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Timely Topics for IT Professionals

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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


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Volume 4, Issue 317: Friday, March 1, 2002

  • "Senate Mulls Law to End Tech-Media Piracy Fight"
    Reuters (02/28/02); Sullivan, Andy

    At a congressional hearing, legislators heard arguments but no solutions between media and technology executives as to how to protect copyrighted material from digital piracy, so Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) announced his plan to introduce federal regulation. The interests of media companies were represented by Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who claimed that high-tech firms were giving customers the tools to pirate digital entertainment as part of their growth strategy; the tech industry, represented by Intel VP Leslie Vadasz, argued that media companies have been trying to impose their own specifications on computer design. The technology sector is making progress, according to Vadasz: He noted that an anti-piracy safeguard for digital TV broadcasts will be ready by the end of March. Hollings' bill would require consumer electronics manufacturers to embed copy-protection technology in all their products, and would be put into effect if the media companies and technology groups fail to reach an agreement after 18 months--or 12, if Hollings so decrees. Hollings and other senators expressed hope that fear of government regulation will motivate both sides to come to an agreement.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Scripting Flaw Leaves Sites Vulnerable"
    CNet (02/28/02); Lemos, Robert

    Security researchers on Wednesday warned of flaws in the commonly used open-source PHP code that runs on open-source Web servers such as Apache, Microsoft Internet Information Server, and servers using Sun's Solaris operating system. The flaws leave servers using older versions of PHP vulnerable to heap overflow and boundary check attacks. PHP allows developers more flexibility in putting together Web pages using a collection of open-source software known as LAMP. Netcraft says that since Apache is used on 63 percent of Web servers, or nine million servers, the potential security risk is large. This time, it seems Microsoft's Internet Information Server software is safe, an unusual situation since most attacks target that system. SANS Internet Storm Center chief technology officer Johannes Ullrich said the flaw was difficult to execute and not many people would be able to take advantage of it. Server administrators can solve the problem by upgrading to the latest PHP version, 4.1.2, he said. The security flaws affect PHP versions 3.10 to 4.1.1.
    http://news.com.com/2100-1001-847092.html

  • "Senate Leader Contemplates Tauzin-Dingell Compromise"
    Newsbytes (02/28/02); MacMillian, Robert

    House of Representative supporters of the broadband deregulation Tauzin-Dingell bill are working to somehow get it past tough opposition in the Senate Commerce Committee. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) gave them a glimmer of hope when he said the overwhelming win in the House might lead to a compromise that would be more palatable to the Senate. Opposing the legislation in the Senate are Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.), Commerce Committee Ranking Republican Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and other ranking Republicans. The bill would allow Baby Bells more freedom in offering long-distance data services without having to open their monopolies up to competition, as current law requires under the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), ally of the bill and ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, says the law would not eliminate competition as opponents say because it lets the Bell companies compete on each others' turf, as well as challenge the more successful cable broadband services from the likes of AT&T. Dingell believes the bill would pass if put to a Senate vote now, but first must go through the Senate Commerce Committee. If a deal cannot be reached in that group, then he says, "the next plan is to try and walk around it."
    http://www.newsbytes.com/news/02/174858.html

  • "CD Technology Stops Copies, But It Starts a Controversy"
    New York Times (03/01/02) P. C1; Harmon, Amy

    Recording labels such as Universal Music Group and Sony Music are stealthily releasing copy-protected CDs into the market. Grass-roots opposition from consumers is increasing as consumers find they cannot play some of their store-bought CDs on their computers or multi-purpose DVD players, or record songs onto their portable MP3 devices. Web sites tracking the release of such CDs are springing up and gaining adherents, who are urging other consumers to return the CDs in protest. CD technology pioneers Philips Electronics and Sony's electronics division are also upset over the copy-protected CDs because they detract from the versatility and usability of the CD format, which they invented. MP3 device manufacturer SonicBlue says it would be a simple matter to create technology that could overcome the copy-protection, but to do so would be in direct violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. For now, recording labels are testing the market's reaction to copy-protected CDs with the hope that they can be used to stem the flow of digital music being pirated over the Internet. Extra features could be added to the CDs in the future, such as files with sheet music for the songs and music videos, as well as the ability to make limited copies of the files, and greater device interoperability.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/01/technology/01PROT.html
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)

  • "Cultivating Next-Generation IT Talent"
    InformationWeek Online (02/27/02); Colkin, Eileen

    Trade associations are organizing programming competitions to foster IT skills in students, while business-technology managers use them to scan the future IT talent pool and vendors use the contests to build brand loyalty. In March, Honolulu will play host to a competition between 192 finalists from the Association of Computing Machinery's International Collegiate Programming Contest. Sponsored by IBM, the competition will organize the finalists into teams tasked with finding solutions to coding problems using conventional and emerging programming languages such as Java, Pascal, and C++. The 2002 Sun Microsystems and TopCoder Collegiate Challenge will offer $150,000 to 512 competing college programmers, and TopCoder COO Rob Hughes says his company may help businesses hire employees with specific programming language skills. "We gather information that ranks programmers against other programmers, using the same problems, algorithms, and tools, and how well they can code a solution to logic problems," he explains.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "For High-Tech Firms, Baltimore Is a Bargain"
    Washington Post (02/28/02) P. E5; McCarthy, Ellen

    Baltimore is the least expensive U.S. technology center where a high-tech company can set up shop, according to a study of 17 national tech centers conducted by Boyd, a corporate relocation company. It would cost a 500-person company $34.4 million annually to operate a 125,000-square-foot R&D office in Baltimore, compared to $43 million in San Francisco and $40.9 million in New York. Total labor costs would be $28.9 million in Baltimore, compared to $33 million in San Francisco. In the last five years, Baltimore has become the top choice for tech companies operating in the greater Washington area--both in terms of cost and the proximity of major institutions, says Boyd President John Boyd. "Given the fact that we're in a recessionary economy, our clients are finding that the only way to improve the bottom line is to reduce costs--they can't necessarily increase revenue--which makes site selection so important," he notes. Baltimore's technical infrastructure, considerable workforce, and low-cost perks are likely to draw more tech firms in the years ahead, says Anirban Basu of Towson University's RESI consulting arm.
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  • "Hack a PC, Get Life in Jail"
    Wired News (02/27/02); McCullagh, Declan; Zarate, Robert

    A rewrite of the Cyber Security Enhancement Act (CSEA) that broadens cybercrimes that carry life sentences has been unanimously approved by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime. Spurred on by the Bush administration, the replacement bill mandates that hackers who commit intrusions that "recklessly" risk other people's lives will face life imprisonment. The earlier CSEA draft only meted out such punishment to hackers who willingly attempt "to cause death or serious bodily injury." Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the original CSEA's sponsor, is also backing the revised version. Another CSEA provision would allow ISPs to disclose private electronic communications to law enforcement officials "in good faith," a move that civil liberties groups oppose. "It allows carriers to disclose information in response to any government request when government claims an emergency with no oversight, no accountability after the fact," argues the Center for Democracy and Technology's Jim Dempsey. Furthermore, the CSEA gives official approval to the National Infrastructure Protection Center, and the revised bill raises the center's fiscal 2003 funding from $57.5 million to $125 million. The panel also approved an amendment proposed by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) granting the U.S. Sentencing Commission more leeway in determining the punishment that cybercrimes carry.
    http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,50708,00.html

  • "Surcharge Suggested for Scrap Electronics"
    San Francisco Chronicle (02/27/02) P. B1; Martin, Mark

    It is estimated that 6,000 computers and televisions become obsolete in California each day, a situation that has prompted Sens. Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto) and Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) to seek to curb e-waste stockpiling through legislation that would raise product costs and give electronics manufacturers impetus to develop recycling programs. Sher's bill would apply a surcharge to consumers when they purchase a new TV or computer monitor that contains lead; the money would help fund recycling initiatives by local governments. Romero's proposal would require computer and TV makers to either create free programs that allow consumers to return old equipment to the manufacturer, or pay a fee that would go toward a state recycling program. The bill also sets of a goal of recycling 75 percent of all computers by 2010; currently, about 15 percent of computers are recycled. The exact fees each bill would impose have not been set. The California Manufacturers and Technology Association's Gino DiCaro warns that the costs for companies to mount state-directed recovery programs could trickle down to the consumer. Meanwhile, environmentalists argue that voluntary recycling programs are not supporting a large market. Because new rules prevent TVs and computer monitors from being dumped in landfills, the bulk of the United States' e-waste is exported to third-world countries that use dangerously unsafe recycling methods, according to a new report.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Designers Take Robots Out of Human Hands"
    New York Times (02/28/02) P. E5; Eisenberg, Anne

    Robots are being designed today that are capable of limited autonomy. Dr. Gaurav S. Sukhatme of the University of Southern California is working on small robotic helicopters that could be a cheaper alternative to manned choppers that are used to report traffic conditions. The robot is constructed of off-the-shelf components and uses an onboard camera and software to find places to land without the need for remote control. Dr. Larry Matthies of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory notes that such devices could also be used as air reconnaissance platforms that map out unknown regions for the military. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded a significant portion of Sukhatme's work. Meanwhile, Dartmouth University's Dr. Daniela Rus is developing self-configuring machines that can adjust their shape to shifting terrain conditions. Such a robot is composed of individual modules with motors and spinning links that can change their position. "If they come to a cave, for instance, they might form themselves into a slinky, snakelike line to get inside, then broaden out once they were within," Rus explains.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/28/technology/circuits/28NEXT.html
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)
    (This New York Times article was gleaned from the March 2002 issue of Communications of the ACM.)

  • "Do Androids Dream of First Amendment Rights?"
    Salon.com (02/25/02); Wieners, Brad

    MIT Media Lab Computing Culture Group director Chris Csikszentmihalyi is building a robot journalist to go to Afghanistan, where a reporter in the United States can remotely control it via satellite-delivered Internet. The solar-powered Afghan Explorer is modeled after the Mars Explorer and built using off-the-shelf parts, since Csikszentmihalyi's intention is to deploy it quickly. It's four-foot-tall neck mounts a small monitor for videoconferenced interviews. He says the current media coverage is as slanted as the Cold War-era movie Rambo III, in which the mujahedin are pictured in a favorable light, because of the restrictions placed on journalists by the U.S. military. Although Csikszentmihalyi predicts the Afghan Explorer will likely be K.I.A. and resold in pieces, he says the mission is important in principal. Yale engineering professor and political artist Natalie Jeremijenko says Csikszentmihalyi's project emphasizes that Afghanistan may as well be Mars for all average Americans know about the situation. Jeremijenko is part of the subversive Bureau of Inverse Technologies group that set up a network of microphones and sensors in Kosovo that Webcasted the sounds of the fighting during the recent war there.
    http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2002/02/25/afghan_robot/index.html

  • "Firm Seeks FDA Approval for Human Chip Implants"
    Washington Times (02/28/02) P. A1; Ramstack, Tom

    The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing an application for a human identification implant marketed by Applied Digital Solutions. Privacy groups warn that national sentiment following the Sept. 11 attacks could help ease the introduction of such a device, which could one day be used for ill-intentioned means by the government or other groups through what is known as "function creep." Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien says, "The problem is that you always have to think about what the device will be used for tomorrow." Applied Digital says it overcame its hesitancy to market the chip after the terrorist attacks because of the security and safety implications. The device could help avoid invasive searches at airports and provide health information of people who have lost consciousness in emergency situations. The firm is also developing a satellite-based system that would work in conjunction with the identification implant so that the tagged person could be located anywhere on the globe. Just a millimeter long, the VeriChip implant would carry a person's vital information and relay it to a scanner that would have to be passed within about two inches of the device.
    http://www.washingtontimes.com/business/20020228-84984056.htm

  • "Bush Team Hopes to Avoid Tech Pitfalls That Plague So Many Federal Projects"
    Investor's Business Daily (02/28/02) P. A1; Deagon, Brian

    The Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) e-government task force has released its strategy for attacking inefficiency in the federal technology spending process. The Bush administration is trying to make sure the $45 billion spent on federal IT this year and $52 billion next year is not wasted on technology that is based on paper processes, made ineffective by uncooperative agency heads, or serves the government better than citizens. Many of the methods involve private-sector like techniques to enhance the effectiveness of government-to-business or government-to-consumer interaction on the Web. OMB says the 24 e-government projects supported by the strategy will reduce paperwork and redundant technology expenditures. One Department of Veterans Affairs program, for example, will allow separate VA offices to send each other electronic forms, replacing expensive and time-consuming paper-based process. Sally Katzen, a former technology official for the Clinton administration, says the government has already moved a long ways in terms of technology strategy in the 1990s. Before, bureaucratic process and planning took years and technology would be outmoded by the time a framework was agreed upon, she says.

  • "Mentoring a Stimulant for Australia's IT Staff"
    ZDNet Australia (02/21/02); Fisher, Vivienne

    Although much may have been flawed with the dot-com business model, the mix and interaction between younger, more tech-savvy workers and older, staid business types was a real innovation, say experts. Some Australian IT departments are using this type of relationship to keep their younger IT workers with the company and develop them for larger roles. Alex Knight, manager for IT recruitment firm Robert Walters, says mentoring strengthens company commitment and benefits all who are involved. He says, "I don't think there's enough of it...It created a fantastic working atmosphere for the people who came out of the dot-com boom." Alfred Chown, principal with Hong Kong-based E.L. Consult, says building up employees through mentoring programs is a good investment because it creates a larger leadership base for the company because it teaches young IT workers more than just techie skills. Australian corporate psychologist Graham Clinch says mentoring also requires trust and involves a long-term relationship, developed through monthly meetings where parties share difficulties and strategies on how to improve. Although some argue that mentoring provides workers with the skills to move elsewhere, Clinch says the two-way nature of the process also benefits businesses.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "IETF Chairman Fires Broadside at ICANN"
    VNUNet (02/27/02); Middleton, James

    Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) co-Chairman Randy Bush has written an open letter to the ICANN board revealing his belief that ICANN's role in the future of the Internet should be scaled back to "serve the Internet" rather than "trying to rule it." Bush claims that the new TLDs are a failure, the domain name registry market is "not usefully competitive," and the UDRP nearly did not become policy. Bush says ICANN has become too focused on increasing its power, rather than enhancing the capabilities of the Internet. ICANN could be run on $1 million to $2 million a year if the organization reduced its role to the stewardship and management of the Internet, according to Bush. He also questions why ICANN needs $10 million to run the root servers when they are being run voluntarily. Bush surmises that only the collective persuasion of the IETF, ISPs, and registries will be enough to force ICANN to act rationally.
    http://nl2.vnunet.com/Print/1129566

  • "Mac Cluster's Last Stand?"
    Wired News (02/22/02); Philipkoski, Kristen

    Research scientists are building networked systems out of hundreds of PCs, but many would rather use Apple Macintoshes. Macs produce more processing power with less electricity draw, a major plus for supercomputer networks, which often have to overcome overheating and electrical power consumption issues. However, the shape of the Mac G4 requires that it be stood upright in order to function correctly, and that proves a problem when scientists try to fit them in networking racks made for stackable PCs. Biomolecular researcher Patrick Gavin says he would much rather be using Mac G4s in his supercomputer cluster, which is comprised of 1,000 Intel-based PCs running Linux. Apple has said that the rack-mounting issue has been resolved by some scientists that have built special racks. Recently, Apple released an open-source Mac OS X version of the BLAST genetic research tool, which helps scientists identify common genes and proteins in different species. Argonne National Laboratory director of math and computer science Rick Stevens says he recently bought a Mac and found the usability appealing, and said Apple's efforts to market to the scientific field are well-placed.
    http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,1282,50454,00.html

  • "The Next Web"
    Business Week (03/04/02) No. 3772, P. 96; Port, Otis

    Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web, is planning to follow it up with the Semantic Web, a next-generation network that can comprehend human language. He is coordinating a massive initiative with contributions from hundreds of researchers; its goal to link every Web-enabled computer into a database that encompasses all collected scientific, artistic, and corporate knowledge. Berners-Lee predicts that the Semantic Web "will foster global collaborations among people with diverse cultural perspectives, so we have a better chance of finding the right solutions to the really big issues--like the environment and climate warming." Users of the Semantic Web would have software agents at their disposal that could analyze Web sites and cull only relevant data, as well as automate routine business tasks, thus raising productivity. Even more important, the Semantic Web would be able to summarize knowledge faster, boosting data assessment and integration to unprecedented levels. Most of Berners-Lee's associates are confident that he can make his dream a reality, given his track record: In addition to ushering in the World Wide Web, he has also helped push XML through the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). XML is particularly important to the Semantic Web, as it is used to contextualize words and concepts. Among the challenges Berners-Lee faces is bringing the many companies that comprise W3C--the Semantic Web's primary backer--into accord over numerous issues, including the structure and standards of the Semantic Web. In the project's favor is support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
    Click Here to View Full Article
    (Access for paying subscribers only.)

  • "Wanted: More Network-Security Graduates and Research"
    Computer (02/02) Vol. 35, No. 2, P. 22; Paulson, Linda Dailey

    Many services and organizations--federal agencies, corporate industries, utilities, and transportation among them--are dependent on computer networks that are potentially prey to intrusion. At the root of this problem, security experts say, is a shortage of network-security graduates and research funding for electronic security efforts. The private sector accounts for most U.S. network-security research, which primarily focuses on antivirus software and intrusion-detection systems while programming language and other basic security falls by the wayside, posits Timothy J. Shimeall of the Software Engineering Institute's Networked Systems Survivability Program. Steven Bellovin at AT&T Labs Research observes that academic computer-security programs--what few exist--do not have an adequate number of faculty members with network-security backgrounds to raise the number of graduates. Purdue University's Eugene Spafford attributes this shortage to students being lured away by the private sector, sometimes before completing their degrees. Some 13 federal agencies are funding computer-security projects, but there is no one agency taking a leadership role, according to National Academy of Engineering President William A. Wulf. Columbia University's Salvatore J. Stolfo proposes that the graduate and research shortage could be solved if the National Science Foundation halts encryption research funding; Shimeall says academia must reorganize their computer-science programs to focus more on network security. More scholarships and other educational perks could generate more interest among students, while Daniel A. Reed of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in calling for "an entire redesign of systems and the infrastructure to address security issues in a systemic, practical, [nontheoretical] manner."

  • "Games Computers Play"
    Computerworld (02/25/02) Vol. 36, No. 9, P. 50; Anthes, Gary H.

    Artificial intelligence (AI) breakthroughs involving game theory are finding wider applications. For instance, the technology that allowed IBM's Deep Blue to win a match against world chess champion Garry Kasparov is being furthered in Blue Gene, a supercomputer designed to analyze protein structure, molecular dynamics, pharmaceutical design, and other biological functions by running at 1 quadrillion floating-point operations per second. Jonathan Schaeffer of the University of Alberta notes that the key to AI gaming triumphs was "brute-force" searching, which is finding use in commercial optimization programs. Schaeffer's BioTools company, for example, sells commercial gene-sequencing products that use parallel-processing algorithms he originally developed to search a database of 1 trillion checkers positions. However, AI research is now focusing on games in which brute force searches are inapplicable: A project at the University of Alberta involves a poker-playing computer program that predicts outcomes via a Monte Carlo simulation and analyzes how opponents bet and bluff via neural networks. Schaeffer contends that such technology could be applied to auctions and other commercial transactions. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan's John Laird is working to refine the behavior of characters in popular computer games by adding AI systems into the mix. Training programs for military personnel could be enhanced and streamlined with AI-based gaming, and Laird has a contract with the Defense Department to devise such programs for fighter pilots.
    http://www.computerworld.com/cwi/stories/0,1199,NAV47-81_STO68541,00.html

  • "At Long Last MEMS"
    Electronic Business (02/02) Vol. 28, No. 2, P. 50; Arensman, Russ

    Micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) may finally break out of the niche markets they have been restricted to because of improved assembly methods, new investors funding startups, and outsourced production. Investments and acquisitions by companies such as Intel, Nortel Networks, and JDS Uniphase have prioritized MEMS development, which has led to significant changes in the management and business strategies of MEMS firms and a bigger push to get more MEMS devices to market. One of the earliest commercial applications for MEMS was acceleration sensors that trigger airbags in automobiles; other MEMS products include pressure sensors for the auto and medical industries and digital light processing technologies. MEMS-based optical switching chips have been highly touted, but expectations that the market for such devices would run into the billions of dollars turned out to be premature. Still, there is hope that bubble-switch chips, mirror arrays, and 3D MEMS switches will attract significant sales. Several leading MEMS companies are taking a diverse business approach, offering products for multiple markets--a sign of an immature industry. "There's still no clear business model for success," says Cahners In-Stat analyst Marlene Bourne, who estimates that global MEMS sales revenues should balloon from $3.8 billion to upwards of $11 billion between 2001 and 2005. MEMS are likely to become more specialized in the long term, but it is too early to tell if chip companies or specialists will rule.
    Click Here to View Full Article