I is an Other

Book reviews

The power of metaphor, future airports, dressing for space, and why India loves technology

I is Another: The secret life of metaphor and how it shapes the way we see the world

by James Geary, Harper, £11.99 ISBN 978-0061710285

Andrei Voznesensky is one of Russia's great 20th century poets. A construction engineer by education, he once – metaphorically – called himself 'a depot of metaphors' and noted that every poet should strive to be one. Indeed, in most people's perception, metaphors do firmly belong to the realms of poetry and literature.

Not so, says James Geary, a London-based American author, journalist and aphorism collector, in his fascinating latest book 'I Is An Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World'. The book's title references French poet Arthur Rimbaud's famous quotation summarising his own poetic mission.

In his book, Geary states his opinion unequivocally: 'Metaphor is much more than a mere literary device employed by love-struck poets when they refer to their girlfriends as interstellar masses of incandescent gas'.

What is it then? Australian lexicographer NE Renton, compiler of the comprehensive 'Annotated Dictionary of Metaphors' provides a cynic's definition of metaphor as 'a simile with the words of comparison left out', and then – not a cynic himself – goes on to describe it as 'a picturesque idiomatic expression normally used subconsciously'.

At the lively launch of 'I Is an Other' at the Highgate Scientific and Literary Society, James Geary invited members of the audience to read for 30 seconds from the sports section of the Guardian and vouched to find several metaphors in any suggested extract (not such an impossible task if we remember that even such a common expression as 'I can see your point' is a metaphor, for one is normally technically unable to 'visualise' someone else's abstract point of view).

For about ten minutes during his presentation, Geary easily and masterfully juggled three cricket balls while talking – a live metaphor in itself of his fluent literary style and his amazing proficiency with words.

The world of science, engineering and technology is resplendent with metaphors – just think of Einstein's many wonderful and imaginative examples to explain complex and as-yet unproven concepts, or his use of 'combinatory play' as the essence of creative scientific thought.

Those and many other 'brilliant examples' (another metaphor!) of metaphors can be found in the chapters 'Metaphors and Science' and 'Metaphors and Innovation' which are bound to 'attract attention' (yet another one!) of E&T readers.

It is truly astonishing how many metaphors in human history have originated from technology and engineering: to add fuel to fire, to press a button, to be in the pipeline, to name just few. That is why Geary's latest book, a worthy sequel to his best-selling 'Guide to the World's Great Aphorisms' cannot fail to trigger a good deal of healthy 'brainstorming' in an inquisitive reader.

Incidentally, as I have learnt from the book, the term 'brainstorming sessions' was popularised by William JJ Gordon, an executive with the industrial research firm Arthur D Little, who, together with his colleague George Prince, was an inventor of 'Synectics' – a method for stimulating innovation through the systematic application of metaphors. Some sumptuous food for thought for engineers.

One thing I can guarantee: after reading 'I Is an Other', you will start ticking off metaphors in everything your read – be it your daily newspaper or the latest issue of some esoteric technology journal – as I have started doing already in this book review.

Vitali Vitaliev

 

Aerotropolis: The way we'll live next 

by John Karsarda & Greg Lindsay, Allen Lane £14.99, ISBN 978-1846141003

An aerotropolis, is a large airport-integrated economic region. A few airports have already grown to fit this model, and Professor John Karsarda predicts that there will soon be many more, particularly in China. This book discusses the future of the built environment, air transport, logistics and the all the parts of globalised economy where aircraft are vital.

Writer and journalist Greg Lindsay explains Kasarda's vision, visiting many aerotropoli and interviewing key people. An aerotropolis is usually catalysed by something specific – just laying tarmac is not enough. Location is important and airport planning, human ecology, development, stagnation and decline are all discussed.

It is claimed that air transport contributes only a small percentage of global carbon emissions and is vital to the global economy, while 'Kasarda's Connectivity Law' suggests that communications technology has actually produced more travel.

As a book about the near future, 'Aerotropolis' is convincing, but many factors are working against the vision of ever more air transport, so perhaps 'the way we live next' may not be the way we end up living. 

Robin Mannings

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

by Nicholas de Monchaux, The MIT Press, £25.95, ISBN 978-0-262-01520-2

Thousands of books have been published on the Apollo Moon missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and you could be forgiven for thinking that everything that could be written has already been written. 'Spacesuit' proves otherwise.

Authored, somewhat surprisingly, by a professor of architecture, the book is structured around the Apollo spacesuit's 21 layers: it's 'the story of the 21-layer spacesuit in 21 chapters addressing 21 topics relevant to the suit, the body, and the technology of the 20th century'. In reality, it's a happy excuse to talk about anything from '18th-century androids' and Christian Dior's New Look to 'JFK's carefully cultivated image' and the applications of Apollo-style engineering to city planning.

'Layer 1: Introduction' makes much of the fact that the Apollo A7L suit was a 'soft suit', as opposed to one of the 'hard' alternatives that could have been used. But this is less about engineering and the need to combine protection and flexibility than it is about the author's wish to expand and develop a theme.

'The story of the Apollo spacesuit is the surprising tale of an unexpected victory,' he states: 'that of Playtex, maker of bras and girdles, over the large military-industrial contractors.' This leads eventually to 'Layer 9: Bras and the Battlefield' and the chance to print archive shots of women's undergarments.

It's a shame the author feels he needs to 'tabloidise' the creation of the Apollo spacesuit by describing it as made by Playtex when it was, in fact, International Latex Corporation (ILC) – of which Playtex was a division – that manufactured the suits. For the record, ILC's Government and Industrial Division was awarded the prime contract for the A7L suit in 1965.

That aside, the liberal use of colour photography makes this one of the best illustrated books on spacesuits. It's not your typically 'space history', but it's more entertaining than most. 

Mark Williamson

 

Geek Nation

by Angela Saini, Hodder & Stoughton, £20, ISBN 978 1444 710144

Angela Saini studied to be an engineer – just like her father, who moved to the UK where, at that time, the UK was still seen as a pre-eminent centre of manufacturing and engineering excellence. Much of the diaspora can be traced from Indian nationals, who seem endlessly and naturally proficient in mathematics and the applied sciences, many of whom have risen to executive level in high-profile tech companies – such as Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe.

Yet, as Saini points out in 'Geek Nation', some are now returning to the motherland and spearheading the fortunes of Indian companies many of which are now recognised as leaders in manufacturing, space and software development.

Saini paints a picture of the typical Indian geek, which this author can recognise in himself and many members of his family. As Saini indicates, India has thousands of years' legacy of geekdom, of applied scientific and mathematic study. These skills depend not so much on resources, but resolve. However, India's government has invested heavily in technology institutes – which are more oversubscribed than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In a pithy, engaging and radiant style, Saini synthesises the various cultural, historical, psychological factors which in part explains India's resurgence as a centre of engineering and scientific excellence. 

Kris Sangani

 

Reliability in Scientific Research 

by IR Walker, Cambridge University Press, £45.00, ISBN 978-0-521-85770-3

Did your car start this morning? Was your train on time? As we all know, reliability is a key issue in science, engineering and everyday life. Although its title suggests a bias towards science research, this book is as much about engineering issues. In fact, according to the author, it is designed to help both scientists and engineers to 'solve troublesome – and potentially very time consuming – problems in their work'.

The book covers a multitude of applications, from soldering to software design, including chapters on mechanical devices, vacuum systems, cryogenics, optics, electronics and even wiring. It also explains the basic principles of reliability, human error and mathematical calculation and provides advice on procuring parts and designing apparatus. Each comprehensive chapter comes complete with references and the volume has a 24-page, double-column index.

Walker, a researcher at Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory, is pragmatic and straight-talking from the start. In his analysis of 'simplicity', he laments that 'The imperative to keep things simple is usually well understood, but not always practised'. Designers 'sometimes feel inclined', he continues, 'to add extra unnecessary features to apparatus or software... in the belief that [they] might be useful in the future'.

Does that remind you of your phone, camera, microwave, toaster... or any other item of equipment you've bought recently?

When it comes to software, Walker is equally forthright with his advice, advising that 'writing a program carelessly, in the expectation that any errors can be eliminated... during the testing and debugging phases, is likely to lead to serious problems'.

Pointing to the truism that programs are 'read much more often than written', he warns that code should 'not be too clever' 'Arcane tricks' that make code easier to write or faster in execution, he says, 'should be avoided'. A standard text in the making, I'd say. 

Mark Williamson    

 

Other new books, reviewed by E&T managing editor Dominic Lenton

‘IT’ has become such familiar shorthand for anything to do with computers that we’ve almost forgotten what it stands for, and that what it really describes is how we use technology to handle information. The Information (Fourth Estate, £25) is a history of the increasingly sophisticated ways people have come up with of doing that over the years.

Author James Gleick, who has written popular science books on subjects ranging from chaos theory to the life of Isaac Newton, starts with an example that reminds us ‘technology’ doesn’t necessarily have to be electronic. The first Europeans to arrive in Africa may have considered the talking drums that the indigenous people used to transmit messages over long distances fairly primitive, but until the invention of telegraphy they were one of the quickest ways in the world of passing on important messages. And essentially they were a binary system, relying on two different tones – one high and one low – to imitate the inflections of natural speech.

That was one stage in a story that goes back to the first time someone scratched a message on a clay tablet thousands of years ago in the Middle East to record something important. Straight away, you can imagine a Babylonian inventor thinking about how they could do this more efficiently.

In a way, it’s reassuring to find out that for as long as information technology has been around people have been worried about whether it’s making young people more stupid. Symbols on clay slabs undermined a tradition of oral memory that meant if you needed to pass knowledge down to the next generation you had to get them to commit it to memory. Just as we worry about today’s kids being able to fire up Google whenever they need to find something out, were those adults thousands of years ago were frowning about how this new idea meant their own children wouldn’t have to actually learn things?

In the same way, the early days of the electric telegraph in the mid-19th century, echo debates about the internet today. Because telegrams were charged by the letter, frequent users like newspaper reporters came up with ingenious ways of keeping messages short and there was a whole genre of books which you had to buy in pairs for the sender and receiver with abbreviations like mhii, or my health is improving or ymir for your message is received. (No lol though.) There were code books too, again that you had to buy in pairs, to make sure the contents of a message could be coded to keep it private.

There’s no avoiding the fact that much of the theory of information – things like Boolean logic – can get very heavy very quickly. And The Information does slow down at points where Gleick can’t avoid getting into this. But he’s an ex New York Times reporter who knows the best way to tell a story is through the people involved and with characters like Charles Babbage and Alan Turing playing a central part it’s a lively and fascinating read.

 

Tony Ball has worked in the electric motor rewind industry for more than 40 years. During that time he has rewound motors from as small as his thumb to armatures 7 tonnes in weight.

For the last 22 years he has run his own business, employing two other engineers, and as he explains at the start of Motors Control & Transmission (Engineering Publications Ltd, £34.95, ISBN 978 0 9564469 0 9, details at www.engineeringpublications.co.uk, or email tony@engineeringpublications.co.uk): “We all have different skills and experience so I train my staff and they train me. Training is about sharing knowledge and experience and is a two-way system.”

This book’s origins lie several years ago when Ball decided to write a 16 page booklet that would provide his customers with some basic information about motors, control and transmission. Having delivered a rewound part to a customer, sometimes it wouldn’t run properly because a failure was still present on site.

Ball realised that although he knew a lot about motors, he needed to know more about control and transmission. “There wasn’t a shoulder to look over and I had to learn on my feet. I had to reinvent the wheel as most of us do… The deeper I delved, the more I asked myself, ‘As an engineer, I should have known that’.” What he found was that for most areas of maintenance, the books that are available are heavy on theory, and full of formulae and calculations.

He believes that maintenance engineers have a responsibility not just to repair faulty equipment but also to advise customers whose systems are inefficient, or where equipment is badly set up. Hence this practical book, which is aimed at maintenance engineers rather than designers.

Advice ranges from an introductory chapter on safety to a section packed with practical tables, charts and formulae. In between are chapters on different types of motor, switches, phase converters and refrigeration compressors, bearings, transmission systems, all enhanced with plenty of illustrations.

The overall feel is of having an experienced engineer at your shoulder explaining what you need to do, and in some cases what not do.

 

Diane Coyle runs Enlightenment Economics, a consulting firm specialising in technology and globalisation. When the financial system went into meltdown in September 2008 following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, she admits that she went to a cash machine every day for a week and withdrew her daily limit, fearing that interbank systems would crash.

The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters (Princeton University Press, £16.95, ISBN 978 0 691 14518 1) isn’t about the financial crisis, but about the questions regarding the way the economy is organised that it has brought into the public eye. How can the decisions of policymakers and businesses serve us all better in the long term? How can we all make sure that what we achieve in the present doesn’t come at the expense of future generations.

“Economic growth is essential, but the way it has been achieved for the past generation cannot continue,” she writes “To argue, as has become fashionable, that Western economies should just stop growing is delusional.”

Coyle lays the blame for the structural fragility in the economy that the banking crisis has exposed on technological innovations since the late 1970s. The financial sector, she believes, is the most dramatic example of how information and communication technology has changed ways of doing business, amplifying the impact of shocks around the world.

IT and communication technologies are special, she says “because they fundamentally affect the way the economy is organised, as well as what it produces and the goods and services people can buy.”

This isn’t just an analysis of what went wrong. Coyle concludes with a ‘first ten steps’ list of specific proposals for governments to put things right.

 

Previous studies of the history of how we tell the time have tended to concentrate on ‘private time’ – domestic clocks and watches. In Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales, 1300-1800  (Oxford University Press, £24.95, ISBN 978 0 19 927820 6), Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift focus more on public access to timekeeping that would have been all that was available to the vast majority of people in England and Wales prior to the 19th century.

This is the ‘clock time’ that became part of everyday life soon after the first mechanical clocks started to appear in the 13th century. At this point we hear about time starting to regulate daily activities in a more disciplined way, for example by the ringing of bells from church steeples.

Drawing on contemporary accounts from diarists like Samuel Pepys, Glennie and Thrift provide a thorough account of how the ability to easily tell the time accurately, and its repercussions, emerged over the course of 500 years.

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