What's Neal Stephenson Building Down There?

I'm a huge Neal Stephenson fan. There, I said it. Yesterday I pointed to an article on how one fan solved a mystery related to Stephenson's book Quicksilver, last month I pointed to his best essay ever, and today I'm pointing to a new profile of Stephenson by Steven Levy from Wired. You see, Stephenson has a new book called Anathem coming out in just a few weeks, so my Stephenson-mentioning machinery is just going to run faster until I get my hands on a copy...after which I'll maintain radio silence until I've worked my way through it. (If any William Morrow publicists are reading, you could speed up this process with a well-placed Advance Reader Copy....)

Anyway, don't let my rambling fanboy anticipation get in the way of discussing this Wired profile. Levy splits time between discussion of Stephenson himself and the new Anathem, which is partially inspired by The Clock of the Long Now (yet another recent blog entry). We get a picture of Stephenson as sort of an old-school hacker, a technology enthusiast who likes to put things together in novel and amusing ways. But despite his fluency with modern technology, he also writes in longhand, builds and plays with armor, and often about archaic technologies like alchemy. Many things are being built in Neal Stephenson's basement -- from armor to science fiction, they're flowing from the same source. Here's a bit from the profile:

Stephenson spends his mornings cloistered in the basement, writing longhand in fountain pen and reworking the pages on a Mac version of the Emacs text editor. This intensity cannot be sustained all day--"It's part of my personality that I have to mess with stuff," he says--so after the writing sessions, he likes to get his hands on something real or hack stuff on the computer. (He's particularly adept at Mathematica, the equation-crunching software of choice for mathematicians and engineers.) For six years, he was an adviser to Jeff Bezos' space-flight startup, Blue Origin. He left amicably in 2006. Last year, he went to work for another Northwest tech icon, Nathan Myhrvold, who heads Intellectual Ventures, an invention factory that churns out patents and prototypes of high-risk, high-reward ideas. Stephenson and two partners spend most afternoons across Lake Washington in the IV lab, a low-slung building with an exotic array of tools and machines to make physical manifestations of the fancies that flow from the big thinkers on call there.

"In Neal's books, he's been fantastically good at creating scenarios and technologies that are purely imaginary," Myhrvold says. "But they're much easier imagined than built. So we spend a certain amount of our time imagining them but the rest of our time building them. It's also very cool but different to say, 'Let's come up with new ways of doing brain surgery.'"

That's right--brain surgery is one of the things Stephenson is tinkering with. He and his team are helping refine some mechanical aspects of a new tool, a helical needle for operating on brain tumors. It's the kind of cool job one of his characters might have.

Read the rest for a nice look at Stephenson, and a sneak-peek at his upcoming novel.


Google Adds 'Wheelchair Accessible' Option to Its Transit Maps

Google Maps is more than just a tool for getting from Point A to Point B. The app can highlight the traffic congestion on your route, show you restaurants and attractions nearby, and even estimate how crowded your destination is in real time. But until recently, people who use wheelchairs to get around had to look elsewhere to find routes that fit their needs. Now, Google is changing that: As Mashable reports, the company's Maps app now offers a wheelchair accessible option to users.

Anyone with the latest version of Google Maps can access the new feature. After opening the app, just enter your starting point and destination and select the public transit choices for your trip. Maps will automatically show you the quickest routes, but the stations it suggests aren't necessarily wheelchair accessible.

To narrow down your choices, hit "Options" in the blue bar above the recommended routes then scroll down to the bottom of the page to find "Wheelchair accessible." When that filter is checked, your list of routes will update to only show you bus stops and subways that are also accessible by ramp or elevator where there are stairs.

While it's a step in the right direction, the new accessibility feature isn't a perfect navigation tool for people using wheelchairs. Google Maps may be able to tell you if a station has an elevator, but it won't tell you if that elevator is out of service, an issue that's unfortunately common in major cities.

The wheelchair-accessible option launched in London, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Boston, and Sydney on March 15, and Google plans to expand it to more transit systems down the road.

[h/t Mashable]

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Tour the National Museum of Scotland From Home With Google Street View
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Google's Street View technology can be used to view some amazing art, whether it's behind the walls of the Palace of Versailles in France or the Guggenheim Museum in New York. As the BBC reports, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh is the latest institution to receive the virtual treatment.

The museum contains items tracing the history of the world and humanity. In the Natural World galleries, visitors will find a hulking Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton and a panorama of wildlife. In the World Cultures galleries, there are centuries' worth of art and innovation to see. The museum's permanent galleries and the 20,000 objects on display can all be viewed from home thanks to the new online experience.

Users can navigate the virtual museum as they would a regular location on Street View. Just click the area you wish to explore and drag your cursor for full 365-degree views. If there's a particular piece that catches your interest, you may be able to learn more about it from Google Arts & Culture. The site has added 1000 items from the National Museum of Scotland to its database, complete with high-resolution photos and detailed descriptions.

The Street View tour is a convenient option for art lovers outside the UK, but the museum is also worth visiting in person: Like its virtual counterpart, admission to the institution is free.

[h/t BBC]


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