Check out our latest crop of interesting reads including 'The Accidental Billionaires: Sex, Money, Betrayal and the Founding of Facebook' and 'A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers and the Digital Revolution'.

The Accidental Billionaires: Sex, Money, Betrayal and the Founding of Facebook

By Ben Mezrich, William Heinemann, £11.99

The Facebook figures are fantastic: within two weeks of its launch it had 5,000 members. After 10 months the site had its millionth member and it is now gaining five million users a week.

The hothouse environment that nourished the seedling Facebook was the competitive internal world of an Ivy League campus. Just as an example, initiation to one of its exclusive clubs could include five days spent with a live chicken - the bird going to lectures. Welcome to Harvard.

It is the early 2000s, an exciting time for the Internet: Friendster already exists and MySpace is just catching on. In fact, there are a number of similar social-networking-site ideas out there, but who will crack the market first?

Mark Zuckerberg, a hooded flip-flopping figure, was studying computer science at Harvard and rumours abounded about his genius - that he was a brilliant hacker in high school; that he turned down a million-dollar offer from Microsoft after creating Synapse (a program tailoring playlists).

Facebook, originally known as thefacebook, was the phoenix that came out of the fire of Facemash, a site where Harvard students could rate girls’ photos.  Zuckerberg apparently created it after a disastrous date. His blog tells us how he hacked into the University’s insecure database, using a different technique for each house’s ‘facebook’. In one case he exploited a misconfiguration in the Apache web-server, in others he took advantage of a badly written application and weak passwords to get photographs of Harvard’s female students. Mezrich quotes from the Zuckerberg blog: “...a little wget magic is all that’s necessary to download the entire Kirkland facebook. Child’s play.”

Once Mark had sent out to a few friends two things happened. All hell broke loose and the site clogged up the University’s bandwidth. So there was obviously interest in online friend-making.  And, sure enough, when thefacebook was launched across Harvard, most students signed up within four days. Later, Zuckerberg assembled a crack team (their audition was to code against the clock while downing whisky shots), which programmed day and night.

However, even when thefacebook had 150,000 members it still had no income and no investors. Enter high-flying Napster creator Sean Parker, who introduces Zuckerberg to Silicon Valley’s high life of girls and VCs (who eat the occasional koala on yachts). The result was what we’d call a large sum and what they called “seed money.”

But, amidst all this success, why was Facebook sued by Olympic rowing twins, and Eduardo Saverin - a co-founder of Facebook?

The Accidental Billionaires makes compelling reading, it is punchy and tightly plotted, alternating between the different characters’ versions of events. However, the prose is rather overstated and Mezrich tends to leave little to the imagination. But he should be commended for giving objective portraits of all the main people involved - not just the still-only-25-years-old Mark Zuckerberg.

Reviewed by Amy Spurling

A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers and the Digital Revolution

By Dennis Baron, Oxford University Press, £13.99

In his cult classic book about writing and writers, ‘The Golden Rose’, Konstantin Paustovsky - a Nobel Prize for Literature nominee and a literary mentor of mine - asserted that writing was but a mysterious interaction of an author’s mind, his hand with a pen in it and a sheet of white paper.

Dennis Baron, Professor of English  at the University of Illionois, in his fascinating and long-awaited book ‘A Better Pencil’ hurries to acknowledge that the “almost spiritual connection” between the writer and the clean sheet of paper (or a papyrus roll) has indeed been repeatedly disrupted by various  technological inventions - from the printing press to the laptop computer.

Here it is relevant to say that the most amazing change experienced by my own generation of writers has been in the field of technology. We, like Baron “grew up writing by hand”, and my own writing tools chronology spans over wooden pens with metallic tips that had to be dipped into a personal inkpot every pupil had to bring in from home in a special bag - via fountain and ballpoint pens, typewriters and word processors - to the modern PC.

When my father gave me my first portable typewriter as a birthday present  in the early 1980s, I - by then an established Moscow journalist - was stunned by its sheer ingenuity, and Paustovsky’s famous pronouncement was quickly forgotten.

Do technological gadgets affect the quality of writing?

In his book, Baron answers this widely debated question in the negative: “The digital revolution changes what we do with words in the same way that previous revolutions in writing technologies have done: enabling more people to communicate in more ways.”

This is a brilliant rebuff to techno-sceptics - such as Doris Lessing - who are slow or reluctant to embrace new technology fearing it would diminish the emotional and spiritual contents of their work. It doesn’t. On the contrary, it enhances the powers of writing precisely by allowing us to communicate our feelings faster and “in more ways”.

On the other hand, Baron is happy to concede that “… it’s not surprising that those of us who grew up with ink-stained fingers think of computers as harder to master than ballpoints…”

‘A Better Pencil’ is beautifully written and is a great read in itself. The book is loaded with little-known historic facts (I didn’t know, for example, that Thomas Jefferson was the first US president to use a polygraph - “a version of the pantograph familiar to draftsmen, that harnessed two pens together and allowed him to copy a letter at the same time that he was writing the original”) and anecdotes from Baron’s own life.

It is one of those rare books of non-fiction where the author is not afraid to say “I” and to keep referring to his own vast experience throughout his gripping and largely first-person narrative.

Written, no doubt, on one of the latest-generation laptops, ‘A Better Pencil’ is itself a proof of the fact that modern technology - rather that being an impediment - is the best friend of a true writer.

Reviewed by E&T features editor Vitali Vitaliev

On Roads: A Hidden History

By Joe Moran, Profile, £14.99

There is a fair amount of hesitation inherent in the discussion of niche history, as highly specialised subjects can be dull and disinteresting to a large audience. What, then, could Joe Moran, author of “On Roads”, possibly be thinking, as he expounds upon the passed-over (figuratively and literally) history of British roads?

Moran is an unlikely mix of engineer and psychoanalyst - his playful and affectionate prose shows a deep-seated interest in the history of and engineering behind British motorways - a clear love of churning mortar and cement. This scientific bent forms the underpinnings of meaningful psychoanalysis, as Moran compares the development of roads to that of rich British culture and social dynamics: the petrol-stained motorways of Britain are much like life-sustaining veins snaking their way through the English countryside. The motorways are flux, winding between forests and plains, a tenuous albeit timeless link between distant cities and different communities.

While some may be put off by the seemingly dry subject matter, Moran maintains an energetic and engaging voice, infecting the reader with a similar sense of awe. ‘On Roads’ is a fun and interesting read, as the book is on far more than mere roads; it takes in post-war British culture, tradition and psychological history as well.

“A road,” writes Moran, “is a bit like a mystic writing-pad, in the sense that its memories are buried just under its surface.” Moran, ever the intrepid researcher and engineer, would take shovel and pick to the asphalt in an effort to glean some understanding and knowledge of the British people - and perhaps teach them to search for history and meaning where they least expect it.

Reviewed by E&T editorial assistant Alexey Novikov

Parallel Coordinates

By Alfred Inselberg, Springer, £58.99

At first sight, parallel coordinates is a method for displaying multivariate data. Each variable has a vertical axis. A single point is represented by a polygonal line joining the values of the variables. A large set of points looks like a bird’s nest and to extract meaning it is necessary to be able to dissect that display with queries and display the selection.

Alfred Inselberg, while working for IBM, was behind the development of the first such program, the deceptively simple query mechanism of which is both a triumph of good human interface design and still considered the most powerful tool of its kind for discovering multi-dimensional relationships.

Inselberg keeps this to the final section of his book - a chapter entitled ‘Data Mining and Other Applications’ - which is the part of most interest to engineers, and especially those concerned with extracting knowledge from masses of data. Inselberg’s examples include satellite data and VLSI chip production. The important field of classification is illustrated by noise signature recognition - although this turns out to refer to vehicle noise and not signal noise.

This text provides a detailed mathematical treatment of parallel-coordinate geometry for mathematics students and similar readers, and the first nine chapters are a course in parallel coordinate geometry, as developed by Inselberg and his collaborators.

Inselberg does derive correspondences between parallel and Cartesian representations, showing how, if 3D data comes from a plane, the lines between pairs of parallel coordinates will cross on vertical lines. He shows industrial data where one pair of axes had this property, which led to a successful search for the missing variable that was the third dimension of the plane. The book develops more advanced multi-dimensional geometry, including a rather brief description of intelligent process control.

Reviewed by Dr John Wilson, R&D manager, Curvaceous Software

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