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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
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Volume 3, Issue 163: Friday, February 9, 2001
- "Internet Board Defends Name Choices"
Associated Press (02/08/01); Jesdanun, Anick
ICANN Chairman Vinton Cerf supports the seven new domain names the agency approved last November, but acknowledges that ICANN may have rejected qualified proposals in doing so. The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications conducted hearings upon receiving complaints from applicants who paid ICANN a nonrefundable $50,000 fee simply to propose domain names that were never selected. "In my mind, legitimate questions have been raised by several of our witnesses about the fairness of the application and selection process," declared subcommittee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.). Many applicants contended that ICANN used arbitrary qualifications and rushed through the selection process. In a written statement, Cerf argued that ICANN needed a pool small enough to test the viability of additional domain names, which made rejecting qualified applications unavoidable. "The real news is finally with the formation of ICANN, this long debate is actually producing new" domain names, proclaimed Cerf. Of the seven new domain names, only two--.info and .biz--will be for general use. The domain names will start appearing on the Web later this year.
For information regarding ACM's Internet governance work related to ICANN, visit http://www.acm.org/serving/IG.html.
- "Young Tech Workers Face Crippling Injuries"
USA Today (02/09/01) P. B1; Armour, Stephanie
Thousands of 20- and 30-something tech workers are suffering from debilitating repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis. Because the injuries validate an employee's hard work, Microsoft business development manager David Marutiak, who himself has been diagnosed with work-related disabilities, says the culture of the tech sector considers the ailments a badge of valor. Marutiak, like many others, began his tech career in a startup atmosphere--where fledgling businesses with little capital make-do with milk crates for seats and work out of garages. Ergonomic consultant Susan Flynn says 60-hour weeks and high-stress levels are exacerbated by workers' spending their remaining spare time online. However, some large tech firms are beginning to take the issue very seriously. Intel, for example, has compiled all its Santa Clara facility workers' ergonomics profiles into a database so that it can custom-build an office before the workers move in. Earnest Ray, an ergonomics expert at Intel, says musculoskeletal disorders are the most common workplace injury at the company due to the intense nature of its computer engineering timetable. Although little data is available on the extent of such maladies in the technology industry because of their recent occurrence, the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine completed a survey that found $45 billion to $54 billion in losses resulting from musculoskeletal disorders in the United States each year.
- "Web Layoffs Galore, But Many Find a Net"
New York Times (02/09/01) P. A25; Blair, Jayson
New York's Silicon Alley seems to be landing relatively softly in the dot-com crash, some area experts report. The second week of February saw Barnesandnoble.com cut 350 jobs and Razorfish announce a 400-person layoff. Then RCN downsized the construction of its cable network, along with 215 jobs, and said it would try to find a buyer for its Internet division. Although the news of layoffs and buyouts sounds dire, former president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation Charles Millard said it showed the companies were entering a mature market phase in which they were learning to become more competitive by cutting unnecessary positions. Senior Federal Reserve Bank economist Jason Bram also lightened the news by noting the strength of New York employment figures. He said that the city has been generating between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs a month, not counting December, which had only yielded 2,500 jobs due to depressed retail sales. Bram and other New York economists say the recent layoffs are a boon to Wall Street firms, government agencies, and nonprofits that previously could not compete for the skilled dot-com workforce.
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- "Hackers Said to Cost U.S. Billions"
E-Commerce Times Online (02/08/01); DeLong, Daniel F.
Internet security lapses cost U.S. corporations 5.7 percent of their annual revenue, University of California at Davis tech economist Frank Bernhard reports. Bernhard studied 3,000 U.S. firms and found that they lose 6 cents of each $1 of revenue because of hackers, which adds up to billions of dollars each year. Bernhard says U.S. corporations have not focused on Internet security as much as they should have. Instead, their Internet spending went toward fixing the Y2K bug two years ago and e-business initiatives last year, Bernhard says. The world community received another reminder last week of the potential reach of hackers. Unidentified hackers struck the World Economic Forum at its Davos, Switzerland, meeting and obtained confidential data on 27,000 people, including former President Bill Clinton and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. Still, hackers and security remain a low priority for Congress, political observers report, with the House and Senate more concerned with spam and general privacy issues.
- "An Early Test for Bush on Encryption"
SiliconValley.com (02/09/01); Gillmor, Dan
A recent USA Today report that terrorist Osama bin Laden is using the Internet to scramble messages for his network of operatives may actually be the first step in a propaganda effort by the nation's top law-enforcement officers, speculates columnist Dan Gillmor. Gillmor argues that those officers, including FBI director Louis Freeh, are clearly not fans of the encryption technology that bin Laden and other terrorists are reportedly using. They may want to restrict the public's access to encryption technology in order to prevent other bad guys from using it in a similar manner. Gillmor says this would be a mistake, as the public needs encryption technology to protect their personal data, much of which is floating around in cyberspace, protect by only the meekest security. Gillmor sees this as an early test for the Bush administration, which must side itself either with law enforcement or with public concern. In an unrelated matter, Gillmor criticizes Intel CEO Andy Grove's recent call for a tax break on tech purchases by small businesses. Gillmor says Grove's argument, that a "digital divide" is being created between big and small companies, is false. In fact, computers are cheaper now than ever before, Gillmor argues. He sees this as one more example of big business seeking special breaks from Congress.
For information regarding ACM's activities related to encryption, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/crypto.
- "Patently Ridiculous Claims"
Washington Post (02/09/01) P. E1; Pegoraro, Rob
British Telecom recently filed suit against Prodigy Internet for patent fees on the World Wide Web, which the phone company says it owns. BT points to a patent applied for in 1976 and granted in 1989 that specifies a network connecting computers through one central server and via modem and keyboard input. Tech industry leaders scoff at what they say is a preposterous claim, but many critics point out the increasing ridiculousness of intellectual property rights claims in the IT sector. When AltaVista's parent company, CMGI, claimed to hold the rights to Web indexing last month, industry leaders immediately saw an impending barrage of lawsuits. However, AltaVista's Jim Shissler said other companies have read too much into the claim, saying that the company "would not want to stifle innovation." Louis Monier, a former AltaVista scientist who helped engineer the Web search engine, says large corporations' insistence on proprietary technologies and even ideas blocks the opportunity for individual inventors to continue the tradition of innovation that the Internet was built upon.
- "The Wizard of IT"
CBS News Online (02/06/01); Marin, Carol
Dean Kamen does not want to talk about his new invention, known as IT, or Ginger, even though it is already generating buzz on Wall Street, in newsrooms, and in executive offices. The 49-year-old Kamen, who first made a name--and a small fortune--for himself at age 25 with his first invention, the auto-syringe, is more concerned that people do not believe certain problems in the world can ever be solved. "The trouble is most of the problems left that are worth solving, that are important, have one thing in common," he explains. "It's that they're really hard to solve. So we spend our time working on those." Most recently, Kamen and his team of 200 engineers developed a new form of wheelchair that models the motion of legs to allow users to climb up and down stairs. However, Kamen believes that his most important work has been with the organization known as First--For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology--which aims to instruct America's youth about the importance of science and technology. "They need to have an opportunity to be able to see and learn things so that they can separate that which is important from that which isn't," he says. First has sponsored such activities as a contest in which students compete to see who can build the best robot. Success is secondary for Kamen. "Life is about the journey," he says. "It's about where you're going. It's not where you are."
Dean Kamen is one of the feature speakers slated to appear at ACM's upcoming conference ACM1: Beyond Cyberspace. . .A Journey of Many Directions. For more information, visit http://www.acm.org/acm1.
- "Europe Shines Brighter for Indian Software Exports"
Officials at several Indian software firms say Europe is growing in importance as an export market. From April 1999 to March 2000, North America, dominated by the United States, was the destination for 62 percent of Indian software exports. In the same period, Europe received 23.5 percent of those exports. However, as the U.S. economy appears to be entering a downturn, many Indian firms are relying on Europe to provide a strong, stable market. At the software firm Mastek, for example, which has 40 percent of its interests based in Europe, trouble with a U.S. customer forced the company to issue a profit warning last quarter. However, Chairman Ashank Desai relates, "We grew last quarter mainly because of Europe." Indian software firms have been slow to break into European markets because of the language barriers and other cultural factors and because many European businesses, traditionally conservative, were reluctant to outsource work to foreign firms. Now, the National Association of Software and Service Companies says it has begun training IT workers in several European languages, and Indian firms are seeking work permits in countries across the continent. "We do see a lot of opportunities coming out of Europe," says Anirudh Patni of Patni Computer Systems.
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- "Bell Labs Cryptologist Sees Digital Signature Flaw, Fix"
InfoWorld.com (02/05/01); Evans, James
Daniel Bleichenbacher at Bell Labs unearthed a flaw in the Digital Signature Algorithm (DSA) that could hamper the integrity of secure online transactions and harm virtual private networks, online shopping, and online financial transactions. Bleichenbacher ascertained that the DSA's random number generator was two times more likely to select a group of numbers from one range over the other. Attacking the flaw would take an immense amount of computing power, so the potential flaw is not in grave danger of being breached in the near future, according to Bell Labs. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) developed the DSA and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) accepted it. NIST has a new DSA specification that will be revealed in February. NIST suggests the coming specification as a fix to the dilemma. Bleichenbacher has developed a remedy for the DSA algorithm that would correct the bias.
- "Internet Age Becomes the Dark Age"
New York Times (02/08/01) P. E1; Hafner, Katie
Since officials in California resorted to rolling blackouts to curb the energy crisis in that state, individuals have had to confront the negative effects that blackouts can have on their computer equipment. Energy disruption can cause valuable work to be lost and can even cause damage to equipment. With the U.S. economy increasingly dependent on tech-related businesses and more and more employees choosing to work from home over the Internet, these disruptions are more than an inconvenience. Tech experts recommend that users do not rely only on surge protectors to prevent damage to computers and peripherals. These devices are meant more for voltage spikes and often do not outlast one very big spike. Instead, experts say users should install uninterruptible power supplies, or UPS devices. These devices, which can cost from $80 to $500, provide enough power to shut down a computer once the power goes out. UPS devices also provide better protection against surges than surge protectors do.
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- "Program Targets Girls for Tech Careers"
EE Times Online (02/08/01); Costlow, Terry
A new program sponsored by IBM and the National Society of Professional Engineers will aim to generate interest in engineering among young girls. "Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day" will be inaugurated on Feb. 22, the first of what will be an annual event held during National Engineers Week. The program will sponsor fun engineering-related games for middle school students, in the hopes of inspiring enthusiasm for tech-related studies. Although the numbers are slowly climbing, women account for just 10 percent of U.S. engineers. To counter this phenomenon, IBM also sponsors summer camps, in which young girls spend a week learning about technology. Female engineers such as IBM Life Sciences vice president Caroline Kovac and IBM WebSphere Database Development project manager Sandra Johnson Baylor have taken a personal interest in promoting engineering among girls. Rather than throw her daughter a birthday party with the usual games or clowns, Kovac set out old VCRs, computers, and radios and let the kids take them apart. Meanwhile, Baylor gives presentations at middle schools that, like the birthday party for Kovac's daughter, make learning fun. Kovac and Baylor observe a growing willingness among their peers to reach out to the younger generation. "There's a considerable interest from my female colleagues, who have responded to the appeal for more women to go out to schools," says Baylor. "Some who never thought of doing a presentation in the past are really excited to go out to a school and present technology to the students."
To learn more about ACM's Committee on Women in Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/women.
- "Teams Benefit From Virtual Workspaces"
Financial Times--IT (02/07/01) P. 9; Queree, Anne
Online collaborative tools are helping to develop a "third tier" to the Internet in which professionals work together on private extranets. Just as email proved superior to fax machines for one-to-one document management, new collaborative Web-based workspaces are making capital market transactions more efficient and effective. Financial companies are using secure extranets to communicate quickly with their multiple customers online. Because the merger and loan documents they deal with involve many parties and are document-intensive, Web-based solutions are a perfect solution. Tom Bird of iManage, a content-management solutions company, says online collaboration stores content centrally and allows it to be easily accessed through secure password-protected Web gateways. Once inside, business professionals can find a host of useful tools to facilitate their deals, including discussion threads, document editing and tracking, and virtual dealing rooms.
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- "Europeans Move Closer to Internet Copyright Law"
Newsbytes (02/05/01); McGuire, David
The European Commission's Legal Affairs Committee has decided to include only 4 of 197 amendments to its electronic copyright legislation, a bill that is similar in ways to the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The committee's actions pave the way for a full European parliament vote on the bill next week. A source says that the committee decided upon a "medium course" of action as it traversed the opposing viewpoints of the digital copyright issue. The European Union bill will permit EU members to take a less restrictive approach to copyright issues on the Internet.
For information regarding ACM's work in the area of copyright, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/IP.
- "In Defense of Copyleft"
Wired News (02/07/01); Lillington, Karlin
Free Software Foundation founder and principal GNU Not Unix developer Richard Stallman argued the merits of copyleft at a legal seminar in Dublin. Software retained under the aegis of copyleft and the General Public License (GPL) can be run, modified, copied, and distributed by users as long as the source code remains publicly available. Stallman claimed that copyrights impose "draconian regulation" on computer users and cited the U.S. government for enacting copyright measures that threaten to mirror the police-state tactics of the former Soviet Union. Stallman says commercial products not created under GPL will not feed back into the public domain, while advances in information technology have made copyright a thing of the past. On the other hand, LK Shields Solicitors lawyer Paul Lambert contended that copyright and copyleft are interconnected and cannot function without each other. Copyright becomes a given with any creative work that demonstrates adequate quality and uniqueness, Lambert argued. However, Lambert admitted that technological development can challenge existing perceptions of copyright and suggested that copyright should be redefined. A commercial software developer who attended the seminar stated his preference for open source software whose source code can be incorporated into commercial products without requiring the release of full product code. Anam CEO Mike Brady said that using open source code might put off a company's potential investors and lauded open source cryptographic code. Open source software, free software, and copyleft could represent a threat to top software vendors, but Lambert pointed out that GPL's enforceability has not yet been proved in court.
- "A Year Later, DDoS Attacks Still a Major Web Threat"
CNet (02/07/01); Lemos, Robert
One year after a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack struck Yahoo!, eBay, Amazon.com, and several other popular Web sites, Internet security analysts say few sites are prepared to withstand another round of attacks. DDoS attacks cripple Web sites and their servers by flooding them with data. Using a series of "slave" or "zombie" computers and servers, hackers can make this data appear to be coming from numerous sources, frustrating any attempt to locate the attack's source. Tom Anderson, CTO of the security startup Asta Networks, says it may only get worse. "The attacks have become more sophisticated. We have seen a little bit more of the iceberg, but there is a lot more to come," he says. Recent months have seen DDoS attacks strike Microsoft and the Internet Relay Chat network. Efforts to fight DDoS attacks are progressing, with Asta Networks, Mazu Networks, and several other startups seeking to develop counter-hacking technologies. The Internet Engineering Task Force is studying a program known as ICMP Traceback Messages, or itrace. This program can follow a specific piece of data back to its source, theoretically exposing the perpetrator of a DDoS attacks. However, hackers' use of IP spoofing, a technique by which they can make data appear to come from somewhere other than their actual source, makes it difficult to use such a program successfully. Security experts agree that cooperation among companies is the key to fighting DDoS attacks. To that end, the Information Technology Association of America and 19 high-tech companies have created the Information Technology Information Sharing and Analysis Center (IT-ISAC). The members hope that by sharing information through IT-ISAC they will be better equipped to understand, fight, and investigate future DDoS attacks.
- "Small Business Staring at Digital Divide"
IDG News Service (02/07/01); Johnston, Margret
Intel Chairman Andy Grove warned of a growing digital divide between large and small U.S businesses at a recent World Affairs Council dinner. He said corporations with more than 100 employees have invested a significantly higher percentage of their budgets in IT, far outstretching the mere 5 percent investment level that only one-eighth of U.S. small businesses have been able to reach. Because the large IT investments of the past few years have played a major role in boosting the economy, he reasons that small-business sector IT investment could do the same, which may mean implementing tax incentives. Grove asserts that a small-business IT tax cut would "do more good for the economy, dollar for dollar, and is going to be a longer-lasting good, dollar for dollar, than if the whole thing were put into individual consumption or individual tax cuts." He also pointed out the importance of U.S.-graduated foreign students to the U.S. technology sector, urging more government intervention to help them stay and work here through the H-1B visa and other programs.
- "Looking Ahead at the High-Tech Year"
Hill (02/07/01) Vol. 8, No. 6, P. 11; Silverberg, David
The high-tech industry should have a good year in 2001, even though the anti-trust case against Microsoft is likely to be dismissed, predicts columnist David Silverberg. The software giant is expected to return to its old ways under the Bush administration and attorney general John Ashcroft. As was the case before the presidential election, the high-tech industry could split into two camps once again, with one side ready to embrace Microsoft and the other poised to shun the company. Although the high-tech industry is not likely to approach Capitol Hill with a united front this year, it should achieve success once again with lawmakers. A year ago, the high-tech industry got more H-1B visas, export controls, and digital signatures. High-tech companies should have enough clout with lawmakers to survive the downturn in the economy, dot-com troubles, and faltering tech stocks. Essentially, the industry is still viewed as a source of growth and exports. President George W. Bush has already proposed a tax cut that favors the high-tech industry. The industry also can look forward to having a lawmaker who is well versed in Internet and telecom issues, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
- "The Interface Revolutionary"
Computerworld (02/09/01) Vol. 35, No. 6, P. 62; Schwartz, Matthew
Today's computer interfaces, both Mac and Windows, are far from what everyday users actually want, argues Jef Raskin, who created Apple's Macintosh interface and has now written a book, "The Humane Interface: New Directions for Designing Interactive Systems." Raskin says bad interface design causes users to suffer both psychological pain--frustration at complex, unreliable programs--and actual physical pain from poor ergonomic design. Today's interfaces rely too heavily on the mouse and collapsible windows, both of which force users to point and click their way through "a maze of little rooms," as Raskin describes it, to get to the information or Web page they want. Raskin says innovations such as Windows 2000's adaptive interface are problematic because users do not want an interface that changes abruptly. Also, Raskin expresses disappointment with the Linux environment, which he says has come about in a "piecemeal way." Raskin is working on an interface in which users have what they need presented before them and can zoom in and out on specific applications. This method is easy to learn, Raskin says, adding that early tests have shown high ratings of satisfaction from users. Raskin contends that it will take a visionary company to launch PCs, PDAs, and other computer devices based on his or some other new interface. However, Raskin adds that this may be the only way for a new company to make a name for itself in the crowded computer market.
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"The Humane Interface" is an ACM Press publication. To order, or for more information, visit
- "Space Babies"
New Scientist (02/03/01) Vol. 69, No. 2276, P. 26; Ananthaswamy, Anil
Electronics engineers are designing new hardware and software that can evolve, letting scientists push the limits of space and deep sea exploration. The new self-configuring machines would mimic many of the processes found in natural organisms, but on a much faster scale. Researchers discovered in the mid 1990s that they could create genetic algorithms to allow circuits to evolve into the best and fastest configurations. The process used field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), or modules made up of sets of transistors and connected by switches. When controlled by a special genetic algorithm program created by the engineers, the small sets of hardware can reconfigure themselves with one-tenth as many components as would be used if designed by humans. JPL electrical engineer Adrian Stocia continued this concept in a project began in 1998. He uses an FPGA variant to build evolving hardware for use in both analogue and digital spacecraft components. When a prototype circuit was tested in adverse environments, the results astounded researchers. When faults were detected, the program redesigned the circuitry in half of the original time--reflecting the evolutionary process of improving upon past successes. Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology are working on "embryonic electronics," a conglomeration of basic circuit blocks, each one comprised of hundreds of transistor groups, or "molecules." From these simple microprocessors, almost any logic function can be performed, says Daniel Mange, a researcher on the project. The team has designed "polymerase" and "ribosomic" genome programs that prepare the electronic organism for an operational genome program that spreads throughout the creature and designates certain tasks to specific circuits. The entire process resembles the way a natural organism is first formed, with groups of stem cells taking on specialized roles, such as heart muscles or nerve tissue.