vol 4 issue 17

Books

6 October 2009
By E&T editorial staff
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The birth of colour TV, video games with a conscience and the principles of carbon trading.

The Struggle for Unity: Colour Television, the Formative Years

By Russell W Burns
IET History of Technology Series, £40

One of the many surprises in Russell Burns's meticulously researched book is how early in the history of television technology its exponents were thinking about developing a rudimentary colour version. John Logie Baird, whose influence looms large over the early chapters, was demonstrating low-definition colour TV prototypes as early as 1928.

However, it is the battle between the two contending US standards - from CBS and a consortium led by RCA - that provides the central drama of Burns's story. Both organisations invested millions in developing and refining their contending specifications, driven by a heady admixture of electrical engineering pride and potential commercial rewards. These mighty rivals spent huge additional resources on lobbying standards body National Television Standards Committee and other influential parties to favour their respective proposals. The RCA-led standard won out in 1953 after a protracted - and sometimes acrimonious - series of detailed technological appraisals, and formed the foundation of colour television standards (including the European PAL and SECAM systems) used since.

The US had limited broadcast colour TV by 1954, and although its quality was comparatively low-grade, it represented a huge achievement for the broadcasting engineering. Burns ably outlines the products and personalities involved, and references the also-rans. The development of the vital display tubes is also well covered.

Unfortunately, for a book about colour display 'The Struggle for Unity' contains no archive colour photos. It's also a pity that an explanation of the development of colour videotape recording did not fall within the scope of this work.

Despite these quibbles, 'The Struggle for Unity' is destined to become a standard authority on this history of electrical engineering and the foundations of broadcast media.

Reviewed by James Hayes, editor of E&T's IT section

The ethics of computer games

By Miguel Sicart
MIT Press, £22.95

Ethical debates about gaming generally focus on the role of violence within titles. Headline releases, such as 'Grand Theft Auto', which conflate violence with success, have fuelled a heated debate about the adverse influence gaming can have on gamers.

However, ethical gameplay is something different, says Miguel Sicart, assistant professor at the Centre for Computer Game Research, IT University Copenhagen. In 'The Ethics of Computer Games' he argues that ethical gameplay involves giving players moral choices within games that can change their gaming experience.

For example, 'Fable II' sees players face a moral dilemma. After spending upwards of 15 hours adventuring with your pet dog, building relationships with the inhabitants of Albion and even possibly starting a family of your own, gamers are made to choose between riches, family and friends, and all the inhabitants in Albion.

'Fable' isn't unique, with numerous games affected by a player's moral compass. The Knights of the Old Republic series is an example of this approach. You can destroy or save races and fight or make allies, with your decisions leading you towards the path of the dark or the light side.

Sicart would argue that these games may be examples of unethical rather than ethical game design, but here lies the crux of his book - a debate and exploration of ethical game development, looking at how players use their ethical values in gameplay, and the implications for game design.

He proposes an ethical framework as a tool to analyse games, arguing that the games themselves are ethical objects, that players are ethical agents and that gaming ethics should be seen as a network of responsibilities and moral duties. He also says that players should not be seen as passive and amoral, but rather that they relate to game content with an ethical mind.

Sicart provides case studies of games, such as 'Bioshock' and 'World of Warcraft', from an ethical perspective, illustrating perspectives on the ethics of single player, multiplayer and online world games.

Drawing on his previous assumptions, Sicart then discusses the importance of moral choice and reasoning and how ethical game design can improve the gameplay experiences.

Although the book is often discursive and densely written, this is an interesting read for games designers and those with a passion for the philosophy of games and gameplay. It definitely offers food for thought.

Reviewed by Keri Allan, games writer for the IET magazine Flipside

Carbon markets: an international business guide

By Arnaud Brohé, Nick Eyre and Nicholas Howarth, with a foreword by Lord Stern
Earthscan, £24.95

The dust jacket calls this "a comprehensive and accessible guide to carbon markets". But it's actually much better than that. This book strikes me as the first genuinely comprehensive - i.e. this is the only one you need - book on the subject. It would however be a mistake to call it accessible.

'Carbon Markets' has lots of let-me-read-that-bit-again moments, not least in the economic theory section. I'd imagine that more than a few readers might get lost on the interaction between the marginal private cost curve, the marginal social cost curve, the marginal social benefit, and the marginal private benefit which help to explain the externalities of energy production from fossil fuels.

But it's the level of detail that makes this book such a useful reference. People familiar with carbon markets would know that one ton of carbon dioxide has a radiative forcing (how much it contributes to global warming) of one over 100 years and methane about 23, meaning that one ton of methane is worth 23 times one ton of carbon dioxide. Learning specifically, however, the different radiative forcings, or GWPs (global warming potential), for HFC-23, sulfur hexafluoride and HFC236fa in 1995, 2001 and 2007 is very useful information to have.

The authors run ahead of themselves a bit, assuming that national carbon markets will be implemented in the US, Australia and New Zealand. In fact, President Obama is introducing a much watered-down system of carbon trading, Australia's proposed system was blocked by Parliament in August 2009 pending a new vote in October, and New Zealand effectively shelved its plans in late 2008 pending a review. Permanence, or certainty, has a habit of being the illusion of every age and vogueish system - who's to say that we won't get some other far more effective structure ten years from now?

To its credit, the book does not ignore the main controversies of carbon trading: is cap and trade better than baseline and credit, would carbon taxes be better etc. But it might have addressed a bit more some of the reasons why alleged fraud has occurred on the scale it has, particularly in carbon offsetting.

We are still in our infancy of learning to develop policy systems that can deliver large quantities of clean and secure energy at the lowest possible cost. And I suspect that climate scientists still have a great deal more to learn than they would admit about how large or small our impact on the climate is - only time will be the true judge. As and until this all becomes clear, this is a very useful reference guide.

Reviewed by Dan Lewis, research director with the Economic Research Council

PoE&Try

German genius Ferdinand Braun was the subject of our last PoE&Try competition. Braun was one of the founding fathers of modern telecommunications, inventing both the cat's whisker diode and the cathode ray tube.

E&T readers rose valiantly to the challenge to commemorate Braun in verse and bag a shelf-load of OUP books. Those entries that warrant an honourable mention include this from B A Jones:

Professor Braun

Had brains as well,

And boosted wave reception.

Marconi came

And claimed his fame

By practising deception.

 

It would be blissfully ironic if Mr Jones had copied this from someone else. However, he insists it is all his own work. Meanwhile P Stimpson chose to focus on the sad end to Braun's life: a German alien stranded in the USA after its entry into World War I.

Thanks to Ferdinand Braun

Wireless was born,

Though his life was to end in sorrow.

He died in the States,

Far away from his mates.

Moral: 'Herr today, gone tomorrow.'

 

However, on this occasion the laurels - and the books - go to John Graham for this verse...

The sausage made from pig´s head, so tasty in the morn,

Is sometimes known as head cheese - but its proper name is brawn.

Whilst the CRT´s inventor, a man of great renown,

Is glorified in Germany as Herr Karl Ferdinand Braun

 

Like down, not dawn.

Like drown, not drawn.

Don´t mis-pronounce the fellow´s name:

He´s Braun - not brawn!

 

A big thank you to all our entrants. Our next competition concerns itself as much with the particular form of a verse as its subject. The following lines were famously written about Braun's great rival:

Guglielmo Marconi

Was brought up on macaroni,

But when he gets it now

There's no end of a row.

 

Readers may recognise it as a 'clerihew' and the example is taken from the book 'Biography for Beginners', published in 1905.

Attributed to 'E Clerihew, BA', the 40 humorous verses were more properly the work of Edmund Clerihew Bentley, a journalist and detective fiction writer.

Bentley is probably unique among poets for not only inventing a new verse form but also having it labelled with his own middle name. However the invention of the clerihew took place many years earlier. The story goes that the 16-year-old Bentley was in a chemistry class at St. Paul's School in London when he came up with the following verse for the entertainment of his fellow pupils:

Sir Humphry Davy

Was not fond of gravy.

He lived in the odium

Of having discovered sodium.

 

This first effort encapsulates all the main elements of the form: four lines, rhyming AABB, with the subject's name for the initial rhyme. It also demonstrates the clerihew's generous approach to facts. Davy did not of course discover sodium, though he was the first to isolate it as a metal.

For the chance to win another glorious set of OUP books, E&T readers are invited to submit their own clerihews about famous scientists, engineers and inventors, the funnier and sillier the better.

I offer my own efforts...

 

James Dyson

Is a favourite with bison.

Few quadrupeds have seen a

More effective bagless cleaner.

 

Sir Alexander Fleming

Did too much 'ahem-ing'.

Because his hygiene wasn't great

He grew fungus on a plate.

 

Send your entries to vvitaliev@theiet.org by 6 November 2009.

 

Mike Barfield

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