FM Reviews v
First Monday

FM Reviews

R.W. Burniske and Lowell Monke.
Breaking Down the Digital Walls: Learning to Teach in a Post-Modem World.
Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2001.
paper, 284 p., ISBN 0-791-44753-7, US$19.95.
SUNY Press:

R.W. Burniske and Lowell Monke. Breaking Down the Digital Walls: Learning to Teach in a Post-Modem World.

The question at the heart of this book is "How do we design and coordinate a global telecollaborative project to inspire dialectical discourse?" (p. 116).

The book itself is a product of the telecollaboration between the two authors, and the alternating chapters form a dialogue which is the distillation of experience gained from a series of projects spanning the period 1993-1999. It is a dialectic which reflects on the pedagogical implications of the projects without demanding resolutions or pretending to offer definitive answers.

Burniske asks "How might we design and facilitate telecollaborative projects that encourage students to ask questions rather than embrace superficial answers ... ." (p.12). He distinguishes three primary genres of educational telecollaborative activities, pointing out that interpersonal exchanges are often superficial, while information collections and analyses tend to value the gathering of information in place of the acquisition of knowledge. The kind of projects described in the book are therefore problem-solving projects, carefully designed to encourage analysis and reflection.

As Burniske points out, "Distance learning paradigms dedicated to the 'delivery' of material rather than dialectical exchange have established unfortunate precedents" (p. 17). "Quiet contemplation was once held up to students as a key cognitive process needed to digest knowledge, understand personal experiences, and develop ideas ... . Will the wisdom that grows out of making meaning from experience and ideas give way to the accumulation of information as the highest goal of our schools?" (p. 24).

These projects, and the propagation of the educational philosophy underlying them, are attempts to redress the balance by encouraging meaningful communication and critical thought. In keeping with their rejection of the plug-and-play curriculum, the authors avoid taking a prescriptive approach, but offer teaching strategies based on their experiences, and refined through a series of iterations of one of the projects. These strategies include practical techniques as well as pedagogical methods, but always with the focus on the educational process rather than the technological vehicles. Several of the projects are described in detail, and some of the project work is available at:,, and

The authors are sensitive to the fact that many participants in these projects are using English as a second language, and try to find ways to facilitate thoughtful discourse despite the possible language barriers. Burniske (p. 123) points out that "Communication in a telecollaborative project begins with a clear and consistent terminology, and a design that others can easily navigate." Despite both authors' fascination with the idea that the medium is the message, their efforts are directed at making the medium as transparent as possible, so that their students' attention is focused on each other as real people, rather than on the technology that enables them to communicate.

In projects where the main form of communication is by e-mail, an accurate description in the subject line is especially important, and it is this kind of detail, at the intersection of discourse and technology, that Burniske is especially attentive to: "Though we might like to, it's best not to assume that potential collaborators know how to engage in dialectical discourse. Faculty coordinators must serve as models, cultivating dialogues by using open-ended questions, demonstrating ways to weave threaded messages, and following the guidelines." (p. 125)

In chapter six, Monke moves beyond the description of the specific projects to consider some of the broad issues that cut across these and other Internet projects. "Telecollaborating students do learn that they have a surprising amount in common with children from other cultures, and in fact, that all cultures are far more similar than they are different. They learn this for the simple but generally obscured reason that the cultures of students who have access to the 'Net, regardless of where they are in the world, share a common techno-culture that subsumes whatever local culture may exist." (p. 133) Conversely, people in non-technological cultures exhibit entirely different ways of thought and living from that of the students who attend the exclusive private schools. "In order to enter our dialogue, they have had to use our cognitive tools and, therefore, to a great extent, compromise their traditional way of thinking." (p. 140) But even if access to communications technology is not universal, for economic and cultural reasons, it is still the case that collaborative projects can promote mutual understanding between those who do have access.

In chapter seven, Burniske provides a detailed examination of one project, The Media Matter, which aimed "to help students become more critical readers of the news media and share perceptions with other students around the globe" (p. 158). The contributions to the project from students in many countries demonstrate how they were able to learn from each other through the thoughtful consideration and critical questioning of their reports, constructing the kind of dialogue that developed into the collaboration between Burniske and Monke.

This chapter also includes some of the participants' evaluations of the project, and Burniske's own conclusions. One conclusion is the need for an educational rather than legalistic policy on student access to the Internet. A program that he has established to teach the responsible use of computer technology is available at

In chapter eight, Monke examines the responsibilities of teachers and offers guidance on dealing with the many difficult issues that telecollaboration raises. While the foremost responsibility of teachers is always to their students, Monke recognizes that it cannot be simply expressed in general terms as "each young person is an individual, with intrinsic worth, and with personal and academic needs unlike any other, [and] each group of students creates a unique dynamic that must be addressed on its own terms" (p. 205).

This respect for the individual not only means taking a humanistic approach to the education of the students in our classrooms, but also demands that we are courteous in our online communications. It is essential to develop a telecomputing ethic which encompasses netiquette and also requires a "commitment from the teacher to see that the learning that takes place through the wires has depth" (p. 213). These two objectives come together when we "get behind the objects on the screen to engage the subjects from which they come" (p. 214). The other responsibilities Monke outlines radiate out from ourselves, our schools, the community, the world and finally, "woven through the fabric of all our other responsibilities is our calling to seek the truth" (p. 224).

Coming at a time when the novelty of e-mail and the World Wide Web has worn off for many of our students, this thoughtful book gives us a valuable perspective on the kind of activities that can add real educational value to the use of these technologies. - Peter Beech End of Review


Annabel Z. Dodd.
The Essential Guide to Telecommunications.
Second edition.
Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000.
paper, 365 p., ISBN 0-130-14295-6, US$34.99.
Prentice Hall:

Annabel Z. Dodd. The Essential Guide to Telecommunications.

In ten chapters, Annabel Dodd gives her readers a breathtaking review - perhaps snapshot would be a better description - of the telecommunications industry and its technologies in the United States. Ranging from bits and bytes to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to Earth Orbiting Satellite Networks, Dodd tries to cover the entire waterfront in the course of nearly 400 pages. It's not an easy task, and the book is not technical by any means, but its organization and brevity (in some areas) make it difficult to follow. Illustrations scattered throughout the book help to explain some concepts, but heavy dependence on terms and acroynms makes the text and figures confusing at times (the glossary in a slightly smaller font at the end of the book does not help). I've used this book as a textbook in one class, and my graduate students were not overly impressed with it, often looking elsewhere for better and more up-to-date explanations. In summary, essential is not a word that I would use in reference to this work; look elsewhere for explanations of telecommunications, especially those that take a more down-to-Earth and global perspective. - ejv End of Review


James Gillies and Robert Cailliau.
How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web.
Translated by Axel Reisinger.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
paper, 372 p., ISBN 0-192-86207-3, US$15.95.
Oxford U.P.:

James Gillies and Robert Cailliau. How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web.

How the Web was Born provides a clear and detailed history of the origins of the World Wide Web, by describing how, step by step, the Internet was created, involving programmers, information and computer scientists, students, physicists, librarians, and all sorts of creative and dedicated individuals. This approach is refreshingly non-egocentric, because the Internet is clearly not the invention of one individual. Thanks to interviews, careful attention to the literature, and personal involvement in the some history-making decisions and work, the authors present an exciting review of the Web's development at CERN, and its evolution in the last decade into a global medium. My copy of this book is worn from repeated readings, reference, and fact-checking; I have packed it for classes, to pull up interesting details for students and colleagues. Its eight chapters would make for an interesting course on technology development and deployment, revisiting decisions made and more importantly paths not taken. Having read many of the recent histories of the Internet, I found this book to be incredibly more interesting in its depth and attention to detail, as well as for its wonderful descriptions of the personalities that shaped the Internet and the Web as we know it. Highly, highly recommended. - ejv End of Review


Trinh Xuan Thuan.
Chaos and Harmony: Perspectives on Scientific Revolutions of the 20th Century.
Translated by Axel Reisinger.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
cloth, 366 p., ISBN 0-195-12917-2, US$35.00.
Oxford U.P.:

Trinh Xuan Thuan. Chaos and Harmony: Prespectives on Scientific Revolutions of the 20th Century.

Trinh Xuan Thuan's book represents essentially a scientific and philosophical tour de force. This statement may seem at first a bit exaggerated but after reading the book readers might even think that this statement does not do the book justice.

What the author evidently had in mind when he embarked on the project of writing this book was to lead the reader through the intellectual history of human scientific endeavor in search of truth and the reason of human existence. This basically entails presenting the history of physics, including its current state of affairs, fundamental physical problems and issues, since physical science the founding block of all sciences. The author however goes well beyond that. There are numerous excursions in scientific realms of chemistry, biology, meteorology, computer science, and most of all mathematics and philosophy. In all these the author draws tight links and relationships between physics and other sciences and explains why physics was the most instrumental in the development of all other sciences and how physical understanding was crucial for many a scientific effort well beyond the borders of physics. Thuan does not stop there however, he pushes forward and discusses and ponders philosophical issues that emanate from fundamental physics, like nature and scope of human knowledge and understanding and their limitations. He tackles the very reason why we humans are where we are and what is the ultimate 'why' of our existence. You may already be tempted to grab the book and find out why we are here. Thuan, as well as many others, believe that everything under there is has one source and one goal, and that source and sink of everything is beauty. Beauty, or to use more scientific and quantifiable term - symmetry, is not only the ultimate raison d'être, but what is more important, we humans are capable of understanding it.

The book's chapters follow the course of historical development of ideas mentioned above. Starting with early notions of physical reality and determinism, going over the development of quantum theory and theory of relativity, and ending with contemporary string theory and its efforts to finally unify all known physical interactions - electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear force, and gravity, the author offers a grand overview of human quest for knowledge. All the chapters are inconspicuously but intentionally divided into small titled but unnumbered sections rarely longer than a page, and in each of those certain concept, idea or unresolved problem is discussed. Each of these little subchapters can be read, pondered and enjoyed separately, yet all of them follow the main line of the book and the author's ultimate preoccupation - human quest for knowledge and beauty.

Thuan starts with classical mechanics following its development in pre-Copernican times and leads us through Copernican revolution, the work of Johann Kepler and the period in human quest for knowledge and understanding that came to embody the belief in determinism as the overarching philosophical concept. And that belief came with plenty of reason and with astonishing success. Thuan uses classical mechanics to describe the evolution of solar system and its motion. Our local stellar system is not the end point; the author goes further and discusses large-scale cosmic structures and the universe as a whole. He discusses how life might have originated and came to flourish on planet Earth. The demise of dinosaurs and the ascent of mammals and Homo sapiens are discussed and all of them presented as logical consequences of classical mechanics - but not completely. As the story develops the author gradually includes the role of chance and ponders the ways chance and contingency, random and necessary, acted interactively to create the universe and everything in it. Chaos and chance are introduced as perfectly natural and indispensable. The world as we know it might have turned out to be quite different had there been no chance and accident.

The plot gradually thickens, and while chaos after entering the world of science in the early 19th century continues to affect scientific endeavors, other areas of classical physics, which found chaos strange and uneasy fellow, made significant progress on their own. Electricity and magnetism, which for centuries seemed to be distinct and different phenomena, were shown by James Clark Maxwell to be merely two seemingly different emanations of a single physical interaction. From the mid-19th century electromagnetism became common term and replaced old notions of electricity and magnetism. Classical mechanics, and its close relative statistical mechanics, helped transform thermodynamics from e phenomenological theory into a solid and fully formalized physical theory. By the beginning of the 20th century the world looked perfectly explainable by classical physics and what is even more important - the world looked perfectly deterministic.

Beginning of the last century (how that seems so long ago) brought two phenomena that classical physics was not able to explain. These were the problem of black body radiation, which could not be explained using classical thermodynamics, and the problem of apparent immutability of speed of light, which seemed to violate the principle of classical relativity. Classical relativity stated that the speed of any body moving in a system of reference that is also in motion is a resultant of two vectors - the motion of the system of reference itself and the motion of the body within the system. And the speed of light seemed to be one and the same and constant no matter whether the source of light was moving or not. That lead to the concept of ether, as an esoteric concept. Ether had no mass, was absolutely motionless, did interact with the rest of the universe, but was absolutely undetectable. The speed of light was constant in the ether, and as the ether was 'dragged' around by bodies in motion, its shape was altered and that caused the speed of light to seem constant in all directions and under all conditions. I am sure that respected readers reading this have already made doubting faces - how in the world would believe such a construct? But contemporary physics was not able to offer anything better and that certainly made a 'little' problem for physicists hundred years ago.

From these two small clouds on otherwise perfectly clear sky of physical science, to paraphrase Max Planck, two pillars of modern physics emerged - quantum theory and relativity. Building on the concept of chaos as phenomenon that has its internal logic and patterns, a chaos that can be made insightful and therefore useful, the author brings quantum mechanics into the play. Quantum mechanics, as one pillar of the 20th century physics, was instrumental in unifying electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear force into one and unified force and a single frame of knowledge, so called 'grand unification'. The other pillar, the pillar that for many years remained essentially non-quantum and could not have been reconciled with quantum mechanics, was relativity. For many years it has defied all the efforts to bring it into the fold. During the final quarter of the last century string theory emerged. String theory, a theory that embodies a convenient mixture of quantum mechanics, chaos theory and gravitation, seems to be our best chance to achieve super-unification. String theory postulates that the most basic dynamic notions in the universe are not particles and quanta but certain dynamic states resembling strings vibrating at different frequencies. Different frequencies give birth to different elementary particles and that is how all the variety and diversity of our universe has been created. Experimental verification, in case that the theory is the correct one, will evade us for unforeseeable period of time. Energies required for experimental testing of the final theory would require energies that are beyond not just our Sun or nearby stars but even beyond total energy of a single galaxy. But, as the author points out, why this should prevent us from thinking and developing superstring theory? We have at our side the ultimate tool for verification of physical theories. And that is beauty, or if you desire more formal descriptor - symmetries. Paul Dirac used to say that if a physical theory is not beautiful it most certainly is not correct.

The author admirably succeeds in bringing all the topics he discusses to the level of educated laymen, or at least to the level of a laymen willing to reason and follow the author across the multitude of topics - from physics to philosophy and religion. One might say that classical physics concepts, including chaos theory and relativity, have been dealt with on par. They are explained and presented quite rigorously with no scientific formalism. Contemporary physics, topics dealing with quantum mechanics and unification theories, might have been given shorter shrift than their classical and relativistic predecessors, which may leave some readers yearning for more. The fact of the matter though is that this definitely would have required more space and more effort from readers. There are also many other books where interested readers can find these concepts discussed in more detail, still on a very informal and non-mathematical level. One needs only mention late Richard Feynman whose skills in explaining most advanced concepts to any willing to listen layman (his own statement) have become legendary, but there are also many other very useful and appropriate readings on these matters. The author however succeeds in discussing many other subjects, like mathematics and philosophy, all of which he needs in order to round up the overall concept of wholeness and still keep the book within manageable size.

Two things perhaps need to be addressed more closely. The author apparently believes that Albert Einstein had profound and fundamental objections to the nascent quantum mechanics and for years tried to prove it as an insufficient, and at best, incomplete theory. Einstein is not with us any more and it would be impossible to obtain a decisive and unambiguous answer to this question from the grand man himself. However, many believe that this is not entirely true. Being the author of relativity theory, which is probably the most beautiful theory ever created by human mind, and to which Thuan himself concurs, he might have had some reservations against quantum mechanics. Relativity theory has evolved as a perfectly deductive and closed system. There was no need for out-of-theory assumptions or for things that had to be taken for granted. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, originated and for many years developed as a very intuitive concept, which does not diminish its grandness, quite to the contrary. Einstein accepted it from the very first day and applied it in much of his own research, which all is duly quoted by Thuan, but all the time tried to reduce its intuitive foundations and make it more formally structured. He preferred to do that by devising paradoxes, 'thought experiments' - as he used to call them. These paradoxes made quantum mechanics apparently self-contradictory. Physicists working on the foundations of quantum mechanics tried to resolve these paradoxes and their efforts led to profound breakthroughs and new discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics. For instance, famous Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox led to discovery of another fundamental notion of contemporary physics - concept of non-locality. Again, this is something that the author himself finds extremely important and later in the book uses when discussing the concept of wholeness as indispensable in our quest for the final truth. It would therefore probably be safe to say that the grand old man did not harbor any real animosity or misunderstanding toward quantum mechanics. He was somewhat like a father of a teenage daughter - he only seemed not to understand her élan and zest and impatience, but he certainly understood her and believed in her.

Another thing that may prompt further reflection is the author's awe vis-à-vis mathematics. For Thuan mathematics is of essentially non-human origin. It exists outside of human intellectual sphere, it is unique and one and only, it is universal, and it is simply out there waiting to be painstakingly and slowly discovered by humans. In mathematics there is nothing human, rather it is almost a divine construct in its absoluteness. Mathematics is therefore inexorably linked to the ultimate knowledge and it essentially is the indispensable tool on this quest. Humans are however capable of discovering and understanding it and this is of crucial importance. Mathematical development have in many instances preceded development of physical theories, and that most certainly helped physicists formulate, articulate and formalize their theories. This will particularly be true for string theory since basically all the mathematics needed for its development has been already developed. Mathematical language is therefore the universal language and the knowledge quest language.

All this is certainly very idealistic and appealing but there are many of those who advocate the opposing view. Mathematics, as well as physics and all other human creations are basically and inherently human. Mathematics is not perfect since we are not perfect. It is not a divine tool since humans are far from being divine. It reflects our own intellect rather than an absolute and non-human mind. Some of our mathematics and physics may be beautiful, and like relativity theory even the most beautiful intellectual design ever made by human mind, but it is still human and possesses all the strong, as well as weak sides of its creators - humans. It cannot be therefore defined as a self-sufficient and logically deduced body of knowledge. As far as physics and our quest for ultimate knowledge are concerned this is probably its most important insufficiency, since inherently human constructs cannot be utilized in comprehending concepts that are meta-human. Probably the most ardent advocate of such a view was Bertrand Russell. Thuan discusses Russell's views when discussing Kurt Gödel and the limitations to the capability of mathematics to be made self-deductive, but he does not venture any further. After Russell's efforts and memorable work of Kurt Gödel it is now widely accepted that no mathematical system can be self-enclosed and based on premises that can be proved within the scope of the very same mathematical theory. On the other hand the author, and many other including this reviewer himself, believe that the ultimate knowledge will be just that - self-enclosed with the basic premise of beauty built in into the system. If this is so then mathematics is really of human venue and using it as it is we may at best expect an asymptotic approach to the ultimate knowledge, rather than a final revelation. Or, as Russell suggested, we should keep our mind open and search for any hint that might help us put mathematics on some more universal and less human foundations, and define in such a way some sort of 'new mathematics'. We humans may be inherently incapable of doing that, of conceiving anything that is fundamentally non-human, but the universe is infinite and there is no way of telling what we might expect to find out there. We may be well on our way to transcend our humanness.

Finally, history of mathematics and physics teach us that humans have never been able to devise an abstract theory out of the blue, without getting at least a hint from real and concrete life, i.e. physics. Once we get a hint we are capable of making the original more abstract and less concrete, of extending a concrete and singular concept into more abstract spheres. Almost all mathematical disciplines, that are today quite abstract bodies of knowledge, originally started as very concrete problems. Problems like calculating the money owned by a customer to a trader, or the slope of stone edifices built for ancient temples, or a need to combine two or more forces acting on a single body in order to obtain the resultant force. Once tackled all these concrete problems led to the development of arithmetic, geometry or theory of vector spaces. Even such abstract concepts as imaginary unit i= were not invented just because we felt like it. Humans came upon it when they realized that taking a square root out of a negative number is not going to work within the realm or real numbers. The need for it, not our inherent urge to create things abstract, influenced us to develop the complex numbers theory and complex analysis.

Thuan concludes his book with a philosophical discourse on nature of human knowledge and our own notion of the universe. Tumultuous history of human quest for knowledge and understanding has brought us from a deterministic view of local interactions over to the world where local and global phenomena interact. On our quest to understand and comprehend the essence of the universe and our role in it the whole turned out to be profoundly more important than any part of it. The author states that the success that the West has enjoyed in sciences for many centuries has been very likely due to inherent notions of locality and causality that is so typical to Western culture and philosophy. The East on the other hand has always found everything in the world and the universe interacting with and affecting everything else, so much that Yin and Yang naturally complemented and interacted with one another. Could that mean that on human quest for the ultimate knowledge the East has come to be, by its tradition, art and philosophy, better suited and closer to the ultimate revelation than the West? Because, as careful reader of this book will undoubtedly notice, beauty and symmetry are the ultimate arbiters in the game of them all - the search for truth. The answer to this question is left for us to ponder.

In conclusion it can be said that this book provides many intriguing and challenging ideas for both the non-scientists and the people with scientific background. The former may be left bedazzled with so many thoughts and range of concepts spanning science as well as classical non-scientific disciplines, like religion. The latter may find some bones to pick with the author and some issues they might be eager to discuss with the author himself, bit none will be left unsatisfied with their minds and spirits unchallenged. The scope and range of this book is a real delight for the inquisitive mind. - Sinisa Dragic End of Review


Matt Welsh, Matthias Kalle Dalheimer and Lar Kaufman.
Running Linux.
Third edition.
Sebastopol, Calif.: O'Reilly and Associates, 1999.
paper, 749 p., ISBN 1-565-92469-X, US$39.95.
O'Reilly and Associates:

Matt Welsh, Matthias Kalle Dalheimer and Lar Kaufman. Running Linux.

Matt Welsh is a name well known to most Linux users. He was founder co-ordinator of the Linux Documentation Project and his guide to installing Linux, freely available on the Web, has been a typical starting point for those just beginning to appreciate and experiment with the GNU/Linux operating system.

This, the third edition of O'Reilly's Running Linux, purports to be a "one-stop shopping guide to Linux" and it certainly does stock a wide-ranging selection of Linux savvy in its 700-odd pages. Kalle Dalheimer has joined the editorial team of Welsh and Lar Kaufman and brings much to the book, particularly its coverage of KDE, the K Desktop Environment, which is luring more and more users to GNU/Linux from other operating systems.

For anyone just starting out with Linux, the book offers assistance with installation and configuration of the three major distributions, RedHat, Debian and SuSE, how to boot Linux and how to shut the system down correctly. Although the main text assumes the reader is running Intel hardware, appendices cover platform-specific issues of installation on Alpha, Sparc, PowerPC and M68K architectures.

GNU/Linux can demand that new users quickly become their own system administrator and this book is actually more of an entry-level sysadmin guide than a straightforward user manual. One of the strengths of this title is its structured approach and the authors try to ensure that the reader will quickly develop Linux skills which are applicable to almost any package or situation.

Readers are given a firm grounding in system management as well as becoming accustomed to console applications such as Emacs and vi before being introduced to the bells and whistles of X windows and the flashy desktop environments, KDE and Gnome (the latter being introduced in a brief appendix). This may seem at odds with some of the latest distributions of Linux which implement fully graphical installation and default to a graphical logon, but these are core skills which will quickly prove their worth, lessening any frustration which may follow should things somehow go pear-shaped.

Anyone wishing to customise their installation is presented with chapters dealing with building the kernel and installing packages with RPM, the RedHat Package Manager. The more traditional approach of compiling applications from source code is also adequately covered in the book's introduction to the GNU programming tools. This third edition has also been substantially updated and now includes additional sections dealing with Samba, which allows file and printer sharing with Windows-based machines, and dial up Internet access using PPP.

Curiously, although this edition is now approaching its second year in print, there is surprisingly little material that seems dated. Granted, while LILO is discussed quite extensively, there is no mention of GRUB, the "GRand Unified Bootloader" that is now standard kit with some distributions and there are one or two virtual "afghan coats", but they don't really matter. The fact that it is possible to recommend a Linux title that is this "old" is testament to the authors' (and editors') command of their subject.

While this book is written in a style that can be easily, and enjoyably, read from cover to cover, it also serves as a desktop reference. Whether you are using Linux on a home workstation or maintaining a network server, Running Linux provides an excellent resource that can be dipped into for expert advice just when you need it. No matter your level of experience, it deserves to be on your bookshelf.

By the way, Matt Welsh's guide to "Linux Installation and Getting Started" can be found online at - Rory Beaton End of Review

Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.