Popular Science

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Database Nation - Book Cover
Database Nation

Simson Garfinkel

List Price: £20

Subtitled, the death of privacy in the 21st century, Simson Garfinkel charts a topical course through computerised personal information. Consider what might happen if you were to be able to link computer-held information about yourself. Scared? Think of everything held by distinct parties. Now join it all together. Everything from your electoral information, your tax records, your credit card bill, your mobile telephone calls, your web browser's history file, your supermarket loyalty card, your car's satnav. Now factor in face recognition from CCTV, cookies left behind from web sites, the boxes you tick when you sign an application form ...

Now think that all this could be drawn together. Now automate it so that a computer, not a person, makes decision on your life based on these related clues. Scary, huh?

And boy does he cover some ground - from medical records, web logs, satelite imagery, encryption products, mail redirection - we get the full gamut. His central tenet is clear - just what does personal information mean? What rights to you have over information about yourself? Your name, your date of birth, your income, your shoe size, your magazine subscriptions, your web life. All disparate facts, but when combined, a powerful profile and useful to many people. From an insurer worrying about you as a policy, to a prospective employer who's interested in seeing what you've said on the net, to the local council who noticed you've built a new outhouse on your land ... the truth is out there, but can you connect it up?

The body is yours, but what's right do you have to your identity? You can fight back - pay in cash, wear dark glasses, don't get ill, don't travel outside your country's borders, browser through an anonymiser - but the tide needs to be stemmed and only, apparently, the governments can do it ... but do they have the inclination?

A truly scary read and a wake-up call that information is, now more than ever, power. And if you've either it got it, or you ain't, just how to you decide who gets information about you?

Professer Steve Jones, of my alma mater, UCL, has one of the science of genetics' highest profiles, not to mention being one of the darlings of the British media and rent-a-quote whenever the Today programme need a science opinion. Can he really cut the mustard when putting forth his views to the public?

Well, yes. I guess he can.

It's not the most scintillating of reads, but he covers the ground, he certainly makes sure you know what he's trying to tell you. Almost Like A Whale was billed as an update to Darwin's Origin of the Species, updated right down to using the same chapter framework and topics. Sometimes this seemed a little too constricting, so we were led away from his central premise - that evolution is the most potent force affecting every living thing on this planet.

There were some fascinating diversions, to be sure, but an update for Darwin's original? Not as groundbreaking, but possibly more useful at the moment!

Almost Like A Whale - Book Cover Almost Like A Whale

Steve Jones

List Price: £20

The Code Book - Book Cover The Code Book

Simon Singh

List Price: £16.99

I was a huge fan of a previous effort of Singh's, Fermat's Last Theorem and so the combination of his track record and of my interest in cryptography led me to this book. The reviews are mixed and I can see the thinking behind the concerns - it's a book for beginners, with the trademark first-rate explanations, but there are hints that he wasn't entirely sure of his subject matter himself.

His a proven track record of writing about hard maths and science so that you don't need to be a hard mathematician or scientist in order to understand it all is legion - at least it should be. I'm not a mathmo by training, I'm a CompSci so while I could follow it, it could easily have been way beyond my ken. With Fermet it was more than that though, Singh caught hold of Wiles' drive and passion - something that most of us can empathise with, but sometimes you can lose because the project going badly or your boss is being a little too PHed. He reminded me why I'm doing what I'm doing.

The Code Book isn't *that* good - but then I doubt it ever could be. He gets a little muddled himself in places and there are better descriptions out there on the work of Bletchley Park (although he gives the Poles more of their due credit than most), but there are some gems in there too. His background writing, the side-tracking on Linear B, the revelations about how Diffie-Hellman-Merkle (and even RSA, to an extent) were beaten to their marks by us Brits but because that information was classified until very recently no-one knows it .... I certainly didn't appreciate it until now. Which is the key to some of the gems - that much of what he writes couldn't have been known even eighteen months ago.

He finishes with a look at the future and quantum machines - very topical and, a physicist by training, he seems more certain of his ground here - or maybe that's just because I know less about that than I did about the rest of the book.

He does a great job putting codes, ciphers and cryptography into context - both more the modern world and way back whenever. If you're a cryptographer, this book will probably annoy more than inform, but I'm a sucker for pop science books and my knowledge of cryptography isn't so strong. I enjoyed it.

Paul Erdös was one of the gifted mathamaticians of the twentieth century, but while the likes of Russell, Hilbert, Gödel and latterly Wiles are household (well, almost) names, Erdös' contribution has gone by uncommented. This book sets out to rectify this and, to the greater extent, succeeds. Hoffman does a good job of describing the man and his methods, conveying well his first-among-equal standing amongst peers. From his strange language, his almost unhealthy ability to focus on his work and his distinctly peripatetic lifestyle Erdös' character shines through.

It's a strange book though. It's more the life and times of Paul Erdös with a sketchy history of Prime Number theories, Ramsey theories and elementary combinatorics. The author, almost in the same paragraph, has a strange ability to on the one had outline something complicated but also sketch out in way too much detail something simpler, yet also to wave something else away as too far beyond the expected readers. Here's the problem, while the book is entertaining I'm not sure who the author was aiming at. It's not a biography, but it's not an introduction to number theory. There's too much maths for literary-types, but not enough for mathmos.

Entertaining, though.

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers - Book Cover The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

Paul Hoffman

List Price: £7.99

Book Cover The Sun, the Genome and the Internet

Freeman Dyson

List Price: £15.99

Professor Dyson, a professor Emeritus at the Institute of Advanced Study (which can count Einstein, von Neumann and a dozen Nobel laureates amongst its alumni), is one of the world's pre-eminent "futurologists" - gazers into technical and scientific crystal balls. In this book, based on a collection of lecturers delivered at the New York Public Library (home to the original Winnie the Pooh!) Dyson expounds on the three areas which he sees as crucial in the development of the human race as we approach the third millennium: the rôle of solar energy, the use (and abuse) or genetic engineering and the opportunities available through mass use of the internet; each revolutionary new ways of considering old problems - energy production, health and communication.

Alternatively, as the NTK lads said (NTK now, 1999-05-07):

    Freeman Dyson's THE SUN, THE GENOME AND THE INTERNET (RRP 15.99, Amazon 12.24) has the Old Man showing George and Esther how futurism's done: Fluff adroitly switches gear from the old space evangelism, and sticks the boot into biotech: quit whining about grants, he chides, and get hacking DNA sequencers out of cheap household appliances...

There, couldn't have summarised it better. That said some of his kids' books, in particular Greorge's Darwin Amongst The Machines (Amazon 7.19) and to a lesser extent Esther's Release 2.1 (Amazon 5.59), raise some very interesting ideas.

Subtitled "Computer Explorations of Fractals, Chaos, Complex Systems and Adaptation".

A more detailed review will follow in time, but suffice it to say that if you've any formal computer training or applied maths: algorithms, background graphics, information theory, number theory, domain theory, you will love this book. It's a coffee table book in the finest tradition, not for the layman who puts "A brief history of time" out to make out he's a scientist, this is a book to leave around for yourself, to pick up, to flick through, to appreciate nature. Like the Eakins book of rowing pictures, I love to just dip into this, to re-read descriptions of equations and methods. If you like, to remind myself of what my discipline can be about when I get so involved in the minutae of my work that I've forgotten what the bigger picture is all about.

Book Cover The Computational Beauty of Nature

By Gary William Flake

List Price: £35.95

Book Cover Fermat's Last Theorem

By Simon Singh

List Price: £6.99

I was discussing this book a while ago in a Usenet newsgroup within the context of pop science/coffee table books and I wrote;

    "I forget if it's because I understood enough of the maths as presented, or whether he'd described the drive and passion of the man or whether I'm just a sucker for maths-y books like that, but Singh's book on Wiles' Fermat proof reminded me why I'm doing what I'm doing."

I tend to get through lots of this type of book (this page and my shelves are testement) and Singh has written a classic of the genre. Simply, it's a wonderful book, it captures the passion of the search, the highs and the lows of Wiles' self-imposed seclusion. From setting the stall of the historical context, the beautifully simple problem and the infuriating margin annotation, to the actual maths, the tying together of the radically different bits of string. An adventure story, a real boys' own tale of academic derring-do, at home on the shelf with the old Dan Dare and Eagle annuals as much as with science books!

The graphics are links to amazon.co.uk where you can order the titles.


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