FM Reviews
First Monday

FM Reviews

David E. Brown.
Inventing Modern America: from the Microwave to the Mouse.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.
cloth, 200 p., ISBN 0-262-02508-6, US$29.95.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu/
Inventing Modern America Web site: http://www.inventingmodernamerica.com

David E. Brown. Inventing Modern America: from the Microwave to the Mouse.

This book is a publication of the Lemelson-MIT Program for Invention and Innovation. Its intended readership is American high school students and anyone with a general interest in 20th century technological development. Five different fields are covered - Medicine and Healthcare; Consumer Products; Transportation; Energy and Environment; and, Computing and Telecommunications. David E. Brown introduces us to a total of 35 inventions and their inventors, while James Burke provides a helpful two-page introduction to each section.

The key criterion for selection was inventions that have contributed to the quality of human life, for example in the treatment of disease, saving of time and energy in the home, safer and more efficient travel, the fight against pollution, access to and processing of information. And indeed, the majority of inventions chosen do belong in this category. But the book illustrates, perhaps unwittingly at times, the contradictory forces at play in technological development: one of the inventors chosen is Henry Ford, the consequences of whose motor car assembly line we are suffering from today in traffic accidents, traffic jams, road rage and air pollution - the very pollution that more recent inventors are striving to overcome, as described in the Energy and Environment section of the book.

Further contradictions arise between Lester C. Thurow's Foreword and James Burke's introductions. Thurow discusses technological development in purely positive terms, implying that the more things are invented, the better place the world becomes. He also links "technical progress" with "economic progress", but anyone who takes that concept too literally might think that they can go ahead and invent anything today, so long as they can sell it tomorrow, and never mind if people's lives are going to be adversely affected next week or next year. Burke comments in a more sombre key that "We may have spent several centuries not seeing the wood for the trees", and that the high standard of living enjoyed by some has been achieved "at a considerable, perhaps unacceptable environmental price" (p. 119).

It is left to Brown to tell the individual stories, and he does an admirable job, giving a clear technical explanation of each invention, and offering an interesting word portrait of each inventor. For anyone wishing to follow up on an area of interest, there is a helpful 'Sources and Further Reading' section, listing books and Web sites. The volume is attractively designed and generously illustrated, one highlight being a photograph of the original computer bug: literally, a moth found by Grace Hopper in the Mark II computer she was working on in 1945 (p. 180). I also enjoyed the examples of computer-generated poetry (pp. 184-185). The scientists chosen cover a wide social range: of the 35 inventors, 26 are white men, six are white women, three are black or Asian men, and there is a photograph of black science teachers (men and women) at the Tuskegee Institute in the late 19th century (p. 122). Brown spends time describing how his chosen scientists had to overcome hurdles, for example because they were female, black, or working class.

The final impression I am left with is that much good can come from technological innovation, if scientists have the will to pursue socially and environmentally responsible lines of research. Unfortunately, funding so often goes into the development of life-threatening technology, and governments have a tendency to take half-measures, or no measures at all, towards reducing carbon dioxide emissions, slowing down the greenhouse effect and preserving the ozone layer. If life on our planet is to survive beyond the 21st century, careful choices will have to be made about where to allocate the sponsorship and funding: at least this book helps to point the inventors of the future in the right direction. - Dr. Gill Stoker End of Review

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Stephen Drury.
Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
paper, 409 p., ISBN 0-198-50271-0, US$35.00.
Oxford University Press: http://www.oup.com

Recently published in paperback, Stepping Stones is a book of many disciplines, yet concerned with only one subject: planet Earth. If I had to describe it in only a short sentence, I would be tempted to call it "the sensible inhabitant's reference guide to our home planet". Similarly to manuals accompanying complex electronic appliances or gadgets, Stepping Stones investigates the multifaceted 'functionality' of the Earth in a positively engaging way. Already by skimming through the table of contents, the broad spectrum of the book becomes apparent; it is a journey which starts from basic working systems, such as the energy balance sheet, wind and ocean circulations, and the interaction between Earth-bound and cosmic phenomena, culminating to an assessment of ourselves, the human race. In between, a fascinating exploration that takes the reader through continental change, climate effects on life, the origins of the solar system, meteoritic impacts, the evolution of life forms, the extinction cycles and much more.

Although one would expect such an extensive coverage to take up hundreds and hundreds of pages, the beauty of Stepping Stones is that it is not indigestible. In about 376 pages, the author pulls together several scientific disciplines while remaining tightly focussed on the relevance that these processes and events have been (and still have) on our planet.

My own reading of Drury's message is that we should be astounded by the sheer complexity of the interplay between the numerous astronomical, physical and chemical forces which make up everything that's around us. After reading the book, any human self-centered view becomes untenable: we are the product of countless evolutionary actions and reactions to the Earth's changing internal and external environment. It is the Earth, not ourselves, which should be seen as an extraordinary miracle within the known universe; the amazing combination of chemical elements, incomprehensibly abundant time and cosmic circumstances have rendered possible a planet to emerge that was able to sustain initially primitive forms of life, then, over the eons, more and more complicated living structures, up to self-conscious beings.

When reading the book, I could not help thinking about the fact that there are available many titles on evolutionary history or about the environment or geology. However, Stepping Stones is not one of them. It does not attempt to explain how the genes, memes and phenotypes interact with one another, or what measures should be taken to counter the negative effects of a seasonal El Niño. Instead, it takes an objective snapshot of where we are at and how we got there; or rather, where the Earth is at, and how it got there. Remove the formulas, charts, and timelines, and you could start imagining that you're reading someone's biography!

Having said that, the book can, at times, be a little bit difficult, particularly in the sections concerned with the chemistry of life and the geological intricacies of our planet's internal physical forces. Drury's clear and appealing writing style, however, more than compensate for this fact and also ensures that the reader's interest and curiosity are constantly kept alive. There are a lot of details in the text but, apart from a minor mistake in a chart's label, the accuracy of the information is kept to a very high standard.

Overall, Stepping Stones is one of those books that help making sense of something: being familiar (at least in general terms) with the way our Earth works can be beneficial in all sorts of situations, especially nowadays when many of the most pressing issues revolve around global warming, globalisation, migrations, ethnicity, the optimal utilization of natural resources and, on a larger scale, astronomical advancements and the increasing awareness of how we, humans, should position ourselves within the cosmos. I hope to find the time to re-read Drury's book, because it exemplifies the incredibly sophisticated nature of our home planet; it is a beautiful natural construct that is worth exploring again and again. - Paolo G. Cordone. End of Review

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Jesse Feiler.
Mac OS X Developer's Guide.
San Diego, Calif.: Morgan Kaufmann, 2001.
paper, 608 p., ISBN 0-122-51341-X, US$49.95.
Morgan Kaufmann: http://mkp@mkp.com

Jesse Feiler. Mac OS X Developer's Guide.

It is tempting to make this a review of Mac OS X, which I think is the most fantastic operating system to hit the desktop. Ever. However, this is a review of a book about what OS X offers developers, so I will keep the 'OS X is fab' comments to a minimum.

The book is not heavy: in fact, I actually enjoyed reading it. I have to read a lot of computing books and most fall in between the geeky humour that starts to cloy after a while, and the dull-as-ditchwater, plain, this-is-what-this-method-does prose style. Feiler's humour and friendliness add a light touch to what could be a very heavy read indeed. This subtle humour can be seen in his sample application. Too many sample applications seem to be boring things like employee databases (especially in the XML world where I am at the moment). Feiler's sample app is a diary program for people who want to record their daily lives: Chroniclers, Travellers, Pilgrims, Creators, Apologists, Confessors and Prisoners. A much more interesting user community than HR managers ...

Part I: Introducing Mac OS X

Part I covers the basic architecture of OS X, the languages it supports (Java, Objective-C, C++) and the programming frameworks of OS X (Cocoa, Carbon and the core foundation and Apple Class suites). The architecture overview gives the whys as well as the whats of the operating system and shows how the different technologies within OS X relate to each other. At the core is the Darwin kernel, a variation of the BSD Unix Mach kernel. On top of the kernel are the display components: Quartz, OpenGL and QuickTime. Above this level are two components: the Carbon libraries and the Cocoa framework (framework is OO-speak for library). The Carbon libraries provide a layer of compatibility with Mac OS 9.2 and below: Carbon apps can be used on both OS X and 'Classic' Mac OS, provided the Carbon library is installed on the Classic system. Cocoa apps will only run on OS X.

The languages of OS X

When I read that Java was one of the languages of OS X, I was a little confused. To me, Java has platform-independent connotations. So I read this section wondering whether OS X apps were somehow portable to other OSes. Java also has slow connotations for me. I wondered if this meant that OS X apps written in Java would be slowed down by the runtime engine. I realised that I was wrong on both counts. While it is possible to write platform-independent Java code in OS X, you would be restricted to the same Java Swing interface you would be when writing on other platforms. No, OS X Java code is different in that it can access the Cocoa framework as a set of Java classes. This brings me to my second assumption: slowness. Again, no: the Cocoa framework is a compiled Objective-C framework, and Java accesses this framework by means of the Java bridge. So we are not really accessing Java classes here but raw compiled code. This is great for me - with my current XML work, I am using a lot of Java and can carry this experience over to OS X programming.

What is Objective-C? Feiler explains this well in terms of the history of the OO-ification of C. C++ attempted to make C into an OO language: C++ looks very much like C because its OO-ness has been deliberately designed to look C-ish. On the other hand, Objective-C attempted to graft OO syntax onto C in such a way that the OO bits look distinctive. There are a number of abstract and practical differences between the two approaches that are explained well in the book. However, you do not have to choose between them, as OS X supports Objective-C++! You can write your interface code in Objective-C and your back-end code in C++, and the OS X compiler will handle it.

Part II: Designing for Mac OS X

There is some excellent general programming and software design stuff in here. Chapter 10 focuses on those things you have to do at the beginning of any software project:

  • Set your objectives.
  • Know your users.
  • Build on the past.
  • Choose your resources.

Once you know what you're going to do, Feiler explains the resources you have available to do it. The development tools of Mac OS X are Project Builder and Interface Builder. Project Builder and Interface Builder have the distinction of being the IDEs that Apple use internally to develop OS X itself. The chapters on these IDEs are more than enough to get you started on a project.

Feiler then goes on to talk about prototypes and proofs of concept - more general programming issues. He points out that Project Builder and Interface Builder allow you to create proofs of concept rapidly. His comments on testing are a useful reminder of the procedures we coders should follow - but perhaps don't as religiously as we ought.

Part III: Writing for Mac OS X

Feiler then gets down and dirty with the code for his Diary application. This is not intended to be a full OS X developer's manual: he states that "the focus of this part of the book is on showing you the sorts of thing you can do and then pointing you in the direction of additional information". Actually, there is a very satisfying amount of detail and sample code here - more than enough to get you wanting to write your own killer app right away. - Robert Scovell End of Review

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Gordon Graham.
The Internet: A Philosophical Inquiry.
London & New York: Routledge, 1999.
paper, 192 p., ISBN 0-415-19749-X, US$16.95.
Routledge: http://www.routledge-ny.com

I think it is fair to describe Graham's book as an introduction to the philosophy of technology with the Internet as a case. It presents a conceptual framework in terms of which a technology such as the Internet can be evaluated. It is a well-argued presentation of the questions which are not only relevant but necessary to address if a proper evaluation is to take place. One such question relates to how transformative the Internet really is. Does it represent something radically new or the merely novel?

Graham argues that the mark of a truly transforming technology are twofold: the ability to serve better recurrent needs, and having a major impact upon the form of social and political life. In this light there is no doubt that the Internet is something radically new. But Graham is more concerned about formulating the pertinent questions than giving answers, not to say mere opinions. As a reader you get philosophical arguments for the premises on which the answer should be grounded. Quite a few central issues are discussed: the nature of technology, direct versus representative democracy, the individual versus the community, freedom of expression, and the virtual as a kind of reality. It is done in a non-technical but very competent way, so if you want to come to grips with basic issues relating to the Internet, Graham's book is good place to start. - Svend Larsen End of Review

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Peter Pesic.
Seeing Double.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.
paper, 192 p., ISBN 0-262-16205-9, US$24.95.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu/

Peter Pesic. Seeing Double.

Peter Pesic's book Seeing Double covers an eclectic range of subjects, based around the themes of identity and individuality. In the prologue, he defines an entity's 'individuality' as whatever makes it more than just an instance of a particular category. For example, a human being's individuality would include their unique appearance, behavior and psyche. The related property of 'identity' is defined as the ongoing self-sameness of an individual, no matter what changes it undergoes. For humans, identity is the thread by which we tie our long lives together into a conceptual whole.

Pesic examines these concepts from three different angles. Firstly, he cites examples where classical literature has touched upon the debate, including Homer, Plato and Aristotle in his survey. While the sources are interesting in their own right, the interpretations are sometimes far-fetched, leaving the reader with a sense of being dragged unwillingly in the direction of the author's discussion. Nonetheless, the excerpts do lend an interesting historical perspective to the more satisfying material that follows.

The second angle is provided by a brief tour of some physical theory, beginning with Newton's laws of motion and moving on to the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Maxwell and Faraday's fields and waves. A particularly enlightening paragraph explains how Gibbs solved a paradox related to entropy by considering molecules as indistinguishable. Following these brief sections, the scientific core of the book is reached, where Pesic spends a couple of chapters outlining basic quantum theory and thrashing out its philosophical implications. He spells out his view "that the heart of quantum theory is its radical innovations on the question of individuality" (page 98).

Pesic's basic argument is sound - various famous experiments demonstrate that at the quantum level, matter exists in the form of probabilistic wavefunctions. The conglomerates of particles we identify with familiar objects arise from the collapse of these functions, in a poorly-understood process that is generally (but controversially) considered a result of observation. Because the world is expressed in this probabilistic form, labeling a particular particle is meaningless - as soon as the observer looks the other way, it dissipates back into the global wavefunction, never to be identified again.

I found this to be the most insightful point in the book - matter's lack of identity is rarely discussed in other works which consider the implications of quantum theory. However, other elements of the philosophical discussion, which constitutes the third angle in the book, are less convincing. The citations of Locke, Leibniz and the Atomists are competent enough, but a consideration of some non-Western ideas (such as Buddhist metaphysics) is clearly amiss. When noting that "contemporary philosophers ... find it hard to hold on to the notion ... of ... 'primitive thisness'" (page 143), surely he should mention some thinkers who discarded it millennia ago.

This shortcoming is symptomatic of the philosophical narrowness which constitutes the most frustrating aspect of the book. Kant's distinction between what we can know about the world and the world itself doesn't make Pesic question his efforts to get a handle on the latter. In discussing human identity, no attention is paid to the centrality of the first-person perspective, without which there would be little need to posit an ongoing self-sameness at all. And there is no questioning of the materialistic metaphysics on which the whole discussion is built - in a world made out of information, identity could be grounded in a pattern that is sustained.

A last criticism is that Pesic's writing style is not to my taste. There are too many wistful and rhetorical sections that flow badly and lack in substance. For example: "According to an old tale, there were 36 universes created before the present one ... Were they unworkable or just ugly? ... Did the angels suggest different physical laws? ... Why did God choose identicality?" (page 120). Throughout, the narrative is overly conversational and avoids stating a point of view. While more suitable for literary analysis, it is too ambiguous for a fruitful philosophical debate.

Considering the complexity and breadth of the issues it takes on, the book is a short, light read. With just 150 pages of large type, it might better be described as an extended essay or monograph. Readers hoping for a comprehensive examination of the concepts of individuality and identity will be disappointed. But as a starting point for those interested in these questions, particularly in the light of modern science, Seeing Double serves its purpose well. - Gideon Greenspan End of Review

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John Worsley and the Terra Soft Solutions Team.
Yellow Dog Linux.
Portland, Ore.: OpenDocs, LLC, 2001.
paper, 268 p., with CD-ROM, ISBN 0-970-03303-6, US$49.95.
Terra Soft Solutions: http://www.terrasoftsolutions.com/
OpenDocs Publishing: http://www.opendocspublishing.com

John Worsley and the Terra Soft Solutions Team. Yellow Dog Linux.

Although the name Terra Soft Solutions might not say very much to most people, this is a successful developer of technologies and integrated solutions that have emerged since the popularisation of the Linux operating system a few years ago. One of the flagship products coming out of the company is a PowerPC distribution of Linux, named Yellow Dog Linux (YDL). YDL runs on many Macintosh models, including older ones, and provides a plethora of applications, utilities, developer and communication tools. It is a compelling alternative to Apple's own Mac OS X (itself based on UNIX), that is now shipping with every new Mac sold.

Traditionally, the main difficulty with Linux distributions is that the installation procedure often turns out to be a rather tricky affair: Mac users, spoiled by the user-friendliness of their operating system can be confronted with awkward command line or textual installer screens, which must be navigated by pressing the tab, space and return keys. Moreover, the hardware preparation necessary before system installation requires partitioning and tweaking with crude utilities which only work if you can remember cryptic commands, and if you are prepared to be identified by your computer as "[user@host root]$" - clearly the stuff reserved to die-hard techie-nerds.

For the last couple of YDL releases, Terra Soft has worked on producing a graphical installer that makes the tasks of partitioning, installing and configuring a real breeze. It has also written a printed guide to assist the more inexperienced Linux users in getting the most out of their system. Covering version 2.x of YDL, the book (which also includes a CD-ROM with the software) describes in details the installation procedure and the various hardware pre-requisites. It then examines the important aspect of migrating from Mac OS to Linux. As YDL is a PowerPC port, its users will be most probably Mac users, who will be accustomed to carrying out their operations in a very specific way: using menus, dealing with files, the Desktop, folders, preferences, etc. Linux is very different in many of such aspects, thus part II of the manual effectively becomes an invaluable compendium of Linux techniques.

Subsequent sections are devoted to advanced configuration issues and troubleshooting. These are vital, as UNIX is not an intuitive operating system. The Shell, file management, system administration and service management are among the topic covered in great detail, as are some outstanding pieces of functionality built-into Linux: MOL (Mac-on-Linux) and YUP (Yellow Dog Linux Update Program). Several appendices complement the material: a list of software installed by the distribution, the history of Linux and of the GNU/Free Software projects, support resources and a valuable section dedicated to some particular thorny issues, such as making AirPort work correctly or configuring mouse emulation. These are called 'Howtos' and are an extract from the plethora of useful troubleshooting documents that can be found on the Yellow Dog Linux's own Web site (at http://www.yellowdoglinux.com).

The language of the manual is clear and concise; it is well organised with plenty of screenshots to complement the instructions. A small annoyance related to this is the fact that some pictures are fairly blurred: they seem to have been scaled by something like Photoshop and have acquired a fuzzy anti-aliased appearance which, while nice on a computer monitor, looks poor on a printed page.

Nevertheless, in the days when providing printed manuals does not seem to be fashionable anymore, the effort by Terra Soft is commendable. Not only did they managed to come out with a wonderfully rich Linux distribution for the Macintosh; they also had the insight to offer their customers a printed guide that, for many users, is certain to become the first step towards true geekiness. - Paolo G. Cordone. End of Review


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