Less of a free lunch on the Internet; Clinching a smart bargain; A dash of Zen for more profits; Will broadband come the Sony way?; Of dots, dollars and dolls

Books2Byte – December 2003

Less of a free lunch on the Internet

D. Murali

The Net is a mine of information wherein `fee-based services are worth their weight in gold.’ More on this and other such trends.


IT used to be said that to be successful you need, not simply merit, but the right connections, the people who can make the difference between appointments and disappointments. Things have not changed much in today’s world that values merit more than earlier, and you still need to be connected, with the Web, that is. And if you are a financial consultant, here is a book to make your Net search less painful.

Best Websites for Financial Professionals, Business Appraisers, and Accountants by Eva M.Lang and Jan Davis Tudor, from Wiley (www.wiley.com) speaks of three major trends in the preface: “There’s less of a free lunch on the Internet; search engines are getting better; and fee-based services are worth their weight in gold.” Read on:

  • Efficient and effective Internet research depends on the skill of the researcher. It takes time to develop a `feel’ for the Internet, as well as know where to turn for information. For instance, if you are doing a comprehensive search on revenues and forecasts for the turnaround management consulting industry, you’ll probably get much better results from using a search engine, than a portal or directory.
  • Most vortals are established to serve as a distribution channel for companies within an industry – as a way for buyers and sellers to meet and conduct business. Each vortal is unique, many are membership-based, and the amount of information available to the non-member researcher can range from a gold mine to zilch.
  • Public records are documents that are gathered by various public offices and agencies with the purpose of making them available to the general public. Public records include, but are not limited to, lawsuit data and court dockets, death records, business entity filings, real estate records, and lien filings. However, just because information is by law considered `public’, does not mean that it is easily obtainable.
  • The Internet is a rich source of economic statistics. Both government and private industry delight in measuring every component of modern industrial production and in turning those measurements into statistics.

Some sites allow data to be downloaded into an Excel spreadsheet, while others present the data only in a plain text format.

  • What is the invisible Web? Those Internet pages ignored by search engines, which include: Pages `deep’ into a site, PDF or PostScript files (Google and AltaVista are now indexing this format), compressed files, content-rich databases and dynamically generated pages, and password-protected pages. BrightPlanet reports that the invisible Web is approximately 400 to 550 times bigger than the Internet as we know it, and is the fastest growing category of new information on the Internet. 97.4 per cent of the invisible Web is free.

An engaging guided tour of the Web for the finance people.

Playing at the nets

NETWORKING is no child’s play, which is why books on networking are usually so tough to understand. What we need, therefore, is `a visual exploration of networking technologies’ with cartoons and diagrams, big letters and all in colour. Cisco Networking Simplified by Paul Della Maggiora and Jim Doherty, and illustrated by Nathan Clement, is just that. The book, from Cisco Press (www.ciscopress.com) , tells you “what you always wanted to know about networking but were afraid to ask”. In the intro, the authors write: “We remember what it was like when first approaching the dizzying array of technologies, concepts, and jargon, and we have worked hard to remove the clutter, demystify the lingo, and organise topics into simple, easy-to-understand concepts. We also wanted to finally explain to our mothers what we do for a living.” Here’s more:

  • Subnetting is a method of segmenting hosts within a network and providing additional structure. Without subnets, an organisation operates as a flat network. These flat topologies result in short routing tables, but as the network grows, the use of bandwidth becomes inefficient.
  • Traditionally, voice traffic travelled across circuit-switched networks using private branch exchange (PBX) networks of private lines and time-division multiplexes (TDMs). These traditional networks tended to be proprietary, closed systems that were expensive to maintain, upgrade, or scale. Internet Protocol (IP) telephony integrates traditional voice services with today’s IP networks. With this convergence, both data and voice traffic traverse the same physical network, which eliminates the need for two separate networks and two separate sets of networking skills.
  • Network attacks occur for a variety of reasons: extortion, fraud, espionage, sabotage, or simple curiosity. The acts themselves involve a range of activities, including misuse of authorised systems, system break-ins, equipment theft, interception of network traffic, and reconfiguration of computer systems to allow for future access. Because of the nature of global networks, these attacks can (and often do) cross network and national boundaries.
  • Traditional JBOD (just a bunch of disks) direct-attached storage (DAS) networks are file-system- and platform-dependent. The disks are associated with a single set of servers, and only the attached host can access them. Examples include small computer systems interface (SCSI), fibre channel, and enterprise system connection (ESCON). Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks (RAID) addresses fault tolerance. Storage Area Network (SAN) removes the device, operating system, and location dependencies of traditional DAS. Storage expansion no longer has an impact on servers and vice versa.
  • Common terms for discussing network availability are “24X7X365” and “five 9s.” The phrase 24X7X365 refers to keeping the network up 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (366 in leap years). Five 9s refers to the measurement of availability in terms of a percentage: 99.999 per cent. This measurement implies that the network is not available for 0.001 per cent of the time, that is, for a total of 5 minutes per year.

A book that can connect to the child in you.

Skill stuff


You have no multiple goals, just one – to master multimedia in all its avatars: Flash for animation and interactivity, Dreamweaver for Web development, Photoshop for manipulating bitmapped images, ImageReady for Web graphics, Illustrator for vector graphics, and Premiere for video and sound. Try out Practical Multimedia by Nigel Chapman and Jenny Chapman, a publication of Wiley Dreamtech (www.wileydreamtech.com) . “A one-stop shop for project-based courses using a range of software applications to create multimedia, this book is designed and tailored for novices and students,” states the back cover. A few glimpses:

  • There is a popular misconception that computers make life easier by automating tasks that must otherwise be performed by hand. While there are programs that take that approach, Photoshop is not one of them. It is not its business to provide shortcuts and quick solutions. Instead, it provides powerful tools to manipulate digital images that are equal to, or exceed in power, traditional darkroom tools used for photographs. Photoshop’s tools require the same degree of patience, skill and visual sense, and will be just as frustrating if you approach them casually.
  • A technique that has become popular among Web designers is that of dividing an image into pieces – usually called image slices – that are stored in separate files and recombined on the Web page, either by placing them into table cells or using CSS positioning. Slicing an image may immediately improve download speed.
  • Flash can be used in several different ways to create animation. The simplest way, corresponding to traditional methods, is to create each frame individually by drawing it or importing an image from a file. The completed animation is a sequence of frames. It is more usual to draw only certain keyframes and use Flash’s interpolation – or tweening – facilities to insert additional frames.
  • Illustrator is one of the leading programs for producing vector graphics, that is, images made up of shapes which can be described in mathematical terms, as distinct from bitmapped images, which are stored as an array of colour values, one for each pixel. Although vector graphics have been overshadowed by bitmapped images for multimedia work until recently, the growth in the use of Flash has led to a renewed interest in vector-based formats.
  • Machines are often thought of as inhuman and far removed from creativity. Computerisation is often equated with de-skilling. If you run business software on them, they will be boring and alienating; if you run media tools on them, the same machines will provide a powerful means for expression and creativity, one that requires a high level of skill.

A book to click through.

Wednesday, Dec 03, 2003



Clinching a smart bargain

D. Murali

Whether you plan to buy a computer or a non-IT product, here’s an ideal question to start with. And if you want help to sell, here are some tips for that too.


LIKE playing football, learning is fun. But you can’t play from afar. Not so with learning, because you can e-learn. Learning at a distance, using computers, is e-learning. For companies, what this means is that employees can add to their knowledge at their desk, without travelling to a classroom. Other questions immediately crop up: What does e-learning really cost? Can the company’s IT infrastructure support the growth of e-learning? Will the employees respond all right to e-learning? How to measure the ROI of e-learning? For all these questions, Allan J. Henderson provides answers in The e-learning Question and Answer book, from Amacom (www.amacombooks.org) . Learning for learning’s sake is not what happens in businesses; it has to translate itself as improved performance of the workforce and make the company more competitive. “But e-learning isn’t a magic token that will automatically improve your business if you simply touch it,” writes the author. A few more tips:

  • Web lectures broadcast PowerPoint-type slides over the Internet with an audio voice-over. This means that each slide appears one by one on the computer screen, and you hear the lecturer talking about each slide. So you’re sending the information by eye and by ear at the same time. You might be able to do a good demo of the new product features over the Web so the salespeople can see it work even if they can’t actually touch it.
  • The cost components for e-learning include the courseware, the course delivery expenses (including instructors), marketing/ promotional communications with the students, and administration and support expenses. Perhaps the biggest thing influencing your e-learning costs is the size of your problem.
  • Using leading-edge technology is important but not critical. Sometimes it’s only eye candy. With a strong instruction design, you can make an e-mail-based correspondence course work effectively. With a weak instructional design, you will be hard-pressed to make the jazziest virtual classroom work effectively. Furthermore, in e-learning and in everything else, fancier things usually cost more than simple things.
  • “Let me interrupt you for just a few minutes about an urgent work problem,” says the manager while the employee is trying to take an e-learning course at her desk. Other employees tell you that if the training were really important, they’d send you away to class.
  • E-learning will probably become more interconnected. The `inter-library loan model’ could emerge. You might go to one e-learning site and take courseware that is not actually available from that site but from a different site. Behind the scenes, the first site will get the course from the second site and deliver it to the requesting user. You can think of this as the `take a course from anywhere’ model.

A book on the A, B, C and D of e-learning.

What’s in store


ORDERED materials arrive at the store, goods received notes are prepared, bin cards updated, stores ledger posted, requisitions pour in from the shop floor, defectives get returned, and stock is taken periodically. This is the picture of the stores. “In recent years, computerisation has improved the efficiency of the warehouse operations to a great extent,” writes J.P. Saxena in Warehouse Management and Inventory Control, from Vikas Publishing House (helpline@vikaspublishing.com). A sampler:

  • Some of the latest software packages encompass not only warehouse management, inventory control and procurement support, but also other activities such as demand management support, sales management and control support, and distribution resources planning support.
  • An automated inventory control system can make positive contribution towards inventory reduction. One instance is the use of EOQ (economic order quantity) method. EOQ is the quantity that takes into account all the relevant costs associated with a particular procurement and not just the cost of the materials. By balancing the frequency of ordering with the cost of carrying inventory, total cost of materials can be reduced.
  • A warehouse system would demand many key database master files, relating to location, commodity codes, parts/ items, units of measure, vendor and currency code/ exchange rates.
  • Sometimes an item is available at a very low price for a short period of time. In such circumstances, the buyer would generally want to buy more than the requisition quantity in order to maximise savings. If the buyer knew quickly through the screen, what the current inventory levels are, and what maximum inventory level has been set, he could make his decision quickly.

Though warehouses do not enjoy the jazziness of marketing, finance or systems departments, they are key in any cost management exercise, which in turn would hinge on an effective information system.

Win-win negotiation


A BUYER is purchasing a new computer and asks the salesperson, “Is $1,299 your best price?” The computer salesperson replies, “This computer is going on sale for $1,199 in a week. Let me see if I can get my manager to approve the sale price for you today.” Simply by asking, the buyer saves a hundred dollars.

This is the first of the `101 tactics for successful negotiation’ inThe Only Negotiating Guide You’ll Ever Need by Peter B.Stark and Jane Flaherty, a publication of Broadway Books (www.broadwaybooks.com) . The lesson in the first example is to get in the habit of asking salespeople, “Is that your best offer?” Great negotiators drive a hard bargain, notes the intro, but most have the reputation of being both fair and trustworthy. “This book will give you the skills and tools to be a win-win negotiator with a reputation for building effective, long-term relationships.” A few picks:

  • Browse the Internet; visit the library; talk to your counterpart or to someone who has negotiated with your counterpart in the past; speak with friends, relatives, and others who have been in similar negotiations. The more information you have, the better you will be able to negotiate.
  • Sue is buying a new portable computer and the salesperson says, “You really should purchase the extended warranty. If anything goes wrong with this computer, we will fix it free of charge. You just never know.” Here is an effective counter-tip: When a salesperson asked a 75 year old man if he wanted an extended warranty on his new washing machine, the man replied, “Son, at my age, I don’t even buy green bananas.” A second counter, when the dollar value of the product is low, is to say, “When this product breaks, I’ll just throw it out and buy another.” Alternatively, Sue can look the salesperson in the eye and say: “You are putting a lot of emphasis on selling me an extended warranty. Are you trying to indirectly tell me this product is not reliable and I need some insurance?”
  • An airline passenger is irate because the first-class reservation she thought was confirmed for her flight is not in the airline’s system and no other first-class seats are available. To every option the reservations specialist suggests, the woman reiterates, “My reservation is in the system. You have to find my seat.” This is what is known as `playing a broken record’. The airline employee could acknowledge the passenger’s emotions and simply say: “I understand this is a very frustrating situation and you are not happy. Of the possible solutions I have suggested, which one would work best for you?”
  • The feel, felt and found tactic: The buyer states, “I can’t believe you’re asking $30,000 for this software package.” The seller responds, “I can understand how you feel about the price. Many other owners felt the same way until they found out how trouble-free and long-lasting our software is. There really is a difference, and that is what makes this price such a great value.”

A compact read for both sellers and buyers, of both tech and non-tech products.

Wednesday, Dec 10, 2003



A dash of Zen for more profits

D. Murali

The art of profitability isn’t something that comes naturally to everybody. Some gyaan on how it can be practised effectively.


WHAT do Barbie dolls, Nokia phones, and American Express cards have in common? What secret of success does Intel share with Stephen King? What business models were embraced by both Swatch and Microsoft?

These are the teasers on the back cover of The Art of Profitability by Adrian Slywotzky, from Warner Books. Each of its chapters presents a `different, powerful business model’ that reveals the `invisible but significant governing principles that allow businesses to survive and prosper in any economic climate’, with a dash of Zen. A sampler:

  • Becoming digital allows you to literally reverse your business processes, from push to pull and from guess to know. Give the customers half a chance and they’ll shift their behaviour from passive to active mode. They’ll look up product info, prices, order status, and the answers to technical service questions. They’ll schedule their own maintenance, download software, and so on. In fact, there are more than 20 different tasks like this that suppliers used to do that a digital business enables customers to do for themselves.
  • The low-cost business design doesn’t need huge market share to be hugely profitable. It is hugely profitable as long as it continues to be dramatically lower-cost. If you are too focussed microscopically, what happens at the edge of the radar screen? Two things can happen. The more traumatic one is when someone makes you irrelevant. The other, less traumatic instance, the one that leads to a slow and painful demise, is the invention of a completely new model that delivers the same thing at a 20 or 30 per cent lower cost.
  • New product profit is all about psychology. People get so caught up in the new product gold rush that they refuse to think forward three years, refuse to think clearly about what will happen on the other side of the parabola. To manage the parabola strategically, overinvest, by a factor of three, on the left-hand side of the parabola, and underinvest, again by a factor of three, on the right-hand side.
  • It is one of the enduring paradoxes of business that big-ticket hardware folks invest the capital, take all the risks and then let somebody else capture the service-contract business that has predictability, lower price sensitivity, higher margins, recurring revenue, and the opportunity to create an ongoing customer relationship.
  • Many people see only one way of making a profit – the one they grew up with, usually, or the one that’s been written up in the most recent issue of a business magazine. Just as they can imagine only one kind of time. Reality is much more complicated and promising than our limited imaginations often let us recognise.

Read it on a long haul because it has enough inputs to contemplate upon.

Book courtesy: Landmark

Code etiquette


HABITS die hard, even if you are dying to change them because they are causing problems.

A greater malaise is to keep doing the same thing over and over and yet expect a different result. That is a form of insanity, writes John Crupi in his foreword to J2EE AntiPatterns, by Bill Dudney et al, a book from Wiley Dreamtech (www.wileydreamtech.com) . “This may also apply to software development. Unfortunately, we have repeated some of our major problems so often that we don’t realise they can be a source of some of our major problems.”

And AntiPatterns are `bad habits of code and design’, explains the back cover of the book. “The authors explore the common mistakes that are made while developing J2EE applications and clearly show how to refactor your way out of them.”

For starters, J2EE is Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition and it defines the standard for developing component-based multi-tier enterprise applications. More:

  • An AntiPattern is a repeated application of code or design that leads to a bad outcome.

The outcome can be poor performance or hard-to-maintain code or even a complete failure of the project. And refactoring is a disciplined means of transforming the implementation of code to make the design better without changing the externally visible behaviour.

  • The best summary of the common misconceptions of distributed computing, and therefore J2EE programming, is the eight fallacies, attributed to Peter Deutsch. These are: The network is reliable; latency is zero; bandwidth is infinite; the network is secure; topology doesn’t change; there is one administrator; transport cost is zero; and the network is homogeneous.
  • Risk and failure are issues we have to deal with all the time. Enterprise architects and J2EE developers need to keep a bit of paranoia around to help them plan for potential failures and risks. Many of the projects J2EE is used for put millions of dollars at stake, both during development and while they are running. You can’t deploy these applications and not be ready for the consequences of failure. Some great examples of paranoia in action are Netscape’s multiple network links, RAID (redundant array of independent disk) arrays, and UPSs.
  • To navigate your way out of the Too Much Code AntiPattern, there is a set of related refactorings to consider. Beanify to help get model code into the right place, introduce Delegate Controller to help get controller code into the right place, and introduce Traffic Cop to get the page flow code into the correct place.
  • J2EE applications that fall victim to the Web = HTML AntiPattern will have a browser-based interface that uses HTML. But this interface is likely to require extensive use of dynamic HTML, Flash, applets, or ActiveX controls. As a whole, the interface will probably be hard to use for some tasks and rough around the edges in general. The reason for these difficulties is that the designer will have pushed the tools beyond what they are designed to support.

Not a bad idea to read a book of bad habits.

Century management


WHERE to find out how “Janusian vision, creative destruction, dualism, and collective genius inform the 21C leadership”? What do “customised workplace, the creative Web and kaleidoscope thinking mean for the 21C organisation”? Subir Chowdhury compiles the answers for these and other such questions inManagement 21C, from Pearson Education. We are not talking about a bus-route number but the current century, and the book “brings together visions for the new millennium”. It is for “those who believe in creative war.” Subir adds in his preface: “Someday we’ll all manage this way.” Read on:

  • For decades, organisations have utilised key metrics like ROI (return on investment) and ROA (return on assets). 21st century organisations will utilise a measurement called ROT (return on talent), that is, knowledge generated divided by investment in talents. ROT measures the payback from investment in people.
  • Bill Gates admits that if 20 people were to leave Microsoft, the company would risk bankruptcy. Nathan Myhrwold, Chief Technology Officer there, claims that in the new economy, the difference between the average and the good is no longer a factor of 1:2; it is a factor of 1:100 or 1:1,000! At Nintendo, the computer games company, management argues that an ordinary person cannot design a really good game no matter how much he or she tries.
  • Tomorrow’s managers will create roles and structures that will ensure their people are always looking around for new opportunities. These roles will include: Converters – those taking today’s technology and converting it to tomorrow’s needs; scanners – people charged with finding new niches and customers; expediters – those who can help others to bypass red tape and bureaucratic regulations; browsers – employees who scan related industries, technologies and professions for ideas their organisations can use; linkers – those who persuade individuals and related companies to join short-term partnerships; energy conservers – people who look to plug drains in emotional, physical or intellectual energy brought about by ineffective managers or poor work environments; and talent scouts – those who look for people with the potential to become masters.
  • Information technology now includes biotechnology; seeds given particular genes (a kind of `software’ implanted in the seed) can result in insect-resistant crops with higher yields, replacing pesticides and the physical labour to spray them.
  • Technology does not replace the need for human interaction and we believe that many companies in the future will miss this point to their detriment.

Quite often, information comes from those people to whom managers have easy access and with whom they get on. Decision-makers may use sources that provide lower quality information but are readily accessible.

A book that can offer a good ROT, that is, return on thoughts.

Wednesday, Dec 17, 2003



Will broadband come the Sony way?

D. Murali

Why is Sony called so? Here’s a fascinating insight into the company’s history and its plans for the future.


ANCHOR the ship, move beyond the home front, stay ahead, pick a fight, connect the dots, don’t quit, market, pay attention, sleep with the enemy, and reinvent for a networked future. These are the `secrets of the world’s most innovative electronics giant’ that Shu Shin Luh gives away in Business the Sony Way, a book from Capstone (www.capstoneideas.com) . If the phrases sound contradictory, that could well gel with what the company says on its Web site: “We’re not here to be logical. Or predictable. We are here to pursue infinite possibilities.”

The dream that is engaging the company currently is connectivity – that “anything Sony produces will be able to link with any other, anywhere, any time.” But it was only about half a century ago that the name Sony was put first on an electric rice-cooker, which was `an utter failure’. Yet the book is about how Sony rose from the tiny radio-repair shop in a bomb-ravaged Tokyo after World War II to a $50-billion, globe-straddling giant, founded on the relationship between a brilliant engineer Masuru Ibuka and his apprentice Akio Morita. A few glimpses:

  • Some engineers considered themselves `sonny-boys’ because they felt they were part of a new kind of company, one with an entrepreneurial soul. Unfortunately, `sonny’ on its own would give the company trouble in Japan because, in the Romanisation of the Japanese language, the word `sonny’ would be pronounced `sohn-nee’ which means `to lose money’ – not the luckiest name for an upstart trying to establish a solid reputation. The solution to this particular concern struck Morita one day: why not just drop one of the letters and make it `Sony’?
  • Sony spent a large part of the mid 1970s fighting a legal battle in the US Supreme Court to prove that home taping is legal and not an infringement of copyrights. But when it won a Supreme Court ruling in 1984, it was rather hollow victory. Sony soon discovered that even the world’s best hardware does not necessarily sell unless the content appeals to consumers. While Sony bet on Betamax, the rest of Japan’s consumer electronics industry was embracing the VHS. Sony watched its product starve to death for lack of software.
  • To make a difference in PC design, Sony engineers decided that the new PC needed a unique name (VAIO) and concept, and a design and an interface on the screen that would make it stand out from the typical Windows computer. Originally, the acronym meant video audio input output. Now it stands for video audio integrated operation.
  • In Sony’s largest consumer market, the US, broadband penetration will only reach 30 per cent by the end of 2005. For Sony’s vision of a networked future to work, the company cannot do without broadband. A large part of the company’s revenues will, it hopes, be derived from the digital distribution of music, video, games and other services. But with most Americans still getting Internet access through slower dial-up phone lines that are inhospitable to video and music, can Sony afford to wait for it to arrive? This is the first time in Sony’s history that it is making products that are ahead of the infrastructure’s ability to use them.

A good read before you get busy with the broadband.



One of the following is not an output device: Plotter, MICR, printer or smart terminal. The definition of multimedia does not include which of these: Animation, graphics, multimedia projector or text. In Linux, how does the script know what shell it should use? Write the steps that will disable the Recycle Bin and directly delete files and folders with no opportunity to restore them. These are more questions that appear in a recent exam conducted by DOEACC Society under the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. Its prime objective, as the site www.doeacc.org.in would put it, “is to bring the most updated global industry relevant computer education within the reach of more and more.” For those taking its `O’ and `A’ level certification, here is Ravi Kant Taxali’s IT Tools and Applications, from Tata McGraw-Hill (www.tatamcgrawhill.com) . A sampler:

  • Disk Cleanup, available under `system tools’, can help you free up space on your hard drive. It searches for temporary files, Internet cache files and other unnecessary program files that can be deleted. The Disk Defragmenter tool analyses and defragments a drive. It rewrites fragmented files so that they occupy single, contiguous space on the disk.
  • The Linux kernel or the heart of the Linux is character-based like DOS. There is no graphical user interface (GUI) in Linux kernel. Linux is similar to Unix, considered a very stable and fast operating system. Linux commands are very powerful, but sometimes tend to be too technical for an average user to remember, understand and use. However, programs such as GNOME (GNU Object Model Environment) and KDE provide GUI on Linux.
  • When you are working on a long document, you may like to see what you wrote on an earlier page while writing text on some other page, further down. Instead of scrolling text up and down, you can split the Word document window into two. You can even control the size of the split areas.
  • To prevent unauthorised access to your workbook file, you can assign a password to it. Excel supports two types of passwords – (a) a password is required to open the workbook file and (b) a password is required to change the workbook. You can define either or both passwords for any workbook file.
  • Multipartite viruses are those that show features of both file and boot-sector viruses. This makes detection of these viruses a bit difficult. For instance, Tequila is a virus that originates as the file virus but finally infects the boot-sector. AntiCAD is another such virus. Unlike a boot-sector virus, a multipartite virus can spread easily like a file virus, and yet attack the boot-sector or partition table.

Useful for general readers too who are not so keen on a certification.

Great time in great groups


Engaging movies can revolve round a Django, a Superman or a Zorro, but in real life “one is too small a number to produce greatness”. Thus writes Warren Bennis in Organizing Genius, a book from Magna Publishing (www.magnamags.com) . It reveals the `secrets of creative collaboration’ because `none of us is as smart as all of us’. In his foreword, Charles Handy writes: “Great groups hope to `make a dent in the universe’, as Steve Jobs told the team that created the Macintosh computer.” In a global society, where timely information is the most important commodity, collaboration is not simply desirable, it is inevitable, states the first chapter, appropriately titled `The end of the great man’. There’s more:

  • One of the most remarkable characters in Aladdin is the magic carpet, a Persian rug full of personality that was Disney’s first fully computer-animated film. Before computers, the rug would have been far too expensive to animate conventionally, given the complexity of the pattern on its surface.

The computer could make the carpet move, but the more basic problem of convincing us of `the plausible impossible’ had to be done the old-fashioned way, by tapping the imagination and expertise of an animator.

  • Kay’s Smalltalk was the first object-oriented programming language. A defining feature of computing today, object orientation allows the user to perform functions by sending messages to individual computational or software objects. The user need never be aware of the internal commands that are triggered by the messages. The defining metaphor for this innovation was the biological cell, which performs specific functions and communicates with other cells.
  • Using the equations in Pyotr Ufimtsev’s article – which described a method for calculating precisely how much electromagnetic radiation would be reflected by a given geometric shape – Denys Overholser believed he could write computer software that would calculate in advance exactly how visible to radar planes of different designs would be.

The computer technology of the period was only powerful enough to do the calculations in two dimensions. But Overholser didn’t think that was an insurmountable problem. He proposed designing a plane consisting entirely of flat triangles.

  • Where do you find people good enough to form a Great Group? Sometimes they find you. The talented smell out places that are full of promise and energy, the places where the future is being made. Certain schools and academic departments are lodestones for talent. Certain cities attract it as well.

Cyberspace has also become a place where talented people gather, liberated from geography.

If you are not in a great group, this book could show what you are missing.

Wednesday, Dec 24, 2003



Of dots, dollars and dolls

D. Murali

How do you put an elephant in an envelope? Or save up on the dollars? Or better still, play with your PC much as if it were a toy? Here’s pretty interesting stuff on all these, and more.


YOU hear about vectors when there are mosquitoes around. For artists, however, vectors are mathematically-based curves. A package that draws its strength from its hold on vectors is Adobe’s Illustrator. “Vectors give Illustrator its muscle, versatility, and subtlety, but many artists find vectors unintuitive and even frustrating,” says David Karlins in his bookHow to do Everything with Illustrator CS – A Beginner’s Guide, from Wiley Dreamtech (www.wileydreamtech.com) . How is Illustrator different from its sibling Photoshop? While the latter allows one to edit individual pixels – the tiny dots that are the smallest elements of a graphical object – the former defines art by line segments that are controlled by anchor points. “Vector magnitude incorporates elements such as length, outline colour, thickness, and fills.” Vectors have direction, too. More importantly, vector art is scalable: “The files can be printed on a postage stamp, a business card, a full-sized poster, or a billboard without losing quality or even increasing in file size.”

If you are familiar with the earlier versions of the software, say, versions 9 and 10, the new features may interest you: Such as the inclusion of 3-D effects, smoother text formatting, better find and replace, support for `open type’ character sets, ability to save to new graphic formats, and so on.

The chapter on drawing with pencil and brush tools talks of how the pencil tool has a `split personality’ – an essential understanding so that `you won’t get disoriented when odd things happen when you use this tool’. The tool can be used “as a quick-and-dirty way to draw lines”. Also, you can “redraw existing lines to smooth out edges or tweak an illustration”.

You can’t send a camel through the eye of a needle, but how about putting an elephant in an envelope? Possible, says Illustrator, if you used the `envelope distort’ menu. An envelope is a shortcut to reshape an object retaining its original path structure, as perhaps what Mark Twain had said, “Get the facts first. You can distort them later”. Warp sends the object packing into a predefined path, while another cousin of envelope, the mesh, imposes gridlines on the object.

The 14 sketch effects and filters – a sample of which is shown in chapter 19 – ranging from bas relief to water paper, can come in handy if you want to prepare the `wanted’ photo of a fugitive, to show all possible forms he or she might assume! “They alter your image so that it appears to be created by a variety of non-digital media.”

A book that can tickle the Picasso in you.

Save money in support


IN Electronic Life, Michael Crichton talks about an interesting development that happened in the evolution of telephones. In the beginning, the caller had to simply pick up the receiver and had the operator at the other end to place the calls. But when the technology spread, there was a big risk that the whole system would break down, not so much because the equipments konked off but because “there simply weren’t enough operators to work the switchboards”, even if all the women were roped in for the task. “The solution was direct-dial telephones, which demanded all sorts of automatic switching devices and complex thingamajigs. This flashy new technology obscured a basic truth. The telephone company had actually solved the problem of insufficient operators by turning everyone into his own operator. The number of telephone operators now equalled the telephone-using population.” Similarly, when organisations grow beyond the usual concerns of production and selling, support becomes an area of focus. For instance, Cisco found that it was growing “faster than new customer-support technicians could be hired” and that its “phone support just couldn’t scale”. So, it put in place a “self-service, Web-based approach to handle more customers per support resource, accommodate dynamic shifts in demand, and enable customers to identify and solve many of their routine problems”. Its e-support system, called TAC (Technical Assistance Center) Web, receives about 12 million hits every month and solves over 1.5 lakh customer issues per month “that would otherwise have gone to phone-based support”, costs $ 1 million to run but saves the company “tens of millions of dollars in customer-support costs”. The whole thing is managed by “55 people with about five managers.” Hey, how did they do it? Read E-Support from Cisco Systems (www.ciscopress.com) , written by Andrew Connan and Vincent Russell.

The book is predominantly a Q&A with the experts, and some questions seem to touch a raw nerve: What were biggest failures? (Our inability to quickly get metrics in place to measure our success.) Do TAC engineers view the TAC Web as a threat to their jobs? (No.) Why does Cisco publish its bug information? (Customers will find out about the bugs; we believe it is best that they find out from us proactively.)

There are many queries that explain facets of technology. Such as: What does a site architect do? What are the most advanced Web sites doing today? When you look around and try to find the latest Web technology, what do you do for research? How do you decide whether to build something new in-house or purchase it from a vendor? How do you research your audience?

Another question, “What are metrics?” interests me as an accountant. “A metric is combination of both a (usually quantitative) measurement and an accompanying goal.” Thus, a metric without underlying interest is simply a number. One expert, talking about reaching the audience, says: “We do metrics analysis on every single message that we send out. This gives us the ability to say this communication was effective or this other one wasn’t. If it wasn’t effective, we ask if the problem was the style of writing, or was the target segment not tight enough?”

If you are serious about support, there is valuable support in E-Support.

Get a PC to play with


GETTING bored surfing the Net? Games are too tiring and routine? Looking for new fun? Try some “cool projects for home, office and entertainment” in PC Toys by Barry Press and Marcia Press. The book from Wiley Dreamtech (www.wileydreamtech.com) has 14 projects to experiment, all complete with materials list, detailed illustrations, clues to the cost, helpful Web links and directions. The projects include video recorder, coffeepot controller, workout monitor, home surveillance system, fish tank monitor, navigation system, robots and so forth.

We have moved a long way from the `five computers’ that Thomas Watson had wished for in 1943. “Our parents had no concept of a PC,” write the authors. “Our children are different.” For them, computers are “simply instruments to be coerced into doing what they want”. The book is, therefore, for those who are not intimidated by computers as “monsters from the office automation swamp”.

One of the `toys’ is the coffee controller and it is supposed to do these things: “detect when you’ve gotten up; turn on the coffeepot when you get up and turn it off at noon, turn on a light any time at night you get up; and turn off the light after you’ve gone back to bed.” If you are curious, parts list includes motion sensor, RF transceiver, appliance module, lamp module, PC interface and control software.

Another interesting toy is `telescope tracking station’. “We’ve owned a basic telescope for years, but since a few forays into the backyard to see the craters on the moon and a few of the planets, it’s been gathering dust. Not because we weren’t interested, but because we never got the hang of reliably finding what we were looking for,” confess the authors. What’s the solution? “Your PC can help you fix all these problems — knowing where you are, knowing where to look, and following objects in the sky — using nothing more than a Web connection, an interface to a motorised base under your telescope, and some software.”

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested,” said Sir Francis Bacon. But here is a book to be played with.

Wednesday, Dec 31, 2003




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