Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Dark side of digital age

CYBER AGE: From The Statesman by BY ND BATRA

What would you do if you found someone shouting: “Everything’s horrible, I want to die. Who will die with me?” That’s how Reuters read the message in a Japanese Internet chatroom after four people varying in age from 19 to 30 were found to have committed suicide in a car parked on a riverbank in Hokkaido island in northern Japan last Thursday. In the digital age, you can google-froogle anything from sushi kits to death kits, and so easily that Internet pioneers might wonder what they had wrought. Of course inventors cannot control whether people would mess up with their inventions or use them to enhance the quality of life.
In 1973 when two young computer scientists, Vinton G Cerf and Robert E Kahn, came up with the revolutionary idea of making different isolated computers talk to each other through a common language – Transmission Control Protocol/ Internet Protocol – they did not foresee the whole new world that would eventually open up. Of course there were many more people who made the Internet possible, which eventually, looking at the bright side, made Bangalore, for example, become a global outsourcing hub, among other things. Cerf and Kahn did not anticipate the Internet to become such a driving force for good – and evil – in our lives.
E-trading, e-pornography, e-surveillance, e-death and who knows what else is in store for us!Welcome to the digital age, which makes networking and sharing inevitable. For example, you might wonder how a 26-year-old man, Gerald Krein from Klamath Falls, Oregon, narrowly failed in enticing 32 women in chatrooms to commit a mass suicide on Valentine’s Day. “The common theme is that these were women who were vulnerable, who were depressed. He invited them to engage in certain sexual acts with him – and they were to hang themselves naked from a beam in his house,” Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger said. Had Krein succeeded, he might have used his Webcam to netcast the event – 32 women hanging naked by a roof beam. Sexual asphyxiation is a most extreme form of sexual act and in a land of extremes, of death by choice – Oregon has been toying with the idea of physician assisted suicide solution for terminal patients – it would have probably created a stir; and then been shrugged off as a bizarre event after the media had milked it dry.
A Canadian woman, probably a prospect for after life, who saw the message entitled Suicide Ideology in a chatroom and learned to her horror that another chatroom woman intended to kill not only herself but also her two children, promptly informed the police. Depressed women have been known to kill their children. At least 31 women had agreed to participate in the mass suicide, Krein told police investigators upon his arrest. Chatroom records show that Krein had been networking with women to solicit suicide since 2000. It is difficult to say at this stage of investigation how successful he has been. Nor do we know what was driving these people to commit a group suicide rather than doing it alone.
Getting out of deep depression through extreme sex, consummated finally with collective suicide by hanging: if that’s a probable explanation, then one might also understand why some people blow themselves up in their zealous commitment to jihad, which without networking and sharing wouldn’t be so blindingly enticing. Dying alone is terrible. Dying becomes easier when people die together. The Internet provides togetherness to faceless strangers.
Group suicide of strangers who meet on the Net isn’t an infrequent occurrence in Japan where hara-kiri has been an ancient ritual. In Japanese chatrooms, bulletin boards and suicide-related websites, people come together to talk about not how best to escape from their suicidal fantasies but how to execute them – sealing themselves in a coal-burning room and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning; in cars parked in remote mountain places; overdosing on camera; jumping together from high-rise buildings. Though some succeed, others end up with terrible injuries and life-long misery. Yukio Saito, a Methodist minister, who founded and oversees a suicide hotline, Phone of Life, made a very insightful remark to Reuters: “The idea of dying together is somehow reassuring. Dying alone is lonely and takes more courage. The way these suicides are carried out is very sensational for the media, and very suggestive for people who may be thinking of taking their lives.”
Think of Jim Jones of the People’s Temple, the cult leader who led 913 followers to a mass suicide death pact in 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana. Had Rev. Jones had a website, let us say, Your Guide to Death is Beautiful, with a seductive young woman giving step by step instructions and the precise time from here to thereafter, he might have attracted millions of people to an unheard of mass suicide. You could imagine what a charismatic jihadi leader might do in future when he wraps up mass suicide bombings with a noble religious cause.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Scandals of Corporate America

Cyber Age ND Batra: From The Statesman

The unceremonious firing of Carly Fiorina, the glamorous globetrotting CEO of Hewlett Packard, one of the few women who broke the proverbial glass ceiling – some would say by sheer guts and grits – has been an odd occurrence in the annals of corporate America. Boards of directors normally don’t act that brazenly; they sweeten the departure with friendly negotiations, mutual understandings and hefty severance packets, which sometimes seem so excessive that they evoke public repugnance. Fiorina too will get a full purse ($21 million or so) but she was fired because of her inability to beat the competition (Dell, IBM, for example) rather than any fraud she might have committed. Ultimately, fraud and incompetence are the two sides of the same coin; they hurt the market as well as the shareholders.
The functioning of corporate USA is based on authoritarianism, not on internal checks and balances. In contrast, the US political system is based on a healthy distrust of people in power. The tripartite system of a government of co-equals – the White House, Congress and the judiciary – and other built-in checks and balances along with a free press have kept politicians from abusing power by exposing them to the threat of public ridicule, impeachment or jail. Think of Nixon and Clinton, and the hosts of governors and legislators, who have been disgraced. The founding fathers didn’t leave the functioning of the political system to the innate goodness of the people in power. Nor did they leave the development of good political behaviour to any kind of special training in schools or colleges; or the culture of the sports arena, for that matter.
The temptation of power trumps everything else, so transparency and accountability are indispensable to a self-renewing democracy. That unfortunately isn’t the case with Wall Street where most Americans are vested through pension and other retirement accounts. Bush’s idea of an ownership society, if given a practical shape, would invest future social security funds into the stock market. Today we live in a world where corporate power overshadows most of our activities.
Corporate leaders rise to power on the promise of maximising profits, market values and economic health for their companies. There are no internal checks and balances in the form of a healthy opposition seeking accountability and presenting an alternative vision of the company. Shareholders are selfish and passive. Boards of directors are morally neutral; their interest is limited to dividends and capital gains. They worship executives who maximise their investments. So long an executive performs well and exceeds the expectations of Wall Street, he/she could get away with some excesses. Fiorina was fired for a style of management that despite its aggressiveness did not produce results to cheer the market. Fiorina lacked imagination; the power to do “superspeculation” about an alternative future for Hewlett Packard when under her leadership the merger with Compaq Computer did not work out as expected.
But other CEOs have done worse. One of the former chief executives on trial for security fraud is Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom (now MCI, Inc.), whose $11 billion fraud dumped the telecommunications company into bankruptcy. The former financial chief of the company, Scott Sullivan, who is cooperating with prosecutors after pleading guilty and is testifying against his former boss, told the jury that he had warned Ebbers that accounting adjustments, creative accounting or cooking books, whatever you call it, could not be justified. Ebbers told him nevertheless that the company had to “hit the numbers,” and meet the financial and revenue targets. Ebbers of course has blamed his underlings for the fraud, said to be the largest in US history, and if convicted he would go to jail for 30 years. At its peak in 1999, WoldCom had a market capitalisation of $180 billion, and Ebbers was a toast of Wall Street. That was the problem.
To maintain its market reputation WorldCom had to cook books and lie. When WorldCom real earnings could not meet the forecast, Ebbers asked the account department to “adjust the numbers”. Accounting departments are notorious for doping others until they are caught. Wall Street analysts and financial journalists who out of fear or favour work as paid employees of big corporations rather than watchdogs of public interests went along with the web of lies woven by the WorldCom team until the whole edifice began to collapse in 2000; and the share price sank to $15 from a high of $65. Ebbers’ personal fortune too was linked with WorldCom’s market share price and in order to keep it high, he raised the analysts’ expectations. But Wall Street is a hard and cruel taskmaster. One cannot get away with lies for too long. But sometimes the price a company, and eventually the public pays, is too high; and the damage irreparable.
But can we make corporate bosses honest? Can we instill ethics into their souls? Robert J Schiller, a Yale professor and author of Irrational Exuberance, faults the education that US business schools impart to budding executives. Writing in the New York Times, he said that instead of emphasising ethics and liberal arts, “Modern business education often encourages excessive respect for anything that can be considered a result of the free market.” Teach them ethics, he says.
The average age of a student in a US business school is 28. By that time, a person should be able to know what is and what is not ethical. Liberal arts and ethics education is not enough. Transparency and internal checks and balances must be embedded into the system. More importantly, if the media pays as much attention to the internal working of corporate America as it does to the scandals of political America, CEOs would behave better and our financial future would be secure.

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Bold strokes to change the world?

From The Statesman

Cyber age: ND Batra

Probably the most touching moment during President Bush’s State of the Union address on Wednesday night occurred when the entire assembly gave a standing ovation to two women, Safia Taleb al-Suhail of Iraq and Janet Norwood of Texas. The women embraced each other like two long lost sisters. Eleven years ago, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service agents had assassinated Safia’s father but the family survived. On the day of elections, while bullets were flying, Safia along with her family went to the polling booth to cast their votes for a new Iraq. The other woman, Janet Norwood, had lost her son, Marine Corps Sergeant Byron Norwood, during the assault on Fallujah. But before going to Iraq Byron told his mother how proud he was to be a Marine, and as she had protected him as a child, now it was his turn to protect her.

Although the showcasing of these two families for a worldwide television audience was a diplomatic act, the emotions were genuine. In that moment death had become meaningful. Some leaders are capable of doing that. “The fall of imperial communism was only a dream – until, one day, it was accomplished. Our generation has dreams of its own, and we also go forward with confidence. The road to Providence is uneven and unpredictable – yet we know it leads to freedom,” Bush said eloquently, brimming with confidence. Elections of course do not a democracy make but can you do without them? Something new has begun. The process of reaching out by the Shia majority to various sections of Iraq, especially Sunnis, is gradually taking place. Though the Sunnis would be losing their exclusive control over political power in Iraq after 80 years of domination, they hold a key to Iraq’s political stability. They have the sympathy of other Arabs in the region who are mostly Sunnis. They cannot be ignored regardless of the political set up that emerges after the 275-member transitional national assembly chooses an interim government and drafts a constitution.

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Sunni, may not be in power for long, but I am sure in the long run he would be proved right. He had said: “The terrorists now know that they cannot win.” Millions of Iraqis have already rejected terrorism by braving the danger and voting fearlessly. Though the Sunnis were not as jubilant about voting as others, hopefully “the voice of all Iraqis” is present in the future political set up. “We are entering a new era of our history, and all Iraqis – whether they voted or not – should stand side by side to build their future… let us go together towards a bright future – Sunnis and Shias, Muslims and Christians, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen,” Allawi said. That is a plea for secularism, and truly this would be the only way Iraqis could ask the USA: Quit Iraq. Prolonged differences among religious and ethnic groups and unsettled conditions would prevail upon the USA to stay on, in fact, much against its wishes. I don’t believe the Americans want to continue the occupation a day longer than necessary. Domestic pressure continues to be unbearable; nonetheless, Americans don’t want Bush to quit unless the job is done in Iraq. That’s why they voted him to power again.

Although the main mission of the transitional national assembly will be to write a constitution, its selection of the interim government could set a tone for a broad political inclusiveness. The national assembly would choose a President and two deputy presidents, who then would choose a Prime Minister and a cabinet. Even at this early stage, there would be a great scope for give-and-take and an opportunity for power sharing. For example, a key political position in the cabinet could be given to a Sunni.

There is another reason to allow Sunnis to participate fully in the government. The Sunnis might act as a strong counterweight to the dominant influence of the neighbouring Shia Iran; similarly Iraqi Shias might counterbalance the Sunni Arab influence, thus creating the possibility of making Iraq truly independent of both Iran and Arab countries. Constitutional arrangement based on federalism and local autonomy might serve Iraq well, as it has done by and large in India.

President Jacques Chirac of France, who relentlessly opposed the Iraqi invasion along with most of other Europe, expressed cautious optimism. “These elections mark an important step in the political reconstruction of Iraq. The strategy of terrorist groups has partly failed,” he said. Russian President Vladimir Putin called it a historic event for the Iraqi people, but it was German foreign minister Joschka Fischer who held an olive branch of reconciliation with the Bush administration. “The challenge of putting Iraq on a stable democratic footing is one we must all take on together,” he said. Once again Europe is calling for togetherness, for sharing responsibilities, and the Iraqi elections provide a great opportunity for a new relationship among the USA, Europe and other major powers to fight global terrorism and poverty. That’s the only way to spread freedom and democracy.

Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Global brain emerging?

Cyber Age/ND Batra/ From The Statesman

Some of the biggies of the computer world, IBM, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, among others, announced that they are forming a consortium to educate the corporate world to adopt open-source grid computing for commercial applications. The impulse is not charitable. It is competitive, and always so in a world dominated by Microsoft. The initial barrier to the widespread use of the concept of the grid may be psychological: Grid—> gridlock, which is a form of terror. A powerful idea is linguistically stymied. We need a new lingo, but apart from that, it is an idea whose time has come. And it is very simple.
When you turn off your computer and go home, no one can use the computing power locked in on your office desktop. Nor can the dispersed unused computing power of hundreds of other computers be utilized or leased by your company to anyone, which is such wastage especially when the power could be tasked to solve complicated problems. If you multiply this unutilized computing power by millions of computers around the world, India, China, the United States, Europe, you get some sense of the unused resources.
But this has begun to change. A few years ago, the National Science Foundation in the United States undertook an ambitious project called the TeraGrid. By virtualizing four geographically dispersed supercomputing centers into a grid, it became possible to make them work as if they were one giant virtual computer, which could be accessed from any of the four gateways. Virtualization is a buzzword of the cyber age. It is an Internet technology approach that optimizes, pools and shares resources so that supply and demand match in an ever-rising crescendo.
The supercomputing clusters that have been networked are: the San Diego Supercomputing Center at the University of California, San Diego; Caltech, Pasadena, California; the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign; and the US department of energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. Others are getting on the bandwagon. The TeraGrid is capable of creating eight times the power of the most powerful supercomputer today, capable of carrying out trillions of operations per second, according to one estimate.
Grid computing enables not only geographically dispersed computers but also different operating systems to coalesce as one brain, and provide the user a steady, consistent and economical access to enhanced resources from any point of access on the grid. The unleashed supercomputing power, emanating from a single unified source, could be used for solving large-scale data-intensive science applications, such as designing new drug remedies based on molecular modeling, tsunami-earthquake modeling and forecast, and military operations in insurgency-ridden battlefields. In a grid-based virtual laboratory, a scientist, for example, could examine millions of molecules in the Chemical Data Bank to identify and select those that have the most potential use for designing a new drug for breast cancer. The grid power could be used for teleimmersion, giving users high-bandwidth access to virtual environment such as a simulated surgical operation; a rising pandemic; or a massive stampede at the next Kumbh Mela in India.
Eventually all computers will be linked with local, national and international grids, enhancing computing power and sharing databases and applications that may reside anywhere. Just as TCP/IP protocol broke the barriers and made the Internet possible, grid computing must have a single worldwide standard and most bets are on the Globus, an open sources system that would make it possible to tap the Internet on demand from anywhere.
The Globus Toolkit, a collection of software applications and resources to support grid computing, could locate where a particular database is housed; how to divide and distribute a given computing work among several computers on the grid system; and whether the user is an authorized person. Once a handheld or desktop machine or any other device is plugged into the Globus, it would draw not only its computational power from the grid but could also use myriad applications, such as audio-video streams, databases, videoconferencing and so on.
A company needing 25 terabytes of computing power could simply tap into the grid to perform a specific task and once the job is done, the resource is returned to the grid for others to use. Your cell phone could become a gateway to a supercomputing power grid. Universities could form their own grids and be networked into national and international grids, creating the possibility of on-demand grid power. The central processing unit need not be on every desk, but those who have it could share it with others.
The wireless revolution that’s sweeping the world now would make grid computing a global phenomenon. Sometime ago Larry Smarr, an Internet pioneer, was quoted in Technology Review: “Because of the miniaturization of components, we will have billions of endpoints that are sensors, actuators and embedded processors. They’ll be in everything, monitoring stress in bridges, monitoring the environment, ultimately, they will be in our bodies, monitoring our hearts.” The foundation for grid computing infrastructure must be based on security as the first principle, of course.
Some regard grid computing as the natural evolution of the Internet. It is one of those technologies whose value is perceived to be so great as to make its universal acceptance inevitable, thus making it possible to define common standards that would transcend heterogeneous systems and turn them into a universal platform. When all major research universities and technology institutes are virtualized into one international computer grid, the impact of the emergent brainpower would be immeasurable. But think about what it would do to the business world when it goes on the grid. Imagine global retailers like Wal-Mart going on the grid to make their supply-chain systems more efficient. Grid technology might enable even Sri Lanka to compete with the Chinese textile juggernaut. Size and geography won’t matter.