Reading list: "Cryptonomicon" and "Anabasis"

The laying-down of the phone continues to bear fruit, except at my waistline which seems to be expanding in direct proportion to my distance from having a woobie smartphone.

First up, Neal Stephenson's tome Cryptonomicon.  While written in 2002, this epic work (1168 pages paperback, though I read the kindle edition) presaged much of headlines circa 2013:  Cryptography, the emergence of 'technocrats' who seem to be running the world, and the importance of finding one's humanity amid it all.

I don't say "epic" lightly.  This is a book set partially in World War II ("The Second Great 20th Century Struggle for Global Hegemony") and partially in "modern" times, circa turn of the 21st century, but told with a generally 3rd person limited perspective that I found maddening at times.  Like the underlying framework--the study of hidden messages and the breaking of the codes that hide those secrets--the novel reveals itself s-l-o-w-l-y, and sometimes it's challenging keep going.

Which brings us to either the main complaint or the main thing that makes this book awesome:  The math and computer science part of it.   Being on the other side of it, I have no idea how someone without a math/CS education even understands the book.  At the very ass-end of my algorithms class at in college, we got to play with cryptography and cryptanalysis and so I understood most of what Stephenson was talking about, but I've no idea how a good 10% of the book doesn't sound like this:


With similar results for the reader.

That being said, the central character, Randy Waterhouse, is the epitome of a Gen-X American:  Heir to a supreme legacy from his grandfather, Lawrence, a central figure in the development of the digital computer, Randy's basically an underperforming, henpecked itinerant who we meet after he's finally had it with his common law wife's intelligensia cronies.   He joins his tall-drink-of-water business partner Avi in another lucrative business venture, hidden behind 2048-bit RSA public/private keys and secure email servers.  Randy is something of an amazing protagonist, because he learns as we learn, informed by hidden information thought lost to the War and time, resurrected by an unsanitary number of deus ex machina.

It's not that Stephenson's lazy.  For heaven's sake, he had Bruce Schneier develop a new encryption algorithm and he put a PERL script of the algorithm in the book.  At one point, he did an incredibly elegant description relative prime number recurrence using a bicycle chain.  This guy has Stephen Hawking-like gift for metaphor, truly.   Instead, we have layer-upon-layer of characters and idiosyncracies (remember: EPIC), and tying it all up just wasn't very satisfying.   The ending was so abrupt and the central antagonist in the modern part of the story so flat and unbelievable, I had to re-read a couple of passages twice to see after all that prose he'd really tied-up the plot like that.

Perhaps the commentary is simply: Sometimes, life is abrupt and you just have to deal.

Hidden within is a gem of a WW2 narrative, with appearances by Alan Turing, Douglas MacArthur, and a theatre of the war that's often misrepresented--the Philippines.  Also, there's the underpinnings of our modern world here:  Turing's development of the digital computer.    

TL;DR:   Good book.  Glad I read it.  Have no idea how 95% of people would understand it.

* * *

Xenophon's Anabasis

Quite simply, this is one of the first "histories" worthy of the name, told in the 3rd person with an eye for accuracy.   Xenophon, here, is a soldier elevated to leadership after his mercenary army is defeated and the nominal generals are all slaughtered when he and his crew are over a thousand miles from home and they're ordered to lay down their arms.

What would you do?   Lay down and die?   Neither did they.

Let's get this out of the way:  This "book" was written 2400 years ago, and aside from some stylistic issues, one could imagine Patton, Rommel, or Napoleon penning it.    The descriptions are slavishly chronological and vivid;  Xenophon elides little.  One wishes he'd elide the speeches made in camp to rally the troops, but the dialogue there gives roundness to the supporting cast of Greek hoplites, who were ordinary soldiers, not Homeric heroes.  They fought, they bled, and over a thousand of them didn't make the return trip.   However, they were admirably rational, at least in Xenophon's account, and they generally did the right thing even in the face of hopeless situation after situation.  

Taken another way:  This thing is like the Odyssey, but with 11 out of 12 of the original ships making it back to Ithaca, ahead of schedule.  Xenophon knew how to run a project.

I'm glad to have read it, but I resorted to skimming much in the last 25%.  Again, this is a history, not a novel, so he has to give the same weight chronologically to what happens after it becomes apparent the army is going to survive.  The middle 50%, however, is gripping, with descriptions of tactics and "the fog of war" and how to deal with leadership and motivation.

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