Books

New technology books assessed.

The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman (Virgin Books, 2008)

There's a fairytale element to Weisman's "creative experiment": once upon a time, he reminds us, we all lived in the forest. So if human life disappeared overnight, would the forest take over again? And would the world miss us, or has our impact been so dire that our absence would come as pure relief?

Well, it seems the planet will be glad to see the back of us, and it's hard to deny its point. In addition to theorising about a human-less future, Weisman outlines some of the grosser effects we've already had, focusing on plastics, which "[embody] our collective guilt over trashing the environment".

Recent studies reveal that, contrary to popular belief, plastics make up only 20 per cent by volume of landfill waste in the US (the bulk being construction debris and, surprisingly, paper products, which don't biodegrade underground). Unfortunately, most of it is in the sea instead - by weight, there's six times as much plastic as plankton on the ocean's surface, and much more below. Nobody knows how long it will last, because the microbe that can break it down hasn't evolved yet.

With that in mind, Weisman's study of an 'unpeopled' world starts to appeal. He begins with an account of the Mannahatta Project, which uses imaging software that extrapolates from biological data to produce a map of what New York used to look like and might look like again once we've gone. Essentially, nature would reclaim the area, and it wouldn't take long.

Under the city, groundwater is always rising; 13 million gallons are pumped from subway tunnels daily. Once pumping stops, the system will be under water within 36 hours. It will take longer for bears and wolves to return, but they will be well established by the time the last bridge into the city collapses.

Elsewhere, Weisman has an eye for a paradox: that war can be good for nature, for instance - on booby-trapped Korean hillsides, mature stands of daimyo oak and bird cherry flourish, unapproached by people. Other aspects of our warmongering - our 30,000 nuclear warheads - have less of an upside. Though they can't go off accidentally, the plutonium they house will take 250,000 years to drop below the Earth's natural levels of radiation. As for our
441 nuclear plants, they'll overheat, melt and poison the planet well into geologic time.

It's sobering to think that our longest-lasting legacy will be one of environmental harm; nor especially cheering to learn that, at its current rate of erosion, Mount Rushmore will survive for 7.2 million years - conceivably long enough for a newly-evolved intelligent life form to ponder. One could wish them a less vain-glorious postcard from the past.

But in the end, our mark has already been made, not least via the radio and TV transmissions we've been broadcasting for decades: one particular sitcom, Weisman calculates, should reach galactic space in AD2450. For all our reaching for the stars - and all the damage such stretching has involved - what will survive of us is 'I Love Lucy'.

Reviewed by Mick Herron, an Oxford-based author

Powering Up: Are Computer Games Changing Our Lives?

By Rebecca Mileham (Wiley, 2008)

'Powering Up' raises some controversial and thought-provoking questions surrounding what some believe is a growing gaming epidemic.

Thankfully, this book is a breath of fresh air to the sector, with unbiased research leading to some interesting and often positive results. It is a far cry from the fear-mongering stories many people in power use to persecute gaming and gamers themselves, instead of revealing projects and studies to show the true effect gaming has on modern society.

Mileham looks at the facts behind the headlines to see what effect the popular - and social - hobby of gameplaying is really having on us and the society we live in. Is it making us obese, anti-social, violent and addicted… or just giving us different ways of getting smarter, fitter and more skilled?

She examines the evidence, from experts and gamers alike, to come up with fair and balanced conclusions, raising some interesting points and offering often overlooked insights into what gaming can indeed be about.

This book doesn't have a bias in either direction; it simply provides the information, shows experts' and gamers' opinions - whether positive or negative - and then lays out the facts. Of course, not everyone may agree with Mileham's arguments, but no one can say they aren't fair and factual.

The book covers a vast array of topics related to gaming as well as its effect on us as individuals and a society. Could games helps patients fight cancer, is there a hidden plague of game addiction, and can games get ex-prisoners back to work - are among many questions it poses. The topics are so varied that any reader - whether he already takes part in the gaming revolution or has shied away from every form of gaming up until now - will learn something new about the games market.

'Powering Up' will help you to learn what's fact and what's fiction in the media coverage of the gaming topic. Although deep, it is 'light' in style, with each of the eight chapters broken down into bite-size chunks that, interspersed with box outs and imagery, can be consumed in small bursts.

A great title to start discussions over the coffee table.

Reviewed by Keri Allan, freelance technology journalist

What every engineer should know about business communication

By John X. Wang (CRC Press, 2008)

This book is volume 42 in the 'What every engineer should know' series published by CRC Press. Other volumes in this diverse series cover topics such as ethics, quality control, risk management and software engineering.

Engineers are required to possess a range of business communication skills that enable them to communicate the purpose and relevance of their ideas, processes, or technical designs. This short book focuses on what the author calls the "three critical communication needs" - speaking, writing and listening.

The book is divided into sections on these three. The first one, on speaking, covers projecting the image of the engineering profession; presentation aids; organising your talk; and handling audience response.

Section two, on writing, includes chapters on organising for emphasis; "write as if talking"; using lean expressions; and writing actively.

The third section is on integrating spoken and written skills, including emails; telephone calls; memoranda; information visualisation; writing grant proposals and engineering reports; and listening.

Studies indicate that communications skills impact engineers' effectiveness and success even more than technical knowledge. Dr Wang states that although many executives are pleased with the basic technical knowledge their new engineers bring to the organisation, they are concerned that many of the former lack critical business communication skills.

This common-sense book provides good advice on ensuring that your communications with other engineers and managers are clear, concise and comprehensive. It emphasises that all effective communication needs to take account of the audience.

Reviewed by John Coupland,, IET Librarian

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