Some inspiration from space; Bandwidth at great length; XP-erience for the clueless; Excel in modelling skills; This century belongs to India

Books2Byte – May 2004


Some inspiration from space

D. Murali

If you want to look up databases, here’s something interesting. And to think it all began with putting man on the moon.


DATABASES are too unglamorous to be seen as symbols of technology. But it was only three decades ago that the only people who knew about databases were computer scientists in research laboratories and they were struggling to make these creatures efficient and useful. Growth has been fast in database technology, but “industry standards have lagged behind,” notes Andy Oppel in Relational Databases: Principles and Fundamentals.

So, there are numerous products, “each following a particular software vendor’s vision”, but the book concentrates on “the relational and object-relational models because these are the mainstream of the IT industry and will likely remain so in the foreseeable future.”

Databases are no rocket science now but it all started when NASA wanted to put man on the moon. Andy writes how, as a part of the lunar mission, North American Aviation (NAA) built a hierarchical file system named Generalised Update Access Method (GUAM) in 1964. “IBM joined NAA to develop GUAM into the first commercially-available hierarchical model database, called Information Management System (IMS), released in 1966.”

The author devotes a chapter to explore relational database components. “One-to-one relationships are surprisingly rare among entities,” writes Andy. Remember, we’re talking about databases.

“One-to-one relationships that are mandatory in both directions represent a design flaw that should be corrected by combining the two entities.”

Then follows an example that number-crunchers can relate to: “After all, isn’t an account receivable merely more information about the customer?”

So? “We’re not going to collect data about an account receivable, but rather the information in the Account Receivable entity is data we collect about the customer.”

If that sounds philosophical, and you want to do something fast, there is RAD, short for rapid application development.

Done in about 60 to 90 days, this makes `compromises’ using the 80/20 rule. So, don’t expect RAD to work all the time.

At the end of each chapter, there are objective questions, and the author doesn’t say `bye’ till he administers a 100-question `final exam’ with questions such as: “A COMMIT in Oracle: ends a transaction; begins a new transaction; is automatic just before any DDL statement is run; is automatic just before any DML statement is run; or removes any locks held by the current transaction.” Worth committed reading.

Start Swing-ing


AS kids we have played the swing. As grownups, you can still explore Swing by Matthew Robinson and Pavel Vorobiev. In his foreword, James Gosling of Sun Microsystems writes: “Swing is an extraordinarily sophisticated user interface toolkit that gives great power to developers. This power leads to the biggest problem with Swing: the wide variety of facilities can be intimidating.”

The preface states that emphasis is on “using Swing to solve a broad selection of realistic and creative problems.” The authors “assume an intermediate knowledge of Java, including the basics of putting together an AWT (abstract window toolkit) based GUI, how the event model works, and familiarity with anonymous and explicit inner classes.” If your head is swinging already, you should better start with Steven Gutz’s Up to Speed with Swing, suggest the authors.

Swing components are `lightweights’ while AWTs are heavier. “One difference between lightweight and heavyweight components is z-order: the notion of depth or layering.” So what does that mean to you as a developer? “You should never place heavyweight components inside lightweight containers that commonly support overlapping children.” Hope you understand.

Well, after tabbed, scrolling and split panes, and combo boxes, you have list boxes and spinners. “JSpinner is a new component added in Java 1.4. It consists of an input text area and two small buttons with up and down arrows on the right of the input field.”

There are more than half a dozen advanced topics such as layered panes, desktops and internal panes, trees, tables, and so on.

Discussion on printing, constructing an XML editor and drag & drop are among the special topics.

Prescription, therefore, is: Stop swinging, start Swing-ing.

Quick tasks in simple steps


HOW to add audio annotations to image files? When to use grids for viewing? Can I shadow/highlight? Should I ask Pervez before creating a border selection?

These are only an indication of 275 `tasks’ that Micah Laaker and Christopher Schmitt guide readers through in Adobe Photoshop ver. (8) CS in 10 Simple Steps or Less, with easy-to-follow instructions.

No need to flip pages because the authors deliver inputs in `self-contained two page spreads’, and their approach is `no-fluff’, with a focus on helping you achieve results.

Margins are replete with notes, such as: “Having a history log saved with your image can inflate the file size. The more you manipulate an image, the more actions get recorded.” Or: “The File Browser is not a fully featured Digital Asset Management (DAM) solution for the serious professional who maintains thousands of photos and images.” Check if what you have can be DAM-ed.

One of the tasks is on creating a knockout effect.

The authors remind: “Every knockout requires three components.”

Not two boxers and a hapless referee, but the following: “A layer that appears to cut through another; a layer that is cut through; and a layer whose content shows through the cut.”

Keep in mind a caution that the authors bite into your ears: “If you don’t group the knockout layers together in a layer set, the knockout effect will punch all the way to the Background no matter what knockout setting you choose.”

Don’t curse darkness, if there is a blackout. “With a couple of clicks you can add spotlights to an image, or an omnidirectional light.” Enough inputs for you to deliver results yesterday.

Books courtesy: Dreamtech Press (

Monday, May 03, 2004


Bandwidth at great length

D. Murali

Okay, we know broadband as high-speed network access, but who or what is a broadbandit? “One who padded his coffers by $50 million or more riding the bandwidth bubble,” says Om Malik in his book.


EVEN before delving into the book, you might be struck by a confession among a list of praises on the back cover ofBroadbandits by Om Malik, published by Wiley ( .

Ethernet Inventor, 3Com Founder, Polaris partner, Bob Metcalfe writes: “Spread of blame for the Internet bubble shows there’s plenty to go around. For my part, I am sorry and promise almost never to do it again.” Managing Editor of Wired magazine, Blaise Zerega says that Malik’s pen is as wicked as Mark Twain’s.

Okay, we know broadband as high-speed network access, but who or what is a broadbandit? “One who padded his coffers by $50 million or more riding the bandwidth bubble,” explains the blurb, before launching into the $750-billion telecom heist, which “all but destroyed an industry and decimated thousands of portfolios”.

The book begins with `the most wanted list’ that includes Gary Winnick, Bernie Ebbers, Jack Grubman and Joe Nacchio as bosses, and Scott Sullivan, Matt Bross and Richard McGinn as the underbosses. Telgi, though he shares at least the first three letters with the industry, is not the culprit under Malik’s scrutiny, so take courage and read on.

The prologue corrects a common misconception — that the biggest bubble in the history of the modern world was the dot-com bubble. No, the author would say, it was the telecom bubble, less visible but more damaging.

“In stark contrast to the dot-com bust and the implosion of Enron, which unravelled with alarming speed, the disaster in the telecommunications industry arrived stealthily. Thus an industry that at one point had “a value of $ 2 trillion” bit the dust.

“It was a case of the right thing at the right time with all the wrong people.” The author goes on to discuss three bubbles — infrastructure, services and equipment — in what went poof.

“The world is crisscrossed with fibre optic that is unlikely to be used for decades… and cables as thick as a full-grown python lie dormant across the oceans.” The future, however, may not be bleak, hopes Malik. We may, after all, find use for all the spare bandwidth, putting life in those snakes.

Running around a disk


A scan of a disk label appears as a `holoproj’ in midair. It is in fact a `two-dimensional code’. “The dots making up the border and the lion made an ugly picture, but they served a hidden purpose as well — they filled a two-dimensional data matrix with information.” That’s a teaser from Steve Perry and Larry Segniff’s new Tom Clancy book, Changing of the Guard.

It tells the story of the head of a multinational corporation who is ready to see the world in ruins to protect his name. Where’s the threat for him? In a computer disk that has fallen into the hands of the Net Force. “Reality bites. Nothing is perfect,” is old wisdom.

Talk about Virtual Reality (VR) programming. To create the other reality, don’t make perfect beaches. “Nibble a bit at a VR viewer and thus make it seem more real.” Thus, when stumbling on waves with no teeth, Jay wonders whether he had “accidentally jacked into someone else’s data stream,” or “grabbed an old data file he’d used for research.”

Magnet can play tricks, as you would see Natadze doing to disable the magnetic alarm sensor: “He used a powerful rare-earth magnet he’d taken from the head of an electric toothbrush, sliding it between the top of the door and the inset switch mounted in the top of the jamb. The magnet would prevent the switch in the sensor from triggering when he opened the door… The PDA he carried was more than it seemed; it had a magnetometer and both an ultrasonic and an infrared sensor. Between the three, he could ID most alarm triggers.”

Does that trigger some curiosity?

India business


Offshoring, outsourcing and the global services revolution. The common thread for all this is not far to seek. So, “What’s this India Business?” asks Paul Davies, a book from Nicholas Brealey Publishing ( . “This is a practical guide to a dynamic country of a billion people with a complex culture and vibrant business environment, offering proven strategies for working positively with Indian businesses,” states the blurb. Preface does not project India as a land of maharajahs and palaces, but as an economic powerhouse. “The World Bank is predicting it will be the fourth largest economy in the world before the year 2050… Already 10 per cent of the very richest Californians are of Indian extraction, and probably living in Silicon Valley.” Here is the invitation: “Someone who goes through life without experiencing India misses a whole range of opportunities, paradoxes, and contradictions. Where else in the world would you see electronic voting machines being transported to far-flung locations on the back of an elephant or the most advanced communications fibre being laid into the ground with only the help of pick and shovel?”

On IT education, again, there are kudos: “More than two million people graduate from higher education in any one year, and more than 250,000 of these will be IT graduates. That sort of figure leaves most people astounded, but the more impressive attribute is the extremely high standard of these individuals. As a group, they have world renown.”

A quote from Arun Shourie sums up the future course: “A series of new disciplines is about to break out in India for which IT will be what arithmetic is to calculation. Biotechnology, nanotechnology, telemedicine, telesurgery, distance learning, products with embedded software, automated production processes, product design – and many more. Each of these will see a leap in the coming years in India, and in each of them IT will be a basic ingredient.” Good read for Indians too.

Monday, May 10, 2004


XP-erience for the clueless

D. Murali

You have no idea how to go about using your computer? Don’t despair, here’s gyaan at hand.

HOW to use your PC to access the Internet, do e-mail, play with pictures, print things, deal with zip files, download music from the Net, e-mail pictures, open mail attachments, burn CDs and DVDs, talk long-distance for free, make movies, and more, without going crazy in the process?


That long sentence was what Alan Simpson had in mind as the alternative title to his book, Windows XP Bible: Desktop Edition. Who are the audience he has in mind? “This book is for people who are clueless about computers and want to stop being that way. It’s a book for people who have Windows XP on their computers, but aren’t sure why, or what they’re supposed to do with it.” Don’t keep `guessing’ whether you would need Alan’s wisdom or not; take a simple test: `Right-drag the selected items to the destination folder, drop, and then choose Copy Here or Move Here, depending on which you want to do, from the shortcut menu.’ Clueless? Then, Alan has inputs for you. For instance, know that the screen staring at you has “Notification Area” to the right of the taskbar. “It has some weird little icons that represent services currently running on your computer,” informs Alan. But why is it called so? Because when Windows or some other program has a suggestion for you, “a little message pops up from that area.” Controls can be disabled, but if you don’t like that word, you can say `dimmed’. If you see somebody `click away madly’ at such controls, you can pardon him or her as a rank novice. “A disabled control is not indicative of something that’s broken or needs fixing. It’s simply a control that’s not relevant at the moment.” Don’t try waking it up by clicking.

Another common worry is about collapsible menus because beginners often complain about mission options. That’s because these menus would show “only frequently used commands” A good habit is to close programs that you’re finished with, because “having too many open program windows is like having too many sheets of paper on your real desk.” An irritant that XP handles is `close group’ to close all instances of a program without having to click and close each, as happens when too many Web pages are to be closed.

Profit from Alan’s XP-erience.

Draw by the dozen


TO help you achieve “impressive graphics and animations for print and the Web,” Steve Bain and Nick Wilkinson have written `the official guide’ for “CorelDRAW 12”.

The book is for `all user levels’ because it is at once a reference manual and a learning guide; “complex concepts and software features have been explained in everyday language.” If you’ve been using the product already you may want to know what’s new in 12: One, the graphics suite is “fully optimised for Windows 2000 and XP”. Means? “It supports Microsoft’s theme-aware user interface and visual styles.”

There are `creature comforts’ such as facility to access recently opened files from the welcome screen, dialogs becoming expandable because they have “grown to monstrosities” and new fixed spot colour palettes. Again, there is a new tool for `smart drawing’; it enables you to sketch shapes freehand-style, but end up with any number of specialised shapes.

Here is some more taste of Corel: `Ruler origin’ is not about where a PM candidate was born, `bleed’ has no violence in it (but is the physical area surrounding your page), `snapping’ is not impulsive behaviour, `hand’ tool may sound too familiar but it enables panning, and you apply the `sprayer’ not to ward off insects. Beziers (pronounced bezz-ee-aye) is the theory that all shapes are composed of lines and nodes joined either by curved or straight lines.

A whole chapter helps you create `depth with shadows’, where you’d know how to lengthen the shadow before the sun fell; and working with 3D is the subject matter of a separate part of the book.

Include the book in your design.

Ready, one, two… Java


ANOTHER beginner book is “Starting out with Java” by Tony Gaddis. Assuming no prior knowledge, Tony answers the first question – not why Java, but why program. Chapter 2 introduces readers to the anatomy of a Java program, though “unlike human anatomy, the parts of a Java program are not always in the same place.” This is a case-sensitive language, so `public’ is not the same as `Public’. Do `primitive data types’ remind you of aborigines?

In languages, however, these are byte, short, int, long, float and double. “Java uses Unicode, which is a set of numbers that are used as codes for representing characters.” Variables keep changing, true to their name. But among key words is `final’, used in variable declaration – “to make the variable a named constant.” Such constants are initialised with a value and it cannot change during program execution.

There are review questions at the end of each chapter. A sampler: What is each repetition of a loop known as? Cycle, revolution, orbit or iteration. The `for’ loop is a posttest loop – true or false? A class that is defined inside of another class is called inner, folded, hidden or unknown class? A two-dimensional array has multiple length fields – T or F? The character that separates tokens in a string is known as separator, tokeniser, delimiter or terminator? The author has provided numerous code snatches, teasing readers to `find the errors’. Java has this, it has that, and almost everything, but `this’ is a key word for a reference variable “that an object can use to refer to itself.” Read this!

Books courtesy: Wiley Dreamtech (


“What do you call a gluttonous bite of sandwich?”

“A kilo-bite?”

Monday, May 17, 2004


Excel in modelling skills

D. Murali

Financial modelling is an essential skill for finance professionals and students. Excel and its built-in programming language, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), are the preferred tools for the job.


COMBINE knowledge of finance with a dash of mathematics, and add a heavy dose of Excel and VBA. What do you get? Modelling skill. That’s the promise of Chandan Sengupta inFinancial Modeling Using Excel and VBA, published by Wiley Finance ( . “Financial modelling is an essential skill for finance professionals and students, and Excel and its built-in programming language, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), are the preferred tools for the job.”

The book, with over 75 “real-world financial models”, presumes no prior knowledge of VBA. “The key is to learn VBA as a language the same way you learned your mother tongue – by imitating how to say things you want to say, without worrying about learning all the rules of grammar or trying to acquire a large vocabulary that you do not need,” cajoles Chandan.

“You will be surprised to find out how little you have to learn to be able to develop models with VBA that are often more useful, powerful, and flexible than Excel models.”

What is a financial model? Here is a simple answer that the author offers: “It is designed to represent in mathematical terms the relationships among the variables of a financial problem so that it can be used to answer `what if’ questions or make projections.”

He explains how till not long ago speed and memory limitations of PCs made modelling tough. “With advances in PCs and improvements in Excel itself, the table has now turned completely.” Most Excel features are designed to be intuitive, says the book. “If you understand what a feature is supposed to do, you may be able to figure out how it works just by trial and error.”

Okay, how does one build good Excel models?

Check if they have the following attributes: realistic, error-free, flexible, easy to use, easily understandable formulas, judicious formatting, appropriate number formatting, minimum hard coding, well-organised and easy to follow, good output production, proper documentation and data validations.

“One great advantage of Excel is that it makes documenting a model convenient. If your model is well-organised, tables have clear titles, footnotes, and column and row labels, important variables have descriptive names, formulas are easy to read and understand, and so on, then it may require very little additional documentation.” Enough inputs for finance people to find solutions for problems that their systems staff have been finding too tough to touch.


On the brink of a mind makeover

TWENTY-FIRST century technology is changing the way we think and feel. Take for instance `e-mail flirting’. It is “growing in popularity,” writes Susan Greenfield in her book Tomorrow’s People, published by Penguin ( .

Reason: “It emphasises fun rather than a serious relationship, and fun is the order of the day.”

A primitive prototype for virtual flirting, that the book mentions, is `Mamjam’, using which one can send messages from bars and clubs to total strangers – “the service connected according to their proximity”.

The author, a neuroscientist, states that we are standing “on the brink of a mind makeover more cataclysmic than anything in our history”.

The coming age of IT, according to her, offers “a raft of possibilities from conscious automata to self-assembling autocrats to carbon-silicon hybrids.” Be warned: “Soon computers will be invisible and ubiquitous – if not actually inside our bodies and brains then sprinkled throughout our clothes, in our spectacles and watches, and converting the most unlikely inanimate objects into `smart’ interactive gadgets.” How is IT going to affect our mood?

A feel-good scenario is that we will be `readily expressed’; workforce would be multifaceted, with no cultural baggage. The worst-case scenario talks of loss of professional identity, fall in self-esteem, an increase in passive role and “even the loss of a sense of self altogether”.

With the globalisation of technology would come advantages too.

“Cost of literacy would drop dramatically – every village could have its own electronic library.” Don’t wait till then to read the book.


ACID to LOB and four drivers

JAVA lets you access databases using Java Database Connectivity (JDBC) API, “a standard supported by all major database vendors, including Oracle.” To know how to write JDBC programs for the Oracle environment, Jason Price provides inputs in Oracle 9i JDBC Programming, published by Tata McGraw-Hill ( . After introducing readers to JDBC, Oracle, SQL, the book advances to `result sets’, PL/SQL, database objects, collections, large objects and so on. Part III is on `deploying Java’, while part IV discusses `performance’.

On roads there are different types of drives; just so in Oracle JDBC also. There is a thin driver that has the smallest footprint, that is, it requires “the least amount of system resources to run”; OCI driver is suitable for “programs deployed on the middle tier such as a Web server”; server-side internal driver provides “direct access to the database”; and server-side thin driver “provides access to remote databases.”

Prior to Oracle8, one had to store large blocks of character data using LONG database type; and for big binary data, it was LONG RAW.

But now databases serving multimedia applications have to accommodate images, sounds, and video. Then Larry Ellison lobbed in LOB (large object) as a new class type. “JDBC supports three LOBs: CLOB, BLOB and BFILE”. For the uninitiated, the chapter on `advanced transaction control’ would confront with ACID – the four fundamental properties that a transaction has to have.

Not debit and credit, as essential transaction accounting aspects, but atomicity, consistency, isolation and durability.

ACID ensures that there are “extensive recovery facilities for restoring databases that may have crashed for one reason or another.”

A separate chapter handles `performance tuning’ – to reduce the amount of time taken for your program to complete.

To perfect your work, you may have to do `row prefetching’ – that is, specifying “the number of rows that are to be fetched into a result set during each round trip to the database.”

But first, go to fetch the book, unless somebody had prefetched it for you.


Overheard outside the BSE:

“What’s EFT?”

“If you add `L’, I may explain better.”

Monday, May 24, 2004


This century belongs to India

D. Murali

We are the second largest consumer market in the world, we have more degree holders than the entire population of France, and over 40 per cent of the 500 largest corporate firms worldwide have their back office processing in India.


STORIES of rags to riches, and Opposition to Treasury, are what dreams are made of. But news and books are equally devoted to how bang ends as whimper, and how what was once shining fusees out the next moment. Nina Munk’s Fools Rush In, from Harper Business ( is about “a fusion of guts and glory” that simply spilled over. “A mega-marriage of earth and cyberspace” as the AOL Time Warner deal was described in the media, managed to decimate hundreds of billions of dollars of shareholder value. The book, as the blurb announces, “is the definitive account of one of the greatest fiascos.” For Nina, the debacle was different from other “unworkable mergers and acquisitions, questionable accounting practices, massive insider stock sales, giant layoffs” and so forth. She views the scandal as “the absorbing egotism of two men: Jerry Levin and Steve Case.” Part two of the book is about the “Internet Cowboys”. For Case, inspiration had come from Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave. For him, “AOL wasn’t an impersonal second wave business, but a brotherhood of passionate, inspired men and women who were discovering their soul mates in cyberspace.” But Case was not a fast decision-maker. In times of crisis, such as when customers were deserting AOL to move on to cheaper ISPs, “Case kept himself cloistered in his office, communicating largely by e-mail and instant messages.” Somebody had to send him an angry mail: “This company needs a CEO! Stop acting like a brand manager. You’re not at P&G anymore.”

In the late 90’s AOL’s market cap was so high that Case’s problem was to decide what to buy. Ultimately, Time Warner was the target. On January 10, 2000, their historic merger was announced. “A company that isn’t old enough to buy beer,” noted The Wall Street Journal, “has essentially swallowed anancien regime media conglomerate that took most of a century to construct.” And this is what Levin of Warner had to say: “I accept the market capitalisations in the Internet space because I think something profound is taking place.” But that an abyss is also as deep as profound can go was something he wouldn’t have guessed then. You would be wiser to rush in… to pick up a copy Fools Rush In.

Brain = 1200 terabytes memory


EVER imagined building a computer powerful enough “to hold a complete neuromodel in its circuitry”? That’s what Project Trinity got to almost halfway. “The human brain is fairly slow in terms of speed, but it’s massively parallel.” Meaning? “It contains over a hundred trillion possible connections, all capable of simultaneous calculation, and that’s just for processing. It also holds the equivalent of twelve hundred terabytes of computer memory.” How much would that be? “Six million years of The Wall Street Journal.” That’s just a snatch from Greg Iles’s The Footprints of God, published by Coronet ( . It’s the story of “the biggest artificial intelligence study the world has ever seen.” If you’re ready for more, here: “IBM is building a computer called Blue Gene that will rival the processing power of the brain, but it’ll still be unable to do things any five-year-old child can.” How big will Blue Gene be? It will fill a fifty-by-fifty foot room and need 300 tonnes of AC just to function. And Trinity? Just the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. In contrast, “human brain weighs three pounds and uses only ten watts of electricity.” The goal of Trinity was not to create AI by reverse-engineering the brain, but “by digitally copying it”. Then, there is something more dangerous to computers than Osama: EMP. “An EMP strike is very simple. A large nuclear device detonated at sufficient altitude creates an electromagnetic pulse — a massive burst of electromagnetic radiation — that can destroy or shut down every modern electrical circuit.” That’s because “computers are especially vulnerable to this energy pulse” and on the positive side, there would be “minimal loss of life.” Now, where are your feet taking you?

Temple with a door to IT


DON’T despair you’re not in London or Paris, New York or Tokyo. Pavan K.Varma is bullish that this century will be India’s and his book Being Indian, published by Penguin ( says it all, “drawing on sources as diverse as ancient Sanskrit treatises and Bollywood lyrics.” The blurb identifies its audience: “A must read for both foreigners who wish to understand Indians, and Indians who wish to understand themselves.” The introduction gives interesting statistics: We are the second largest consumer market in the world, with a buying middle class numbering over half a billion; we have more degree holders than the entire population of France; the Indian diaspora, after China’s, is the second largest in the world; and over 40 per cent of the 500 largest corporate firms worldwide have their back office processing in India. “In Cyprus, maids and servants come from Sri Lanka and the Philippines; software experts come from India,” writes Pavan. “Will most Indians be happy to remain software coolies?” For IT enthusiasts, there is a separate chapter on technology. “Narayana Murthy qualified for the IIT Kharagpur in 1962 but could not join because his father, a government servant earning Rs 500 a month, did not have Rs 150 a month for the hostel,” recounts Pavan. “There may be more PCs in New York than the whole of India, but over 500 portals are being launched in the country every month.” But that could be at the top of dotcom boom, one may think. Among the successes that the book narrates is one about Embalam village in Pondicherry: “The local temple runs an IT outlet for fishermen.” Pavan does not omit mentioning what you may not like to acknowledge: that “the real incentive is the salary of an IT professional which is much higher than the amount spent by him to acquire his skills”; “good students from good institutions are proficient but rarely inquisitive”; and that lack of confidence of most Indians that is rooted in “a deep inferiority complex”. Why does creativity take a quantum leap when the Ganga flows into the Californian desert? Any answers?

(Books courtesy: Landmark


“I joined a slimming course where they gave a multimedia CD with animated video of all tasty dishes of the world. And we were asked to watch it three times a day.”

“Before or after your meal?”

“Instead of.”

Monday, May 31, 2004


Business lies between the lines; Bridging digital divides; Breathe life into great ideas; Make hard work pay

Books2Byte – April 2004

 Business lies between the lines

D. Murali

What makes one tick in the business of software? You might be tempted to say technology, but read on to see if you’re right.


WHAT determines success or failure in the $600-billion software industry? “Technology,” you might answer. But no, “It is the business,” says Michael A. Cusumano in The Business of Software published by Free Press ( . The preface makes the aim of the book clear: “To provide an overview of the software business for managers who are already in the business, programmers who would like to be managers, and anyone who would like to be a software entrepreneur.”

If it is just a matter of business, why a separate book, one might ask. “But software is not like other businesses.” Chapter 1 goes on to explain the differences, starting from the very first, that the goods in this business are `soft’ and `digital’.

At the `heart of the book’ there are seven questions that Cusumano poses. Also, there are three options to choose from: “Become a products company at one end of the strategic spectrum, a services company at the other end, or a hybrid solutions company in between.” What about open source? The author concedes that it is not yet clear what implications the open source movement will have for the software business.

`Best practices in software development’ are discussed elaborately in the book. Cusumano is not surprised that Indian software companies are on top of best practices and doing well in process of software development. “For a decade or more, organisations in India have been studying Japanese factory approaches and aggressively adopting SEI concepts and some synch-and-stabilise techniques. The India story could be the subject of an entire book.”

A chapter is on tips for software entrepreneurs. “Convincing any one venture capital firm to fund a particular idea appears to be an extraordinarily difficult task — far more difficult than creating a successful company, which is difficult enough.” Among the tough problems for start-ups is the `credibility gap’ — “the fear among customers that the start-up, like 90 per cent of all start-ups, will fail”.

To wrap up, the author paints “the next chasm to cross” with thoughts such as these: Good times for technology-based companies must return. Software applications today seem to have relatively few hardware limits. With five billion or so people in the world who do not own a computer, we are still in the early stages of the business of software.

A book that will show how business lies between lines of code.

Linux in baby steps


WHEN two singers meet they don’t talk but sing, it is said. When Sufi masters cross each other’s path, they laugh. So, it is not reasonable to expect `programmer-to-programmer’ interaction to be anything beyond a babble of codes and logic. But the new Wrox book by Neil Matthew and Richard Stones, titled Beginning Linux Programming, 2004 edition, published by Wiley Dreamtech ( covers the basics of Linux. The intro is enticing: “Welcome to… an easy-to-use guide to developing programs for the Linux and other Unix-style operating systems.”

Novices may ask, “What is Linux?” It is a freely distributed implementation of an Unix-like kernel, the low level core of an OS, explains chapter 1. With an increasing resistance to Gates-type proprietary systems, the world may slowly be shifting gears to embark on a four-wheel drive in the free software terrain. Would that be a blessing or a curse, you might wonder. But `curses’ is a library that gets its name from its “ability to optimise the movement of the cursor and minimise the updates needed on a screen”. And there are two levels of curses, base and extended. For the interested, there is a whole lot of documentation on curses in an appropriately-named directory under /usr/share/doc/.

The way Linux manages memory is one of the carefully-controlled illusions that applications work under. “Linux provides applications with a clean view of a huge directly-addressable memory space.” Except for a few specialised embedded applications, the rest are “never permitted to access physical memory directly.” In technical lingo, “Linux implements a demand paged virtual memory system.”

A chapter at the end is devoted to `standards for Linux’. The authors note that the standards have moved forward and Linux itself has been enhanced at an impressive speed by the community.

Linux Standard Base (LSB) covers areas such as object formats for binary compatibility, dynamic linking standards, execution environment, system initialisation and so on.

A good alternative to a full-scale course.

Run a HOMERUN check


ORGANISATIONS working for social change face lots of challenges many of which involve attitudinal transformation. However, to make their jobs easier, activists and NGOs need to convey their ideas effectively. But public communication is an oft-ignored area because the myth is that it is more important to get on with the work. No, there is use in Getting Started in Communication say Michael Norton and Purba Dutt. Their book is part of a series from Sage Publications ( that aims to provide basic practical skills to those running and managing non-profit institutions. Among the avenues explored by the authors are Web sites, Internet mailing lists and newsgroups.

“Some NGOs have brilliant websites; others have terrible sites,” observe the authors. These organisations must remember that the audience for the sites would include members, funders and supporters who may want to find out more about the organisation they are supporting; enquirers to whom the NGO can send information about work; researchers trying to find out more about the issue at stake; and casual browsers who may even turn into future funders.

“It isn’t enough to create a popular site, you also need to create a site that users like,” states the book and that may look like home truth. But a great site ought to meet HOMERUN requirements: “High-quality content, Often updated, Minimal download time, Ease of use, Relevance to users’ needs, Unique, and Net-centric design.” It is important to `offer the user value’ rather than `assuming they are captive’. A common misconception is to want to put as much information as possible because it does not add to cost. “But more is not always better.” So, think of synopsis or executive summary.” Also, “invite people to send in e-mail for full report.”

Among the mailing lists that the book mentions are: GoaNet set up in 1994 by an 18-year old and drawing support from expatriate Goan communities around the world; and India Network Foundation that started as the first Internet resource for India-related news and events in 1988.

“Bangalore-based offers `appropriate and affordable’ IT skills, products and services,” mentions the book. “One of its applications helps non-IT persons to update their websites with news/updates regularly through a simple interface.”

To further their goals, NGOs would have to exploit IT to the maximum, mainly because of the medium’s cost-effectiveness for the reach it can achieve.

Wednesday, Apr 07, 2004


Bridging digital divides

D. Murali

Did you know there are four digital divides to be taken care of? And how do you bridge them? By committing to that goal “the same intelligence and imagination that have gone into creating the technologies themselves.”


VIP convoys criss-cross the country on highways but not everybody is able to see their favourite leaders. Likewise information technology has been proclaimed as the icon of the current age, but it doesn’t touch everybody’s lives. “Despite all utopian drams, the Information Age has so far touched only a tiny majority of the world’s population,” write Kenneth Keniston and Deepak Kumar in IT Experience in India, published by Sage ( . “If we define household access to the World Wide Web as a criterion for joining the Information Age, less than 5 per cent of the world’s population of 6 billion had gained access by the year 2002.”

Therefore, we need to bridge the divide. But there are “four digital divides”, not just one: “The first is internal – between the digitally-empowered rich and the poor. The second is a linguistic-cultural gap between English and other languages and between `Anglo-Saxon culture’ and other world cultures. The next gap is underscored by disparities in access to information technology and between rich and poor nations. Finally, there is the phenomenon of the `digerati’. This is an affluent elite possessing the appropriate skills and means to take advantage of the ICTs.”

There are daunting statistics: That only 1 per cent of the country’s population have home access to computers; of that, only a half has Net facility; more than 40 per cent of the one billion are illiterate; one in two newborns is below ideal birth weight; and only around 3 per cent can afford a telephone. Priorities could be different: With 60 million Indian children not in school, “for the cost of a computer, you can have a school.”

Yet there are bold initiatives. An example: Veerampattinam, a coastal village with 98 per cent of the families involved in fishing, receives information on wave heights in the next 24 hours, downloaded from a US Navy Web site. “The information requirements in that village are focussed on the safety of fishermen while at sea, on fish/shoal occurrence near shore, and on techniques for post-harvest processing.”

Reverting to the divides, how do we bridge them? By committing to that goal “the same intelligence and imagination that have gone into creating the technologies themselves.” A simple reminder that nothing is impossible, nor any chasm that is uncrossable.

Management beans, nuts and bolts


WHAT you specify is what you wanted yesterday. That’s the pace that we’re faced with. “Increasing demand for faster development cycles combined with the desire for more functionality has left less time for building adequate application configuration and management into Java applications,” write Ben G. Sullins and Mark B. Whipple in JMX in Action, published by Dreamtech Press ( . There are the `property files’ to help programmers in specifying a set of parameters. “With more and more configurable attributes, you will quickly find yourself stuck in a mire of property files,” warn the authors. Here’s where Java Management Extensions (JMX) is relevant. “Using JMX, you can expose your application components, attributes, and configuration to management tools in a process called instrumentation.” Chapter 1 guides readers through basics: That today’s management solutions can be divided into two categories, viz. network and application; management information base (MIB) is a hierarchical representation of information about devices; and so on.

If you were a bean counter, you’d come across a special type of bean, the MBean. It is the managed bean, “a Java class that meets certain naming and inheritance standards dictated by the JMX specification”. There are the standard ones and the dynamic MBeans. A chapter in the book explains how you can manage Jini service with a dynamic MBean, and also work on a super class “to provide some code reuse for generating the metadata descriptions of future resources.”

In a chapter titled `MBeans on-the-fly’, there’s the Model MBean that has as its valuable feature the ability to persist itself.

It can “survive the cycling of the JMX agent that contains it. Using JMX relation service, you can create and remove relations, not relatives.”

Relations are objects that contain information describing the relationship between two MBeans.”

Combining Java Message Service (JMS) with JMX is discussed in a chapter on building a home theatre system.

JMS supports two models of messaging, notes the book. “Point-to-point and publish-subscribe.”

A book that can teach you a lot about management – beans, that is, if not nuts and bolts.

Hone your language


SUMMER vacation is on and you want to try out a new language. How about C++ Power Packed, by Kabir Khanna? The book, published by Tata McGraw-Hill ( , is aimed at software professionals programming in C++, not rank novices. Try this: “A popular interview question for aspiring C++ programmers has often been, `What is the return value of a constructor?’ Promptly most people answer it correctly by saying, `none’. This is then usually followed by the question, `How does a constructor then indicate failure in creation of the object?’ That’s a relatively tricky one.”

To explain, Khanna gives a code fragment that defines class Mortal, and within curly brackets sits the line, “Mortal Earthling;” Thereafter, come philosophical questions: “When does the life of an Earthling begin? When does it end? What is the status of the Earthling before it comes alive and after it dies?”

The book is an engaging dialogue for the astute coder who will be able to read between the lines and make sense. For the rest, however, meaning may lie only in those simple lines such as: “The stack is probably the busiest memory area in any program. Misuse of templates can usually cause very hard-to-read error messages on most compilers. Never mix exception logic with normal flow logic. An exception can be thrown and never caught.” There is a C++ test at the end of the book with questions on `things you ought to know’ and those `testing deeper waters’. An appendix is devoted to the new kid on the block, C#.

Khanna is not for the weak-hearted who think that Greek or Latin could be a better choice for the holidays.

Wednesday, Apr 14, 2004


Breathe life into great ideas

D. Murali

Many breakthrough ideas just don’t reach the marketplace, and of those that reach, many fail too quickly. The solution could lie in a `six-stage process.’ Read on…


CONGRATS! You’ve got a new technology!

“Sorry! You still have a long way to go,” says Roger E. Levien in Taking Technology to Market, published by Viva Management Library ( . While the stock of technology is expanding at a good rate, “the capacity to translate technological potential into products and services that can both satisfy customers and reward investors is not expanding correspondingly.” Many breakthrough ideas just don’t reach the marketplace, and of those that reach, many fail too quickly. Levien observes that the main reason for such dismal performance is “the failure to recognise that creating a successful business to market is as challenging and demanding of creative effort as the invention of the technology itself.” The panacea could lie in a `six-stage process’ that the author discusses: “Validate technology, create business proposition, create business model, develop business plan, start business, and enter market.”

To validate, for example, an electronic technology, it may be necessary to show that it operates “in a computer simulation, a broadband mock-up, a prototype, or a full-scale working model.” A temptation to resist at this stage is `to move forward as quickly as possible’ because of getting optimistic as a result of readiness experiments. Protectability is to be ensured: “At a minimum, the principal features of the technology idea should be patented and copyrighted… Apply for patents in those countries where a reasonable chance exists that a large enough market will develop.” The oft-ignored aspect, `the business plan,’ includes inputs on some harsh realities: “Investors will want to see five years of income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements… Are the ratios `reasonable’ compared to similar companies? How good is the return on sales?” A big shot at the future, and that would need an accountant who can read the tea leaves.

Launch is a big occasion. However, there could be negative reactions, so your preparation would have to include `counter arguments’ and plans for `future upgrades to overcome identified shortcomings.’ Thus, `marketing’ is not a bad word after all, and in importance may well equal `technology’.

Media unfolding


Sunil Saxena worked as a print journalist for about 15 years before moving to new media. “As Vice-President (Content & Services) of the New Indian Express Group’s Internet company he is responsible for generating and sustaining Internet-based revenue streams,” states the back cover of his book, Breaking News published by Tata McGraw-Hill ( .

But `online journalism’ is `still evolving’ as Saxena would state in his preface. “The most that one can do is to share the excitement, the heartburn and the pitfalls of working online.” So, that must be good fun for readers, as with newspapers.

Section 1 is on `the tools’ of the trade, the craft; it includes basics of reporting, editing and headline writing, plus inputs on site design, Net style and so on. After about 100 pages of the essentials, Saxena discusses `the issues’ in the next section. Just the things one would like to brush under the carpet – Net privacy, defamation, accuracy of opinion poll, intellectual property rights, and the merciless `economics of Web publishing’. In section 3, the author ventures `into the danger zone’ – the future – where revenue streams grow beyond syndication and subscription, to encompass `paid microsites, e-books and mobile content’. Job profiles are changing; for example, `knowledge manager’ would be researching stories and suggesting hyperlinks `to related stories and backgrounders’ even as you push an old pencil stooping over a dot-matrix printout.

Gradually, old revenue triggers are turning ineffective: exam results are published by the boards on their own sites, and film listings have been hijacked by mobile phone operators. Tender notices too are more visible in cyberspace though they are yet to vanish from newspapers because of “an archaic government rule that makes it mandatory for every government department to publish a tender notice in at least two newspapers”. An instructive and entertaining read, not only for journalists but also for readers.

Path of forms


BILL Gates knows what all you need. Which is why his suite offers the facility to design and customise electronic forms that can talk to different applications. To know more, you’d have to read How to do Everything with Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003: A Beginner’s Guide by David McAmis, published by Dreamtech Press ( . “Millions of dollars are spent each year scanning and storing documents, when it is only the data contained in the document that is important,” notes the author in the intro. “That is where InfoPath really shines.” Good, so what is InfoPath? It is “a desktop application that is installed locally and can be used to design or fill out electronic forms.” And it is `the newest member’ of the Office suite. A developer can use this to create forms that are `tied into back-end systems or processes’.

When users fill in the form, the info flows in through one of three methods: XML file, database and Web service. Using the software, you can `consolidate XML files’ and `create summary documents’, which I’m worried would axe the jobs of a few number-crunchers. These forms are no dumb bunch of boxes; you can add `validation’. For example, in an expense report, the form can talk back to the user by showing an error message or highlighting the field if an amount more than what is permissible is entered. Auditors may have to rewrite their vouching checklists, please note.

Well, you don’t trust forms, but you can create a `Trusted Form’ using the RegForm utility, which is as easy as giving a simple command at the dos prompt.

This process creates an installation script (written in JScript). You can export your form, not to Timbuktu, but on to the Web, using, not HTML format, but MHT.

That is, an abbreviation for MHTML, which is MIME Encapsulation of Aggregate HTML Documents, “an Internet standard that was originally defined as a method of sending complete web pages in the body of an e-mail message.”

Now, how do you convert a large number of forms to HTML? Use `downlevel’ – a tool to access which “you need to pass a number of command-line switches, including the name of the form template, as well as a destination for the transformed files”.

If that’s something you want your developer to do, you can get busy with filling the forms on the screen. This may well become the path most travelled.

Wednesday, Apr 21, 2004


Make hard work pay

D. Murali

Whether your business is click and order or brick and mortar, focus down layer by layer, using the `onion skin’ approach. Above all, apply the power of strategic thinking.


BUILD fences around people, and you’ll get sheep.” That’s a poster-able thought, especially for the archaic `establishment’ departments that are masquerading as `human relations’. Also, it’s a belief statement of William McKnight who moulded 3M to `embrace creativity’. To this Paul M. Elkin adds a `hard’ fact: “Build walls around an organisation, and you’ll get a coffin.” Elkin’s book titled Mastering Business Planning and Strategy, published by Viva Books P Ltd ( is about `the power and application of strategic thinking’.

The first thing to hit you is the malaise that most managers suffer from: “Completely occupied by `fire-fighting’, dealing with the crises and problems that are occurring today, rather than considering what is necessary to ensure the survival and eventual success of the business.” What’s the use succeeding in tactics but failing in strategy? So, whether your business is click and order, or brick and mortar, focus down layer by layer, using the `onion skin’ approach to handle the environment, industry and corporate peels. After you have done the SBU (strategic business unit) analysis, move on to profile the competitors by drawing a matrix and developing a map of CSFs (critical success factors). Well, even as you’re busy tweaking your software, your finance man is routinely churning out budgets and plans by making `small adjustments to the level of costs incurred’ to improve `financial efficiency’. No, that won’t do, so go for `cost profiling’ – an analytical technique `to identify potential opportunities for more radical changes to the business cost base’ and improve `financial effectiveness’.

In the chapter on performance measurement, the author discusses SKPIs (strategic key performance indicators), followed by the financial, operational and city KPIs. You know EVA, which Drucker called `the measure of total factor productivity’, and its cousin MVA. Another EVA is employee value added – a measure one finds in many IT company annual reports. This ratio has total added value generated by business in the numerator and total cost of employees in the denominator. A book that argues for adding the strategy software to make your hard work pay better.

Eclipse to the extreme


DAVID Gallardo had but one purpose when starting Eclipse in Action. He wanted `to introduce Java developers to Eclipse’. In due time, Ed Burnette and Robert McGovern joined him and what you have is a guide on the topic, published by Dreamtech Press ( , that goes beyond Eclipse to the plug-in terrain, and has stuff on SWT and JFace too. “The mother of invention is not necessity, it is irritation,” is a quote of Henry Petroski that Bob Foster cites in his foreword, to emphasise the role of tool-building. One feature of Eclipse that strikes Bob as `extraordinary’ is `the excellent technical support provided in the Eclipse newsgroups by the actual people who wrote the code’: “In no other open source project are developers so committed to answering any and all questions thrown at them. In many cases, questions are answered with source code written and tested for the occasion. For a programmer, it doesn’t get much better than that.” Though Eclipse is free, you can make money by extending it. Eclipse’s licence allows one to charge for his/her `Eclipse-based extensions’.

Chapter 1 introduces readers to what makes a software developer comparable to a blacksmith. “Many blacksmiths take pride in making their own tools… Using forge, anvil, and hammer, the blacksmith repeats the cycle of heating, hammering, and cooling the steel until it becomes a tool of exactly the right shape, size, and strength for the job at hand.” So? “What code has in common with metal is malleability.” Thus, Eclipse is the software developer’s equivalent to the blacksmith’s workshop. Written in Java, Eclipse is language-neutral, and also human language neutral. However, it is not strictly platform-neutral. “This is due to the decision to build Eclipse using the OS’s native graphics. Eclipse is therefore only available for those platforms to which SWT (standard widget toolkit) has been ported.” The fundamental component is the Eclipse Workbench. It has one simple job: “To allow you to work with projects. It doesn’t know anything about editing, running, or debugging Java programs; it only knows how to navigate projects and resources.”

As a software development tool, Eclipse is well suited for certain styles of programming. “Currently, the most fashionable style is XP,” write the authors. That’s not the Windows from Microsoft, but eXtreme Programming. “One of the most unique and controversial approaches advocated by XP’s proponents is pair programming: At all times, two developers sit at a single terminal while writing code.” Something auditors always insist as an internal control measure, but “more developers are probably talking about XP than doing it.” Smooth reading.

Cracking secrets


A WHOLE book of secrets is what S.C. Coutinho gives in The Mathematics of Ciphers, published by Universities Press ( . “A leisurely journey, with many stops to appreciate the scenery and contemplate sites of historical interest”, the author promises to reach the final destination – RSA system of cryptography. Since the work has grown out of lectures to first-year students of computer science, there is no presumption of mathematics knowledge. “Cryptography is the art of disguising a message so that only its legitimate recipient can understand it.” That should explain why we don’t understand many election speeches. Perhaps the `twin sister’ of cryptography could help, cryptoanalysis: `the art of breaking a cipher’. The most widely used public key cryptosystems is RSA, invented in 1978 by Rivest, Shamir and Adleman. Put simply, “every user has a personal pair of primes that must be kept secret” though the product of these primes is made public. What’s the big deal, you might ask; factor the product and you would get the two prime numbers, won’t you? “However, if the primes have more than 100 digits each, the time and resources required to factor `n’ are such that the system becomes very hard to break.” This is the trapdoor of RSA – computing product is easy, not factoring. For this, the `exact computation’ of computer comes handy. Greeks distinguished between logistics (the science that deals with numbered things, not numbers) and arithmetic (nature of numbers with the mind only).

The book is full of stories that would make you like math and computing too. For instance, geometry originated in Egypt where the pharaoh distributed land to people in rectangular plots on which he levied an annual tax. “If the Nile swept away part of the plot, the surveyors had to be called in to calculate how much land had been lost.” Because the owner would be eligible for a reduced tax, proportional to the land lost.

To find primes from the ocean of numbers, you can use the `sieve of Erathostenes’, named after a Greek mathematician born around 284 BC. He was nicknamed `Beta’ because his contemporaries believed that he hadn’t reached a truly eminent position. When you apply the sieve to a list of positive integers, composite numbers pass through but primes get retained. Good read for the vacation to sharpen your numbers.

Monday, Apr 26, 2004


Crossover Basketball – India‏

Good work!


From mail:

Date: Mon, 6 Jan 2014 16:43:04 -0500
Subject: Crossover Basketball – India

Dear Mr. Murali – 

Thank you for connecting with us via Twitter. We would love to share with you about the work of Crossover Basketball as well as invite you to witness our program this July in Chennai. 

Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy ( – is the first non-profit international program in India to leverage athletic values and skill as a means to develop academic opportunities for Indian students.The main objective of Crossover Basketball is to use basketball as a vehicle of change in communities in India by combining the ideas of of a sport and imparting the values of leadership, character, communication, and teamwork with the goal of inspiring and preparing those students to continue in their educational pursuits through the university level.

Crossover Basketball is dedicated to the idea that India is unlike any other country where basketball has been expanded, due in large part to the potential for academic as well as athletic success for children. The key to integrating sport within the community will be its emphasis on the provision for educational prospects. Crossover participants will not only be educated in a non-biased way as to opportunities that currently exist and how to achieve those goals, but will also be supported in their endeavors inside and outside of India once they graduate the program. We are not just preparing athletes and helping to increase education rates, we are helping prepare future leaders for Indian communities.

If you have a few minutes to spare in one of your own one day contracts – please take a look at the introductory video about Crossover ( and the success we had in piloting the academy with 45 students in Chennai during the summer of 2012. This past summer (July 2013) – we worked with nearly 250 students, with nearly 2/3 of them being girls, and partnered with American International School of Chennai to run a phenomenal two-week life-changing program. As we look at ways to do more (the long-term goal is to open a tuition-free boarding school – we plan to host a free one day Sport in Education conference in Chennai for any school leaders, coaches, and educators in India to attend.  



Shaun Jayachandran


Shaun Jayachandran
Founder and President
Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy
PO Box 470686
Boston, MA 02447
tw: @CrossoverBBall

Seven million dollars to win; Some help with your project; Check if `struts’ are in place; Making hacking challenging; No Eclipse of Sun’s product

Books2Byte – March 2004


Seven million dollars to win

D. Murali

There are at least seven ways of making megabucks, if you have a computer and want money. Get cracking on the seven greatest unsolved mathematical puzzles of our time.


HAVE a computer? Want money? And you yell, “Yes, yes!” Okay, here are at least seven ways of making mega bucks. Keith Devlin gives the clues in The Millennium Problems – a book from Granta Books ( that discusses “the seven greatest unsolved mathematical puzzles of our time”.

The back-cover teases: “Still unclimbed, they are probably more difficult to conquer than any real mountains on this earth.” Devlin, the Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University, makes the discussion so easy that it may seem that the $1-million prize offered by the Clay Foundation in 2000 for each of the seven problems is within easy reach.

The problems range from topology to cryptography, computing to aircraft design, from number theory to particle physics. “The P versus NP problem” is about computers. “Is not all math done on computers?” one may wonder, but the author clarifies: “Not actually.

True, most numerical calculations are done on computers, but numerical calculation is only a very small part of mathematics, and not a typical part at that.”

Here are some more surprises: “Although the electronic computer came out of mathematics – the final pieces of the math were worked out in the 1930s, a few years before the first computers were built – the world of computing has hitherto generated only two mathematical problems that would merit inclusion among the world’s most important.”

And, both problems were about computing as a conceptual process rather than any specific computing devices.

One of the two problems asked for proof that certain equations cannot be solved by a computer. Hilbert had included this as number 10 on his 1900 list of tough problems. But this was solved in 1970, and so, that leaves only one. “This is a question about how efficiently computers can solve problems.

Computer scientists divide computational tasks into two main categories: Tasks of type P can be tackled effectively on a computer; tasks of type E could take millions of years to complete. Unfortunately, most of the big computational tasks that arise in industry and commerce fall into a third category, NP, which seems to be intermediate between P and E.” So, what are P, E and NP? Ah, I’m not going to spoil the suspense.

Corporate train wreck


SUCCESS plus success is not necessarily double triumph. Two titans coming together may not end in a happy story always. AOL and Time Warner’s marriage was billed as the ultimate that could happen between the new and the old media, but it turned out to be a major debacle.

For those who wonder what happened after “a company without assets acquired a company without a clue,” Kara Swisher has the clues in There Must be a Pony in Here Somewhere. The book, published by Crown Business (www. Crown Business. com), is about `the messiest merger in history’ with `rollicking narrative’ from the technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal. It begins with her note thus: “Of the myriad problems plaguing the AOL Time Warner merger, perhaps one of the biggest problems was the lack of disclosure among the many players about the motives, business prospects, and simple emotions.”

The tale, in short, was about “a wheezing and increasingly desperate traditional media company, scared of inevitable death (or, worse still, irrelevance) in the hot swirl of digital revolution” marrying “the young, sexy, and possibly sleazy starlet of the new media society.” But disaster ensued in “belly flop proportions by any measure you might care to use”, leading to “one of the greatest train wrecks in corporate history.”

The carnage had many dimensions: “The stock’s 75 per cent drop within two years of the deal’s completion, the vicious purge of the top executives responsible for the merger, the investigations into dicey accounting practices,” to name a few.

Swisher writes: “It felt a bit like I was watching someone fall down a flight of stairs in slow motion, and every bump and thump made me wince.” And in the epilogue she adds: “I’m not sure there is enough perspective in the world to assuage those who had suffered under the disastrous marriage.”

The author, however, is bullish that the Net “will be an even bigger deal in the future than it was when it first burst onto the scene.”

Logic? “The history of technological evolution is proof of that: Innovations first cause a frenzy, and then flame out and are sometimes widely discounted before they ultimately reveal their true power.”

Clean memory


HI-TECH corporations hire a brilliant computer engineer for specialised top-secret projects. His name is Michael Jennings. “Once a job is complete, his short-term memory is routinely erased so as not to divulge any sensitive company information to future clients.” This is from the blurb of Paycheck, a sci-fi work by Philip K.Dick – “now a major motion picture starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman”.

There are artificial brains, robot claws, time ship, parallel time, non-time and so on. The chapter titled `Autofac’ has a discussion on a driverless truck that keeps communicating.

“There has to be some way to get to it,” says a human. “Specific semantic signals are meaningful to it; all we have to do is find those signals. Rediscover, actually. Maybe half a dozen out of a billion possibilities.”

Then the humans play a trick with the truck by messing up with the cargo it brings, but fail. “We humans lose every time,” says one, dejected.

“The truck regarded them calmly, its receptors blank and impassive. It was doing its job. The planetwide network of automatic factories was smoothly performing the task imposed on it five years before, in the days of the Total Global Conflict.”

Well, at last, the humans succeed in getting the truck to depart from its routine, and switch to situation handling.

It pops a message that reads, “State the nature of defect.” The instruction sheets listed rows of possible defects with neat boxes by each. They don’t use any of the given boxes, but use the open space given for further data to write: “The product is thoroughly pizzled.” What’s that?

“It’s a semantic garble – the factory won’t be able to understand it. Maybe we can jam the works.”

A factory representative appeared on the scene and began: “This is a data-collecting machine capable of communicating.”

And it asks for the meaning of `pizzled’ because “it does not exist in the taped vocabulary.”

The human plays a dangerous game: “Pizzled means the condition of a product that is manufactured when no need exists. It indicates the rejection of objects on the grounds that they are no longer wanted.”

Books courtesy: Landmark (

Wednesday, Mar 03, 2004


Some help with your project

D. Murali

There are simple tasks to life, and then there are projects. If you want help with project management, here’s the way.


THERE are simple tasks, and there are projects. Making arrangements for a wedding is a project, and ditto for divorce. Likewise, getting admission in pre-KG, building a house, launching a satellite are all projects. “If you are responsible for project management, you need Project 2003 and the complete information in this comprehensive guide,” states the back cover of Microsoft Office Project 2003 Bible by Elaine Marmel. The book helps one to set up a project, assign tasks, resources, and costs; use Gantt charts and tables at each phase of project development; track project progress with baselines; record actual durations and costs; analyse cost information with PivotTables; and so forth. If you are among those who manage projects “with stacks of outdated to-do lists and colourful hand-drawn wall charts”, and “scribble notes on calendars in pencil”, remember that dates and tasks will change over time. “To manage a project, you need a set of procedures,” states the author. “Project management software automates many of these procedures.”

You have heard of print server, mail server and so forth. What is Project Server? It enables one to manage projects on the intranet or the Internet. “Only the manager must install and use Microsoft Project. Everyone else on the project uses Project Web Access, the Web-based product that connects to the Project Server database.”

Project 2003 is the last version of Project that will allow users to collaborate using e-mail, please note. Thereafter, it is onward march to Web-based ambience. Okay, what to do if the problem is complex? The tip is to create sub-projects and then use the consolidation feature of the software that allows you to insert one project into another. That is why sub-projects are also called inserted projects.

At nearly a thousand pages, reading the book could be your next project.

Web programming


JAY Greenspan and his team have written the second edition ofMySQL/PHP Database Applications. If you’re wondering whether this is at all relevant, the intro has the answer: “No matter what your background, whether you have a history with Visual Basic or COBOL, or maybe just some HTML and JavaScript, your resume is only going to improve with some Web application development experience.” In the authors’ opinion, there is no better combination of tools to have under your belt than PHP and MySQL. For the curious, “HP stands for PHP: Hypertext Pre-processor,” explains “The funny abbreviation follows the style set by Richard Stallmann when he founded GNU (GNU’s not Unix!) As the name says, it’s a pre-processor for hypertext, which is just another word for what most people call Web pages.” Also, “since it is a pre-processor, it runs on the remote web server and processes the Web pages before they arrive to the browser. This makes it a so-called server-side scripting language.”

PHP and MySQL are open source, so the source code for the heart of the applications is available to anyone who wants to see it. “PHP belongs to a class of languages known as middleware. These languages work closely with the Web server to interpret the requests from the Web.” And middleware is where you’ll be doing the bulk of your work, point out the authors. Why PHP? “When it comes to Web programming, all languages do pretty much the same things. They all interact with relational databases, they all work with file systems, and they all interact with Web servers. The question of which language is best is rarely a matter of a language’s ability or inability to perform certain actions. It’s usually a matter of how quickly and easily you can do what you need to do.”

This is a book for the serious learner. You can check if you’re one by reading this: “BerkeleyDB tables come from Sleepycat software. This table type provides transaction support but offers only page-level locking. While these tables are reasonably good, there’s very little reason to use Berkeley tables when InnoDB tables are available… InnoDB tables provide full ACID transaction support and row-level locking.” And if you’ve strayed into the book and finding yourself to be no different from Alice in Wonderland, remember that “the easiest way to get yourself into trouble when coming at an application is not to know exactly what you are trying to achieve.” Don’t forget the aim: to improve the CV.

D-I-Y software


COMMERCIAL applications cost a lot of money. Not always. Satya Sai Kolachina’s “Linux Application Development for the Enterprise” provides a bunch of enterprise Java applications that are commercial-grade. The applications range from desktop to database, TCP to UDP-socket based, Java to CORBA, JSP to J2EE, and so forth. More than half the book is devoted to Java-based work, but it also “serves as a ready reference for most common Linux/UNIX tools” such as vi, grep, awk, sed and so forth.

To make work easier, there are features such as VisualCLX – a component set that is “a wealth of productivity tools and lets the developer tap into the Windows-like development features on the Linux platform.” Examples of components are basic widgets such as edit box, label, list box, combo box, list view, tree view, and such. What is a Data Module? Looks simple enough a question to elicit a guess answer. The author defines: “It is a non-visual component that serves as a container to host other non-visual components.” MDI is not a management development institute, but multiple document interface. “An MDI application contains a main window frame that acts as a container for one or more child windows.” Getting lost? Okay, `sockets’ must be what we see at electrical points. No, “sockets provide the basic communication layer required for two applications running in different address spaces to communicate with each other, thus forming the foundation necessary for distributed application development.”

What about `Remote Method Invocation’?

You may almost want to do that, to pray for Linux development that is as easy as just pressing a button, but “RMI forms the basis of the robust architecture behind the Enterprise JavaBeans.” Kolachina achieves one goal in this handy book: To make you feel confident about launching into commercial space.

Books courtesy: Wiley Dreamtech (

Wednesday, Mar 10, 2004


Check if `struts’ are in place

D. Murali

When raising physical structures, construction engineers use struts to provide support for each floor of a building. Likewise, software engineers use struts to support each layer of a business application.


SOMEBODY wanted to name the invisible underpinnings of Web applications. The analogy that struck him or her was supports for houses, buildings, and so the name got stuck: Struts. “When raising physical structures, construction engineers use struts to provide support for each floor of a building. Likewise, software engineers use Struts to support each layer of a business application.” This friendly explanation is found in the intro to Struts in Action by Ted Husted and his team. A publication of Dreamtech Press ( , the book has inputs for beginners to professionals, and covers all aspects of Struts framework, demonstrating key Struts features with Artimus (Greek goddess of hunt) and illustrating through case studies. How much does it cost? It’s free, Struts, I mean, because it’s open source that you can look up “Struts relies on standard technologies – such as JavaBeans, Java servlets, and JavaServer Pages (JSP) – that most developers already know how to use.”

Now, what is a framework? It is a reusable, semi-complete application that can be specialised to produce custom applications, explain the authors, citing Johnson. One good reason why developers use frameworks like Struts is “to hide the nasty details behind acronyms like HTTP, CGI, and JSP.” So, the book assures, you don’t need to be an alphabet soup guru, but a working knowledge of these base technologies can help you devise creative solutions to tricky problems.

All of a sudden, the intro whirs to show “Struts from 30,000 feet” to give the big picture. That it uses a Model 2 architecture, ActionServlet controls the navigational flow, Struts Action does not render the response itself but forwards the request on to another resource, and so on. And you wonder when rubber would meet the road. So, the authors launch the first Struts application straightaway: “A simple user registration application.” The recipe requires: An ActionForm, an Action, struts-config.xml file and three pages. “That’s it!” And the Greek goddess Artimus is a Web-based news poster that can also publish its articles as RSS (not the Sangh, but Rich Site Summary). Good fun.

Lingo of models


UNIFIED Modelling Language is not the irritating commentary or blaring music that plays when catwalks are on, but is “an evolutionary general-purpose, tool-supported, and industry-standardised modelling language for specifying, visualising, constructing, and documenting the artefacts of a system-intensive process.” That is a mouthful of definition you would find on the back cover of Guide to Applying the UML by Sinan Si Alhir, a Springer book from Eswar Press ( . Chapter 1 explains that UML’s scope “encompasses fusing the concepts of three of the most prominent methodologies – Grady Booch’s ’93 method, James Rumbaugh’s Object Modelling Technique (OMT), and Ivar Jacobson’s Object-Oriented Software Engineering (OOSE) method.”

That must be a complicated blend of all coding stuff, you fear, but UML isn’t frightening, because it is a modelling language. So, a UML Sentence would have no indented lines but a stick man (the actor), and boxes for container, node and component, plus arrows. Something that resembles cave art. “The UML sentence unites the various model views via their elements… Traceability between model elements enables us to manage change and the resulting complexity due to change.”

A few interesting terms: What is a swimlane? “A region of responsibility for action and subactivity states, but not call states.” And submachine? Not a fast gun, but a normal state with an `include’ declaration within its internal transitions compartment that invokes a state machine defined elsewhere. There is also the lifeline – not only on your palm but also in UML. It represents the existence of an element over time. You read on to stay in the race, lest you become an artefact, but know this much that an artifact is depicted as a stereotyped classifier. Okay, some basic doubt. What is a model? “A description of a system and context from a specific viewpoint and at a specific level of abstraction.” And, abstraction or abstracting involves formulating metaconcepts from a set of non-metaconcepts. Manifestation involves exemplifying or instantiating non-metaconcepts from metaconepts. Instantiation has three variant forms, including classifying, stereotyping, and extending. A book for the meta guys and gals. Are you one such?

Know-how, show-how


AS we slog at call centres and data entry stations, we hitch our sights to the star that promises a better tomorrow when we would be ascending the value chain and doing higher techie things. To help such effort, there would be a transfer of technology, which makes Rajiv Jain’s Guide on Foreign Collaboration: Transfer of Technology a relevant read. Published by India Investment Publication ( , the book discusses the concept of technology, tech transfer, licensing, franchise, know-how, patent, trade mark, and so on. What is high-technology, and what is low, is not something uniform across countries. So, a precise definition is hazardous, observes the author. That also explains why courts have difficulty when dealing with cases that hinge on tech issues. Licensing is one of the ways of technology transfer. “Licensing is the genus and franchising is a species,” writes Jain. “In a licensing agreement, the licensor plays a less dominant role. He is happy as long as royalty flows in as per the agreement. He does not breathe down the neck of the licensee, so to speak, which is often the case in a franchising arrangement.” So, if you are tying up with a hardware or software manufacturer from abroad, think of the pros and cons of licensing versus franchising. Remember however “licensing arrangement of a patent has to be registered with the Controller of Patents to prevent abuse.” What about patenting know-how? No, you can’t, says Jain; so know-how does not yet enjoy any special legal protection, national or international. “Know-how should pass three tests: It should have industrial utility; its secrecy should confer some competitive advantage on the licensee; and it should be proprietary technical information.” While know-how can be reduced to data, drawings and graphs, there is also an intangible part of a composite knowledge, called `show-how’. This justifies the use of non-disclosure clauses in software development teams. Now a tricky problem: Who owns inventions made by employees? It is not unusual that your staff strikes upon a smart algorithm or work around a programming bottleneck innovatively. “Whether the invention made by the employee should belong to the employer depends upon the contractual relationship express or implied, between the employer and the employee,” notes Jain. “In the absence of a special contract, the invention of a servant even though made in the employer’s time, and with the employer’s materials, and at the expense of the employer, does not become the property of the employer.” As a saving, however, “inventions made by employees specifically employed for R&D may in general belong to the employer.” So, read the terms of the contract once again, before laying claim to inventions.

Wednesday, Mar 17, 2004


Making hacking challenging

D. Murali

If you think hacking happens with much drama, you could be mistaken. Hackers are now going about their `business’ as if it were a science. But don’t get intimidated, instead get into their mindset to read them better.


THIS world is not a safe one, however much our netas assure us, so you need to lock your door and take out an insurance policy. Ditto with computer software? “Plug the holes in your Windows infrastructure by seeing it through the eyes of the attacker,” says the back cover of Hacking Windows Server 2003 Exposed by Joel Scambray and Stuart McClure. It has `secrets and solutions’ where “you’ll learn `step-by-step’ how intruders locate targets, gain super-user access, and ransack compromised networks.” Greg Wood writes in his foreword: “Working with the precision of a neurosurgeon, the computational capability of a nuclear physicist and the tenacity of a rookie detective on his first stakeout, hackers dissect complex technologies in their quest to discover and exploit a microscopic network of computer gaffe.” Don’t be intimidated, he instructs; get into their mindset, because that’s what Sun Tzu too taught us. One could, however, be fooled by the popular image of hacking with much drama. “Hacking today is a science. It is a series of tool-enhanced processes methodically executed by criminals. In many cases, hacking has regressed to a state of cut and paste plagiarism.” The least you can do is to make hacking more challenging, says Wood.

For baiters of Bill Gates, the authors have this to say: “Microsoft’s products are designed for maximum ease-of-use, which drives their rampant popularity. What many fail to grasp is that security is a zero-sum game: The easier it is to use something, the more time and effort must go into securing it. Think of security as a continuum between the polar extremes of 100 per cent security on one side and 100 per cent usability on the other, where 100 per cent security equals 0 per cent usability, and 100 per cent usability equates to 0 per cent security.”

The book has `bomb’ icons planted all through, to indicate `attack’; likewise there is an icon for `countermeasure’. Beginning with `foundations’ where the authors discuss the basics of info security and architecture, the book moves on to `profiling’ — that is, footprinting, scanning and enumeration. Then comes the strategy, `divide and conquer’ that includes privilege escalation, cleanup and so on. `Exploiting vulnerable services and clients’ is the next part containing chapters to discuss hacking of IIS and SQL Server, denial of service, physical attacks and so forth. Last comes `playing defense’ to talk about NT Family security features and tools.

The authors wrap up with `the future of Windows security’ that has inputs on the next wave of OS, `code named Longhorn’. Such as: NAT-T, Network Address Translator Traversal; GPMC, Group Policy Management Console; ADAM, Active Directory in Application Mode; MOM, Microsoft Operations Manger; and SMS, Systems Management Server.

This could be your insurance cover for a safer server.

Cross-platform communications

SACHIN becomes the first Indian to score a booming century in Pakistan and Pervez watches the battle in the arena. It seems as if only the other day on both sides of the border a different booming had echoed from the hills, but now we know we can work with each other, daggers sheathed and guns holstered. A similar détente is happening in the software world: They are talking about how Sun and Microsoft can work together! Motivation has come from users who use one proprietary system or the other and feel stuck when they find that the thing is not reusable in another. Dwight Peltzer’s .NET & J2EE Interoperability is `one-of-a-kind resource’ providing solutions to “cross-platform communications between business partners and the transmission of mission-critical enterprise data.”


There are different levels of interoperability, explains chapter 1. You need that within a platform and across platforms, and the book has numerous examples to demonstrate how the two giants can provide application integration. What comes helpful is that “the .NET web services architecture is similar to J2EE 1.4.” However, “Porting the complete .NET platform to Java and reimplementing the entire framework as a set of Java packages is less than satisfactory,” points out the author. A solution may, therefore, lie in “a cross-compiler” translating all .NET source code or binary code. “This translation allows all .NET classes and Java classes to interact seamlessly with each other.”

Perhaps already you are in a reflective mood wondering if there could be seamless integration of the two countries, but you need to know what `reflection’ is. It is “the process of runtime discovery of data types.” Reflection allows you to load an assembly, examine the manifest, and discover all types residing within the assembly, explains Peltzer. With all that work to do, `reflection’ doesn’t seem to be a passive activity.

A major advantage with the author’s style is that he writes quite understandably even for lay readers. A sampler, where he talks about SOA: “What is a service-oriented architecture? Web services reside somewhere on the Internet in a registry. Registries contain numerous web services, and each individual service exposes its own services to requestors (clients). The services represent publishable and discoverable interfaces. An interface is an abstract class containing a function or method declaration, which includes a list of parameters.” Don’t be baffled by the unending J signature, starting from JAAS to JVM, through a maze of more Js such as, JAX, JCA, JCP, JMS, JNDI, JRE, Ja-NET and J-Integra.

A whole chapter is devoted to `best practices, design patterns, security and business solutions’. If you see CAS, don’t be frightened, because it stands for Code Access Security, which is “Microsoft’s answer to preventing untrusted code from performing undesirable actions on systems, resulting in compromise of mission-critical data.”

A book that would enjoy readership in both the camps.

Vote for the mouse


WITH election countdown on, a contest has started for participating in governance. And this is something would-be-rulers should read: Government Online: Opportunities and Challenges by M.P. Gupta, Prabhat Kumar and Jaijit Bhattacharya. “Governments at the Centre, at the State and even at the level of local bodies like Municipalities, and Panchyati Raj Institutions, are not only waking up to the power of leveraging IT for good governance, but are also embracing it,” announces the book. “Distance is no longer variable,” writes F.C. Kohli in his foreword. “IT has increased productivity, effectiveness and transparency.” The preface has poetic lines: “E-governance offers an opportunity to change the mast of a ship for changing its direction.” So, there could be justification in changing governments if they didn’t resort to e-governance. But one wonders if calling India “an IT superpower” would be all right, unless such hype could be bunched with a host of other `shining’ stuff.

The authors have spiced their chapters with numerous case studies such as how Bangladesh put the bytes in birth registration, Germany experimented with kindergartens, and Karnataka’s Bhoomi delivered land titles online. Also dealt with are Beijing’s E-Park, Uganda’s failed electronic voter registration, and Seoul’s anti-corruption project.

A book that is useful not only for e-administrators but also for e-citizens.

Books courtesy: Tata McGraw-Hill,

Wednesday, Mar 24, 2004


No Eclipse of Sun’s product

D. Murali

Sun Microsystems and IBM look at Eclipse as a chance to meet the challenge of Microsoft’s .NET initiative and get Java back to the desktop.


GIFT-WRAPPED as a $40-million bounty from IBM to the Open Source community was Eclipse, a platform for “everything and nothing in particular”. Sun was not too happy when Eclipse came around, and we are not talking about solar eclipse. However, after those initial hiccups, Sun Microsystems and IBM now look at Eclipse as “an important chance to meet the challenge of Microsoft’s .NET initiative, and – most important – to get Java back to the desktop.”

All that input from the intro of Eclipse 2 for Java Developers by Berthold Daum can be sufficiently gripping to get started.

“Because of its plug-in architecture, Eclipse is as adaptable as a chameleon and can find a habitat in quite different environments,” says the author, and I can already see some politicians trying to take a peek at Eclipse.

Those who know about IBM’s WebSphere Application Developer (WSAD) would appreciate that Eclipse, with about 70 plug-ins compared to WSAD’s 500-700, is more like “the community edition”. Be warned, however, that the book assumes readers to have a “good knowledge of Java and object-oriented programming concepts” and examples are “from multimedia area.” If you want to download Eclipse, it is 62 MB plus.

One of the first things you need to get is `perspective’. “We must first open an Eclipse perspective,” guides the author. “Perspectives consist of a combination of windows and tools that is best suited for particular tasks.” And the Java development environment takes over.

Screenshots in the pages do more than explain the sequences; they are enticing, so you would start itching to plunge into Java even if you aren’t Java-literate, because much of the code is pre-generated. There is also a `scrapbook’ where you can try out Java expressions or just jot down a new idea. And `code assistant’ will pop-up a list of expressions to save you from tedious typing.

Chapter 3 implements an `example project’ based on FreeTTS speech synthesizer – to create a GUI that “includes an animated face that moves its lips synchronously with the speech output.” First, “to achieve good lip synchronisation it is necessary to have event notification for single phonemes.”

The author explains in `a short excursion into speech synthesis’ the various steps starting from tokenizer and ending in audio player.

Developers can gain valuable inputs from the chapter on project development that discusses debugging and documentation, plus `JUnit’ that makes it possible to `code a little, test a little’. Among the `advanced topics in project development’ are issues such as teamwork, version management and so on.

Part two of the book is about SWT (Standard Widget Toolkit) and JFace that are Eclipse’s alternatives to Java’s AWT and Swing. And in part three, the author shows how Eclipse can be deployed as a tool platform.

Essential knowledge to be equipped with to avert getting eclipsed.

Java made easy


WITH a character that seems to be stepping straight out of some Shakespearean play, the cover page of JSTL in Action by Shawn Bayern sets the mood before the book goes on to show you “how to produce flexible, powerful Web pages even without knowing any more than HTML.” JSTL stands for JSP Standard Tag Library, and JSP is JavaServer Pages. While JSP hid some of the hard details of writing full-fledged programs, JSTL goes one step further on the ease of use scale.

Chapter 1 begins with `the boring life of a web browser’. To make pages `interesting or interactive’, designers make the `same mistake’ of sending a program code like JavaScript to the web browsers. “In fact, most of the interesting software code on the Web runs on servers.”

Also, it is important to realise that “web browsers and web servers don’t work like chat rooms, where multiple parties might stay connected for hours and transmit data whenever they want to.”

A chapter is devoted to using databases. However, for smaller applications, a useful crutch is sql:setDataSource{gt}, notes the book. “In case your organisation doesn’t have a database for you to use, you can set up a small, free database system call hsqldb.”

Chapter 13 presents a `case study in building a Web site’ that is about constructing a portal. “We’ll essentially use JSTL to create a primitive content-management system that lets us plug in new channels to our master web site.” JSTL for programmers, part 4 of the book, comforts non-programmers: “Be ambitious. Java isn’t that hard to learn, and JSTL is designed to make things easier.” It has many tips, such as: When a page mixes HTML and Java code, the page often becomes difficult to read, edit or test; and, XML files are simple text files, but when programs work with them, they do so using an amazingly large array of strategies.

Recommended action: JSTL ASAP.

Homing in on home page


SO, you’re still hanging on in the outer fringes wondering if you would ever be able to produce your own home page. James Pence knows your problem and comes with an answer: How to do Everything with HTML & XHTML: A Beginner’s Guide. The cover exhorts: “Get your feet wet with all the basics; build and keep your website running smoothly; add style and substance to your site.” And the back cover clarifies: “This book is designed for anybody who has ever wanted to do a Web site, but just hasn’t got any idea where to start.” You’re not a techie, nor one who claims to be an expert, but you are comfortable with your PC, with ability to navigate, copy files, change directories, install software and so on. “You’re past the stage of being afraid that your system might self-destruct if you do something wrong. You’re also willing to learn and not afraid of trying something new. Most important, you really want to be able to design and build your own Web pages.” You nod vigorously, “Yes, yes,” and you know where to start.

The author is a `full-time freelance writer’, a novelist, gospel chalk artist, who uses his talents to reach out to inmates in the Texas prison system. “This is the very best book in the world” is among the reviews.

Where does the X in XHTML come from, you wonder? That is `extensible’. “Because of the explosive growth of the Internet, HTML is being stretched far beyond its capacity. For example, if musicians want to create a Web page with markup for musical notation, they are out of luck – HTML does not have the ability to accommodate this kind of specialisation.” There comes X to help.

With a book like this, there would be little motivation to stay on the fringes.

Books courtesy: Wiley Dreamtech India P Ltd (

Wednesday, Mar 31, 2004


Networking in a metro; Let’s talk tech; Information security is no black art; Never too old for `toys’

Books2Byte – February 2004

Networking in a metro

D. Murali

What would you call a portion of the metro that touches the customer? Find the answer to that plus the relationship between IT and social organisation, and a whole lot more…


CHENNAI is getting all the negative publicity it cannot afford as being severely water-starved and politically surcharged, among others. But not far from the city is Bangalore that James Heitzman paints as the “Network City“.

It is the fifth-largest metropolis in the country with “a transnational reputation as a centre for science and technology,” states the book, from Oxford University Press( Subtitled `planning the information society in Bangalore’, the book traces the relationship between IT and social organisation, and analyses the evolution of “an inter-organisational model that accompanied the rapid expansion of computer and telecommunication technologies, alongside developments in the educational system, the research community, and the non-profit sector.”

It is not as if the city to envy “the hub of a dynamic software industry, India’s Silicon Valley” had financial and infrastructure crises, even as it shifted towards a globalised economy. Yet, “There was a radical transformation of the social landscape of the city,” writes the author, “as private sector companies, transnational corporations, and non-government organisations began to interact with the state at more model decision-making forums.”

The man who would make a difference to the city was born in 1860, in a village near Chik Ballapur. Yes, we’re talking about Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya who founded the Engineering College in Bangalore. “He became a nationwide expert in industrial organisation and the management of technology,” notes the author about a man whose motto was, `Industrialise or perish.’ He was a man with a never-say-die attitude who chaired a board that designed the Farakka bridge over the Ganges when he was 92. Gandhi was “totally opposed to Visvesvaraya in his ambition for Americanising India,” but Nehru held different views.

“Something happened in the last two decades of the 20th century that transformed this slow-paced industrial city into a global presence in the information society,” observes the author in a chapter titled `Becoming Silicon Valley’. The Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, played no mean part in `the informatisation of the city’. The book gives due credit to the research bodies: “The availability of expert consultants from the variety of research establishments as a whole seems to have played a very important role in the clustering of high-technology firms.” Heitzman concludes with an appreciation of the `beauty of the informational model’ that makes it `difficult to hide incompetence or corruption,’ and compels “those interested in restricted aggrandisement to devise novel styles of occlusion and obfuscation.” Perhaps, you can’t spell Bangalore without `i’ or `t’.


Last mile, or first?

The networking industry is a divided world, in spite of all connections. Pools of expertise are varied: LAN switching, IP routing, and transport. “The `metro’ blends all these areas of expertise,” writes Sam Halabi in his intro to Metro Ethernet, from Cisco Systems ( The book is “the definitive guide to enterprise and carrier metro Ethernet applications.” One may argue that Ethernet was not designed for metro applications; or that it “lacks the scalability and reliability required for mass deployments.” Now, how to marry “Ethernet’s simplicity and cost effectiveness with the scale of Internet protocol (IP) and Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) networks”? Here is where GMPLS, that is generalised MPLS, enters the scene, presenting “a major shift in the operation and configuration of transport networks”.

Okay, what do you call the portion of the metro that touches the customer? Last mile, some say, because it is the last span of the carrier’s network. However, “in a world where the paying customer is at the centre of the universe, the industry also calls this span the first mile to acknowledge that the customer comes first.”

In a chapter titled “L2 Switching Basics” you would know about Ethernet Layer 2 concepts such as `flooding’ which allows the fast delivery of packets to their destinations, and `broadcast’ that is used for enabling clients to discover resources that are advertised by servers. CIR is not `sir’ spelt amiss, but committed information rate; and PIR is peak information rate.

Traffic Engineering is not about vehicle control, but “an important MPLS function that gives the network operator more control over how traffic traverses the network.” An indispensable function emphasises the author, “because of the high cost of network assets and the commercial an competitive nature of the Internet.” That is something for accountants to bear in mind.

Wednesday, Feb 04, 2004


Let’s talk tech

D. Murali

What do computers and politics have in common? Everybody talks about both but there’s seldom any understanding of either term. Well, here’s a book that does more than just talk. Plus a look at what net coding will be like in the future.


WITH marauding hordes, Genghis Khan terrorised whole populations. His motto: “It’s not enough that I succeed, everyone else must fail.” But he is long dead. Yet his philosophy lives on in the software world, writes Karen Southwick in Everyone Else Must Fail, from Crown Business ( . She provides “the unvarnished truth about Oracle and Larry Ellison”. The blurb speaks of how, inside Oracle, “Ellison has time and again systematically purged key operating, sales, and marketing people who got too powerful for his comfort.” What is his style? “Freewheeling version of capitalism, the kind practised by the nineteenth century robber barons who ran their companies as private fiefdoms.” The book raises a question: “Whether Oracle’s products and the reliance placed in them by so many are too important to be subject to the whims of one man.” Is there a warning “about an ingenious man’s tendency to be his own company’s worst enemy”?

The introduction notes how he has “come a long way from the college dropout who started at the bottom rung financially and socially.” He is “by turns brilliant and intolerant, inspiring and chilling, energetic and disinterested.” Ellison is “one of the most intriguing, dominant, and misguided leaders of a major twenty-first-century corporation.” Don’t forget that more than half of the Fortune 100 cited Oracle as the preferred database vendor, or that Ellison owns nearly one-fourth of Oracle’s stock. He is “the ultimate narcissist,” as one business psychologist said. “Ellison may be the last of his kind, but he is unforgettable.” He complains “about the way the press tears down heroes, comparing the media to lions at the ancient Roman Colosseum.” Yet he takes gleeful joy “in creating controversies.” The author analyses: “Because of his childhood, Ellison feels vulnerable whenever he feels himself growing dependent on someone else. He can’t stand the thought of abandonment, so he abandons other people before they can do it to him.”

Ellison has gone over to the dark side of the Silicon Valley infatuation with power and wealth, notes the concluding chapter, titled On the Edge. His world is solipsistic. But don’t count him out too soon. “He has been a wildly entertaining performer,” finishes the author, but sighs: “How much more he could have been.”

Let’s talk IT out


What’s common between politics and computers? Everybody talks about both and yet unfortunately few understand. So, Mohammed Azam has taken `a dialogue oriented approach’ to IT. His book Computer Literacy Kit, from Eswar Press ( , is aimed at “providing a wholesome learning experience for the entire family.” Being conversational in style, there are many questions throughout the book, and these find answers from the author’s many characters. For instance, “Who were the first buyers of personal computers?” Hobbyists, who knew electronics and software, bought the first lot of PCs. “Apple Computers realised that users did not like the idea of messing around with a lot of wires specially with electricity running in them and unveiled a model that was fully built. The users had to merely take it home and connect it to their TV and start work.”

Questions often come in torrents: Such as, what is a platter, what is a cylinder, why is the hard disk sealed, how does the read/ write assembly work, how is data recorded on magnetic tape, how is the storage of a tape measured, and so forth. Also, there are short poems. “The computer will tell you with a beep or chime/ That you pressed the wrong key this time.” Or, “The Operating System plays the host/Taking over after the POST.” Yet another, “Command and syntax you need not cram/But to run Windows you need plenty of RAM.” Try this one on virus: “A virus is actually an intelligent string of bytes/ But it is malignant and it sometimes bites/ Some rename and some even corrupt a file/ Some are a nuisance, harmless and not vile.”

The book provides an elaborate glossary with entries such as “a.out: The default name of the executable file produced by the Unix assembler, link editor, and C compiler” and “Daisy chain: The linking of items one after another. In word processing, daisy chain printing means to print documents one after another.” To keep the conversation alive, there are illustrations throughout the book. Good read for starters.

Net coding


In the near future, we will be dealing with distributed applications, fragments of which run on different systems, in heterogeneous networks, under different operating systems; and the computer itself would lose its traditional look, and take any shape, from cubic units built into the walls to small devices such as wristwatches. This is the scenario that Sergei Dunaev paints in Advanced Internet Programming Technologies and Applications, from Eswar PressThe book is a guide for developing Net applications and e-com solutions. “Readers learn how to create and use objects such as applets, scriplets, servlets, XML-constructions, JSP, ASP pages and so on,” states the back cover. “JavaBeans/ CORBA and ActiveX/DCOM are described in detail.”

What software developers encounter every day are “two basic technologies,” notes the author in the first chapter. One of these is ActiveX/ DCOM, used on Intel platforms using Windows OS, while the parallel technology is called JavaBeans/ CORBA, which does not depend on either the platform or the OS. DCOM, which is no diploma in commerce, but distributed component object model, also called COM `with a longer wire’ because it allows `registration of remote objects’. ActiveX serves a unique purpose — that of providing operations for program components inside composite program containers that include Web browsers and other document viewers. JavaBeans components are “obliged to advertise their characteristics”, and the “clearing of these characteristics by other components is called introspection.”

Now what is CORBA? “When we say CORBA, we actually mean CORBA/ IIOP,” that is Common Object Request Broker Architecture/ Internet Inter-ORB. This is a technology “meant for distributed information objects that can closely interact with each other within a managing program, which essentially consists of these objects itself.” There is lot more in this `advanced’ book for the eager beaver.

Wednesday, Feb 11, 2004


Information security is no black art

D. Murali

It’s a myth that big issues in security can be solved with technology. That’s as good as thinking one’s protected with a pile of ammunition under the pillow. This book breaks that myth, saying that at the very bottom, security is a people issue.


THERE is no patch for ignorance. This is the motto of theInformation Security Series from Dreamtech Press ( of which a recent offering is Eric Maiwald’s Fundamentals of Network Security.

There is a myth that big issues in security can be solved with technology, as much as one might be fooled into thinking that one is protected with a pile of ammunition under the pillow. “At the very bottom, security is a people issue,” points out the author.

Thus, chapter one begins with a negative message: “Information security does not guarantee the safety of your organisation, your information, or your computer systems. Information security cannot provide protection for your information.”

If that puts you off, Maiwald adds that information security is no black art. “There is no sorcery to implementing proper information security, and the concepts that are included in information security are not rocket science.” Info security is a mindset of examining threats and vulnerabilities, is what Maiwald says.

Among civil issues that the administrator has to consider is `downstream liability.’ This arises when an organisation that does not perform appropriate security measures unwittingly becomes the conduit for an attacker who after penetrating the organisation’s systems goes on to attack another organisation.

Now that there is peace at the border, we can try to understand what `demilitarised zone’ means. For network professionals, it means the portion of the network that is not truly trusted. Abbreviated as DMZ, it provides a place in the network to segment off systems that are accessed by people on the Internet from those that are only accessed by employees. “DMZs can also be used when dealing with business partners and other outside entities.”

Every chapter has a multiple-choice quiz. Here’s a sampler: Which is the most common motivation for hackers to break into computers? Tick one of the following: The challenge, greed, malicious intent or being dared. The most powerful weapon used by an attacker that involves having a kind voice and the ability to lie is: a murf attack, a virus attack, social engineering or brute-force? Of the following, which is classified as malicious code: vendor updates for commercial packages, scripts used to update signature files, worms sent over the Internet, or logon scripts to map drives? When a user leaves the organisation, as the network administrator, you should have procedures in place to: disable the user’s account, change the name on the account, immediately delete the account to increase security, or leave the account on the system for historical reasons? What can you do to identify rogue apps: perform wired assessments, perform physical inspections of all areas, use tools like NetStumbler, or use tools like WEPCrack?

Essential read for those on the frontlines of network.

Weave a Web dream


You have a vision for your Web site and you need a tool that can transform it into reality. Michael Meadhra provides an answer in How to do Everything with Dreamweaver MX 2004: A Beginner’s Guide, published by Dreamtech Press.

What is Dreamweaver? It is a Macromedia product that belongs to the species of Web page editing programs; it enables a Web author to work with text, images and other Web page elementsAmong the panels that show on the product’s screen is the `Assets panel.’ It is a “convenient central access point for the various page elements,” explains the author. “The problem with the Assets panel is that it lists every single asset in the entire site.” That is something akin to a cluttered fixed asset register, one may think. On the Web, however, it is graphics that clutter, but the origins of hypertext markup language (HTML) and the World Wide Web (WWW) lay in what scientists and academics used for sharing technical documents. “When you look past the flashy introduction pages on many Web sites, you see that, even today, the vast majority of Web documents are composed primarily of text.”

It is elementary knowledge that the time required to download and display images can dramatically increase the time it takes for a browser to display your page. “Make sure that every image on your page contributes significantly to your message and justifies the time visitors must wait to see the image,” says the author.

“Add alt text for images,” is another tip. “Alternate text is one of the key factors in making your site accessible to visitors whose Web browsing experience doesn’t include images.”

Also, remember that editing an image in Dreamweaver is permanent. “The original image is replaced with the modified one.” Sooner or later, you may end up requiring access to databases. “Most of the objects and behaviours that Dreamweaver provides for server-side use are designed to work with database connections and recordsets.” Meadhra assures that the kinds of dynamic Web pages you can build with Dreamweaver are limited only by your imagination.

So, go on weave a dream on the Web.

Closed vs open


IF you are not one of those miserable techies who are too easily satisfied with coding and keying, here is a book to vet your appetite: Innovation Policy and the Economy, volume 3 from the National Bureau of Economic Research ( , edited by Adam B. Jaffe and his team.

The book appreciates the importance of innovation to the economy; and discusses policies appropriate for research, innovation and the commercialisation of new technology. A question that the editors address is the effect of venture capital on innovation. “The effect is far from uniform,” notes the book. “During boom periods, the prevalence of overfunding of particular sectors can lead to a sharp decline in the effectiveness of venture funds in stimulating new discoveries. And prolonged downturns may eventually lead to good companies going unfunded.”

The chapter titled `The Global Innovation Divide’ by Jeffrey Sachs observes how the difference between the haves and have-nots with respect to the rate of innovative activity is even greater than the differences in wealth or income. “The world can be divided roughly into three parts: About one-sixth of the world’s population lives in areas where innovation occurs endogenously. In a middle group of countries, there is relatively little endogenous innovation, but innovation does diffuse and is adopted from other places. But perhaps one-quarter of the world’s population lives in a bottom group that is relatively untouched by technology.”

A topical issue discussed in a chapter on intellectual property is the competition between open and closed systems. “There is a tendency for systems to close even though an open system is socially more desirable,” notes the book. “Rather than trying to use the antitrust laws to attack the maintenance of closed systems, an alternative approach would be to use IP laws and regulations to promote open systems and the standard setting organisations that they require.” Is there a case for heading towards being open to closed systems too?

Wednesday, Feb 18, 2004


Never too old for `toys’

D. Murali

Want to make the transformation from ordinary PC user to Internet Service Provider? Here’s how you can do it.


YOU are an ordinary PC user. Want to become an Internet service provider? If yes, Christopher Negus and Chuck Wolber have the answer in Linux Toys: Cool Projects for Home, Office and Entertainment. All the basic software you need to be an ISP is right in Red Hat Linux, they inform. “You can set up Linux to allow dial-in modems and routing to the Internet, as well as offer Web publishing, e-mail, and file transfer.” The book is an attempt to “bring together software and hardware to make some whole working projects,” states the preface. “Because we’re building them in Linux, the sky is the limit on where you can go with them.” Chapter 1 elaborates: “While the spirit of the book is one of fun and community, the technology we describe is quite serious and becoming more powerful each day. Some of the same software we describe here is running the server computers for companies around the world.”

What are the `toys’? Apart from the mini ISP, you have music jukebox, home video archive, TV recorder/player, arcade game player, home network server, home broadcast centre, temperature monitor, telephone answering centre, Web-hosting service, DogHouse Linux with BSD games, toy car controller and digital picture frame, each with “complete material list and detailed illustrated instructions.”

What’s this doggie thing? Chapter 13 explains: “Because the latest Red Hat Linux won’t install on pre-Pentium-class computers,” the authors have created a little distribution of Linux that they call DogHouse Linux. “You can copy it to a floppy and run it on most computers that have a floppy disk drive. Yes, it should work on your old 486 machine.” What would it do? “You will get enough to feel what it was like to use old Unix systems, try a few classic Linux commands that will work on almost any Linux system, and play a few classic pre-Linux character-based games.” You are never too grownup for these `toys’.

Varray, Lob and Acid


AT the heart of RDBMS is SQL, the structured query language. It is the language used for all operations in the relational database management systems. “It is a standardised language like C, that is, the syntax of SQL changes very little from one RDBMS to another,” states P.S. Deshpande in “SQL/ PLSQL for Oracle 9i”. SQL for Oracle is similar, therefore, to SQL for Ingres or Sybase. “An important feature of SQL is that it is a non-procedural language.” That means you don’t have to describe how to do; just describe what you want.

Unit II of the book discusses PL/SQL – the language used in all Oracle products. “PL/SQL language is used in stored programs, procedures, packages, forms and reports. It’s different from other languages, as it does not have conventional input and output statements. The input is mainly from the table and output is put in the table.”

What are the basic elements of PL/SQL? The author lists: “Lexical units, datatypes, user-defined subtypes, datatype conversion, declaration, naming conversion, scope and visibility, assignments, and expressions and comparisons.”

You are familiar with array, but what is `varray’? It is “like an array in programming languages like C, Pascal but it has only single dimension.” Okay, is LOB the top portion of lobster? No, it stands for `large objects’ – a datatype to overcome the limitations of LONG datatype. “LOB has facilitated storage of unstructured data like text document, graphic images, video clips and sound.” Maximum size of LOB is 4 GB and it supports random access.

ACID is not what hooligans throw on people, but the essential properties of transaction: atomicity, consistency, isolation and durability. “Atomicity means the effect of the transaction is either full or null. Consistency means the transaction should generate consistent data defined by application logic. Isolation indicates level of interference in one transaction by the other transaction. Durability means that the effect of transaction is durable irrespective of nature of storage.” Now, answer a simple question: “Select a querying book.”

Wear your Red Hat


INSTALL, tune and configure Fedora and Red Hat Linux Enterprise 3. Navigate GNOME and KDE desktops to run the latest applications. Learn to use the Linux shell, file system, and text editors. Try out the latest security techniques for detecting and dealing with attacks and setting up encryption keys. Discover how to install extra software packages to play games, enhance security, and administer Linux. Install Linux on a laptop and manage power events with acpid. And more.

All these are what Christopher Negus discusses in “Red Hat Linux ver. (10) Bible: Fedora and Enterprise Edition,” a book that comes with 3 bonus CD-ROMs with full installation of the software including all binary packages.

Who are you? Asking this question in the preface, the author continues: “You don’t need to be a programmer to use this book. You may simply want to know how to administer a Linux system in a workgroup or on a network. You may be migrating from Microsoft OS to Red Hat Linux because of its networking and multiuser features.”

As with accounting, where you can’t learn unless you do, so with computer system. “Get your hands on it.” So, the book adopts “a task-oriented approach.” Well, you’ve been holding your question thus far: What is Linux? “A phenomenon waiting to happen,” writes Negus in chapter 1. “The computer industry suffered from a rift. In the 1980s and 1990s, people had to choose between inexpensive, market-driven PC operating systems from Microsoft and expensive, technology-driven operating systems such as Unix. Free software was being created all over the world, but lacked a common platform to rally around. Linux became that common platform.” Linux is a free OS that was created by Linus Torvalds when he was a student in 1991. “Torvalds then released the system to his friends and to a community of `hackers’ on the Internet and asked them to work with it, fix it, and enhance it. It took off.” The focus of Linux was “on keeping communications open among software developers.” Their common goal was to get the code to work, “without much concern about who owned the code.”

What is Red Hat Linux? “Several companies and organisations began gathering and packaging Linux software together into usable forms called distributions. The main goal of a Linux distribution is to make the hundreds of unrelated software packages that make up Linux work together as a cohesive whole. For the past few years, the most popular commercial distribution has been Red Hat Linux.”

And if you are working on a Linux project, you perhaps know what book to keep by your side.

Books courtesy: Wiley Dreamtech (

Wednesday, Feb 25, 2004


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



Books2Byte – 2004 list

Books2Byte – 2004 (From BL archives)

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