Artificial to the core; Saying it right; For netizens and designers; IT is India’s tomorrow

Books2Byte – January 2004

Artificial to the core…

D. Murali

In a world where technology rules the roost, it’s only natural that all things artificial — men or intelligence — gain significance.


FOR a long time, they were in the labs and we saw them talked about in sci-fi stories. Then, moviemakers put them to good use to challenge the heroes and frighten the dames. Slowly, they are getting into our lives in the form of toys that work as if they have a mind of their own, rather than being dumb as the furry, cuddly bear or a proxy, plastic beauty most kids share much time with. You can play Brahma with automatons, creating the `21st-century science-fiction robots’, grants Grant Imahara, in his book, Robo Toys: An Illustrated Step-by-Step Guide to Building Robots, from Wiley Dreamtech ( . His contributions have been in the field of animatronics for movies such as Star Trek, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Star Wars, Terminator 3 and Matrix Reloaded, and now he is talking to the common man who might want his own pet-robo. The book has inputs on robot design, power tools, handling screws, top drive motors, roller chains, traction, speed controls, wiring, rammers, crushers and so on. A companion Web site is offering templates and complete plans described in the book. But be warned, we are entering the realm of robot combat.

The normal flow of building is research, design, prototype, test, build, test again, revise, and practice, writes Imahara in the intro, but he breaks that cycle “to jump directly into fabrication to get the beginning robot builder dirty as soon as possible.” His focus is on the drivetrain instead of weapons, because “the essence of every robot combat event is that if you can’t move anymore, you’re disabled, and you automatically lose. Often, it’s a war of attrition, and some robots are as destructive to themselves as they are to other robots.” Pretty much true for software too, because a system that hangs gets you nowhere, compared to something that keeps working robustly, pulls on with the job, without letting you down.

The robot has to have a name, and it should be catchy. “You can use to see if your choice has already been taken.” How about the design? “You don’t have to create a dimensional drawing or a fully rendered CAD model,” comforts the author. “Cocktail napkins and the backs of envelopes will do.”

You may be a top notch coder, but don’t forget Newton when putting your machine together. Despite your best programming, what is crucial for robot would be physics. “Every particle of the robot is subject to earth’s gravity, and contributes to the total weight,” is a simple lesson that Imahara offers. “A low, flat object will have a lower centre of gravity than a tall skinny object. The higher in the air the centre of gravity is, the more likely you are to tip over.”

To reduce weight, you might think of a smaller robot, but “it’s a lot harder to fit all the things to do the job.” Seek the help of computer-aided design programs, advises the book. “It can help out dramatically in figuring out the best placement for all of the motors, batteries, and electronics inside your robot’s frame.” A flip side is that this process can become time-consuming “because you’ve got to create all the models on the computer yourself from available measurements before you can use them.” Imahara advocates making a cardboard mock-up of the robot full size, so that you can get a feel of how big it’s going to be. “It’s one thing to design on paper or on the computer, but it’s often hard to judge exact size from a computer screen.”

How one wished that future wars didn’t involve B2 bombers and high-tech missiles, but combat robots that play it out in an arena.

Invincible intelligence


From the world of machine men, we move on to AI. Artificial Intelligence and the Study of Agentive Behaviour is by R. Narasimhan, who was the first chairman of the CMC and also the first president of the CSI. The central argument of the book, from Tata McGraw-Hill ( , is that AI studied as science, as opposed to AI as engineering or technology, is the most appropriate basis for studying behaviour. The preface talks of two approaches – one that observes animal behaviour at the sensorimotor level and the other that studies human behaviour to simulate cognition. “Can these two preoccupations be brought together using AI as a common scientific framework?”

To show how computational aspects of behaviour would have to be very detailed, the author takes up the example of nest-weaving done by the long-tailed tit bird. “A computationally adequate description of weaving would have to be specified in some such fashion as this: grasp (with the beak) the loose end (or one end) of the blade of grass, insert it in hole and push till the end comes out on the other side, and pull the end towards oneself.” Remember that weaving requires further “the ability to recognise (identify) parts of objects, e.g. the loose end of the grass, and to verify relational constraints, e.g. end of blade out of hole.”

Also, “one must start with a set of primitive actions that relate to the effector mechanisms of the animal (beak, wing, leg, neck, and so on), and a set of attributes and relationships that the animal can compute.” With all this in place, you might be able to explicitly work out an algorithm for each behaviour unit, though such an exercise “is bound to be quite complex even for the most ordinary behaviour of simple organisms.”

That should be enough for most people to appreciate the worth of their own natural intelligence. But what is the foundation of intelligence? “Dealing with primary raw data is not a prerequisite to demanding intelligent behaviour. Reasoning is the foundation of intelligence,” writes Narasimhan. “Even with conventional database management systems by endowing them with a reasoning capability we would be converting them into intelligent systems.” Thus an integration of database and AI is one of the aspects of `rich future’ that the book talks about.

To serious researchers, the author advises: Begin to ask how inter-modality transfer of information takes place, and how, at the global level, behavioural integration is achieved. “In the case of human beings language behaviour would seem to play a crucial role in this context.” However, the underlying information-processing issues are still a black box to a great extent.

Wednesday, Jan 07, 2004


Saying it right

D. Murali

If you are sending e-mails to the boss, mind those uncrossed `t’s and undotted `i’s. He might remember missed punctuation more than your ideas. Here’s more on e-mail etiquette, wireless communication and data recovery.


WIRELESS communications are increasingly binding us, like the invisible strands of a giant spider. S. Ruseyev puts together the technique in action in WAP Technology and Applications, a book from Eswar Press ( .

A myth about wireless application protocol (WAP) is that it provides delivery of the entire content of the Internet to wireless terminals. Also, all the media hype about these wireless wonders glosses over the limitations of wireless networks. “The wireless channels’ capacities are less, their inactive period is longer, their connection is less stable, and service accessibility is not as predictable.” Plus, wireless terminals have a host of problems such as smaller screens, processing power, RAM, battery power, and keyboards. “Hence, there will always be a wide gap between the best PC and the best wireless pocket device.” Yet, one should understand that the requirements of a wireless terminal owner are different from those of PC user. “Wireless terminals are useful companions when you need prompt information or want to get access to corporate data while on the move.”

For language buffs, WML — the markup lingo for wireless applications — can be interesting. It has the same syntax as XML, and is very similar to HTML. “Therefore, all Web developers who studied these languages over the last 10 years may promptly apply their knowledge to using WML.”

If wireless became the standard, as it threatens to evolve into, all that is wired may seem too weird to accommodate.

Etiquette for the e-men


An anecdote: “A young married woman sent her husband an e-mail, recounting the pleasures of their preceding night in some detail. It was an innocent and romantic gesture.

Unfortunately for her, he wasn’t the only one to read it.

The e-mail went public somehow — the `how’ doesn’t matter — and before she knew it, 15 million around the world knew the full story of her romp with her husband, all because she broke the cardinal rule of e-correspondence: e-mails are public documents.”

This is from Peter Post’s Essential Manners for Men, a book from HarperCollins ( . This is no IT book, one might say, but, like it or not, tech stuff has gone into lingo and communication.

Speed kills is a traffic warning that could apply to electronic missives. The speed we love about e-mail is also an insidious danger, Post warns. “The problem with any immediate response is that it invariably will be much more about your anger than about solving the problem at hand. When penning any sort of message, take your time.” Remember, you are what you write, warts and all. “Typos, misspellings, malaproprisms, grammatical errors — they all stand out. These mistakes reflect on you, so make a point of carefully reviewing everything you write, even informal notes.” How about quick despatches to the boss? Won’t he look at the ideas you present rather than frown at the undotted i’s and uncrossed t’s? Wishful thinking, according to the author. “If you send your boss an e-mail containing misspelled words, your boss is likely to focus on and remember those misspellings — and the content you worked so hard on will be compromised as a result.”

Elsewhere in the book, Post lays down e-mail rules that include the suggestion to use the `draft’ or `send later’ facility so that you can proof-read and reread your cyber-communication before sending. Use fonts that have serifs, is another advice. “They help the reader to scan the line. Also, avoid using all capitals in your e-mails. They indicate yelling and are also difficult to read.”

Another child of technology, the cell-phone can do with a good measure of lessons in etiquette. “Commuters are starting to rebel against cell-phone users who insist on talking on a railway car or bus,” states the book. “If someone’s cell-phone use on a public conveyance is disturbing you, make your complaint to management. Never try to approach the offender directly.”

Good read for women too, if only to see what they can expect of well-mannered men.

Route to recovery


Whether there is life after death is not so important a question for computer users. They would be keener to know if there is recovery after a crash. Data loss and disk crash are accidents to live with if you dabble with bytes and files, PCs and other comps. To reduce the trauma, here is Do-it-yourself Data Recovery in easy steps by Saurabh Gupta, and brought out by Ranee Publications ( It is “intended to help you recognise, react appropriately to and resolve a data emergency,” and has inputs on data storage technology, types of file systems, data loss situations, and loss prevention techniques.

Two don’ts that the book begins with are: “Do not write anything onto the drive containing the important data that you just deleted accidentally. Do not try to write data that you found and are trying to recover back onto the same drive.” More tips are sprinkled all through the book, such as: “Do not power up a device that has obvious physical damage. Activate the write-protect switch or tab on any problem removable media such as tape cartridges and floppies; many good backups are overwritten during a crisis.”

There are also dos: “When facing data loss, stop and review the situation. The process of reviewing and writing down a synopsis of the situation has the dual purpose of preparing for a recovery and inducing a calm.” Also, “Do no harm.” A lesson from the medical profession.

Contrary to popular belief, CD audio is “remarkably resilient to data loss,” informs the author. “Bits of dust or dirt on the surface of the disk, or even small scratches, will often not impede the performance of the CD player or the CD-ROM.”

One of the techniques that makes this possible is ECC (error-correcting code), “a special data encoding protocol that uses a combination of redundant information and special data positioning, to make it possible to detect and recover from missing bits of data.”

Useful reference material to be equipped with just in case…

Wednesday, Jan 14, 2004


For netizens and designers…

D. Murali

… who are forever on the lookout for the latest. Now throw your Net wide open with some `technology transfer’ in a `flash’.


Ask the nerds and geeks around you what they think is next to fast food and fun. Internet could be a ready candidate in their hierarchy, with all the advantages it offers, be it mail or site-surfing. Their lives are so intertwined with the Net that network is taken for granted. Internetworking Technologies Handbookfrom Cisco Systems ( is `an essential reference for every network professional’. So, if you belong to that tribe of people whose job is to ensure the ticking of `one of the most influential forces in our lives today’, something that continues `to change the way we work, live, play and learn’, here is the book for you. If, as a user, you are still interested in learning the basics, there are ample inputs on the fundamental concepts, covering a vast array of `technologies, protocols and paradigms’.

What is an Internetwork? Don’t be surprised if Word redlines the word, but it means “a collection of individual networks, connected by intermediate networking devices, that functions as a single large network.” Are there challenges in implementing a functional network? Yes, there are many – “in the areas of connectivity, reliability, network management, and flexibility.” The nightmare of the networking professional is to link systems that use disparate technologies. “Different sites, for example, may use different types of media operating at varying speeds.” World is `unpredictable’ and you never know when Murphy’s Law would operate. So, there is the need to “include redundancy to allow for communication even when problems occur”.

The book has been laid out such that even a casual browser can quickly grasp a few knowledge-bytes. Such as: Routing involves two basic activities – determining optimal routing paths and transporting information groups (called packets) through an Internetwork; the Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) originally emerged as an encapsulation protocol for transporting IP traffic over point-to-point links; there are two basic types of antennas – omnidirectional and unidirectional; Passive Optical Networks (PONs) are built for networks looking for cost advantages with asymmetrical bandwidth requirements; Line of Sight (LOS) refers to the fact that there must be a clear, unobstructed path between transmitters and receivers; and more.

In the chapter on security, the book observes that many systems have strong authentication mechanisms, though “they often are not implemented”. A subsequent chapter is on DEN, that is, Directory-Enabled Network: “Directory-enabled networking is not a product or even a technology. Rather, it is a philosophy that uses the DEN specification to bind services available in the network to clients using the network.”

Useful reference for those who believe in the philosophy of connections.

Knowledge, special and shared


As with god and freedom, truth and fairness, that often suffer the ill-treatment of limited comprehension, so with `technology’. Goel Cohen writes in the preface to Technology Transfer about the limited comprehension of the concept of technology among both engineers and scientists at large. The book, from Sage Publications ( , deals with what could be “the single most important contributory factor in competence conceptualisation.”

What is technology? A set of specialised knowledge, writes Cohen. “As the world becomes increasingly interdependent technologically, the transfer of technology from one country to another plays a key role in global development.” In a subsequent chapter, again, the author adds: “Technology is the magic word in today’s ideological lexicon. Not only developed nations but even developing countries may be seen as societies permeated by technology: new technology, key technology, high technology, up-to-date technology, leading-edge technology, state-of-the-art technology.” Also, add information technology. All these phrases “have become part of the everyday language of people who have little knowledge of science and technology.”

Technology involves four main elements: General theoretical and practical understanding of how to do things (social knowledge); objects (goods); installed techniques of production (processes); and the personal know-how and abilities of workers (skills). Perrow classifies technology into four quadrants: Routine, engineering, craft and non-routine on two axes, viz. problem analysability and task variability. For Thompson, however, there are three types of technology, viz. long-linked, mediating and intensive.

A book for intensive study in case you are somehow linked to technology, either as a receiver or giver, or simply as a mediator.

All in a Flash


Eager to create fast-loading interactive movies that feature buttons, navigation menus and animations? Want to use basic drawing tools and understand each element of the interface and toolbar? Do you wish to modify the colour, transparency, rotation, scale, and skew of any object? Bonnie Blake and Doug Sahlin answer these questions in How to Do Everything with Macromedia Flash MX 2004: A Beginner’s Guide from Wiley Dreamtech ( . “Flash is such a diverse application, it appeals to both designers and developers,” states the intro. “Designers love the application because of the ease with which they can create compelling animations. Developers enjoy the sophisticated applications they can create, such as shopping carts, which marry animation and ActionScript to create an application that’s not only functional but also fun for the end user.” A caution is also added: “Once you learn the application, you’ll start thinking of new and cool ways to dazzle your viewing audience. The only problem is that these creative sparks often wake you from a sound sleep. Keep a pen and pencil by your bedside so you can jot your new idea down and get back to sleep.”

You can do everything, but not overnight, because “Flash MX 2004 has multiple layers of complexity.” Also, “ActionScript is complex and can take years for non-programmers to master.” There is good news, however: That even a beginner can “jump right into Flash and start making movies right away.” The book has `tips’ and `notes’ all along the way, to help understanding. A few `tips’: To practise using the Pen tool, try tracing over freeform images you have created with the Pencil tool; if you are using WAV or AIFF sound files, it is recommended that you save them at a bit rate of 16 bits, 22 kHz mono before importing them into Flash, and Mono sound is half the size of stereo; you can create an interesting animation by entering negative values in the Height and Width fields.

A sampler of `notes’: The Distort tool only becomes available if you have selected an editable shape; gradients can’t be applied to strokes or text unless the text is broken apart; locked layers do not display Onion Skins.

Lastly, don’t forget that these days, Flash-driven sites are synonymous with “good design practice”.

Wednesday, Jan 21, 2004


IT is India’s tomorrow

D. Murali

Get the full picture on the great digital transformation being wrought by information and communication technology (ICT). It’s food for thought… and admiration.


THE Grameen phone scheme in Bangladesh provided one cellular phone each to 10,000 villages for community use. Kerala’s fishermen bargain rates for their catch using mobiles they carry out to sea. An Internet bus goes about with 20 computers in Malaysia, “bringing a new world of information and learning opportunities to school children in rural communities”. And Dr Devi Shetty, a cardio-surgeon in Bangalore, is connected to 27 districts in the state and also to West Bengal and Assam for consultation. Is there a correlation between information and communication technology (ICT) usage and economic growth? Yes, says Vinod Vaish in his foreword to The Great Digital Transformation by D.K. Ghosh, from Sunrise Publications ( “The intensive application of ICTs has enabled emergence of a new company characterised by high productivity, efficient markets, innovations in products and services, technologies, business models and organisational structures.” The book, subtitled `a saga of sustainable development’, notes that the South Asian countries are a fertile group to cooperate on ICT implementation because of their geographic continuity, common historic experience, close cultural and linguistic environment and so forth.

Peter Drucker’s book Management Challenges for the 21st Century is cited in a chapter that begins with a new definition of IT by the Prime Minister, Atalji – as `India’s tomorrow’. But Drucker had a different explanation: That for almost four decades people thought IT meant merely T – that is, data processing using a computer; the significance of I in IT came much later. The enquiry is “leading rapidly to redefining the tasks to be done with the help of information and, with it, to redefining the institutions that do these tasks.”

The Malaysian Model, dealt with in a separate chapter, discusses the `Multimedia Super Corridor’ (MSC) – a forum for “new roles of government, new cyber laws and guarantees, collaborations between government and firms, companies and companies, new broadcasting, new types of entertainment, education and delivery of healthcare.” Ghosh delves into something philosophical when laying down what are desirable as features in an international telecom order: “open, flexible, and competitive; user, rather than operator-oriented; containing an element of universal service both at the domestic and the international level; and economically efficient.” But there is a telecommunications gap; it has three main dimensions. “The international gap, qualitative and technological gap, and the domestic gap.”

Towards the end of the book, the author writes: “India, Malaysia and the Philippines, the three South Asian countries benefiting from outsourcing phenomenon would themselves be outsourcing their work once they too grow to be of world class.” What a pipedream, you may think. But he adds: “This is happening already; an Indian company has set up a BPO unit in Malaysia. And Indian IT companies are buying up many small US companies and turning them around.” Is that making you sit up already?

Blessed are the Perl-iterates


BIOLOGY is a life science, while computing is a machine world. But computers have become commonplace in biology, writes D. Curtis Jamison in “Perl Programming for Bioinformatics & Biologists”, from Wiley Dreamtech ( . “Almost every biology lab has some type of computer, and the uses of the computer range from manuscript preparation to Internet access, from data collection to data crunching.” The field of bioinformatics can be split into two broad areas, states the intro: “Computational biology and analytical bioinformatics.” The former is about “formal algorithms and testable hypotheses of biology, encoded into various programs”; computationists “spend their time thinking about the mathematics of biology” and develop bioinformatic tools such as BLAST or FASTA. Analytical bioinformatics puts those tools to use for tasks such as sequencing or regression.

Why Perl? Because it is the most widely used scripting language in bioinformatics, notes the author. What is Perl? Its author Larry Wall christened it so for `practical extraction and reporting language’, because it was originally created “for parsing files and creating formatted reports”. The name could just as easily stand for `pathologically eclectic rubbish lister’ Wall had jested because the language is “perfect for rummaging through files looking for a particular pattern or characters, or for reformatting data tables.”

How do these scientists put the language to use? For quick and dirty creation of small analysis programs, such as “to parse a nucleotide sequence into the reverse complement sequence”. Such a program is called `glutility’ – because it takes the output of one program and changes it into a form suitable for import into another program.

The book is replete with bio examples, such as storing DNA segment into a string, and using Perl’s power “to find motifs, translate DNA sequences to RNA, or transcribe RNA sequences to protein”; deploying Bioperl that ships with Tools distribution; applying splice to truncate an array, e.g. splice(@genes, 1). What a blessing to have Perl help in bio work! But `blessing’ a referent is the actual trick to creating object-oriented Perl code, writes the author. “The bless command marks the referent as belonging to a particular class or package.” Okay, how to bless? bless($reference, “package_name”). Count yourself blessed if you are Perl-iterate!

Coding is the `easy’ part


THE Mars expedition has Java running far, far away. For the earthlings, Paul Hatcher and John Gosney write JavaScript Professional Projects, a book from Easwar Press ( . “This book is not beginner-level basic tutorial, but a more advanced exploration of a real-world project that will show you how to implement JavaScript in actual applications,” warns the intro. Center Park School is the fictitious project for which you play Web designer. “Rather than just throwing a bunch of sample code at you and asking you to make sense of it on your own, the project is divided into chapters that deal with a specific aspect of the final Web site.” If you thought all design is about coding, you could be wrong. “Actual coding of a project is often the `easy’ part, and developing a design plan and project template the real challenge,” say the authors. “Working with clients can be a daunting task, especially if those customers are not technically minded.”

All right, what is JavaScript? Designed by Netscape Communications and Sun, it is a “lightweight programming language that you can use to add dynamic effects to your Web pages.” HTML has limitations, because it can only describe the way a page’s elements such as text, forms, hyperlinks and tables look like; it cannot dictate how they behave which is where JavaScript steps in. “The ability to embed JavaScript scripts in a Web page gives you, the programmer, much more control over how your Web page behaves.” When you use it in combination with the browser’s Document Object Model (DOM), JavaScript can produce intricate, dynamic HTML effects as well as animation and sound.

If your job is in IS security, you must remember that JavaScript has a history of security problems. Most of these security holes have been caught and fixed, “but new ones are being discovered all the time.” So, a developer has to “keep up-to-date on the current status” of patches and bugs.

The book’s lingo is simple. Try this: “The most important thing to know about using functions is how to make them work. Only three conditions need to be met for a function call to succeed. First, the function must have been previously defined in the program. Second, the correct number of parameters must be passed to it. Lastly, the correct object must be present – you cannot call the string object’s split function without a string object.” A book to invoke before you launch upon your own project.

Wednesday, Jan 28, 2004




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