Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (Books 2020, 7)

I decided I needed something SF-y that I knew I’d enjoy: a reread, in other words. Something with spaceships. Prowling my shelves, this is what I came to. No spaceships, but fast skateboards and faster motorbikes, katanas and glass knives; and of course, the Metaverse.

I was struck by how little of it I remembered, but it is something like 26 years since I read it (published 1992, so I’m guessing I read it in 94 or so).

Hiro Protagonist, the fantastically-named hero, is a hacker.1 He’s also the greatest samurai swordsman alive, supposedly. And he’s delivering pizzas for the Mafia. Which fact is the first view we have of how the world – or at least America – has changed. There is almost no government, no laws; and everything is split up into ‘burbclaves’ and franchises, run by companies, churches, or criminal organisations.

But there is the Metaverse. Nothing we have today is close to what it is like, but it’s what virtual reality wants to be, and maybe will be one day.

The internet is everywhere (which of course wasn’t the case when it was written). Though phoneboxes still exist, and using them is one way to get into the Metaverse. And if you want mobile access, you have to ‘go gargoyle.’ Which is to say, wear your special goggles and carry a computer around with you, strapped to your body. There are mobile phones, but the conversion of them into pocket computers is not something that Stephenson foresaw. Or at least, not something he made use of here.

The Ending

I had the impression that everyone thought that early Stephenson had problems with endings. I mean, I had that impression myself, and have alluded to it here before. And I thought that this was one with a slightly weak ending.

But it isn’t at all. The bit that I remembered – the climax that takes place in the Metaverse – comes at the end of a tense chase/fight sequence, and while it depicts a scene that might be anticlimactic for the people in-universe who witness it, it’s fully satisfying and sound to us, the readers. Then the last couple of chapters wind things up neatly back in the outer world.

The criticism that might be levelled at it, especially in SF terms, is that we don’t see how the world has been changed by the events of the story. But I think that can easily be left to our imaginations.

A genuine classic.

  1. Interesting to note that even programmers for the government are called ‘hackers’ here. In the positive sense, of course. ↩︎

Mac Wishing

Those times when you’re typing a document at work on a shonky Windows 7 machine, and longing for your Mac, where you’d have professional text-handling tools, like Marked for previewing Markdown.

Not that you can’t preview, as long as you’ve got a decent text editor such as Sublime Text (well, specifically Sublime). But things are just so much easier with Mac tools.

And I speak as one who has never had the opportunity to use the Mac professionally. I’ve used Windows machines at works since about 1993, and before that green-screen 5250 terminals.

One of these days, though.

“Ping” Pong

When the original Unix designers (or, as it turns out, Mike Muuss) chose ping as the name for the command for checking the status of a network host, it was a moment of inspired genius. The word is almost onomatopoeic in its appropriateness.

But nowadays people are pinging each other all over the place: emails, IMs, even phone calls are “pinged” at each other. “I’ll ping you an email,” they say.

The purist in me cringes a little each time I hear it. But it shouldn’t. The word that was so apposite for those early savants is just as suitable today: it communicates a needed concept. And English, of course, is a living, thriving language. So let people get on with it

Just don’t expect me to use it myself.

I Upgraded my MacBook

And it's like having a new machine.

I have a 13-inch MacBook Pro, mid 2010 model. I bought it in about September or October 2010. Which means it’s getting quite long in the tooth. The MacBooks have come on a long way in what they offer since then. Mine had 4GB of memory and a 320 GB hard drive. Nowadays they have solid-state drives by default and start from 16GB of memory, I think.

Thing is, it was still fine in most ways, but it was getting very, very slow. It wasn’t too bad once everything was up and running, but waking it from sleep meant I’d be seeing what Ginger out of The Wildhearts called the “spinning fucking rainbow” (and everyone else calls the beachball) for a long time.

Even when it was up, just switching apps could trigger the slowness. So I was thinking about upgrading. But I figured there was life in the old beast yet. I took inspiration from Jason Snell who writes of upgrading a 2009 model.

According to Apple, the most memory this model can support is 8GB. But according to Other World Computing, this particular model, though no others from around then, can actually take more – up to 16GB.

I went to Crucial, which is noted as the best site for Mac upgrades in the UK (OWC is only in the US). Its tool said it could only take 8GB. But I looked around various forums and decided that there was enough evidence that OWC were right. Plus memory is so cheap these days that the difference in price between 8 and 16 was very small.

So I took a chance and ordered 16GB, plus a 500GB SSD.

Installing the memory was trivially easy. You don’t need more than a small Phillips screwdriver to open the case, and the memory modules themselves pop out and slot in very easily.

But with the two 8GB modules in, it wouldn’t boot up. I just got series of three beeps, repeated every few seconds.

A bit of googling told me that means “bad memory,” essentially.

I tried taking it out an putting it back in, swapping round which module was in which slot, and so on, but to no avail. I put the old memory back just to check that I hadn’t damaged something, and it started up like before.

So it looked like OWC were wrong, and I was restricted to 8GB. I was considering sending the memory back to Crucial and hoping I could get I refund. But then I tried one more thing. One of the new 8GB sticks along with one of the old 2GB ones.

And it booted up, smooth as a cliche.

Of course I tried swapping out one 8GB stick for the other, to check for the possibility that one of them actually was bad. But both of them worked. So it seems that this MacBook can take more than 8GB, but not as much as 16. Which is strange, but never mind.

I’d have to say, though, that the difference in performance wasn’t obvious. But I didn’t spend lot of time with it like that, because I still had the SSD to install. That’s very slightly more involved, needing as it does a Torx screwdriver. But it’s very easy.

Before all that I had made sure my old hard drive was thoroughly backed up, you won’t be surprised to hear.

I booted up in the new configuration and told the Mac to set itself up as a new installation. It downloaded El Capitan over the air and installed away.

There was one slight glitch in this process. Something went wrong with the installation and I started getting a kernel panic on bootup. I don’t quite recall the details now, but I just reformatted the SSD and installed again, and it all went fine.

And the difference… The difference is astonishing. Even with many apps open (I currently have twelve), and a whole stack of tabs in Safari, using it is effortless. Apps switch without the slightest lag. I can start anything up with only a few bounces. I’ve hardly even seen the rainbow.

Even Lightroom, which is the heaviest-weight app I use on here, starts in under ten seconds.

In short, this is the way a computer should be.


We used to call this “thin clients”; or just a terminal logged on to a server or mainframe. Jason Snell writes of something newish that Adobe and Google are doing with Chromebooks:

This week I got a demo of Photoshop running inside Chrome, and while it was really interesting, some of my assumptions were faulty. It turns out that when Adobe says Photoshop is a “streaming app,” they mean it—it’s much more like screen sharing than native software. Photoshop runs remotely on a Windows-based server, and video of the app’s interface streams to the Chrome browser.

via Six Colors: Adobe streams Photoshop to Chromebooks.

Maccetty Mac

So, I've had this here new MacBook for a couple of weeks, and I've yet to post anything from it. I am, not surprisingly, loving it.

The initial weirdnesses (I’ve never used a Mac before, apart from once very briefly, before OS/X) include the absence of a hash-key (though you can get the character using Alt+3: #); the plethora of modifier keys: Ctrl and Alt, of course, but also Cmd and Fn. Though actually, most laptops have Fn, so it’s really just one extra. But they get a lot of use.

The nicest thing is probably the multitouch trackpad: scroll with two fingers, navigate with three, do some other weird navigation thing (Exposé, I think it’s called) with four. Pure dead brilliant, in the vernacular of my homeland.

Most annoying thing is the American positioning of the @ and " keys. I’d like to remap those back to where my muscle-memory says they should be, but haven’t worked out how to do that yet.

I’ve installed various pieces of software on trial or demo options. I’m typing this entry using MarsEdit. I’m gathering notes for the the thing I intend to write for NaNoWriMo using Scrivener. And so on.

All in all, it’s the beginning of a big adventure.

And now, let’s see how this posts.