, but for now –

It’s time to make my book (temporarily) free, so the poor bothered Goodreads reviewers can download it easily and safely. (Digitally safe, anyway – they still won’t be safe from my potentially terrible writing and inconsistent paranthesis/period ordering).

Anyway. I knew that you can make your Kindle eBook free for up to 5 days, but it turns out I didn’t know how. Here’s how.

Enroll Your Book in Kindle Select

Amazon’s “Free Book Promotion” (and “Countdown Deals”, more on that later) is only available to Kindle Select subscribers. Kindle Select is basically Amazon’s exclusive digital distribution program. When you’re enrolled, you can only make your book digitally available on Amazon, and in return you get a higher commission in Japan, India, Brazil, and Mexico (heh) and if people read your book through Kindle Unlimited (think Netflix for books) you get a share of that money as well.

Before we proceed:

Kindle Select enrollments last 90 days, and can be canceled or renewed at that point.

The drawback to enrolling your book in Kindle Select is that you’re not allowed to distribute it digitally anywhere else, for any price. That’s no big deal for sales – but I was hoping to offer my eBook to reviewers in multiple formats, and that might be against the TOS – even though it’s free and not publicly available.

I’m actually not sure. This is what their FAQ says about it:

If my book is enrolled in KDP Select, can I still send copies of my book to proofreading and editing reviewers?

We do allow publishers to provide professional reviewers with a copy of the book by email for the purpose of editing, proofreading and helping with other quality improvements.

For this release, I decided to play it safe and only offer the book through Amazon. Sincere apologies to potential reviewers who can’t or won’t view it that way – when my Kindle Select enrollment is up, I can send it to you if you’re still interested.

If that all sounds reasonable to you, let’s move on. Enrollment takes effect instantly for a book that’s already on sale, and can be done from your dashboard:

I don't know what Kindle MatchBook is. Anyone want to tell me?

I don’t know what Kindle MatchBook is. Anyone want to tell me?

Schedule the Promotion

Once you’re enrolled, creating a new promotion is super simple. That “Enroll” button will be replaced by “Manage Benefits”, and when you click it you’ll see this:


Click that highlighted button, pick which Promotion you want – in this case Free Book – and click the “Create a new…” link next to it. On the next screen you’ll pick your start and end dates (up to 5 days for the free book promotion).

Then you’re done. At midnight Pacific on the day you picked, your book will be free through Amazon.

Tomorrow I’ll show you how a hacked up NodeJS app can help you take advantage of your newly-free eBook. Then you’ll get to see my sales record, laugh at my wild underestimation of the complexity of programming tasks, possibly get your credit cards stolen by Russian or Chinese hackers, and finally see what’s next around here.

Review of Neal Stephenson – The Big U

“…Now I have to do something unbelievably great. Something impossible. Something these scum are too dumb even to imagine. To hell with grades. There are much fairer ways of showing how smart you are. I’m smarter than all of these fuckers, rules aside.”

He cranked his vent window open. Outside a Tower War was raging: students shouting to one another, shining lights and lasers into one another’s rooms, blaring their stereos across the gulfs. Now the countertenor cry of Casimir Radon rode in above the tumult.

“You can make it as hard as you want, as hard as you can, but I’m going to be the cleverest bastard this place has ever seen! I can make idiots of you all, damn it!”

“Fuck you!” came a long-drawn-out scream from F Tower. It was precisely what Casimir wanted to hear.
– The Big U, Neal Stephenson

Every time I start a new Neal Stephenson novel, there’s a point about 10% of the way in where I realize – vaguely – what he’s driving at. I start to see the shape of what the book is “about”, and I’m excited – society, cryptography, quantum mechanics – these are all topics I love, and topics I always enjoy seeing from new angles.

There’s another point, maybe 30-40% of the way through the book, where I remember this is Neal Stephenson. Whatever he’s writing may have been covered before – dozens of times, even – but he always finds a new angle to follow, making the subject seem new all over again. He reframes the old questions (“What is a good society?” “What is a secret?” “What does many-worlds really look like?”), and he does it so subtly that it’s halfway over by the time you see the new metaphor.

The Big U is a book about how bad college sucks, and it’s also a book about civil war.


We’re introduced, slowly and painfully, to American Megaversity – a caricature of a caricature of American higher education, Coolidge College on a mix of uppers and hallucinogens. Its administration is a cohort of more-or-less Marxist liberal arts lecturers, stonewalling bureaucrats, and run of the mill capitalists. Its nerds are a basement dwelling faux-military legion of losers, led by the occasional antisocial ultragenius. Its common student is a near-braindead teenager, snuffling through the undergrowth for sex, drugs, and easy classes. And its rulers are a beautiful, superficial hivemind of airheads and a crew of the heaviest-lifting, hardest-partying, loudest-shouting date rapists in the dorms.

Its normal people are our main characters, and they’re fucked.

If you took the average slightly awkward, slightly outcast, highly insecure teenager and asked them what their worst nightmare of college life looked like, the average would come out to something like American Megaversity. If you’ve ever sat in your room, feeling utterly alone, and comforted yourself with the thought that you were smarter, that you weren’t like them – you’ll recognize the setting immediately.


Of course, Stephenson doesn’t stop there. The Big U could have been a typical “outcasts save the day, become popular” story, and it almost is – but Stephenson’s talent for surprise keeps the book well clear of that cliche.

He accomplishes this by looking at the way the average semi-outcast feels about the college party scene – the alienation, the despair and the superficiality, and just under it the brutality and senselessness. He takes that potent cocktail and makes it literally real at American Megaversity.

The entire novel is a subtle, surreal escalation. In The Big U, all the real-world checks are removed and things are allowed to escalate exactly the way it seems like they would, if the whole world were a caricature of college campus and the adults had fled the scene.


It is, ultimately, a farce and you won’t find social insight on the level of some of his other books. Where The Diamond Age contains really thought-provoking critiques of modernism, The Big U is just a hyperbolic, sarcastic joke at youth society’s expense.

(Still, hyperbole and sarcasm seem to be the persuasive methods du jour – see Jon Stewart.)

It’s a short, light and extremely fast-paced read. If you’ve ever thought “society is dumb” – even if you’re now embarrassed by that teenage angst – I think you’ll like it.

Selected quotes:

(Edit: actually including selected quotes)

“But if you’ve already negotiated one agreement, can’t you do more? Get some doctors into the building, maybe?”

“No way, man. No fucking way. We journalists have ethics.”

“That would be true with your run-of-the-mill truck driver,” said the truck driver after agonized contemplation, “who tends to be an M.A. in sociology or something. But I can’t make an excuse based on failure to think independently of the media.”

“You’re wrong,” she said. “It’s nothing to do with the Plex. What people do isn’t determined by where they live. It happens to be their damned fault. They decided to watch TV instead of thinking when they were in high school. They decided to take blow-off courses and drink beer instead of reading and trying to learn something. They decided to chicken out and be intolerant bastards instead of being openminded, and finally they decided to go along with their buddies and do things that were terribly wrong when there was no reason they had to. Anyone who hurts someone else decides to hurt them, goes out of their way to do it.”

“But the pressures! The social pressures here are irresistible. How…”
“I resisted them. You resisted them. The fact that it’s hard to be a good person doesn’t excuse going along and being an asshole. If they can’t overcome their own fear of being unusual, it’s not my fault, because any idiot ought to be able to see that if he just acts reasonably and makes a point of not hurting others, he’ll be happier.”

“You don’t even have to try to hurt people here. The place forces it on you. You can’t sit up in bed without waking up your goddamn neighbor. You can’t take a shower without sucking off the hot water and freezing the next one down. You can’t go to eat without making the people behind you wait a little longer, and even by eating the food you increase the amount they have to make, and decrease the quality.”

“That’s all crap! That’s the way life is, Ephraim. It has nothing to do with the architecture of the Plex.”

“Look at the sexism in this place. Doesn’t that ever bother you? Don’t you think that if people weren’t so packed together in this space, the bars and the parties wouldn’t be such meat markets? Maybe there would be fewer rapes if we could teach people how to get along with the other sex.”

“If you want to prevent rapes, you should make a justice system that protects our right not to be raped. Education? How do you pull off that kind of education? How do you design a rape-proof dorm? Look, Ephraim, all we can do is protect people’s rights. We wouldn’t get a change in attitude by moving to another building. The education you’re talking about is just a pipe dream.”

“I still think we should blow this fucker up.”

“Good. Work on it. In the meantime I’ll continue to carry a gun.”

During the ten years he had spent saving up money to attend this school, Casimir had kept himself sane by imagining it. Unfortunately, he had imagined quiet talks over brunch with old professors, profound discussions in the bathrooms, and dazzling, sensitive people everywhere just waiting to make new friends. What he had found, of course, was American Megaversity. There was only one explanation for this atmosphere that he was willing to believe: that these people were civilized, and that for amusement they were acting out a parody of the squalor of high school life, which parody Casimir had been too slow to get so far. The obvious explanation—that it was really this way—was so horrible that it had not even entered his mind.

Law is opinion of guy with biggest gun.

Krupp snorted quietly and sipped tea, then sat back in his chair and regarded Sarah with dubious amusement. “Sarah, I didn’t expect you, of all people, to try that one on me. Why is it that everyone finds eloquence so inauspicious? It’s as though anyone who argues clearly can’t be trusted—that’s the opposite of what reasonable people ought to think. That attitude is common even among faculty here, and I’m just at a loss to understand. I can’t talk like a mongoloid pig-sticker on a three-day drunk just so I’ll sound like one of the boys. God knows I can’t support any position, only the right position. If it’s not right, the words won’t make it so. That’s the value of clear language.”

We passed briefly through the Premed Center, which was filled with pale mutated undergrads dissecting war casualties and trying to gross each other out. I yelled at them to get outside and assist the wounded, but received mostly blank stares. “We can’t,” said one of them, scandalized, “we’re not even in med school yet.”

Review of Neal Stephenson – Anathem

“The antenna spins around. It sends out pulses. Echoes come back to it. From the time lag of the echo, it can calculate the bogey’s distance. And it knows in what direction the bogey lies—that’s dead easy, it’s just the same direction as the antenna is pointing when the echo hits it.”

“It can only look in one direction at a time,” Orolo said.

“Yeah, it’s got extreme tunnel vision, and compensates for that by spinning around.”

“A little bit like us,” Orolo said.
– Anathem, Neal Stephenson

Still on my Neal Stephenson kick, and still fascinated by the sheer variety and depth of the ideas he explores. Anathem wasn’t packed with social insight the way The Diamond Age was, and it took a long time to get going, but the payoff was more than worth it.

The way the book is written makes avoiding all spoilers almost impossible, but I’ll try to avoid anything egregious. Still, you’ve been warned.


The first and most interesting thing you’ll notice about Anathem is that it’s about a world not so different from our own – but you won’t be able to tell that, right away, because the first few chapters are aboslutely packed with words you don’t know and concepts that seem alien. The main character is a… fraa? He wears a bolt and carries a sphere and lives with suurs in something called a concent, which is a math. He’s maybe some kind of Greek philosopher? He only interacts with the outside world, with their speelycaptors and jeejahs, during something called Apert. He’s also a tenner, which is not as impressive as being a hundreder or thousander.

If you found that paragraph exhausting, Anathem may not be the book for you.

Stephenson has taken dozens, maybe hundreds, of familiar concepts and renamed them, grouped them slightly differently, moved them around a bit in history and he’s refused to explain any of it – at least, not up front. Each of the book’s chapters ends with a definition from “The Dictionary”, 3000 A.D. You end up having to relearn English before your brain can easily visualize what he’s talking about, and that took me more than a few chapters.

But there’s a method to his madness, and there’s a payoff, though I can’t say exactly what it is without thpoilerth. If you can bear the cognitive load, it’ll be worth it.


The underlying idea – the motivating question – of Anathem is “How separate do systems have to be before they detach entirely?” In our world and that of Anathem, this question is relevant to quantum mechanics and  philosophy in surprisingly similar ways.

It’s asked and answered half a dozen times throughout the book – at a larger scale each time, beginning with the individual and escalating. How much can a system – a person, a society, a planet – be isolated from the larger system containing it? Can an individual cut ties completely with his society and become a totally self-contained unit? Can a society cut ties with its surrounding civilization? And if so, what does that actually mean? What becomes possible?

I’ve just started Cryptonomicon so I can’t draw too many comparisons, but I see there an idea that Stephenson explores further here – the idea that every new event spawns an infinite chain of effects that tie it inextricably to the surrounding universe. And, of course, the opposite – every event in history has a coherent chain of previous events that somehow combined to lead to it.

Stephenson asks:

If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, was the tree ever standing? What’s the difference between a world where the tree used to be standing, and fell, and one where it was always lying down?

A determinist (as I am), thinks the universe can be reduced to an exceptionally complex chain of dominoes. Anathem poses two impossibilities – a fallen domino without a preceding chain, and a domino that falls in two opposing directions at once.

Grant those – and a couple dozen made-up synonyms – and the book will keep you just-mystified-enough for all 900+ pages.

(PS – I haven’t written in too long, and I’m too rusty from that to tackle anything too serious, so you’re getting backlogged book reviews for a while).

(PPS – If you’re interested in the quantum mechanical metaphor at the heart of this novel, Think of the fraas and suurs as qubits.)