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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
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Volume 5, Issue 461: Monday, February 24, 2003
- "China Serves As Dump Site For Computers"
Washington Post (02/24/03) P. A1; Goodman, Peter S.; Ting, Wang
Electronic waste (e-waste) such as old computers is being shipped overseas to China and other Asian countries to be broken down for valuable parts by cheap laborers that put their health and environment at risk because of unregulated and unsanitary working conditions. Guangdong Radio and the Beijing Youth newspaper recently reported that people in these areas are suffering from birth defects, respiratory ailments, blood diseases, and high infant mortality because carcinogens and toxins from imported e-waste are being absorbed by rivers and soil. Eighty percent of the e-waste collected by U.S. recyclers is exported to China, where bans on such imports are regularly bypassed by corrupt customs officials, say industry sources. In e-waste recycling centers such as the town of Guiyu in Guangdong province, the local water supply is so contaminated that potable water must be shipped in; a 2002 report from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) and the Basel Action Network indicated that the amount of lead in the Guiyu water was 190 times higher than the World Health Organization's drinking water standard. The report took computer manufacturers to task for not deploying their own recycling programs, and singled out the United States for failing to approve the Basel Convention, an international accord designed to limit the export of dangerous waste. Since China instituted its import ban last year, some ports that often act as receiving and distribution stations for e-waste have been closed off, but this has only encouraged suppliers to use alternate routes. SVTC predicts that up to 500 million computers will have been discarded in the United States alone between 1997 and 2007, while a California survey conducted by the EPA finds that it is far cheaper to ship e-waste overseas than dispose of it properly at home. "At the same time that we're preventing pollution in the United States, we're shifting the problem to somebody else," notes SVTC's Ted Smith.
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- "AU Experts Dampen SSL Break Claim"
ZDNet Australia (02/21/03); Gray, Patrick
Claims by Swiss researchers that they have successfully broken the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) protocol are being disputed by experts. Various news sources have reported that the Swiss team at the Security and Cryptography Laboratory of EPFL's Department of Communication Systems has "cracked" SSL, but Australian security consultant Adam Pointon says the claim is highly exaggerated. "They've found weaknesses in SSL, definitely, but they haven't 'broken' it," he clarifies. A paper released by the Swiss team alleges that a student successfully exploited the SSL vulnerability by launching a "proof of concept" attack and authenticating the results by intercepting passwords transmitted to an IMAP REV server when confirming emails via an Outlook Express 6.x client on a secure connection. However, VeriSign Australia's Richard Miller says the vulnerability does not lie within the SSL protocol, but rather in its implementation. He says the flaw can be easily remedied, an assertion that Pointon agrees with. Furthermore, Pointon says that exploiting the vulnerability would be a daunting challenge. He attributes the publicity of the Swiss team's report to the fact that SSL is widespread, and many believe that breaking it will enhance their reputations. Meanwhile, OpenSSL has already released a patch for the security hole.
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- "Media Copyright Law Put to Unexpected Uses"
Los Angeles Times (02/23/03) P. C1; Streitfeld, David
The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was originally passed to discourage digital piracy and protect the intellectual property of the U.S. entertainment industry, but the law is being leveraged by other industries as well. For instance, printer manufacturer Lexmark International is suing Static Control Components, claiming that the latter violated the DMCA by copying a security device that allows remanufactured toner cartridges to interoperate with Lexmark printers. Lexmark sought to control the ink and toner cartridge aftermarket, from which it makes most of its money, by installing a chip in certain cartridges that inhibits their function if they are refurbished, refilled, and resold by competing companies. Static Control circumvents this block by incorporating a chip of its own into second-hand cartridges that makes them compatible with Lexmark printers, and Lexmark claims this infringes on its copyrighted access code. Although Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) declared cases such as Lexmark's were never considered when the DMCA was being drafted, he does not discount their legitimacy. Another case invoking the DMCA involved Wal-Mart's complaint against FatWallet, a Web site for bargain-hunters; Wal-Mart charged that FatWallet broke the DMCA by listing both current and future prices for items. Meanwhile, Dow Chemical leveraged the DMCA to shut down an anti-Dow Web site that used "trademarks, images, and designs" copied from the company's own site. "The DMCA started with the noblest of intentions, but it is becoming the bright shiny new toy of enterprises looking for a way to stifle competition and to control what they might consider unfavorable information," warns GartnerG2 policy analyst Mike McGuire.
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For background information about DMCA visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
- "Electronics Makers Lead the Charge in Quest for Longer Battery Life"
International Herald Tribune (02/24/03); Tanikawa, Miki
Mobile devices are being enhanced with more sophisticated features, and taking full advantage of them depends on extending battery life significantly. Both small and large developers are in a frenzy to boost the lifespan of lithium-ion batteries by making fundamental design changes, or create alternative power sources. Sanyo's Mitsuru Honma projects that lithium-ion battery life could be extended by up to 40 percent by 2005, if not sooner. This could be done by using different materials for electrodes: Sanyo is focusing on a unit with a silicon-based cathode, while U.S.-based Valence Technology announced last year that replacing the cobalt anode with phosphate would increase lithium-ion battery life considerably. Other manufacturers are investigating fuel cells as another power source. If hydrogen-powered fuel cells currently being developed for automobiles could be reduced in size, they could supply 20 or more hours of power for laptops. Companies such as Toshiba and Medis Technologies are researching direct methanol fuel cells (DMFCs), which can be smaller than lithium-ion batteries because they do not need reformers. Boosters believe that fuel cells could start showing up in consumer mobile devices within two years, but skeptics such as Honma believe their commercial rollout is closer to 10 years, due to unresolved electrical output and safety issues.
- "The Real Computer Chip Speed Barrier"
NewsFactor Network (02/21/03); Ray, Tiernan
Personal computer performance is apparent to everyday users, but difficult to trace on the back-end because of the complex relationships between system components. Experts say that design complexity is exacerbated by incongruous efforts on the part of processor companies such as Intel and dynamic random access memory (DRAM) makers. Savvy PC users know that processor speeds or the amount of DRAM alone does not always mean optimal performance. What is needed is synchronization between the computer processing chip and other chips on the motherboard, including the network controller and main memory RAM. PC computer experts especially note the disconnect between processor speeds, now running over 3 GHz, and bus speeds stuck at just 533 MHz. InStat-MDR analyst Thomas R. Halfhill says that DRAM companies and Intel are running a halting race forward, with DRAM vendors dependent on Intel to up its front-side bus connection while Intel's efforts are stymied by interfaces on memory chips. In this way, Halfhill says future double- and quad-speed data rate memory chips promise dramatic improvements in PC performance. University of California, Berkeley, computer science professor David Patterson, pioneer of RISC computing, says the problem requires more intelligent components and that Intel's hyperthreading technique represents a bold move forward. Patterson is also working on Intelligent RAM, which he says is a memory chip with logic functions that would be most useful on smaller devices such PDAs, in which instructions and data together can be stored on the same chip.
- "IDC: Asia to Lead in Developers by 2005"
InfoWorld (02/20/03); Roberts, Paul
The Asia-Pacific region will surpass North America in numbers of software developers by 2005, according to a newly released report from International Data (IDC). North America holds the top spot with 2.6 million professional software developers counted in 2001, but that number dropped half a percentage point from 2000. In the same time period, the number of professionally employed developers in Asia grew by 6 percent to 1.7 million, edging past Europe's 1.6 million developers. IDC says there were 7.8 professional developers in 2001, but predicts that number to rise to 13.3 million by 2006. IDC says that China and India, which have low tallies of developers in relation to their overall populations, will experience the fastest growth. The Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa are also set to see rapid expansion. The IDC study also showed that the United States dominates with nearly 30 percent of worldwide software developers in the country as of 2001. The No. 2 country in terms of overall share was Japan, which claimed approximately 6 percent of the world's developers. IDC used a statistical model for its study rather than actual census or historical data, and defined a developer as an employed programmer that uses development tools to create applications.
- "A Parallel Inventor of the Transistor Has His Moment"
New York Times (02/24/03) P. C1; Markoff, John
A new book chronicling the history of computing means to give proper credit to Dr. Herbert F. Matare, who was one of a pair of researchers that produced a transistor just two months after the famed AT&T Bell Laboratories did it in 1948. The Belgian historian Armand Van Dormael says the book, "The Silicon Revolution," will bring to light 30 years of background work and application done in Europe before the transistor breakthrough, which replaced vacuum tubes as the devices with which to amplify and switch electronic signals. The three-person team at Bell Labs received Nobel Prizes for their research, but Dr. Matare and co-inventor Heinrich Welker were not even mentioned in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers publication about the transistor's 50th anniversary. Dr. Matare's research was conducted in a Westinghouse Laboratory in Paris, where he says one of the Bell Labs team later came to observe a practical application of the transistor--a phone call to Algiers with a voice signal boosted by transistor-enabled repeaters. Dr. Matare also utilized his research to create a transistor radio prototype that preceded the American transistor radio by more than a year, and explored the possibility of using germanium, rather than the more stable silicon, as a base for the transistor. Now 90 years old, Dr. Matare still works as a consultant for Pyron, a company pursuing advanced semiconductor materials to boost the performance of solar panels.
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- "Many Companies Cut Research Budgets"
USA Today (02/24/03) P. 1B; Kessler, Michelle
Technology companies spent $91 billion on research and development in 2002, according to an analysis of 2,830 public companies followed by Multex, a 9 percent decrease on average from 2001. Overall, over 1,500 companies cut their R&D budgets last year, while non-tech R&D spending actually rose to $110 billion last year from 2001's $107 billion. Although Jules Duga at research firm Battelle does not believe the cuts are permanent, he says they could slow innovation in the tech industry. Some R&D budgets are falling due to the slow economy, as companies such as Lucent Technologies tie their R&D spending to a percent of their revenue, while other firms such as Ericsson are dropping products lines in order to use their R&D money more efficiently. Still, some firms such as Intel actually increased R&D spending last year in order to be ready when market conditions improve.
- "Tech for Elders Must Have Purpose"
Wired News (02/24/03); Baard, Mark
Senior citizens would be more receptive to assistive technologies that boast familiarity and ease-of-use and give users a sense of self-reliance, according to researchers. The University of Colorado's cognitive levers (Clever) project has an initiative called Mobility for All that aims to develop smart phones with high-resolution displays that combine global positioning system (GPS) and wireless technology to help cognitively handicapped people take public transportation to their desired destination. As for elderly who like to drive but are easily lost or have difficulty seeing through the windshield, GM research engineer Brian Repa says one solution is a new navigation system that can be operated by a handful of buttons and commands. Tokyo-based Omron has designed a robotic kitten that can interact with people in response to vocal and tactile input picked up by its sensors. The robot could be used for therapeutic purposes, although Elena Libin of the Institute of Robotic Psychology and Robotherapy acknowledges that the machine's high cost and fragility could give it a limited lifespan in nursing homes. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are developing Nursebot, a robot that can assist seniors by responding to questions, reminding them about appointments, and helping them walk. Nursebot's mobility is limited--it cannot climb stairs, for instance; its brain, which is programmed with artificial intelligence, could find more use as a system that can monitor seniors' health via sensors deployed throughout the home. Martha Pollack of the University of Michigan says the key to familiarizing elders with high-tech gadgetry is customization.
- "India May Face IT Worker Drought"
CNETAsia (02/18/03); Chai, Winston
India could experience a deficiency of 235,000 IT workers within five years, according to a study by Nasscom, a national IT trade group in India. The study estimates that India will need 1 million IT workers in 2008, but only 885,000 are expected to be available. To counteract this, Nasscom President Kiran Karnik says educational disparities in India need to be addressed, and both private and public organizations should work together to provide IT-focused training. He adds that training should be targeted toward what the IT industry needs. The study also forecasts that India will have 650,000 IT services and software workers by March 2003, up 24.4 percent from last year. In addition, salaries for IT professionals increased by an average of 8 percent last year, with most firms connecting salary to performance. And most new IT workers in India were hired in South India (44 percent), and the fewest in India's eastern region (6 percent). Among software professionals, the average age was 26.5, and 79 percent were men; 42 percent of software/knowledge workers had over three years of experience.
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- "FCC Ruling Is a Blow to the Competitive Marketplace"
SiliconValley.com (02/21/03); Gillmor, Dan
Dan Gillmor writes that the FCC's 3-2 decision on Thursday to allow the Baby Bells to ban rivals' access to wireless high-speed fiber-optic lines and resources severely undercuts the competitive telecommunications marketplace and gives regional phone companies dominion over next-generation high-speed services. He concedes that one bright spot for customers is that regional companies are still required to lease major components of their local phone networks to competitors at reasonable rates, but FCC Chairman Michael Powell criticized the decision to leave pricing to state regulators, warning that this could result in a cost muddle. Furthermore, the commission said the Bells do not have to supply digital subscriber line (DSL) rivals fair-priced access to local copper lines, and Gillmor feels Powell was justified in condemning this measure. He writes that it is possible for emerging services such as wireless and Internet telephony to limit the monopolistic hold of Bells and cable companies. Meanwhile, fiber could be deployed by local governments or utilities, although regional phone companies are pushing state legislation to restrict such practices. Gillmor is less confident about assertions that the Bells will succumb to "a financial death spiral" no matter what strategy they follow. He is also discouraged by the fact that the Bells received so much support from the tech sector. "If the phone giants can leverage today's power into dominance of tomorrow's telecommunications, the rest of us will pay, and pay, and pay," Gillmor writes.
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- "Hard Lessons in Soft Skills"
Toronto Globe & Mail (02/21/03); Kerr, Ann
Graduates of IT programs in Canada are finding they need business and communications skills in order to differentiate themselves in a crowded technology job market. Those that do find work are often contracted for single projects that are taken on to complete mundane tasks not related to their major. As a result, schools such as Centennial College in Toronto are offering post-graduate programs to supplement technical skills with business training, teaching students how to justify IT projects and do project management. The Canadian government says the number of jobs in the IT field dropped 1.5 percent last year while unemployment rates actually improved. Statscan analyst Geoff Bowlby explains the apparent incongruity by suggesting many IT workers have actually left the field to find work in other areas, and he specifically noted the Canadian federal government's recent hiring spree. The Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) conducted a survey that showed demand for SQL Server and XML programming expertise, as well as for experience in cutting-edge technology such as microelectronics and photonics. However, most employers surveyed in 2002 still wanted regular skills such as database administration, project management, and software engineering. ITAC's Lynda Leonard emphasizes that applicants for those positions need to focus on presenting themselves as having a well-rounded skill set, including communication skills.
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- "Web Is Key Homeland Security Element"
Investor's Business Daily (02/20/03) P. A10; Tsuruoka, Doug
The newly-formed Homeland Security Department (HSD) is planning an Internet-based system designed to spot the early signs of bioterror attacks in order to curb epidemics before they become widespread. The project, which would be part of a larger network that would warn against many different kinds of terror attacks, involves the linkage of myriad computers, environmental sensors, metropolitan area scanners, and other systems distributed throughout the United States. Experts say such a system should be able to pinpoint a bioterror attack within 48 hours of the initial outbreak in order to prevent panic, and using the Net can offer rapid consultation between strategists on how to manage the crisis. They also stress the importance of accurate information in heading off an attack. The HSD's proposed 2004 budget of $36.2 billion will include $829 million to pay for components of the early warning bioterror system. However, cybersecurity expert Winn Schwartau warns that the system will probably not be immune to hacking and other forms of sabotage. Of key importance to the HSD is the deployment of an early warning system for eight U.S. cities thought to be prime candidates for bioterror attacks by the White House; the system will scan medical data constantly, and track doctors' reports, drug sales, and emergency room admissions, while data-mining applications will be employed to uncover statistical evidence of bioattacks. "The Internet could have a revolutionary role in civil defense," declares RBC Capital Markets analyst Steve Sigmond. "You can tie together all types of disparate computer systems and have information flow across any computer system with open standards."
- "Net Blocking Threatens Legitimate Sites"
CNet (02/19/03); McCullagh, Declan
A new study from Harvard University's Berkman Center reveals that over 85 percent of domain names "share their Web servers with one or more additional domains," and that two-thirds of all Web sites are hosted at servers with 50 or more domain names. The study shows that trying to block particular Web sites due to content issues often snags numerous other sites in its dragnet, concludes study author Ben Edelman. A September 2002 Pennsylvania court order forced WorldCom to block U.S. access to a handful of non-U.S. Web sites that display child pornography, and China also is known for blocking national access to various political, news, and informational Web sites. Since 1999, Hypertext protocol HTPP 1.1 has allowed multiple domain names to be lodged at one IP address, and current blocking technology targets IP addresses and not URLs. Yahoo!, for instance, hosts 74,000 Web sites at one IP address. Tucows uses one IP address for 68,000 domains, and Namezero uses one for 56,000 domains. The Pennsylvania attorney general says that the judicial blocking order has led to tangible success while generating few complaints. Free speech advocates are concerned that blocking an IP address constitutes a violation of free speech, especially because so many Web sites are linked through a single IP address.
- "Hacking Democracy?"
Salon.com (02/20/03); Manjoo, Farhad
Electronic voting machines are being eyed with suspicion by activists, technologists, writers, and others because their operations are not accessible to the public, there are documented cases in which they have crashed or tabulated votes incorrectly, and, most important of all, they do not provide a paper trail, making the accuracy of the vote count an unresolved issue. But warnings of such problems and their potential to muddle the electoral process appear to have fallen on mostly deaf ears: Election officials continue to deploy touch-screen voting machines throughout the United States, while the general public has expressed little concern. Writer and literary publicist Bev Harris discovered and publicly disclosed that Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) was a stakeholder and one-time president of the company that became Election Systems and Software (ES&S), which supplied touch-screen voting machines to several Nebraska counties for the election that won Hagel's seat in the Senate. Hagel's Democratic rival Chuck Matulka is convinced that voter fraud was committed, despite a lack of solid evidence--but the possibility cannot be discounted because the ES&S machines left no paper trail. Although Doug Lewis of the National Association of State Election Directors' Election Center admits that no voting system is perfect, he says that the electronic systems are thoroughly tested to weed out any malicious code prior to certification. Harris disputes this claim, and cites engineer Dan Spillane, who charges that the electronic voting machine company he once worked for turned out non-secure products that were overlooked by the national testing labs that certified them. Stanford University's David Dill and over 100 signatories signed a statement imploring that a "voter-verifiable audit trail" be provided by electronic voting machines.
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To read more about ACM activities involving e-voting, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
- "'Indoor GPS' to Help Droids Find Their Feet in the Home"
New Scientist (02/08/03) Vol. 177, No. 2381, P. 22; Mullins, Justin
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology have developed an indoor version of the Global Positioning System, improving how robots function in homes, shops, and offices. The performance of robots that operate indoors has been plagued by weak satellite signals, which keep the robots from obtaining an accurate account of their positions. The indoor GPS makes use of beacons that broadcast signals into a room, first a radio signal that tells a robot which beacon is broadcasting, and then a slower, ultrasonic signal. By comparing the arrival time of the radio and ultrasonic signal, the robot will be able to determine the distance to the beacon, and ultimately its position and orientation. "It's accurate to within a few centimeters and 2 or 3 degrees of arc," says Hari Balakrishnan, one of the indoor GPS inventors. The "cricket" network, so named because the beacons chirp, could also enable robots to perform many more functions than they can today, such as clearing tables. Cricket listening devices could be placed on an object, broadcasting not only its location, but code that robots could reference to determine what it is and how to handle it. The cricket network has a link to the ubiquitous computing efforts of MIT's Project Oxygen, which seeks to integrate computers into everyday objects so that people use them without a second thought.
- "The Purr of the Qubit"
Time (02/18/03) Vol. 161, No. 8, P. 48; Johnson, George
The journal Science last week reported that scientists in the Netherlands and Japan have devised a qubit from an electrical current in a superconducting ring. The development, in which the digits of binary arithmetic (0 and 1) flowed simultaneously clockwise and counterclockwise, brings scientists closer to giving computers an incredible increase in calculating power. Working from quantum physics' bizarre rules, theorists have proved that a quantum computer could perform a vast number of calculations simultaneously, and researchers are now working to make a computer that would easily outperform today's fastest supercomputers. Quantum computers would operate with tiny registers that can be both on and off, or register 1 and 0 at the same time, a concept with roots more than a half-century ago when physicist Erwin Schrodinger proposed using a hammer, a vial of poison, a cat in a box, and a quantum triggering device in a Rube Goldberg contraption. A moving electron would determine whether the hammer remained safely cocked or dropped, smashing the vial and killing the cat, but an undisturbed electron left in both states would allow the cat to be both dead and alive, was Schrodinger's thinking. Other researchers have used single atoms to devise qubits, and with 14 atoms a computer would be able to perform more than 16,384 calculations simultaneously, which would be faster than the supercomputer at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Quantum computers would be able to factor numbers hundreds of digits long immediately while the best conventional supercomputers would take a billion years. The progress of technological advances ultimately will determine the development of quantum computing.
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- "The Worm That Turned: A New Approach to Hacker Hunting"
Government Executive (02/03) Vol. 35, No. 2; Harris, Shane
To beat a super-sophisticated computer worm back in June 2000, Bob Gerber of the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center broke new ground in fighting cybercrime by gathering top security experts from government and industry and letting them tackle the problem with little supervision. The worm, dubbed "Leaves," sought out computers whose security was already compromised by Trojan programs, and enabled its inventor to coordinate a large-scale denial of service attack via the infected computers, all from a single Internet connection. The think tank Gerber organized had to overcome mistrust between the private and federal experts; the Pentagon's Marcus Sachs eased relations by demonstrating his knowledge of worms and hacker savvy. Participants took a sample of the worm back home, where they deconstructed it individually while sharing their discoveries with each other via email and telephone; letting them work unsupervised ensured that "Egos didn't get in the way of progress," according to Sachs. This approach helped shed light on the methodology of Leaves' creator, which generated leads and counter-strategies for federal agents to follow. Such moves included shutting down the Web sites that the zombie computers used to receive orders, and planting devices to trace the hacker's whereabouts, but as time went on Leaves' zombie ranks swelled while the worm's inventor got cagey and used more creative infection techniques. The think tank's activities were interrupted by the outbreak of the Code Red virus, which took priority while federal agent Michelle Jupina found a hot lead when she discovered an address used by the Leaves perpetrator in a cache she pulled off an Oklahoma server; she tracked the address to Britain, and worked with U.K. authorities to apprehend the hacker the next time he attempted to connect to the server. Although the hacker's motives remain undisclosed, the incident as well as Code Red allowed Gerber's think tank to prove its mettle.