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Neal Stephenson's Latest: REAMDE

It takes guts to title your blockbuster novel using an intentional misspelling. But fortunately for readers, Neal Stephenson has guts, a killer story, and -- for the first time since Cryptonomicon -- a thriller I can thoroughly recommend to any reader, not just the King Dorks of the crowd. Expect to see REAMDE enjoyed by regular human beings on airplanes, in coffee shops, and in geek-dens (the hive-like underground warrens where computer programmers go to sleep). I can only begin to tell you how exciting this is. The book comes out today (September 20, 2011) and is, as we speak, in a bookstore near you. Or, if you're not near a bookstore, there are links at the bottom of this article to some internet-based retailers who would love to get you a physical or virtual copy right away.

Note: this review is intended to be spoiler-free. I do discuss the book, but don't give away anything that isn't in the promo materials. If you want to be utterly devoid of context, here's the tl;dr version: buy it and block out a solid three days to work your way through it. If you liked Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, Anathem or The Diamond Age you will freak out with joy about this book. If you don't know what I'm talking about, frankly you might still enjoy this thing -- do you like rip-roaring tales of adventure, told by a smart guy, involving the technical aspects of guns, planes, boats, computers, and more guns? I thought you did. So let's get into things.

Let's Go Back to 1992

In 1992, Neal Stephenson made waves with Snow Crash, a smart cyberpunk thriller featuring the aptly named "Hiro Protagonist." Although Snow Crash was his third novel, it was Stephenson's first work that put him on the map, immediately elevating him into the pantheon of godlike sci-fi writers who could do no wrong (this status lasted until about halfway through the first volume of The Baroque Cycle, at which point many frustrated readers simply gave up). I read Snow Crash in 1996, and proceeded to devour everything the man ever published (including the pseudonymous "Stephen Bury" novels, which are fun techno/political thrillers). Since the mid-90's, my life has been punctuated by long periods of delay, waiting for Stephenson's latest work. I do things around the edges (you know, jobs and stuff), but mainly I'm just waiting for the next book.

A Series of Obsessions

Stephenson, from 1992 through now, has developed and written about a series of intellectual interests that appear to the reader as obsessions. These obsessions have appeared over and over in his work, and in REAMDE we have a book touching on each. If I may catalogue them:

Currency: the notion of currency (not "money"), the creation and destruction of value, and currency flows appear throughout Cryptonomicon and even more in The Baroque Cycle. In REAMDE, several characters are involved in a MacGuffin-ish plot involving currency flows. This plot serves to set the story in motion, then quickly drops into the background as characters come forth and bring us to some other obsessions, to wit:

Technology: Stephenson seems to be interested in the notion of technology specific to a given culture and time period. This is notable because while he is clearly a geek, he doesn't seem to give a damn whether he's geeking out about computers, guns, swords, winches, boats, air travel, horseshoes, chemistry, rope, you name it. In REAMDE (set roughly in the "present day"), we see technology across cultures and circumstances. Without spoiling anything, I'll also note that gun enthusiasts will have a lot to dig into. Those who know next to nothing about firearms (ahem, like myself) will enjoy the education offered by this novel (for example, "red: you're dead" for the red dot often visible when the safety on a firearm is disengaged). I found myself quite interested in the detailed mechanics of firearms and their management, transport, firing, and reloading -- that's not something that has interested me in the past. It takes a geek to explain why something is interesting to another geek.

Cultural Differences: It's no secret that Stephenson likes to write large, sprawling books involving characters who speak different languages and live in wholly different situations. But in this one, I smelled an interesting undercurrent that extended beyond the now-typical international angle of his work. The new work (again, without giving anything away) has to do with a cultural divide within the US (some might call this the Red State/Blue State divide, though that seems a vast oversimplification to any Cultural Differences Geek). This novel includes Seattle tech geeks wearing utili-kilts as well as people in RVs camping in WalMart parking lots, and attempts to get into the heads of both. Well done, Stephenson.

Family Ties: In past works we've seen cross-generational plot lines, sometimes spanning generations and even hundreds of years. Remember the scene in Cryptonomicon when the family divides up Randy's grandmother's worldly possessions by placing them on vectors of monetary and sentimental value and applies a knapsack algorithm to solve the problem? You're in for much more of that kind of thing in REAMDE. Don't worry, you don't have to care about math to enjoy it -- though it might help to have a passing interest in grizzly bears.

Time, Geology, & Geography: While Anathem was most obviously influenced by Stephenson's involvement with The Long Now Foundation (and thus spans, or at least considers, immense stretches of time), REAMDE takes place over just three weeks -- but we see Stephenson's innate interest in deep time when he describes geological landforms. Every time we see a new bit of land (a mountain, a bay, and so on), Stephenson introduces it with an eye towards its geological origins. It's like the man can't see a hill without thinking about the process that formed the hill somewhere in deep prehistory. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that there's an in-story reason for characters to have this level of geological awareness, though this is one clear moment where Stephenson peeks through to reveal his own interests.

So What?

With REAMDE we have a very smart page-turner -- a global chess game expertly played, switching perspectives among something like eight main points of view with the deftness we expect from this old master of new sci-fi. And to be clear, there's nothing "sci-fi" in this book (no aliens, no speculative technology, and nothing non-contemporary); but it's fiction in which characters confront tons of interesting problems with scientific and technological solutions, and a sort of geeky enthusiasm about the details of those solutions that belies the author's interest in sci-fi. What I mean to say is: you will like this book, but so will Tom Clancy-reading sales execs flying Business Class. Somehow Stephenson has written a book that's true to his intellectual level, but he's kept it accessible. Expect it to be a major bestseller, and expect to feel sad when it ends and you must wait three years for the next one (which might be, who knows, about clocks or something). Perhaps during the wait you can go read Stephenson's essay on cable-laying, or his other fine work from the 90's and before. (Though to be frank, The Big U was kind of a letdown; you should probably skip that one.)

On Length and Weight

Stephenson's recent work has routinely spanned well into multiple kilopages, much to the frustration of the aforementioned Baroque Cycle quitters. I'm happy to report that REAMDE just barely exceeds 1 kilopage, however the hardcover is exceedingly hefty, weighing in just shy of 3 pounds -- making it heavier than some laptops in my office. Plan accordingly if you're going to take this thing on vacation or even out of the house. Note that you can also use it for home defense (at close range) or as a structural member in minor construction projects. For this reason, you might consider an ebook for this one. If you can handle the weight (and the lovely rough-hewn paper edges), pick up a paper copy starting today (September 20, 2011) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Powell's (signed!).

Blogger Disclosure

I received an Advance Reader Edition of the book at my request, but no compensation for reading or reviewing the book. It was quite a thrill to get an early look at Stephenson's next work, and I hope to keep checking out more ragged-right paperback previews in the future. (Ahem, take note, PR folks.) In the bookstore links above, the Amazon ones are affiliate links that kick back a small percentage if you buy the book through them. If you'd rather not kick some pennies my way, here are non-affiliate Amazon links for the hardcover and the Kindle edition. I hope you enjoy REAMDE as much as I did.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
3500-Year-Old Mummy Discovered in Forgotten Egyptian Tomb

As the site of the ancient city of Thebes, the modern-day Egyptian city of Luxor is filled with archaeological treasures. But until recently, two forgotten tombs—both located in the necropolis of Dra' Abu el-Naga, an important non-royal cemetery—hadn’t been fully explored. Now, National Geographic reports that experts have finally excavated these burial sites and discovered a 3500-year-old mummy, along with ornate funerary goods and colorful murals.

While excavating one of the two tombs, known as Kampp 150, experts found linen-wrapped remains that Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities believes belong to either "a person named Djehuty Mes, whose name was engraved on one of the walls ... [or] the scribe Maati, as his name and the name of his wife Mehi were inscribed on 50 funerary cones found in the tomb's rectangular chamber."

In addition to the mummy, archaeologists discovered wooden statues, masks, earthen pots, a cache of some 450 statuettes, and around 100 funerary cones—conical mud objects, which were often positioned outside a tomb's center, and could have served as identifying markers or as offerings—inside Kampp 150.

The Associated Press reported that the second tomb, known as Kampp 161, is thought to be approximately 3400 years old—about 100 years newer than its neighboring chamber—as its design is characteristic of other such structures dating back to the reigns of Amenhotep II and Thutmose IV.

Inside Kampp 161, archaeologists discovered wooden funerary masks, a decorated coffin, furniture shards, and the mural of a festival or party depicting the tomb's unknown resident and his wife receiving ceremonial offerings.

German scholar Friederike Kampp-Seyfried surveyed and numbered both tombs in the 1990s, which is how they got their names, but she did not fully excavate nor enter either one.

Officials celebrated the rediscovery of the tombs on Saturday, December 9, when they publicly announced the archaeological finds. They hope that discoveries like these will entice foreign travelers to visit Egypt, as political unrest has harmed the country's tourism industry in recent years.

“It’s truly an exceptional day,” Khaled al-Anani, Egypt's antiquities minister, said in a statement. “The 18th dynasty private tombs were already known. But it’s the first time" anyone's ever entered them.

Check out some pictures of the newly revealed relics below.

Mustafa al-Waziri, director general of Luxor's Antiquities, points at an ancient Egyptian mural found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis.
Mustafa al-Waziri, director general of Luxor's Antiquities, points at an ancient Egyptian mural found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis on the west Nile bank of the southern Egyptian city of Luxor, about 400 miles south of the capital Cairo, on December 9, 2017.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

An Egyptian archaeological technician restores artifacts found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis in Luxor, Egypt.
An Egyptian archaeological technician restores artifacts found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis on the west Nile bank of the southern Egyptian city of Luxor, about 400 miles south of the capital Cairo, on December 9, 2017.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

An Egyptian laborer stands next to an ancient Egyptian mural found at the newly discovered 'Kampp 161' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis in Luxor, Egypt.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Ancient Egyptian wooden funerary masks and small statuettes found in and retrieved from the newly discovered 'Kampp 150' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis in Luxor, Egypt.
A picture taken on December 9, 2017 shows ancient Egyptian wooden funerary masks and small statuettes found in and retrieved from the newly discovered 'Kampp 150' tomb at Draa Abul Naga necropolis on the west Nile bank of the southern Egyptian city of Luxor, about 400 miles south of the capital Cairo.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t National Geographic]

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Kohske Takahashi, i-Perception (2017)
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fun
Can You Figure Out This Newly Discovered Optical Illusion?
Kohske Takahashi, i-Perception (2017)
Kohske Takahashi, i-Perception (2017)

Ready to have your mind boggled? Take a look at the image above. What shape are the lines? Do they look like curves, or zigzags?

The image, spotted by Digg, is a new type of optical illusion published in the aptly named journal i-Perception. Discovered by Japanese psychologist Kohske Takahashi, it’s called the “curvature blindness illusion,” because—spoiler—the contrast of the lines against the gray background makes our eye see some of the lines as zigzags when, in fact, they’re all smooth curves.

The illusion relies on a few different factors, according to the three experiments Takahashi conducted. For it to work, the lines have to change contrast just at or after the peak of the curve, reversing the contrast against the background. You’ll notice that the zigzags only appear against the gray section of the background, and even against that gray background, not every line looks angled. The lines that look curvy change contrast midway between the peaks and the valleys of the line, whereas the lines that look like they contain sharp angles change contrast right at the peak and valley. The curve has to be relatively gentle, too.

Go ahead, stare at it for a while.

[h/t Digg]

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