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




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