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- February 2014: Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age
- January 2014: Full Upright and Locked Position by Mark Gerchick '73, P'13
- December 2013: This Indian Country by Fred Hoxie '69
- November 2013: The Partner Track by Helen Wan '95
- October 2013: The Forage House by Tess Taylor '99
- September 2013: Inferno by Dan Brown '86
- August 2013: Six Years by Harlan Coben '84, P'16
- July 2013: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein '88
- June 2013 - Brothers Emanuel by Ezekiel Emanuel '79
- May 2013 - Cadaver by Jonah Ansell '03
- April 2013 - Masters of Disaster by Chris Lehane '90
- March 2013 - Schroder by Amity Gaige
- February 2013: El Iluminado by Ilan Stavans
- January 2013: Everything Under the Sun by David Suzuki '58
- December 2012: Arcadia by Lauren Groff
- November 2012: The Hidden Europe by Francis Tapon '92
- October 2012: The Price of Inequality by Joseph Stiglitz '64
- September 2012: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum '99
- August 2012: Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski '69
- July 2012: Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach '93
- June 2012: Vineyard at the End of the World by Ian Mount '92
- May 2012: God's Jury by Cullen Murphy '74
- April 2012: Big Birthday by Kate Hosford '88
- March 2012: EyeMinded by Kellie Jones '81
- February 2012: 1493 by Charles Mann '76
- December 2011: The Vices by Lawrence Douglas
- November 2011: Don't Cross Your Eyes by Aaron Carroll '94
- October 2011: Come On All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder '89
- September 2011: The Pale King by David Foster Wallace '85
- August 2011: Scoundrels in Law by Cait Murphy '83
- July 2011: Terror and Wonder by Blair Kamin '79
- June 2011: What Should I Do? by Professor Alex George
- May 2011: Model Nazi by Professor Catherine Epstein
- April 2011: A Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei '99
- March 2011: Unlikely Allies by Joel Paul '77
- February 2011: Secret Historian by Justin Spring '84
- December 2010: The Best of Foxtrot by Bill Amend '84
- November 2010: Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker '51
- October 2010: Routes of Man by Ted Conover '80
- September 2010: The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick '75
- August 2010: Innocent by Scott Turow '70
- July 2010: Simple Fresh Southern by Matt and Ted Lee '93
- June 2010: Ballet's Magic Kingdom by Professor Stanely Rabinowitz
- May 2010: Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman '68
- April 2010: Andean Express by Adrian Althoff '04
- March 2010: Freefall by Joseph Stiglitz '64
- February 2010: Beautiful Creatures by Margaret Stohl '89
- December 2009: What to Read When by Pam Allyn '84
- November 2009: On Poets and Poetry by William H. Pritchard '53
- October 2009: Julie & Julia by Julie Powell '95
- September 2009: Rules for Old Men Waiting by Peter Pouncey
- August 2009: The End of Overeating by David Kessler '73
- July 2009: The Mirror Effect by Dr. Drew Pinsky '80
- June 2009: Art and Politics of Science by Harold Varmus '61
- May 2009: Hold Tight by Harlan Coben '84
- April 2009: Passing Strange by Marni Sandweiss
- March 2009: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian '82
- February 2009: Loneliness as a Way of Life by Tom Dumm
- January 2009: Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein '88
- December 2008: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff '01
- November 2008: The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate '89
- October 2008: The Thing Itself by Dick Todd '62
- September 2008: Are We Rome by Cullen Murphy '74
A Dive Into the Digital Deep
When next winter's storms subside, a specialized ship will begin a slow crossing, lowering a skinny cable into its wake along a precisely prescribed path: the shortest distance between New York and London. Owned by Summit, N.J.-based Hibernia Atlantic, the $300 million wire will bring the two financial capitals 5.2 milliseconds closer together—a boon to high-speed electronic traders.
Four thousand miles to the south, a second ship owned by a different company will move in parallel, laying a cable that will link—for the first time—Brazil and Angola. And in 2014, it will happen again, twice: from Virginia Beach to San Sebastián, Spain, and from Brazil to Nigeria. For those with memories of the global cable-laying spree that helped to drive telecommunications companies into bankruptcy in the 1990s, this will raise eyebrows. But all those cables are nearly full now. And there are other parts of the world demanding direct connections.
If the Internet is a global phenomenon, it's because there are tubes underneath the ocean. They are the fundamental medium of the global village.
The fiber-optic technology is fantastically complex and dependent on the latest materials and computing technology. Yet the basic principle of the cables is shockingly simple: Light goes in on one shore of the ocean and comes out on the other.
At each end of the cable is a landing station, around the size of a large house, often tucked away inconspicuously in a quiet seaside neighborhood. It is a lighthouse; its fundamental purpose is to illuminate the fiber-optic strands. To make the light travel enormous distances, thousands of volts of electricity are sent through the cable's copper sleeve to power repeaters, each the size and roughly the shape of a bluefin tuna. One rests on the ocean floor every 50 miles or so. Inside its pressurized case is a miniature racetrack of the element erbium, which, when energized, gooses along the photons, like a waterwheel.
It's all wonderfully poetic, an ultimate enjoining of the unfathomable mysteries of the digital world with the even more unfathomable mysteries of the oceans.
How does it all work? One company might own the fiber-optic cables, while another operates the light signals pulsing over that fiber, and a third owns (or more likely rents) the bandwidth encoded in that light. The dozen or so cables that cross the Atlantic are owned by boutique outfits like Hibernia Atlantic and Apollo; consortia of incumbent telecoms like Verizon, Sprint and Deutsche Telekom; or "backbones" with less familiar names, like Level 3 and Tata Communications. They sell passage to any company that operates its own global data network: from Qatar Telecom to Swisscom, Facebook to Goldman Sachs. Prices are perpetually falling. As the Englishmen who dominate the undersea cable industry like to say, the capacity they're selling is too often "cheap as chips."
Determining a cable's route requires navigating a maze of economics, geopolitics and topography. Specialized ships conduct surveys of the ocean bottom, plotting routes over and around underwater mountains. The paths carefully avoid major shipping lanes, to limit the risk of damage from dragging anchors. If a cable does fail, a repair ship is dispatched to lift both ends to the surface using grappling hooks and fuse the ends back together—a slow, expensive process.
Further complicating matters is the demand for low "latency," the networking term for how long it takes information to travel across the cable. Latency used to be a concern only for the telephone people, eager to avoid an unnatural delay in conversations. Now it's become an obsession of the financial industry, to serve the needs of high-speed automated trading, where computers arbitrage based on knowing the market news an extra millisecond in advance. Since the speed of light through a cable is consistent, the difference is entirely in the length of its path. Hibernia Atlantic is shaving 310 miles off the current trans-Atlantic journey, by following the shallow continental shelf (despite the heightened risk of damage).
But even in our every-millisecond-counts world, the cables' paths are often ancient, landing in or near classic port cities like Marseille, Mumbai and Mombasa. It may feel as if the Internet has created an entirely new world, but it's traced entirely upon the outlines of the old one.
—From Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum. Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Blum. Published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.