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Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet by Andrew Blum - review

Tubes: Behind the Scenes at the Internet

Andrew Blum

Viking, 304pp, £12.99

The internet is all around us: at our desks, in our hands, transmitting emails and messages and millions of pounds every second. But for something so ubiquitous, it is also surprisingly fragile: in 2011, a 75-year-old Georgian woman managed to cut most of Armenia off from the net when her spade went through a vital cable. It took five hours for it to be restored.

Two years earlier, a similar – though far lesser – tragedy happened to the Wired correspondent Andrew Blum when a squirrel chewed through his broadband cable, slowing his connection to a crawl. It prompted him to set out on a journey to find out where the inter­­net was: when you send an email, how does it get from you to the recipient? Where does your Facebook page live when you’re not looking at it?

Blum certainly can’t be accused of not putting in the legwork. He goes to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to see a huge printout of the in­ternet, in the form of a map of all of its cross-country and undersea cables; to Austin, Texas, for the improbably named Nanog (North American Network Operators’ Group) conference; and to Frankfurt and Amsterdam to see the huge internet exchanges where service providers plug into one other.

Even Britain gets included in this whistle-stop itinerary: “For the internet, as for so much else, London is the hinge between east and west, the place where the networks reaching across the Atlantic link up with those extending from Europe, from Africa and India.” The slightly less throbbing spot of Porthcurno, Cornwall, also merits a visit, as it’s where the transatlantic cables land in the UK.

Easily the most memorable scene in the book takes place at a data centre in the Dalles, Oregon. In 2004, a man representing a company with the “suspiciously generic name of Design LLC” turned up in town, “sloppily dressed and interested in such astronomical quantities of power that a nearby town had suspected him as a terrorist”.

Design LLC turned out to be Google and the Dalles was its chosen location for a data centre: the internet’s version of a storehouse or, perhaps more accurately, a vault. It is stuffed with expensive equipment and Google’s competitors are hungry for any scrap of information about its size, its capacity or its engineering, so Blum’s visit turns into an anodyne, PR-controlled nightmare. The people who want to make all information easily accessible are not so keen on their own secrets being brought out into the light and the company has even scrubbed the facility’s outline off Google Maps.

In the end, Blum has to content himself with a walk around the perimeter and a trip to the lunch room. (One of the few solid bits of information he can offer is that the organic salmon was delicious.)

As for the rest of the book, it is only a little unkind to say that most of what Blum discovers is cables. He sees cables that join to other cables in vast racks, making the US internet fractions of a second faster than it would otherwise be. He sees cables being joined together, ready to go under the sea. He sees cables packed into hoses under the streets of New York. The answer to what the internet is, then, is cables – and what’s inside them, which is pulses of light flashing a million times a second. Even Blum’s interviewees are occasionally baffled by his interest in looking at computing equipment: “It’s just boxes and lights, but if you want!” says one.

Occasionally we stray close to a good anecdote. The section on the military Arpanet, which pre-dates the internet, has some colourful characters and there is also the suggestion that one of the rooms full of routers was the scene of a risqué photo shoot by the porn star Danni Ashe, who was once crowned the “most downloaded woman” by Guinness World Records. (Blum conscientiously contacts Ashe, who can’t remember, but an engineer who was with her that day solemnly tells him it was a completely different, anonymous router room that featured in the background of the smut in question.)

But amid all this goggling over fibre optics, the big question raised by the book hangs nervously in the background, waiting its turn. It never comes. There’s a brief joke that a bomb at the Nanog conference would cripple the net and one of the engineers interviewed admits that he once cut off the whole of Australia because they didn’t pay their bill. (Beat that, 75-year-old Georgian lady!) But Blum doesn’t stop to consider this: if the internet has fragile but vital physical manifestations, are we doing enough to protect them? This planet has far more terrifying dangers than spades and squirrels and, as we put ever more of our lives into “the cloud”, are we sure it’s safe there?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis