Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Network Geeks – Brian E. Carpenter ***

There is a series of TV adverts in the UK that have managed to embed their tagline into common usage. The ads are for a type of varnish, and that tagline is ‘It does what it says on the tin.’ There is a real problem when a book doesn’t do what it says on the tin – you get cognitive dissonance, expecting one thing and discovering another. That’s what happened when I opened up Network Geeks.
The subtitle promises ‘how they built the internet.’ Now this is a topic I’m fascinated by. I really enjoyed the book Where Wizards Stay Up Late, which details the story of the origins of the internet, but that’s quite old now, and I assumed this would give a modern day take from the viewpoint of an internet dominated society. What you get inside is totally different, and that’s a shock.
In trendy music terms, this book is a mashup. It really has three separate themes, only linked by the author, Brian Carpenter. One is an autobiography – so we get a fair amount of Carpenter’s family history, going back a good few generations. It’s not badly written, but probably of limited interest to anyone outside Carpenter’s family. Secondly – and this is the best bit – we have a considerable account of Carpenter’s work at CERN. He worked there twice and if you are into the developed of distributed computing (as I am) there is some really interesting material here, as CERN was both groundbreaking and yet isolated from the mainstream. Apart from anything else in this technical memoir part of the book I had distinct tugs of nostalgia as I had a great time working on DEC equipment, which regularly rears its head, while in the OR department of British Airways.
So far, so good – but we are yet to encounter anything that really has to do with the supposed topic of the book. This comes into the third part of the mashup, featured in the introductory section (which is part of the reason it is such a shock when the book suddenly goes into autobiographical mode) and towards the end. But this isn’t really about ‘how the built the Internet’ at all. It is about ‘how their committees made endless bureaucratic decisions about the architecture and protocols of the internet and how the architecture and protocols developed.’ To be honest, that is a rather less exciting, and certainly a lot more specialist field.
The problem is, unless you are really into the nitty gritty of how the committees that control the internet work, this probably isn’t for you. Carpenter falls into a few writing traps in naming far too many people we aren’t really interested in, using endless acronyms we don’t really care about and giving much too much detail on the minutiae to the extent that we lose the big picture. Here’s a not atypical snippet to get a feel: ‘Internet standards, originally endorsed by DARPA, came from the IETF by 1991, and certainly not from the ITU or the ISO, the twin homes of CLNP. On the other hand, CLNP was officially defined and had already been picked up for the next version of DECnet, a significant factor in the minicomputer market then served by the Internet.’
It’s not that this is a bad book – it just doesn’t do what it says on the tin, and I can only recommend it for the rather narrow audience for whom this kind of thing is meat and drink.
Review by Brian Clegg

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