Mstation Book Reviews
Valid RSS pre Dec 04 reviews are here

Thu, 30 Mar 2006


Andrew Brown, J.D.Bernal The Sage of Science,
Oxford University Press

This thick (562 pages including index) describes a man who was not thick at all, except, some would say, in his political beliefs.

J.D. Bernal was the father of x-ray crystallography and was known as Sage because of his wide knowledge of just about everything. This was tested one day at lunch at his lab at Cambridge University when one of his colleagues introduced in a spirit of fun the topic of Mexican architecture. Sage's response was to ask which period they were interested in and then gave a lively talk. Just as well he wasn't surrounded by the meanspirited... most of the time. During WWII he worked on a number of projects where it was later falsely said that he had made little contribution.

This biography traces J.D. Bernal from his birth in Ireland through school and university and includes quite a lot of detail of his work in crystallography, and also that of others in the field. The time stretches through WWI and through WWII. It thus encompasses the birth of Quantum Mechanics and various political movements including communism and the nazis. J.D. Bernal, like quite a few educated people of his time were very keen on the Russian communist model. Cambridge, at the time also had the likes of Blunt and Philby who would become famous spies. This is said to be Bernal's blind spot as when the true measure of Stalin was becoming plain, Bernal still stuck to his communist guns. In fairness, anyone seeing the complete faillure of capitalism during the depression could be forgiven for thinking there was a better model ... particlularly people such as scientists who were regarded as an elite in Russia - as long as they toed the political line.

Bernal also had a notoriously active sex life which is alluded to in the book but not dealt with in a prurient way. What we end up with is quite a detailed portrait of the man such that we feel we might predict what is going to happen as circumstances arise.

All in all, the scholarship is breathtaking and it is all quite readable as well. For those interested in the history of science, this book is a worthy contender for the bookshelf and also for those just interested in people.

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No Place to Hide

Robert O'Harrow, "No Place to Hide" - 
The terrifying truth about the people who are watching our every move,
Penguin Books (paperback), London
First published in Great Britain 2006 

Robert Harrow is a reporter for the Financial and Investigative Staffs at The Washington Post as well as an associate of the Center for Investigative Reporting. In 2000 he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize as a result of his articles on privacy and technology and in 2003 he won the Carnegie Mellon Cyber Security Reporting Award.

His book, "No Place to Hide" focuses on what appears to be his main interest - the development of surveillance technology in modern society (specifically in America); what data is gathered, both by private companies and government officials; how this data is used and/or abused; and what consequences this has for society, both now and in the future. As you can imagine, this is highly topical and relevant, here as well as in America following the various terrorist attacks, particularly those on the World Trade Centre in September 2001 that have been occurring over the past few years. In the current climate, many ordinary citizens are concerned about public security and some are even willing to sacrifice some of their privacy for safety.

The book covers a range of topics. For example, it outlines some of the products that are offered, both to businesses and government departments (such as phone tapping equipment). As the book progresses, it reveals just how extensive this surveillance society has become - our every move can be recorded, not just from CCTV, but also where we log on to use the internet, from the GPS systems in our mobile phones and the credit card transactions we make. It also mentions the electronic cards used to swipe in and out of the underground in New York (similar to our Oyster cards in London perhaps?) which can also track our movements. Some people are having identity chips implanted under their skin, similar to those used to identify lost pets, and the potential prospect of having this enforced in the future is quite terrifying.

Robert O'Harrow has clearly researched this book very well, as can be assumed from his detailed list of sources at the back of the book. His writing is involving due to his use of dramatic narrative, as well as hugely informative. Perhaps not as dramatic as Orwell's 1984, but this is not a work of fiction, and would interest those who may wish to clarify the conspiracy theories surrounding our so-called Big Brother society. (M.N.)

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Website Cookbook

Doug Addsion, Web Site Cookbook, O'Reilly

Two hundred and sixty-one pages (including index) of "designing, maintaining, and marketing" a website, and being a cookbook you'd expect ideas, code, and discussion and that's what you get.

With so much information on the web it might at first sight seem that a book might be a luxury but with a book you get cohesive organisation and you don't have to put up with intrusive ads along the way.

This book ranges from server issues through organisation, design (although a section called Creating Effective Pop-up Windows should have been pulped at birth) to database issues, creating email lists, and various other bits and pieces.

There's always something to learn in this line but whether that's worth the price of the book will dpend on your knowledge.

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VOIP Hacks

Ted Wallingford, VoIP Hacks: Tips and Tools
for Internet Telephony, O'Reilly

Tons of things to play with here on your way to cheaper phone calls. To the general public, VoIP means Skype but there's more to it than that plus there all all sorts of apps that enlarge the experience and variously make it as complicated or as simple as you like.

As usual with the Hacks series, all platforms are talked about and, as it happens, due to the popularity of VoIP, there is a fair bit to talk about.

Here we learn about Analogue Telephony Adaptors and their firmware as a first shot and we go on through 306 pages covering eveything from VoIP while fragging to conrolling the lights with your IP phone. Naturally enough there are sections on Skype and Asterix.

Lots of fun to be had here.

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Velvet Underground

Clinton Heylin Ed., All Yesterday's Parties
The Velvet Underground in Print 1966-1971,
Da Capo Press

Maybe you weren't there; for the speed "vitamin" injections in the bum; for the freedom of calculated sleaze and sexual strangeness; for the inspiration of the outsider; for the chance to prove to yourself that Mom and Dad were wrong and that those substances and those people could be very bad for your health. And some people survived, and some didn't.

To some the Velvet Underground was the devil talking and to others an uplifting affirmation of the freedom of the street, the freedom to make mistakes, and the freedom to make a big, haunting noise. Here were the second incarnations of Lou Reed and the bad-tempered Welshman, John Cale, maybe the third for Nico (see her beauty in Fellini's La Dolce Vita), perhaps the second for Mo Tucker, the peacemaker, and I don't know about Sterling Morrison. Under Andy Warhol's wing they brought to a very small part of the world a musical experience that was both avant and immediate, haunting and uplifting -- uplifting because it took (a small number of) people to new places.

Nowadays, with the band long gone, the VU have CD's in a great many CD racks. The sort of people who had Joy Division, The Cure, and early Depeche Mode also had a few VU's in the 80's and 90's and now they're part of the classical pop repertoire.

So, it's fitting that a book like this should appear that gathers together contemporary writings on the VU complete with those who didn't get it or like it one little bit. The big-time fans are there too, and they include the likes of Sandy Pearlman and Lester Bangs. Also interesting is the editor's forward where he lays out the chronology of the thing and the way the journalism flowed, complete with references to the shackled and commercial Rolling Stone magazine. It is a little depressing that the likes of Creem and Crawdaddy have long since bitten the dust.

As Thurston Moore is quoted on the cover "A sweet kiss for Velvet freaks". It's an interesting chapter in pop history as well.

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Google Advertising

Harold Davis, Google Advertising Tools,

This is actually about far more than just advertising with Google or running ads from them. It's a fairly complete take on what you might need to know about web advertising. It covers building a popular site and such things as page rankings and then looks at various different advertising programs that exist before spending some time on Google.

Davis goes through the steps to sign up and what you need to do in some detail so people who are approaching the subject for the first time will find their hands well held. People who already have some knowledge should find it added to as there are all sorts of bits and pieces on the way through including programming with the adwords API (which would normally only be done in connection with big corporate programs).

If you need to know more about advertising this book is a very good first step along the way.

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Game Design Complete

Patrick O'Luanaigh, Game Design Complete, 
Paraglyph Press

And it is complete in an overall sort of way, and the author knows a bit about this sort of thing. There is a lot packed into the 430 pages we have here.

The author takes us through from Constraints or Opportunities, Core Gameplay, Design Challenges, Smart Design, and Disaster Management plus a few concluding thoughts, some of which relate to people making short-sighted statements. In other words this is a world for thinking large.

In the detail of the thing we have information on all sorts of aspects of game production - designing camera systems for one, looking at audio for another (nice to know someone else finds EA's soundtracks annoying). We even have a look at market research and the dreaded focus groups -- dreaded because thinking "outside the box" doesn't make it past these.

This is a good book for those who want to know a bit more about game production, for those who are thinking of making a small game as a checklist for the relevant and irrelevant, and certainly for those thinking they might like a job in this field.

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Clash, The

Chris Salowicz, Photos Bob Gruen,
The Clash, Omnibus Press

This is a large format paperback filled with shots of The Clash both onstage and off. It is also accompanied by a fairly literate commentary on what The Clash were, and has comments from members of the band.

The Clash actually stood for something other than themselves and made some variable but memorable music so it's nice to see a flow of things that commemorate their existence. Clash fans should check this out. People who don't know the band, who like the idea of a social consciousness that also has humility, and a feeling for the importance of fans should also check it out. Better still: listen to the music.

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C in a Nutshell

Peter Prinz, Tony Crawford, C in a Nutshell,

Leaving aside the question of what computer programming language you should learn first if you need or want to learn one, C is still a major language and there are sstrong arguments for suggesting that C should be the one. There are also strong arguments for alternatives for C++, as there are for not bothering with the low-level stuff and just getting on with something higher level. In the end, what you will attempt will be driven a little by what your peers are doing, and most importantly, how deep into the machine you want to go. And remember, truly innovative solutions are more likely to come from deeper inside the machine.

Anyway, the Nutshell series is a no nonsence and no frills approach which is really suitable, not so much for initial learning, but for delving into once you know a bit. With C, the original Kernighan and Ritchie book is a good bet and that could be supplemented by something like one of the Dietel and Dietel series even though I personally don't like them all that much.

Think of this book as a C "bible".

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Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Roshomon and Seventeen Other Stories,
Penguin Classics

Akutagawa lived in Japan in the Taisho period which was a small flowering of art and liberty before militarism swept the country at the time of the Depression. He was a modern Japanese man, more likely to wear a suit and drink coffee than be seen in traditional wear. He was also a scholar of other cultures -- English, French, Chinese, and his carefully crafted writing is still on literature courses in Japan.

This collection of stories is meant to highlight his work and a forward by Haruki Murakami explains his place in Japanese literature, and a little about him as a person and, for non-Japanese, it also explains a period of Japanese history.

The stories tend to be dark but the writing itself immediately jumps out and it becomes clear how he has stood the test of time. People seeking out Japanese literature might start with Sei Shonagun's Pillow Book, go on to Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji, then a little Aktagawa, and finish with some Haruki Murakami. International understanding is always a good thing.

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