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Networked life : 20 questions and answers
Chiang M., Cambridge University Press, New York, NY, 2012. 488 pp. Type: Book (978-1-107024-94-6)
Date Reviewed: Jul 15 2013

It is hard to deny that we live in a networked world and that our interactions with different kinds of networks take an increasing fraction of our lives. Mung Chiang, from Princeton University, has written an engaging undergraduate textbook that explains the foundations of many of the networks that now are part of our daily routine. These range from Google search results (and ads) to Netflix recommendations, from Skype and BitTorrent peer-to-peer (P2P) networks to cell phone networks, and, of course, the Internet itself. From a formal point of view, the contents of the book fall somewhere between a network science textbook (that is, something about small worlds and scale-free networks) and a more traditional computer network textbook (with topics such as cellular networks, transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP), and congestion control), an odd combination of topics for a book on networks.

The book supports a course created at Princeton in 2011 [1] that is also available as a free massive open online course (MOOC) on platforms such as Coursera [2]. The course is organized around 20 practical questions, whose answers shape search engine rankings, recommender systems, wireless communications, pricing models, and Internet traffic. Each question in the 20Q course corresponds to a chapter in the textbook.

The organization is quite peculiar. Each chapter title is a particular question, such as “How does Google rank webpages?” “Does the Internet have an Achilles heel?” and “How can I pay less for each gigabyte?” The chapters start with a short answer, which should be understandable by any educated person. For a longer answer, the author delves into some technical details, at an undergraduate level, supported with step-by-step numerical examples. These three sections, in fact, also form the basis of each lecture in the 20Q course.

Chapters also include a section with “advanced material” that extends to additional topics and related issues, which might be more suitable for graduate students. Unfortunately, to “keep the book thin,” these sections are not always completely self-contained and might be harder for casual readers to appreciate without prior exposure to the discussed topics.

Finally, every chapter includes five homework problems of graded difficulty, from conventional drills to open research questions, and five bibliographic references. The author has wisely constrained himself to carefully choose five relevant references per chapter, rather than burying undergraduate students with unending lists of books, surveys, and papers.

Unlike more detailed monographs on networks, this book is not thorough enough to cover every detail of the chosen questions. In fact, whole monographs exist on each and every chapter of this book. The book’s target audience consists mostly of undergraduate science and engineering students, which explains its clear and direct writing style. It’s not too polished from an academic point of view, yet rigorous enough to provide a solid understanding.

The author organizes the material in the Socratic style, using practical questions instead of the more common (dry) survey of concepts and techniques. It provides just enough information to whet the reader’s appetite and spur interest in networks. That’s all that motivated undergraduate students really need.

More reviews about this item: Amazon

Reviewer:  Fernando Berzal Review #: CR141365 (1310-0854)
1) Chiang, M. 20Q about networked life.
2) Chiang, M. Networks: friends, money, and bytes. Coursera.
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