We take our pick of this month’s technology book releases
iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us
This long-awaited ‘Unusual Guide’ is one of the best in Jonglez’s continuing series of best-selling ‘Secret Guides’
Is thorium the answer to climate change and a solution for the perceived weakness of current nuclear reactors?
A different view on the Internet, social networking addictions, and technology in the Big Apple.
BY LARRY D ROSEN, £15.99, ISBN 978-0-230-11757-0
It was Albert Einstein who said that our technology has exceeded our humanity. And while he might have had weightier things on his mind than Twitter and Facebook when he wrote that, it's easy to see how relevant they are to the iGeneration. These are the 80 per cent of the world's population who by the year 2015 will own a smartphone, tablet or laptop. According to Larry Rosen, these people are at risk of developing psychological disorders because our love of social networking technology is becoming an obsession.
Rosen is an expert in the psychology of technology and in the past quarter of a century he's conducted research on 30,000 people in two dozen countries. In 'iDisorder' he gives us a readable and quite frightening run through his headline findings. Subtitled 'Understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us', his book tells us what we already know. People who can't live without checking their emails might have OCD, while people who tweet incessantly about the minutiae of their lives are not just boring, but suffering from narcissism. People who feel bereavement when they lose their phone aren't literally dying, while missing meetings because you were surfing the net may mean there's more wrong with you than simple stupidity.
We all know this. And Rosen knows we all know it. But what is interesting is that it is simple to wean ourselves off this digital dependency. Spend more time outdoors. Spend more time with real people rather than online 'friends'. Limit the amount of time you spend with technology. This may all sound obvious, but sometimes we need to go to the doctor to be told we're ill. Moderation is the key, says Dr Rosen sensibly.
Don't fall into the trap of reading 'iDisorder' and simply assuming you're a cyber-depressive punching out code in the last chance Internet cafe. Get to grips with your disorders by reading the physical hardback book, while leaving the Kindle version for the serious junkies. Great stuff.
SECRET NEW YORK: AN UNUSUAL GUIDE
BY TM RIVES, £12.99, ISBN 978-2361950248
New York is one of the world's greatest cities and one of the quirkiest ones too. That is why this long-awaited 'Unusual Guide' is one of the best in Jonglez's continuing series of best-selling 'Secret Guides'.
The city is the birthplace of the USA's 19th and early 20th century technology boom and home to a number of groundbreaking inventions – both seminal and not.
The book focuses on less known sights of the great metropolis, including numerous monuments of technological, scientific and industrial heritage which E&T readers, I am sure, would also be delighted to explore. Among them is the little-known 12ft scale model of the American International Building, nestling in the shadow of the AIB itself – the tallest building in downtown New York, with its famous white-stone walls and double-decker elevators, and the only one that has its own lovingly chiselled smaller copy at the entrance.
You may also be tempted to wander (discreetly) the full 50 subterranean blocks of Upper Manhattan along the disused Freedom Tunnel between 122nd and 72nd Streets – an engineering miracle and the setting for many a gritty urban legend. Or to stare nostalgically at the legendary stone eagles on Seventh Avenue in front of Penn Station – silent reminders of the long-gone-by heyday of America's train era.
You can even visit the old Steinway & Sons Piano Factory in the Bronx – the oldest manufacturing business in New York City where the core building techniques of the world-renowned Steinway pianos remain largely unchanged. In the words of the Guide: "It's raw, clamorous manufacturing, but the product is so sensitive, it's practically alive."
This fine literary metaphor can be extended to the Guide itself, which enables us to hear the semi-audible through the din of the modern metropolis, yet still harmonious and beautiful, music of historic New York.
SUPERFUELTHORIUM, THE GREEN ENERGY SOURCE FOR THE FUTURE
BY RICHARD MARTIN, £18.99, ISBN 978-0230116474
In 'SuperFuel', Richard Martin makes big claims for thorium as the answer to climate change and as a panacea for the perceived weakness of current designs of nuclear reactor. He argues that thorium produces zero nuclear waste, is a developed technology hidden for sight by the secrecy of the Cold War and that India and China are about to exploit the technology, to the detriment of the West!
Martin starts by making a comparison between the West today and the decline of the Roman Empire. He ends with an apocalyptic view of a society strangled by the cost of providing energy because of the depletion of oil and the prohibitive cost of clean energy technologies. He does this to gain attention to his central argument – energy is the life-blood of modern societies and that the world needs a large, cheap and clean source. In his view, nuclear is the answer and thorium should be the means.
The book is in the style of a thriller, written with broad brush strokes covering the whole canvas of nuclear power and proliferation. The most interesting part is the history of thorium as a nuclear fuel.
Starting with the misguided idea that nuclear reactors could be used for aircraft propulsion, in the late 1940s US scientists and engineers led by Alvin Weinberg sought a very high-temperature reactor and conceived of both liquid cooled and liquid fuel reactors. Because it was thought at that time that uranium was very rare, the more abundant thorium was investigated. A small experiment was built at Oak Ridge which operated at low power for over 100 days. It proved the concept but was called 'the most exotic nuclear reactor ever built' because of the mix of chemicals and materials used to contain the liquid fuel mixture. Later in 1965-9, a larger 7MW (thermal) reactor explored some of the engineering problems.
In the early 1970s there was a debate in the US about the future of nuclear R&D between light water reactors, which were being built in large numbers, fast neutron reactors and liquid fuelled thorium reactors. It became a contest between Rickover and Weinberg and the argument for thorium and liquid-fuelled reactors was lost.
Research on thorium continued at a lower level in Germany with a gas reactor design, in India with heavy water reactors and in the US with the light water breeder reactor.
The urgent concerns about climate change have re-energised the debate about nuclear fuels. It is simple to show that world energy needs if satisfied largely by a once-through nuclear fuel cycle will lead to depletion of the readily available resource of uranium within a few decades.
The 2009 MIT Fuel Cycle report argued that lower grade sources of uranium can be accessed and existing thermal reactors can extend the energy value of this resource. In their view, there is no need for the US to embark on breeder reactors within the next 50 years. Advanced reactors should be studied but in a considered manner rather than as a crash programme.
Some of Martin's arguments about existing reactors and the advantages of thorium over uranium are debatable. However, he publicises the questions about thorium as part of the energy debate and shows the support of thorium in many places around the world.
Tony Roulstone, University of Cambridge
TUBES: BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE INTERNET
BY ANDREW BLUM, £12.99
For most of us, as long as we have broadband, our physical geographical location is becoming more and more arbitrary. You've all seen those people on planes and trains hunched over a smartphone, tablet or laptop. Whether they are transacting business or tweeting about what coffee bar they're headed for hardly matters. This is because where we are doesn't matter as long as we're connected to the Internet.
We take this ubiquitous phenomenon so much for granted that we seldom stop to consider what the Internet really is, where it came from or who's in charge. Like the air we breathe, it's simply there. But it hasn't always been, and for many readers of E&T it started in our childhood, around the time of the lunar landings, the summer of Woodstock, when a few science students at UCLA, led by Leonard Kleinrock, toasted the arrival of the first interface Message Processor.
This is, of course, only one of the origins of the Internet. As Andrew Blum explains in his excellent 'Tubes', trying to pinpoint its genesis is a bit like turning up uninvited at a party where you know absolutely no one. Plenty of big names have a place in the unfolding story, and yet for a global technological event, its history is fuzzy. There is no definitive account.
There is no Thomas Edison or James Watt about whom we can say"Aha, that's the moment when it all started." It's a nebulous accretion of digital wizardry that somehow just happened, grew exponentially and took over everything. Or so Blum once thought, as the squirrels outside his house bit through his Internet cable and his digital world came, if not crashing in, then knocking at his door with a series of questions.
The first of which was: what does the Internet look like? Is it like a necklace encircling the world or a bowl of spaghetti? Or is it more like the London Underground network or one of those global maps you find at the back of an in-flight magazine? We may imagine it to be – if it were seen from outer space - something organic, the largest living organism on Earth. But there are also times when it's more like a "tidy contact list on a laptop in Washington". Whatever it is, Blum is constantly surprised by its frailty. How can something this important be so vulnerable that it can be brought to its knees by a 75-year-old woman in Armenia slicing through a buried cable with her garden spade?
The answer lies in the title of Blum's investigation: 'Tubes.' And with that one word he brings us closer to the idea that the Internet is not a concept or a culture. And it certainly isn't a cloud. It is, as he says, "a bunch of tubes". But how these tubes work together and what goes on behind the scenes combine to produce an engaging book that is part digital history and part geeky thriller.
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