FM Reviews First Monday
FM Reviews

It is undoubtedly a comforting sign for every Macintosh fan out there that the number of books dedicated to its new operating system, Mac OS X, is growing rapidly and at a steady pace. The choice available now spans a wide spectrum: From the plethora of Mac-OS-X-for-Dummies type guides that include step-by-step explanations on the most basic tasks, perhaps leading to some proficiency with the system, to the many books providing all kinds of interesting hacks and customisation procedures that can help in becoming more productive, as well as in making one’s Mac more personalised. At the advanced end of the scale we find the truly techie books, those about programming, troubleshooting, and about the underlying UNIX essence of OS X. These contain a great deal of stuff like cgi, perl, grep, man, pwd, ls, sudo, and countless other exotic technologies and sophisticated commands.

For this column I have chosen two titles that straddle the second and third categories, with the occasional trip into real 'techieland', and a book that is less pretentious, but extremely useful nevertheless.

Rael Dornfest and Kevin Hemenway.
Mac OS X Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools.
Sebastopol, Calif.: O’Reilly, 2003.
paper, 400 p., ISBN 0-596-00460-5, US$24.95.
O’Reilly: http://www.oreilly.com

Rael Dornfest and Kevin Hemenway. Mac OS X Hacks.

This first book belongs to the growing series of O’Reilly’s 'Hacks' books devoted to just about anything that can be hacked. Here the authors have put together a compendium of techniques that not only can augment the built-in functionality of the operating system, but which can also unleash some 'hidden' capabilities, tucked away under the UNIX hood. So, for example, the various compression and archiving algorithms embedded in the subsystem (gzip, tar, jar, etc.)

The first chapter is dedicated to handling of files, including backup, aliases, links, and type/creator codes. Although such things might seem like something intuitive to the seasoned Mac user, under X their implementation can be considerably different (and confusing), as the Cupertino engineers had to fuse together two alien worlds: The graphical world of Mac OS and the 'resource fork-less' universe of BSD. Not an easy feat.

In any case, what transpires from even the first few pages, is that there is so much that can be achieved by hacking away at the system. But what exactly do the authors mean by it? It varies greatly. Hack number 23, "Make your own documentary," for instance, outlines how to put together a documentary movie, by using iPhoto, a scanner or digital camera, and a few other (cheap) pieces of shareware. This does not require any kind of true hacking as such, but it’s still a very rewarding activity. On the other hand, "Getting sendmail up and running" (hack 82), appears decidedly more daunting, with configuration files such as /etc/mail/sendmail.cf containing truly scary stuff (and yes, this file really exist on your Mac!):

# authentication required: give appropriate error
# other side did authenticate (via STARTTLS)
R<$*> <> OK $@ OK
R<$*> <$+> OK $: <$1> <$2>
R<$*> <$*> OK $: <$1> <$3>
R<$*> <$*> $* $: <$1> <$3>
R<$-:$+> <$*> $#error $@ $2 $: $1 " authentication required"
R<$-:$+> <$*> FAIL $#error $@ $2 $: $1 " authentication failed"
R<$-:$+> <$*> NO $#error $@ $2 $: $1 " not authenticated"
R<$-:$+> <$*> NOT $#error $@ $2 $: $1 " no authentication
requested"
R<$-:$+> <$*> NONE $#error $@ $2 $: $1 " other side does not
support STARTTLS"
R<$-:$+> <$*> $+ $#error $@ $2 $: $1 " authentication failure " $4
R<$*> <$*> $: <$1> <$3> $>max $&{cipher_bits} :
$&{auth_ssf}
R<$*> <$*> $- $: <$1> <$2:$4> <$3> $(arith l $@ $4 $@ $2 $)
R<$-:$+><$-:$-> <$*> TRUE $#error $@ $2 $: $1 " encryption too weak " $4 "
less than " $3
R<$-:$+> $+ $@ $>"TLS_req" $3 $| <$1:$2>

So, hacking is not a uniform experience here, although in reality very few readers will want to carry out all hacks. Instead, there is something for everybody in the 400+ pages of the book, its contents being subdivided roughly in nine sections, devoted to Files, Startup, Multimedia and iApps, User Interface, Unix and Terminal, Networking, Email, the Web, and Databases.

As the number of the expert contributors is fairly large (16 in all, excluding the two main authors), the writing style varies, too, although it is perhaps more a matter of technical frame of mind than anything else. For their part, Dornfest and Hemenway have done a good job at keeping the entire collection coherent and consistent throughout.

The book might not be immediately appealing to the novice or the user who has just switched to OS X, and it is probably not an indispensable tome. However, what a shame not having it around: You might only end up trying a handful of hacks, yet even then, the rewards would justify the effort. — Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

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Bruce Potter, Preston Norvell, and Brian Wotring.
Mac OS X Security.
Indianapolis, Ind.: New Riders, 2003.
paper, 385 p., ISBN 0-735-71348-0, US$39.99.
New Riders: http://www.newriders.com

Bruce Potter, Preston Norvell, and Brian Wotring. Mac OS X Security.

This second title is unquestionably more utilitarian as it deals with a vital aspect of computing: Security. Traditionally, Mac users have not been too much concerned with security, for, apart from the occasional virus, the classic OS has never required any tweaking with firewalls, user accounts and permissions. This not because of its inherent strength, but because, as a single-user operating system, it lacked most of the features that can be exploited in a networked environment. All this has changed with the advent of Mac OS X, a beast that makes any supported Apple Macintosh a true UNIX box.

The authors are all security specialists, including the two technical reviewers, John Viega and Roland Miller, something reassuring, for this is not a field for the amateur. For a book such as this, it is also paramount that the topics are tackled in as clear a way as possible: After all, it is new territory to many Mac users. So I was pleased to see that the reader is slowly brought up to speed on issues related to security and system tweaking.

The very first section of chapter one is, indeed, dedicated to the basics: "Threats and risks", "Understanding the technology", and "The tools". The importance of grasping the numerous security mechanisms provided by the operating system is made clear by the statement that "the tools and the security architecture that reside on Mac OS X show that security is important to Apple. Understanding and effectively taking advantage of those tools, however, is left to users and administrators." Quite so, unfortunately: Most of these tools are hidden away and can be easily overlooked or even ignored.

The book sports five main parts and several appendices. Part one, "The Basics", discussed above, is devoted to the foundations of security and to installation issues, setting up OS X and to background information on BSD. Part two, "System Security", begins by looking at the general security practices, including user accounts, file encryption, and dual booting. It then goes on to outline how UNIX works behind the scenes. Permission is a sticky affair, especially for veteran Mac users, who had never to worry about such things. After all, the Mac belonged to the owner and that was it. There is a great deal of detail in this section, from the breakdown of a permission string to SUID, Sticky Bits and SGID. However, the authors remain objective, descriptive and succinct without ever becoming patronising or too formal (i.e., boring) On the other hand, do not expect a style characteristic of the more popular books, such as David Pogue, in which the odd ironical comment is thrown in on every second page.

The third part, "Network Security", form perhaps the core of the book, as most threats to computers nowadays become real when machines are networked to one another, usually via a LAN or WAN connection. Internet Services, File Sharing and Network Services are all addressed. While it must be admitted that Apple has gone a long way in providing a certain GUI-friendliness (for example, by writing the NetInfo Manager utility), many other tweaks have to be carried out in a traditional fashion, by editing text files. When necessary, this is made easier here by the carefully crafted instructions of the book.

"Enterprise Security" is assessed in part four. Among Kerberos, LDAPv2 and SMB, the focus is on configuring Mac OS X within a larger lab or corporate environment, which requires more customisation and added security. Part five, "Auditing and Forensics", seemed the most enjoyable to me; I learnt about the significance of the assorted logs that are generated by the system, about Osiris (a file-integrity management application), and about TASK: The @stake Sleuth Kit! While reading these pages, I realised just how much information related to a computer’s activities are actually retained somewhere on the hard disk. We might not think about it, but it’s all there.

The final collection of appendices includes a complete listing of the installed SUID and SGID applications, with their relative owner and group, a short outline of Common Data Security Architecture (an architecture-independent cryptographic framework originally designed by Intel Architecture Labs and now managed by the OpenGroup), as well as a "Further Reading" section, categorised by chapter. Plenty of URLs are given, along with some short comment on their relevance.

All in all, this volume (with its companion Web site www.macsecurity.org/osx-book) does and admirable job of presenting security as something that can be confronted rationally and successfully. The authors have struck the right balance between completeness and practicality: The book being just over 350 pages, can be digested fairly easily. It never becomes tedious, yet it always provides insights and suggestions on how to tackle the various issues. Mac OS Security now sits firmly on the first bookshelf of my desk, readily available. Of course, it would be preferable if security were not an issue and if intrusions and abuse could simply be dismissed; however, as the authors say, "one good way to prevent a host from being compromised is to completely disassemble it and bury the parts in your backyard. In most cases this is not an option... ." — Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

++++++++++

Scott Kelby.
The Mac OS X conversion kit: 9 to 10 side by side.
Berkeley, Calif.: Peachpit Press, 2003.
paper, 280 p., ISBN 0-735-71354-5, US$29.99.
Peachpit Press: http://www.peachpit.com/

Scott Kelby. The Mac OS X conversion kit.

When I first saw the title of this one, I was intrigued: I honestly did not know what to expect. After all, there is so much to an operating system that claiming to show the differences between two of them seemed quite pretentious. The concept reminded me of a previous book I read some years ago called Crossing platforms: a Macintosh/Windows phrasebook. There, a particular task done in Mac OS was 'translated' into Windows (and vice-versa), so that users from the one or other platform would be able to print, install fonts, set up TCP/IP, etc.

The same approach has been used by Scott Kelby, for the OS 9 to OS X book. Kelby is no stranger to the Mac community, he is Editor-in-Chief of several magazines (with focus on design and PhotoShop) and has authored many books on several subjects. A first note of warning, though: you either will love or hate his writing style: It is literally as if he were talking to you. Despite this, the information he provides is sound and useful. The choice of tasks comprehensive enough to make you use the book more than a couple of times, especially as it is beautifully illustrated, with full-colour screen shots of both Classic OS and OS X (in fact, when looking at both versions I became conscious of how dated OS 9 looks!)

Because each page must contain both picture and text, there is not much space for a detailed description. Most of the time, this is limited to a few, concise lines, so don't expect a lot of in-depth discussion on the topics. However, the attractiveness of this conversion kit is really in its immediacy. You want to know how to access photos from a digital camera? Or perhaps how to force quit the Finder? No problem, find the relevant page, look at the left page for a familiar screen shot of Mac OS 9, and on the right you will find how to achieve it in X. Simple and straight forward. Moreover, the list of topics covered is generous: launching applications, accessing 'desk accessories', working and managing windows, the dock, aliases, adjusting system settings and parameters, as well as dealing with playing movies and CDs, taking screen shots, setting up peripherals, networking, installations and troubleshooting. Dozens and dozens of tasks translated into the wonderful and strange world of UNIX-cum-Aqua.

The final two chapters are called "20 Cool Little Things You Couldn’t Do in Mac OS 9" and "20 Little Things Apple Changed Just to Mess with Your Head" respectively. Here Kelby discusses new features of Mac OS X, including its protected memory and multitasking capability, and looks at how some common solutions have been either replaced by something not quite so intuitive, or abandoned altogether (labels is one that springs to mind).

I have read the entire book through and was pleased by the attractiveness of its presentation and by its accuracy (even my pernickety eyes were able to find only one spelling mistake). The main problem with a book of this kind, though, is that it is bound to become superfluous after a fairly short period of time: Once you have learnt the technique in X, you hardly ever need to look it up again, so are you going to pass the book on to some of your friends? On the other hand, perhaps the kit can still serve as a concise reference book, if what you look for is simple and basic. — Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

++++++++++

Mark Beaulieu.
Wireless Internet Applications and Architecture.
Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2002.
paper, 656 p., ISBN: 0-201-73354-4, US$44.99.
Addison-Wesley: http://www.awprofessional.com

Mark Beaulieu. Wireless Internet Applications and Architecture.

According to IBM’s Mark Hanny: "In a few years more than 60 percent of all Web transactions will be triggered by wireless devices...". Early in the book, there is the prediction that by the year 2010 there will be two billion wireless mobile users worldwide, far exceeding wired Internet users, which is quite an unbelievable statistic.

The full title of this book is Wireless Internet Applications and Architecture with the sub-title Building Professional Wireless Applications Worldwide. According to the blurb, the author, Mark Beaulieu has developed wireless products for companies such as Sony, Motorola and General Magic, so he has an in-depth knowledge of the subject which I believe few other writers would be able to match.

The book’s 600+ pages are divided into three main parts which cover wireless technology, applications and architecture.

Part One covers aspects such as history of wireless networks, the i-mode phenomenon, various types of wireless networks (WAN’s, LAN’s and PAN’s) and wireless applications like CDMA, GSM, EDGE and 3G.

We are treated to a bit of telecommunications history as we learn how, in 1973, Martin Cooper, standing on a street corner in Manhattan, made the world’s first portable cellular phone call. Ironically, at the other end was the head of research at Bell Labs!

In this chapter we also learn about the Japanese i-mode success story which enables users to access Internet services via their cellular phones. This is the largest wireless society of subscribers, increasing at the rate of 50,000 new users each day. In Japan, people are bypassing PC-based Internet and moving straight to wireless Internet — while 13 percent of Japanese households own computers, wireless Internet is used by 25 percent of the population with some 20 million users.

Part Two covers the practical aspects of building wireless Internet applications. In this chapter we gain from the author’s experience of developing wireless applications.

Development of a wireless application is described as a process with the following steps:

  • studying the mobile user: This involves activities by the user, the interaction designer who has the task of understanding the users requirements, and a wireless architect who translates those requirements into a technical wireless application plan;
  • creation of a mobile database with content: The mobile content developer defines the information requirements;
  • designing a logical application: the wireless programmers then produce the wireless device application, the back office administrative application and a Web PC start page where the user registers for the service;
  • finally the wireless application is tested in the field using the scenarios created at the start of the process.

Further chapters cover development of wireless content, using location to personalise transactions and other platform dependent applications.

Part Three covers aspects of wireless Internet such as networks, devices, servers, coverage, content and end-user interfaces. The OSI framework is used to show the various protocols in each of the seven layers: Physical (e.g. radio frequency), Data Link (CSMA/CD, Network (VoIP), Transport (TCP), Session (SSL), Presentation (WML), Application (Netscape).

Some measures are suggested for securing wireless applications:

  • use a secure air carrier such as CDMA;
  • deliver content in a microbrowser and store as little as possible on the handheld;
  • use two-way certification;
  • add an additional layer of encryption for highly secure networks.

Overall, the book is quite technical, but readable as it tries to give an overall perspective about the subject, covering wider issues like history, global implications, the practical aspects of putting together a wireless application, and architecture. It is not just purely theoretical, but practical as it is written from the perspective of someone who has developed applications.

Although 4th Generation mobile phone networks are mentioned, the difficulty of writing a book on such a subject is that it can never be completely kept up-to-date. However, the author aims to give a understanding about the basics of wireless which should stay current for some time. Overall I could find little wrong with this book. It is thorough and definitive. Its scope is wide, covering not just mobile phones, but all aspects of the subject. — Kamal Khan End of Review

++++++++++

Graeme Browning.
Electronic Democracy: Using the Internet to Transform American Politics.
Medford, N.J.: Information Today, 2002.
paper, 190 p., ISBN 0-910-96549-8, US$19.95.
Information Today: http://www.infotoday.com/catalog/books.htm

Graeme Browning. Electronic Democracy: Using the Internet to Transform American Politics.

Browning sets out to tackle a limited subject in style. She describes the way the Internet has come to be used in American politics with a variety of cases and anecdotes, and intersperses some rules and analysis along the way. Yes, the meeting of the Internet and American politics, as described here, is limited, because there is so much more to both.

Browning starts out with a little historical anecdote, shows how American office holders and others gradually began to realise the potential of the Internet in terms of freedom of information, gives some examples of campaigns conducted by people with an issue to pursue, and shows how individual candidates began to use the Net as part of their campaigning strategy. There is a genuflection towards the digital divide, a discussion of online voting, and the obligatory chapter of links and sources. (It is disappointing that there is no Web site attached to keep these links up to date.) After this there are discussions of the way the Internet has been used in presidential elections, particularly the 2000 cliffhanger, and a brief review of the possibilities for the future.

I can’t make my mind up about this book. It is written by a journalist and it shows. That is by no means a bad thing. She writes well and she has a grasp of the English language, which is not always true of people who write about the Internet. She tells a good story. She pays attention to detail, though with a general lack of referencing it is difficult to track down the sources of much of her information. But ... there is a but. She often fails to move from anecdote to analysis, and where she does the analysis is often unsatisfactory.

Until we get to the chapters near the end on the presidential campaigns, most of the stories of use of the Net are about campaigns either for (or against) specific people or on specific issues. They demonstrate what has always been true, that a person or a group with an issue on their mind can bring about a result or a change because they are more passionate and more energetic about their cause than the majority (who often just wish the whole thing would kind of go away). As far as it goes, this is fine, though we might have more to learn from a leavening of campaigns that had failed. But it doesn’t get to the complexity of either the Web or politics. There are some useful rules about what to do if you want to start a campaign, but there is never really a recognition of the most fundamental requirement, which is passion. Because if you don’t have that, you will never enthuse the people who would be on your side. And you will never move the obstacles that don’t have an interest in moving until you make life too uncomfortable for them to stand still. The Internet is just a tool. Of itself it achieves nothing. It is only the way people use it that makes a difference.

Audiences can use the Net to find out what’s going on. Will they be different from the audiences who bother to read newspapers and watch documentaries through to the end? This book gives us little clue. People with a message, i.e. candidates and parties, can use it to get their message across to those who may be interested in hearing. Does it make a difference? This book gives us half a clue that it does. It rarely attempts, except towards the end, to put the Internet in context, as one of a range of tools which a politician will use to put a message across, or which the voter will use to inform their opinion. Thus it loses much of the subtlety that is necessary to make a real analysis of what is going on.

The book really fails in my mind in its treatment of what has come to be known in Internet terms as the digital divide. It gets a chapter to itself, but a short one, which does not do justice to either the scale or the complexity of the problem. To get access to the Net you need money to buy the equipment and then money to fund your habit. Many Americans (the proportion is large, the precise figure irrelevant) do not have that kind of money. Many can afford to get on the Net, but do not have access to, or cannot afford, high speed equipment and connections, which the more sophisticated sites and activities require. So cyberspace plays out the domination subordination game which determines so much about the life that any individual leads. The danger is — unrecognised by Browning — that the Internet will simply reinforce the status quo, widening the divide between the information rich and the information poor.

The same goes — more so — for the rest of the world. The book is about American politics and rightly concentrates on that, but there is little awareness that lessons can be learned from other places. There is one reference to France and one to Belgium. No mention of China where the Internet is shaping up in all sorts of ways to change the way things are done, and is proving a battle ground between the regime and practically everybody else. No mention of Yugoslavia, where the spread of the Internet between 1996 when elections kept Milosevic in place, and 2000, when he was removed, was crucial in that process. American politics includes foreign policy.

Despite the critique I’m glad the book came along. It reads well and it sets out the ground. Its price is reasonable, so, with all the caveats mentioned above, I’d recommend it. — Rob Parsons End of Review

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Geert Lovink.
Uncanny Networks.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.
cloth, 392 p., ISBN 0-262-12251-0, US$27.95.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu/

Geert Lovink. Uncanny Networks.

It’s difficult to know where to start but here goes. This book is a collection of interviews conducted by Lovink in person or through e-mail. The sub-title of the book is "dialogues with the Virtual Intelligentsia" and on the reverse of the dust cover Bruce Sterling is quoted as saying: "If you want to know what media theory will say five years from now, then read Uncanny Networks to see what Geert Lovink said five years ago."

Plugging these together left me both daunted and confused — would the Virtual Intelligentsia have anything to say to me and was I overly interested in what media theory will say in five years time?

My first disappointment was that one of the first interviews ("We don’t know what it is we invented" — Dietmar Kamper) dates back to 1990-1991 and makes a number of references to the first Gulf War. While these are interesting and, in many ways, particularly resonant right now, there is a feel of the age of the piece and I wondered, not for the last time as I read this book, whether the power and speed of the technology wasn’t grossly devalued by publishing this type of piece over ten years after its original context. In fact the interviews which discuss emerging technologies or how technology might be being used to suppress different groups or manipulate public opinion have a short "sell by date", they quickly move from being contemporary discussion pieces to historical curiosities. An example:

Lovink: "How would you describe the Internet generation?"
Kuan-Hsing Chen: "The commercial Internet is not as big as elsewhere. It is still largely dependent on the academic infrastructure."

No doubt accurate in December 1997 when this interview took place. Probably not the case now. In fact 1997 contributes more interviews than any other year. Many of the interviews included in this collection took place when the interviewee visited the Hybrid WorkSpace at Documenta X in Kassel in summer 1997 and while other contributions are the result of interviews elsewhere and e-mail discussions I did wonder whether this event somehow attracted almost the entire Virtual Intelligentsia or whether visiting and being interviewed was somehow sufficient to elevate one to whatever status being a member of this Virtual Intelligentsia represented.

My second disappointment occurred during the same piece with Kuan-Hsing Chen. On page 17 reference is made to a conference organised by Kamper in 1990 in Berlin. The conference title was "Das Ohr als Erkenntisorgan: zur Anthropologie des Hörens". My German is just about up to this but had it not been there was no additional information to help me understand much about the reference. And this isn’t a one-off, the book is littered with German words which may well be used as there is no direct translation, however, it would have been useful to have some explanation to help monolinguists follow the discussion.

I found some of the interviews in this book fascinating, others I found impenetrable; but my general feeling was that book didn’t deliver. I didn’t recognise any of the people interviewed — a reflection on me rather than interviewees I don’t doubt — but I know enough about Internet sociology to know that the key players change quickly and that the wired landscape is fluid. Thus a series of interviews conducted up to 10 years ago might be historically interesting but nothing more. I also feel it fails to deliver in terms of consistency — making its eclecticism one of the selling points of a book is no excuse for allowing poor quality contributions. Unburdened by any knowledge of the contributors I wasn’t aware of who I should expect to shine and who might disappoint, but some certainly disappointed.

Overall I’m afraid didn’t enjoy this book. — Nigel Gibson End of Review

++++++++++

Matt Woolman.
Digital Information Graphics (DIG).
New York: Watson-Guptill, 2002.
cloth, 176 p., ISBN 0-823-01353-7, US$40.00.
Watson-Guptill: http://www.watsonguptill.com

Matt Woolman. Digital Information Graphics (DIG).

This book provides an openly, graphic design-orientated analysis of the information visualisation field. It includes the key exponents and examines a wide range of examples. Matt Woolman’s previous titles have examined digital type and audio design and this book takes a similar approach to data graphics. The focus is on the visual elegance of the visualisations and the book certainly does these justice. The entries range from information graphics — such as xplanes gif vs. flash cartoons — to representations of massive amounts of Usenet traffic — as generated by Loom2.

The introduction gives an enticing overview of the domain, highlighting the key issues surrounding the presentation of maps and similar traditional data graphics (such as distortion and semantic coding) and how these also apply within the digital domain. This is followed by four sections: Mapping, Informing, Interacting and Exploring. Each section contains case studies of projects or individuals, supplemented with slightly briefer overviews of some individual systems, applications or design groups. To aid the readers comprehension and simplify the explanations the case studies are in turn separated into four principles: Concept, structure, context and navigation. The use of these same principles throughout helps on the whole to focuses on the salient points without getting bogged down in the detail, which would not be feasible in what is necessarily a brief overview. However at times, particularly with respect to the interactive nature of some of the systems described, the descriptions are frustratingly brief.

The first section entitled Mapping, is primarily concerned with representing the structure an electronic 'space'. Whether it is the traffic or the links between, or more often within, Web sites or the relationships between large continually evolving data sets, the focus is on ways in which the data is mapped visually in order to make it easier to analyse. In contrast to traditional maps the majority of the visualisations are abstract in nature, the form is derived from the data, so for example more complex areas are given more room.

Whilst the examples in the Mapping section are often aesthetically pleasing their usefulness is often somewhat opaque. The second section, Informing, concentrates on discovery and therefore focuses more on the needs of the end user. For example, how can the visualisation of a search query results make it easier for someone to spot the links that are most relevant to their needs? Within this section there is again an emphasis on Web traffic data, the analysis of which can not only enable designers to spot and hopefully rectify otherwise invisible problems but also to discover which routes are being followed in order to improve their support. 'Datascapes' represents a particularly attractive case study from this section. These 3D visualisations were used by Richard Saul Wurman in his book UnderStAnding. 'ETmap' is another interesting case study which uses tree maps to depict large amounts of site content via a simple coloured grid where size and proximity indicate the number of links and the relationship between them. Unsurprisingly a number of the other projects in this section also use a map analogy such as ThinkMap and the Internet Mapping Project. However, the explanation of the term 'media nutural' using the NatWest logo as an example of how a graphic can be designed to work in many different delivery contexts stands out in this section as a bit of an anomaly.

The Interacting section concentrates mainly on the relationship between DIG and the user. Many of the projects included depict users and their associations or activities, others show similar relationships between documents or Web pages or even organisational departments. The aim is to uncover the often hidden similarities, communities of practice or affinities, with the intention that being aware of such phenomena will enable those concerned to better harness the potential benefits. As with other sections of the book the inclusion of particular items sometimes seems ambiguous. In this section it is the Visual Explanations item (no not the Tufte book of the same name) but the work of XPLANE whose information graphics are actually static.

The final Discovery section looks at more experimental projects. Unsurprisingly this section includes many art-related items such as the eponymous, Typographic 56 and Wireframe. Also included in this section is one strand of the project of the UK’s Equator research project, including the only mention of virtual reality, which is attempting to combine the physical and digital into a single hybrid 'city'.

The coverage in DIG is certainly extensive, though some fairly significant applications, such as text-arc, which provides visualisations similar to those created by Ben Fry’s anemone, are missing. As is the Touch Graph browser, though possibly due to the inclusion of a number of similar though seemingly less sophisticated applications. The inclusion of primarily aesthetic uses of visualisation, such as the MTV Web site, which uses three-dimensional shapes purely as a representation of the different areas of the site, don’t gel particularly well with the majority of the content which is focused on representations of dynamic data. Though other entries, possibly without an obvious application, warrant inclusion merely for the quality of their execution, this is particularly true of the aforementioned 'wireframe'. Though seemingly inactive since its inception in 2000, it still manages to hold ones attention by the incredibly realistic quality of the movement and impression of physicality achieved by the dynamic animations.

The inevitable problem with a title of this kind is the desire it stimulates to see the live examples. Unfortunately, although there is a list of links to all the projects mentioned, there doesn’t seem to be a companion Web site, something that would seem like an obvious supplement. I have made a start at creating an annotated list of links on an IAwiki page, which others are of course welcome to contribute to.

DIG is visually very attractive, with colour screen grabs throughout, and descriptions, which on the whole, provide a quick and easy to understand explanation. I have some minor gripes relating to the poor mapping of the contents page to the headings used and other information design aspects, which make it harder to find things, but generally DIG does a commendable job of capturing the emergence of what seems likely to become an increasingly important subject. — Ben Hyde End of Review


Copyright ©2003, First Monday

First Monday, Volume 8, Number 9 - 1 September 2003
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1079/999





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