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Tubes [Hardcover]

Andrew Blum
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 7 2012

Everybody knows that the Internet is the most powerful information network ever conceived. It is a gateway to information, a messenger of love and a fountain of riches and distraction. We are all connected now, but connected to what? In Tubes, acclaimed young journalist Andrew Blum takes readers on a fascinating journey to find out.

As Blum writes, the Internet is tangible: it fills buildings, converges in some places in the world and avoids others, and it flows through tubes—along train lines and highways, and under oceans. You can map it, smell it and see it. As Tom Vanderbilt does in his bestselling Traffic, Blum goes behind the scenes of our everyday lives and combines first-rate reporting and engaging explanation into a fast-paced quest to explain the world in which we live. The room in Los Angeles where the Internet was born; the busy hub in downtown Toronto that links Canada with the world; a new undersea cable that connects West Africa and Europe; and the Great Pyramids of our time, the monumental data centres that Google and Facebook have built in the wilds of Oregon—Blum visits them all to chronicle the dramatic story of the Internet’s development and explain how it all works.


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Review

“Fascinating and unique. . . . [A] captivating behind-the-scenes tour of how (and where) the Internet works. . . . [Blum] has a gift for breathing life into his subjects.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))

“Every web site, every email, every instant message travels through real junctions in a real network of real cables. It’s all too awesome to behold. Andrew Blum’s fascinating book demystifies the earthly geography of this most ethereal terra incognita.” (Joshua Foer, bestselling author of Moonwalking with Einstein)

Tubes is an absorbing tale of this new technology, as well as a wonderful account of the Internet’s growth and the people who made it possible.” (Science News)

“Clever, enterprising . . . Tubes uncovers an Internet that resembles nothing so much as a fantastic steam-punk version of itself.” (Boston Globe)

“Engaging. . . . Full of memorable images that make the internet’s complex architecture easier to comprehend. . . . Blum leaves readers pondering questions that would not have occurred to them before and better informed about an innovation most of us take for granted.” (The Guardian)

“A charming look at the physical infrastructure that underlies the Web.” (Scientific American)

“A satisfying postmodern quest. . . . The history, in particular, is one of the best and most memorable I have ever read.” (New Scientist)

“Blum paints a vivid picture of the Internet, and gives a sense that it is more than just the mysterious interstitial digital space between your computer and mine. It is, increasingly, the backbone that supports our daily life, and Mr. Blum is an able anatomist.” (New York Journal of Books)

“Quixotic and winning. . . . Valuable, comic. . . . [Blum has] a knack for bundling packets of data into memorable observations. What makes Tubes more than an unusual sort of travel book, is [Blum’s] sense of moral curiosity.” (New York Times)

“Ingeniously beguiling. . . . Blum is a smart, imaginative, evocative writer who embraces the task of making his readers feel the wonder represented by these unprepossessing objects.” (Laura Miller, Salon)

“An engaging reminder that, cyber-Utopianism aside, the internet is as much a thing of flesh and steel as any industrial-age lumber mill or factory. It is also an excellent introduction to the nuts and bolts of how exactly it all works.” (The Economist)

“A fascinating exploration of the physical nature of the Internet, and how the ‘network of networks’ came to be the way it is.” (Shelf Awareness)

“Engaging. . . . Blum is a natural storyteller.” (PopMatters)

“Enlightening. . . . A zippy history of a phenomenon that, as a society, captivates us, connects us, and vexes us.” (Guernica)

“With infectious wonder, Blum introduces us to the Internet’s geeky wizards and takes us on an amiably guided tour of the world they’ve created, a world of wires and routers through which most of us daily wander . . . but which few of us have ever really seen.” (Donovan Hohn, author of Moby-Duck)

“Compelling and profound. . . . For the first time, Tubes brings the ‘network of networks’ into stirring, and surprising, relief. You will never open an email in quite the same way again.” (Tom Vanderbilt, bestselling author of Traffic)

“A compelling story of an altogether new realm where the virtual world meets the physical.” (Paul Goldberger, author of Why Architecture Matters)

“At once funny, prosaic, sinister and wise . . . A beautifully written account of the true human cost of all our remote connectivity.” (Bella Bathurst, author of The Lighthouse Stevensons)

From the Back Cover

Design Observer Best Book of the Year

Tubes looks behind the scenes of our digital lives at the physical heart of the Internet itself. This is a book about real places on the map: their sounds and smells, their storied pasts, their physical details, and the people who live there. Sharing tales of his on-the-ground reporting, along with lucid explanations about how the Internet works, Blum's eye-opening travelogue offers a unique perspective on the role of technology in our lives.


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Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Plumbing the internet Dec 25 2012
Format:Hardcover
[...]

Most days, I spend all day and much of the evening lost in the internet. Lost, that is, figuratively. We think and talk in physical terms about the net, the web, the online world – and this metaphorical place often feels like it’s where I live.

But what does that mean? What is the world of the internet? For my friend the journalist Andrew Blum – architecture critic, Wired contributor, student of geography, and contrarian – that question was an invitation to explore the physical world of the net. The results became his book Tubes.

He drank with divers on the Portuguese coast, spelunked Lower Manhattan with Con Edison engineers, schmoozed with many network technicians in many dark rooms full of wire cages. (In Toronto, the Toronto Internet Exchange is here on Front Street West. For now!)

What he learns is that the whole network is a) literally a network of wires, fiberoptics, and tubes; and b) remarkably ad hoc. Right from the start the Internet has been improvised, expanded and renegotiated; an early important hub was in a parking garage in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Even today there are meetings both personal and physical where different commercial networks plug in to each other. Some of these are New York, London and Frankfurt – because of the presence of fiberoptic cables, legacy phone companies or just because, in Frankfurt’s case, the guys in charge thought it was a reasonable place to meet.

Now some of the crucial points are data centres, located where moderate climate and access to fiberoptic cable meet. Look up Google’s new data centre and then Google The Dalles, Oregon; it’s not the kind of place you’d expect to find globally important infrastructure. Google was very secretive about it, until recently.
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By Laura
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Tubes is a terrific book about the "real" internet. It dispels the fantasy of the "cloud" and brings the internet down to earth. If you love geography, telecommunications, and history, this will be a great addition to your bookshelf (wherever it's stored)!

Blum writes beautifully and this is as much fun to read as anything else you might choose. If you like Bill Bryson, you'll love this!
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  147 reviews
112 of 123 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Real Deal, from the Real Guys May 29 2012
By Daniel Golding - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I sit, writing this review, in my darkened office in an Internet data center, in Ashburn, VA, the hub described in Tubes. I build these things for a living, and, when my time on this planet is up, I'll be able to say, with some great satisfaction, that I was part of the small army that built the "plumbing" of the Internet - data centers, fiber, DWDM terminals, regen sites, routers, switches. The guts, not the pretty developer work.

From that point of view, I must strongly endorse Tubes by Andrew Blum. I first met Andrew at a meeting of core Internet architects - his intellectual curiosity was striking. He sat in our meetings, went to our bars, listened to our bad stories. Andrew is an excellent writer who talked to the real guys (and girls) who built the Internet. Not an early research network, or an NSF/DOD project, or some web page or search engine - the REAL Internet.

If you want to know how it really fits together, how the Internet really works, read this book. If you are an aspiring network engineer - you must read this book, to really learn something about what you claim to know. If you are a layman - this book will give you an appreciation of the real Internet - behind the glitzy Flash, the addictive MMOs, the electronic storefronts, the content delivery networks - the Tubes. Now, I have to go back and feed the beast. Read the book - this is what Where Wizards Stay Up Late should have been and was not.
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mostly will appeal to the alpha geeks... June 6 2012
By 35-year Technology Consumer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
..."The Internet" (as most of us have come to understand its popular rise in our consciousness over a generation) has been described with many metaphors: clouds, tubes, webs (as well as Arthur C. Clark's broad category of magic for any sufficiently advanced technology).

"Tubes" doesn't really create new ground in sustaining or refuting any of these concepts. Instead, it captures the physicality behind the magic that delivers all those digital pieces to us through and examination of how the physical layer of the Internet grew.

After a squirrel-induced outage at at his Brooklyn home, Andrew Blum set out to expand the trace of wires behind his furniture, and see where all that data came from. The result of his findings are here, and he presents us with insider looks at the following:
-The physical parts of the network that grew by chance in its early days
-The physical parts of the network that grew by design as it matured
-The physical parts of the network where data moves and where data rests.

The results: detailed descriptions of the large centers where the connections of large backbone providers intersect and move data, tours of some of the places where undersea cables emerge from the depths to tie continents together digitally, and visits to the one of the factory analogs of the Information Age: the data centers that some increasingly trust more than they trust their own local storage options.

I've had my own experiences visiting facilities like these, and it's quite an accomplishment to get a book-length treatment of them. How much can you write about servers, switches, hubs, routers and cable runs? As it turns out, a lot, and Blum does so in an engaging and accessible way.

This book may not appeal to the general reader, but it will appeal to those who appreciate the kind of infrastructure we often take for granted. If you appreciate modern roads, modern sewage systems, clean drinking water delivered to your tap and a reliable supply of electricity --and have more than a passing interest in how any of these things became available to us-- then you will probably enjoy this book. When it comes to computers, computing and understanding the connectivity made possible by the Internet, most homes have their alpha geek...and that's who will most enjoy this book.
54 of 61 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, But Definitely For Techies May 5 2012
By Reader from Washington, DC - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
After a squirrel living in his backyard chewed through wiring connecting his computer to the internet, journalist Andrew Blum became curious -- where, he asked himself, do all the computers, cables and routers 'live' that physically power the internet? And who runs the companies that maintain them?

This question was covered years ago in a series of fascinating Wired magazine articles written by novelist Bruce Sterling, so I was eager to read Blum's account. Blum traveled from one city to another, looking at inconspicuous office buildings filled with equipment, talking to executives about underwater ocean cables that are thousands of miles long, and tries to give the reader a series of mental pictures of how the internet actually 'works.'

The book is interesting, but his efforts to draw word pictures of complex equipment, how the internet functions, and the engineers who maintain it are somewhat rambling and disorderly, and he assumes a level of knowledge on the reader's part of things like internet IP addresses.

If I weren't a bit of a techie, I would have given up after the first 10 pages. This type of subject cries out for tight vignettes and colorful prose.

I think techies like myself will like it, but the average reader will be bewildered or bored.You do need to be a bit of a geek to understand the book.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, even if it's pretty complex May 14 2012
By DDC - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Tubes is a interesting book about a subject most people (me included) never consider: what exactly is beyond the screen in front of us? In answering this question, the author takes you all over the virtual and physical world. It is written as a journey of discovery: both on the subject and, to a lesser extent, of the author's personal feelings.

As other reviewers have noted, this book presents some complex IT concepts. They are well explained, but it's easy to get lost here and there. Even when you get lost, it doesn't detract of the overall story and learning experience. For the most part, everything is well explained and you don't need any specific background before reading this book.

The author has a nice writing style and the prose flows well. I don't think the author achieved the kind of casual brilliance of Malcolm Gladwell (Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking) or Michael Lewis (The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine), but this isn't a criticism. To the contrary, the fact I compared them speaks volumes about the author's writing and I thought he was pretty close to them at times.

This book is perfect for people interested in: engineering/IT, modern history, and urban archeology. I have included urban archeology because the book really delves into all the places you've never heard about or walked by and never thought about; for me, this was the best part of the Tubes. I recommend this book.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Incredibly Boring Dec 7 2012
By Andrew Moriarty - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I made a valiant attempt to finish this book, but couldn't do it. After wading through pages and pages of unfocused discussion of the so called 'journey' I finally gave up. The book is neither technically detailed, intellectually stimulating, or an entertaining story. Rather it is a collection of disconnected musing.
If you want a technical discussion, this is not it. If you want a story of the people involved, this is not it. If you want a history of how things evolved, this is not it. I'm sorry I bought it.
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