Is Cryptonomicon the novel you should be reading now?


Are you baffled by encryption? Do the arguments between the FBI and Apple over an iPhone used by a now-dead terror suspect sound rather like secret messages you can’t quite decipher? If so, a holiday with Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (1999) may be just what you need.

Cryptography is thoroughly woven through both parts of Stephenson’s time-hopping story, which follows code breakers in World War II and code makers in the late 90s, and the book makes a good case for viewing code, in various senses of the word, as built into the foundations of our era. As the decryption of Axis messages enabled the Allies’ victory in the war, gave birth to computers, and helped set up the order of the postwar world, so did encryption and other work by coders during the 90s shape that decade and bid fair to influence the future. Stephenson doesn’t explicitly play up the interchangeability of “coder” and “programmer,” but it’s implicit to his book: those who program computers are working in a cryptic realm that’s not directly accessible except to initiates.

In a way, both sides of the iPhone case are here. Continue reading


Briefly noted: Sarah Kane’s calamitous drama reaches the National Theatre

Sarah Kane Complete Plays coverThe cover image on the Methuen edition of Sarah Kane’s Complete Plays is a war photograph. Taken by James Nachtwey, it shows not the middle of combat but its consequence: a rubble-strewn street somewhere, the sole human occupant of which is a boy, peering at us from the bottom center. How is one to read his expression? Is he accusing us, asking for something, or simply asserting, with eyes that almost shout, “This is where I am”? One can’t put words to it with any certainty—this may be part of the ambiguity of photography that Susan Sontag once discussed—but the gaze of that boy is hard to turn away from. (Incidentally, you can see Nachtwey working on a print of this image in the documentary War Photographer.) The photograph is an apt emblem for Kane’s plays, which bring us reports from zones of intense conflict, littered with destruction, dotted with gruesome violence including rape and dismemberment, wandered by perpetrators and survivors.

Continue reading

Now hear this: thoughts on sound, science, and listening to the universe

Many reports have talked about the recent discovery of gravitational waves in terms of sound. Shane L. Larson, one member of the huge team of scientists working on the LIGO project, straightforwardly declared in a blog post, “On 14 September 2015, the two LIGO observatories detected a very loud gravitational wave event.“ In The New York Times, Dennis Overbye began his article by saying that scientists “had heard and recorded the sound of two black holes colliding” and added, a few sentences later, that the signal “seems destined to take its place among the great sound bites of science.” A thorough account written by Nicola Twilley for the Elements section of the New Yorker website reported that, after the two black holes merged, radiated a vast amount of energy, and settled down, “space and time became silent again.”

Those who don’t spend much time reading about science may wonder what this talk of sound really means. Continue reading

Keeping tabs on science: a belated nod to this year’s Edge question

Each year since the late 1990s, John Brockman, the polymathic editor and agent who runs the Edge website, has devised a question and sought answers from the many thinkers—almost all of them are scientists—who contribute to his site. Brockman presents the answers online, and for a while now he’s also been publishing them as books, though these take a while to appear. In 2005, he asked, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” In 2010, the question was “How is the Internet changing the way you think?” Last year, he asked, “What do you think about machines that think?” Over time, Brockman has expanded the range of people from whom he seeks answers; last year, for instance, theater director Richard Foreman was among those who responded to the subject of thinking machines. This year, you can find among the respondents an artist, a few journalists, a businessman, a historian, a professor of art history, and a handful of people who identify themselves as poets or philosophers among other pursuits.

Continue reading