Books

The story of the building of the Panama Canal is among this issue's books.

Panama Fever: the battle to build the canal

By Matthew Parker, Hutchinson

Ever since mankind started to make use of the world's oceans for international trade, we have been aware that at least two of the major continental land masses are the wrong shape. Until the construction of the Suez Canal, if you wanted to sail from London to Mumbai, you would have needed to round the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost tip of Africa, which is much out of your way. Until the construction of the Panama Canal, if you wished to voyage by sea from New York to San Francisco you'd need to round Cape Horn in Chile, which is even longer.

Matthew Parker's 'Panama Fever', as its name suggests, is the history of the latter of these two extraordinary civil engineering projects and is a terrific account of a technological dream that was to span four centuries - to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The book gets its title from the author's description of the appalling conditions under which the British West Indian workforce laboured. Amid epidemics of fever, tens of thousands perished in Panama's swamps, jungles and mountains.

But it is also an account of one of the greatest stories in the history of engineering. From the abject failure of the French attempt to construct a sea-level canal to the ultimate and somewhat ruthless success of the American project (which was in many ways a blueprint for their success in the Space Race), Parker's tale rattles along with great gusto. Those hoping for a detailed analysis of the geophysical obstacles confronting the project's engineers and the evolution of the machinery at their disposal will not be disappointed, while those not expecting a cast of conmen, charlatans and dreamers will be in for a surprise.

At present, the canal is undergoing considerable expansion, with the first phase of dry excavation under way to be followed in the near future by a $3bn project to install a new set of locks. So 'Panama Fever' couldn't have been better timed. In fact, neither could it have been better produced: on one level, it is simply an enthralling account of the mind-bogglingly immense political, technological and social co-ordination associated with any global-scale construction project. But on another, deeper, level it will appeal to the nostalgic Victorian engineer in all of us.

Reviewed by Nick Smith, management editor

The University of Google: Education in the [post] information age

By Tara Brabazon, Ashgate

Tara Brabazon's book tells us "it is difficult to pinpoint when education, teaching and learning began to haemorrhage purpose, aspiration and function", and goes on to explain why, in the author's opinion, the bleed was caused by the evils of cost saving, political convenience and, not least, the oversold promises of technology.

How these evils collaborate to cause a disaster in higher education is explored in great depth, with insights from the front line of the lecture theatre, illuminating student emails and discourse on the battle between academics and a maturing army of administrators.

Coming from a lecturer and professor of media and culture, the book offers an original perspective on how computers are put to work in universities, with a primary criticism that technology 'itself' is seen as enough "rather than evaluating the quality of use."

Google is singled out in this regard, and while the author is careful to balance her arguments by noting the importance of the search engine, she is horrified by the willingness of undergraduates to locate sources on Google without thought for the quality of the information. "Google is white bread for the mind; creating pleasant tasty searches with little nutritional content. The crap of a culture is stored on multiple hard drives and endlessly returned."

Also criticised is the rush to "flexible" and distance teaching made possible by i-lectures, the Internet and an education's-a-product attitude. The author convincingly argues that this discards vital educational processes of group discussion and research techniques in favour of more students and more fees.

The writing is peppered with tasty titbits and occasional humour, but the book is undoubtedly written for academics and teachers of the humanities, cultural and media studies whom it will help formulate criticisms and reveal hidden agendas. Alas, the language is often stiff and difficult, and this will severely limit the book's appeal to non-academic readers.

This is a pity, for although the book is primarily about education and the technology within it, its lessons are applicable everywhere.

Reviewed by William Knight, freelance technology writer

Security engineering: a guide to building dependable distributed systems 2nd edition

Ross J Anderson, Wiley Publishing

Ross Anderson is professor of security engineering at Cambridge University and is recognised as one of the world's foremost authorities on security.

The first edition of this book was published in May 2001. Since then much has changed. The volume of malware has increased enormously; cryptography is being embedded into more and more products; pervasive computing has opened up new challenges; online services have grown rapidly; and acts of terrorism have increased.

At over a thousand pages, this is a comprehensive volume. It is divided into three parts. The first looks at basic concepts. Part two focuses in more detail on a number of important applications, such as military communications and medical record systems. The third part looks at the organisational and policy issues. Individual chapters cover defining security engineering; usability and psychology; protocols; access control; cryptography; distributed systems; economics; multilevel security; multilateral security; banking and bookkeeping; physical protection; monitoring and metering; nuclear command and control; security printing and seals; biometrics; physical tamper resistance; emission security; API (application programming interface) attacks; electronic and information warfare; telecommunication systems security; network attack and defence; copyright and DRM (digital rights management); 'the Bleeding Edge'; terror, justice and freedom; managing the development of secure systems; and system evaluation and assurance.

The purpose of this book is to give a "solid introduction to security engineering". The author's goal is that it works at four different levels: (1) as a textbook providing an introduction to the subject; (2) as a reference book giving an overview of the workings of particular types of systems, such as cash machines and radar jammers; (3) as an introduction to the underlying technologies, such as access control and tamper resistance; and (4) as an original scientific contribution. It certainly works at levels one to three.

This is a well written overview of a hot topic. At £45 for such comprehensive coverage, it is good value too. 

Reviewed by John Coupland, the IET Librarian

Inventing Digital Television: The Inside story of a technology revolution

Martin L Bell, The London Press

This book is a factual account of the evolution of digital television, told by someone who watched the whole thing unfold with his own eyes. Martin Bell was a television producer who by chance became involved with the researchers and engineers working on the development of digital television from the mid-1990s onwards. Having worked alongside the relevant international R&D teams, he has spent a good ten years promoting the technology.

His account begins with a historical tale which charts the formative years of television. Focusing on the highly successful analogue technology, Bell moves on to discuss the developments which came about during the search for a viable digital solution; both those that succeeded and those that never saw the light of day. From there, his experience gives the reader a great insight into how digital television was refined, piloted and became today's strongly competitive and successful industry.

To some, the subject matter can appear quite dry, however anyone and everyone can get something from this book. For those involved in the industry who were part of the story Bell tells, it will bring back memories. In addition, reading anecdotes from other industry professionals who worked across Europe on the differing technologies may offer new perspectives not considered before. 

For those not so well-versed in the ways of digital TV, and for students hungry to learn, this book is an insightful and interesting read on how we got to where we are today.

You'll enjoy discovering new insights into an industry you thought you knew all too well, and will delight in reading words spoken by the renowned engineers who actually undertook the work. Interesting, informative and educational, this is a worthy purchase for anyone interested in discovering more about the politics and technologies that eventually gave birth to digital television.

Reviewed by Keri Allan, freelance technology journalist

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