FM Reviews
First Monday

FM Reviews

J.R. Okin.
The Internet Revolution: The Not–for–Dummies Guide to the History, Technology, and Use of the Internet.
Winter Harbor, Maine: Ironbound Press, 2005.
cloth, 382 p., ISBN 0–976–38576–7, US$26.95.
Ironbound: http://www.IronboundPress.com

J.R. Okin. The Internet Revolution.


J.R. Okin’s new book on the Internet is part history, part Internet protocol analysis, and part social consequences review in its treatment of the communication revolution we now know the Internet to be. The Not–for–Dummies subtitle, coupled with a complex, multi–focus treatment of the Internet, does indeed go much beyond what many beginners would need to know or be able to understand — hence the Not–for–Dummies subtitle — yet it is also the case that many experienced Internet users will already know many of the factual points the author covers. But as will be seen, this book has other compensations.

The author begins with a serviceable history of computing and of the Internet, starting with ARPANET and progressing through discussions of packet switching, Internet protocols such as FTP, telnet and e–mail, then concludes with interesting sections on chat, MUDs and various social consequences of the Internet. The chapter treatment of all these matters is very clear, but chapter subsections sometimes clutter the narrative while at the same time exhibiting restatements of various points. The author is fond of making a summary early in most chapters, then reiterating those summary statements and key points later in the various chapters. This is puzzling in a book that is not supposed to be for “dummies,” who one might assume would appreciate this kind of repetition.

In the historical portion of the book, comprising more than a third of the text, Okin covers the salient points of the Internet’s development in a straightforward and orderly fashion. There is little of the sense of historical drama that makes Hafner and Lyon’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet such an engrossing read [1]. Instead, Okin prefers a simpler chronological exposition which does not explore much in the way of the Internet developers’ characters and motivations. But Okin does do an excellent job in portraying exactly what the Internet is: a network of networks. Unlike authors who dwell excessively on the ARPANET, Okin provides the background, signficance and consequences of other concomitant developments such as packet radio and satellite networks, which when linked to the ARPANET really began the story of the Internet as a system of networks united by common protocols. The ARPANET is by no means minimized in this way, but it is placed into the correct historical perspective.

As do many, Okin underscores the popular notion that the ARPANET was specifically developed as a militarily survivable network, designed so that damaged nodes could be successfully routed around as a defense communication strategy. In this context Paul Baran’s seminal work in developing the idea of a distributed network is highlighted. But one should pause before adopting the conclusion wholesale, as so many do, that construction of the ARPANET was propelled by the suvivability idea. In his excellent interview in the now–defunct PreText online magazine, Frank Heart (who spearheaded the ARPANET design team at Bolt Beranek and Newman) counters this military objectives theme in his responses to interviewer Dominic Gates. This exchange is worth quoting at length, as it provides an important historical counterpoint to the received wisdom about ARPANET from a key player who was in a position to know:

“Dominic Gates: How important was military input into the ARPANET project, which was of course for the Defense Department?

Frank Heart: I think the influence was close to zero. I really do. I believe that ARPA was supporting computer research in the United States for the general benefit of the military, and for the general benefit of the country; and that the people at ARPA saw those two things as almost synonymous. My understanding of the original basis for [ARPA program manager Robert] Taylor and others’ interest was that they wanted to consider how to tie together their research sites, which were mostly at universities, partly to do resource sharing, partly to avoid buying a new computer for every university.

To the extent that there was a military influence, it was only the general military desirability that was behind a lot of ARPA’s computer R&D. So I think the actual military sets of reasons were almost zero.

Gates: The discussion about this has arisen partly because it’s known that when Paul Baran was preparing his early 1960s paper (suggesting some of the ideas behind packet switching) — which originally did not gain attention — he did talk to people in the military, and sold the idea of a distributed network partly on the basis of its robustness as a defense system.

Heart: At the very beginning I don’t think the ARPA people knew Baran existed. When they began to talk about a network for resources sharing, and Taylor began becoming interested in not having three [disconnected] terminals in his office, I don’t think those people knew Baran existed at that time.

Gates: Was there some inherent technical reason why the system became a distributed network, rather than a military reason?

Heart: Absolutely. There was a critical technical reason for doing that, and it had nothing to do with distribution for security purposes or in case of war. If you have a phone conversation, as we’re having, there are all kinds of pauses when the line isn’t being used, and it’s not an efficient way for computers to communicate. Computers would like to share the line so that they can intermix their messages, and take advantage of the bandwidth of the line.” [2]

Okin seems not to separate Baran’s presentation of the idea of a network able to route data around non–working nodes from the military’s actual influence in the project toward producing such an end. As Heart demonstrates, military communication suvivability was not the motivating force behind ARPANET’s design.

Elsewhere, it is curious that an important development like the University of Minnesota’s Gopher is relegated to a single sentence. In the early 1990s before the Web had developed much past the early Mosaic browser, Gopher was a very important Internet resource — especially after Veronica was introduced (which made it possible to search Gopherspace). As late as 1994, the Gopher conference in Minneapolis had attendees from all over the world and Gopher development was progressing in many directions. It all ended shortly thereafter, of course, as the Web’s clear advantages over Gopher became manifest, but it was still a signficant part of Internet history. Perhaps Okin will cover it in his second volume on the World Wide Web.

Okin is at his best in discussing why the Internet succeeded, and what the components of that success were. Interoperability across different computing machinery and different networks, for example, was a vital factor in allowing the Internet’s growth to occur without ownership by any nation or entity. From the start, as Okin documents, cooperation by groups with different objectives was fostered by the RFC (Request for Comments) process, which enabled operational protocols to be established that would insure uniformity of operation throughout the Internet. Okin excels in the eighth chapter’s delineation of the specific strategies which fostered growth of the Internet. Other chapters, such as the one on development of e–mail and its sociological impact, and a chapter on the various forms of chat and MUDs (Multi–User Dungeons/Dimensions) are similarly well–handled. He is especially adept at explaining how individual pieces of the Internet, such as e–mail, contribute to the creation of cyberspace and cyberculture. Indeed, for many readers, these chapters may form the most interesting portions of the book. A timeline and list of jargon definitions usefully round out the volume.

The choice to include so many different things in one book (history, Internet protocols and components, and sociological impact) makes for a difficult narrative challenge. For the most part Okin succeeds, enough so that this text is a useful addition to one’s Internet library. Two other volumes are forthcoming from the same author later this year, one on the World Wide Web and another on the revolutionary impact of the Internet. — Douglas Kocher, Chair, Department of Communication, Valparaiso University End of Review

 

Notes

1. Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, 1996. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.

2. Dominic Gates, 1998. “The PreText Interview: Frank Heart talks to Dominic Gates,” PreText (March), formerly at www.pretext.com, now defunct.

++++++++++

Edmund Blair Bolles.
Einstein defiant: Genius versus genius in the quantum revolution.
Washington, D.C.: Joseph Henry Press, 2004.
cloth, 348 p., ISBN 0–309–08998–0, $27.95.
Joseph Henry Press: http://www.jhpress.org/

Edmund Blair Bolles. Einstein defiant.

Jim Ottaviani.
Suspended in language: Niels Bohr’s life, discoveries, and the century he shaped.
Illustrated and lettered by Leland Purvis.
Ann Arbor, Mich.: G.T. Labs, 2004.
paper, 318 p., ISBN 0–966–01065–5, $24.95.
G.T. Labs: http://www.gt-labs.com/

>Jim Ottaviani. Suspended in language.


In this anniversary of Albert Einstein’s annus mirabilis of 1905, it is tempting to examine one of the many books treating one of most significant creative outbursts of all time. Examples include John Rigden’s Einstein 1905: The standard of greatness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005) or newly available in paper Einstein’s miraculous Year: Five papers that changed the face of physics (edited by John Staechel; Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005). There are some outstanding events occurring such as celebrations and symposia in Bern (see http://www.einstein2005.ch/) and a delightful and informative exhibit at the Deutsches Museum in Munich (see http://www.deutsches-museum.de/ausstell/sonder/einstein/einstein00.htm).

To many, however, Einstein is best remembered for his ongoing efforts in quantum theory, and his intellectual battles with Niels Bohr. These debates probably are best summarized by Einstein’s quip “God does not play with dice,” a bowdlerized version of Einstein’s remarks to Max Born in a letter:

“You believe in God playing with dice and I in perfect laws in the world of things existing as real objects.” (p. 252 of Bowles; also, in the reissued Born–Einstein Letters published this year by Macmillan)

These two books tell the story of Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein from two quite different perspectives. There are overlaps in the stories, and these parallel descriptions of Bohr and Einstein are quite delightful, even memorable. For example, in Suspended in Language, there is a graphic description of Bohr’s first encounter with the Christian X, King of Denmark, in 1916 (see pp. 67–68). The panels well describe this encounter, where Christian confuses Niels for his soccer star brother, Harald. Niels repeatedly attempts to correct the King, only to have the audience abruptly terminated. In Einstein defiant (p. 58), the scene is set up in the context of the first meeting of Bohr and Einstein in Berlin. Both Einstein and Bohr had much in common, including their distaste for formality and pretension. Bolles describes the scene as one reason why both Einstein and Bohr were “instantly attracted to the other” (p, 57). In a way, both descriptions, graphic and textual, of this incident compliment each other.

Another example occurs in both books on Einstein’s first visit to Copenhagen. Bohr meets Einstein at the harbor, and they board a tram for a hoped–for short trip home (Well, there is a difference here. Bolles notes that they were heading on the tram to Bohr’s home (p. 110). Ottaviani indicates that they were heading to Bohr’s institute at the University on Bledgdamsvej (p. 77). It is an entertaining story and never mind the destination. Bohr and Einstein obviously were not too concerned!). Lost in their conversation, Bohr and Einstein repeatedly missed their stop. Ottaviani’s recreation of the conversation is seriously limited by the confines of cartoon balloons and a mere six panels on a page. Bolles regrets that there were “no passengers abroad the tram who left an onlooker’s account of how these two men conversed ... ” (pp. 110–111).

Bolles takes the five pages to reconstruct their arguments over the meaning of Planck’s hv and other quantum topics. Bolles’ effective reconstruction of Copenhagen — Bohr and Einstein’s “yo–yoing back and forth” across the city, immersed in conversation — certainly made me wish that I was on those trams with the two most important personalities of twentieth century physics. (Now, if I had a time machine, I would certainly have the means to board the tram and listen. Of course, Einstein and Bohr would be both distracted by the sudden appearance of a time traveler!) Nevertheless, the two depictions of this event, in graphics and text, again compliment each other. One can almost see those two geniuses, according to Bolles, “too distracted by their own intelligence to find their way home.”

Bolles recreates Europe and especially Einstein’s Berlin very well, providing excellent historical context not only of science and academia but also of culture and politics. In this historical infrastructure, Bolles’ descriptions of the first ventures into the quantum world ring clear and quite understandable, even for the most equation–fearing reader. I found Einstein defiant one of the best recent books in explaining this dawning of the quantum.

Ottaviani’s graphic novel is an excellent companion to Bolles. For those terrified by over 300 pages of text, Ottaviani’s Suspended in language provides a great visual aid to Bolles. For anyone interested in the early history of the quantum, ready for a graphically rich and humorous approach, Suspended in language is perfect. If you hunger for more, pick up Bolles’ Einstein defiant and lose yourself in a well–written and creative page–turner. Perhaps some enterprising publisher will combine these two works into one physical volume. What a treat it would be! — ejv End of Review

 


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