Cryptonomicon, or How I Learned To Love My Brain

Dave Williams
Jul 22, 2019 · 4 min read
False-colour MRI image of my brain
False-colour MRI image of my brain

The thing about Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is that it’s comforting.

It’s comforting to know that someone thinks like you. It’s comforting to know that all the weird pattern recognition shit your brain is constantly pulling is not just you being broken, there’s someone else who has the same incessant background process.

In one part of the book, Stephenson talks about information reconstruction. Taking data about a thing and using it creatively to produce an entirely unexpected — and more useful — corpus of information.

In particular, he talks (in his thinly-veiled disguise as the Waterhouse character) about cryptologists and this background process. Inspired by the chaotic layout of London compared to the grid of the US cities he’s used to, Waterhouse idly considers that if you attached a light to the top of every Londoner’s head, and observed them from the side from a given position, you would end up with a huge corpus of square-wave plots. Up a kerb onto the pavement — plot goes up. Step into the road — plot goes down.

He theorises that with a sufficiently large corpus, a private space, enough time, and the insight to reconstruct depth through brightness, you could eventually walk out of the room with an extremely accurate street map of London.

Let me tell you a story about when I was — I think — four or five.

I liked to draw. I’ve never been good at it, but doodling geometric shapes and matrices always kept me engaged. On long car journeys, the four things I needed were my Walkman, whichever tape I’d abstracted from my sister’s room that day, a pen, and paper.

The trouble with drawing geometric figures in a car is that the car accelerates unpredictably. If you’re focused on a piece of paper, you’re not going to be able to predict the next corner, which will gladly drag your pen away from where you wanted it to be, and if you’re building something intricate that becomes infuriating.

It didn’t take long before I started wondering how to predict these ghostly arm-yanks. I came to the conclusion that I had to choose between focus and accuracy, and picked focus. My figures were just going to be wonky. That was okay.

In the process, though, I started wondering something. There were certain journeys — to school, to various family members, to various shops — which I travelled a great deal. What if I stopped drawing anything? Since the accelerations were slightly variable but mostly in the same order, did that mean that each journey had a common signature?

I started off by tracing a line along the sheet of paper. I discounted that practice fairly quickly, because there was too much temporal variation and it diluted the results. That, and I was going through too much paper.

So I took my pen, held my arm out from my body counterbalanced as best I could, and stuck it smack in the middle. The pen went on the page at the start of the journey and came off at the end for short journeys, or at a certain point for longer ones.

I had a book full of scribbles, notated by which common journey they represented. What I found was that I was right. Each journey — with some variation and a few obvious outliers — did have its own visual signature. The particular journey a figure was drawn on could be identified by knowing what each one looked like.

Obviously, this was flawed. I was young. But what I had essentially picked up on was the principle behind the IMU and dead reckoning. Principles that guided missiles to their target and men to the moon.

I’ve asked many people whether they did — or thought of — this when they were younger. Nobody has said that they did. Most give me a funny look, like there’s something wrong with me or I’m making it up. Some tell me a similar story about a different pattern recognition lane they wandered down as a child.

Cryptonomicon is a very special book because it tells me, and the ‘some’ above, that we don’t need to listen to the ‘most’. There isn’t something wrong with us and we aren’t alone.

The rest of the story tells us, in black and white, that we are capable of doing great things in life because of it, not despite it.

That matters.

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