Association for Computing Machinery
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 335: Friday, April 12, 2002

  • "National Academies Study Tempers Call for National ID"
    Newsbytes (04/11/02); Krebs, Brian

    Next week Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) will introduce legislation in Congress calling for the standardization of state drivers' licenses, but a report endorsed by the National Research Council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board says privacy, security, and logistical issues must be addressed first. Durbin's legislation, which has a lot in common with measures proposed by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), would have states issue licenses embedded with biometric identifiers such as fingerprints or holograms, and link their motor vehicle databases so that demographic and driving record information can be shared in real time. Durbin and the AAMVA claim the purpose of the legislation is not to introduce a national ID card but to stop malicious individuals from securing drivers' licenses in someone else's name, and thus put a halt to ID fraud and terrorism. The AAMVA pegs infrastructure and license upgrade costs between $75 million and $100 million, while the NRC report notes that "the costs of abandoning, correcting, or redesigning a system after broad deployment might well be extremely high." The report also expresses worries that the IDs could be used for functions other than their original purpose. The system, with its reliance on the Internet, could also draw hackers. Center for Democracy and Technology policy analyst Ari Schwartz urges that officials should work to boost the security and reliability of documents such as birth certificates, rather than institute a system of standard cards and shared databases. Privacy Council CEO Larry Ponemon says a biometric national ID is inevitable, but hardly foolproof.
    http://www.newsbytes.com/news/02/175823.html

  • "Software Writers Patently Enraged"
    Wired News (04/11/02); Delio, Michelle

    Software developers claim that the Patent and Trademark Office's patent issue system needs to be seriously retooled in order to remedy problems with the way patents are examined and approved. PTO examiners must adhere to strict specifications for approving and rejecting patent claims that often run counter to their experience, knowledge, and intuition, according to intellectual property lawyer Michael Jacobs. Patent law attorney Bruce Sunstein adds that there is a dearth of competitive salaries for examiners because Congress is not funneling PTO fee revenue into PTO funds. PTO's Brigid Quinn says that her agency is willing to re-examine a patent if enough questions are asked. Since the re-examination guidelines were set down 21 years ago, 6,166 requests have been made, 5,403 of which were granted; 64 percent of the approved re-examinations detected patent problems. This latest call for a PTO overhaul was spurred in late March when Maz Technologies requested that PC Dynamics and Envoy Data pay licensing fees for using its patented encryption technology. Over a dozen security software developers rebuked Maz's claim this week with assertions that the technology was being used before Maz's patent was filed. Pretty Good Privacy software inventor Phil Zimmermann called the case demonstrative of "a festering problem" with the PTO's approval process.
    http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,51689,00.html

  • "Are California Students Cyberslackers?"
    ZDNet (04/10/02); Bowman, Lisa M.

    A study from the California Council on Science and Technology finds that the state's educational system is not producing enough science and engineering graduates to fortify the technology industry. The report concludes that 30 percent of students quit before they can receive a high school diploma--a number that is projected to rise. Students, from kindergarten up to the graduate level, need more encouragement to take science and math courses, according to the study. Among the organizations the council singles out as helpful is California's community college system, which aids students in their attempts to enter universities and offers them inexpensive technical classes. The council also recommends that the California State University system institute higher salaries for science and engineering faculty, while K-12 science educators who teach in low-income areas should receive more support. Furthermore, there should be additional science and technology education grants at the K-12 level. Large numbers of foreign employees with H-1B visas is illustrative of the importance the tech sector places on graduate degrees, the report says.
    http://zdnet.com.com/2100-11-880390.html

  • "New Chips Could Make Everyday Items 'Talk'"
    USA Today (04/12/02) P. 1B; Maney, Kevin

    Small plastic tags equipped with computer chips could be at the heart of the next computer-based revolution where things communicate electronically with other things. Tags embedded with computer chips and radio antennas will be able to wirelessly transmit information about the items they are placed on to electronic devices. The radio frequency identification (RFID) tags could be used in a variety of situations: They could, for example, be placed on groceries and notify the store when items need to be restocked, and what products have been sold. An even more ambitious application would have the tags help track down items that are lost, such as eyeglasses that have fallen under a couch, according to Nobel laureate Arno Penzias. RFID tags are nothing new, but their cost has restricted them to specialty devices, such as the E-ZPass wireless tool booth system and ExxonMobil's Speedpass. That may change as Alien Technology implements mass-production techniques that will dramatically drive their costs down. CEO Jeffrey Jacobsen says each tag must cost no more than 5 cents if the technology is to proliferate in the business sector. Meanwhile, MIT's Auto-ID Center is working to standardize the tags' communication protocol. The center forecasts that the technology will move out of the testing phase and enter the commercial sector in 2003, and spread throughout the business domain two years later.
    http://www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/2002/04/12/tinyband.htm

  • "Statistics Show Fewer Women in IT Careers"
    Computerworld Canada Online (04/10/02); Clow, Julie

    A decline in the number of Canadian female IT graduates could spell trouble for Canada's tech industry, so the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) and other organizations hosted IT events across the country in an effort to ignite interest among young women. Women comprised less than 25 percent of computer technology graduates last year, according to CIPS. CIPS director Karen Lopez notes that boys are exposed to computer science much earlier in their education than girls, which gives them an advantage in refining their skills by the time they get to a university; she also says that a math and science background is especially important for IT careers, since most high-school computer courses only concentrate on basic literacy. The CIPS conference at Ryerson University of Toronto showcased several projects designed to encourage Grade 9 girls to pursue IT careers: One of them is a mentoring program in which students can learn about tech jobs from IT professionals. Several students indicate that access to more information about the computer courses their schools offer would be helpful. However, CIPS cites a British survey that concludes most young women do not favor IT as a career choice. One of the keys to arousing interest in women may be demonstrating that IT careers have a social value, according to research from Carnegie Mellon University.
    http://www.itworld.com/Career/1832/020410itcareers/pfindex.html

    To learn more about ACM Women in Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/women.

  • "House Passes Govt.-Industry IT Tech Worker Exchange Bill"
    Newsbytes (04/10/02); Krebs, Brian

    The U.S. House of Representatives approved the Digital Tech Corps Act of 2002 by voice vote on Wednesday, a bill that outlines an IT manager exchange program between the government and the private sector designed to address a predicted shortage of federal IT personnel. Under the bill, civil service employees could spend up to one year in the private sector, with the option of renewing for a second year. Workers would continue to draw salary and benefits from their original employer, while private sector exchange workers would be forbidden from disclosing trade secrets. The House also passed an amendment that prohibits companies from charging exchange program costs to government contracts, while requiring agencies to weigh how their assignments can be aligned to training needs. The purpose of the measure is to assuage Rep. Henry Waxman's (D-Calif.) worries that the bill does not accommodate the need for federal workers to have technology training. Another amendment proposed by Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.) was also adopted: It calls for 20 percent of federal exchange workers to be assigned to small businesses. The General Accounting Office estimates that over 50 percent of federal IT workers will reach retirement age in the next several years, and the exchange program is an effort to shore up their ranks.
    http://www.newsbytes.com/news/02/175786.html

  • "Nano-Scale Magnets for Petabyte Disk Drives"
    InformationWeek Online (04/09/02); Ewalt, David M.

    In the Materials Department of Brookhaven National Laboratory, materials scientist Laura Henderson Lewis' research focus is nanocrystalline magnets that offer significantly more flexibility than standard magnets. The crystals, which are no more than 100 nanometers across, can form magnets that offer stronger, more precise customization, and are found in medical equipment, antilock brake sensors, and data storage devices. The material is particularly well suited to data storage because it can prevent data loss. This is done by isolating individual crystals to prevent overlap between magnetically recorded data packets. "[The magnets are] more expensive, so they're reserved for the high-end issues where performance really outshines cost," explains Lewis. As storage media decreases in size, its storage capacity increases, which could make nanocrystalline magnets even more desirable in the future. Their capacity could climb by a factor of 10 within several years.
    http://www.informationweek.com/story/IWK20020409S0001

  • "Anti-Trustworthy Computing"
    Salon.com (04/09/02); Boutin, Paul

    As set forth by CEO Bill Gates and elaborated by CTO Craig Mundie, Microsoft's "Trustworthy Computing" initiative is an effort to make computer reliability and infallibility so deeply entrenched that people will routinely put their lives in the hands of machines. It also means convincing industry to trust computers with its intellectual property and consumers to trust them with personal information for financial transactions. Hollywood, for one, is searching for technology that blocks the pirating of digital movies; Microsoft's stake in finding a solution is the huge potential for PC sales generated by demand for machines that can play downloadable films. The company's strategy is to make the PC the center of secure computing, and thus place Microsoft in a leadership position. But this in turn would make the PC an irresistible target for hackers, be they motivated by the desire for financial gain or to spread terror. Experts recommend that there should be more separate code bases to mitigate or prevent hack attacks, but in lieu of this, Microsoft could embed automated security checks in its development tools so that programmers will not write flawed code. Another step is to cut off support for insecure or unreliable software systems.
    http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2002/04/09/trustworthy/index.html

  • "Future Computers Beat the Clock"
    NewsFactor Network (04/10/02); Hirsh, Lou

    Asynchronous computing is faster, more secure, and uses less power than computers that run according to timed electronic pulses emitted by a crystal, according to computer science professor Alex Yakovlev of Newcastle University in England. He says the technology needed to get processors away from their dependency on timed mechanisms is being polished up, and that asynchronous computing devices have already reached the market. Philips makes a pager that runs on an asynchronous design, allowing it to use far less power than if it employed a clocked processor, for example. Because of the increasing number of transistors chip engineers are now able to build into chips, even the light-speed electric pulses sent out by embedded microelectronic crystals are not fast enough to keep accurate pace and introduce errors in data. Self-timed computing, as Professor Yakovlev prefers over the term asynchronous, does not have that barrier, allowing processors to run faster, but at the same time generating less heat and using less energy because there is no clock to power. Moreover, because electronic signals in self-timed devices are variable, it strengthens data security within the device since hackers have no fixed signal to tune in to.
    http://www.newsfactor.com/perl/story/17183.html

  • "Net Brings Consumer Savings, Not Corporate Profits, Says Academic"
    Reuters (04/11/02)

    Although the Internet and advanced communications capabilities have brought productivity gains and increased savings to consumers, they have undermined corporate profits, according to University of California, Los Angeles, professor Edward Leamer. He argues that increased competition online has driven down prices considerably in markets that sell tangible goods or services, such as PCs, hotels, and air travel; this has been a boon to consumers, but so hindered corporate profitability that investment has been curtailed for the long term. Leamer says other sectors that do not feel the direct price pressure brought by the Internet and a more open market are also affected, because of a ripple effect on the overall economy and on suppliers. Other economists take Leamer's view with a grain of salt, noting Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's confidence that technology has helped foster faster economic growth while limiting inflation, and that the Internet helps industries where prices are pushed down by increasing demand. However, Leamer says there is a second effect of increased communications in the corporate sphere--that of decreased worker loyalty that arises out of a reliance on communications technology instead of face-to-face contact; he adds that companies suffer from having to pay hiring and training costs when turnover increases, as well as the necessity of paying higher wages to workers.
    http://www.totaltele.com/view.asp?ArticleID=50899&pub=tt&categoryid=626

  • "FBI's New Cyber Division Quietly Ramps Up"
    National Journal's Technology Daily (04/08/02); Porteus, Liza

    Many tech industry observers were surprised this week at the appointment of FBI special agent Larry Mefford as assistant director of the new Cyber Division. Tech executives had discussed with government officials about the creation of such a unit after the Sept. 11 attacks, and FBI director Robert Mueller had alluded to it in an early March appearance before Congress. Still, many have been surprised by the move as it suggests a new dynamism between the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC), White House cybersecurity advisor Richard Clarke, the Justice Department's Computer Crimes and Intellectual Property unit, and the new Cyber Division. The stated aim of the Cyber Division is to bring all the FBI's Internet, computer, and network responsibilities under one administrative umbrella. Sources within the NIPC have warned against upsetting the fragile relationship the group is beginning to build between the private sector, which must trust the NIPC not to disclose breaches in electronic security. In his earlier comments before a House appropriations subcommittee, Mueller asked that more funds be given to the NIPC and introduced the idea of the Cyber Division, which, in his words, "will bring together various cyber initiatives and programs under one umbrella...to protect our nation's growing digital marketplace and electronic infrastructure."
    http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0402/040802td1.htm

  • "Programmable Chips"
    Technology Review Online (04/10/02); Voss, David

    Chips that can be reconfigured for multiple functions are a major point of focus for designers, and many academic institutions and startups are researching the technology's possibilities. Reconfigurable circuits produced by companies such as Altera and Xilinx are already being used in the telecommunications sector, but the dream of a "personal information device" for consumers can only be realized if the chips can rewire themselves by the millisecond. "That kind of chameleon device would be the killer app of reconfigurable computing," projects computer scientist John Wawrzynek of the University of California, Berkeley. Experts believe that within a few years cell phones will come equipped with reconfigurable chips that can easily switch between different telecom systems or protocols for users who travel between calling regions or countries. The most significant use of the technology could be enabling devices to accommodate streaming media, Wawrzynek says. Fabrication costs are also rising for smaller and smaller microprocessors that need more precisely etched circuits, but reconfigurable chips could sidestep this problem and facilitate the construction of machines with nanoscale functionality, say experts such as Carnegie Mellon University's Seth Goldstein. In fact, Hewlett-Packard Laboratories' Philip Kuekes predicts that reconfigurable logic "will be the only way to do computing in the future."
    http://www.msnbc.com/news/736910.asp

  • "EU Assembly Approves Appliance Recycling Law"
    Reuters (04/10/02); Pomeroy, Robin

    The European Parliament on Wednesday voted to pass a law requiring makers of electrical and electronic devices to pay for the collection and recycling of their scrap equipment. "[The] decision is a milestone in European environmental legislation, which finally solves the problem of the ever rising quantities of both electronic and electrical waste in the EU," declared Dutch Green Deputy Alex de Roo. It is estimated that the EU discards 6 million tons of used appliances per year, while the industry believes the recycling effort could run upwards of $13.2 billion annually. The parliament has left it up to individual governments to figure out how to safely collect and recycle their e-waste. The governments originally proposed that manufacturers pay into a collective recycling program fund, but engineering lobby group Orgalime said parliament's mandate is better. To prevent rogue firms from trying to dodge payments when and if they leave the market, the parliament said it requires importers and manufacturers to pay a recycling guarantee. Both parliament and industry believe the law will spur producers to design more recyclable and environmentally friendly equipment. EU governments will authorize the final approval of the law, which diplomats say could take until the end of 2002 while they hash out compromises with parliament.
    http://www.totaltele.com/view.asp?articleID=50861&Pub=TT&categoryid=627

  • "Free-Space Optics Offer Fast Data with Fewer Physical Links"
    USA Today (04/11/02) P. 1B; Acohido, Byron

    New free-space optic laser technology is helping businesses and other organizations bridge the last-mile gap in broadband connectivity. Because laying fiber-optic cable is prohibitively expensive in some circumstances, especially in some downtown areas, and other technologies such as radio and microwave frequencies pose technical difficulties, free-space optic lasers are a cheap alternative to getting hooked up to fiber-optic networks. Firms displaced by the Sept. 11 attacks have employed these lasers very quickly because they do not have to negotiate complex right-of-way land-use deals and do major construction. A number of businesses have sprung up to meet this demand, many of them financed by traditional networking companies, including Lucent, Nortel, Corning, and Cisco. Free-space optical lasers are an older technology, but only recently have researchers refined their use, developing ways to overcome problems such as inclement weather, high-rise building sway, and mitigating the effects to human eyes. Data is attached to the laser signal and sent from a transmitter that is hooked up to actual fiber-optic lines, then sent through the air to the receiving unit, which routes it to the appropriate computer systems. Placement sensors adjust laser trajectory to accommodate building movement, stronger laser signals can cut through fog, and storage units in the devices allows for temporary breaks in data streams.
    http://www.usatoday.com/money/covers/2002-04-11-terabeam.htm

  • "T-Shirt Dye May Improve Telecom"
    United Press International (04/08/02); Martin, Mike

    Researchers at Virginia Tech report they have found a chemical that controls the speed of light waves when an electrical charge is applied. Speaking at the American Chemical Society conference this week, Virginia Tech professor James Heflin said Procion Red, which is also used to make tie-dye t-shirts, contains the properties necessary for advanced fiber-optic controls. Currently, fiber-optic data is controlled by switching on and off the laser, but applying Procion Red in routers would allow network administrators to more efficiently control data flows because the laser would be powered constantly, using less energy and needing less time to send signals. Heflin said the same technology could be applied to optical computers as well, once silicon circuitry and fiber-optic operations are successfully negotiated and fused. Other researchers have been pursuing similar applications but have had problems manipulating the light-controlling substances. Heflin expects to produce commercially applicable technology as soon as one year from now.
    http://www.upi.com/view.cfm?StoryID=08042002-081714-8011r

  • "Playing Games Can Mean Big Bucks for the Right Employees"
    Maryland Daily Record (04/06/02) P. 3A; Bernstein, Amy L.

    Maryland is home to a thriving gaming software industry, prompting local schools to build academic tracks in digital entertainment. The programs offered range from the University of Baltimore's doctoral degree in communications design to Carver Technical High School's multimedia career track for aspiring game gurus. Only recently, however, have schools linked their courses in a coordinated way. The Community College of Baltimore County in Essex says it is working with the University of Baltimore on a four-year program that will culminate in a bachelor's degree in digital entertainment. Nationwide, only a few institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, offer programs specifically for digital entertainment. In fact, just last month the industry held its first-ever summit with academia at a conference in California. University of Baltimore professor Stuart Moulthrop says such programs should address "a need for sophisticated understanding of applied information technologies in ways that require interdisciplinary focus." However, technical skills alone are not enough to secure a job in the field by any means, say experts. Successful job candidates in the gaming field often have broad knowledge and a background in fine arts, in addition to being skilled in computer science.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Power Pool"
    CIO (04/01/02) Vol. 15, No. 12, P. 86; Berkman, Eric

    Grid computing--the demand-based harnessing of idle computing power through a network of clustered CPUs--is beginning to move out of the academic and nonprofit domain and into the commercial sector. Cereon Genomics, for example, built a processor grid so it could accommodate the rising tide of data about genes needed for crop enhancement. Other early adopters include chipmakers, biotech companies, and pharmaceutical manufacturers, while Compaq, IBM, and other hardware vendors have announced commercial projects that involve grid computing. An enterprise can use a grid to make the most of its existing resources without incurring additional hardware costs, says Ian Baird of Platform Computing--and this is especially important for CIOs tasked with boosting IT return on investment. Nevertheless, some companies are likely to need more hardware, which is what vendors embedding grid-computing tools into their products are banking on. Some vendors boast initiatives in which companies can purchase processing power rather than build their own grids. CIOs will need to bone up on grid computing and its potential if the technology is to successfully enter the commercial arena. Security and standardization issues will also have to be resolved if grids are to proliferate.
    http://www.cio.com/archive/040102/et_article.html

  • "Software Testing: The Internet Changes Everything"
    SD Times (04/01/02) No. 51, P. 22; DeJong, Jennifer

    The complexity of Internet applications, the fluid, uncontrollable environment they operate in, and their contribution to corporate transparency are changing the way businesses test software. MetraTech's Jim Culbert explains that applications are an intricate weave of interactions, while Ravi Venkatesam of Atesto Technologies proclaims that Internet traffic is just one factor that can affect server behavior; furthermore, the open nature of the Internet means customers and partners can view even the most minor performance failures. RadView Software's Deb Kaplotsky recommends that companies test each software component as it is built in, and then test the site itself. This second test is of primary concern, according to Bowstreet software performance engineer Lance Hartford, who says that smooth component tests may not always translate into a smoothly running Web site. This two-part testing process is particularly critical for Web services. Finding a workable testing procedure is even more important for developers and quality assurance professionals: The software must be taken out of the laboratory and placed on the Internet, while Venkatesam adds that scripts for typical business tasks must be written and external traffic drivers must be considered. Testing can be more efficient if testing functions are embedded in the development domain, says Simon Berman of Mercury Interactive. Opening up the QA process to business line managers and customer service professionals can also have a positive impact on the site, while Venkatesam notes that site improvement is a continuous process.
    http://www.sdtimes.com/news/051/special1.htm

  • "Taming High-Tech Particles"
    Science News (03/30/02) Vol. 161, No. 13, P. 200; Gorman, Jessica

    Nanomaterials have generated a lot of enthusiasm because of their industrial potential, but researchers are investigating how they might interact with the environment and the human body in the hopes of anticipating problems. Such discoveries could allow researchers to refine the development process to avoid hazards and ensure the safety of the nanotech industry. The prevailing opinion is that most nanoparticles will probably be harmless to biological systems, but some will inevitably be toxic, according to Rice University bionengineer Jennifer West. At Rice's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, scientists are looking into the effects of nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes, nanoscale silicon crystals, and particles of iron--all of which are on the cusp of mass production, says Mark Wiesner, another Rice researcher. The nanoparticles are being tested to see whether they can reshape proteins, be broken down by bacteria, pass through filters in a water-treatment plant, or bind to contaminant molecules and increase their mobility. There has been little toxicology research on nanotubes, despite their enormous commercial possibilities. However, at the University of Montpellier, immunologist Silvana Fiorito is assessing nanotube implants in the cells of rats, and has not detected any adverse effects in preliminary tests. Another focus of nanoparticle research is concerned with how such materials can be produced without negatively impacting the environment.
    http://www.sciencenews.org/20020330/bob8.asp