Very good sentences

by on October 3, 2011 at 10:31 am in History | Permalink

A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo Moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement.

That is from Neil Stephenson. The entire essay is worth reading.

By the way, I read a bit of Reamde.  It is well crafted, unlike most of Stephenson’s work, but also seemed devoid of interest, also unlike most of Stephenson’s work.

1 John Personna October 3, 2011 at 10:37 am

I think Stephenson caught a real vibe with Snow Crash, but I think Charlie Stross has a better grip on where we are now.

2 John S. October 3, 2011 at 11:33 am

If you’re referring to Stross’s horror fiction, I agree.

3 John Personna October 3, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Heh, that’s actually the stuff I pass on. Maybe Stephenson should also feel free to let loose in many styles though. I liked Zodiac, myself.

4 Andrew' October 3, 2011 at 10:51 am

If only we had chose the path of fighting terrorists who hate us because of our freedom by responding with extreme, in-your-face freedom.

5 Jim October 3, 2011 at 11:15 am

I’d only be comfortable with that if we had some kind of Free Citizens Local 46, where membership was compulsory, and there were dues taken directly out of your paycheck, and two-thirds of it spend on DNC political advertising. You know, like the TSA.

6 Veridical Driver October 3, 2011 at 2:47 pm

The trouble is that everyone hates freedom.

The same people who will correctly criticize airline security as “security theater”, will support security theater when it involves guns. The same folks who will have no problem with burning a Koran, will go ape-shit about a crucifix in a jar of urine.

7 Roy October 3, 2011 at 10:57 pm

No not really, Doesn’t describe me at all.

8 Davis October 3, 2011 at 11:35 am

Neal is biased to the big-iron projects of the past. Don’t the internet, cell phone networks, and the big fiber networks count as society getting “big things” done? Wouldn’t the google self-driving cars be more dramatic than converting Seattle to light rail? for that matter, even if we limit ourselves to government-sponsored space projects, GPS and hubble are big deals, with GPS probably exceeding the economic value of manned space flight.

9 Floccina October 3, 2011 at 3:42 pm


10 charlie October 3, 2011 at 11:47 am

Three thoughts:

1. Best explanation of TGS ever: Google is killing new ideas

2. Kepler can be a far bigger deal than hubble. We feel better exploring new worlds than picking over ones we already know.

3. Charlie Stross or Charlie Sheen. I vote for Sheen.

11 Tom Jackson October 3, 2011 at 11:52 am

I hope no one is discouraged from reading REAMDE from Tyler’s “review.” I read every Tyler Cowen book as it comes out but I also read every Neal Stephenson book. I’m mystified that Tyler thinks Neal’s new one is “devoid of interest.”

12 Artimus October 3, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Well, I can’t take his “review” seriously since he didn’t even read the entire book.

13 Gabriel Rossman October 3, 2011 at 12:00 pm

> The entire essay is worth reading.

Well, all of it is worth reading except for the last few paragraphs where he basically says that you must be a little bitch to complain about patent law creating barriers to entry. Worth keeping in mind in that context is that Stephenson’s hobby is playing around in a patent troll’s workshop.

14 Gabriel Rossman October 3, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Perhaps it would be better to say “devoid of big ideas” rather than “devoid of interest.” Reamde is basically a straight-up thriller. The NY Times described it as “less a novel than a book-shaped IV bag from which plot flows.” I was very disappointed because I came to it expecting a book like Anathem or the Baroque Cycle, which are really dissertations disguised as novels. On the other hand if you’re into books about bad asses killing each other then you’ll probably love it.

15 Walter October 4, 2011 at 3:08 pm

I think you misread that section. To quote, “If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.”

That doesn’t sound like someone saying “you must be a little bitch to complain about patent law creating barriers to entry” to me. That sounds like someone saying “we can’t do big things anymore because of risk aversion to lawsuits, whether by patent holders (if your idea works) or minority shareholders (if your idea doesn’t work).”

16 Frank October 3, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Thank God that international strategic competition has dwindled to a point that makes large, risky, projects look less attractive! Think of all the savings! The really useful stuff to come out of the space program was teflon and the microprocessor. These would not have been developed without the space program?

Gimme a break.

17 question the question October 3, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Well, were they?

Why not?

Aren’t you glad they were, when they were? Were the microprocessor in particular not developed when it were, you might not ever be commenting on a blog in your lifetime.

(I’m not saying that world would be impossible, but unlikely).

18 Frank October 3, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Think bigger: The whole cost of the Cold War vs. a few years delay in developing the microprocessor [and teflon]!
Think smaller: Unmanned space exploration would not have promoted development of the microprocessor? [teflon would have had to wait.]

19 Greg Ransom October 3, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Competitive private for-profit and non-profit corporate contractors & competitive and largely independent research labs are responsible for what NASA did as much as anyone — this is very far from “COMMUNISM”. It’s the Eisenhower / Hayek / GOP model of multiple and independent institutions functioning within a relative price system with private property, put to use to achieve public purposes.

The Atomic Energy Commission also built America’s nuclear capacity using rival and largely autonomous research centers with competitive private for-profit corporate and non-profit research contractors.

From Wikipedia:

“The Saturn V was designed under the direction of Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with Boeing, North American Aviation, Douglas Aircraft Company, and IBM as the lead contractors.”

Whatever it is, it ain’t communism.

20 rcyran October 3, 2011 at 1:58 pm

We were in a “space race”. Stephenson’s point, or should I say the NASA veteran’s, is that competition spurred us to go to the moon.

21 The Engineer October 3, 2011 at 2:08 pm

It may not be communism, but is it Soviet? Didn’t the Soviets have a similar competitive system? Research labs, companies, etc.

The Kalashnakov rifle was developed during a design competition, right? There were a number of Soviet aircraft design bureaus (MiG, Tupolev, etc.)

Of course, even with competitions and such, there was still no profit motive underlying anything.

22 Mike October 3, 2011 at 2:24 pm

The money, emphasis, and propaganda poured into the US space program was not driven by a genuine fervor to get out into space. Rather, it was an artifact of a nation responding to a growing threat.

The US space program, like the Soviet program, was a demonstration in ICBM technology.

Similarly, when China launched their first space vehicle, they were also demonstrating missile technology, with national pride as a byproduct.

When China and the US both shot down satellites, it was a demonstration of both anti-satellite and anti-missile capabilities.

The interstate highway system was developed to transport troops throughout the US, with the secondary goal of improving transportation. It’s easier to get large projects funded when there is broad appeal.

One should wonder, though, why we needed to veil the truth. Are Americans so squeamish we can’t or shouldn’t handle the most serious issues, or is politics so broken that good projects become political hockey pucks?

23 ron October 3, 2011 at 5:50 pm


24 dearieme October 3, 2011 at 1:57 pm

With von Braun as director, “communism” isn’t the particular variety of socialism that I’d hold responsible.

25 Lynne October 3, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Tyler, I am only 30 pages into Reamde (free time being scarce at the moment), and I do not find it “devoid of interest”.

Even this early in the storytelling it’s apparent that the protagonist has some interesting experiences in his life and perspectives on humanity that will emerge in the narrative. I’m not far enough in yet to know if I agree with Tom Jackson, but so far it’s got a combination of pacing (both telling and holding back), character development, and lovely turns of phrase that I am enjoying it.

I also disagree on the organization point, but perhaps I like complex, expansive, nonlinear narratives more than you do. One of my favorite aspects of Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle was the unpredictable swirl of events and interconnections that created interest, although perhaps to you it appeared disorganized.

Although I admit freely that before Anathem Stephenson was never able to write a compelling conclusion to a book.

26 Dylan October 3, 2011 at 2:48 pm

He’s not really the protagonist. Which is part of the (minor) problem.

27 Lynne October 3, 2011 at 4:08 pm

See, that’s where you can tell that I have only cracked the spine!

28 David Clausen October 3, 2011 at 2:43 pm

I found REAMDE to have a slow start, but it picks up after a hundred pages or so. I think this is in line with your well crafted comment in that he spends a large amount of time building out the backstory before getting in to the action. The ideas and motives that bring people together in this story seem more mundane than Stephenson’s usual fare.

29 TallDave October 3, 2011 at 3:34 pm

REAMDE is more of a “just a story” kind of book. Readable, but not as intrinsically interesting as Cryptonomicon or Anathem.

30 The Anti-Gnostic October 3, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Tyler – for God’s sake will you kill this thread at least until I can get my Luddite ass to the bookstore and buy Reamde?

31 Floccina October 3, 2011 at 3:43 pm

What was so great about landing on the moon. It seems rather brute force to me. We already had jets.

32 Floccina October 3, 2011 at 3:46 pm

We also already had rockets. We just need to ramp things up and throw a lot of money at it. Even the USSR who could not build a stepper motor could go into space. Brute force.

33 Vera October 3, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Great essay, but his google story about killing ideas is both false and a terrible analogy with island evolution. Sure, researchers who fail to do due diligence will write off too many ideas when they see that something similar has been done to some unclear degree, but this same process will also push them to think of more truly innovative ideas. And island evolution leads to so many amazing innovations because each little island is a separated laboratory, much like dozens of small space agencies working towards the same goal instead of one giant NASA conglomerate. He seems to want to push for these big government-funded projects but doesn’t realize that his own argument points to the decentralized private-sector innovation methods we indeed have now.

34 steve October 3, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Things always seemed better when you were young.

35 John Pertz October 3, 2011 at 6:01 pm

That article was too meandering. The anecdote about google searches killing risk taking behavior by academia and business was bizarre. On the innovation front, Im with Tyler. The next big things in innovation will be much more difficult to achieve. Nano tech, bio tech and all the other fun stuff in the Kurzweil book are doable but they will take time to develop. However, once we have these new forms of tech, attempts at the next big thing like forms of energy that can actually compete with oil in terms of overall VALUE, eradication of major forms of disease, etc. will be far easier.

36 Dan H. October 3, 2011 at 6:13 pm

I thought it was a poor essay that misdiagnosed the problem and which longed for an era of big, centrally-planned projects that are not applicable in the 21st century.

Stephenson says:

“Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried.”

I’m an engineer who has been in lots of product development meetings and brainstorming sessions, and I’ve -never- seen this. No one sits and Googles idea concepts. There’s no big oppressive downer of too much information constricting everyone’s thinking.

The killer of innovation in the corporate engineering world is actually the LACK of information. Projects of any significant size are so complex and bring in so many specialized people that it’s common for no one to have the ‘big picture’ or even understand the product that they’re building. Modern engineering projects are rigidly structured, top-down hierarchies where the people at the very top make product decisions, then the next level takes all the requirements and breaks them down into bite-sized pieces for various project teams. The project teams then break them up into work for individuals. By the time you get to the people actually building things or writing code, they may not have any understanding of what they are building other than a bullet list of requirements. How does innovation happen in that environment?

I’ve seen bad ideas float down to the engineering teams and be implemented without a single person even questioning the bad idea, because everyone assumes that there must be something they don’t understand or that they don’t have the big picture, so they don’t feel competent to criticize or push back. The same thing inhibits their thinking around new ideas.

Specialization is a great thing, but when it is carried out to the point where each contributor doesn’t understand the big picture, it makes it hard to be innovative.

37 Walter October 4, 2011 at 3:12 pm

That sounds a lot like the government software project from Snow Crash!

38 Dan H. October 3, 2011 at 6:32 pm

For a modern science-fiction writer, Stephenson seems to be unable to grasp that the future does not lie in big, centrally-planned infrastructure, but in smart, intelligent infrastructure that can adapt to a faster-changing world.

For example, HSR makes no sense in today’s world. Why would you want to lay down fixed rail lines that freeze the distribution of commerce into concrete patterns, when the nature of work and living is becoming increasingly flexible and distributed? Why would you want to make a big bet on train technology, when innovation in other forms of transportation is accelerating? Instead, how about computer-controlled cars that can ‘platoon’ together ad-hoc to save fuel and lower congestion? How about mixing GPS and cell phones with a central database to enable congestion pricing on roads without requiring tool booths or tracking of individual vehicles? Congestion pricing would do far more for travel efficiency than HSR ever would, and it’s flexible and dynamic and can change constantly as the usage patterns of roads and inter-city travel changes.

Why would you want to re-invigorate NASA, when companies like SpaceX are already turning out results much better than anything NASA has imagined for its new rockets? SpaceX has a 7-man capsule that has already been flown to orbit and returned safely, rockets that range from small satellite launchers to the new Falcon Heavy which can lift twice the payload of the Shuttle for 1/10 the cost, and they’re working on reusable rockets that can break into pieces that land themselves, which could lower the cost of space access by another order of magnitude. Within five years, the private space companies will have eclipsed NASA’s proposed SLS launch system, which won’t fly for a decade and which will be another multi-billion-per-launch boondoggle. Unless, of course, it runs over budget and behind schedule and gets canceled after a few billion are spent, like their last attempt.

My personal opinion is that projects and products are becoming so complex that they simply can’t be centrally planned and managed. Instead of complaining about the Internet, Stephenson should be thinking about how we can leverage it to enable a more distributed model of scientific and engineering advancement, and how to widen the bandwidth of information that flows through organizations so that more people have a big picture understanding of what they are doing and feel more free to suggest innovative changes.

Bottom up is where it’s at. The great strength of the Internet is that it empowers individuals and connects them together laterally. That’s where the next round of innovation will come from – not from a bunch of smart guys in government, academia, and corporate head offices.

39 The Anti-Gnostic October 3, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Except Stephenson envisions himself as being with those smart guys in the offices, or at least being invited to their parties, like most media/literati types. A bunch of scruffy engineers and technicians making lateral connections and quietly changing the universe? That’s boring! What we need are huge, centrally planned social engineering monstrosities that only those with true breadth of vision and nobility of intent (like Stephenson!) can undertake.

40 Finch October 4, 2011 at 10:44 am


41 Chris October 3, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Instead, how about computer-controlled cars that can ‘platoon’ together ad-hoc to save fuel and lower congestion? How about mixing GPS and cell phones with a central database to enable congestion pricing on roads without requiring tool booths or tracking of individual vehicles? Congestion pricing would do far more for travel efficiency than HSR ever would, and it’s flexible and dynamic and can change constantly as the usage patterns of roads and inter-city travel changes.

Those are all well and good, but they’re marginal technological improvements. What Stephenson (and Tyler, in TGS) are trying, apparently without success, to get people to understand is that the difference between a horse and a Model T is a lot more than the difference between a Honda Civic and a Honda Civic with GPS, and that it’s perfectly alright to dream of bigger and better things.

Fancier jeejahs are great, but it’d be nice if we could manage to get something bigger than a toaster built in this country, “centrally planned” or no.

42 Chris October 3, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Oops, that first paragraph was a reply to Dan H.

43 Joe Jones October 3, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Not to spoil it, but REAMDE starts out really strong and then peters out into total irrelevance about halfway through, so it isn’t fair to recommend it until you have finished it. I was really into it at the 40% point and totally hated it by the 80% point.

44 Mike October 3, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Reminds me of Atlas Shrugged.

45 steve October 4, 2011 at 1:38 am

I hate to give any communists any credit whatsoever. But frankly, communisms greates achievement was breaking the back of the Nazi army before we decided to invade Europe.

46 DK October 4, 2011 at 1:39 am

Right. And A-bombs were one of the remarkable achievements by Japanese. Next cutesy aphorism, please?

47 DK October 4, 2011 at 1:43 am

But frankly, communism’s greatest achievement was breaking the back of the Nazi army before we decided to invade Europe.

It wasn’t communism’s achievement. Russians were fighting for their survival. By making it a war of extermination, Hitler made a huge strategic mistake, communists or not.

48 steve October 4, 2011 at 3:36 am

DK: “Right. And A-bombs were one of the remarkable achievements by Japanese. Next cutesy aphorism, please?”

DK: “It wasn’t communism’s achievement. Russians were fighting for their survival.”

Are you self-aware? Or, some kind of mindless snark-bot.

49 Paul Zrimsek October 4, 2011 at 7:49 am

Stephenson came up with a sentence in Snow Crash that he should have clipped and saved: “After that, it’s just a chase scene.” Sure would have come in handy this time out.

50 Zach October 4, 2011 at 3:53 pm

REAMDE might be better the second time through, when I’m not expecting it to turn into the Baroque cycle on every page. It reminds me a little of the books he wrote under the Stephen Bury pseudonym.

What I really missed were the trademark Stephenson witty digressions. There’s about five pages in Cryptonomicon where Stephenson riffs on Randy Waterhouse’s OCD method of eating Cap’n Crunch that puts me in stitches every time I read it. REAMDE is well plotted, but for me it never shifted into second gear.

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