Sunday, June 25, 2006

More on Old Topics

This article appears in slightly different form in the May/June 2006 issue of IEEE Micro © 2006 IEEE.

This time I look at interesting books on subjects I have touched on in recent reviews.


The books in this section give interesting perspectives on the dark side of globalization.

In Defense of Globalization by Jagdish Bhagwati (Oxford, New York NY, 2005, 320pp, ISBN-13 978-0-19-530003-1,, $15.95)

Jagdish Bhagwati is a Columbia University economist. His 1993 book, India in Transition, detailed problems with the bureaucracy that had grown up in the decades after India's independence from Britain. The reforms that he endorsed in that book have contributed greatly to India's rapid economic advance in recent years.

This book is a paperback edition of his widely acclaimed 2004 book about globalization. In it he answers the critics of globalization who point to its dark side. Bhagwati argues that many of these criticisms are exaggerated or simply wrong.

Bhagwati begins by recognizing that the discussion of this subject is often highly emotional, with fears masquerading as evidence and neither side listening to the other. He listens carefully to the anti-globalization advocates, articulates their concerns, and then addresses those concerns. In particular, many critics claim that globalization lacks a human face. By this they mean that economic globalization has adverse social consequences. Bhagwati rejects this notion but still addresses the social concerns that the critics cite. As he puts it, he discusses "the design of institutional changes, both domestic and international, that are necessary to make the generally good effects of globalization even better."

Bhagwati's stature as an economist and his careful arguments make his rosy view believable. If you wish to hear an informed argument for the benefits of globalization, this is the book to read. 

Globalization and Its Enemies by Daniel Cohen (MIT, Cambridge MA, 2006, 256pp, ISBN 0-262-03350-X,, $27.95)

Daniel Cohen is a professor of economics at the École Normale Supérieure, an economic advisor to the French prime minister, and an op-ed columnist for Le Monde. Like Thomas Friedman in The World Is Flat (Micro Review, May/June 2005), Cohen sees todays globalization as the third wave of a process that began with the Spanish conquistidors.

Globalization has not usually brought wealth. India was just as poor in 1913 as it was in 1820. Globalization has also brought terrible consequences, but these have often been completely unintentional. Cohen cites Germaine Tillion's account of the impoverishment of an Algerian village as a result of French actions to eradicate malaria and typhoid and to reduce the village's isolation. Twenty years later, the lack of disease had led to a population explosion. Shepherds increased the size of their flocks, destroying the soil. The roads to the outside allowed some people to become richer by exporting their sheep, while others grew poorer. The traditional societal values disappeared.

According to Cohen, the enemies of globalization fall into two camps: those who decry the westernization of the world and those who see it as a battle in the global class struggle. Both camps share the view that globalization imposes a model that people do not want. But Cohen believes the opposite. Global communication lets people all over the world see the films and television programs of the wealthy nations. Many wish to share in the lifestyle those programs depict, but they see no way to do so.

Cohen sees globalization as proceeding efficiently in the northern hemisphere but not in the southern. He cites Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (Norton, 1996) to explain why this is true.

One of the most contentious issues in globalization is intellectual property. For example, the global AIDS epidemic is manageable in the north but runs rampant in the south. The difference is the general availability in the north of drugs to control the disease. Intellectual property laws make these drugs difficult to obtain in the impoverished south.

This small book contains many interesting ideas and uncommon points of view. I recommend it.  

Database Design

The Art of SQL by Stéphane Faroult with Peter Robson (O'Reilly, Sebastopol CA, 2006, 367pp, ISBN 0-596-00894-5,, $44.99)

SQL (no longer an acronym) is the standard language for posing queries to databases. Faroult is a database consultant who has worked on query performance issues for more than 20 years. He regards each new performance challenge as a battle to be fought against an army of database rows. He titled his book as an allusion to Sun Tzu's Art of War. He hopes to pass on his "battlefield" experience to help you write good SQL code. He carries the battle metaphor into his text. For example,
The way that we have to attack that data depends on the circumstances and conditions under which we have to fight the battle. Our attack will depend on the amount of data from which we retrieve our result set and on our forces (the filtering criteria), together with the volume of the data to be retrieved.
Faroult takes you through all of the aspects of performance tuning -- from creating a good design to working with a bad one. He covers a set of standard SQL situations and describes patterns to handle them. He even explains the basic idea of relational databases and shows how using the model correctly can result in code that performs well.

Occasionally, Faroult breaks out a principle and displays it with an owl icon. Examples include the following:
  • A confused query can confuse the optimizer. Clarity and suggested joins can help the optimizer provide good performance.
  • To reduce the sensitivity of queries to increases in the volume of data, operate only on the data that is strictly necessary at the deeper levels of a query. Keep ancillary joins for the outer level.
  • There is no need to code explicitly what the database performs implicitly.     
Tuning the performance of database applications can be a dull subject. Faroult presents it in an interesting way. If you write database applications and you've never studied performance tuning, you should read this book.

Interaction Design

In the Sept/Oct 2000 Micro Review, I looked at Alan Cooper's The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. That book presents the business case for a proposed new profession called interaction design. At that time Cooper promised a subsequent book to explain how to do interaction design.

About Face 2.0 -- The Essentials of Interaction Design by Alan Cooper & Robert Reimann (Wiley, Indianapolis IN, 2003, 504pp, ISBN 0-7645-2641-3,, $35.00)

In 1992 Alan Cooper gave up programming to devote himself to making products easier to use. The first fruit of this effort is his highly regarded book, About Face: The Essentials of User Interface Design (IDG, 1995). 

While Cooper believes that the design principles in About Face are right, he has decided that the audience is wrong. The book starts from the premise that programmers, by default, do most user interface design. As a result, Cooper talks primarily to them, trying to help them design good interfaces. Unfortunately, however, even though programmers would like to design good interfaces, they don't have the time, and often don't have the skills to do so. Moreover, programmers face an overwhelming conflict of interest. 

Competitive demands force programmers to push their systems and their tools beyond their limits. To survive, they must simplify the development process. Making programs easy to use conflicts with making development easy. Programmers have no time to develop  interfaces that mirror users' views of the task. They choose an easy-to-develop interface that mirrors the program's inner workings. Programmers understand the interfaces that result, so they don't see why those interfaces confuse and frustrate users.

The subtitle of the 2.0 version shows the change of audience. Now he is writing for interaction designers. The 3.0 version will be for the same audience, but with more emphasis on online interactions.

This book is much too dense to summarize. The authors present a comprehensive view of the strategy and tactics of designing software that focuses on the needs of users. If you'd like your software to focus on the needs of your users, you probably have a long row to hoe. Reading this book would be a good first step.


Deep Time of the Media -- Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means by Siegfried Zielinski (MIT, Cambridge MA, 2006, 304pp, ISBN 0-262-24049-1,, $33.95)

Zielinski is a professor of media and communication studies. In this book he describes a field of his own invention: media archaeology. 

The highly respected science writer John McPhee coined the term "deep time" as an analog to deep space (Basin and Range, 1981). It refers to things so long ago that our brains cannot grasp the magnitude of the interval. We are in deep time when we consider the age of the Earth or the lengths of geological ages. To this concept, Stephen Jay Gould added another dimension that represents biological diversity (Wonderful Life, 1991). Zielinski's deep time of the media is relative to internet time. From that standpoint, the 1500s are ancient. That is where his archaeological investigations begin. The book describes his digging methods and the discoveries he unearthed. A collection of skulls of female Italian criminals seems to have little to do with what we think of these days as "the media," but Zielinski connects them and their collector, Lambroso, to early twentieth century films.

With nearly a hundred pages of notes, bibliography, and index, this is an academic book. Its dry style follows the standard for such books. Yet, Zielinski manages to convey the excitement of finding the turning points that push media history in one direction rather than another. The fascinating illustrations make the book pleasant to page through.