A tasty, educational treat for tech heads and other web denizens.

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HOW THE INTERNET HAPPENED

FROM NETSCAPE TO THE IPHONE

The internet was not meant for the likes of us—and yet we have it, through means that tech historian McCullough capably recounts in this wide-ranging history of the internet era.

It wasn’t so long ago that technologists dismissed the thought that ordinary mortals would have a use for a computer and not so long ago that the internet was a skeletal version of its present self, confined to computers administered by the military-industrial complex. Chalk the change up, writes the author, to the opening of the net to civilian traffic—and then to techies at the University of Illinois who, building on earlier platforms, launched the first browser in 1993, early on called X Mosaic “because it was designed to work with X Window, a graphical user interface popular with users of Unix machines.” If any of the terms in the preceding clause are mysterious, then this book may prove tough slogging, but it has plenty of odd drama. For example, Bill Gates came calling on what later became Netscape, hoping to build an alliance; when rebuffed, he retooled Microsoft in order to build a browser of its own, having quickly divined how important the internet would become. McCullough’s story is populated by numerous geeky heroes, notable among them Steve Jobs but most far less familiar, along with some free-riders and businesspeople who realized that the internet’s free gift to the world was something that could be turned into a cash cow. Writes the author, “the Internet might have been launched in Silicon Valley, but to a large extent, it was monetized by startups in New York City.” Most of the individual components of McCullough’s story, which closes with the arrival of the “completely, conceptually perfect” iPhone in 2007, are well-documented, but few other histories of modern technology connect them so fluently. In this, the narrative resembles Steven Levy’s by now ancient Hackers (1984) and John Markoff’s more recent What the Dormouse Said (2005); it compares favorably to both.

A tasty, educational treat for tech heads and other web denizens.

Pub Date: Oct. 23, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63149-307-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: July 31, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2018

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Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all...

THE GENIUS OF BIRDS

Science writer Ackerman (Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, 2010, etc.) looks at the new science surrounding avian intelligence.

The takeaway: calling someone a birdbrain is a compliment. And in any event, as Ackerman observes early on, “intelligence is a slippery concept, even in our own species, tricky to define and tricky to measure.” Is a bird that uses a rock to break open a clamshell the mental equivalent of a tool-using primate? Perhaps that’s the wrong question, for birds are so unlike humans that “it’s difficult for us to fully appreciate their mental capabilities,” given that they’re really just small, feathered dinosaurs who inhabit a wholly different world from our once-arboreal and now terrestrial one. Crows and other corvids have gotten all the good publicity related to bird intelligence in recent years, but Ackerman, who does allow that some birds are brighter than others, points favorably to the much-despised pigeon as an animal that “can remember hundreds of different objects for long periods of time, discriminate between different painting styles, and figure out where it’s going, even when displaced from familiar territory by hundreds of miles.” Not bad for a critter best known for bespattering statues in public parks. Ackerman travels far afield to places such as Barbados and New Caledonia to study such matters as memory, communication, and decision-making, the last largely based on visual cues—though, as she notes, birds also draw ably on other senses, including smell, which in turn opens up insight onto “a weird evolutionary paradox that scientists have puzzled over for more than a decade”—a matter of the geometry of, yes, the bird brain.

Ackerman writes with a light but assured touch, her prose rich in fact but economical in delivering it. Fans of birds in all their diversity will want to read this one.

Pub Date: April 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-59420-521-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2016

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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