New biographies of two technology pioneers are at the top of this month's pile.
Oxford University Press: Turing, Pioneer of the information age
By B Jack Copeland, £14.99, ISBN 978-0-19-963979-3
There can't be a single reader of E&T who hasn't heard of Alan Turing. But just in case, I'm going to start with what he must have known would be the first line of his obituary, by saying that Turing was the father of modern computing. But there was so much more to this inspirational genius that it takes real insight for any biographer not to get bogged down in rerunning the established narratives of Bletchley Park or artificial intelligence.
Jack Copeland has produced a nigh on perfect biography. He is one of the leading authorities on Turing and has two decades of publishing books on and around the subject under his belt. But 'Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age' is one of those rare titles that really gets inside the subject, written in a disarmingly unadorned voice, that genuinely has something to say on every page.
Copeland paints a picture of a difficult and yet fundamentally likeable personality trapped behind an intensely disagreeable hauteur. He describes a man who worked in isolation, challenged the establishment, who understood that engineering had a fundamental part to play in the advancement of mathematics. He puts his achievements and legacy into perspective with clarity and precision.
Copeland is not afraid to challenge long-held assumptions, especially when it comes to Turing's death. No plot spoilers here, but I urge you to get a copy, hang a 'do not disturb' sign on your office door, and put your feet up with what is certain to become the classic on Turing.
Jonglez: Private Islands for Rent/Chernobyl's Atomic Legacy
By Chris Krolow/Daniel Barter, £34.99/£19.99, ISBN 978-2361950286/978-2361950439
Despite the similar format and genre, these two beautifully produced coffee table albums, continuing the tradition of the same publisher's 'Forbidden Places', are very different.
'Private Islands for Rent' is a great present for Christmas. Browsing through the colour-rich photos of idyllic holiday locations can provide a welcome distraction from winter gloom. Many of the featured structures, such as the historic DeTour Reef Lighthouse in Michigan, USA, or modernistic settings of Isla Tagomago, Spain, are also interesting from an engineering point of view. Addresses and – importantly – rent rates for all the properties are discreetly listed in very small print at the back of the book. My advice: don't look there if you want to keep your Christmas dream alive.
'Chernobyl's Atomic Legacy' is a harrowing and mind-blowing photo account of the aftermaths of one of the history's greatest tragedies. A mummified dog. A child's shoes covered with radioactive dust. Disintegrating houses. Dolls and teddy bears, abandoned in the hastily evacuated and now dead (for over 26 years) town of Pripyat. I was able to see many of those with my own eyes during my visit to Chernobyl and Pripyat in 1994, and leafing through this album almost felt like being back there again.
The book is a powerful and artistically striking reminder of that massive catastrophe – both engineering and human. It is important to keep the memory alive, for tragedies tend to repeat themselves if forgotten.
Maitland & Strong: Agile Project Management for Government
By Brian Wernham, £38.99, ISBN 978-0-957-22340-0
"Large government technical development projects self-destruct on a regular basis despite intense political scrutiny and detailed audit," says author Brian Wernham in his new book 'Agile Project Management for Government'.
And you don't have to scratch your head for too long to come up with an example. Last year in the UK there was outrage over the scrapping of the delayed £12bn NHS computerised patient record system. But according to Wernham this was neither the first nor the last time that a large-scale IT project has been written off to avoid throwing more good money after bad.
It makes for depressing reading, but 'Agile Project Management' is full of case studies where the public sector has simply given up. And so the question the author addresses is why this should be the case, and perhaps more importantly, how you can avoid following in these disastrous footsteps.
Wernham is a change management expert, and so his idea is to take the 'unwieldy' out of these huge IT projects by making them agile. To do that you need to learn about Agile Leadership Behaviours. There are nine – and daunting though they may be, they point to unity of purpose and progress. Beware, he says, as there are barriers to implementation of the agile process. But as there are only a handful, you get the feeling that just by reading his book you're already winning.
It may take a while to get through 'Agile Project Management', but it will be time well invested. If you are thinking of adding agile into your approach to large-organisation project management you'll save more than you put in by an order of magnitude.
Allen Lane: Furture Perfect: The case for progress in a networked age
By Steven Johnson, £20.00, ISBN 978-1-864-14711-1
Such is today's level of airline safety that according to one MIT professor, an American child has more chance of becoming President than dying on a commercial jet flight. This fact is author Steven Johnson's opening gambit in his new book 'Future Perfect', which sets out to make 'the case for progress in the networked age.'
But what does Johnson mean by progress? He describes the 'Miracle on the Hudson', where US Airways 1549 was landed safely on New York's river in 2009 without the loss of a single life. But was it a miracle? No, says Johnson. It was the result of a "dense network of human intelligence" that had built a plane to withstand this kind of failure. As good news stories about human achievement in technology this was rather rare.
This story expresses to Johnson what is wrong with the way we think about progress. Instead of discussing our positive achievements, newspapers prefer to concentrate on 'lucky breaks'. The world is actually getting better, he argues, as a result of numerous slow improvements. This progress is due to networked thinking where global research, development, preparation and the sharing of data have all led to a "triumph of collectively shared ideas".
Some of these ideas may not be as new as Johnson supposes. For example, his 'Pothole Paradox' is a reworking of Tobler's First Law of Geography that basically says that the closer something is to us the more it matters. But quibbles aside, this is an upbeat and entertaining essay on why, as technologists, we have reasons to be cheerful.