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March 29, 2006

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Welcome to the March 29, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Primary Voting-Machine Troubles Raise Concerns for General Election
USA Today (03/28/06) P. 1A; Drinkard, Jim

Voting-machine difficulties in Texas and Illinois have revived concerns that this year's election will be fraught with glitches. Since the Help America Vote Act required states to modernize their voting equipment, it is estimated that in this year's election more than 30 million voters will be using unfamiliar machines. Concerns about the reliability and security of new e-voting systems have reverberated throughout the country, and early problems in primary elections have already materialized in two Illinois jurisdictions--Chicago and Cook County--where precinct judges were untrained, and paper jams and misplaced equipment caused long delays in tallying the ballots. In Texas, state Supreme Court candidate Steve Smith is contesting the March 7 primary due to count irregularities. An initial ballot tally in Fort Worth had 150,000 votes recorded, though there are only one-third that number of voters. State spokesman Scott Haywood says the irregularities were the result of human error, and the problems have been fixed. In May, 10 states will hold primaries, including Pennsylvania, which is "a disaster waiting to happen," according to John Gideon, director of VotersUnite.org. The new systems will be up to the task, however, retorts Michelle Shafer of Sequoia Voting Systems, which provides voting machines to Pennsylvania and 19 other states. ACM's U.S. Public Policy Committee recently issued an in-depth report on the accuracy, privacy, usability, security, and reliability issues of statewide databases of registered voters. To review the report, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/VRD
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UW Leads National Effort to Bring People With Disabilities Into Computing
UW News (03/27/06)

A new program at the University of Washington is launching to help improve computing accessibility for people with disabilities. Funded by a $2 million NSF grant, the AccessComputing Alliance will attempt to create a nationwide network through partnerships with universities and corporations to provide specialized training for disabled students. "The shortage of qualified professionals in computing fields is due in part to the under-representation of specific groups of Americans, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities," said Richard Ladner, a professor of computer science and engineering. Facilities are frequently inaccessible, there is a shortage of role models and qualified educators, and equipment is rarely designed with the needs of the disabled in mind, according to Sheryl Burghstahler, director of Washington's Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology program, or DO-IT. The alliance will attempt to grow the numbers of disabled students in university computing programs though a system of summer academies, internships, and mentoring programs. It will also develop analytics to measure accessibility at different departments, and work with college faculty to better equip them to instruct the disabled. Finally, the alliance will build a searchable database consisting of case studies, best practices, and training and education materials.
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PC, Leave Me Alone -- I'm Busy
Financial Times: Special Report (03/29/06) P. 2; Bradbury, Danny

In an effort to make technology less intrusive, Microsoft Research's Eric Horvitz has been developing context-sensitive systems that would know when a user is indisposed or concentrating on a task and wait to deliver a telephone call or an email notification. Using artificial intelligence, Horvitz's system, which Microsoft is currently testing at its headquarters, guesses when a user is busy and informs callers when he might again be contactable, though training a computer on a user's particular work habits is not a simple task. Many questions arise, such as how the computer is to handle an emergency. Should each caller be given the same level of information? In the user's absence to whom should calls be routed, and will every call be routed to the same person? Users must clearly see the benefit before they will customize a user interface, warns Kara Pernice of the Nielson Norman Group. "The profiles must be generic enough to create them easily, but when they're too generic they don't work properly," Pernice said. Beyond the user settings, sophisticated context-detection systems would be able to infer their users' habits from data that they collect. Such a system might notice that a user's calls are only a few seconds long at the same time each week, suggesting that he might be in an important standing meeting and that calls should always be rerouted during that time. Accenture is developing systems that can even sense emotion in a phone conversation. Researchers at MIT's Media Lab analyzing mobile phone data found that they could predict the movements of the test subjects with a 90 percent rate of accuracy. British Telecom CTO Paul Garner believes that the context-sensing abilities of data mining are limited, and that the real breakthrough will come from physical sensors. Advanced context-sensing systems could have a major impact on home health care, though they will require new modes of communicating.
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Internet Firms Want FCC to Enforce Net Neutrality
Washington Post (03/29/06) P. D4; Mohammed, Arshad

A half-dozen Internet companies are protesting a bill supported by House Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) that permits the FCC to decide Web access disputes only on a case-by-case basis and prevents the commission from establishing detailed regulations. Opponents of the bill argue that it would essentially de-claw the FCC's ability to enforce network neutrality, and give cable and phone companies free reign to discriminate against competitors by blocking access to Web sites. The six companies--IAC/InterActiveCorp, eBay, Yahoo!, Google, Amazon.com, and Microsoft--sent a letter to Barton and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) expressing their concern that the legislation "would deny consumers from unfettered [Internet] access," adding that the companies "have urged Congress to adopt network neutrality requirements that are meaningful and enforceable. The provisions in the committee bill achieve neither goal." Some of the major phone companies, which are implementing high-speed and video lines, maintain that they should be allowed to charge Internet firms more money to use their networks. Barton's bill was issued after a compromise between committee Republicans and Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) failed to materialize. Markey says the bill's "network neutrality" section "removes FCC authority to establish any future rules needed to ensure that consumers and competitors can avail themselves of the Internet experience they enjoy today." The committee's Larry Neal counters that the legislation invests the FCC with plenty of enforcement powers, including the authority to probe cases and fine violators as much as $25,000 a day. "What it doesn't have is a blank check for bureaucrats to write so many regulations that they'll choke off brand-new services even before consumers try them out," he says.
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Holograms Break Storage Record
Technology Review (03/29/06) Greene, Kate

InPhase Technologies has reportedly broken the record for storage density with a square inch of disk space that holds 64.3 GB of data, inviting the possibility off a holographic disk that could contain more than 100 movies of DVD quality. Magnetic storage is fast approaching its physical limitation of around 37.5 GB per square inch, said InPhase CTO Kevin Curtis, adding that holographic storage should continue to advance for another five or six years without significant technological changes. While the idea of holographic storage has been around since the 1960s, the necessary optical technology has only been developed in the last five years. Lasers have also become smaller and less expensive. InPhase is scheduled to release a holographic disk drive and a 300 GB disk at the end of this year, followed by a disk that can hold 800 GB in 2008, and 1.6 TB in 2010. CDs, DVDs, and other optical storage disks only have information on their surfaces, while holographic devices hold data in three dimensions, which is critical to their large capacity. Holographic disks could help in large data archives, which mostly still use magnetic devices that are susceptible to moisture. When the blue laser is split into a signal beam and a reference beam, the scientists cross the two beams of light to produce holograms. The signal beam stores the ones and zeros as light and dark pixels, which appear as a hologram when crossed with the reference beam. This array, known as a page of data, contains about 1.3 million bits of data in InPhase's disks. Piecing together multiple pages makes a book, Cutis explains; there were 320 data pages in each of the three books in InPhase's record-breaking device. The company will next create books with more pages and further reduce the angle between each one.
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Professor to Try to Hack Voting Machines
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (03/27/06) Sherman, Jerome L.

After promising to pay $10,000 to anyone who can hack into a touch-screen voting machine without being detected, Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Michael Shamos is going to try himself. With thousands of computer scientists having raised doubts about the security of voting machines, Shamos will travel to Harrisburg to test the Sequoia AVC Advantage machine that Allegheny County intends to purchase. He has conducted more than 100 tests on voting machines in five states, and feels that he is better qualified than most to assess the vulnerability of e-voting machines. To meet the requirements for federal aid under the Help America Vote Act, Pennsylvania must have updated equipment in all of its counties. "If the system meets the requirements of Pennsylvania law, I'll recommend it," Shamos said. "If it doesn't, I'll have no hesitation in recommending against certification, even though it would throw elections in this county into a tizzy." Shamos has been certifying voting machines in Pennsylvania since 1980, and had been ready to quit the business when the 2000 election fiasco occurred, prompting a new level of concern about voting machine reliability. Shamos has tested the Advantage machine before, and this time he will spend up to nine hours searching for flaws in the machine's security, reliability, or usability. Voting rights advocates in Allegheny County have raised similar concerns as the Verified Voting Foundation, the California-based organization that has led the call for equipping machines with a mechanism to produce a paper trail for voters to confirm the accuracy of their ballot. David Dill, the organization's founder and a former student of Shamos', favors optical scan devices, but Shamos says those systems can fall prey to human error as well, and that no evidence of fraud has yet to appear. Shamos has never approved the addition of a paper trail to any system. A report entitled "Statewide Databases of Registered Voters--Study of Accuracy, Privacy, Usability, Security, and Reliability Issues" by ACM's U.S. Public Policy Committee is available at http://www.acm.org/usacm/VRD
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Java Is RIFE With Open-Source Development Frameworks
eWeek (03/28/06) Taft, Darryl K.

Geert Bevin began developing the open-source framework RIFE in 2002 to bring the utility of PHP and Perl to the Java Web development space. Bevin is CTO at Belgium's Uwyn, a venture specializing in dynamic Web applications, AJAX, and Web 2.0 whose name is an acronym for "Use what you need." "We needed to provide the metadata approach. The existing standards are there, such as Enterprise JavaBeans [and others], but they are not applicable to every model," Bevin said. With RIFE, a full-stack component environment that includes life-cycle management, metadata, and component management capabilities, developers can quickly and consistently produce and maintain Web applications in Java. Through external interfaces, RIFE also supports Web services, content syndication, and services such as authentication resource abstraction. Another feature supported by RIFE is metaprogramming, or writing applications that create or control other programs. Metaprogramming enables developers to work within a domain-specific API or language, saving time and eliminating complexity by working with larger blocks. The RIFE/Crud feature automatically produces the administration mechanism for routine create, read, update, delete (CRUD) tasks. The next step for RIFE will be to support development features with Java 5 annotation. RIFE also recently added Direct Web Remoting to support developers writing Web sites with AJAX. "It's good because you can package functionality that has AJAX components and you can use it anywhere in your applications," Bevin said. RIFE also contains HTML templates without logic, a central component model, and support for flexible declaration and configuration in both plain Java and XML.
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Digging Deep to Unlock the Grid
IST Results (03/28/06)

The IST-funded DataMiningGrid project is attempting to realize the data mining capabilities of the Grid by optimizing the tools and infrastructure that support it. By cohesively marshalling the diverse resources that comprise the Grid, including CPUs, software, and bandwidth, the researchers want to make the Grid operate as seamlessly as a local system. Still, "trust, security, data privacy, and reliability in Grid computing is still a largely unresolved problem," warns Werner Dubitzky, co-coordinator of the DataMiningGrid project. "These issues are particularly important when commercial computing jobs are distributed across sites not belonging to the company that issued the jobs." Data mining is integral to advancing the fields of astronomy, finance, and biology. The project is developing information pre-processing, analysis, and post-processing techniques to coalesce the data drawn from diffuse resources and improve the reliability and accessibility of the Grid. The DataMiningGrid project draws on existing tools for workflow management, scheduling, and integration to extract data from the Grid, rather than reinvent the wheel with an entirely new infrastructure. While the project itself is not intended to produce a commercial product, Dubitzky says the researchers are still focused on solving practical problems and bringing the technology to the market. Among the challenges facing the researchers is the difficulty of satisfying the widely disparate specifications of data mining applications in different environments. Also, due to privacy concerns or other factors, data must stay with the original source in many data mining applications.
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Chip Ramps Up Neuron-to-Computer Communication
New Scientist (03/27/06) Simonite, Tom

The study of interconnected brain cells has the potential to lead to the development of computers that use live neurons for memory. European scientists hope to gain a better understanding of interconnected brain cells by using a special microchip that is able to communicate with thousands of individual brain cells. The computer chip can connect to far more individual neurons than previous neuron-computer interfaces. The device, which has 16,384 transistors and hundreds of capacitors on a 1-mm squared experimental microchip, can receive signals from more than 16,000 mammalian brain cells and send messages back to several hundred cells. When surrounded by neurons, transistors receive signals from the cells, and capacitors send signals to cells. Stefano Vassanellia, a molecular biologist with the University of Padua in Italy, sees new applications emerging from the ability to control thousands of connected neurons. "It would definitely improve our ability to experiment and understand the workings of neurons, and this development could also provide a whole new way to store computer memory, using live neurons," Vassanellia says.
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Bluetooth Adopts New Radio Technology
Associated Press (03/28/06) Svensson, Peter

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group on Tuesday announced that it would incorporate ultra-wideband (UWB) radio technology to boost the speed of the Bluetooth wireless standard and enable it to transmit data as fast as a USB cable transfer if within 10 feet of a wireless transmitter. The first UWB-enabled devices should hit the market by 2008, said the industry group's executive director Michael Foley. UWB was developed by the WiMedia Alliance, whose members include Intel, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard. This push to create large-scale transmission capacity will help interconnect all types of devices, from televisions to computers to cell phones, so they can transmit a range of media. "There's a convergence between three major sectors: Personal computing, consumer electronics, and cell phones," noted WiMedia Alliance President Stephen Wood. These devices must be able to send large files, he added.
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Professor Contends Car-Pool Lanes Aggravate Congestion
North County Times (CA) (03/26/06) Downey, Dave

Transportation agencies should convert all car-pool lanes to general purpose lanes to allow more vehicles on freeways, and use sophisticated ramp-meter systems to control capacity, says UC Berkeley computer science and engineering professor Pravin Varaiya. Varaiya says such strategies would improve the efficiency of freeways with car-pool lanes by increasing speeds in all lanes and moving more commuters. Last fall, Varaiya embarked on a study of the efficiency of car-pool lanes by tallying and analyzing traffic volumes at 30-second intervals, using 26,000 sensors underneath California freeways. "We've been surprised to discover that some HOV [high-occupancy vehicle] lanes may have the perverse effect of actually adding to congestion," he says. Varaiya says car-pool lanes are less efficient at 60 mph free-flow conditions; the data shows that such lanes moved up to 1,600 vehicles an hour, compared with adjacent general purpose lanes that pushed through 2,000. During rush hours, car-pool lanes accommodated up between 1,400 and 1,500 cars in 30 mph stop-and-go traffic, compared with 1,200 to 1,300 cars for general purpose lanes. He notes that slow drivers particularly reduce the efficiency of car-pool lanes, especially on freeways that have single car-pool lanes. He favors the managed-lanes concept of San Diego County's Interstate 15, which has two lanes, and separates car pools from other general purpose traffic with thick concrete walls, essentially creating a freeway within a freeway.
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Mix Masters Try to Crack Code for Construction
Baltimore Sun (03/24/06) P. 1C; O'Brien, Dennis

The National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., is using the fourth fastest supercomputer in the United States to gain a better understanding of the strength and durability of concrete and how long it takes to harden. The variations of a typical batch of concrete reach into the billions, considering concrete is a combination of sand, gravel, and cement (a mixture of limestone, clay, and other materials that are heated), sand and gravel are quarried locally, and the size and shape of each particle impacts the durability of finished concrete. "Concrete can be different every time you make it, depending on what you're making it from," explains William George, a computer scientist at NIST who is heading the initiative. NIST was one of four organizations to win 1 million hours of processor time on NASA's Columbia supercomputer, a $120 million computer with 10,240 processors, covering 15,000 square feet at the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. George says the project will take about a couple of months, as processing time is calculated using 1,000 processors for an hour, which equals 1,000 hours of computer time. Columbia will enable NIST researchers to scale up simulations of mixtures of small pieces of concrete, modeling blocks by 10 times, and for the first time see how flow and durability of concrete is impacted by the size, distribution, and shape of particles. The research could lead to concrete that is more durable and easier to pour and pump, and could also lower the cost of repairs for construction projects.
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Council to Draw Up Cyberattack Response
Washington Technology (03/27/06) Lipowicz, Alice

The IT Sector Coordinating Council is in talks to set up a national IT disaster response system as it prepares to draft a sector-specific plan for protecting the nation's computer networks against a terrorist attack or other disasters, says Guy Copeland, the group's chairman and Computer Sciences vice president. The council is asking for ideas from the IT industry and the Homeland Security Department as it starts work on the sector-specific critical infrastructure protection plan at its April 4 meeting, Copeland says. The council expects the plan to be complete by September. One of the main goals during the drafting of the plan is to involve government officials very early on in the process since IT companies have complained in the past that they have not been asked for their input on infrastructure protection by federal agencies until the last minute, says Copeland. Some issues affecting the IT council include if and how IT companies should share sensitive data about their cyber vulnerabilities with the government, how that information will be protected and used, protocols for sharing information with other sectors, and how to assess the vulnerability of IT assets. The council consists of 33 members and was organized back in November 2005 as one of 17 sector councils representing water, energy, financial services, food. and other areas.
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If You Think You Understand, Then You Don't
The McGill Daily (03/27/06) Vol. 95, No. 45,Watts, John; Wachsmuth, Jeff

Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a quantum computer capable of solving a problem without turning on through a technique known as counterfactual interrogation. The researchers, led by Paul Kwiat, sent a photon through an array of interferometers containing the computer with the algorithm, which is essentially a cluster of logical gates that convey the truth of an answer by turning opaque or remaining transparent. So far, the principal applications of quantum computing have been in data mining and encryption. The power of quantum computing could simplify cracking existing RSA encryption. "Theoretically, you would be able to solve [an] RSA encryption faster than it may be created," said McGill computer science professor Claude Crepeau. In his experiment, Kwiat searched a database for the answer to an algorithm that was always between one and four without actually running the algorithm. Kwiat credits graduate student Onur Hosten with a major breakthrough when he described the quantum zeno effect, a phenomenon that projects the photon to a given state while taking a quantum measurement. Superposition periodically collapses the photon, despite the algorithm being pre-programmed essentially never to run. Passing through the mirror puts the photon into superposition, where it is reflected without being duplicated. In the end, the quantum zeno effect enabled the researchers to produce accurate results without having to run the algorithm.
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ICANN's 3-Year Plan Under Scrutiny at Meeting
IDG News Service (03/27/06) Perez, Juan Carlos

ICANN CEO Paul Twomey says ICANN is using its meeting in Wellington, New Zealand, to hone its Strategic Plan and that ICANN is expected to decide at the meeting whether it will approve the plan. The Strategic Plan provides a vision for ICANN through mid 2009 and defines the top 10 challenges that ICANN faces. These challenges include the increasing number of Internet security threats, adapting to the demands of global Internet users, and stability concerns associated with the numerous types of devices that are now used to access the Internet. Other issues ICANN is addressing in Wellington include the proposed .xxx domain, internationalized domain names (IDNs), and ways to prevent distributed denial of service attacks against the Domain Name System. ICANN intends to address any issues associated with IDNs and the approval of new top-level domain names in a timely manner, though not so hastily that the stability of the Internet is jeopardized, says Twomey. The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) recently cut its ties with ICANN, claiming the organization is not transparent, an assertion that Twomey strongly denies.
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Accelerating Data Transport Over Hybrid Networks
HPC Wire (03/24/06) Vol. 15, No. 12,

The emerging crop of data-intensive, multinational projects slated to go online over the next few years will require new methods of data retrieval and transmission. Computer scientists at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago have been developing user-friendly applications for moving large sets of data. Current shared systems use numerous routers and data paths and share bandwidth equitably, though large data flows are handled clumsily. Today's routers are too expensive to optimize a dedicated network infrastructure, though a switch-based system could affordably guarantee bandwidth, latency, and scheduling. EVL's protocol research at the application level is aimed at exploiting the maximum available bandwidth, regardless of whether it is routed, switched, or a hybrid of both, while making sure not to disrupt existing traffic. "For the past five years, we have been designing specialized transport protocols for data-intensive interactive visualization and streaming media applications," said EVL co-director Jason Leigh. EVL researchers began experimenting with moving large files over hybrid networks with its UDP transport protocol LambdaStream in January. They tested the system by moving data from memory to memory, disk to memory, and from disk to disk, comparing transmissions over the routed TeraGrid network with the switched CAVEware network and finding their speeds to be comparable. Partnering with the University of California, San Diego, in the NSF's OptIPuter project, EVL researchers are demonstrating that having the appropriate endpoint technologies enables economical point-to-point connections.
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Next-Generation Vehicles: Drivers Optional
EE Times (03/27/06)No. 1416, P. 1; Johnson, R. Colin

The team of Stanford researchers that designed Stanley, the autonomous vehicle that won the 132-mile DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005, is now working on a self-driving car built for the real highway. "Our goal at Stanford is to be able, within the next two years, to drive from downtown San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles with 100 percent autonomy," said Sebastian Thrun, director of Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Thrun expects the trip to take seven hours, challenging the vehicle to negotiate urban traffic, congested freeways, and long stretches of interstates. Stanford's success at the 2005 Grand Challenge convinced Thrun that it was only a matter of time before self-driven cars made it onto the road, particularly as sensors and semiconductors continue to advance. Thrun admits that the dream of the fully-automated car integrated into the daily traffic flow is still some 30 years away, though in the meantime numerous milestones will appear, such as automated military convoys and a bevy of safety and convenience features that will signal the transition to complete automation. Collision avoidance technology is a critical goal for automotive semiconductor makers, which Schulmeyer believes the industry will meet as radar is gradually tested on adaptive cruise control systems, then on safety systems such as the emergency brake, and finally on systems wholly dedicated to collision avoidance. Several auto makers have already demonstrated fully autonomous parking capabilities, Thrun says, adding that while many consumers will still want to drive themselves, a car that can be switched over to a fully-autonomous mode could allow drivers to check their email or take a nap on a long trip, and enable the elderly to remain independent longer.
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There's a Chip in My Pants
Discover (03/06) Vol. 27, No. 3, P. 26; Johnson, Steven

As the price of digital processors continues to drop and researchers develop materials that can transmit digital signals, the reality of smart clothing appears to be at hand. Adidas is at the forefront of this development with its athletic shoe designed to sense environmental conditions and adjust its cushioning level accordingly. A microprocessor receives 1,000 reports a second of compression level data from magnetic sensors, which it then relays to a motor that either tightens or loosens the shoe's cushioning support. Adidas is developing a new model for basketball that will adjust in response to the player's movements of jumping, running, and cutting and generate a profile based on the player's patterns of motion. Other smart clothing products can look inside the wearer, monitoring heart rate, respiration rate, and body temperature. ViviMetrics has developed a shirt to monitor the state of sleep apnea sufferers, a technology that could also be used to prevent sudden infant death syndrome. The MEMSwear device is a miniature silicon-based sensor that can be embedded in a shirt that conveys an alert to a cell phone or a computer through the wireless Bluetooth standard if the wearer falls. Though many of the potential applications of smart clothing may seem farfetched for the average consumer, the rapidly declining cost of hardware could lead to their widespread use anyway. Looking forward, smart clothing could interface with navigation services to provide walking directions based on the wearer's current position.
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Going With the Flow
Queue (03/06) Vol. 4, No. 2, P. 24; De Jong, Peter

Workflow models integrate an organization's data flow, organizational charts, and flowcharts in order to capture both the structured and unstructured components of the organization by extending its rational, computerized elements to its natural and open elements, writes Microsoft's Peter De Jong. Workflow systems must accommodate any type of message that comes into the organization; the work items that coordinate the receipt of the message with the organizational worker whose role the message specifies; the business rules that automate the decision process employed in assigning and carrying out a work item; and flowcharts that particularize the organizational plan for how work streams throughout the organization, and which comprise the main modeling structure in workflow systems. The workflow is preferably modeled by the organizational employee who is most knowledgeable about the process being modeled, rather than by the most proficient programmer. The runtime executes on the organizational design specified by the workflow models, and the resulting organizational information is divided into live data from executing workflow instances and historical data from already completed instances. Insight into the organization's performance is derived from the live data, which is used for workflow monitoring and management. The modification of workflow models to yield greater organizational efficiency is facilitated through historical data, which is used in reports of the organization's operations over time in order to identify operational trends. A workflow system can be used to explicitly model difficulties such as organizational events, work item subsystem, parallelism and synchronization, and exception handling. The most effective workflow systems are equipped with prebuilt workflows that outline procedures that occur regularly across multiple organizations, and are easily tailored to fulfill the needs of a specific organization.
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