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Books and hardware.

Powerline wonder

Phonex’s NeverWire Ethernet transceiver.

How would you like to use your home power line not only to run your computers but network them as well, with a network connection as close as the nearest wall outlet? One of the first shipping consumer systems to realize this long-held dream is the just-introduced Phonex NeverWire 14 QX-201 ($129 per node at Each of these HomePlug 1.0-compliant devices consists of a modem-sized box with just two connectors–a power plug and an RJ-45 Ethernet jack. Plug the NeverWire 14 into the power line (but not a surge protector, which attenuates the signal) and each Ethernet-equipped computer or hub, and the power line becomes part of your network, running at up to14Mbps.

Installation is literally plug-and-play. With no software drivers to install, the NeverWire 14 should work on any Ethernet network–I did all my testing with Macs. Up to 16 units can be used on a single network, with no individual configuration required. Each unit has five status LEDs and three switches. There’s a “Hub/PC” crossover switch, a test button to check the link, and a button to set an optional 56-bit DES security mode (to keep your similarly equipped neighbor out of your network–a usable signal will travel until it hits a line transformer).

In my testing, the NeverWire 14 managed real-world throughput of between 1.08 and 2.81Mbps–in the same ballpark as wired 10 Base-T Ethernet–depending on distance and interference-creating devices such as motors, microwave ovens, and compact fluorescent lights. In a severe test (with a running electric drill plugged into the same outlet), transfers hung until I turned the drill off, but then resumed without any lost packets. These results show plenty of speed for sharing a cable or DSL modem, for instance, as long as serious interference isn’t constant.

I can envision the day when this technology will be built into every PC and Mac, and networking will involve nothing more than plugging them in. Meanwhile, it’s available now, in an only slightly less convenient form. -Ken Henningsen

Standing up to Big Brother

Steven Levy’s “Crypto.”

Imagine if every time you went outside, checked out a book from the library, or had a sensitive conversation with a friend or family member, someone was able to watch and record your every move. Or, perhaps more alarming, imagine if every company meeting, every business transaction, and every trade secret your company had was posted online for anyone and everyone to read.

It’s precisely that kind of disturbing, Orwellian loss of privacy that motivated a handful of academics, mathematicians, and technically inclined individuals to try to develop some form of encryption technology in the early hours of the digital age. And the challenges, as Steven Levy explains in his latest book “Crypto,” were not so much in the development of the technology, but in getting past Big Brother.

In an illuminating historical recap of the crypto revolution, Newsweek’s top technology writer explains why powerful encryption technology–a necessity foreseen by bright minds like Whit Diffie, Phil Zimmerman, Ron Rivest and others–has been such a long time coming.

The mere threat that the National Security Administration suddenly would be incapable of eavesdropping over the wires led to startling, draconian measures to stifle, suppress, and even censor research, discussion, and development of encryption technology. It’s that potential loss of surveillance power, Levy illustrates, that has hindered the availability of encryption technology–and, as a result, put at risk anyone online.

“Crypto” was not written simply to delight late-night programmers or crypto enthusiasts. There’s no doubt that it will entertain anyone interested in the early days of the digital revolution. But more important, it provides a historical and political context for an issue that still confronts us today. Computers are catching up to the key lengths begrudgingly let through by the NSA in the ’90s. Export laws are stringent–and changes are rarely supported in Congress or by the president. Levy’s work gives background to the growing issue of personal privacy in a digital world–a topic that, hopefully, everyone is concerned about. -Christy Mulligan

Freedom fighter

Sam Williams’ “Free as in Freedom.”

It’s hard to like Richard Stallman. It is not so much his determined ethical stance and unwavering focus on providing the world with free software; these traits have helped propel him from a software programmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to creator of the GNU (GNU Not Unix!) Project. They’ve also served him well as he’s fought against fellow programmers, as well as corporations, in his crusade against proprietary software. Rather, it’s his intractable personality that angers even his allies.

In a straightforward new book, “Free as in Freedom” by Sam Williams, readers have the chance to get to know even better an overly verbose public figure who is never afraid to state his views. The book charts Stallman’s days as a high-school student participating in Columbia University’s Columbia Science Honors Program; his budding romance with computers as a student at Harvard; his work with Emacs; the formation of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation; and finally, his popularity as he battled on behalf of free software.

In the course of chronicling Stallman’s life, we see him correct his high-school calculus teacher, cry over an old mainframe computer, and throw a temper tantrum on a Maui highway. It all paints a picture of a genius who values ideological purity in pursuit of free software. His purity gives him integrity, but his lack of social finesse makes him difficult to handle.

The juxtaposition of Stallman’s public and private personae is the key to the book’s appeal. As in many other walks of life, technological innovations are not always wrought by likable people.

The book is a worthwhile read for its chronicle of an important part of the free software movement, as well as its insight into Stallman as a person. His philosophy and work has surely secured him a legacy as a man who has altered the way we look at software. -Jende Huang

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