Put IT plan in corporate strategy; The proof of the pudding… ; Patterns hiding in mountains of data; Traffic on broadband

Books2Byte – December 2004


Put IT plan in corporate strategy

D. Murali

Should we adopt the new technology and risk failure, or forego the new technology and miss an opportunity to add business value?


WHAT happens when managers are overwhelmed by the rapidity and scale of change in IT? To baffle them is the dilemma: “Should we adopt the new technology and take a risk of failure, or forego the new technology and miss an opportunity to add business value?”

A `tough call’, that is, according to Tata Steel’s Managing Director B. Muthuraman, who has penned the foreword to Dinkar’s Strategic Planning in Information Technology, from Viva Books P Ltd (viva@vivagroupindia.net). Changes brought in by IT need not be `sudden and spectacular’ always, Muthuraman adds, for they can be at a `basic level’ too.

An IT strategic planner should continually do strategic analysis, advises Dinkar. Only then will he be able to point out to senior management, substantial changes in environment. This analysis has to also comprehend the `resource limitations’ of the company, expectations of the various interacting groups, and the effect that the new technology would have.

The author devotes a chapter to `the value chain in IT’ where he highlights a `different’ alignment. “IT strategic planners put in place their own strategic plans which are different from, but in alignment, with the corporate strategic plans.” Instead, the corporate plan should include the IT dimension too, “leaving the details” to be worked out by the IT planners.

Watch for `danger signals’, both internal and external, that indicate the existing IT plan as being “out of tune with the environment”. Employee discontent, customer complaints and so on, may not be due to IT failure. “Nevertheless, these signs should be treated as signals that call for an analysis of the IT strategic plan.” Keep your ears open, therefore.

IT rests on two pillars – not hardware and software, but technology and human resources. With a `not unusual’ attrition rate of 40 per cent, it is necessary to manage the HR carefully. “The success of any organisation whose core activity is IT-related can be judged from its manpower attrition rate.”

The most effective methods of retaining people, according to Dinkar are: “Concentrate heavily on training; load them with an adequate amount of quality assignments; and make sure that they are insulated from small hassles.”

Also, fit this book in their list of planned reads.

Historical trends and performance patterns


DONALD K. Burleson’s Oracle 9i High-Performance Tuning with STATSPACK, from Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co Ltd (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) is an encapsulation of the author’s “20 years of experience in database tuning” to help you strengthen the `backbone’ of your database using a `powerful diagnostic tool’.

Unlike most other Oracle products, STATSPACK was rolled out without fanfare, writes the author in his intro. What does it do? It captures Oracle statistical snapshots into tables; its predecessor was UTLBSTAT-UTLESTAT programs that captured snapshots at the beginning and end, “and then produced a report showing all database activity for the time period between the snapshots.”

If you were an Oracle DBA, you’d know that there’s “very little that can be done while your database is experiencing a performance problem”, except banging the head or gulping an aspirin.

Burleson lists other usual options: “You can go to the Oracle Enterprise Manager performance pack, you can run customised scripts against Oracle’s v$ views, and you may be able to determine the cause of the performance bottlenecks.”

Despite all this, “you would not be able to actually make a change to the running database in real-time to correct the problem.”

Alternatively, you adopt a `proactive approach’ to tuning “by looking at historical trends and performance patterns,” advises Burleson. “In Oracle tuning, it is very true that, `Those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it.'”

Oracle tuning involves the tuning of server, network and disk. It may shock you to know that “many Oracle professionals discount the server environment because they have not been trained to understand how the Oracle database interacts with the server.”

Check with your IT man if he knew what the largest component of Oracle response time is. Answer: Disk I/O. Therefore, anything that the DBA does “to reduce disk I/O will have a positive benefit on the performance of the database.”

A common lapse is not to pay attention to the interaction between the Oracle database and the disk I/O subsystem, states the book. “Another confounding issue is that the disk arrays often have a separate RAM cache, and an I/O request from Oracle does not always translate into a physical disk I/O.”

Then comes `instance tuning’ – “one of the most misunderstood areas”. This involves checking all initialisation parameters, explains the book.

Bear in mind that `init.ora’ parameters are getting more complex as the database becomes increasingly sophisticated. Object tuning is an ignored area by many, but you should do better with Burleson’s help at hand.

SQL tuning can bog you down because “tuning of individual SQL statements is the most time-consuming of all of the processes in Oracle tuning.” Yet, it can “increase performance by an order of magnitude”.

Sufficiently tuned into STATSPACK?


Overheard at the digital colour lab

Staff: “Gloss or matt finish?”

Customer: “Did you say `mutt finish’?”

Monday, Dec 06, 2004



The proof of the pudding…

D. Murali

… is in the eating. Much the same could be said of IT. This book seeks to demonstrate the actual productivity gains from using technology as against just theory. Are you ready to be persuaded?


NOT theory, but demonstration of productivity gains from combining e-communication, e-training, and e-assessment. That’s what Tom Kelly and Nader Nanjiani attempt in The Business Case for E-Learning, published by Cisco Systems (www.ciscopress.com) .

The intro begins with a direct message: “E-learning equals productivity.” How? “Cisco internal analysis shows that every dollar spent on an e-learning portal for reseller development during fiscal year 2003 yielded $16 in earnings contribution.” Achieved “not by throwing technology at the problem,” write the authors, but by “an integrated productivity proposition using e-learning components and best practices.”

Improvements in online reservation throughput, and such, are often talked about. Off beat, the authors speak of how apparently trivial tasks such as “requesting reimbursement of expenses online” can improve “timeliness of filing, reviewing, auditing, and disbursement,” saving employees from frustration caused by delays. More relevant where knowledge workers abound.

E-learning can be delivered in two formats, explains the book. First is the modular approach that enables an individual to learn in `most relevant’ chunks, delivering to employees’ desktops “practice exercises, virtual mentoring, online lectures, and remote labs and simulations”. And, second is `blended’ where both traditional instruction and electronic self-paced learning are integrated. More than adopting e-learning, what is important is to convert learning into “measurable organisational success”.

At the bottom of the e-learning pyramid is e-communication, “offering the access that a work force needs for empowerment and knowledge sharing.” At the middle is e-training, for “development of skills” where “the level of use is less widespread and more specific and structured.” Top tier is e-assessment, to validate retention and performance against benchmarks, using “exam, online tests, and certifications.”

Avoid the pitfall of allowing technology to determine the nature of the program, is a caution from the authors. “Technology must address the instructional needs of learners before it can fit a learning environment.” Another piece of wisdom is to be learner-driven rather than `learner-centric’. Don’t count the hours that employees spend on e-learning, because such a micromanaging of learning activity doesn’t help. Instead, focus on objectives and environment.

One of the cases included in the book is about the University of Toyota, where just-in-time learning helps solve business problems: “When they hit an impasse, associates have the option to access an electronic learning tool that enables them to perform a specific task – ranging from creating project plans to preparing a presentation – through self-driven modules.” There’s also an on-demand tutor!

Easy read on e-learning, that ye shall not miss.

Are you losing sleep over security?


ANKIT Fadia needs no introduction to IT people. He shot into fame even before he finished school, has authored books on computer security, and is recognised as a `cyber terrorism expert’. His new book is The Ethical Hacking Guide to Corporate Security, published by Macmillan (www.macmillanindia.com) .

Trust IT, but not too much, advises Fadia, because “humans are the weakest link in the security of a network.” Thus, first comes e-mail security. The most common attacks are abusive mails, forging, and spam. NeoTracePro is a tool you can deploy “to geographically trace an IP address or hostname graphically on the world map.” E-mail forging can make a mail look as if it were from someone else, and is “very easy to execute”, with a basic knowledge of Simple Mail Transfer Protocol.

Instant Messengers or IMs are another threat. “The biggest problem with IM is that it is extremely difficult to completely block its usage,” warns Fadia. “Most IM systems have the ability to tunnel through the average corporate firewall setups.” IM imps!

High on threat level is `intellectual property theft’ where Trojans are the frequent culprits. “It is quite easy to detect the presence of a Trojan on your system,” guides the author. “The server part of a Trojan automatically binds itself to a pre-determined port number and listens for connections on it.”

So, simply type netstat – n on the command prompt to display “a list of open ports on your system.” Something to help you when at sea!

Computer users depend heavily on passwords. Cracking these can lead to serious consequences. On systems using Windows NT, passwords lie in a file called `security accounts manager’ or the SAM file, informs the book.

Then, there is the problem of identity theft, using proxy servers, proxy bouncing, IP spoofing, and onion routing. A dangerous type of attack is `buffer overflow’ arising from “lazy programming or poor memory management by the application developers.”

The last chapter is on `social engineering’ that banks on trust or fear in the victim’s mind. You may find that the social engineer who conned you is gone even before you know what hit you.

Firewalls can fail against this, because the attacker is confident, smooth talking, good at manipulating expressions and tones, and in the know of how things work in your company.

Secure the book.


“All of a sudden, the milkshake glass tilted onto my keyboard and spilled all over!”

“Oh, then you swabbed the mess?”

“No, I waited till everybody left and then swapped the thing with another computer’s!”

Monday, Dec 13, 2004



Patterns hiding in mountains of data

D. Murali

Data mining may help a telecom operator to figure out exactly when his customer switched loyalty. It’s insight that can be used as a business tool.


LOOK at these recent reports. If the Food and Drug Administration of the US ties up with major health insurers and reviews patient histories, such a study can reveal possible safety red flags about drugs in use; but according to Harvard Medical School professor Jerry Avorn, cited in www.boston.com,such data mining would cost about $500,000 per drug.

A tax compliance software called GoSystem has a data mining engine by the name FormSource; it helps identify planning opportunities from the simplest to the most complex returns, as www.webcpa.com informs.

A few weeks ago, Fujitsu and France Telecom agreed to launch a joint research project on grid computing technology. According to www.rednova.com, the first phase of the project will focus on facilitating analysis of France Telecom’s huge volume of data, such as for data mining and customer billing.

The common thread in the above stories is `data mining’. The topic, therefore, is hot; and so is the second edition of Data Mining Techniques by Michael J.A. Berry and Gordon S. Linoff, published by Wiley Dreamtech India P Ltd (www.wileydreamtech.com) .

The book is aimed at data mining practitioners, not software developers, clarifies the intro. Therefore, “ideas are presented in non-technical language with minimal use of mathematical formulas and arcane jargon.”

While data warehouse provides the company with a big memory, you achieve intelligence only when you are able to comb through the bits, notice patterns, devise rules, come up with new ideas, figure out the right questions, and predict the future; to do which you need data mining, advise the authors.

Data mining comes in two flavours, not shallow and deep, but directed and undirected. The former “attempts to explain or categorise some particular target field such as income or response”.

The latter is more challenging; it finds patterns among groups of records “without the use of a particular target field or collection of predefined classes.”

For their target audience – that is, those in marketing, sales, and customer relationship management – the authors provide numerous real-world examples.

Here is one such, to explain why data may be at the wrong level of detail when using declining customer usage as an early warning before the customer leaves a cellular operator. “For seven months, the subscriber used about 100 minutes per month. Then, in the eighth month, usage went down to about half that. In the ninth month, there was no usage at all.”

If you inferred that the customer switched loyalty only in the ninth month, you may be wrong. “Looking at minutes of use by day instead of by month would show that the customer continued to use the service at a constant rate until the middle of the month and then stopped completely, presumably because on that day, he began using a competing service.”

“If you torture data sufficiently, it will confess to almost anything,” is a Fred Menger quote. But with Data Mining Techniques to help, you will need to torture data less, to know more.

`Secrets’ of developing accounting package


WE know that accountants live in a different world, disclosing their secretly sacred work in a format that many don’t understand. To know their minds, try a different route: Learn the `secrets of developing an accounting package’! Which is what Bharati and Krishna reveal in Database Programming Using VB.Net & SQL Server 2000, from VK Publishers (www.vkinfotek.com) .

The first chapter running to about a hundred pages explains the components of .Net framework, user interface elements of VB.Net, and OOP implementation.

What follows is a crash course in accounting. Double entry lies at the core of accounting, say the authors, and more flatteringly for bean-counters, it is extolled as “the finest discovery of human intellect.”

Auditors should particularly focus on the inputs about SQL, so they can issue a command that may possibly read: USE FinAccounting SELECT *FROM AccountsTable WHERE AccountName LIKE `Osama%’

There are only four types of `new accounts’ – viz. creditor, debtor, bank and general. This may not gel with how your munimji operates, yet the discussion that runs across the book guides one to create a chart of accounts, develop `dialog’ boxes, `filter’ to make subsets of datasets, build a `tran class’ as field vs transaction matrix, and so forth.

To the question, “what is a transaction?” an accountant may respond that it is the financial interaction between people.

Not so the duo, Bharati and Krishna: “A transaction is a series of actions that must either succeed, or fail, as a whole. If one of the actions fails, then the entire transaction fails and all the changes made to the database so far, must be reversed or rolled back.”

The book, I suppose, can serve a dual purpose: Techies can know how accounting works, and likewise, accountants too get into the minds of system developers.


“They found that the criminal used a laptop to track his victim and murder… ”


“And the case has been transferred to the IT cops to find the criminal’s address from the hard disk!”

Monday, Dec 20, 2004



Traffic on broadband

D. Murali

Everybody would like to cruise down the information highway with speed and precision. Read up on how broadband can make things better.


AT one end of the communications equipment industry are the highly specialised engineers who create the required hardware and software.

And at the other end are customers who deploy and run these to provide communication services.

“Kumar Reddy is a long-time inhabitant of the zone between these two worlds,” mentions Eli Eisenpress in the foreword to Kumar’s book, Building MPLS-Based Broadband Access VPNs, from Cisco.

“The broadband phenomenon is well spread out across the world,” writes the author in chapter 1. With 256 kbps connectivity poised to take off in our metros from January 15, at Rs 500 per month, it is likely that India may register high-growth soon on this front. But, what is broadband?

“Broadband means any technology that allows high-speed network access to and from a subscriber premises,” defines Kumar.

VPN or virtual private network is the communication between a set of sites, making use of a shared network infrastructure.

“VPN service is one of the most important services available across broadband connections.”

It is an unusual service because it is used by a network operator to connect someone else’s network with its customers, explains the author.

“Few other services cut across different populations like this.”

Chapter 4 introduces Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) technology.

“What really allowed MPLS to come of age as an infrastructure is that it could provide new IP services: VPNs and Traffic Engineering (TE).” TE is one of the oldest arts in networking, elaborates Kumar.

“It involves calculating and configuring paths through a network so as to use bandwidth efficiently.”

TE is done automatically in circuit-switched networks.

In IP networks, TE becomes necessary for linking congestion, load balancing, and handling link protection.

What are the future trends in broadband?

“IPv6 has been sitting on the shelf for almost 10 years now, waiting to play the role it was designed for, namely, to replace IPv4 as the standard Layer 3 protocol,” observes Kumar.

“IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses. There has been some interesting analysis that suggests, even in the very worst case, this provides 1564 addresses per square meter of the surface of the earth.” Another `networking nirvana of convergence’ is L2 transport over IP or MPLS networks, using pseudo-wires!

Do you see the broad road?

Work to become Internetwork Expert


WITH more than a thousand flash cards, practice questions and quick reference sheets, here is CCIE Self-study kit – CCIE Routing and Switching Flash Cards and Exam Practice Pack, from Cisco Systems (www.ciscopress.com) .

The abbreviation stands for Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert written exam.

“Notorious as being some of the most difficult certifications in the networking industry, Cisco exams can cause much stress to the ill-prepared,” caution Anthony Sequeira and Kevin Wallace in their intro.

Here, try out a few questions: Name four distance vector routing protocols.

What is a floating static route? What is poison reverse? What is Q-in-Q tunnelling? Name at least three common uses for a route-map?

Let me give you a few posers with answers: What is the default queuing mechanism used on high-speed interfaces? FIFO.

How do policing and shaping differ?

“Policing limits traffic rates typically by dropping excess traffic; shaping limits traffic rates by delaying excess traffic.”

What is the purpose of weighted random early detect (WRED)? To prevent an interface’s output queue from filling to capacity, because if a queue is completely full, all newly arriving packets are discarded.

Security never ceases to be important.

Do you know, for instance, that at the end of every access list, there is the implicit deny all statement? Or, that AAA in network security stands for authentication, authorisation, and accounting?

In the last chapter, on wireless, the first poser is on what the most widely deployed IEEE wireless standard technology is.

Let’s say you know the answer as 802.11b.

Then, check if you can name at least four major considerations when troubleshooting radio frequency (RF) connectivity.

Even as you labour to think, I know where to look for solution:

“Line of sight; antenna selection, placement, and alignment; transmission line issues; if the signal is passing through glass, metallic tinting on the glass degrading the signal; and rain, fog, and other environmental conditions degrading the signal.”

Ready for the exam?


“Now I have high-speed Net access!”

“Oh… ”

“To watch slow-speed mega serials!”

Monday, Dec 27, 2004




End of history, geography and politics?; Ten rules of technology entrepreneurship; `Networks are like snowflakes, no two are alike’; A case for the digitally disenfranchised; Know thy customer

Books2Byte – November 2004


End of history, geography and politics?

D. Murali

Is cyberspace communication bringing down many walls – those of geographical distances and perhaps political power too?


THE title of Vincent Mosco’s book reads The Digital Sublime, as oxymoronic as `computer philosophy’. Yet, you can’t ignore this publication from The MIT Press (http://mitpress.mit.edu) especially if you want to tune your neurons to things beyond bits and code.

Try, for instance, the definition of cyberspace in chapter 1, `The Secret of Life’: “a mythic space, one that transcends the banal, day-to-day worlds of time, space, and politics to match the `naked truth’ of reason with the `dancing truth’ of ritual, song, and storytelling.” Cyberspace, as Mosco explains, lies at the core of three myths, “each linked in the vision of an end point”. These are: “the end of history, the end of geography, and the end of politics.”

I’m interested in the last one, though when politics ends, much of our entertainment would also cease. On that, chapter 4 expands the theme of how communications technology brings power “closer to the people” and transforms politics. Mosco cites a view of Progress and Freedom Foundation, a think tank that includes Alvin Toffler: “cyberspace will compel an electronic democracy and an end to hierarchy, to replace the iron fists of bureaucracy and oligarchy with the nearly invisible hands of code.” Visualise, therefore, IT helping everybody “equally free to pursue life as entrepreneurs”, and the state becoming `superfluous’, to `crumble’ in due course “under the weight of its own uselessness”. Internet is not just a corrective to democracy, please note; “it is democracy”.

While `end of’ stories are dramatic to listen to, this is all an “ever-ending story”, writes the author. It was only a chapter that ended whenever new revolutions happened, be they in the form of telegraph, radio or television. The rise of cyberspace, thus, amounts to “just another in a series of interesting, but ultimately banal exercises in the extension of human tools.” Very profound extensions, concedes Mosco, “but not enough to warrant claims about the end of anything.”

A book that puts IT in the right perspective, bereft of delusions.

Networks are a pain to set up!


HERE is your one-stop guide to building, securing, and administering networks large and small: Doug Lowe’s “Networking All-in-one Desk Reference”, from Wiley Dreamtech India P Ltd (www.wileydreamtech.com) . “The first computer network was invented when ancient mathematicians connected their abacuses together with string so they could instantly share their abacus answers with each other so they could get their work done faster,” begins the author in chapter 1 in his typical easy style reserved for dummies. However, now we don’t use strings, but cables and signals.

First, what is a network? It is “nothing more than two or more computers connected to each other so that they can exchange information.” You need not only hardware to connect but also software “to enable communications”. In the first few pages, Lowe tells you the truth: that computer networks “are a pain to set up”. Perhaps that explains why your systems personnel look hassled all the time. If networks are a pain, why should we do them? “Because the benefits of having a network make the difficulty of setting one up worthwhile.” So, we can flog the IT chaps a little more!

Somewhere down the line you have to cross `bridges’ and `routers’. What’s the difference between bridge and router? Bridge is transparent to the network, says the author. “In contrast, a router is itself a node on the network, with its own MAC and IP addresses.” MAC, the big Mac? No, you’d cross that bridge when you reach it.

Long, long ago, in the days before network, security was easy.

You needed a lock and key to close your room and go; so “bad guys would have to break down the door to get to your computer.” Not any longer, because network reaches where air and water don’t go, nor even mice and ants venture.

“Not only do you have to lock your door, but you also have to make sure that other people lock their doors, too.”

Let me hope the bookshop’s doors are open, so you can get high on Lowe.

Monday, Nov 01, 2004



Ten rules of technology entrepreneurship

D. Murali

Are you starting a new business — and setting yourself up for failure? Read on for some help to identify extraordinary opportunities, some fertile ground.


CANNIBALS don’t belong to the new economy. However, cannibalisation may prevail, as when “a competence-destroying product or service requires firms to cannibalise their revenues from existing products or services,” according to Scott A. Shane’s Finding Fertile Ground, a book from Wharton School Publishing and Pearson Education (www.pearsoned.co.in) .

As example, he discusses the voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, which takes voice and converts it into zeros and ones to transmit over the Net, unlike the traditional approach of phone service.

“As a result, all of the investment of traditional phone companies in laying and maintaining fibre optic cable and in developing and maintaining switches has to be cannibalised if they adopt VoIP.” Too daunting, so established players find it reluctant to switch to new technology.

The book is about identifying `extraordinary opportunities for new ventures,’ to achieve what the author calls `technology entrepreneurship’ using `ten rules’. Majority of those who launch enterprises “set themselves up for failure,” argues Shane.

Thus, starting a business “in low-technology industry such as retail or restaurants, where the failure rate of new businesses is highest and the average profits are lowest,” is a wrong recipe.

For Shane, `technology’ is more than IT. It also means new micro organisms and fuel cells, mechanical devices such as heart valves, materials such as ceramic composites, and so on.

Knowing how to sell is important, but knowing whom to sell to is equally important, points out the author.

“In many companies, the decisions about which accounting, word processing, statistics, or inventory management software will be adopted are not made by the users of that software, but by the members of the company’s IT department.”

Too common a phenomenon, but the consequence is telling: “Selling the software on the ease of use to the end user, or the fit with existing software, may not be as important as selling on price or technical capability.”

To know when to enter the market, apart from studying the movement of constellations in your horoscope, you could profit by looking at the S-curve developed by Richard Foster.

It shows “the performance of a technology as a function of the amount of effort expended to develop it.”

E-books are a good example, according to the author. “For several years, people have been saying that electronic books will replace paper books. However, to date, the performance of E-books – ease of use, availability of titles, and so on – has not exceeded that of paper books, and the rate of performance improvement in them has been rather slow.” Companies that banked on E-books have tanked, all because they “mistimed the S-curve.”

Find Fertile Ground!

All you need is XML


CONNECTING was a breakthrough, so the first things that travelled over cyberspace were the humble texts, plain and simple.

Then came images, but soon enough people were getting tired. So was born XML, “an open standard that very clearly spells out data structures and their associated content,” write Ellen Pearlman and Eileen Mullin in Programming the Web using XML, from Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co Ltd (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) .

“It does not overload applications with legacy, or leftover data, nor does it depend on a proprietary or specialised system.” Extensible Markup Language, that is, XML, can help in sharing content; but do you know the difference between content and data?

“Data is raw information: it is not assembled, edited, presented, or analysed.

Content provides us with information that is useful for our work and lives,” explain the authors. Helpfully, XML developers are working on `taxonomies’ – “categorising information guided by input from many industries.”

You can use XML data again and again, once you set up a basic definition or DTD, assures the book. DTD or Document Type Definition defines the grammar and vocabulary of your markup lingo, by listing everything a parser needs to know in order to display and process your XML document. To understand how, consider these phrases: `need’, `love’, and `you all is’.

To make meaning “as a valid sentence in the English language”, these need to conform to a standard grammatical structure. Rearrange and you get, “All you need is love.”

Similarly, “DTD compares a set of expressions against predefined patterns in an XML document to figure out whether the document is valid or not.”

Shall we say, `All you need is XML’?


“I like my screensaver so much that… ”

“You haven’t changed it for long.”

“True, and I don’t disturb it by operating the machine!”

Monday, Nov 08, 2004



`Networks are like snowflakes, no two are alike’


Do you know the 12 networking truths such as `It has to work’, or `No matter how hard you push and no matter what the priority, you can’t increase the speed of light?’ Read on for the rest.


THE difference between `networking’ and `not working’ is not much, if you’re not equipped with the `complete resource for assessing, auditing, analysing, and evaluating any network environment’ from Matthew J. Castelli. His book Network Consultants Handbook, from Cisco Systems (www.ciscopress.com) , saves you from reinventing the wheel, and is aimed at “anyone who designs, manages, sells, administers, or desires to understand various internetworking technologies.”

“Networks are like snowflakes: No two are alike,” informs `Cat’ Castelli. Nor are two documentations alike, he would caution elsewhere.

“During the course of a typical day – if there is such a thing as a `typical’ day – network consultants are bombarded with questions coming from all directions,” states the intro. There’s so much happening in the communications industry that it is `nearly impossible’ to know everything, and so people become `Subject Matter Experts,’ or SMEs. There are `the twelve networking truths’ of Ross Callon, beginning with `It has to work’, and followed by: “No matter how hard you push and no matter what the priority, you can’t increase the speed of light,” and so on.

The book has brief notes, helpful illustrations, and, most of all uses simple language, unlike the ubiquitous support staff. Thus, you’ll know, for instance, that broadcast storms such as heavy multimedia traffic can “cripple a network in no time because the broadcasting device uses whatever available bandwidth is on the network.”

Backup, we all know, but what is backoff? It is the waiting time before trying again after a transmission has failed. `Exponential backoff’ is to double the delay interval between each retransmission attempt.

Here is some straight talk about `crosstalk’. “The electrical energy transmitted across the copper wire line as a modulated signal also radiates energy onto adjacent copper wire loops, which are located in the same wire bundle. This cross coupling of electromagnetic energy is called crosstalk.” This can take two forms: Near-end crosstalk or NEXT, and the opposite, FEXT from the far-end, like bowlers.

You can make your network knowledge better by knowing about `jitter’ too. There is a jitter buffer to deliberately delay incoming packets of info and present them to the decompression algorithm at fixed intervals. “Jitter is calculated based on the inter-arrival time of successive packets.” Pocket loss is normal in crowded buses; so is packet loss on networks, because of “overloaded links, excessive collisions on a LAN, and physical media errors.”

The other name of network is jargon, you’d say, if I were to introduce you to ANI, automatic number identification; BECN, backward explicit congestion notification; CMIP, common management interface protocol; CAIDA, Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis; and so forth. Yet, the book is a great read, so the next time you see your network staff, you’d at least share a sympathetic smile.

Extreme Programming is lightweight!


ANT, Xdoclet, JUnit, Cactus, and Maven are all there in “Professional Java Tools for Extreme Programming,” written by Richard Hightower and his team of seven others, and published by Wiley Dreamtech (www.wileydreamtech.com) .

XP or `Extreme Programming’ is a methodology to get you build and test “quickly without sacrificing quality”. The book is a `code-intensive guide’ where you’ll know how to put the tools to work in a `pet store application’. The intro unpacks the work: “Automated testing and continuous integration are two of the twelve core practices of XP.” These twelve read as follows: Planning game, small releases, simple design, testing, continuous integration, refactoring, pair programming, collective ownership, 40-hour week, on-site customer, metaphor, and coding standard.

Lest you retreat from the daunting dozen, be comforted that “Extreme Programming is a lightweight software development process that focuses on feedback, communication, simplicity, and courage… It consists of commonsense development practices practised religiously and in concert.”

J2EE deployment concepts would include an understanding of JARs and WARs, the archive files for Java and Web applications. Beans may not be as funny as their namesake on the telly. CVS are not a bunch of vitae, but concurrent version system; and ant is not the one that gets into the sugar bowl, but “a build tool” designed specifically for Java development.

The authors would guide you on how to bullet-proof your system with the help of Cactus, before moving on to `Swing testing with Abbot’, `managing projects with Maven’, and automating continuous integration with CruiseControl and AntHill. If you think XP is too uphill a task, this is a book to study in the base camp.


“What do you call a computer that’s not working?”


“No, it’s kaput-er.”

Monday, Nov 15, 2004



A case for the digitally disenfranchised

D. Murali

Societies need to migrate to cyberspace without making technology inaccessible to people with disabilities, low literacy skills, and people unfamiliar with English.


A GOVERNMENT department shuts down and announces it will interact with the public through a Web site. A company has jobs to offer but will accept only online applications.

These are concrete examples of IT progress and absorption, you would say, but Anthony G. Wilhelm airs a different view in his book Digital Nation, published by The MIT Press (http://mitpress.mit.edu). “As our social institutions migrate into cyberspace, the digitally disenfranchised face increasing hardships,” he writes, arguing that the very people who are most in need of services and opportunities get “further marginalised.”

Information society need not exclude; it can be `inclusive’, he postulates. “We need to recover the ideas of social justice and fairness that have been lost in the rush to make things faster and cheaper,” is how he exhorts, even as “people-based transactions are dematerialising.”

In general, computer literacy not only helps one get job and earn more, but also enables one to reap economic benefits in the form of “lower choices and greater choice”.

For service providers in the public sector, IT is the answer to empty coffers, though they are “obliged to provide services without discrimination.”

Wilhelm’s book is about migrating to cyberspace without being inaccessible to people with disabilities, unreadable for people with low literacy skills, and indecipherable for people who speak languages other than English.

The `Digital Nation agenda’ according to the author, stipulates that institutions must go beyond merely getting technology and training staff. They need `depth’, meaning a rethink on architecture. An example that Wilhelm cites is of a project in the UK called Not-School.net; it has leveraged technology to support a “virtual learning community of young people who for a number of reasons, such as pregnancy, bullying, or dissatisfaction, were excluded from formal education.”

Let us not compare businesses and the public sector, appeals Wilhelm. “Businesses can pick and choose their customers and shed employees as economic cycles contract and new labour saving devices are invented.” On the contrary, governments and schools have to serve everyone; they cannot be capricious. So, “industry innovations trickling down to public institutions must be filtered through the sieve of efficiency and equity.”

A tough call, because politicians would be driven to showcase short-term `exclusive’ results as talking points to get re-elected.

The killer app for the twenty first century is education, declares the book. But it should not be the retrograde `back-to-basics approach’; what are needed are “open learning spaces” that are amenable to customisation of content “for people of all ages and walks of life.” Wilhelm bets on “the interactive, asynchronous, and portable attributes of new technologies” to cleanse frayed institutions, and achieve “deeper participation and accountability.”

A compelling macro view you can’t exclude yourself from.

Learn programming through JavaScript


WITH static Web applications you can’t attract eyeballs to your site. Content has to be dynamic, personalised and interactive. Paul Wilton can guide one on the `how’ with the second edition of his book Beginning JavaScript, from Wiley Dreamtech India P Ltd (www.wileydreamtech.com) . The 1000-plus page volume hand-holds you from the basic syntax right up to full-scale projects. “Don’t worry if you’ve never programmed before – this book will teach you all you need to know,” assures the author. “You’ll find that JavaScript can be a great introduction into the world of programming.”

Like VBScript, JavaScript is an interpreted language and not a compiled one. It is not the “script version of the Java language,” clarifies Wilton. “Although they share the same name, that’s virtually all they do share.”

The good news is that JavaScript is “much easier to learn and use than Java.” How does this score compared to other scripting languages? VBScript is only supported by Internet Explorer running on the Windows operating system, points out the author. “And Perl is not used at all in Web browsers,” even as JavaScript enjoys wide support.

Data comes in many different forms, or `types’, teaches another chapter. “Some programming languages are strongly typed languages,” explains Wilton. “In these languages, whenever we use a piece of data, we need to explicitly state what sort of data we are dealing with, and use of that data must follow strict rules applicable to its type.”

JavaScript is a weakly typed language because it is a `lot more forgiving’ and `easygoing’. Yet, it can get things wrong at times, unless you’re explicit about the data types.

While on the subject, know that JavaScript is an object-based language. An object is “a thing with methods and properties,” as in real world. “For example, using the accelerator method will change the car’s speed property.” A different property, such as “the body shape of the car”, may not get changed, “unless you hit a brick wall with the speed property at 100 miles per hour.”

Drive safely on the JavaScript highway with Wilton by your side.


“He was using mercenaries… ”

“To pop off people?”

“Yes, and also to delete unwanted files.”

Monday, Nov 22, 2004



Know thy customer

D. Murali

How does one get to know the customer and all about him without actually getting to know him? Sounds complicated? That’s what customer relationship management seems to be all about. Here is one more book with its take on the issue.


THE third edition of Paul Greenberg’s CRM at the Speed of Light, from Tata McGraw-Hill (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) , could be the `final’ edition, if the intro kept to its promise. Sub-titled, `Essential customer strategies for the 21st century,’ the book aims to be `a relaxed, easy going, content-filled encyclopaedia of instruction and ideas’.

According to a 2002 Goldman Sachs study, “CRM was the second most important initiative after security for businesses,” but what is customer relationship management? “CRM is a philosophy and a business strategy, supported by a system and a technology, designed to improve human interactions in a business environment,” defines the author in a chapter titled `whole-brained CRM’.

Traditional pieces of CRM are the left-brained elements, such as senior management buy-in, total cost of ownership, ROI, benchmarks and metrics, application selection, implementation planning, and end-user training. “CRM is more than just an amalgam of linearity, algorithms, and statistics,” writes Greenberg, laying equal stress on the right-brain components such as attitude, cultural transformation, and dynamic real-time interactions.

Another chapter is on two diametrically opposite approaches to CRM – data vs process. The former had as the Holy Grail “360-degree view of the single customer”, but a weakness with data-driven approach was not to have processes natively implanted.

Therefore, “each business process has to be customised to utilise the data that the end user needs and, at the same time, fit the company paradigm.” No mean job, this; “something akin to the way the pyramids were created,” as the author’s analogy puts it.

Move over EMA or enterprise marketing automation; enter EMM, where the second M is for management. “A more strategic approach to campaigning, analysing, and operations,” advises Greenberg. Of `possibly pivotal consequence’ is the transformation of PRM or partner relationship management, into CCRM, collaborative CRM. “ROI means king in French and bottom line in English,” reads a section that pegs PRM as “the single most quantifiable value in the CRM world.”

CRM is finally part of the business fabric, proclaims Greenberg. “It has an eminently emotional side but also the scientific means to improve relationships between people to the satisfaction of all concerned,” he asserts. “It is a business initiative that is increasingly embedding itself into the social constitution.”

A song from The King and I finds mention in the conclusion: “Getting to know you/Getting to know all about you/Getting to like you/Getting to hope you like me… ” These are the fundamentals of CRM, “without actually getting to know you,” explains the author.

Fun to read, even as Greenberg would get you to know CRM too.

Go offline to tackle flesh-and-bone aspects


COMPUTER professionals are generally perceived to be obsessed with bits and bytes, logic and algorithms. No, they can do better, envisage the authors of Shaping the Network Society, published by The MIT Press (http://mitpress.mit.edu).

The book, edited by Douglas Schuler and Peter Day, laments that when computers are for people in control, and not for those under control, status quo remains adamantly undisturbed, even as focus continues on “efficiency, speed, progress, and, profitability,” ignoring the `flesh-and-bones aspects of life’.

A 1962 thought of Jürgen Habermas – on public sphere or Öffentlichkeit where info exists and communication occurs in a public way – is elaborated upon in the very first chapter of the book. These are spaces that mediate between the powerless and the powerful; here “discussions and decisions do not take place behind closed doors, gated neighbourhoods, or private intranets.”

Oliver Boyd-Barrett’s tour of the Global Trends 2015, prepared by the CIA a few years ago, mentions the four future scenarios for globalisation: `Inclusive’ virtuous circle between technology, economic growth, demographic factors, and effective governance, “enabling a majority of the world’s population to benefit from globalisation”; `pernicious’ scenario where “global elites would thrive while the majority of the world’s population failed to benefit”; regional competition that resists “US global preponderance”; and the post-polar world where the US is preoccupied with itself, as its economy slowed and stagnated.

Gary Chapman’s chapter on shaping technology for `good life’ speaks of a movement against globalisation and technology: `Slow food’, with a cartoon snail as logo, and headquartered in Bra, Italy.

“A struggle for the soul of life and for the preservation of life’s most basic pleasures amidst a global trend pointing to increased competition, consumerism, stress, and hurriedness.”

`Human rights in the global billboard society,’ is the title of Cees J. Hamelink’s piece, included in the book, where you’d read about the `new force in the shaping of world politics’ – “local communities that have assumed responsibility for problems outside their boundaries and have put world problems on their policy agenda.”

Howard Rheingold raises a fundamental question: “Are we awake to the world we are building, or are we, as an old Sufi saying goes, merely asleep in life’s waiting room?”

He writes: “Communication media are necessary but not sufficient for self-governance and healthy societies. The important stuff still requires turning off the computer and braving the uncertainties of the offline world.”

Are you too busy with bits and gigabits to go offline and catch up with the book?


“Psst… walls have ears, use the cell!”

“Fool! That can get us years!”

Monday, Nov 29, 2004



Owner’s pride; It’s time for `knowledgement’

Books2Byte – October 2004

Owner’s pride

D. Murali

Do you have the `owner’s mentality’? A new growth model helps you develop just this.


A NOBEL laureate leaves the company and initiates a chain of events leading to the development of Silicon Valley. That’s the story of Bell Labs and Dr William Shockley you’d read in Joel M. Shulman’s Getting Bigger by Growing Smaller, published by Pearson Education (www.pearsoned.co.in) . This is a book that “introduces a new concept called Strategic Entrepreneurial Unit (SEU)”, a new growth model because “growth through acquisitions is often a recipe for failure and traditional approaches to organic growth inevitably run out of steam in large corporations”. SEU relies on the use of intellectual property, distribution mechanisms, or human resources within the parent organisation, even “while it resides outside the traditional arena of R&D.”

A few more examples are listed in a section titled `if only they had stayed … ‘: National Cash Register lost a senior vice-president named Thomas Watson, and he went on to establish IBM. Digital Equipment allowed Robert Ryan to leave and form Ascend Communications that he sold to Lucent Technologies for $23 billion in 1999. General Magic was worth $160 million when eBay was worth $11 billion; it was Pierre Omidyar who left General Magic as a software engineer to found an online auction house that became better known as eBay.

“Individuals who work for others often don’t experience an `owner’s mentality’,” observes the author. “There is nothing wrong with this approach,” because ownership comes with financial risk, responsibility and commitment. The new SEU approach, that the book explains in detail, creates “an opportunity for entrepreneurs to experience an owner’s mentality.”

A model to try out?

With capability comes complexity


Want to `build and maintain a robust e-business infrastructure’? Read Oracle Application Server 10g Administration Handbook, written by John Garmany Jr. and Donald K. Burleson, and published by Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co Ltd (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) . The intro doesn’t mince words: “The Oracle Application Server 10g is a large and complicated software that is hard to learn and sometimes confusing to use.” But, “with capability comes complexity.”

I turn to read what the authors say about `performance tuning’, because it is `the most important area of administration, optimisation, and high availability’. The job is not over by doing a perfect installation and configuration, because poor performance may have its roots in faulty tuning. “Oracle database backend has more than 250 initialisation parameters, each Application Server 10g component has many interrelated parameter and configuration settings, and each server has dozens of tuning options.” That should make the system look like a mammoth cockpit! “Tuning any one of the components is challenging by itself, but when you consider the complex interactions between them, there can be an overwhelming amount of tuning activity.” There are two approaches, advises the book: reactive and proactive. But first remember that every system has a bottleneck. “The best approach is to identify the component that is the bottleneck and then drill-down and identify the component resource that is responsible for the latency. The bottleneck may be hardware related (CPU, RAM, disk I/O, or network shortages), or software related (locks, latches, or contention).”

If your bottleneck lies elsewhere, it could be a block in DB administration knowledge that Garmany and Burleson can help clear.


User: “I used to hear a squeaking noise from my computer all these weeks… ”

System support: “You never complained till now!”

User: “No, it stopped only this morning.”

Monday, Oct 04, 2004



It’s time for `knowledgement’

D. Murali

Management is not enough, unless it manages knowledge too. Some insight into how one reaches beyond data and information for some practical gyaan.


MANAGEMENT is not enough, unless it manages knowledge too, so much so it may not be long before we start talking about `knowledgement’, as a new science. There’s this `K’ everywhere, but Ian Chaston focuses on one important function of enterprises in his book Knowledge-Based Marketing, from Response Books (www.indiasage.com) .

As taught in school, IT staff glibly talk about the difference between `data’ as something raw, and `information’ as processed data that adds value. But the author pushes data and info to one side, and looks at knowledge as the other major contributor to productivity.

Knowledge resides within the organisation, either located in the minds of the employees or codified and stored in an organisational repository such as a company policy manual, he explains. “Information can be considered as a component part, but not the whole, of knowledge.” How so? Because knowledge is also dependent upon “the commitment and understanding of the individuals holding such beliefs.” It has a perspective and influences actions; it is “usually context-specific”.

In the discussion of e-commerce technology, the book cites a segmentation model proposed by R. Lord for the UK audience with 7 types: Cybermum, the middle-aged woman with teenage children, and working in a caring profession; “she enjoys using e-mail”, yet reads magazines.

Gameboy, the teenager living at home, accessing the Net everywhere, and hooked onto online games. Cyberlad, the twenties single, Net-ty with interests in girls and sport. Hit `n’ runner, the middle aged with a successful career; he accesses the Net at work, but doesn’t view it “as a source of entertainment”. Cybersec, the senior secretary who is computer-literate; she uses the Net at work and for purchases.

Infojunky, the middle-aged, married, and with children, and “spending probably an excessive amount of time searching out new sources of information”. Net sophisticate, the late twenties guy “verging upon being a techie and probably still lives at home”.

E-business impacts the organisation’s knowledge platform, points out Chaston. “Once buyers and sellers become electronically linked with each other, the volume of data interchange dramatically increases as trading activities begin to occur in real time.” The knowledge platform that your company has must be capable of handling newer forms of knowledge exchange, instantly.

Don’t miss this unless you want to miss out on knowledge.

Flying geese can leave you with bleeding edge


A FEW weeks ago, the West Bengal Chief Minister spoke about a 120 per cent growth in the IT sector, and also how the State was gearing up to take advantage of the recently-signed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and Thailand. So, when another WB, that is, World Bank (www.worldbank.org) , discusses in a new publication how the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in Thailand has accelerated “effective integration” of value chains, there is something of immediate interest. The book, Global Production Networking and Technological Change in East Asia, edited by Shahid Yusuf, M. Anjum Altaf and Kaoru Nabeshima, observes: “New ICTs enable lead firms to ask much more of established suppliers in terms of rapid response, design collaboration, lower costs, and close monitoring.” Leading Thai firms exert pressure on their suppliers to adopt the latest IT tools – “to improve quality, facilitate tracking of in-process inventory, and streamline order and reorder process”.

Elsewhere, the book refers to the `flying geese’ strategy of Japanese firms – where older, less profitable developed suppliers are allowed to migrate to their developing neighbours. They groom suppliers in East Asia “for inputs that are becoming commodities or are subject to great demand volatility.” What happens in countries at the receiving end of flying geese? Low profitability due to technological gap of many generations behind the leading edge. “Countries that have relied on this strategy for development find themselves on the `bleeding edge’ of many markets, stuck in low-profit and volatile sectors”. Examples are low-cost PCs, monitors, scanners, power suppliers, batteries, keyboards, DRAMs, apart from “mass market apparel and footwear products”.

In the meantime, leading edge players are busy with “high-end computers and servers, communications equipment, software, logic semiconductors, and high-fashion apparel and footwear.”

Returning to Thailand discussion, Web-EDI systems are used for the traffic of data shared between automobile assemblers and suppliers, in the area of design and development, and at the mass production stage. Efforts are on to increase bandwidth because of “the advent of design-in approach”.

But there’s a paradox: “Despite the improvement of ICT networks in Thailand, it will be difficult for suppliers to reduce their inventories of parts and raw materials.” Reason? Because stocks are maintained to guard against production equipment failures, and “Thailand does not have sufficient people with the skills needed to repair production facilities.”

Useful read for those who want to help our manufacturing reap the benefit of networking.


“I say a happy systems guy… ”

“Sounds anachronistic.”

“But this one was quitting!”

Monday, Oct 11, 2004



Make your network a digital fortress; `IT is just one more factor of production’; Software – study in complexity; Talk about business value of security

Books2Byte – September 2004

Make your network a digital fortress

D. Murali

The first step in understanding network security is to not underestimate the hacker. Here’s a book that tells you how to go about building a safe network.


TOM Thomas claims he never works because he loves what he does. That’s just the type I like, so I grab his book Network Security First-step, published by Cisco Systems (ciscopress.com) though it has a daunting lock on its cover. “No security experience required,” it screams, and the intro would tell you that Tom has approached the book “from the standpoint that every reader needs security, but does not necessarily understand the risks, techniques and possibilities that are available.”

He explains his method: “Take each component of the network and verify how it can be deployed securely. When complex security technologies or concepts are encountered, they are explained with real-world examples and practical analogies.” Be enticed: “This book covers serious topics, but it should also be fun and easy to read.”

And fun starts in chapter I where an anon quote meets your eye: “When the ancient mapmakers reached the edge of the world, they said, `There be dragons here!'” The chapter is titled, `Here there be hackers!’ The first step in understanding network security is to know the hacker, says the author. You have a great IT staff or even a team dedicated to network security. That’s good, says Tom, but read on: “Security professionals are expected to have a high level of technical competence and, for the most part, this is true. However, these same professionals often do not expect the same to be true of those attackers and intruders from whom they defend their sites.” Thus, if you have an engineer who thinks that he is the smartest person in the company, what you have is “a recipe for disaster.”

Elsewhere, you’d read about AAA technologies. Not some rating for deposits, but the three things needed if you access services via a network: authentication, authorisation and accounting. Similarly, when talking of IDS (Intrusion Detection System), there are three basic premises: Where to watch, what to watch for, and what to do. Towards the end of the book too, you come across some sobering truths: “Bad guys have good tools.”

If you’re looking for a good tool to protect yourself, take the first step towards Tom.

Sequel to fetch answers


STRUCTURED Query Language or SQL is a standard language to retrieve, add, update and delete information in a database. To help you master SQL, here is Oracle Database 10g SQL, by Jason Price, from Tata McGraw-Hill (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) . First learn that it is often pronounced `sequel’ to save time, and is based on “the groundbreaking work of Dr E.F. Codd”. In mid-1970s IBM conducted a research project known as System R; and SQL was born from that project, informs the intro. “Later in 1979, a company then known as Relational Software Inc. (known today as Oracle Corporation) released the first commercial version of SQL.”

There are five types of SQL statements: Query to retrieve rows from database tables (using SELECT); data manipulation language (DML) to modify the contents of tables (using INSERT, UPDATE and DELETE); data definition language (DDL) to define data structures (using CREATE, ALTER, DROP, RENAME and TRUNCATE); transaction control (TC) to permanently record changes (using COMMIT, ROLLBACK and SAVEPOINT); and data control language (DCL) to change the permissions on database structures (using GRANT and REVOKE). That may look like a crash course in SQL, so you may be tempted to move on to SQL*Plus.

As an accountant, I’m interested in reading about database security, discussed in a separate chapter. It tells you how you can create a user and also about changing a user’s password (for example, ALTER USER jason IDENTIFIED BY marcus;). Deleting a user is important especially when staff leave the company; remember to add the keyword CASCADE after the user’s name in the DROP USER statement “if that user’s schema contains objects such as tables and so on.” You can check system privileges granted to a user, and from the data you get on this, it would be possible to also know if the user is able to grant the privilege to another user. The chapter on `high performance SQL tuning’ talks of `cost of performing queries’. For this, the `optimizer’ subsystem helps by generating “the most efficient path to access the data stored in the tables.”

If you’re looking for a cost-effective method of learning SQL, here is the optimal solution for a small price: Price.

Three million processors all running in parallel


WHO doesn’t know The Da Vinci Code. From its author Dan Brown is Digital Fortress, published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks. The book has been around for some time now, yet it is about `the ultimate code… dangerous… unbreakable’, so worth a read. The teaser on the back cover narrates: “When the NSA’s invincible code-breaking machine encounters a mysterious code it cannot break, the agency calls its head cryptographer, Susan Fletcher, a brilliant and beautiful mathematician.”

Meet TRANSLTR — “the single most expensive piece of computing equipment in the world”. It hid 90 per cent of its mass and power below the surface. “Its three million processors would all work in parallel — counting upward at blinding speed, trying every new permutation as they went.” Thus, codes that boasted of `unthinkably colossal pass-keys’ were not safe from TRANSLTR’s tenacity. It got its power “not only from its staggering number of processors but also from new advances in quantum computing — an emerging technology that allowed information to be stored as quantum-mechanical states rather than solely as binary data.”

Digital Fortress is an unbreakable algorithm. But there is Strathmore who wishes he could make a small modification to it. “A back door,” says Susan. Many pages later you come across Jabba talking about viruses: “Viruses reproduce. They create clones. They’re vain and stupid – binary egomaniacs. They pump out babies faster than rabbits.” But what he had on hand was not one such; the program had no ego, no need to reproduce. “It’s clear-headed and focused. In fact, when it’s accomplished its objective here, it will probably commit digital suicide.” That’s the `kamikaze of computer invaders… the worm.’

Take cover — in the Fortress!


“User name: trucker.”

“Is your password, `Service_Tax’?”

“No, `protest’!”

Monday, Sep 06, 2004



`IT is just one more factor of production’

D. Murali

Technology is necessary but not sufficient, for business if one goes by what this expert has to say. Here’s why.


HE had declared, “IT Doesn’t Matter” in the hallowed pages of Harvard Business Review and invited mixed reactions, ranging from “dead wrong” to “bombshell”, from around the world. Here comes his book with the same phrase twisted as a question: “Does IT Matter?” by Nicholas G. Carr, published by Harvard Business School Press (www.HBSPress.org) .

“Every year, companies spend more than $2 trillion on computer and communications equipment and services,” notes the blurb. The underlying assumption is that IT is “critical to competitive advantage and strategic success”. But the sub-title of the book rebuts: IT and `the corrosion of competitive advantage’.

Why so? Because IT is becoming another infrastructural resource, “such as railroads and electric power”, and is “steadily evolving from a profit-boosting proprietary resource to a simple cost of doing business”. Just one more factor of production, in the words of Carr: “A commodity input that is necessary for competitiveness but insufficient for advantage.”

Adding IT simply doesn’t add up as better business. “Companies continue to make IT investments in the dark, without a clear conceptual understanding of the ultimate strategic or financial impact.” Simply put, IT is losing is strategic edge. Period. Wait, what is IT? Carr clarifies: “All the technology, both hardware and software, used to store, process, and transport information in digital form.” It does not encompass the information that flows through the technology or the talent of the people using the technology, he adds. “As the strategic value of technology fades, the skill with which it is used on a day-to-day basis may well become even more important to a company’s success.”

The author points out how claims of big companies can be rhetoric: “The CIO of Cisco Systems says that `IT is becoming a more powerful tool for gaining competitive advantage, not less so.’ Microsoft claims on its Web site that a new information system at one of its clients `delivers tremendous strategic value’.” You gain an edge over rivals only by having something or doing something that they can’t have or do, reasons Carr. “By now, the core functions of IT – data storage, data processing, and data transport – have become available and affordable to all.” So, shift your aim to achieve distinctiveness, the “Holy Grail of differentiation”, he exhorts. Take home this lesson, therefore: Key to success may lie not in seeking advantage aggressively but in managing costs and risks meticulously. Also, take Carr to work.

Open the PC with confidence


LET’S say you know how to fix a leaky tap, make a breakfast, or work the jack to remove a flat tyre. How about remodelling your PC to improve its performance, replacing its outdated parts, adding peripherals, boosting storage capacity, and revamping hardware configuration?

Don’t step back because Barry and Marcia Press equip with required inputs in “PC Upgrade and Repair Bible”, from Wiley Dreamtech India P Ltd (www.wileydreamtech.com) . “This is a book both for people who will be opening up and working on their computers and for people who want to understand what goes on inside a computer,” says the preface. The current `desktop edition’ slims down the original Bible, to suit the home and small-office user.

Three basics you must get right first are: Control static electricity (a.k.a. electrostatic discharge or ESD) because “voltages you can’t see or feel can kill the chips”; follow careful, well-defined procedures, rather than “ripping hardware or software apart and making random changes hoping something will work”; and use proper tools, instead of thinking of “vice grip pliers as the universal tool”.

The authors explain terms so you not only know where buses are but also that they connect the processor to each of the other components. And that `ghosting’ doesn’t show as screeching doors and white smoke, but happens on computer monitors when cable is too long or of poor quality.

After leading the reader through processors, cache, memory, motherboards, video, disks, networks, multimedia, laptops and so on, the authors conclude with a chapter on building “an Extreme Machine” – a very high performance PC, “one suitable for intense first-person shooter gaming and DVD production… and quiet enough to be in the room where people are watching TV or talking.”

Shall we open the computer cabinet and start looking inside?

Metaphors for machines


BIOLOGY has kept generations of men and women busy for ages, now it is inspiring computing. “As computers and the tasks they perform become increasingly complex, researchers are looking to nature – as model and as metaphor – for inspiration,” writes Nancy Forbes in “Imitation of Life”, published by The MIT Press (http://mitpress.mit.edu).

Not too new a development, the author points out, because “John von Neumann, the architect of the first digital computer, used the human brain as the model for his design.” The must-read book identifies “three strains of biologically inspired computing”. These are: development of algorithms, use of biological materials, and effort to understand how biological organisms compute and process information.

The chapter on `artificial neural networks’ cites the Pitts-McCullough theory, which described “a network of neurons that cooperated to sense, learn, and store information”. There is, therefore, a `neural calculus’ that goes on up there! Successful applications include pattern recognition (such as finger print identification) and classification (as in the case of speech recognition).

In `evolutionary algorithms’, the author discusses `genetic programming’, something expressed not in the form of code lines, but a `parse tree’ with branches subdividing at nodes. A question that Forbes likes to discuss in a chapter on `artificial life’ is: Can there be `silicon-based life, or germanium-based life’, instead of depending on carbon?

Don’t miss the discussion of `swarm intelligence’ as seen in termites that build complex systems of tunnels in wood, without each insect really knowing what it’s building. Another example is of Craig Reynolds who created a virtual flock of birds, called `boids’ which flew according to three rules: Always avoid collisions with your neighbours; always try to fly at the same speed as your neighbours; and always try to stay close to your neighbours. “The boids flew as a coherent group, automatically splitting into two groups when encountering an obstacle, and reuniting after it had passed.” I guess that applies to our politicians too!


“And there was this last item in her will… ”

“What was that!”

“The balance in her prepaid card.”

Monday, Sep 13, 2004



Software – study in complexity

D. Murali

The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress. Here’s insight into what makes a software project tick or fail.


THE road to hell is paved with works-in-progress. How bad! But that’s a Philip Roth quote that greets you right at the start of Software Project Management, by Bob Hughes and Mike Cotterell. Now into its third edition, the book from Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co Ltd (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) handles “the more agile approaches to software projects such as Dynamic System Development Method (DSDM) and Extreme Programming (XP)”, apart from giving inputs on Project Management Institute of the US and Association of Project Management of the UK.

How are software projects special? The authors speak of four qualities, viz. invisibility, complexity, conformity and flexibility. “With software, progress is not immediately visible”; and “per dollar, pound or euro spent, software products contain more complexity than other engineered artefacts.” To add to the woes of software creation, “Organisations, because of lapses in collective memory, in internal communication or in effective decision-making, can exhibit remarkable `organisational stupidity’ that developers have to cater for.” Software is so easy to change; but flexibility is both a strength and source for trouble because “software will change to accommodate the other components rather than vice versa.”

Often projects fail because of faulty estimation of effort required. An over-estimate can cause the project to take longer, because two laws come into play: Parkinson’s Law, that work expands to fill the time available, and Brooks’ Law, that putting more people on a late job makes it later! What happens if there is an under-estimate? Your staff may respond to deadlines with substandard work, and this is `Weinberg’s zeroth law of reliability’ in action – “if a system does not have to be reliable, it can meet any other objective.”

A parametric model you’d read about in the book is COCOMO – short for COnstructive COst MOdel). The basic equation is effort = c x sizek where effort is measured in pm, or the number of `person-months’ consisting of units of 152 working hours, size is measured in kdsi, thousands of delivered source code instructions, and c and k are constants. “Boehm originally used mm (for man-months) when he wrote Software Engineering Economics,” states the book, and that’s another book you can catch up with. Also, there is now a newer version called COCOMO II, like a movie sequel. For Boehm, the constants depended on the mode of the system, which was organic, embedded or semi-detached.

Take my suggestion: Better be attached to completing the software project because an unfinished one is only a ticket to hell.

Thinking hat for Red Hat


READ, practice and pass the test. Thus screams the cover ofRHCE, Exam Study Guide by Michael Jang, published by Dreamtech Press (www.wileydreamtech.com) . The abbreviation stands for Red Hat Certified Engineer Linux. “Major corporations, from Home Depot to Toyota, and governments such as Germany, the Republic of Korea, and Mexico have made the switch to Linux,” states the preface. “Major movie studios such as Disney and Dreamworks use Linux to create the latest motion pictures.”

About the exam, the author cautions that it is a gruelling five-and-a-hour exercise (twice the length of a world-class marathon). “The most important thing that you can take to the exam is a clear head.”

Okay, it’s time for some teasers: Which of the following services works to connect Linux to a Microsoft Windows-based network – NFS, SMB, DNS or Windows for Workgroups? Which of the following commands would you use to write an ISO file to a CD – cdburn, cdrecord, isorecord, or xcdrecord?

Some queries are detailed: “You are running an ISP service and provide space for users’ Web pages. You want them to use no more than 40MB of space, but you will allow up to 50MB until they can clean up their stuff. How could you use quotas to enforce this policy? a) Enable grace periods; set the hard limit to 40MB and the soft limit to 50MB; b) Enable grace periods; set the hard limit to 40MB and the soft limit to 50MB; c) Enable grace periods; set the soft limit to 40MB and the hard limit to 50MB; or d) None of the above.” Are there answers? Yes, in this problem, `c’ is the right answer because “this will warn users they are over their limit after the grace period, but will make sure they do not exceed the 50MB true maximum barrier.” Option `a’ is wrong because “the soft limit must be less than the hard limit,” and `b’ is same as `a’. Option `d’ is incorrect because `c’ does the job.

Ready for the double-marathon?


“I bought a modern dustbin!”

“Oh, the one that makes a gnashing electronic noise when you put garbage into it?”

“No, mine goes about and picks up trash!”

Monday, Sep 20, 2004



Talk about business value of security

D. Murali

Security makes business sense. So, get your tech experts to do the right kind of talking – not too secretive about security but not giving away secrets either.


BULLETPROOF your systems before you are hacked! That’s the simple message of Roberta Bragg’s Hardening Windows Systems, from Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co Ltd (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) . So, “mount your hardening, securing campaign in at least two directions,” says chapter 1, titled `an immediate call to action’. One, the big picture, and two, the intimate reality of day-to-day work.

Hardening takes time and cultural change in organisations is slow. For this, you would need “evangelists and disciples, leaders and doers, talkers and strong, silent types”. You can effect significant changes in the security posture and actual security status of your networks right now by doing things that are under your control, goads Bragg.

Among the tips is this: keep secrets. “Learn to shut your mouth. It’s not rude, but a good practice, to refuse to talk about those things that might compromise security.” That doesn’t mean you turn non-communicative because: “It’s one thing to share a security-hardening tip, or to alert someone to a bad practice that can be corrected. It’s another thing to reveal your own system’s security weaknesses by talking about them to others.”

If there are high-risk systems in your organisation, requiring extra physical security, you may consider the following at workstation level: “a BIOS password; a required syskey Windows boot password; a smart-card, token, and/or biometric for administrator logon; removal of floppy, CD-ROM, or other removable drives; disabling of USB, serial, and other communications ports in the BIOS; hardware locks on cables and drives; physical locks that prevent theft of the workstation; and alarms that warn of computer movement.”

`Harden WetWare’ says the last chapter. WetWare? That’s “the people part of an information system,” explains the author. An important lesson for techies is to learn to speak business, because “management is not going to learn to speak geek.” So, express security concerns in the context of business value, advises Bragg. “If you have trouble thinking what the business value is, just think money.”

Ignorance of law is no excuse, and there are laws beyond Moore’s and Murphy’s. In the US context, there is the Gramm-Leach Bliley Act that requires financial institutions to implement a security program that safeguards customer info. HIPAA or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act requires the protection of health-related personal information that is maintained electronically. Sarbanes-Oxley Act or SOX emphasises on internal controls. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act “seeks to punish people whose unauthorised access to computer causes harm.” Likewise, there are laws on wiretap, economic espionage, and electronic communications privacy.

It’s hard to think of hardening if you trust too much in the goodness of the world. So, first harden your heart before bulletproofing your systems, because there are those with guns outside!

SOX is something you can’t shoo away


YES, we’re talking about Sarbanes Oxley Act that was born when the match between good and evil in the US was going in favour of the latter! To help you take SOX in the stride, Mohan R. Lavi has written A Practice Manual, published by Snow White (www.swpindia.com) . The book includes the IT Control Objectives issued by the IT Governance Institute. The author draws attention to the fact that the US Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB) emphasises IT controls as having a pervasive effect on the achievement of many control objectives.

Thus, in drawing the IT Control Objectives, two things have been done: One, the IT controls from Control Objectives for Information and Related Technology (COBIT) were linked to the IT general control categories identified in the PCAOB standard; and two, control objectives were linked to the COSO (short for Committee of the Sponsoring Organisations of the Treadway Commission) internal control framework. It would be interesting to know that COSO was born in 1985 to sponsor the National Commission on Fraudulent Financial Reporting, and the sponsoring organisations included the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), American Accounting Association (AAA), Financial Executives International (FEI), Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) and Institute of Management Accountants (IMA).

There is a snatch about multi-location assessment considerations, talking about three situations: One, “where the financial business units within a territory are not significant individually, but if IT processing occurs in a central location, then the IT business unit may be significant.” For this, example given is of “a US multinational’s British financial business units that are not individually significant and most financial reporting IT processing is performed by a single IT business unit.” Two, “where the financial business unit is not significant in a particular territory, but the local IT business unit is responsible for regional IT processing.” Example, “an IT business unit in Singapore that is responsible for IT processing throughout Asia-pacific.” And three, “where there is no financial business unit in a particular territory, but US-based IT responsibilities have been outsourced to that territory.” Well, that seems to come closer home, and so the example is: “a US insurance company that outsources IT processing and maintenance to an IT business unit based in India.”

Is it time to see SOX in the eye?

Ambient computers, interactive design


THIS is an unusual book from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s stable: Digital Ground, by Malcolm McCullough (http://mitpress.mit.edu). The author is Associate Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Michigan and the current work is “an architect’s response to the design challenge posed by pervasive computing”. You may wonder what the connection is if not familiar with the technology getting embedded in everyday things.

Interactivity has become ambient, pronounces the blurb, and the author argues that the ubiquitous technology does not obviate the human need for place. “An invitation to share in the author’s inquiry,” says McCullough in his preface. “Interaction design is poised to become one of the main liberal arts of the twenty-first century.” Don’t turn your backs to computer `saturating’ our lives, exhorts the intro. Accept them, instead, as a design challenge. “Unlike cyberspace, which was conceived as a tabula rasa, pervasive computing has to be inscribed into the social and environmental complexity of the existing physical environment.” (For starters, tabula rasa is no dish on the table but `blank slate’ in Latin; meaning that individual human beings are born with no built-in mental content, and that identity gets defined by events after birth.)

Chapter 1, `Interactive Futures’, indicates the need for a range of disciplines when IT becomes part of social infrastructure. “Social, psychological, aesthetic, and functional factors all must play a role in the design,” because “appropriateness surpasses performance.”

Human sustainability depends on the appropriateness of technology adaptation, McCullough says. “Technologies of world making become dangerous unless they are complemented by technologies of world knowing.” As the British did in nineteenth century India, `going native’ would help, after all. Let artifice, therefore, copy the resilience and wastelessness of nature, is a wish that the book wraps up with.

Interesting philosophy for those who consider IT as their religion.


“Crossword clue says, `One K in money (6)’.”


“No, that’s 8. I guess it must be monkey!”

Monday, Sep 27, 2004



Lights, camera, CG!; Hard work, but rewarding too; Let’s start at the very beginning; System attack starts with a ping sweep; Finance with the `e’ edge

Books2Byte – August 2004


Lights, camera, CG!

D. Murali

If you are keen on filmmaking, here’s help on using computer graphics with effect – from concept to completion.


CG is centigram, centre of gravity, as also the two-character ISO 3166 country code for `The Congo’. But CG is also the hottest thing in moviemaking! Yes, we’re talking about computer graphics that enables stunt doubles in the Matrix to amaze us, or elevates Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to “play an effective emotional lead”. If you’re keen on filmmaking, instead of going to Kollywood or Bollywood, here is Barrett Fox, `animator, teacher and journalist’ with his book 3ds max 6 Animation, from Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co Ltd (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) to lead you “from concept to completion”.

The intro explains how CG filmmaking is a bunch of many disciplines, such as “scriptwriting, sound design, art direction, modelling, rigging and animating”. Think of this book as “a unified theory of CG animating,” exhorts the author. “Almost all the 17 chapters in the book represent entire disciplines that, in larger CG productions, have professionals dedicated solely to them.”

Keeping at the back of your mind Day After Tomorrow that you perhaps saw day before yesterday, you can engage yourself in creating a short animated film, titled “The Game to Save the World”, set in “a fictional multiplayer online videogame”. There Fox, through his three main characters, combines “expediency and pragmatism to strike a balance between creating rich, quality work and making practical choices so your project can be finished in a timely manner.” Story concepts are of two types, says the book: “Your stories and someone else’s stories”. How simple! But avoid clichés, advises Fox. Think twice, therefore, he says, before embracing dragons, dungeons, robots, dinosaurs, spaceships, Star Wars recreations and so on, because these categories are shunned by art directors and objective observers outside the industry.

A major pitfall to avoid is to bite off more than what you can chew. “A key point to remember is that you can make anything, but you can’t make everything.” What can cheer CG artists, however, is that these are good days because they can “focus more on artistry than on technology.” So, shall we say, `Lights, camera, CG’?

Make it an inviting portal


Computers are eco-friendly, one might argue, because you can save a lot of paper and so trees too. How about using the Net for promoting ecotourism? A recent book from Universities Press (www.universitiespress.com) discusses this question, apart from a host of others, in Tourism Management: The Socio-economic and Ecological Perspective. Tourism is one of the largest industries in the world, notes Prof A.H. Kalro, Director of IIM, Kozhikode. “It generates around $4 trillion in gross output, employs about 260 million people and yields $700 billion in tax revenues to different governments.”

In the preface, the editors Tapan K.Panda, Sitikantha Mishra and Bivraj Bhusan Parida point out that ecotourism can balance sustainable development with commercial needs. “A study of Indian tourism Web sites shows that although some are visually appealing, the information provided in most sites is of very little value and often outdated,” observes the book. Requests for “approximate cost of non-standard tour” sent by e-mail to some of the sites did not elicit any response, add the authors. “Ecotourists are primarily interested in information related to places of natural beauty, and the history and culture of the destination they intend to visit,” is a clue for those in the industry. Also some `groundwork’ is required: “There should be a great degree of integration and cooperation among the entire chain of industries that contribute to the tourists’ overall experiences. These include tourism development corporations, travel agencies, tour operators, airlines, hotels, resorts, taxi unions and wildlife or forest authorities.”

Something that calls for networking, bottom up, before transforming the tourism site into an inviting portal.

Become Access-able


ACCESS needs no introduction. You know it’s there in the Microsoft Office suite, and perhaps use it too, though far less than Excel or Outlook, PowerPoint or FrontPage. May be you are good at using this database workhorse for your own limited use, “opening forms and printing reports directly from the database window, and you know what query to run before printing which report or exporting data to Word.” To make others use your databases with as much ease, “you have to do a lot more work, mostly in the form of writing Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) code,” says Helen Feddema in Expert one-on-one Microsoft Access Application Development, from Wiley Dreamtech India P Ltd (www.wileydreamtech.com) . The book promises to teach you how to set up your tables and relationships to ensure that the database is properly normalised, and write VBA code to create the connective tissue that turns a bunch of tables, queries, forms and reports into a complete and coherent application.

Anybody can create a database but application is more than a database. An Access application consists of a database – or possibly several databases – “containing normalised tables with appropriate relationships between them; queries that filter and sort data; forms to add and edit data; reports to display the data; and possibly PivotTables or PivotCharts to analyse the data, with all of those components connected into an efficiently functioning and coherent whole by VBA code.” Access the book before you access Access.


“Can you talk like an interactive voice response system?”


“Our machine conked off.”

Monday, Aug 02, 2004



Hard work, but rewarding too

D. Murali

Disc Jockeys don’t have to be the only people who are `in’. Database administrators or DBAs are `a special lot’ too. Here’s `a quick-start guide’ for those looking for success.


HELLO DBAs, listen to what Robert G. Freeman says in Oracle Database 10g New Features, from Tata McGraw-Hill Publishing Co Ltd (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) : “King wasn’t a DBA (database administrator), but he might have been.” Why? Because DBAs are `a special lot’ having to understand all layers, viz. new OS, new software and so on. “It’s hard work, but it’s incredibly rewarding.” The author downplays the book as `a quick-start guide’ rather than `an exhaustive introduction’. It’s the wading pool for you to walk through before you dive into the adult pool, he would say. “It’s the escalator that runs you by the crown jewels before you actually break into the case and take the ones that appeal the most to you.”

G is for grid. But what does it enable you to do? Leverage components, load-balance across the enterprise, share info regardless of its location and schedule resources across. In Larry Ellison’s words: “Grid is capacity on demand made up of low-cost parts.” So, you’d first meet a babua called DBUA, the Database Upgrade Assistant, a GUI designed for “upgrading your Oracle database”, suggesting even to backup the database for you. Reserve some attention for SYSAUX tablespace – “a secondary tablespace for storage of a number of database components.”

There’re more new things, such as portable clusterware with “infiniband high-speed network support”, rolling upgrades “through the use of the opatch utility”, CRS or `cluster ready services’, and database assistants “to make the DBA’s job easier”. There are lies, damned lies and statistics, you know, but 10g makes statistics gathering easy, be they of database or its dictionary. Database sizes can be daunting, so 10g “allows you to manually shrink the overall size of a table, removing unused space.” Freeman adds: “This feature, combined with the ability to compact the segment and adjust the high-water mark all at the same time, can result in great space savings.”

DBAs get help from 10g’s ADDM (short for automatic database diagnostic monitor); it can “analyse the database workload and find bottlenecks”, identify problem areas and work through “a problem-resolution tree to attempt to eliminate areas that are not causing the problem and highlight areas that are causing the problem.” In the chapter on `business intelligence’ there is `Oracle Data Pump’. Hope your interest in 10g is sufficiently pumped up to go in search of Freeman.

Cyber law and crimes


WHAT’S a law book doing in these columns? Good question, but here’s the argument why you could profitably browse the latest edition of Legal Language by Dr Madabhushi Sridhar, published by Asia Law House (www.asialawhouse.com) . It contains new chapters on cyber law and crimes.

“The so-called e-commerce is based on the e-contracts, which necessitate e-contract law, not much different from the non-cyber commercial law,” writes the author, before introducing one to terms such as cryptology, encryption, decryption, digital cash, electronic record and so on. So, you remember nostalgically how your mercantile law prof expounded cases such as Balfour vs Balfour and Mohori Bibee vs Dharmodas Ghose. It would be too soon to expect our law books to be citing cyber cases as much as they do with the ones inherited from the Privy Council.

Yet, a table not to be missed is about punishments in India for cyber crimes, under different sections of the Information Technology Act. Thus, for “damage to computer, computer system”, compensation can go up to Rs 1 crore. Tampering with computer source documents can put the culprit in jail up to 3 years. For “hacking with computer system with intent or knowledge to cause wrongful loss”, punishment is “jail up to 3 years or find up to Rs 2 lakh or both”. Add 2 more years for those caught publishing obscene material in an electronic form. Imprisonment up to 10 years awaits those securing or attempting to secure access to a protected system. Add some law-ware to hardware and software.

Laugh your way to UNIX


JUST the book you’ve been waiting for! UNIX for Dummies, by John Levine and Margaret Levine Young, published by Wiley Dreamtech India P Ltd (www.wileydreamtech.com) .

“Although lots of good books about UNIX are out there, most of them assume that you have a degree in computer science, would love to learn every strange and useless command UNIX has to offer (and there are plenty), and enjoy memorising unpronounceable commands and options. This book is different.” With that begins the intro promising to explain everything in “plain, ordinary English.”

Chapter 1 asks: “If a train stops at a train station, what happens at a workstation?”

That must be a real dumb question, but if you suspect that you may run into a dumb terminal, be assured that nobody makes dumb terminals any more because “Windows PCs have a natural ability to play dumb, so they’re commonly pressed into duty as terminals.”

On the history side, the Levine duo would give an analogy: “In the early days, every UNIX system was distributed with a complete set of source code and development tools. If UNIX had been a car, this distribution method would have been the same as every car being supplied with a complete set of blueprints, wrenches, arc-welders, and other car-building tools.”

Get bashed with BASH, the Bourne Again shell, check if `she sells C shells’ but find C was written by Bill, and read the warning `don’t turn off the computer if you make a typo!’ How silly! Okay, do you know the two basic types of files? “Well, er… ” you say, but here’s the answer: “Files that contain text that UNIX can display nicely on-screen; and files that contain special codes that look like monkeys have been at the keyboard.”

The first type of files are text files and the rest are everything else. `There’s no place like home’ is the subhead that discusses the sweet home directory – “where you work until you move somewhere else”.

Elsewhere, there is `gurgle, gurgle: running data through pipes’, on the process of redirecting output of one program so that it becomes the input of another program.

“This process is the electronic equivalent of whisper-down-the-lane, with each program passing information to the next program and doing something to the information being whispered.” Great fun to read even if you never plan to work with UNIX.


Transcript from a chat:

“I wnat to delete file!’

“You’ve a transposing prolbem.”

“I want to delete life.”

“That’s bettre.”

“Boo… .m.”

Monday, Aug 09, 2004



Let’s start at the very beginning

D. Murali

It helps to start with the fundamentals. And if Oracle’s your goal, here’s the way to go about learning the basics.


WITH simple truths such as, `database is a collection of interrelated data’, begins the book written by John Day and Craig Van Slyke, Starting out with… Oracle. Almost a thousand pages later, after covering SQL, PL/SQL, developer tools and DBA, in `advanced database topics’, the authors write: “a data warehouse is capable of pulling data from both internal and external data sources, transforming that data into a common format, consolidating and organising the data, and storing it in a form that supports managerial reports and analyses.” Well, that’s English and not some mumbo-jumbo one would normally expect from a book on RDBMS. A consistent feature in the book is thus reader-friendliness that you can’t miss, even if the discussion is about some esoteric topic. For instance, read this about `normalisation’: “Relational databases can be evaluated using a process of normalisation, which involves the determination of the optimal set of tables that minimise redundancy and maximise the integrity of the data being stored… Normal forms are a series of rules that can be applied to tables to ensure an optimal structure for a database.”

Or, when discussing advanced SQL queries and views, `correlated subquery’ is explained thus: in it, “inner query references a column in the table in the outer query”. The outer query is processed, and its results are used to perform the inner query, explain the authors.

Once you are up and running with Oracle, you’d learn, among other things, about creating a `multi-canvas form’ – “a way to break a complex application into separate tasks that are handled by separate canvases”; `matrix report’ a.k.a. crosstab report displaying information “in a grid with values from one column displayed across the top and another column along the left side, and values from a third column are used to fill in the cells of the grid”; and Oracle Portal that enables a user “to manage and use database applications without the need for any client applications beyond a simple Web browser, thus greatly simplifying the deployment of Web applications.”

Ready for one, two, Oracle?

Crack these questions

IF a cipher lock has a door delay option, what does that mean – pick one of the following: “(a) After a door is open for a specific period, the alarm goes off. (b) It can only be opened during emergency situations. (c) It has a hostage alarm capability. (d) It has supervisory override capability”? Tough?

Try some accounting math: “How do you calculate residual risk? (a) Threats x risks x asset value. (b) (Threats x asset value x vulnerability) x risks. (c) SLE x frequency = ALE. (d) (Threats x vulnerability x asset value) x controls gap.”

Perhaps there is a gap in knowledge about that, so give a shot to a different question: “If an attacker were to steal a password file that contained one-way encrypted passwords, what type of attack would she perform to find the encrypted passwords? (a) Man-in-the-middle attack. (b) Birthday attack. (c) Denial of service attack. (d) Dictionary attack.”

Too much attack, so let’s talk about a commonsense topic: “When is the emergency actually over for a company? (a) When all people are safe and accounted for. (b) When all operations and people are moved back into the primary site. (c) When operations are safely moved to the off-site facility. (d) When a civil official declares that all is safe.” Or, this: “If sensitive data is stored on a CD-ROM and it is no longer needed, which would be the proper way of disposing of the data? (a) Degaussing. (b) Erasing. (c) Purging. (d) Physical destruction.”


To crack these and 800 more questions, hunt out Shon Harris’s CISSP Certification Exam Study Guide, second edition.

Designer Dummies


DUMMIES series is always inviting even if the title were about Martians. So, here I have Mark Middlebrook’s AutoCAD 2005 for Dummies, though I’m sure it would be tough for me to displace engineers busily designing parts, or edge out architects leading their clients through dream plans. But the author, who I learn is an engineer teaching literature and philosophy, promises in the intro: “With this book, you have an excellent chance of creating a presentable, usable, printable, and sharable drawing on your first or second try without putting a T square through your computer screen in frustration.” Don’t be baffled by DWG file format. It’s no wily dog, but the way AutoCAD saves drawings. As in any dummies book, there are catchy subheads, such as: Looking for Mr. Status Bar, sizzling system variables, delicious dialog boxes, weighing your scales, defending your border, and lost in paper space.

The chapter titled `where to draw the line’ hand-holds the reader to `toe the line’; instructs that polyline or pline (rhyming with beeline, though “it sounds like the place you stand when you’ve drunk a lot of beer at the ball game”) is different from line; delves into `arc-y-ology’ and ellipses; talks of splines, the sketchy, sinuous curves; and creates donuts, the circles with a difference.

Often, the author comforts the hassled user, with lines such as: “If you’re new to AutoCAD, its wide range of precision tools probably seems overwhelming… Rest assured that there’s more than one way to skin a cat precisely, and not everyone needs to understand all the ways.” Go, get a CAD to skin!

Books courtesy: Wiley Dreamtech (www.wileydreamtech.com)


“We have a new assistant in the EDP.”

“Send him off to number all the machines with inventory stickers.”

“But we already finished that work last month on overtime.”

“Hmm… we’ve to first peel off the old ones then.”

Monday, Aug 16, 2004



System attack starts with a ping sweep

D. Murali

Technical attacks on machines are much like a pickpocket swooping on his prey in a crowded bus. But you can defend yourself intelligently. Here’s the full picture on network security.


THE first step in the technical part of an attack is to determine what targets are available and active. A step, you’d agree, that is as predictable as how a pickpocket identifies his prey in a crowded bus, or a boy or girl picks up company in a party. Only, in the world of computers, this takes the form of `ping sweep’, a sort of mating call that machines are programmed to recognise. If the machine responds to the Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) echo request, “it is reachable.” Next what? “Find out where the pockets are,” you’d say. No, it’s ports, because we’re talking about machines. “Perform a port scan. This will help identify which ports are open, thus giving an indication of which services may be running on the target machine.”

Network hardening is not one more stage in the attack sequence but is a countermeasure. “Network devices should be configured with very strict parameters to maintain network security.” For this, use patches and updates, and add “an outer layer of security” in the form of “firewall rules and router access control lists.”

The book in my hand is one of Dreamtech Press’s `Information Assurance & Security Series’, titled Principles of Computer Security by Wm. Arthur Conklin and his team (www.wileydreamtech.com) . At the end of chapter 1, there are questions such as: “Criminal organisations would normally be classified as what type of threat? (a) Unstructured (b) Unstructured but hostile (c) Structured or (d) Highly structured.” Another question: “An attacker who feels using animals to make fur coats is unethical and thus defaces the Web site of a company that sells fur coats is an example of: (a) Information warfare (b) Hacktivism (c) Cyber crusading or (d) Elite hacking.”

Topics covered have in view the `Security+ exam’ offered by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA). What’s interesting is that the Security+ certification does not expire, very much like a CA qualification, so you don’t have to take the exam periodically. A secure read, as long as you can insulate yourself from the `pings’ of other booklovers.

IT is a complex wild animal


INFORMATION technology ranks highly among most companies’ top five expenditures. How good to read that from the blurb ofManaging IT as a business, by Mark D. Lutchen, and published by Wiley (www.wiley.com) as `a survival guide for CEOs’. But the next line could be shocking: “IT continues to be one of the least understood and most poorly managed areas in business.” So, the author, a former CIO of PricewaterhouseCoopers, offers advice “on how to unleash the full potential of this critical function” with a `proven plan’ to bridge the gap between CEOs and CIOs – something that has impeded their ability “to work together in order to craft objectives, establish budget guidelines, and develop metrics for measuring IT value and success.”

In the foreword, Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT writes: “For every dollar spent on IT hardware, up to nine dollars go to complementary investments, including organisational and human capital.” These investments can create real, if tangible, assets, Erik adds. Thus, to focus only on IT spending that occurs within the IT budget is to miss all but the tip of the iceberg. “While many of these intangible assets go unmeasured on typical corporate balance sheets, they should not go unmanaged.” Thus, there’s a world beyond numbers; so, don’t toe your management to munshi’s line.

The intro speaks of the constant tension between CIOs desiring more `toys’ and CEOs looking at IT as being expensive and, therefore, ripe for cutting. Result: IT gets subjected to “endless, frustrating cycles of stop-and-start investment” and gradually a layer grows between the two Os. “IT projects often become captive to the business cycle when, in order to capture the advantages of new technologies, they should be continuous.”

Lutchen is categorical: “IT is a complex wild animal.” An analogy that techies may find tough to digest. But the animal can be tamed, assures the author, and that happens only when you manage it the same way as any other successful business. “CEOs, board members, other executives, and financial buyers must learn to be `animal trainers’.” Else, you would only be lingering outside the cage, not knowing what to do about technology.

Get into the cage with Lutchen at hand!

Black holes in cyberspace


THE virtual world has its own blind alleys from where people never return. Cyberspace has black holes that suck in victims. Chat rooms can lead the vulnerable out and away. Anonymity on the Net can end up in blood spill. Things are getting dirtier and here’s a cautionary tale “set in a virtual world where relationships are established without the benefit of physical contact”: Anyone You Want Me to Be, by John Douglas and Steven Singular. A shocking true story of sex and death on the Internet, as the subtitle of the Pocket Books (www.simonsays.co.uk) says. The culprit is John Robinson, “a harmless, unassuming family man whose criminal history began with embezzlement and fraud”. Arrested for “the savage murders of six women and his suspected involvement in at least five disappearances”, his hunting ground was cyberspace where he “seduced his prey”. The book is educational, notes the intro.

“In the off-line world, you can pick up on the physical signals coming from people who could do you harm. You can use your intuition, your survival instincts, your senses, and your common sense to know when trouble is near.” Not so in cyberspace, where you’re cut off from your senses and some of your instincts.

So, here’s the advice: “When you operate in such a place, you need to be keenly attuned to who you are and what you’re doing, as well as what possible predators are doing. Had the women in these pages been more discerning about such things, they might be alive today.”

Go offline to read this, for your own sake.


“Our systems chief is dumb, I guess.”

“Why do you say so?”

“I told him GTB and he said, `Giga tera byte!'”

Monday, Aug 23, 2004



Finance with the `e’ edge

D. Murali

Banks and financial institutions wanting to improve the quality and scope of the services they offer might want to log into this book.


BANK failures, non-performing loans and unattractive deposit rates are all enough to demotivate when one thinks of our financial system. But V.C. Joshi happily logs in to the future with his book e-Finance, published by Response Books (www.indiasage.com) . There he talks about the potential that banks and financial institutions have “to improve the quality and scope of the financial services and products that they offer.”

Joshi describes the `online value chain’ where customers access through various devices and banking services are delivered through a network. He points out that banks often host Web sites but find them not to be of much use. “A financial institution must make its presence felt,” says the author.

A chapter is devoted to e-finance products and services such as Cyber Gold, E-charge, Ipin and Millicent. That e-finance lowers costs and increases availability is something for the CFO to factor in when considering investments in IT. Joshi points out that not much attention has been bestowed upon the development of Internet platforms to trade and pledge electronic warehouse receipts; “this may reduce the need for government to purchase commodities for stock piling.”

The book anticipates that more investors would make use of e-trading, though “unfortunately online trading coincided with the market meltdown.” The e-thing has the potential to make markets more transparent, Joshi would add. “It is not restricted to information about price alone, but the user has the full log of the transaction behaviour.”

HDFC Bank is a model that can be emulated, says the book, because the bank’s policies are not only technically superior but also highly profitable. “Its treasury, corporate and even retail activities are mostly automated with a strong focus on online connectivity and e-commerce.”

The book discusses topics such as risk, crime, law, security and so on. You need to engage in not just system development but survivable system development. To survive in e-finance, it would be advisable to log in to Joshi first.

Byte is not Dracula’s favourite pastimemisspelled


AFTER C comes D. Wrong, it’s C++. Mystified? Clear up the cloud with Jeff Kent’s C++ Demystified, a self-teaching guide from Tata McGraw-Hill (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) . “C++ was my first programming language,” writes Kent in his intro. He’s learned many other languages but he thinks C++ is the best. Why? “Perhaps because of the power it gives the programmer.” But, remember, that this power is a double-edged sword. Also, “knowing C++ makes learning other programming languages easier.” What’s the best way to learn programming? “Write programs.”

Let’s say, you ask, what’s a programming language? The author begins with an analogy: “When you enter a darkened room and want to see what is inside, you turn on a light switch. When you leave the room, you turn the light switch off. The first computers were not too different than that light switch.” From there you move on to `Hello World,’ and before you dump C++ and say `Cruel World’, the author would lead you to the innards of the language, all the while keeping you in good humour.

For instance, to explain bits and bytes, he writes: “While people live at street addresses, what is stored at each memory address is a byte. Don’t worry, I have not misspelled Dracula’s favourite pastime.” Similarly, the chapter on variables begins thus: “Recently, while in a crowded room, someone yelled `Hey, you!’ I and a number of other people looked up, because none of us could tell to whom the speaker was referring.” So? “We use names to refer to each other. Similarly, when you need to refer in code to a particular item of information” call it by name.

“Variables, like people, have a lifetime,” Kent would write in a different chapter. “A person’s lifetime begins at birth. A variable’s lifetime begins when it is declared. A person’s lifetime ends with death.

A variable’s lifetime ends when it goes out of scope.” That’s some philosophy demystified, shall we say?

Test at all costs


WANT to get into software testing as a career? Go for Dr K.V.K.K. Prasad’s Software Testing Tools, published by Dreamtech Press (www.wileydreamtech.com) .

“Many software engineers have a wrong notion that software testing is a second-rate job,” notes the preface. For them, what’s first rate is development. “These engineers tend to forget that testing is a part of development.” How?

Because only through testing can you deliver a quality product. Prasad lists the four criteria for a software project’s success: “Meet all quality requirements; be developed within the time frame; be developed within the budget; and maintain a cordial relationship among the team members.”

Testing is detested because it is tough. Testing process is iterative. So, test the software in the lab, and also in actual working environment (called beta testing). Any test creates stress for those who are tested; and `stress testing’ is to test the software “at the limits of its performance specifications”. You accept that testing is important, but `acceptance testing’ is the most important testing, the author would emphasise. It decides whether the client approves the product or not.

Oracle is a popular name in software, but test oracles are people or machines used for checking the correctness of the program for the given test cases, explains the book. “Human test oracles are used extensively if the program does not work.” In ancient times, when people had a problem, it’s said they’d go to a priest or priestess, called an oracle. He or she would act as a medium for divine advice or prophecy. The word is derived from Latin oraculum, from ovare, speak.

The book covers Mercury Interactive’s WinRunner, Segue Software’s SilkTest, and IBM Rational SQA Robot. There are case studies that illustrate the use of LoadRunner, JMeter, TestDirector and so forth.

As in hospitals where the severity of the problem determines whether the patient will be in a ward or ICU, software defects are classified depending on their impact on the functionality of the software.

“Critical defects result in system-crash, while major ones may result in some portions of the application difficult to use.” There are also minor defects; these “can be tolerated” as in the case of “lack of help for some functionality, spelling mistake in an error message and so on.”

For IT managers, it would be a critical defect to be ignorant of how software is tested; that would be a flaw with a potential to cause a career to crash.


“I have an IT plan for our company.”

“Is it top-down or bottom-up?”

“I think I put it in the second drawer in my desk, from the top.”

Monday, Aug 30, 2004



5 MAs and a CAMEL; Top-down, start-to-finish; Seven Ps that apply in call centres; Across the post, in a jiffy

Books2Byte – July 2004


5 MAs and a CAMEL

D. Murali

Foxed by the headline? If you don’t want to be left out of the 3G network, you’d better catch up on those abbreviations and explanations.


JI is for our leaders; and G is for the generational leap in mobile technology. “After the successful adoption of Second Generation (2G) technology GSM and 2.5G technology GPRS, the industry is rapidly moving towards Third Generation (3G) Networks,” write Sumit Kasera and Nishit Narang in 3G Networks: Architecture, Protocols and Procedures, published by Tata McGraw-Hill (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) .

This is a heavy book, and heavy-duty too, so if UR2 allergic to abbs, cut yourself out of mobile gyaan. Such as the five-six DMAs you come across early on as candidate schemes for 3G: WCDMA, WTDMA, TDMA/FDMA, OFDMA and ODMA. The field loves jargon, so 3GPP is Third Generation Partnership Program to achieve global roaming, CN is Core Network, LCS is Location Services, AuC is Authentication Center and CAMEL stands for Customised Application for Mobile network Enhanced Logic. There are concepts you may understand with less difficulty, such as, that `spreading’ is for transforming the user’s original signal over a larger bandwidth – “using the chips in the spreading code to `chop’ the user signal into smaller parts”; or that macrodiversity denotes that the same signal can be transmitted to a mobile station via multiple base stations.

The discussion on security management would explain the functional blocks, viz. user domain, network domain, and network access. AKA, also known as Authentication and Key Agreement, ensures secure access by generating IK and CK – that is, integrity key and cipher key. Then come SAGE – Security Algorithms Group of Experts, and the example algorithm based on the block cipher Rijndael. Network Domain Security for IP-based protocols (NDS/IP) uses two important concepts, viz. security domain defined as the collection of networks managed by a single administrative authority; and SEG, that is, Security Gateway responsible for enforcing the security policy of a security domain.

You may wonder if you need ESP to understand 3G, but that’s short for Encapsulating Security Payload. 3G is not on yet but when can we expect 4G? By 2010, or earlier, but it may have more tech-speak than its predecessor. So, first catch up with Sumit and Nishit.

People = machinery + technology


JYOTHI Menon’s The Power of Human Relations, published by Pearson Education (www.pearsoned.co.in) has `a word of caution’ at the start: “We cannot get ourselves into the comfort zones that we are slipping into. We are getting so comfortable that employees in several companies are settling for the status quo. I’ll work and you’ll pay. There is nothing emotional about that, there is nothing challenging about that and surely, there will be nothing profitable in that approach.” Kiran Karnik notes in his foreword how knowledge economy has given impetus to HR “since people are both the `machinery’ and the `technology’ of this sector.”

The book itself meanders through about 150 pages, where Jyothi, breaking free from chapter-mould, shares her HR experiences. Recruitment cost adds up with too many irrelevant CVs – such as “when companies were looking for C++ candidates with Unix skills, they have found VB and Java resumes in the `relevant’ pile.” Thus, effectiveness of recruiting would mean lower costs, something that can offset the negative effects of losing talent. A company that had a high attrition rate stopped to ask why: “The finger actually pointed to one person. The person had a knack of picking up the wrong people for all the wrong reasons.”

Another anecdote is of an Indian company that wanted to take over a budding IT consulting company in the US. “Almost the entire process of due diligence was complete and it was only a matter of time before the head of the company that was being taken over would count his money.” But then they found a record of unethical dealings, undisclosed liabilities, unprofessional behaviour and some other misdemeanours in the target company. To explain the importance of training metrics, Jyothi cites the BPO scenario. “It is the external customers who actually throw light on the quality of service.” This QOS is controlled by the training department, and its success would translate into client satisfaction and increased business. “BPOs should not behave like English tutorials,” advises the author. “They should check their recruitment strategy so that they can get better English speakers, instead of trying to get people with the requisite technical skills and teaching them to speak in English!” A good tutorial for HR chaps.

Adam Smith is wrong for the bit economy


FILLED with 50 chapters that are called `bytes’ is what Peter Cochrane’s Uncommon Sense is all about. It is based on the author’s `silicon.com’ column and published by Capstone (www.wileyeurope.com) , to put together `out-of-the-box thinking for an in-the-box world.’ “One of Peter’s pet peeves and frustrations is technology that fails to deliver what was promised. He is also irritated by managers who don’t understand that they don’t understand, and politicians who take a disastrously focussed (single or limited issue) view in order to survive rather than improve things,” writes Leonard Kleinrock in `standby’ which looks like a foreword by a different name. Byte 00 sets the tone by relaxing you a bit: “We are all challenged by change, and we all have to find our own survival strategy, and it need not be full of stress and worry, it can be full of fun.” Our economy is bit-based where Adam Smith’s notion of finite source of material with limited production fails. “There is no limit to what customers will purchase and use or expect and communicate,” writes Peter talking about exponential growths in technology areas. We have the wrong shopping protocol, he would argue elsewhere: 47 per cent of global GDP is what transaction costs add up to. “Wouldn’t it be nice if stores, gas and railway stations developed memories so that we are recognised as we enter, our information is available at the point of sale, and the financial transaction becomes a minor part of the purchase process, as apposed to a major trauma at the end of a long day.” Go for Peter’s `Bytes’.


Cashier: “Do you have another card, sir?”

Customer: “What about the one I gave you?”

Cashier: “I put it in through our new shredder which looks very much like a reader.”

Monday, Jul 05, 2004



Top-down, start-to-finish

D. Murali

One way of designing networks can be top-down. That involves a logical view of a network, including a traffic-flow description and architectural topology, before developing a physical view. Game for it?


NORMAL people don’t try to peer behind their desktops to study which wire is going where, because they know that the system staff would have connected things right, one way or the other. One way of designing networks can be top-down, says Priscilla Oppenheimer in Top-Down Network Design, published by Cisco Press (www.ciscopress.com) . The focus in this approach is on customer applications, technical objectives and business goals.

“It is a methodology that helps you design a logical view of a network, including a traffic-flow description and architectural topology, before developing a physical view,” explains the author. She cites an Einstein quote before describing the design methodology: “The world we’ve made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level at which we created them.” So, what’s the moral? Start from the top, where all requirements are specified – such as “availability, scalability, affordability, security, and manageability.” Your customers may also talk about service level – `the required level of network performance’.

Know thy customer is a diktat for auditors too, but the book suggests something more rigorous for network designers: “Before meeting with your customer to discuss business goals for the network design project, it is a good idea to research your client’s business. Find out what industry the client is in. Learn something about the client’s market, suppliers, products, services, and competitive advantages.” Networks have become so integral to our lives that even a 99.7 per cent uptime may be intolerable, because that means for every hour, the network is down for 10.7 seconds. Computing cost of downtime, factoring mean time between failure (MTBF) and mean time to repair (MTTR) in calculations should interest accountants. Don’t be baffled by MTBSO (mean time between service outage) and MTTSR (mean time to service repair), which are aliases for the shorter 4-letter ones.

`Tips’ have been strewn all over the book and they are easy to grasp. Try this: “Network problems are usually not caused by the stations sending bad frames or error reports. The stations reporting problems are usually the `victims’ not the `perpetrators’.” So, if after you complain, `machine not working’, a crack-squad arrives suspecting some foul play at your end, rest assured that this is only too normal. “In the case of Ethernet, it is more difficult to pinpoint the cause of problems. With a thorough investigation, however, you usually can isolate a problematic area of the network where frames are damaged by a bad repeater, electrical problem, cabling fault, or misbehaving network interface card.”

The chapter on network security and management strategies should interest `information system auditors’; both security and management are often overlooked during the design of a network, notes the author, because they are considered operational issues rather than design issues. Such a flawed thinking can deprive the system of scalability and robustness, cautions Oppenheimer.

A book to be read, start-to-finish, before laying the cables top-down.

You can fly!


DO you know everything? To say `yes’ would be foolhardy because, as Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell note in Learning to Fly, we constantly hold back, feeling we don’t know enough to keep up with the accelerating pace of changes.

“Start with the assumption that somebody somewhere has already done what you are trying to do,” exhorts the blurb of the book, published by Capstone (www.CapstoneIdeas.com) and the key is to lay hands on such knowledge. The authors are from BP, `one of the world’s leading knowledge organisations’, and they talk on the strength of having put into practice what they preach. “To be useful, knowledge needs to be refreshed frequently,” is a line you can paste on stale homepages; “And it takes the organic nature of a network to own and refresh the knowledge with new experiences.”

Know-how is not the same as knowledge; it’s only a part. Know-how is the processes, procedures and tools you use to get something done; know-why is the big picture. Then there are know-what, know-where and know-when too. You may have the best of systems for intranet, but “a lot of operational knowledge and experience will always remain in the heads of the practitioners, as tacit knowledge that we cannot codify easily.”

Check also if your people “have a desire to give and to receive knowledge.” That would prevail only if you foster “a supportive company culture that recognises and rewards employees and teams for sharing and using learning in their day-to-day activities.” Ready to take off?

From @ to Zmodem


WWW dot, and then you are ready to jump into “Essential Internet” from The Economist, written by Sean Geer. The book, distributed in India by Viva (www.vivagroupindia.com) , notes that “this extraordinary medium continues to grow, both physically and conceptually” though the investment world turned its back on the Internet during the post-dotcom-bust days. “From bandwidth to burn rate, from mail rage to malware, it’s here,” writes Geer. The first entry in the A-Z is @ – the symbol in e-mail IDs; “credit for its first use goes to Ray Tomlinson.” If only some IP right had mandated the payment of royalty for every use of @ in mail IDs, think of how much Ray would have made by now. “Brochureware is a pejorative term for a Web site or page that simply replicates a company’s paper-based marketing materials.” Saves paper, but a distinct identity for your home pages is better. What’s copyleft? It’s “a software licensing scheme in which programs can be modified, redistributed or even sold, with the proviso that anyone who does so also passes on the freedom to make further changes.”

So, now you know where to look for to find the meaning of all Net-ty terms, but suddenly you wonder where you read about what. That’s infonesia, a common affliction, the inability to remember where you came across a particular piece of information. “This irritating ailment is becoming much more prevalent as the number of digital information sources in people’s lives increases.”

A related condition, as the book explains, is internesia – not the failing of memory when trying to remember where you met which intern, but the problem of avid Web surfers to remember a URL. To wrap, here is a quote from T.S. Eliot that Geer provides: “Where is the wisdom we have list in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost with information?” Essential read.


“Hello KDH, can you tell me your e-mail ID?”

“Kanpur Delhi Hyderabad at wheretogo dot… ”

“Sorry, it looks like I have connected to a travel agency.”

Monday, Jul 12, 2004



Seven Ps that apply in call centres

D. Murali

How do you speak right at a call centre job? Here’s help from one who trained as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.


AMONG the hottest career options is a job in a call centre. It’s something that offers a link between information technology and the English language, and also often between the East and the West too. The side-effects are more than living through the disturbed biological clocks and time-zones but also faked persona. To the enthusiastic, Arjun Raina advises, “Don’t put on any accent.” His book, Speak Right for a Call Centre Job! from Penguin (www.penguinbooksindia.com) is `a complete training guide for international telephone interface’. Fight to stay true to yourself; if you have any history of disturbed sleep or depression or any other psychiatric stress, stay away from the job, instructs Raina. “Once you have enough energy to take on the job, respond to life around you. Don’t exist in a bubble, the deadly corporate capsule.” Why? “You work elsewhere, but you belong here. Make an extra effort to locate yourself in this reality… Negotiate the duality of the job.”

The author, trained as an actor at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, has worked as voice and speech trainer at the National School of Drama, New Delhi, and now coaches communication personnel in call centres. There are seven Ps to remember, writes Raina in the intro: “Promptness, answer the phone in three rings because the fourth is too late;politeness, do all the nice things that nice people do;preparation, don’t waffle while searching for info; precision, be precise with numbers and even feelings; professionalism, concentrate on customer needs and deliver; practicality, stay real and pragmatic; and positivity, because that makes your job easier.”

We’ve heard of Ramesh becoming George and Sushila turning into Susan when talking to American callers. Is that okay? “In a country where cultures are based on the celebration of names of a million gods, this loss of conscious choice and control over personal names and identities is a cause for serious concern. Business must look at this issue very seriously if not for what it is asking of a whole generation of young Indians, then at least for its own success and survival.”

Pay heed to the call of Raina.

Go the grid way


PERHAPS you are a neophyte to the database arena and are looking for a way to fast-track your knowledge.” Or, maybe you have been working in the industry for a number of years and are considering a move into a different RDBMS. Or, someone has walked into your office and uttered what some feel are the most dreaded six words in the English language – “So, you’re the new database administrator.” If so, there is every chance you’re reading Oracle Database 10g: A Beginner’s Guide, by Ian Abramson, Michael Abbey and Michael Corey, published by Tata McGraw-Hill (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) . The book presents fundamental concepts in 10g admin and programming, through self-paced tutorials and in-depth intro to SQL, PL/SQL, Java and XML programming.

The product has undergone many name changes: v6, 7, 8i, 9i and now 10g. “Oracle Database 10g is the culmination of thousands upon thousands of person hours building an infrastructure to deliver data to a hungry, worldwide community, just as electricity is delivered to a three-prong outlet near you,” says the intro. But you ask Larryji about the `g’. And a four-letter word may hit you back: grid. “With grid computing, the industry envisions a computational grid where machines all the way from Intel-based server to the high-end servers from HP, IBM, and Sun are interlaced with one another in a massively scalable and sharable environment.” The analogy to electricity grid indicates that in grid computing, idle processor time is deliberately consumed by shared applications. “Imagine if computing power from the quiet time (11 p.m. to 7 a.m. EST) in North America can be absorbed by users in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.”

The authors would answer simple questions too, such as: “What is the major difference between the clob and blob data types?” Sounds like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but the answer is: “The clob stores only alphanumeric data, whereas the blob can accommodate any type of data, including sound and video.” Or, “which method do you normally use to shut down a database.” For this, the experts respond with a discussion on shutdown normal, alter system checkpoint, shutdown abort, startup restrict, and shutdown immediate. Okay, next question: “What is the best way to become a good Oracle DBA quickly and then to keep improving?” Here’s my answer: Read this.

Owners of knowledge economy


IN 1972, Edumund Pratt became the CEO and chairman of Pfizer. In 1982, the GATT Ministerial Declaration contained a decision authorising GATT Council to examine the question of counterfeit goods.

On July 1, 1986, the manufacturing clause of the US Copyright Act is allowed to lapse. And on January1, 1995, TRIPS entered into force. What’s the connection between all these? For answer, you need to read Information Feudalism by Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite, published by Oxford (www.oup.com) .

“Who owns the knowledge economy?” is the question that serves as the subtitle, and the authors start chapter 1 with a shocking scenario of parents receiving notice from police – giving the option of paying a licence fee or face prosecution for patent infringement – because their child was found to be swinging not forward and backward as usual, but side to side by pulling on one chain first and then the other, a patented method. The chapter on `piracy’ informs how the profession is one of the oldest, and that its practitioners were respected.

“Under Elizabeth’s reign, piracy became a large-scale business involving old aristocratic families and high-ranking navy officers.” It was an organised crime, because England was poor compared with Spain. IP rights began life as tools of censorship and monopoly privileges doled out by the king to fund wars and other pursuits, the authors narrate.

Another chapter titled `biogopolies’ is on the patenting game; between 1981 and 1998, revenues from licensing and litigation of US patents rose from $3 billion to $100 billion.

In `infogopolies’, the authors discuss `software blues’; “IBM’s strategy of linking software to copyright and patents has led the Internet into an era of public-private regulation.”

What’s the bottom line? Information feudalism is not economically efficient, observe the authors, because it does not get the balance right between rewarding innovation and diffusing it; and it rewards guilds instead of inventive individual citizens.

“It makes democratic citizens trespassers on knowledge that should be the common heritage of humankind, their educational birthright. Ironically, information feudalism, by dismantling the publicness of knowledge, will eventually rob the knowledge economy of much of its productivity.”

Grim analysis.


“If I copy off a pirated CD, will you call me a pirate of the second order?”

“No, just a pirate, because once a pirate always a pirate.”

Monday, Jul 19, 2004



Across the post, in a jiffy

D. Murali

Vehicles can cross the checkpost in two minutes, about the time it takes to cook instant noodles. It’s no dream, but what can happen with e-governance.


THERE are floodlights and traffic lights that make the roads look like runways at night for a distance of about a kilometre as vehicles approach the checkpost. High on poles are video cameras, one for each lane to capture the registration number of trucks. Using SIPCA process (that is, Satellite Image Processing and Capturing of Phillips), these data are transmitted to the control room in the Regional Transport Office (RTO). There, two AS400 servers run DB2 and retrieve from a database of 0.5 million commercial vehicles registered in the state, info about the make of a vehicle, national permit, insurance and tax payment.

Power to the system is assured by dedicated lines from the State Electricity Board, backed by a high-capacity generator and a 72-hour backup UPS. After the vehicle arrives at the weighbridge, details such as unladen weight, actual weight, amount of overload and fine that must be paid are displayed on an electronic plasma board. Drivers use their prepaid cards for charges. “Operators check headlights, tax payment and so on. Any shortfall is recorded in the computer. Only if corrective measure is taken and recorded in the system will the sensor-controlled barrier allow the truck to proceed.”

What a dream, you’d be saying and shaking your head, but this is what Panneervel, who became Commissioner of the Transport Department in Gujarat, visualised.

The problems are many: Leased lines are available only at two of the 10 interstate checkposts; and some inspectors continue their old habit of harassing and extorting bribes. Since writing and pattern of licence plates are non-standard and so software could read only about 35 out of 5,000 accurately, vehicles with such plates are required to replace at the checkpost for a fee. Look at the results: Three-fold increase in tax collection over two years. “Revenue increased from $12 million to $35 million, paying back the total project cost of $4 million in just six months. Also, on an average, vehicles are cleared in 2 minutes instead of 30 in the manual system.” That is, you can cross the checkpost before Maggi noodle gets cooked.

This is just one of the dozen or so case studies drawn from six countries that Subhash Bhatnagar presents in E-Government, published by Sage Publications (www.indiasage.com) . A must-read for the new Minister of Information Technology, because it shows what difference IT can do to all other government departments.

She-bang to start with


PRACTICAL Extraction and Reporting Language is what PERL is. A language created in 1986 by Larry Wall to perform data-handling tasks in his company but it grew into a general purpose programming language. “It is most commonly found on Web servers to provide interaction between Web browsers via the Internet or an Intranet,” writes Mike McGrath in PERL in easy steps, published by Dreamtech Press (www.wileydreamtech.com) . “You may have visited some impressive sites where the URL ends with a file extension such as .cgi or .pl. Typically, these are dynamic Web pages served up to the Web browser using the power of the PERL scripting language on the server,” explains the author.

For starters, CGI is Common Gateway Interface. “Typically, a browser user will be asked to input information into a HTML form on a Web page. When the user pushes the `submit’ button the input data is transmitted to the CGI on the Web server whereon the server can call upon a PERL script to process this data. The script can then dynamically respond to the submission by sending a Web page back to the user based upon the data submitted.” Sounds so simple? Yes, and PERL scripts are written in plain text and used in that form without compilation into byte code. “This is similar to the way that client-side JavaScripts are run in major Web browsers using the JavaScript interpreter built into their software,” writes McGrath.

If interested, visit www.perl.com for a free download of PERL interpreter. After installing, you can try the traditional `Hello World’ program, as PERL script, beginning with the “so-called she-bang line”. What? “This name is derived from the line’s first two characters, `#’ – sh (from sharp) and `!’ – bang.” So, what’re you waiting for?

Spam vs ham


ANY way you cut it, spam wastes money,” write Paul Wolfe, Charlie Scott and Mike W.Erwin in Anti-Spam Tool Kit, published by Tata McGraw-Hill (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) . They have written the book “to help you thwart the assault of unwanted commercial e-mail whether you run a sizeable organisation’s e-mail system or you’re sitting at home banging your head on your keyboard, trying to sift a real e-mail message from the chaff.” The book covers more than 30 individual anti-spam tools over three major platforms, be they client or server based, open source or proprietary; discusses e-mail technologies and highlights what makes the system spam-prone; delves into the mindset of spammers and explores their motivation. “What we cannot teach you is how to completely eradicate spam from your life,” the authors concede in their intro. That’s because you can be sure only 99 per cent. Accept that spam is here to stay. “It has permeated the e-mail system, crossed over to Web pop-ups and spyware, and even infects mobile phones and text pagers.” So, wage your own war on spam with this book in hand.

What is the opposite of spam? Ham, or legitimate e-mail. You can teach the computer to separate the two. “Using machine learning, content analysis, and a continuously updated database of profiled spam, a mail server can recognise the difference between a legitimate message and spam. This reduces false positives (legitimate e-mail tagged as spam) and false negatives (spam in your inbox).” Fight positive.


“She says e-this and e-that, and he says, hee-haw!”


Monday, Jul 26, 2004




To lead and to succeed; From bytes to business; Network to bond; From India to America

Books2Byte – June 2004

To lead and to succeed

D. Murali

The competitive edge will belong not to those who use computers but to those who know how to inspire more productivity and excellence from each individual. More on becoming better people in a knowledge-based world.


LESSONS to lead and succeed in a knowledge-based world are what Denis Waitley packs in Empires of the Mind, published by Positive Paperbacks (www.nbrealey-books.com) .

According to President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, this is a `must read to become better people’, and Stephen Covey has rated the book as `so beautifully expressed’. “Consider the computer’s impact,” says Waitley.

“Designed as a tool for managing complexity, it also adds complexity, just as new freeways add more traffic.” How?

“The computer enables us to sort, store and retrieve material with ever-increasing speed. But the faster data can be analysed, the faster decisions can be expected.”

So? “Competitive edge will belong not to those who use computers but to those who know how to inspire more productivity and excellence from each individual.” Knowledge is portable because of advances in computing and telecom.

Ever tried `content analysis’? It is patterned after World War II intelligence-gathering methods, explains the author.

“Naisbitt Group researchers now scan 300 daily newspapers, clipping articles about local concerns. Together with the texts themselves, the number of column inches devoted to various issues helps predict basic trends.”

That digital convergence is making job disappear, in its traditional form, is a dreadful line. “Average size of the effective organisation is plummeting.”

And it is less of a hierarchy, and more like a web. What’s the difference?

“In a hierarchy, your title or position determines your power; in a web, it’s what and who you know… your relationships are crucial.” Don’t let Empires slip out of your hands.

Bar-coded below the eye


When Naomi Klein, author of No Logo remarks, `Brilliant and hilarious’ about Max Barry’s “Jennifer Government”, there is little option but to check it out. The novel, published by Abacus, is a political satire that is `caustically funny’. A key character is Hack. He sees two agents in an office, and “one of them had a weird smudge underneath her left eye, like a rectangular bruise. No: a tattoo, a barcode tattoo.” How bizarre, but that’s the one on the cover page. Then, there is Violet. “She powered on her laptop, snapped in an RJ45 connector. `Do you want to give me a login, or should I do it the hard way?'” Then comes `an ordinary employee password’ in Violet’s way. “`I can crack it if you want me to.’ … `I’ll ghost your machine. User is `applicant8,’ pass is the same.'” So there’s nothing holy about user name, after all! “Applications began streaming into Violet’s laptop, transforming it into a standardised, centrally managed ExxonMobil PC. While she waited, she glanced at the beige box humming behind her. It had the dimensions and aesthetics of a refrigerator: a Hewlett-Packard Unix machine. `This is your server here?'” Moral: Servers are accessible like fridges, not safe like safes. “Violet glanced at the hub, a squat, plastic box routing traffic between the server and PCs. Its green lights were flashing. `So my virus is getting transmitted to the server.’ `No, not your virus. Its signature. Big difference.'” Some misunderstanding, perhaps, because soon enough from each PC there is the chik-chik-chik sound. “`Disk activity.’ The machines crashed together. Each computer beeped simultaneously, rebooting.”

Many hundred pages after, again Violet, this time barging into a room: `Hi, I’m with I.T. I’m here about your computer.’ `The e-mail problem?'” It’s like trying a well-worn forecasting technique: “You want to do much more than you are now doing.” And the answer would be, `Yes.’ But Violet means business. “She pulled a disk out of her pocket and pushed it into the drive slot. `What’s that?’ `New drivers,’ Violet said. It was a 600,000-word dictionary, and it cracked Wendy’s password in about two seconds.” Faster than cracking open peanuts?

For Asians, logic is foreign


Distance is history, but we still think differently. Why? Richard E. Nisbett discusses the question in The Geography of Thought, published by Free Press (www.simonsays.com) . He delves into the `profound cognitive differences between Westerners and East Asians,’ a study that is essential if we have to coexist, working for one another. If you are working on computer languages, the chapter titled, `Is the world made up of nouns or verbs?’ may be of interest. Nisbett discusses objects vs relationships: “Categories are denoted by nouns.” It is easier to learn these, rather than verbs, he explains. Once learnt, “the label is then available for application to any other object having the set of properties.” Does that sound similar to a discussion of some object-oriented language? How is it that Easterners have relatively little interest in categories, asks the author. Orientals find it hard “to learn new categories by applying rules about properties,” perhaps because “ancient Chinese philosophers had little use for categories and were more interested in part-whole relationships and thematic resemblances than in category-member classifications.” Languages involve verbs too, and they’re about relationships. “Learning the meaning of a transitive verb normally involves noticing two objects and some kind of action that connects them in some way.” While the Westerners are more prone to seeing the world as made of “static objects” that can be grouped into categories, their Eastern counterparts see the world “much more in terms of relationships”. We pride ourselves on our computer skills but we have too little to showcase as world-class software. Are we good in slogging at data entry, but not so much at coding logic into programs? “Integrally related to the lack of interest in logic in the East has been a distrust of `decontextualisation’, that is, of considering the structure of an argument apart from its content, as well as a distaste for making inferences on the basis of underlying abstract propositions alone.” A book that can reveal to you the secrets of the complex software that keeps working silently in our heads; but be ready for some rude shocks to what you have always thought to be right.

(Books courtesy: Fountainhead fhbooks@satyam.net.in)


Cop: “You were driving on the wrong side of the road!”

Motorist: “Oh, I work in a call centre, you see.”

Monday, Jun 07, 2004



From bytes to business

D. Murali

It’s time to take stock of how technology has taken over our lives, and then move on to how you can make a good idea become a great business.


CULTURE and politics in the age of cybertechnology is the focus of Pramod K. Nayar in Virtual Worlds, published by Sage (www.indiasage.com) — a book that is not about any software, circuitry and such, but on how bits and bytes are biting into our lives. “Networked and wired, jacked-in and cyborged… the rhetoric erupting from the new techno-scientific reservoir inundates descriptions of contemporary culture and the popular imagination,” he begins in chapter 1, and if that’s getting heavy, try this: “From online shopping to e-governance to electronic voting, we perceive an increasing `technologisation’ of the quotidian.”

Microsoft Word is redlining and suggesting `cabbaged’ for cyborged and drawing blank on certain other words, but Nayar is an English prof and so you can pardon yourself for a weaker vocabulary. `Tehne,’ is the root of the word technology, he would explain.

“Originally, it meant any skill or craft, and described a range of activities from engineering to the arts… Slowly, it split along two lines: one, the technical or technological, and two, the arts.” For Nayar, `bit’ or `code’ is an example of minimalisation and complexity, plus autonomy too. “Technoculture exhibits a certain mutational aspect,” he adds, and you may check if your mouse has turned into a cat.

On individual identity in cyberspace, the author would take you to a different level of discussion: “Identity fluidity contributes to anti-hierarchic nature of cyberspace… Women masquerading as men online, for instance, seek to neutralise gender-based discrimination.”

A good fun read, as long as you don’t question lines such as: “The challenge then for a cyberfeminist ethics is to develop further the argument that shows how the masculine individualism of traditional ethics is damaging in extreme circumstances, particularly when coupled with the dystopian, apolitical stance of cyberculture that allows individuals somehow to justify to themselves that their activities are not wrong.”

Reports de rigueur


ANNETTE Harper, OCP, ACE, MCNE, provides essential skills for database professionals in Crystal Reports 9 on Oracle, published by Tata McGraw-Hill (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) . The book has inputs on “one of the most powerful data analysis tools to draw information from Oracle databases, query and rank data, consolidate results, and develop integrated, interactive reports.” Crystal is a report-writing tool and the author does not delve into basics beyond that, because `a moderate level of expertise with Crystal Reports 9′ is presumed.

In the intro, she talks about the gulf between report writers and database developers: “This distinction is artificial. As a report developer, you are writing queries against the database just as any database developer would. You might even be creating views and stored procedures.” In a chapter on optimising, Harper discusses selection formulas that are equivalent to Where clause in a Select query. “Crystal Reports converts some operators and functions to their Oracle equivalent when they are used in selection formulas, but it does not convert all, or even most, operators and functions.”

However, if you wanted to use native Oracle functionality rather than Crystal Reports formula, your speed can be affected. Whole chapters are devoted to Crystal Repository, more tips, PL/SQL and so on. Useful appendices tackle errors and problems, as also functions and nuances. Add to your read-ware library.

From barstools to businessEntrepreneur

YOUR ideas flowed when the only writing material you had was toilet paper.

Again, they bubbled when sharing a drink and so you scribbled on beermats. Okay, how do you proceed from there? For an answer on how to turn your good idea into a great business, here are Mike Southon and Chris West with The Beermat Entrepreneur, published by Pearson Education (www.yourmomentum.com) .

“This is not another book on theory,” Charles Dunstone writes in his Foreword. “It is based on authors’ real life experiences at the sharp end.” If you love success, this is a must-read, but remember that success in business involves hard work.

“Lots of it, twenty-hours-a-day-for-five-years hard work.” The authors write in their intro: “The air is still clearing from the great dotcom collapse. Incredible amounts of money have been lost — because people have gone about founding businesses the wrong way.”

The highway to hell, or the dotcom model of business development, involves the following steps: Get someone to come up with a clever-sounding idea; get some MBAs to invent a scenario whereby this idea makes pots of money; get a VC to throw millions of dollars at it; headhunt any skills you suddenly find you need (sales, accountants and so on); and get the hell out as quickly as possible, via an IPO.

If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, check if you are free from a weakness: The inability to complete things. This is part of a bigger weakness, the book would advise, and that is lack of focus. “Focus on detail. More important, listen to your closest colleagues when they focus on detail.

Also check if you have cornerstones, that is, your associates. “Cornerstones are professionals, at sales, accounts or management, or they are experts in the relevant technology. Their solidity comes from their commercial or technical discipline.” What you need in a cornerstone is lots of SPPHCD: That is, solidity, passion, personal skills, hard work, courage and doers. “What you need is not ideas but good ideas, ones that really will grow into thriving businesses.”

There is no need to instigate a total, radical change; simply keep a sharp eye for how things are going, advise the authors. Lookout for `dislocations’: “Text messaging is the latest idea suddenly to catch on. Experts in the telecom business said it would replace pagers, which it has yet to do. They did not predict it would change the way teenagers communicate, which it has done.”

One of the worthwhile poster-able thoughts is this: “Business has already ceased to be about spreadsheets and software, and has entered the world of personal judgment and emotions.” Time to get up from barstools and put your ideas to action.


“I have so many remotes that I’m looking for just one more… ”

“To add to your woes?”

“No, to remotely operate the other remotes.”

Monday, Jun 14, 2004



Network to bond

D. Murali

Like it or not, we are all connected more closely than we think. Common principles underlie networks, be they electrical, computer, social or economic. Catch up on the science of a connected age.


LIKE it or not, we are all connected more closely than we think. Our social networks are `tightly bonded’, Duncan J. Watts would say in his book on `the science of a connected age’, “Six Degrees“, published by Vintage (www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage) . His range of study includes the Dutch tulip mania of the 17th century, success of Harry Potter, impact of September 11, structure of the Web and so on.

Common principles underlie networks, be they electrical, computer, social or economic, and by that reasoning if you know one, you know all. Unlike the physics of subatomic particles, the science of networks is “the science of the real world – the world of people, friendships, rumours, disease, fads, firms, and financial crises,” writes the author in his preface. In a chapter titled, `small worlds’, the book has a statistic from the Internet Movie Database: that between 1898 and 2000, roughly half a million people have acted in over 200,000 feature films. That “every actor could be connected to every other actor in an average of less than four steps,” is among the findings after the author’s team worked on raw data sourced from `Oracle of Kevin Bacon’. Clustering coefficient was found to be `much greater’ when the subject matter of study was power grid.

Networks come under threat from viruses. Both computer and human viruses perform `broadcast search’, says Watts. “Broadcast searches represent the most efficient way of starting from any given node and finding every other one by systematically branching out from each newly connected node to each of its unexplored neighbours.” Unfortunately, computers are more vulnerable than humans because the latter possess immune systems. A suggestion for Microsoft to protect customers is “to switch from a single integrated product line to several different products that are developed separately and that are designed not to be entirely compatible.” How does Google, the other big name in IT, manage processing demands? “Adding almost thirty servers a day just to keep up with the demand”, and that was a few years ago. A book worth networking with.

DNA computers and protein switches


IF you’re a librarian who doesn’t cross-reference information technology literature with biotech and vice versa, your boss could soon be looking for a replacement. “Biotechnology is one of the fastest growing, and most controversial areas of science and technology in the 21st century,” notes the back-cover of “Biotechnology from A to Z,” by William Bains, published by Oxford (www.oup.com) .

About the book, New Scientist had noted: “Any dictionary that lists the phrase `yuk factor’ has to be worth buying.” That is the last but one entry in Bains’s collection, described as `a flippant term for the very real observation that the public, and indeed many scientists, judge the ethical acceptability of experimental procedures and biological manipulations in accordance to a scale of personal distaste.’ Software may one day be rated on this factor, just as movies are given percentages. Zoonosis, that follows yuk is `infection of one animal by an organism that usually infects another species.’ While what infects rodents is also known to affect humans, there are no reports as yet of computer infections carrying on to people. CIP is cleaning-in-place, where one can sterilise and clean before each `run’ without dismantling the equipment; there should be no `dead legs’, that is pipes blocked at one end, or crevices where the cleaning liquid cannot flow. Remember this when scanning your disk, and include all files because you never know where dangers could lurk. The abbreviation cDNA looks like a close cousin of CDMA, but no, it is copy or complementary DNA. Cell culture is how we describe the current generation that flaunts a working or non-working mobile, but in the dictionary it means the cultivation of cells. `Laundering’ with money before it is about how black becomes white, but for biotechnologists, there is money in laundering; “enzymes are used to digest dirt from in-between cloth fibres.” Large amounts of experimental results produced by high-throughput, automated laboratories in genome projects have necessitated the use of LIMS, short for laboratory information management systems.

Okay, what are DNA computers? “This is the use of DNA as a computer. Information is coded in the DNA sequence, and processed by enzymes.” Slow compared to silicon, so hardware manufacturers need not panic as for now, but “DNA is best suited to a very long-term data storage.” How about trying proteins as switches? “Arrays of these have been assembled between electrodes and shown to carry out switching operations.” I’m yet to tell you about what Bains has written about Halobacterium halobium, a salt-loving bacterium with electrical and light-absorbing properties “as well as being able to self-assemble into membranes.” Something that could be the first step to a holographic computer memory system. Make place for this A to Z among your IT books.

Revenge of geography


GATHERING together some of the best pieces on the new economy, mobile telecom, software, entertainment and so on, here comes “E-trends” from The Economist. The first chapter, `untangling e-conomics’ warns of what can happen if governments choke the economic benefits of innovation: “Look back 600 years to China, which at that time was the most technologically advanced country in the world.” China’s progress went in reverse when “its rulers kept such tight control on the new technology that it could not spread.” Globalisation and IT were made for each other, another chapter would declare.

After e-commerce, get ready for e-government, beckons `the next revolution’; Singapore is the model that the `island site’ chapter speaks of, the GeBIZ gee-whizz. Learn about GovWorks, a US site that makes paying fine easier, online. A major beneficiary of the Net is pornography: “Plenty of the material on offer on many sites would never get an airing on television because it is too sexually explicit or politically incorrect.”

Even the best of software won’t work without organisational changes, observes `a touch of concrete’. While technology has made it possible to forget national boundaries, there is `the revenge of geography’ that comes last in the book, discussing the role of `location-based services’: “At the moment, Internet users navigate a largely placeless datasphere. But in future they will want location-specific information”. Punch line, therefore, is: “Distance is dying; but geography, it seems, is still alive and kicking.” Good read even if pulled out of history.

Books courtesy: Landmark (www.landmarkonthenet.com)


“A robot has joined the teaching faculty.”

“To teach us what?”

“That would depend on what the class would program in his chip.”

Monday, Jun 21, 2004



From India to America

D. Murali

Catch up with the Suburban Sahibs this weekend – a story about the passage to the US of three immigrant families; their flair for programming languages; their quirks; and their sense of displaced identities.


FOR those working with Extensible Markup Language, a good reference is XML 1.1 Programming Bible by Biran Benz and John R. Durant, published by Wiley Dreamtech India P Ltd (www.wileydreamtech.com) . The very first point on the cover could attract accountants too: “Harness new XML 1.1 power to structure data for spreadsheets, configuration parameters and financial transactions.” Let’s say you know HTML, but have you heard about “the granddaddy of all markup languages, Standard Generalised Markup Language (SGML)”? If you have seen XML documents, you would have noticed that they are tough on the eyes. Let that not put you off because XML is “not designed for us to read” but by XML parsers.

Okay, I thumb straight to chapter 13, on `creating an Excel spreadsheet from an XML data source’; this is something relevant if we are trying to consolidate data from different formats. “XML Flattener contains processing logic so that data in an XML file can be converted into a two-dimensional spreadsheet.”

Excel 2002 can do wonders, because it “figures out what should be represented as rows and what, as columns”; it even applies default formatting to bold and colour column headings. “Another way of importing XML into Excel is by using a special feature known as Web queries.”

The authors explain how, with a Web query, “you can import data from any page that is served up and parsed by the Web browser.” At the end of your work, you can make your Excel data portable by saving the same as XML spreadsheet. Let me try out a few X abbreviations on you: XACML is XML Access Control Markup Language; XI is XML integrator; and XDK is XML Developer’s Kit. If they are too boring, try X-KISS, XKMS, X-KRSSS, XML4J and XSL. You may like to retort with XSU for making me shut up the X stuff, but that means XML-SQL Utility. Essential read, because XML may be the ultimate link that holds our civilisation together, when things become too specialised and diverse.

Don’t trip over IP law


A heavy-duty book on law is what Avinash Shivade provides inIntellectual Property Manual, published by LexisNexis Butterworths India (www.lexisnexis.co.in) . Relevant, because if you are in any knowledge industry, such as software, IP should mean not only Internet Protocol, but also the subject matter of the book. “The intangibility of these rights leads to their own peculiar difficulties in creation and enforcement,” notes the author in his preface. “Not only in India, but all over the world, the legislatures are trying to grapple with the more and more complex fields of intellectual property rights like biotechnology, information technology, plant varieties, geographical indications and so on.”

Laws that we have are those that have evolved “in fits and starts, more in response to the onslaught of technology”. Contrary to popular misconception that IP rights can restrict use, Shivade points out how, in intellectual property rights, “the owner does not retain possession of any intellectual work”. How? “The very object is to make the work in which an intellectual property right subsists, available to as many users as possible.” Thus, the developer of computer software has to licence the software to users; a trademark has to be applied to goods, advertised and used.

“The four major intellectual property rights are copyrights, designs, patents and trademarks.” However, as a result of international conventions and agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), there are new complex rights such as: “Geological indications, semiconductor integrated circuit layout-designs or `chips’, rights of plant breeders and protection of undisclosed information.”

The book devotes great attention to each of the four major IP laws: The Copyright Act, 1957; the Designs Act, 2000; the Trade Marks Act, 1999; and the Patents Act, 1970. In the Copyright Act, you would find the definition of `computer’ after `composer’; and, `computer programme’, as Sec 2 (ffc) defines, “means a set of instructions expressed in words, codes, schemes or in any other form, including a machine readable medium, capable of causing a computer to perform a particular task or achieve a particular result.”

Also, in what can make your English professor angry, `literary work’ includes computer programmes, table and compilations including computer databases, putting software on the same pedestal as Kalidas or Shakespeare. Accommodate Avinash’s Manual in your rack, pushing out outdated software manuals.

A to Z of desi in America


Who is an NRI? Answer: “The one carrying nostalgia in a suitcase.” This definition is from Amitava Kumar’s foreword toSuburban Sahibs, written by S. Mitra Kalita, and published by Penguin (www.penguinbooksindia.com) . He talks of `duty-free Indians’, `long-distance nationalism’, and how `roots have given way to routes.’

The book is about three immigrant families and their passage from India to America. Meet the H-1Bs of Kalita: “These were the newly arrived, highly skilled Indians who earned dollar salaries close to six figures, who were greeted by limousines at airports, who knew what Guess and Gap were, whose knowledge of programming languages from Java to COBOL to C++ had paved their entry to the US.”

ABCD is not new: American-Born Confused Desi; but can you stretch it to Z? “American-Born Confused Desi, Emigrated From Gujarat, Housed In Jersey, Keeping Lotsa Motels, Named Omkarnath Patel… ” And why did the CEO of Tata Consultancy change his memo headings from `Office Orders’ to `From the CEO’s desk’? Why is Mumbai having a rising DINK class: double income, no kids?

You may work across software platforms, but “ads tend to be caste-specific.” Also, “even flaws can be explained away.” For example: “37/5’7½” look much younger, good-looking Hindu Gujarati professional. Issueless innocent divorcee.

Working as Sr. Software Consultant, MS Computer Science. Easy going, down to earth, cosmopolitan outlook, good sense of humour, seeking attractive girl… ” Reserve the Sahibs for the weekend.


“Suppose the short hand is in 4 and the long hand near 12. Means what?”

“Means you don’t have a digital watch on hand.”

Monday, Jun 28, 2004