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review 2018-04-21 21:22
Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition, by Paul Watson
Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition - Paul Watson

This is the first book I've read that focuses on the multitude of searches conducted to find the lost Franklin expedition rather than on the expedition itself, though of course early chapters offer context. As a fellow obsessive, it's worth asking why this lost expedition to find the Northwest Passage has generated so much interest and so many searches over the years. It certainly wasn't the only lost voyage.


One answer is Franklin's wife, Jane, whose tenacity and devotion was the force behind many of the search efforts. What I didn't know, and this book details, is that Lady Franklin was an explorer and adventuress in her own right. She'd have gone on a voyage to the Arctic herself if she hadn't been prevented. Her efforts extended to seances and mediums, popular at the time in Britain; a few turned out to be uncannily accurate.


However, one of the clearest explanations why it took so long to find the two ships (both recently discovered at the bottom of the Arctic in 2014 and 2016) is that Inuit witnesses were ignored or misunderstood (in fact, Charles Dickens penned an incredibly racist rant once it was revealed via the Inuit that some men of the expedition resorted to cannibalism). Another strength of this book is that it gives these figures and their culture their due. However, I was put off a few times by Watson's language, which could go heavy on the "magical native" trope (at one point there's a "mystical glint" in an Inuit's eye).


I appreciated that in addition to citing those who traveled to the Arctic or gave information on the expedition's fate, Watson also highlights those whose inventions and pioneering aided in searches. He also unequivocally connects climate change with the discoveries of the ships; ironically, after many lives lost searching for it in the past, a Northwest Passage is now feasible due to the melting of Arctic ice. Canada, Russia, and the United States, along with Britain, were heavily invested in these expeditions and their recovery because a passage would be so lucrative. So...there's the bright side?

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review 2018-04-07 08:09
Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done
Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral, and Getting It Done - Andrea Gonzales,Sophie Houser

That was a pretty interesting read, and an encouraging one, in a world where encouraging girls to go into technical careers is still not such a given (yes, even in 2018).

Also, bonus points for introduction to Python at the end, with a few examples of short, easy programs you can try. The only coding I've done so far was with Scratch, and I'm not very familiar with Python apart from a short foray with Ren'Py, but this basic syntax was very easy to get. I like that the authors chose something 'simple': I believe it won't look discouraging to someone who knows nothing to coding.

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review 2018-04-03 15:25
The long history of "tomorrow's car"
The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age - Gijs Mom

The relative novelty of the electric vehicle today can obscure the fact that it has a history dating back to the beginnings of the automobile itself. For while most people still drive cars and trucks fueled by gasoline, electricity was a motive power adopted by quite a few vehicle manufacturers in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this book, Gijs Mom explores issues of technology, infrastructure, and consumer culture to explain why it was that electric vehicles failed to become the dominant vehicle type in the early years of automobile development.

Mom divides the history of the electric vehicle into three "generations." In the first, which spanned from 1881 until 1902, automobiles were primarily toys of the wealthy and the enthusiast. The technological limitations facing electric cars — the limited rage and lack of places to replenish their motive energy — were shared by their gasoline and steam-powered counterparts. While gasoline-powered vehicles began developing an advantage in range by the end of this period, the zero emissions and overall cleanliness of electric vehicles still made electric cars a preferred option for many drivers in cities, where distance driving was less of an issue.

By the beginning of the 20th century, a consensus had formed that poor battery performance was the main constraint holding back the development of the electric vehicle. During the second generation, which Mom dates from 1902 until the mid-1920s, improved battery designs helped to address this by improving their capacity. Electric cars continued to enjoy a place in the automotive market, particularly for urban fleet usage, the well-to-do, and women. The key appeal for the latter group was the ease of starting electric vehicles, which did not require the physically demanding cranking required of early gas-powered vehicles. It was the adoption of the electric starter by the early 1920s (in essence, the partial "electrification" of the gasoline-powered vehicle) which Mom sees as cementing the dominance of the gasoline vehicle, though he notes the persistence of electric vehicle usage for some organizations well into the post-World War II era, long before the late-20th century revival of interest in electric vehicles asserted itself.

Mom's history of the electric vehicle is a fascinating study of the factors at play in the adoption of technology, in this case one the ramifications of which are still being addressed today. Though his prose is painstaking and occasionally burdened with conceptual jargon, his assiduous research and detailed analysis provides a well-reasoned explanation for the early failure of electric cars to become the dominant automotive technology. With its account of technological cul-de-sacs and cultural headwinds, readers will find within its pages a story with some echoes of the issues facing electric vehicles today, one that gives a new meaning to Faulkner's adage about the past not being dead or even past. For this reason alone it deserves a wide audience among everyone interested in its subject.

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review 2018-04-02 17:07
The politics of international communications networks
The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics, 1851-1945 - Daniel R. Headrick

As technology has increased the speed of communications over the past two centuries, so too has it increased its importance to governments.  With knowledge being power, governments have sought to capitalize on the increasing rapidity and accessibility of communications, both for advancing their own control and to limit the power and influence of their adversaries.  This is something that Daniel Headrick clearly demonstrates in this book, which examines the political aspects of the emergence of the global communications network in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Headrick begins by examining the emergence of the first technology to make rapid communication over long distances possible – the electric telegraph.  While developing internal networks was relatively easy, communications over long distances was politically risky, as messages could be intercepted and disrupted on lines that crossed hostile territory.  Security thus became an issue early in global communications, one that could only be guaranteed by submarine cables, which gave their owner direct contact with possessions half a world away.  The leader in the effort to establish an international network was Great Britain; though most Western governments seized on telegraphy in the second half of the nineteenth century, only the British had capital markets large enough both to fund the often expensive projects and to absorb their often considerable loss.


By the start of the twentieth century, a rapid communications network spanned the globe, one that served as a tool of national power and security.  Yet as Headrick notes, it also fueled international insecurity.  He sees the quickening pace of communications as a factor in the growing international tensions that plagued the world in the first decade of the new century, as the speed of events overtook the ability of diplomats (who were used to a much more gradual course that gave them time in which to operate) to respond effectively.  During the war, the British demonstrated the power granted by their control of the telegraph network, as they cut the Germans off from easy contact with other regions, especially America.  This gave Britain a vital edge in shaping the interpretation of the conflict, one that helped swing the United States firmly into their camp.


Yet as vital an advantage communications control was, it was a reflection of British power at its zenith.  Even before the start of the war, radio threatened to break the British monopoly on telegraphy.  Moreover, by the end of the war the British faced a rival of even greater wealth: the United States, which used the new technology to erode Britain’s dominance in telecommunications.  The adoption of shortwave in the 1920s ended British hegemony, while the Second World War saw the British bequeath their position as the dominant power in global communications to the United States, during a conflict in which communications played a decisive role in the Allied victory over the Axis powers.


If there is a complaint to be lodged against this generally excellent book, it is that while Headrick does a great job of explaining the impact of telecommunications during the world wars, he rarely demonstrates how telecommunications facilitated political control in peacetime.  It would have been insightful to examine episodes from the early years of telecommunications revealed its power and how such examples altered views towards the burgeoning new technology.  Yet this is a minor quibble.  Well researched and clearly written, Headrick offers a great introduction to the development of the global telecommunications network in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and its role in international politics, one that should be read by anyone seeking to understand the role of technology in shaping political power.

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review 2018-04-02 14:14
The man who introduced America to mass production
Eli Whitney and the Birth of American Technology (Library of American Biography Series) - Constance McL. Green,Oscar Handlin

Eli Whitney ranks as one of the great inventors of American history.  Associated in innumerable textbooks with the cotton gin that he developed, his contribution to the development of the American economy extended far beyond this simple device.  Constance McL. Green explains his impact on our history in this brief biography, one that serves both as a study of his life and of the evolution of early American industry.


Whitney displayed his mechanical aptitude from an early age.  Growing up in colonial Massachusetts, he preferred tinkering in his father’s workshop to his various chores on the family farm.  Though his family was middle class by the standards of the age, his request to go to college was nonetheless a considerable burden on the family finances, though one to which his father assented.  Whitney attended Yale, which Green sees as a decision with critical consequences, as his subsequent career would be greatly aided by his fellow alumni.


After his graduation in 1792, Whitney’s acceptance of an tutoring position brought him to Georgia, where he made the acquaintance of the remarkable Catherine Greene, the widow of General Nathaniel Greene.  It was while he was staying at her plantation that he set himself to solving one of the most perplexing problems the South faced – how to process green-seed cotton cheaply.  Here the author provides a valuable context, explaining the new nation’s economic straits in the aftermath of the American Revolution.  With America now cut off from most British markets and with her industry undeveloped, many believed that the solution was to develop a new staple product to export.  The Industrial Revolution was stimulating a growing demand for raw cotton for the new machines to weave into cloth, but the green seeds of the dominant American variety were prohibitively difficult to separate from the fibers.


Eli Whitney solved this problem by building a machine the separated the seeds from the fiber easily.  His new device, the cotton gin, was quickly seen as the revolutionary device it was, energizing the economy of a region that until then was bereft of a role.  Filing a patent for it, he went into business with Greene’s plantation manager, Phineas Miller.  Their plan to gin cotton for 2/5 of the crop soon encountered hostility from numerous Southern cotton growers, however, who preferred to copy the gin and do it themselves.  The subsequent legal battles dragged on for another decade, and resulted in judgements that brought in only a fraction of the money Whitney and Miller had hoped to make.


Yet Whitney’s efforts on the cotton gin were to lead to an even more revolutionary innovation.  To produce the number of machines believed his company would need, Whitney developed a standardized production process, one which he soon sought to apply to the production of muskets.  After his struggles with marketing the cotton gin, Whitney turned to musket manufacturing as an endeavor that ensured a guaranteed income through federal contracts.  His promise to deliver thousands of muskets rested not on a new design of the weapon, but on the application of his “uniformity system” to their production.  This, as Green notes, was Whitney’s “unique contribution to American industrial development . . his execution of a carefully-thought-out system, of which every separate type of machine was a part.”  Such a system offset the shortage of labor plaguing the young nation, and permanently transformed both American manufacturing and the American economy.


Green’s book is a good examination of both the man and his legacy.  Drawing upon a range of materials, it describes his inventions and his business activities in a clear and accessible manner.  More than just a portrait of Whitney, it is a study of a pivotal moment in the history of the American economy and in the development of American technology, with lessons and insights that are as applicable today as they were in his age.

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