Engineers of jihad

Book Reviews

From the serious business of tackling terrorism to improving your golf through science, via a look back at a landmark personal computer.

The MIT Press

Now the Chips are Down: The BBC Micro

By Alison Gazzard, £26.95, ISBN 9780262034036

There’s an illustration, usually attributed to pioneering low-?budget punk music magazine Sniffin’ Glue, although it probably appeared elsewhere, that’s credited with capturing the spirit which in the late 1970s saw thousands of young people with no musical experience picking up instruments in the belief that they didn’t have to spend years breaking into an established industry to record something worthwhile.

Crude drawings of three simple guitar chord shapes are captioned: “this is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band”. Many did, and it embodies perfectly the spirit that was built on by the advent of cheap electronics and home recording equipment.

By the time punk had run out of its initial burst of frenetic enthusiasm in the early 1980s, the establishment figure of the BBC was doing the same thing with its more highbrow but no less influential Computer Literacy Project.

Intended “to introduce interested adults to the world of computers and computing” the campaign embraced television programmes, courses, books and software, but had as its cornerstone the BBC Microcomputer developed with Acorn Computers. To stretch the punk metaphor, the BBC Micro was the cheap guitar that you could have a go on at school and, if you were lucky, persuade your parents to buy for home.

In ‘Now the Chips are Down’, Alison Gazzard, a lecturer in media arts and education at University College London’s Institute of Education, examines the early capabilities of multi-platform content generation and consumption that the project made possible, not only in programming and software creation, but also in accessing information across a range of media, and in ‘DIY’ computing.

The book shares its title with a 1978 Horizon TV programme that’s often cited as having started a wider debate about the integration of the microcomputer into British society and the need for increased computer literacy. Proving that current fears of humans being displaced by machines are nothing new though, it warned of low-skilled workers losing their jobs and even word-processing software taking jobs from typists.

Rather than trying to write a comprehensive, nostalgic history of the BBC Micro, Gazzard focuses on components unique to its design and role within the microcomputer explosion that took place in 1980s Britain. As well as programmes like Granny’s Garden and seminal space-trading game Elite which gave many youngsters their first taste of computing, she considers the shift in focus from hardware to peripherals, describing the Teletext Adapter as an early model for software distribution and the hypermedia-like Domesday Project which combined texts, video and still photographs.

By the end of 1981 200,000 households in the UK had computers; two years later that number had risen to 2 million and Britain had the highest number of home computers per capita of any nation in the world. At the turn of the century, less than 20 years after the BBC Micro had played its part in a home computing boom that gave UK computing a new lease of life, numbers applying for university courses were on the way down, probably due to schools focusing on ‘ICT’ skills that had little to do with computing and more to do with using popular software packages.

The dilemma, not covered in this book, is that in 2016 we’re seeing a return of the BBC to the IT sector with the launch of the micro:bit device, which aims to get 11 and 12 year olds interested in coding by convincing them that it’s about the same kind of hands-on problem-solving that the BBC Micro tried to promote.

Gazzard’s account shows the BBC Micro not only as a vehicle for various literacies but also as a user-oriented machine that pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved in order to produce something totally new.

Dominic Lenton

Oxford University Press

The Science of the Perfect Swing

By Peter Dewhurst, £22.99, ISBN 9780199382194

Golf makes its return to the summer Olympics this year in the unlikely setting of Rio de Janeiro after a hiatus of more than a hundred years. However impenetrable the rules and etiquette of the game may appear to a newcomer, the underlying principle is simple. As it says on the back cover of the official rule book: play the ball as it lies, play the course as you find it, and if you cannot do either, do what is fair. That informality extends to the playing area; golf is one of the few ball games where the playing area isn’t standardised.

The relaxed attitude to rules doesn’t extend to equipment. Like so many other sports, the tiny differences that can mean the difference between victory and defeat at the highest level of competition depend on adopting the very latest technology. Rules have to change to keep pace, and where the professionals lead, amateurs with deep pockets are bound to follow.

Even the most casual golfer will be familiar with the alleged advantages of a particular type of club or ball, a preoccupation that’s evidence of how much the game is in part an applied science. Just striking a ball invokes a wide range of principles such as energy transfer, kinetics, launch angles, spin and momentum.

Step forward Peter Dewhurst, who recently gave up university teaching and research to write about golf and design equipment but remains Professor Emeritus in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics and Industrial Engineering at the University of Rhode Island. ‘The Science of the Perfect Swing’ is based on three decades of experience in the physics of golf, and claims to be the first book to go into depth about how you can use a knowledge of physics to improve your game rather than signing a cheque for yet another gadget or the latest model of club.

From the interaction between club face and ball to aspects of trajectory and impact and even the mechanics of putting, Dewhurst uses a range of illustrations, graphs and charts that resemble a text book more than a ‘how to improve your game’ manual. As well as explaining the science, each chapter includes a ‘findings and consequences’ section full of recommendations on how to put it to practical use.

A perfect gift for the golf-playing scientist at any level.

Dominic Lenton

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