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 email@example.com.
Volume 4, Issue 404: Friday, September 27, 2002
- "U.S. Workers Taking H-1B Issues to Court"
SiliconValley.com (09/26/02); Bjorhus, Jennifer
American technology workers formally complaining that their employers are biased toward foreign workers with H-1B visas have spurred the General Accounting Office to study the H-1B program's impact on the U.S. workforce, while the Justice Department evaluates how Sun Microsystems uses the program. Employees claim that they are being replaced by visa holders during the downturn; such is the charge filed by San Jose engineer Allan Masri, who lost his job with Netscape while a colleague with an H-1B visa--whom Masri had also trained--was kept on. Unemployed U.S. engineers have reached record levels, which makes employers' assertion that there is a shortage of qualified domestic workers--which the H-1B program is designed to mitigate--difficult to support. Employers have also been criticized of favoring visa holders because they are willing to work for less and are more pliant than U.S. workers. However, Information Technology Association of America President Harris Miller insists that the visa program is being used appropriately, as demonstrated by a decrease in the number of H-1B applications approved this year. The total number of complaining U.S. workers is unknown, because agencies tasked with investigating complaints do not track them, but it is documented that employers continued to recruit H-1B workers while many others were let go. The H-1B program's rules have come under fire; employers are allowed to use their own criteria in determining whether there is a shortage, and labor officials do not routinely check for shortages or salary discrepancies, unless a complaint is made. San Jose employment lawyer Richard Schramm notes that court cases of H-1B bias can be settled in the plaintiff's favor, since many companies do not wish to risk the embarrassment of being accused of short-changing American workers.
- "National Science Foundation Announces Grant Winners"
New York Times (09/26/02) P. C5; Markoff, John
The National Science Foundation on Wednesday announced that it plans to award a total of $144 million in grants this year to seven major academic programs and 340 smaller initiatives as part of its information technology research (ITR) program to advance computer science. Announced awards include a $12 million grant to MIT, the University of California at Berkeley, the International Computer Science Institute, Rice University, and New York University to create a next-generation Internet that is crash-proof and attack-proof; $13.5 million for the development of the OptIPuter, a modular system for earth science and neuroscience research; and $13 million for new software systems co-developed by Vanderbilt University, the University of Memphis, and the University of California at Berkeley. Other areas of research that will receive grants include quantum computing and the development of new ecological science tools. "The ITR is intended to push the frontiers of computer science and engineering while at the same time helping to push the envelope in other disciplines," explains the foundation's Peter A. Freeman. The OptIPuter will feature a fiber-optic link between the University of California at San Diego and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and among its applications could be computer-based checking of California radar maps, and the creation of an earthquake warning system for the public. The machine's neuroscience focus will be on delivering high-resolution maps of the human brain, according to Larry Smarr of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.
(Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)
- "Prominent Physicist Fired for Faking Data"
Los Angeles Times (09/26/02) P. A1; Piller, Charles
Reported discoveries of single-molecule transistors from Bell Labs have been discredited as a scientific panel found Dr. J. Hendrik Schon, who authored much of the work, to be guilty of fraud. Schon was found to have faked data 16 times in papers advancing the work of molecular electronics, but his colleagues were cleared of wrongdoing. Bell Labs fired Schon on Tuesday. The panel wrote that "this is a clear, unambiguous case of scientific misconduct," and accused Schon of either intentionally or recklessly distorting his work. Schon, in a statement issued with the panel's report, admitted making mistakes, but insisted "that the reported scientific effects are real, exciting, and worth working for." It is the first case of scientific misconduct at Bell Labs in the organization's 77-year history, but Malcolm Beasley, chairman of the review panel and a professor of applied physics at Stanford University, says the peer-review process for such work should be examined. Lucent says it will tighten its internal processes for reviewing manuscripts. Dr. Donald Kennedy, editor of the journal Science, which had published Schon's paper on single-molecule transistors, said the scientific peer-review process was not designed to catch intentional data fraud, and Beasley noted the "the normal processes of science worked--they ferreted it out." Schon was working on ways to wire transistors to create miniature electronic devices by using a single layer of molecules, and his work would have been revolutionary if it had help up to scrutiny. However, scientists trying to reproduce his results could not do so. Still, in checking Schon's work, Thomas N. Theis, director of physical sciences at the IBM Watson Research Center, said scientists have been led "toward further possibilities" and "interest in the field continues to grow rapidly."
(Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)
- "Lawmaker Defends Online Piracy Bill"
Associated Press (09/26/02); Bridis, Ted
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.) on Thursday said he may rework part of his bill sanctioning hacking activities by copyright owners. His proposed bill would lift criminal penalties normally prescribed for hacking. Berman's home district includes Hollywood, where many studios say they want to be able to attack the peer-to-peer networks that people use to illegally trade copyrighted music and movie files. MediaDefender, a company that creates software tools for the protection of copyrighted digital media, says that some of the functions of its products might be considered illegal under current law, such as the slowing of peer-to-peer traffic through "interdiction." MediaDefender's software downloads illegally traded files at an intentionally slow pace so that others cannot access those files. Berman says that copyright owners should be able to do something about the pilfering of their property, just as owners of physical property are excluded from trespassing laws when recovering stolen goods. However, opponents point out that innocent end users may be unfairly targeted as a result of the legislation. Under the bill, copyright owners would need to disclose the anti-piracy techniques they plan to employ to the Justice Department before they hack, but officials' approval of those methods is not a requirement. It is unlikely that Berman's bill will be passed during the current legislative session, given the lateness of its introduction, but some legislators warned that they would reconsider the proposal next year unless the entertainment and technology sectors can agree to a common anti-piracy remedy.
- "Inventor Foresees Implanted Sensors Aiding Brain Functions"
EE Times Online (09/26/02); Ohr, Stephan
In a keynote address at the Fall Sensors Expo conference in Boston, famed inventor Ray Kurzweil declared that the increasing frequency of paradigm shifts caused by accelerated technological advancements could one day lead to interactive technologies that currently exist in the realm of science fiction. Such breakthroughs could include the electronic transmission of memories and sensory experiences between people; microchips implanted in the brain that can replace or enhance cerebral functions; and micromachines or nanobots that can be injected into the bloodstream, or swallowed like tablets. Kurzweil predicted that such developments could come to pass by 2030, given current trends--in fact, he believes that computing machinery by that time will be capable of making 100 trillion connections and 10(26) calculations per second. Furthermore, he forecast that the human brain could be reverse engineered in just 18 years. He noted that the convergence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, and the development of interactive technologies such as cochlear implants and wearable computing, is setting the foundation for such breakthroughs, and cited British Airways' interactive registration system, whereby users organize travel itineraries through agents with "virtual personalities" via a combination of virtual reality and speech synthesis and speech recognition technology. Kurzweil also demonstrated "Ramona," an interactive Web interface that can be used as a virtual persona. With more and more intelligence being embedded into sensors and microchips, the inventor predicted that non-biological intelligence will dominate between 2030 and 2040.
- "A Crushing Burden on Industry"
Financial Times (09/26/02) P. 8; Wendlandt, Astrid
European Union officials later this month are expected to start finalizing details of the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) directive, which lawmakers likely will pass later this year. The directive mandates electronics recycling in all member states, but although the goal is to make it free for users, how manufacturers will pay for it is still unclear. The mandate would encompass all products with an electrical cord or batteries. Manufacturers are worried about the costs, estimated in the billions of euros, but some have already made moves in response. Sony senior manager for the environment, Peter Evans, says that the industry is moving toward recycling anyhow, and that companies need to adapt. Sony and German electronics maker Siemens have begun reducing the complexity of their products and designing them to be easier to recycle, for example. In the United Kingdom, IT group Intellect says that local authorities would play a role in the collection of electronics waste, while the actual recycling of a specific product--DVD players, for instance--could be assigned to the industry sector responsible for producing that product. Opponents to the measure point out that some countries are ill-prepared for the law, which would go into effect in 2004, and that there are technological limitations to recycling some substances, such as those that make up LCD screens used in cell phones and thin computer displays. Meanwhile, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Sweden already have the infrastructure, and societal preparedness, to implement the measures.
- "Building a Better Internet"
IDG News Service (09/25/02); Pruitt, Scarlet
The Infrastructure for Resilient Internet Systems (IRIS) project is a five-year, $12 million initiative to produce a robust, decentralized, and secure Internet infrastructure with the help of the computer science departments of five U.S. universities. The infrastructure will be developed using distributed hash table (DHT) technology, which can prevent all the data in a network from becoming vulnerable if one server crashes, according to MIT's Frans Kaashoek. Rather than centralizing the data in a single server, each server contains a partial list of the data's storage location; the challenge lies in developing a "lookup" algorithm that can locate data using the fewest possible steps. A further hurdle involves building a software interface to facilitate system access, says Kaashoek. IRIS was launched by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which on Wednesday is expected to award the $12 million in research funding to MIT, New York University, Rice University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the International Computer Science Institute. IRIS grew out of rising worries of the Internet's susceptibility to failure and attacks from viruses, worms, and possibly cyberterrorists. Kaashoek says that if the project is successful, "we could change the world."
- "Open-Source Tug of War Heats Up"
Wired News (09/26/02); Delio, Michelle
The Initiative for Software Choice (ISC) vehemently opposes government use of open-source software (OSS), and is planning to accelerate its attempts to hamper the passage of open-source laws in South America and Europe over the next several weeks. The ISC, which is chaired by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), charges that such laws will hurt commerce for American firms, and will also be at odds with World Trade Organization regulations as well as certain accords. Some OSS proponents agree that software selection should not be dictated by law, but rather be determined by how good the products are. Other OSS supporters dismiss the ISC and CompTIA as Microsoft muscle, although ISC attorney Michael Wendy insists that "None of our members, including Microsoft, represents more than 1 percent of our total revenue." He attributes the growing government interest in OSS to the need for enhanced security, competition, cost-cutting, piracy safeguards, and the development of indigenous software groups. The ISC's first salvo against the OSS legislation will focus on Venezuela, where a mandate for almost exclusive government use of OSS is expected to be part of a presidential package to be issued on Saturday. Similar legislation is also being debated in Colombia, Peru, and the Ukraine, while a recent report from the European Commission suggests that European administrations could lower technology costs by sharing OSS. Linux.com editor in chief Robin Miller does not think that open source will cripple the American software industry. He says, "Smart American software companies will adapt," while "thousands of new software companies...will do well."
- "Industry Insiders Hail a New Age of Convergence"
Investor's Business Daily (09/26/02) P. A12; Detar, James
Industry observers believe that the portable device sector is
poised for a major breakthrough, marked by a convergence of multimedia applications. Intel's Ron Smith predicts that mobile consumer devices with Web connections that offer anytime, anywhere communication are "the new killer application" and will continue to be developed as manufacturers have only "scratched the surface" with the devices available today. Texas Instruments' Curtis Waters says that hot-selling products in Europe and Japan will penetrate the United States in the future, but he acknowledges that technical challenges still need to be met, such as finding a way to run multiple applications without causing interference. Expected to debut commercially in 2003 is Intel's smart display, a wireless device with a touch screen keyboard that users can carry around while maintaining a PC connection. Meanwhile, Nokia is selling a Web-enabled digital cell phone in the United States that features a built-in keyboard as well as fax, email, and digital photo capability. A model with a digital camera currently being sold in Europe and Japan will premiere in the United States shortly. Waters notes that cell phone manufacturers are striving to address security issues with the addition of fingerprint recognition and voice recognition password technology, and he forecasts that retinal scanners will be incorporated into portable devices within three years. International Data (IDC) estimates that the number of wireless device users will reach 928 million worldwide this year, and exceed 1 billion next year.
- "Software Security Group Launches"
CNet (09/26/02); Lemos, Robert
The OIS is an organization composed of 11 software manufacturers and security companies dedicated to establishing guidelines on responsibly disclosing software vulnerabilities. The goal of the group, which was formally launched on Thursday, is to satisfy software firms that wish to keep security flaws under their hat while they fix them, and consultants and security companies that are eager to reveal them to the public for their own gain. The OIS consists of Oracle, SGI, Caldera International, @Stake, Bindview, Internet Security Systems (ISS), Foundstone, NAI, Symantec, Microsoft, and Guardent. Earlier this year, OIS members backed official draft disclosure rules that were sent to and rejected by the Internet Engineering Task Force. The guidelines suggested that companies be allowed one week to respond to vulnerability alerts from security researchers, and then be given at least 30 days to repair the problem before it is revealed to the public. In June, OIS member ISS publicly disclosed a flaw in the popular Apache Web server mere hours after notifying the software's developer group, a move that employees of other OIS members thought was uncalled for. An anonymous group member adds that the OIS' legal membership agreement, which spans 20 pages, is also a source of conflict. However, the organization is bound to benefit from President Bush's National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace.
- "Computer Pings May Measure Light Speed"
NewsFactor Network (09/26/02); Martin, Mike
In a recent paper, Youngstown State University physics professor Michael Crescimano proposed a method to measure the speed of light by reflecting ping signals, or small data packets, between a pair of computers linked by Ethernet cards and cables, and then recording the round-trip time. Pings, which usually consist of about 100 bytes, are routinely used by network administrators to check computer operations and network connections; a packet is transmitted from one computer to another, and the first computer verifies that systems are operational as soon as it receives a return packet. Harry Tyrer of the University of Missouri describes Crescimano's concept as "ingenious," and notes that light and ping signals are, by their nature, electromagnetic waves. Crescimano and paper co-author Joel Lepak compare cable-borne electrical signals and light using electromagnetic equations, and the results of the experiment estimate a light speed between 290 and 309 thousand meters per second, just a few percentage points from actual value. The authors say that their method is cheaper than conventional classroom technology, such as equipment that measures microwave frequency and wavelength or bounces light between spinning mirrors. Crescimano says, "All high schools have computers with network interfaces nowadays, so the idea is really to use the existing computer infrastructure in the schools." Crescimano also notes that ping is a standard feature of free Linux operating systems.
- "A New Way to Read, Not See, Maps"
Wired News (09/25/02); Tosczak, Mark
Software developed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers visually impaired users a way to navigate maps, thus opening up their participation in geographic research. The Blind Audio Tactile Mapping System (BATS) is set up so that a sightless user can move a cursor over a map and determine location and the position of prominent features by hearing audio cues. For instance, moving the cursor over land produces the sound of horses galloping, while moving it over water produces the sound of waves hitting shore. Meanwhile, a speech synthesizer reads out the name of locations the cursor passes over, and sometimes spells it out if pronunciation is difficult. Users navigate with a trackball interface, which proved to be a cheaper and easier alternative to an early prototype's stylus and touch screen. BATS grew out of a undergraduate computer science class project organized by professor Gary Bishop, and Python was selected as the software's programming language. The students responded so positively to the challenge that they asked Bishop permission to refine the system over the summer, and Bishop secured funding from Microsoft to support their efforts. A new team is incorporating tactile feedback into BATS via trackballs and mice with force-feedback.
- "Bob Wallace, Software Pioneer, Dies at 53"
New York Times (09/24/02) P. A29; Dudley, Brier
Bob Wallace, a software innovator and one of Microsoft's earliest employees, died on Sept. 20 at the age of 53. He studied computing at Brown University and the University of Washington, where he joined a community of microcomputer hobbyists. While a student at Brown he was one of the key designers of the file retrieval editing system (Fress), groundbreaking work led by Andries van Dam that involved early word processing and text editing systems and the idea of linking documents that was eventually dubbed hypertext. That work would influence personal computing for three decades. His stint at the Retail Computer Store in Seattle led to his employment at the fledgling Microsoft when Bill Gates posted an advertisement for programmers. Gates recalled that Wallace built Microsoft's first Pascal product, but he later left Microsoft to found Quicksoft in 1983, which he used to sell products he invented, such as the PC-Write word-processing program. He also helped found the Northwest Computer Society in 1976 and the Washington Software Association in 1985. Wallace pioneered the shareware software distribution system, which was his way to both turn a profit and be altruistic by making software available to people. Paul Allen said, "I remember Bob as a gentle soul who was soft-spoken, but creative, persistent and meticulous in his programming and thinking."
(Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)
- "Neglected Wireless Tech: The User Interface"
Wireless Newsfactor (09/26/02); Lyman, Jay
The development of the wireless user interface has fallen by the wayside because the mobile communications industry is devoting most of its efforts to building killer apps, said Datacomm Research President Ira Brodsky; a new report from his company argues that a good interface is critical to corporate and consumer adoption of wireless technology. Brodsky added that this trend has begun to reverse itself, but developing an industry standard interface could take several years. The report finds that the third-generation experience will be facilitated via multiple related interfaces from wireless operators, but Brodsky said there has been little progress in this area. He explained that Nokia has made some strides with the rollout of a line of related devices, but its efforts are being complicated by worries about competitors such as Microsoft. NTT DoCoMo's 2G i-mode data service also receives praise from the report, and Brodsky cited its use of compact HTML rather than WAP, and the deployment of small applications that ease the sign-up process for customers. He lauded AT&T for its development effort, but criticized its cellular digital packet data radio network for causing drawbacks in coverage and speed. Brodsky contended that users will be particularly receptive to an intuitive interface--"or at least an interface that walks them through the process." He noted that user and operator interest in interfaces is being rekindled by microdisplays and other technologies, and predicted that color displays will be incorporated into most mobile phones within a few years.
- "China's Software Exports Only Four Years Behind India: Gartner"
Indian Express (09/23/02)
China will catch up with India in software exports by 2006, generating $27 billion in exports, compared to $850 million in 2001, predicts Gartner researcher Dion Wiggins. That represents an average annual growth rate of 620 percent, he says. Wiggins also predicts that Indian firms operating in China will provide 40 percent of China's total exports in the software and service industries, about $108 billion by 2006. Currently, China has more than 6,000 software companies, nearly double that of India, but exports totaled just $850 million in 2001 compared to India's $6.2 billion. Wiggins noted that Chinese software firms suffer from poor project management, low technology levels, and small employee groups. As a result, Chinese firms do not often win major software deals from foreign companies. Meanwhile, India companies such as Infosys, TCS, and Satyam have recently launched operations in China. TCS' Girja Pande says China's proximity to Japan is convenient for capturing Japanese outsourcing orders.
- "Offshore Upstarts"
eWeek (09/23/02) Vol. 19, No. 38, P. 25; Musich, Paula
India retains the top spot in international software development outsourcing with 85 percent of the market, but other countries such as Russia and China are working to catch up. Gartner analyst Ian Marriott says that Russia should capture 5 percent of that market by 2007, adding that Russian companies lag Indian firms in terms of average Capability Maturity Level (CMM). Dmitry Loschinin, CTO of Russian development firm Luxoft, declares that Russian scientists and engineers are well prepared for software development because they are trained to deal creatively with difficult problems, and are versed in advanced mathematics. However, Russia lacks industry representation on the level of India's National Association of Software Services Companies, which lobbies both overseas and nationally for government support. Meanwhile, China is catching up in that regard as the Chinese government is taking deliberate steps to ready its huge IT graduate pool and business regulatory environment for software development. The country's advantages include an excellent educational system that has a heavy emphasis on IT, according to E5 Systems CEO Gordon Brooks. The global software outsourcing market continues to grow rapidly, leaving room for all players to bring in big business. Last year, India saw its software exports jump by 19 percent to $6.2 billion, despite the unstable political climate.
- "Better-Built Diamonds: Fast Growth, Purity May Multiply Uses"
Science News (09/14/02) Vol. 162, No. 11, P. 165; Weiss, Peter
Two separate groups report that they have produced artificial diamonds more amenable for use as electronic components by combining the heat-and-press method with chemical-vapor deposition. Both groups claim that they were able to precisely control the deposition process, although the results are markedly different. A team of Swedish and English researchers disclosed in the Sept. 6 issue of Nature that they have fabricated diamonds of unrivaled purity, while a second team in the United States reports in an upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they have grown diamonds much faster by injecting nitrogen and raising heat and pressure during the deposition process. The latter group says they have manufactured flawed test diamonds as big as 5 carats, and are planning to grow high-quality 100-carat diamonds using the same method. The former group's diamonds, by contrast, are only a few tenths of a carat in size, but are incredibly defect-free. Steven E. Coe of De Beers Industrial Diamonds says that the diamonds produced from his team's experiments are large enough to build electronic components for niche market players. He expects them to be incorporated into high-power, high-voltage devices featured in trains, radars, and electric-power-grid circuits.
- "Computers That Run Themselves"
Economist (09/21/02) Vol. 364, No. 8291, P. S26
More powerful computing leads to increasing system complexity, and autonomic computing aims to remove systems' dependency on live maintenance crews. The importance of reliability and availability has grown as a result of rapid advancements in network speed, disk space affordability, and chip power, as well as the rising cost of downtime. Systems that can run themselves use the autonomic nervous system as a model, and incorporate many biological characteristics, such as self-healing (redundancy), adaptability to changing environments (reconfigurability), identity (awareness of their own resources), and immunity (automatic defense against viruses). IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center is working to provide these elements through projects such as the Blue Gene supercomputer, whose built-in fault tolerance will combat a failure rate of one processor every four days; an e-workload manager that enables computer systems to prioritize responses to various requests and reconfigure itself to carry them out; and a "computing utility power plant" code-named Oceano that can dynamically assign capacity. Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard has made progress in its planetary computing project, which aims to establish a global-scale computing utility via a network of huge data centers, while Sun Microsystems' N1 computing system virtualization initiative has moved beyond the prototype phase. Smaller-scale research efforts include UC Berkeley's "introspective computing" initiative, which focuses on self-monitoring systems; and its recovery-oriented computing project, which aims to imbue systems with failure recovery rather than failure avoidance components. Barriers to progress in autonomic computing include difficulty in pinning down the associated metrics, and IT firms' reluctance to adopt open standards.
- "Display Technology Worth Watching"
Electronic Business (09/02) Vol. 28, No. 9, P. 32; Harbert, Tam
Organic light emitting displays (OLEDs) show enormous potential--they require less voltage to operate than liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), while their ability to be printed could significantly lower manufacturing costs and lead to lighter devices. But until materials and manufacturing breakthroughs are achieved, LCDs will continue to dominate the market. OLEDs are still costlier to produce than LCDs, says David Mentley of iSuppli/Stanford Resources, and Universal Display's Janice Mahon comments that mass production will be key to driving costs down. Extending OLEDs' life will also be critical, according to Mentley; LCDs can operate for more than 50,000 hours, while current OLED materials can manage only 10,000 hours at the most. OLEDs also consume too much power, but Mahon claims that her company has solved this problem by using phosphorescent substances that convert 100 percent of energy into light. Mentley notes that over 100 firms are engaged in some aspect of OLED development, but he doesn't expect them to reach $1 billion in revenue for four years. Meanwhile, Photon Dynamics CEO Vince Sollitto forecasts that OLED adoption will not gain true momentum until 2010 at the least. Mahon believes it will not take very long to significantly ramp up OLED yields, compared to the decade it took LCD technology to do the same.
Click Here to View Full Article