The new world of global conflict, tips for the future, and some off-beat travel guides.
Crown publishing group
Confront and conceal
By David E Sanger (£18.99, ISBN 978-0307718020)
"For a decade since 9/11, the Pentagon had possessed a virtual blank cheque to pursue any programme that could be sold as necessary to protect against an array of new threats. The defence budget had grown by an astounding 67 per cent over 10 years in real terms, to levels 50 per cent higher than it had been for an average year during the Cold War (adjusted for inflation)."
In Washington, 'doctrines' are like 'gates'. Any president should have at least one of each. In 'Confront and Conceal', David E Sanger, the New York Times Washington correspondent, describes how the Bush Doctrine, which assumed the right to take pre-emptive military action, is being replaced with scaled-back, technology-led strategies by the Obama administration.
Those of you seeking line-by-line readings of Stuxnet code or thorough teardowns of Predator and Reaper drones will be disappointed. But if you want to understand how'and why the world's largest military force is adapting - some might say being dragged to adapt - to an era of cyberwarfare and unmanned aerial vehicles, Sanger provides an essential primer.
As the quotation shows, post-9/11 defence policies had become unsustainable. President Obama must seed a process that will cut $500bn from the annual budget over the next decade.
Beyond the numbers though, warfare is itself changing. Consider Stuxnet's deployment against the centrifuges for Iran's nuclear research programme. Sanger addresses some of the paradoxes in using a worm virus as a weapon. In this specific case, a cyberattack was chosen to avert an Israeli aerial attack on the research sites that would have unquestionably escalated tensions in the region. However, as cyber attacks have been defined by Obama himself, Stuxnet still represented an 'act of war' against Iran.
Then there is the use of UAVs in Pakistan and Afghanistan (though now not in Afghanistan, after protests by that government over civilian casualities). Predators are not only cheaper than large-scale armed forces, but also better suited to that type of terrain.
Sanger provides a pragmatic, well-balanced and often critical reading of these trends, and his impeccably sourced revelations - he provides the first confirmation that Stuxnet was sanctioned at the highest levels of the US and Israeli governments - expose the debates in Washington under way surrounding 21st Century warfare. All such books should chill you a little. More important, much of the information here is invaluable.
Hodder & Stoughton
64 Things you need to know for then
By Ben Hammersley (£20, ISBN 978-1444728606)
In a brief perusal of the dust jacket of Ben Hammersley's latest book we learn that he is not only a British technologist, broadcaster and editor-at-large of Wired magazine but also the Prime Minister's ambassador to Tech City, and a member of the European Commission High Level Group on Media Freedom. We also learn, incidentally, that he's the wearer of a particularly well-groomed Poirotesque moustache.
With so many important-sounding titles Hammersley seems well placed to guide the luddite, layman or even the digitally au fait through the tangle of jargon, tech-speak and portmanteau spawned daily by the ongoing digital revolution. With entries on spimes, the semantic web and the Stuxnet virus, as well as data shadows, human flesh search engines and the dark net, this book is more than a simple rounding up of the usual suspects. It makes for a handy refresher course on all things techy, or, for the uninitiated, much of it is likely to be nothing short of revelatory.
Despite the title Hammersley is mercifully light on out-and-out speculation or pie-in-the-sky futurology and instead focuses on the current cutting-edge. It's certainly more about the next 15'minutes than the next 15 years. Each of the 64 entries can be devoured in a few short minutes making the book the tech-lit equivalent of a bag of salty snacks.
It could easily have come off as bitty and disjointed, but thanks to clever structuring one concept leads naturally to the next making cover to cover reading just as pleasurable as dipping in at random. Though, be warned, much like the famous brand of potato crisps brought to us by a similarly bewhiskered figure, Hammersley's mini-essays can be very moreish.
Visit sunny Chernobyl and other adventures in the world's most polluted places
By Andrew Blackwell (£12.99, ISBN 978-1847946225)
Masochism has become a feature of modern travel. Luxury suites, candlelit dinners and first-class flights are no longer enough to satisfy the demands of discerning holidaymakers, now looking for danger spots, where their nerves and egos can undergo some pleasant titillation. They need trials, hardship and horror-stories to later recount to friends in the safety of their living-rooms.
This trend has already brought to life all sorts of mass-market survival manuals and guides to 'the world's most dangerous places', numerous hotel rooms replicating cabins of Titanic and so on. I once stayed at a hotel on the outskirts of the East German town of Zittau which went out of its way to recreate the atmosphere of the former GDR - from the staff posing as Stasi spies to only accepting the non-existent old GDR currency (which one could buy at reception).
The early 1990s saw the first guided tours of Chernobyl. I thoughtlessly went on one in 1994 as part of a Channel 4 film crew (it was the only way to access Chernobyl at that time). The tour cost us about $1,000 and included a local guide, a heavily contaminated Chaika limo abandoned by a visiting official, and lunch with the view of the leaking fourth reactor which we decided to forsake.
'Visit Sunny Chernobyl' plays down the significance of the Chernobyl tragedy by listing the area of the world's biggest nuclear disaster as one of 'the most polluted places' alongside some industrial, yet perfectly liveable (compared to Chernobyl) parts of India, China and the USA, rather than one of the world's most dangerous, which it definitely is.
This can be explained by the fact that the author, as he himself acknowledges, chose to embrace the official Ukrainian minimalist version of the aftermaths of the Chernobyl tragedy, asserting that "the accident's most traumatic effects may have been social and psychiatric, rather than radiological" - a thoroughly naïve and unscientific view with which I strongly disagree.
Interestingly, his own impressions, particularly those of the 'dead town' of Pripyat, are in stark contradiction to his stance. Blackwell is a very good writer, with laconic, graphic and gently ironic style, at times reminiscent of both Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The book's scientifically strongest chapters are those closest to his home: the USA and New York City - the background of which is obviously more familiar to him than that of Chernobyl. Unlike the majority of masochistic travel books, and despite its rather gruesome subject matter, 'Visit Sunny Chernobyl' inspires rather than scares.
Mile by mile London to Paris/Bradshaw's illustrated hand book to London and its environs 1862
By Reginald Piggott and Matt Thomson (£12.99/£9.99, ISBN 9781845137724/9781844861828)
As the full subtitle of 'Mile by Mile' goes (in imitation of of SN Pike's 1947 classic 'Mile by Mile on Britain's Railways', on which it is modelled), the book represents 'The Entire Railway Journeys by Historic Golden Arrow and Modern Eurostar Mapped for the Interested Traveller' - no less!
To me, "interested traveller" is a tautology, like "buttery butter". How can anyone, particularly an engineer, be uninterested in the amazing history of the Channel crossing and the London-Paris route, which until the 1960s was serviced by the overnight sleeper train from Waterloo and Victoria called the Golden Arrow on the British side and la Fleche D'Or on the French?
I was among the passengers on one of the first Eurostar trains in 1994 and even now find it hard to believe that Paris is reachable from London in under two and a half hours. Having travelled this route many times, I still perceive it a miracle of modern engineering and technology.
'Mile by Mile' logs every mile of the London-Paris route in gradients, history, stations etc. Most importantly and uniquely, however, it covers time by providing two graphic and visual maps of the same railway stretch on each spread, as represented by two different routes: the Golden Arrow and the Eurostar. This is ideal for vicarious time travel and allows the reader to see how each mile of the track and the area around it has evolved. Add to this revealing photos and drawings as well as the authors' knowledgeable commentary, this compact hardback can be safely branded a small wonder in itself.
We recently reviewed a reprint of a classic Bradshaw guide: 'Hand Book of Great Britain and Ireland, 1863'. Vintage Bradshaws, to my mind, beat both Murrays and Baedekers in coverage and the precision of detail, particularly technological one. Bradshaw's strength was in the realms of transport, roads, architecture and other engineering sides of travel.
'Hand Book to London, 1862' is not an exception, for it is full of bang-up-to-date (for 1862, that is) information about the state of London's railway, omnibus, steamer and coach networks. While to some the facts that in 1862 the London and North Western railways allowed 100b of free luggage, and that the Hackney Coach fares were calculated "for Cabriolets with one horse, and to carry two persons" may sound outdated, for "the interested traveller" they offer a fascinating look under the lid of engineering, technology and history itself!