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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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