Reality is broken

Book reviews

Geneva's secrets, why games are good for us, and a real-life Phileas Fogg.

Secret Geneva

Editions Jonglez, Paperback, £10.99, ISBN 978-2915807806

Unusual Hotels – France

Editions Jonglez, Paperback, £13.99, 978-2361950057

Two more little gems from Editions Jonglez – international publishers of informative, beautifully designed and richly illustrated guide books, which never fail to highlight the sights – and the sites – of technological heritage.

To be honest, I had always been of the opinion that Geneva was not the most exciting place in the world. During a recent visit there, I ventured to the city centre on a Sunday evening and was genuinely taken aback by totally deserted streets, with shops and restaurants firmly shut until Monday or even Tuesday morning.

Had I had Stephanie Dreuillet's 'Secret Geneva' in my pocket, it would have all been different. I could have explored old Geneva's underground tunnels – unknown even to most locals – or a newly discovered Roman aqueduct in Place de Graveson that brought water from the Voirons mountains to the city (the Romans were too fastidious to drink from lakes or rivers).

Or I could have tried to find a discreet entrance to a bomb shelter big enough to hold 1,200 people, with an unsettling agraffe (a decorative carving on the keystone) showing an enormous air bomb above the entrance. Switzerland was, of course, neutral during the Second World War, yet ran the risk of falling victim to an allied bomber's error.

Indeed, 'Secret Geneva' tells us that such precautions were well justified; in June 1940 two British planes erroneously released eight bombs over Geneva, which the pilots mistook for Genoa! The British government later apologised for the geographical clanger and paid over a million francs in compensation.

Travellers with a taste for leftfield accommodation will enjoy 'Unusual Hotels' by Christian Vellas.

Do you fancy staying for a couple of nights in one of the three nicely decorated bedrooms on board a stationary 1923 barge, given to the Allied forces by the Germans as compensation after the war? Or how about a historic 1930 PLM train car, of which only two remain in the whole of France?

Yes, one of them has been turned into a hotel, with several rooms (sorry, compartments), two showers and two lavatories.

This car, which used to belong to French national railway company SNCF, no longer rattles along the tracks, but in the 1930s, it was part of the 12-coach overnight train from Paris to Lyon. An interesting detail: breakfast in this unusual techno-hotel is served in the adjacent Art Deco building of the Sailly-sur-la-Lys (formerly Bac Saint-Maur) railway station.

Bon appetit and bon voyage back in time!

Vitali Vitaliev

 

Reality Is Broken: Why games make us better, and how they can change the world

By Jane McGonigal, Jonathan Cape, £12.99, ISBN 9780224089258

Dr McGonigal starts out by breaking down the 'highs' we get from gaming and why we turn to games – because the rewards they offer aren't always to be found in our real lives. Gameplay is inspiring, we choose to tackle problems and then achieve 'epic wins' when we overcome them, she claims.

The feeling of euphoria when we solve a challenge or take down a 'boss' is something unique to gaming: in a game, a quest or challenge may only just be within our capabilities but it's never impossible. Real-life problems don't always offer this.

According to McGonigal, gamers are 'super-empowered hopeful individuals' (SEHIs); people who – through gaming – feel capable of changing the world. Through our many hours of play we've learnt to become great collaborators and problem-solvers, and this is a powerful human resource she believes we shouldn't overlook.

Her aim is to promote games that can make a difference and I found as I read through her book I had already begin to feel empowered and make notes on the games I'd like to look into.

They may not save lives, but some of the alternate-reality games she discusses can clearly make a difference to how we live. 'Chore Wars' is an example of a life-management game that turns housework into a competition, and 'SuperBetter' is a concept game that allows you to overcome an illness more quickly. I'm already seeing how I can integrate games like this into my own life to improve my health and turn chores into fun.

But then McGonigal moves on to the big stuff, and shows us how games and gamers can really improve reality. What we need in the real world, she says, are more 'epic wins': opportunities for ordinary people to do extraordinary things. More games are being created with this in mind, such as 'The Extraordinaries'.

This is a game that allows you to do good in your spare time by browsing through microvolunteer 'missions' put up by charities etc. They involve simple five-minute tasks such as photographing and tagging a first aid device, which over time will create a database that can save lives. The outcome for the player is a high score and a feeling of having made a difference.

This is only the beginning. McGonigal's gamers are facing real-world problems in alternate-reality games and they're coming up with solutions. In 'World Without Oil' they found ways to better manage limited fuel resources and when faced with the extinction of humanity in 'Superstruct' they created hundreds of collaborative networks which developed ideas around dealing with pandemic disease, the collapse of the global food system and refugees forced to leave their home due to natural disaster or war.

Gamers can change reality – McGonigal proves that – and, although we're still in the early days, we're beginning to see what we're capable of and that our virtual epic wins can be turned into real-world change. As a gamer myself I feel more empowered than ever before and now know I have skills that can make a real difference to society.

Keri Allan

 

Around the World in 65 Days: The journal of the real Phileas Fogg

By George Griffith (with John Griffith and Robert Godwin), Apogee Books, paperback, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-897350-27-0

The central character of Jules Verne's 1873 adventure novel 'Around the World in 80 Days' was Victorian Englishman Phileas Fogg. George Griffith, a 16-year-old resident of Cornwall at the time, could hardly have guessed it, but he was destined to become a science fiction writer himself and adopt the role of a real Phileas Fogg.

This little book tells the story of a man with big ideas. The majority of the text is a transcript of Griffith's record-breaking world tour, originally published in 1894 in the magazine Pearson's Weekly under the title 'How I Broke the Record Round the World'.

'The ever-changing scenery of land and sea, of hill and plain, and storm and calm', writes Griffith, 'make up the varied glories of the world panorama, nearly 24,000 miles in length, which has unfolded before my eyes since I left Charing Cross only sixty-five days ago'.

Thus begins a charming Victorian story of what must have seemed to most readers like the 'alien lands' befitting one of his later science fiction tales. The contemporary photographs, woodcuts and travel posters help to set the scene.

Griffith's style is both journalistic and entertaining: 'We found Tokio a good deal more Japanese than Yokohama', he reports, 'and also a great deal dirtier, untidier, and more odoriferous...There are no side-walks, and there is no rule of the road except 'get there''.

Concluding his tour, Griffith ponders when (and where) the 20th century will actually begin. Contrasting the international date-line with the day-night terminator on a planet tilted 23.5° on its axis, he concludes that 'the inhabitants of Antipodes Island will be the first persons to see the first sun of the 20th century'.

Two fascinating chapters preface Griffith's travelogue: a short biography of the author by editor Robert Godwin, and a piece by grandson John Griffith on his father, AA Griffith, co-inventor of the jet engine. Verne couldn't have made it up!

Mark Williamson

 

Enchantment

By Guy Kawasaki, Penguin, Paperback, £14.99, ISBN 978-0-241-95364-8

While there are many adjectives that could be used to describe successful organisations, one of the last that springs to mind is 'enchanting'. Duly intrigued by the cover of Guy Kawasaki's 'Enchantment' – an origami butterfly on a red background – I wanted to discover, as Steve Wozniak says you will, how 'to create a company as enchanting as Apple'. What I found was a barrage of bullet-points, over-simplifications and management manual clichés.

'Enchantment' is the brainchild of 'the former chief evangelist of Apple', for whom the second most enchanting moment of his life was when he first saw a Macintosh computer (for a man with four children this is a strange admission). The point of his book is to gather up his experience at the coalface in order to tell us how to employ enchantment techniques to 'change hearts, minds and actions.'

Don't be put off by there being only 'limited black-and-white, scientific proof of many enchantment techniques' because 'you probably don't care about statistically significant good science'. If he knew anything about the basic operating system of the engineering manager, he'd know that this is precisely what we do care about.

But Kawasaki is aiming to exploit that easy-going Silicon Valley myth of instinct trumping any conventional approach to corporate innovation.

What he delivers is the questionable idea that social media hold the answer to corporate success, while if only you weren't held back by your university career and boring life partner – 'my advice is to dump him' – you'd rolling in it, thanks to the profits from the next iPhone, iPad or MacBook Pro.

In his conclusion to 'Enchantment' Kawasaki tells us that '90 per cent of the battle is showing up. The other 90 per cent is persevering after you show up.' What, if anything, could this possibly mean? Enter Richard Branson, who in his endorsement of 'Enchantment' claims it offers 'a wealth of insights'.

Nick Smith

 

Also out now…

Engineers are familiar with the term entropy - in terms of materials degrading, charge leaking and bank accounts emptying - but physicists like to think of ‘unscrambling the egg’ by ‘reversing the arrow of time’. It’s an excellent notion, because it would mean being able to mend breakages or lose those pounds you added over the festive season, but does it make any sense?

In From Eternity to Here: the quest for the ultimate theory of time (OneWorld Publications, £12.99, ISBN 978-1-85168-795-4) theoretical physicist Sean Carroll takes what he describes as “a paradigm shifting approach” to subjects “from entropy and quantum mechanics to time travel and the meaning of life”. So, for trivia, look elsewhere!

With 375 pages of text, a maths appendix and 50-odd pages of notes, bibliography and index, this is no pocket paperback. But it’s written in an accessible style and includes some simple line drawings to help illustrate the topics. Mind you, you have to be willing to engage with those topics when faced with headings such as “collapse of the wavefunction”, “true and false vacua” and “a restless multiverse”.

The ideal audience for this book is the person who watches the likes of ‘Horizon’ and thinks (after an hour of reversed stock footage and blurred images of clocks) “I’d really like to know what all that was about”.

Mark Williamson

 

An Optimist’s Tour of the Future (Profile, £12.99, ISBN 978 1 84668 3565) sees science communicator (and comedian) Mark Stevenson documented his learning journey to discover ‘what’s next’, visiting some of the coolest science and technology people and places; including Harvard, MIT, Oxford, The Maldives and the Outback. His witty narrative, full of (generally) sound science and technology with clear background explanations, maintains a good balance between being over-wowed by the profound and an earthy irreverence. He admits that some may baulk at being optimistic these days but justifies his optimism by the opportunities for improvements to people and the environment that future science and technology may have to offer. He strays into politics, ethics and society issues but in the main, this is a futurology primer: covering Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics (GNR). More specifically; Transhumanism and human longevity, stem-cell therapy, personal genome mapping, artificial intelligence, social robots, augmented reality and the “Internet of Things”, the desk-top nano-factory, energy production, space tourism and climate catastrophe solutions (from high-tech; atmospheric scrubbing, plastic solar cells and genetically engineered algae: to low-tech; animal grazing management, bio-char systems and being off-grid).

Ray Kurtzweil inspires Stevenson with the concept of the “law of accelerating returns” with the Internet facilitating idea auto-catalysis. John Seely Brown tells him about radical innovation where less and less money is needed for developments thus breaking free from mainstream capitalism and where traditional hierarchy is replaced by people networking. Vint Cerf explains about the consequences of the Internet as a force for good.

Stevenson starts and ends with the TED conferences which inspired him and others who we meet in the book. Everyone can be on a futures journey: looking at what is possible, achievable and desirable. Perhaps where the book fails is in its scope, since the future will cover many other areas of life (particularly the deeply human cultural aspects) and of course a pessimist might predict all the possible disasters and unintended consequences

Robin Mannings

 

If, like me, you sometimes feel you’ve forgotten more physics than you ever learnt, you are not alone. It seems that even physicists have concluded they know less than they did! Apparently, the stuff we learned to call “matter” makes up only 4% of the universe. “The rest”, says Richard Panek, author of The 4% Universe: dark matter, dark energy, and the race to discover the rest of reality (OneWorld Publications, , £10.99, ISBN 978-1-85168-821-0), cheerily, “is completely unknown”.

This is the story of the quest to unlock the secrets of “dark matter” and “dark energy”, which physicists now tell us comprise 96% of reality (split 23%/73%, they say!). And for those who think the current crop of physicists spend far too much time tying each other up with “string”, this revelation can’t come a moment too soon.

The story begins with the discovery of the comic microwave background - the whisper of the Big Bang - and races through the cosmological theories and discoveries of the 46 years since then to bring us to…the current lack of understanding. Because the word “dark” in this context is not “dark as in distant or invisible”, explains Panek, “This is dark as in unknown for now, and possibly forever”. That might placate the self-confessed physics-dummy for a microsecond or so, but then frustration seeps in. Has physics finally succumbed to blissful ignorance?

Far from it, suggests Panek. Physicists don’t get into physics to learn what is already known, he says, but to “catch the universe in the act of doing really bizarre things” and fooling our intuition about the world. So his book is not so much about the theories as the people posing them, which is just as well really, because we might have a chance of understanding them. My advice, if you meet a physicist at a party, is to emulate the three-year-old daughter of one of the characters in this fascinating, but frustrating story: whenever they make a statement about their current understanding of the universe, just say “yes, but why?”

Mark Williamson

 

A new account of how telecommunications have evolved over the last couple of centuries couldn't be published at a more relevant time, with talk of the internet fast running out of IP addresses within the next few months.

Dot-Dash to Dot.Com by Andrew Wheen (Springer, £26.99, ISBN 978 1 4419 6759 6) is extremely easy to get straight into due to the author's interesting historical facts and entertaining anecdotes of events that occurred in the early days of telecommunications. He does this by delving into the lives of the great telecommunication pioneers, such as Professor Samuel Morse and Henry Ellsworth and their Bill which almost wasn't passed in time for the invention of the electric telegraph. The book moves swiftly on chapter by chapter through a time line of historical events in telegraph evolution and then onto exploring the pioneers of radio communication such as Gugliemo Marconi, Nikola Tesla and James Clerk Maxwell .

The book then covers modern digital times, from computer networks and the birth of the internet to how the internet works and has evolved over the last few decades. Those unsure of what Wiki, blog or podcasts are will benefit from reading this section and be more confident to try them out.

The last few chapters of the book discuss the mobile revolution and the emergence of internet phones. He also covers the future of telecommunications including information on cloud computing, internet television and possible health concerns with radioactivity from mobile communication systems.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone generally interested in scientific historical books or if studying a telecommunications course. I found it an extremely easy read, very informative, well laid out with lots of great photos, some in colour. It's also not too long at 292 pages including a large glossary to help with any technical terms. It's a paperback, so just the right size for reading on a train, on holiday or in the comfort of your own home.

Hazel Jones

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