Timely Topics for IT Professionals
About ACM TechNews
ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of either HP or ACM.
To send comments, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volume 4, Issue 386: Wednesday, August 14, 2002
- "Bright Spots in the Gloom"
Financial Times (08/14/02) P. 8; Kehoe, Louise
Silicon Valley's unemployment rate has hovered around 7 percent for most of 2002, and between December 2000 and May 2002, the region experienced over 100,000 job cuts. However, Silicon Valley may be ahead of the rest of the country in perceiving an economic turnaround just around the corner, while various segments of the IT market remain healthy, writes Louise Kehoe. Of course, these bright spots in the economic horizon do not mean Silicon Valley lacks recovery work to do. Today, at least 25 percent of office space remains vacant due to massive construction projects conceived during the Internet boom. In early 2000, only 5 percent of office space stood vacant. However, there are good reasons for optimism and Kehoe says the general mood in the "capital of imagination" has turned positive. Video games remain an in-demand product, Microsoft is about to launch a subscription-based online gaming service, and video game company Electronic Arts is one of the few Valley companies continuously hiring. Although software sales have slowed down, software offering short-term cost reductions is receiving attention from corporate customers. Linux's ability to be an alternative to Unix at a lower cost is causing the open-source software to surge in popularity, and communication tools for distance workers seems to be a niche industry to bet on.
- "New Computer Security Dilemma: A Lack of Viruses"
Anti-virus firms have predicted that computer viruses and worms will be even more destructive, invasive, and numerous this year than last year, but such predictions have so far failed to pan out. Security experts are attributing this development to a number of factors that discourage virus writers, among them: New legislation such as the U.S. Patriot Act and the Cybersecurity Enhancement Act that carry stiffer penalties for hackers; corporate initiatives to bolster computer networks and curtail employees' email usage; and new anti-virus software that is proving effective at blocking rudimentary worms and viruses often used by script kiddies. Last year, F-Secure's Mikko Hypponen forecast that viruses would migrate to mobile computing devices, but that has not come to pass; he notes that the only major virus outbreak this year has been Klez. Meanwhile, Sophos Anti-Virus reports that the number of viruses it is detecting each month is down by almost 50 percent, compared to a year ago. The downgrade in virus activity could lead to a loss of revenues for the fledgling computer security industry. Still, others caution that it could be the calm before the storm. Urs Gattiker, scientific director at the European Institute for Computer Anti-Virus Research says, "There will be a next one," and worries that complacency is setting in.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "U.K. Looks to Copy DMCA"
ZDNet UK (08/12/02); Loney, Matt
The United Kingdom has responded to the call to deploy the European Union Copyright Directive by proposing its own version of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which has engendered controversy in the United States. The proposal would be designed to fight Internet piracy, and grant new legal protection to digital copyright safeguards such as copy protection systems and digital watermarks. However, as with the DMCA, the U.K. law calls for a ban on devices designed to bypass anti-copying technologies. This stems from the EU proposal, which states that member nations are required to prevent the manufacture and proliferation of such devices. Oct. 31 is the deadline for the submission of responses to the proposed U.K. law, which the country says will not affect the EU-directed obligations. "Respondents [should] bear in mind that this consultation is not about whether the requirements of the directive itself are appropriate," stated the Patent Office. "The directive has been agreed, is in force, and cannot be changed at this time." The EU says the United Kingdom has until Dec. 22 to incorporate the new rules into law.
- "The Future of Microprocessors Revealed"
NewsFactor Network (08/13/02); Zager, Masha
Over 15 new microprocessors from almost all leading manufacturers are slated to debut at the 15th annual Microprocessor Forum in October, which analysts have long used to gauge future trends. The forum will be launched with the announcement of a 64-bit PowerPC chip from IBM, which involves the placement of multiple processors on a single chip for desktop use; with this approach, IBM can build high-performance microprocessors that are cheaper and produce less heat than alternative design chips, a strategy that Forrester Research principal analyst Carl Howe calls "a radical step." The x86 construction set is still favored by original equipment manufacturers, despite being rejected by Intel in its move to the Itanium processor--Centaur, MemoryLogix, and AMD will present new chips based on extensions of the set at the forum. Meanwhile, Intel and Centaur will introduce products that promote power conservation, which Howe predicts will be a key consideration of future chip designs. Intel will offer a mobile chip that boasts long battery life, while Centaur will announce a low-power iteration of its multimedia chip. Embedded processors, which make up 98 percent of all processors sold, will be the basis of six new chips to be unveiled at the conference. Howe is confident that chip development will maintain its pace despite the downturn; "Innovation happens faster in a down market," he contends. Other companies expected to present new chips at the forum include Cisco, ARM, Micron, NEC, and Motorola.
- "Web Geeks Rally for the Disabled"
ZDNet (08/12/02); Konrad, Rachel
The first Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR) California scheduled for Sept. 21 will foster collaboration between Web developers and nonprofit organizations in the creation of Web sites accessible to users with physical or mental handicaps. CompuMentor project associate Margaret Kelly says she hopes the event will encourage developers to make accessibility an important part of their agenda, while tech workers could take such an opportunity to channel their skills into personally fulfilling work. The rally also takes advantage of a growing awareness among nonprofits of the Internet's usefulness in spreading information and promoting their causes. At AIR California, which is hosted by CompuMentor and Knowbility, about a dozen 10-member teams composed of both volunteers and Silicon Valley professionals will be tasked with creating Web sites accessible to the impaired; they will attend a four-hour tutorial on accessible Web design, and will then have eight hours to program the sites. Important lessons about accessible design were learned by participants at previous AIR contests in Texas and Colorado. For example, Insight Designs Web Solutions saw the value of widely spaced links or navigation buttons for paraplegic or arthritic users. Meanwhile, visually impaired users often depend on screen readers that embed verbal cues in Web site components. CompuMentor estimates that only 2 percent of all Web sites offer full accessibility to the visually handicapped.
- "A Fresh Breath of Oxygen"
Boston Globe (08/12/02) P. C1; Bray, Hiawatha
Rodney Brooks, director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, is spearheading an ambitious MIT research project called "Oxygen," which is focused on developing computer systems that interact with human beings similar to the way people interact with each other. Today, people learn how to manipulate the computer world to use computers, says Brooks. In contrast, Brooks wants to "pull the computer out into our world." Brooks envisions computers that are able to understand conversational word structures, respond in conversational lingo, recognize users visually, and interact with other computers without being prompted by a human controller. Computer companies such as Apple and Intel are slashing jobs, and so such radical and challenging innovation in computing as envisioned by Brooks could help to reboot the computing industry. HP, Royal Philips Electronics, and Acer are among Oxygen's sponsors, and as one HP official noted, Oxygen offers an opportunity for growth, even if many of these human-interactive technologies remain years away from commercial relevance. Currently, Brooks is working on a voice-controlled, computer-outfitted office in which he can simply say "begin the presentation," and a slide projector will start going. The Oxygen project, begun by the late Michael Dertouzos in 1999 with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aims to lead the way to a computer-dependent world. MIT Laboratory director Victor Zue, Dertouzos' successor, says that "in five to 10 years, in developed countries, computing and communications are essentially going to be free, pervasive, everywhere."
- "Idea in Former Employee's Head Belongs to Alcatel"
Texas Lawyer Online (08/12/02); Goldman, Erica Lehrer
Alcatel USA has won a summary judgment in its bid to claim proprietary rights to a software idea held by former employee Evan Brown, who had signed an invention disclosure contract with Alcatel but had not written the contested idea down on paper. Intellectual property lawyer Veronica Smith Lewis says the case is about whether Alcatel can "own the ideas in this guy's head before he commits them to paper." Alcatel lawyer Eric Pinker says that while the Brown case is unusual because it is over ideas rather than documents, the case remains about whether "invention disclosure agreements are enforceable in the state of Texas." Judge Curt B. Henderson awarded Alcatel breach of contract and declaratory judgment claims, and ordered Brown liable for Alcatel's attorney fees, which are more than $330,000. Brown's idea involves a solution that enables machine-executable binary code to be migrated into high-level source code, as well as enables the transfer of certain types of machine code into C language. Brown argued that at the time the lawsuit was first filed, his "solution" was neither an invention nor even conceived, with these words understood as defined by Webster's dictionary. Brown has said he assumed his invention disclosure contract did not cover areas of research outside of the field covered by his employment position, and notes his employers were not interested in helping him develop the solution now subject to Alcatel's lawsuit. Brown plans to appeal the case, and legal experts say computer professionals should consult lawyers before signing such agreements despite the extra, upfront cost.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "Programming Tool Makes Bugs Sing"
Technology Research News (08/14/02); Patch, Kimberly
University of Northumbria researchers in Britain are adding sound to computing programs to investigate new applications, such as the detection of software bugs using auditory cues. Northumbria lecturer Paul Vickers states that the research could lead to more accessible interfaces for elderly and visually handicapped users, sound-based training for computer programming, and new frontiers of data exploration. The research began by testing how well non-musical people could note auditory changes using sounds similar to those produced by musical instruments; the results were encouraging enough to move to the next phase, developing software that outlined pitch and melodic contour data to structural components of the Pascal programming language. Each hierarchical class of the language was imbued with a common musical motif, based on the common diatonic, seven-note scale. Different parts of the debugging program were delineated using meter and rhythm, and percussion was added to melodic changes because "Percussive devices can enhance the music and provide extra clues...to help users recognize significant events such as a change in condition of a Boolean evaluation," according to Vickers. He notes that Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) devices were used to deploy the scheme; 22 undergrads tested the auralization tool, and their bug detection abilities noticeably improved with the addition of sound. Mike O'Donnell of the University of Chicago notes that the auditory representation of data has several challenges: The overlap of methods used to perceive time using sound, and the explicit programming of the data's perception.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "Net Visionaries Seek New Vistas"
Wired News (08/12/02); Anderson, Mark K.
Internet experts Vinton Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee are promoting new extensions of the Internet, and both Internet visionaries were recently honored at the Telluride Tech Festival in Colorado for their work. Cerf is working on extending the Internet into outer space, while Berners-Lee is working on integrating the Internet with a global database of what are called "intelligent agents." Berners-Lee envisions a "semantic Web" in which computers can interpret data from search engine results, which is unlike today's situation in which only people can understand Internet data through reading data displayed on Web pages. Berners-Lee says enabling computers to understand Internet data would facilitate precise searches. For instance, a user could ask a computer to find a rainy area within 100 miles of a specific city and the computer would be able to search the Internet, understand scanned data, and produce an intelligent result. Cerf's work in creating an Internet for outer space would help funnel transmissions between Earth and Mars, for instance, while overcoming transmission problems such as the time-lag problem. Data sent from Mars can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several days to reach Earth, and during this time lag, today's Internet servers would shut down before the data arrived. Cerf's work could eventually be used to improve wireless communication, which also has to overcome various location and time-lag obstacles.
- "What Utopia Can Technology Deliver?"
Tech Update (08/09/02); Farber, Dan
A hefty report from the National Science Foundation and the Commerce Department outlines the next two decades of technology development, and recommends that the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science should be tapped in order to radically change society, eliminate poverty, and usher in a new age of prosperity. "Understanding of the mind and brain will enable the creation of a new species of intelligent machine systems that can generate economic wealth on a scale hitherto unimaginable," the report predicts. It argues that such machines could generate the wealth to provide all basic services and staples--food, education, financial security, and health care--for the global populace within 50 years. Possible technological developments include the advent of neuromorphic engineering that allows devices to be controlled by the brain, brain-to-brain interaction, unbreakable data networks, ways to retard aging, and the circumvention of disability- or language-based communications barriers. Other possible future products include cosmetics that change according to mood, although the practical applications are uncertain. Some developments seem closer to the realm of science fiction, such as predictive science that forecasts social shifts so they can be corrected; commonplace brain implants; robots with political rights; and the uploading of people's personalities into cyberspace. In general, however, the concept that human nature and society will be so radically restructured in a mere 20 years is difficult to accept. One of the report's authors, Institute for Global Futures President Dr. James Canton, admits that the study is a work in progress, mainly organized to promote enthusiasm for reaching such lofty, utopian goals.
- "Stakes Higher for Hackers After Sept. 11"
Reuters (08/11/02); Abreu, Elinor Mills
New laws designed to improve security, such as the U.S. Patriot Act and the Cyber Security Enhancement Act, carry greater penalties for hackers that commit cybercrimes. People who intrude into computer networks could now go to jail for up to 10 years instead of five under the Patriot Act, while the Cyber Security Enhancement Act would allow hackers who commit crimes that recklessly endanger people's lives to be imprisoned for life. The FBI is also keeping closer tabs on the Internet, particularly after computers seized from the Al Qaeda terrorist group were discovered to have Net-related data. Such developments have fostered a more sober atmosphere at events such as last weekend's DefCon hacker conference; experts also note that many attendees have been offering their services to the government since Sept. 11. DefCon speaker Simple Nomad says the stiffer penalties are prompting hackers to pursue their craft with a political agenda, rather than hack to alleviate boredom or find challenges, which has led to more work in such areas as Web anonymity and steganography.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "Down the Road: Bendable Computers and Wearable LEDs"
NewsFactor Network (08/13/02); Lyman, Jay
The National Science Foundation and the Semiconductor Research Corporation are funding research by Cornell University scientists seeking to create flexible electronics through the combination of organic and inorganic interfaces. Cornell's Jim Engstrom says the project concentrates on "using chemistry to build these interfaces one atom and/or one molecule at a time." He says the work could yield smaller, inexpensive organic semiconductors as well as organic light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that could be incorporated into flexible displays, which could be integrated with clothing. Engstrom adds that the research could also foster the development of electronic paper, chemical and biological sensors, and hybrid integrated circuits. The Cornell project will focus heavily on the bonds formed from the deposition of organic films on metals, and vice-versa. Meanwhile, a project led by Larry Dalton of the University of Washington is looking into the development of organic, microscopic devices integrated with optical chips to facilitate the light-speed transmission of electronic signals.
- "Playing Fair on Electronics Recycling"
CNet (08/08/02); Skillings, Jonathan
Heather Bowman, the Electronic Industries Alliance's (EIA) director of environmental policy, says that electronics recycling legislation currently being discussed at both the state and national levels must be fair to consumers, manufacturers, and retailers. She believes that the government, manufacturers, and consumers must share the responsibility of recycling old products. Bowman finds some good points in Rep. Mike Thompson's (D-Calif.) e-waste recycling proposal, including the deployment of a national recycling scale, and analysis of markets for recycled goods. She adds that more detailed study on the export of e-waste overseas is critical. Aspects of Thompson's bill that the EIA is concerned about include the broad authority it grants to the EPA, and how maximum front-end fees of $10 could drive consumers toward online purchases, which would be discriminatory for manufacturers and retailers. Bowman supports an end-of-life fee as being more fair, stating that "[Consumers] would be paying for the recycling of that product that they're getting rid of, not someone else's historic waste." She notes that the legislation gives industries a better perspective on the challenges that local and state governments face in e-waste management, such as collection and transportation costs. Bowman says the EIA and its member companies are supporting the National Electronics Product Stewardship Initiative (NEPSI) dialogue by backing development of a framework that gives regions and communities the flexibility to choose the most optimal e-waste recycling system.
- "We Must Engage in Copyright Debate"
SiliconValley.com (08/12/02); Gillmor, Dan
Dan Gillmor urges consumers, scholars, and other parties who are not copyright owners to challenge the terms of the debate currently brewing between the entertainment cartel and Congress. He says the cartel is using "scare tactics"--threats of anarchy and a stifling of creativity--to gain absolute control over the dispensation of digital content, a move that would severely curtail the fair-use rights of users. Gillmor alleges that the concept of intellectual property is fundamentally flawed, since property is defined both legally and traditionally as physical, whereas intellectual property is an attempt to own and control the use of ideas. He accuses the cartel members of being the real pirates by extending the copyright terms of existing works, a practice that is actually stealing from the public domain for financial gain. The U.S. Constitution limits copyright so that works can revert to the public domain in the hope that they might promote creativity and contribute to the public good. Gillmor writes that it is up to the tech industry's customers to encourage technology vendors not to cave in to the cartel's demands. "To re-establish some balance, we need to re-educate ourselves, to learn the alternatives to the cartel's offerings," he explains. "We need to re-educate Congress--and, in the process, adopt some of the tactics the entertainment industry uses so successfully."
- "Prime Efforts May Boost Encryption"
CNet (08/09/02); Junnarkar, Sandeep
Computer scientists at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India, have developed a new algorithm to confirm whether initial numbers used to generate a larger number are in fact prime numbers. RSA, an often-used encryption algorithm, creates an encryption key by multiplying two large prime numbers. Prime numbers are numbers divisible only by themselves and the number "1," and under the RSA theory of encryption, extremely large prime numbers are impossible to generate and determine, which provides protection from intruders. However, current testing of the encryption key number can only ensure that component numbers are prime in almost every--but not every--instance. The new algorithm, developed by Manindra Agrawal and his students, is 100 percent accurate. Agrawal says that his algorithm is "slower than the fastest-known primality testing algorithms," but also "completely deterministic." State University of New Jersey at Rutgers Professor Eric Allender says the Agrawal algorithm solves a question that has been open for several centuries, and that Agrawal's work will undergo development to make it more usable in practice. Agrawal plans to publish a paper on the algorithm to be called "Primes is in P."
- "Micromachine Technique Creates Terahertz Sensor"
EE Times Online (08/12/02); Brown, Chappell
The Star Tiger European research consortium is considering the use of photonic-crystal technology to synthesize a single-chip sensor that detects terahertz radiation, which exists on the spectrum between infrared and radar. The project's assembly method involves stacking layers of silicon bars at right angles to each other, creating a periodic structure that alternates the refractive index of silicon and air, producing interference patterns that halt the transmission of radiation at a specified optical "bandgap." The periodic structure forms the basis of a micromachined funnel used to build a pixel sensor on an array, which collects and focuses radiation to detect electronics. The Star Tiger researchers believe that it is possible to build 32-pixel sensors on a single chip using this technique. Terahertz-sensing equipment could be applied to the medical industry, where its superior imaging of internal structures would benefit diagnostics. Security systems are another potential application, although privacy concerns have been raised by the large amount of personal details the technology reveals. One of the drawbacks to current terahertz technology is the high cost and complexity of exotic compound-semiconductor detectors and laser-based sources, but more efficient techniques have been discovered and are being exploited.
- "You Read My Mind"
InfoWorld (08/09/02) Vol. 24, No. 32, P. 29; Schwartz, Ephraim
At a recent event hosted by IBM's Almaden Research Center, Kevin Wheeler of the Extension of the Human Senses Group at NASA's Ames Research Center presented research in the realm of human-machine integration. Wheeler's current research focus is on systems that monitor brain activity so that users can manipulate objects with their minds. The first phase of this development is the electromyogram (EMG), a process in which electrodes are attached to the top of the subject's skin so that they can record, detect, and measure muscle movements. Significant developments in this area include the creation of a virtual joystick and a virtual keyboard that could allow users to type messages or steer vehicles remotely. NASA is working on electrodes that can facilitate such manipulations without making contact with the user's skin. The next step up from EMG, electroencephalogram (EEG), involves the implantation of 128 electrodes that monitor and record brain activity. Such experiments have thus far enabled volunteers to move a cursor on a computer screen by thought. The next phase will involve merging EMG and EEG. A long-term goal of such research is the development of "silent communications" between people via brain-to-brain interaction.
- "Who's Been Looking at Your Data?"
Nature (08/08/02) Vol. 418, No. 6898, P. 580; Butler, Declan
The growing frequency of computer network intrusions--and their potential for cyberespionage or cyberterrorist assaults on the nation's infrastructure--has prompted academic leaders to take a serious look at restructuring their security processes. Successfully protecting academic computer networks is a continuous effort that entails agreeing to a common lexicon for researchers and security experts. Attorneys and others are lobbying for legislation that would make universities and research labs liable for damages attributed to electronic security leaks resulting from neglect; Alan Paller of the System Administration, Networking, and Security (SANS) Institute recommends that labs be required to comply with minimal security standards in order to receive federal funding, while presidential security adviser Richard Clarke will introduce a national cyberspace protection plan next month that will probably feature specific federal guidelines. The difficulties involved with protecting academic networks include the open nature of those networks, the vast number of computers linked to the Net at any one time, the unique configuration of machines used for research, and the lack of affordable security assurance programs. However, institutions are not completely powerless: One strategy involves cordoning off critical information with firewalls, encrypting data and passwords, deploying patches to combat security flaws as they are uncovered, and keeping antivirus software current. Some universities, such as MIT, enforce compliance with these standards by removing any insecure machines from their networks. Insecure off-campus computers are also an invitation to hackers, while Northwestern University's Scott Franks points out that the largest security flaws stem from a few Microsoft products; he recommends using products with open source code, such as Linux. In the meantime, the Cyber Security Research and Development Act currently going through the U.S. Senate would earmark $880 million over a five-year period to develop a computer security research program.
- "Why Tech Falls Short of Expectations"
Optimize (07/02) No. 9, P. 20; Hartman, Amir
Prodded by Y2K concerns, the Internet boom, and an unstable economy, many companies have made excessive IT investments that have not generated sufficient returns or fulfilled corporate goals. Mainstay Partners conducted a four-year survey of 450 companies across a variety of industries, and discovered that IT-smart businesses that have achieved significant returns on investment (ROI) share three core IT strategies: Optimization of existing processes for incremental gains; the reengineering of core processes to handle efficiency and productivity fluctuations; and the creation of new processes and capacity for growth. The study also revealed many instances of bad IT investment management, including underestimation of spending, lack of a decision-making process and senior executive involvement, poorly defined business metrics, inadequate alignment of IT investments to corporate strategy, poor communication of IT strategy, and suboptimization due to poor governance. Mainstay outlines a number of business principles that companies could follow to better manage their IT investments. One principle is to forge a solid link between IT and business strategy by building a good business case for every major IT program, funneling IT funding directly from the business units' operating budgets, holding executives accountable for IT investments, and annually conducting "voice of the customer" evaluations. Other principles include promoting simple and flexible technology via a road map that balances the need for ease-of-use and next-generation capabilities; making IT a strategic adviser to the enterprise by IT-business collocation; optimizing IT's asset value by implementing value-based availability, holding quarterly operational reviews, not overcommitting to initiatives, and deploying strict metrics, among other things; and delivering near-term results every three months.