Skip to main content

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.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

De/Cipher - Mark Frary ****

I was a little doubtful when I first saw this book. Although it has the intriguing tagline 'The greatest codes ever invented and how to crack them' the combination of a small format hardback and gratuitous illustrations made me suspect it would be a lightweight, minimal content, Janet and John approach to codes and ciphers. Thankfully, in reality Mark Frary manages to pack a remarkable amount of content into De/Cipher's slim form.

Not only do we get some history on and instructions to use a whole range of ciphers, there are engaging little articles on historical codebreakers and useful guidance on techniques to break the simpler ciphers. The broadly historical structure takes the reader through basic alphabetic manipulation, keys, electronic cryptography, one time pads and so on, all the way up to modern public key encryption and a short section on quantum cryptography. 

We even get articles on some of the best known unsolved ciphers, such as the Dorabella and the Voynich ma…

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Paul McAuley - Four Way Interview

Paul McAuley won the Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel and has gone on to win the Arthur C. Clarke, British Fantasy, Sidewise and John W. Campbell Awards. He gave up his position as a research biologist to write full-time. He lives in London. His latest novel is Austral.


Why science fiction?

For one thing, I fell in love with science fiction at an early age, and haven’t yet fallen out of love with it (although I have flirted with other genres). For another, we’re living in an increasingly science-fictional present. Every day brings headlines that could have been ripped from a science-fiction story. Giant robot battle: Who knew a duel between chainsaw-armed mech suits could be so boring? for instance. Or, Roy Orbison hologram to embark on UK tour in 2018. And looming above all this, like Hokusai’s famous wave, are the ongoing changes caused by global warming and climate change, which is just one consequence of human activity having become the dominant force of change on the planet…