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Timely Topics for IT Professionals

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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 IBM or ACM.

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Volume 5, Issue 501: Friday, May 30, 2003

  • "Special Visa's Use for Tech Workers Is Challenged"
    New York Times (05/30/03) P. C1; Hafner, Katie; Preysman, Daniel

    With IT employment numbers weak, U.S. technology workers are upset over the use of L-1 visas, which allow companies to transfer foreign employees to U.S. offices. Far fewer foreign workers are being issued H-1B visas and Congress will likely let the cap on those visas fall to just 65,000 on Oct. 1. However, use of the more obscure L-1 visa has increased almost 40 percent between 1999 and 2002 to 41,739 visas granted. Critics say mostly Indian outsourcing firms are using L-1 visas to place workers at client sites, where they are sometimes trained by the person they eventually replace. Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) plans to introduce a bill that would prevent companies from hiring L-1 workers. He says the law will protect American jobs from lower-cost foreign labor. Wipro's Sridhar Ramasubbu says the company will switch to H-1B visas if Mica's bill passes, and that the financial compensation for H-1B workers and L-1 visa holders is the same at Wipro. The L-1 visa does not have the same equal-pay legal requirement as the H-1B visa. American Immigration Lawyers Association general counsel Daryl Buffenstein says critics of the L-1 visa do not understand its importance for organizations that need to transfer workers to the United States. He says, "It will hurt employment in the United States if we impede the ability of legitimate users to transfer managers and specialists between different affiliates of international organizations." The L-1 visa, which has been in use for 33 years, has generated controversy before. The General Accounting Office three years ago called the fraudulent use of L-1 visas "the new wave in alien smuggling."
    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/30/technology/30VISA.html
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)

  • "Search-Rescue Robots Test Their Mettle in Tournaments"
    Washington Post (05/30/03) P. A3; Gugliotta, Guy

    As former chief of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's Tactical Mobile Robotics program, John G. Blitch, dissatisfied with the performance of robots at the site of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, made it a federal priority to see if more versatile robots could be developed. He commissioned the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to create a series of arenas where cutting-edge robot technologies could be tested in search-and-rescue operations, and today these arenas serve as templates for two major tournaments held by the American Association for Artificial Intelligence and the RoboCup Rescue League. Each arena is set up with navigational obstacles and mannequins representing trapped victims; robots must deal with impediments such as rubble, stairs, structural instability, and objects that could interfere with their sensors and telemetry. The machines' performance is evaluated according to how well they avoid needless bumps, collapses, and other disasters, as well as their ability to successfully reach victims. Such competitions help designers gain insight on the problems search-and-rescue robots often face, such as traversing unpredictable environments and the inability of satellite communications systems, upon which certain robots rely, to function indoors. The nonprofit MITRE is gearing up for this year's RoboCup challenge using a trio of robots built from off-the-shelf components that work and gather data in tandem under the direction of a single operator. MITRE has also purchased iRobot's PackBot, which can climb over obstacles and up stairs through the use of treaded "flippers." One of the key challenges of improving search-and-rescue robot design is embedding more sensors in the machines, thus giving them more maneuverability and navigational accuracy.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Making It on Their Merits"
    Business Week (05/29/03); Black, Jane

    The U.S. high-tech sector is still predominantly male, but women have made significant progress in attaining prominence in tech companies thanks to a merit-driven corporate culture fostered by Silicon Valley. Up-and-coming women are filling the executive ranks, and even claiming top spots, in giants such as Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, Yahoo!, Intel, and eBay, to name a few. Because promotion chiefly depends on performance in younger industries such as technology, "you're more likely to see women and minorities in senior positions [in tech] than in old-line, entrenched industries such as insurance, banks, steel, or manufacturing," observes DP Parker & Associates CEO David Parker. Packet Design Chairman Judy Estrin says that women in sales or technology have defeated skepticism from co-workers and clients through know-how, preparation, and consistent delivery. Lucent CEO Patricia Russo insists that "Results matter--it's hard to argue with them." Another factor that has helped women rise to greater heights is federal mandates requiring organizations notorious for gender discrimination to eliminate such practices. Many female tech professionals privately feel that women who hold top positions should be more proactive, both in giving lower-echelon women a leg up and encouraging girls to pursue business careers in technology. However, the majority of female executives, believing performance should be prioritized over sex, are opposed to the idea. Nevertheless, the Information Technology Association reports that women accounted for 25.3 percent of IT professionals in 2002, an increase of just 0.3 percent since 1996; moreover, an October 2002 study from the Simmons College School of Management found that less than 10 percent of girls expect to follow a business career track.
    Click Here to View Full Article

    For more information on ACM's Committee on Women and Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/women.

  • "PGP Encryption Proves Powerful"
    IDG News Service (05/26/03); Willan, Philip

    In March, Italian authorities captured several Psion PDAs from terrorists in a shoot-out, but have been unable to glean valuable information from the devices because of the powerful encryption used to mask the data. The PDAs, seized from the Red Brigades terrorist group, are protected by Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), according to the daily La Repubblica of Rome. PGP inventor Phil Zimmermann says PGP can be used easily on Windows CE or Palm-equipped devices, not Psion's Epoc system, but a spokesperson for Psion said PGP might be used, given the right add-on software. Zimmermann says the encryption is not likely to be broken by even the FBI, which is currently analyzing the devices in Quantico, Va. He says there is no "back door" for PGP, but there is a possibility investigators would be able to pick up unprotected plain text stored on the devices' unused memory before the message was encrypted, he says. Although developers in the 1990s sought to create a solution that law enforcement would be able to look into, there was no way to ensure oppressive governments did not gain access to the same tools. Zimmermann says PGP is meant to protect individuals from government surveillance that endangers their lives. On his personal Web site, Zimmermann features emails from around the world thanking him for PGP encryption, which one Kosovar says kept communications secret when coordinating the flight of 8,000 civilians from Serb government attack. Zimmerman says, "The very best encryption available today is out of the reach of the very best cryptoanalytic methods that are known in the academic world, and it's likely to continue that way."
    http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,110841,00.asp

  • "Enlisting the Young as White-Hat Hackers"
    New York Times (05/29/03) P. E5; Flaherty, Julie

    Tiger Team, a free after-school class that teaches ethical hacking to teenagers, is the pilot program of Andrew Robinson's nonprofit Internet Security Foundation. Tiger Team students are arranged into opposing groups that attempt to hack into each other's networks while simultaneously fortifying them. Participants also follow an honor code that keeps them from hacking outside the lab, while the class' office space, Web connections, and hardware are contributed by banks and other organizations where information security is a high priority. To qualify for the program, applicants need to have some skill in coding as well as configuring various operating systems. Volunteer speakers discuss such subjects as information security's business ramifications and the legal consequences of hacking. Robinson, the owner of a Maine-based information security company, says Tiger Team shows "how you can [hack] legally, and make a good amount of money doing it." The program could also help the state of Maine to retain tech talent instead of losing skilled people to out-of-state job opportunities. "It fills the need of the companies, and more and more since 9/11, it fills the need of the country for cybersecurity," Robinson maintains. Students do not need to have good grades to be accepted into Tiger Team, which has made the program popular among participants who want to be information security professionals but are unexceptional in school.
    Click Here to View Full Article
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)

  • "File Swapping Shifts Up a Gear"
    CNet (05/27/03); Borland, John

    Popular file-swapping tools such as Sharman Networks' Kazaa and Streamcast Networks' Morpheus are finding competition in next-generation products such as BitTorrent and eDonkey, which aim to boost efficiency and transfer speed for movies and other large files; such tools could further complicate movie studios' efforts to curb online piracy of copyrighted content. New York programmer Jed McCaleb originally conceived eDonkey to improve file search and distribution and retain network-searching utilities common to Napster and later file-swapping tools. The final product generates faster search responses, and accelerates distribution of large files to others by splitting each file into smaller, independently-downloadable segments. BitTorrent, the brainchild of San Francisco programmer Bram Cohen, also segments files into more manageable pieces and speeds up downloading as more and more people search for the same file, a capability not found in other file-swapping networks. "The more people using it, the faster the whole system is," notes Massachusetts college student and PickATime.com system administrator Wayne Chang. BitTorrent was not designed with unauthorized movie downloads in mind; instead, open-source advocates are using it to distribute new software releases. Still, Tom Temple of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) acknowledges that next-generation file-swapping technologies such as eDonkey and BitTorrent "represent a continuing threat," but points out that they have an Achilles' heel--the tools reveal the Internet address of people who download files. BayTSP CEO Mark Ishikawa reports that eDonkey is overtaking Gnutella and is poised to surpass FastTrack in number of downloads.
    http://news.com.com/2100-1026_3-1009742.html

  • "Innovation on Hold"
    Wall Street Journal (05/29/03) P. B1; McWilliams, Gary

    The rollout of promising technologies is being impeded by a sluggish economy, which could cause employee productivity to stagnate and lead to the demise of promising technologies. Business spending on IT in 2003 is likely to remain the same or fall slightly after two consecutive years of declines, according to recent Gartner and Goldman Sachs surveys of American and European executives. Wireless networking and voice-enabled email are just some of the mainstream-ready technologies whose commercialization is being stalled by the budget crunch. Barry Jaruzelski of Booz Allen Hamilton's Global Technology Practice says it will take at least three years for corporate wireless data networking to fully emerge. Many Web services, which have been touted by the likes of Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, and IBM as the basis of next-generation computing, are also stuck in the testing phase because of tight corporate pockets. Ram Bhagavatula of Royal Bank of Scotland Financial Markets notes that many companies perceive new technologies as a risky area of investment, which is why spending on such innovations will probably trail behind the eventual economic recovery. "Unless we can identify a really clear return on investment, we're not taking a lot of exploratory steps," explains Kelley Blue Book CIO John E. Parady. Former PricewaterhouseCoopers Consulting CIO Howard L. Niden observes that many leading executives appear to be focusing on improved operational management while making technology a low priority.

  • "Falling Off of the Cutting Edge"
    Washington Post (05/29/03) P. E1; Walker, Leslie

    Information technology is no longer a strategic advantage for businesses, wrote Harvard Business Review Editor at Large Nicholas Carr recently. His thesis elicited an excited response from people in the IT sector, but the main premise also has evidence to back it up. As technology becomes more standardized and ubiquitous, companies cannot differentiate themselves through IT as they once did. Amazon.com and eBay, for instance, now derive their value not from their technology, but from their brand recognition and dedicated customer base, although that was not the situation early on. Carr said firms should actually spend less on cutting-edge technology and make existing IT infrastructures run better instead. Intel's Craig Barrett took an opportunity to address Carr's argument directly at an industry gathering, insisting technology innovation demonstrates people's creative power and that his company did not intend to stop innovating. "The only people I hear who suggest Moore's law is dead...are those who don't want to keep up," he said. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told a conference of company executives that the idea of IT as a standard commodity was not applicable today because there was still room for improvement. He also said emerging applications such as Web services promised to unleash even more value for companies. Many technology firms agree that the Internet and computers themselves offer little competitive advantage, but at the same time insist that IT adds strategic value when implemented creatively.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Study: CIA Behind the Times in IT"
    IDG News Service (05/28/03); Roberts, Paul

    An unclassified report furnished by Bruce Berkowitz of the CIA's Sherman Kent Center for Intelligence Analysis finds that the CIA's reliance on outdated technology has put Directorate of Intelligence (DI) analysts about five years behind their equivalents in the private sector and other agencies in terms of networking and information-searching proficiency. The agency's chief IT component is the Corporate Retrieval and Storage (CIRA) database, which dates back to the 1970s, according to Berkowitz's study; furthermore, information gathering must proceed throughout multiple closed systems, and each analyst must use separate desktop systems to access the public Internet and the agency's classified network. The most common information searching technology is inaccessible to DI analysts, while sharing classified data with authorized intelligence staff outside the agency or accessing information from other classified federal databases is a difficult proposition. Analysts still deeply depend on an "informal source network" of associates in other agencies to provide them with information that popular search engines can supply automatically, Berkowitz contends. He says the CIA's intense focus on secrecy gives analysts the impression that IT is nonessential and too risky. In addition, the report indicates that the CIA's bureaucracy, which requires each intelligence item to be reviewed multiple times before being disseminated to information consumers, is obsolete and does not align with consumer expectations and the transformation of intelligence spurred by the Internet. Solutions that Berkowitz suggests include deploying integrated desktop environments and IT "SWAT teams" tasked with devising unique tools for collecting and studying information.
    http://www.pcworld.com/news/article/0,aid,110905,00.asp

  • "Blazing the Trail for Tech"
    San Francisco Chronicle (05/26/03) P. B1; Pimentel, Benjamin

    The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has pursued new technology frontiers since its establishment in 1958 as a response to the Soviet Sputnik launch. Today, the group funds academic and corporate research projects such as an IBM and Stanford University effort to develop holographic data storage and an Hewlett-Packard and UCLA program to develop molecular electronics. DARPA funded Sun Microsystems' first product, a computer workstation, and is giving the Santa Clara firm another grant to develop a new supercomputer. DARPA's mission is to find and fund new technology research applicable to national security, and it does so with an approximately $3 billion annual budget and program managers who are experts in their particular field. Private firms often contribute funds as well, and are able to commercialize the resulting research. GlobalSecurity.org director John Pike says the Defense Department has become increasingly dependent on IT produced for the private sector and seeks to bolster the industry for that reason. Recently, DARPA's reputation has been tarnished by civil liberties and privacy advocates who say the agency is pursuing domestic espionage work, especially the Terrorist Information Awareness (TIA) project. In March, DARPA director Tony Tether testified before Congress that his agency's goal in TIA was not "developing technology so it can maintain dossiers on every American citizen." Although Federation of American Scientists senior researcher Steven Aftergood says DARPA has been associated in many people's minds with the Patriot Act and other governmental encroachments on privacy and civil liberties, he believes that "the mission of DARPA is as important as ever," and doubts that the controversy over TIA will hurt the agency long term.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Disease-Causing Proteins May Create Nanotech Circuits"
    NewsFactor Network (05/28/03); Martin, Mike

    Researchers from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the University of Chicago have demonstrated that prions, the distorted proteins responsible for Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases, could be used to help build nanoscale electrical circuits. The scientists claim to have assembled ultra-thin electrical wires out of amyloid protein fibers coated by gold and silver particles. The deposition of gold and silver makes the insulating fibers, which are produced by harmless yeast prions, conductive. The breakthrough was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and report co-author Susan Lindquist says that the wires were fabricated using a "bottom-up" approach that exploits molecular self-assembly, rather than a "top-down" approach that relies on traditional electrical engineering. The self-assembling fibers do not suffer from electrical and physical instability, unlike fibers manufactured from DNA and other biological materials, according to Prem Vaishnava of Kettering University. "Lindquist and her colleagues have introduced a novel [and non-infectious] biological template that can make the industrial production of nanowires more efficient, productive and exciting," Vaishnava asserts. Nanoscale devices could revolutionize computation and medicine, if researchers can devise a method to produce such technology in volume. However, Mark Reed of Yale University harbors doubts about prion nanowires, mainly because of the bad reputation for-profit journalism has acquired in the wake of former Bell Laboratories researcher Jan Hendrik Schon's falsification of experimental data.

  • "Working Remotely, Robots in Place"
    Wired News (05/26/03); Batista, Elisa

    Hewlett-Packard researchers have built with available technology a prototype robot designed to act as a surrogate for people who cannot physically attend meetings. "You control [the machine] the same way you would your car, only remotely," explains HP fellow Norm Jouppi. The surrogate boasts a four-way computer monitor acting as a "head," on which is displayed the face of the machine's controller; the controller directs the robot by joystick from a room equipped with surrounding screens and projectors that display the conference virtually. Microphones on the surrogate allow the controller to hear conversations and address people in the conference room. The expense of providing surrogates and control rooms for every remote worker could make the technology unworkable for companies, despite growing interest in videoconferencing in the wake of the SARS threat and travel budget cutbacks. Furthermore, the system may have no place in current work trends, according to Brett Trusko of the Institute for the Study of Distributed Work. He predicts American businesses will eventually follow Britain's example and make telecommuting a standard option, which offers far more convenience than HP's surrogate system. Such a system "would force people to have to go to a site, unless for some reason this site were to become available on every street corner," Trusko says. The HP prototype is almost six feet tall, moves on wheels, and must be plugged in to operate; HP says a later version will feature enhanced navigation and wireless operation.
    http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,58961,00.html

  • "Simulated Evolution Gets Complex"
    Technology Research News (05/28/03); Patch, Kimberly

    Michigan State University researchers have employed self-replicating digital organisms to simulate evolution and validate Charles Darwin's theory that complex functions can evolve from small mutations over thousands of generations, a breakthrough that could lead to improved software and new engineering solutions. The artificial life-forms compete to gain computer time that facilitates self-replication by efficiently performing any of nine logic operations, with more computer time awarded to organisms that can perform operations of greater complexity. Sometimes random errors, or mutations, are introduced when the organisms replicate. Although many such errors may be neutral or detrimental, Michigan State University researcher Richard Lenski notes that "occasionally a variant comes along that replicates faster or even performs some logic operation." The experiment covered the passage of 15,873 generations, which yielded 23 out of 50 different genomes capable of performing the most sophisticated operations, with the dominant genome composed of 83 instructions and able to carry out all nine operations. It was theorized that the ability to perform the most complex logic operation would evolve through the combination of 16 mutations and three instructions from the original digital ancestor, when in fact it took between 51 to 721 mutations and 17 to 43 instructions; this proves the widely-held hypothesis that complex features evolve from modifications to simpler features, and Lenski adds that organisms cannot evolve any other way. The scientists also discovered through the experiment that some mutations that are harmful in the short term may result in long-term advantages when combined with later mutations. Lenski says, "To take full advantage of the possibilities will require more communication between biologists, computer scientists, and all kinds of engineers."
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Can ICANN Meet the Needs of "Less Developed" Countries?"
    Digital Freedom Network (05/19/03); Reddy, Shravanti

    ICANN has come under criticism for not actively encouraging representatives of less developed countries to participate in ICANN's development of global domain name and Internet policy. "ICANN, through its actions and inactions, has succeeded in sidelining the interests of developing countries," says Kwasi Boakye-Akyeampong, founder of the Ghanaian chapter of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. ICANN has new leadership in Dr. Paul Twomey, and the newly elected president and chief executive officer has suggested in interviews with the Seattle Times and the Digital Freedom Network that reaching out to developing countries is on his agenda. However, skepticism abounds about ICANN's willingness to have broad representation from the global Internet community. Observers take issue with ICANN's heavy reliance on the Internet for outreach efforts, the publishing of all ICANN documents in English, the lack of an ICANN ambassador in each country, and the cessation of Internet users voting for ICANN board members. Critics say that encouraging governments to become involved in GAC would improve the situation, and Internet experts want ICANN to do a better job of bringing the Internet to less developed countries on the offline side of the digital divide. In some developing countries, the high cost of national ccTLD registries and local infrastructure is driving local Internet pioneers to using TLDs for their Web sites rather than in their own domain. ICANN should embrace international participation, writes Digital Freedom Network's Shravanti Reddy.
    http://dfn.org/news/internet/icann-ldc.htm

  • "Putting IT on the Map"
    CIO (05/15/03) Vol. 16, No. 15, P. 114; Dragoon, Alice

    The increasing refinement and affordability of geographic information systems (GIS) is driving the technology's penetration into the business and government sectors. Roto-Rooter employs Gearworks' eTrace to better manage its mobile workforce; dispatchers enter a customer's address or ZIP code, and a map is generated showing the job site and its proximity to available Roto-Rooter technicians. Techs are equipped with phones that display driving directions to job sites when the dispatchers assign a specific worker to a job. Companies are also using GIS to make the most of their delivery service: UltraEx, for example, has outfitted its delivery fleet with global positioning system (GPS) receivers and wireless modems that keep track of each vehicle's mileage and provide clients with the ability to track shipment progress. Meanwhile, Lawrence Knafo of New York City's Department of IT and Telecom reports that the CompStat GIS deployment, which instills policing accountability among precinct commanders, has greatly contributed to an almost 70 percent reduction in the city's violent crime rate over the past 10 years; GIS is also being incorporated into the city's 311 service so that callers' addresses and cross streets can be confirmed before city workers are sent to perform nonemergency services. Furthermore, policymakers can refine resource apportionment based on analysis of the city's provision of services via geocoding. Drawbacks of GIS include GPS' inability to operate underground or inside buildings without amplification equipment. In addition, the U.S. military could decide to reduce GPS satellite accuracy so that America's foes cannot exploit the system.
    http://www.cio.com/archive/051503/et_article.html

  • "Trends in the Evolution of the Public Web: 1998-2002"
    D-Lib Magazine (04/03) Vol. 9, No. 4; O'Neill, Edward T.; Lavoie, Brian F.; Bennett, Rick

    Analyzing major trends in the public Web's development over the last five years not only provides insight on the current state of affairs, but also helps anticipate future progress. The most recent survey conducted by the OCLC Office of Research Web Characterization Project finds that the public Web, as of last June, accounted for 35 percent of the entire Web--some 3,080,000 Web sites and roughly 1.4 billion Web pages--and expanded by more than 100 percent since the first survey was conducted in 1998. However, that expansion rate has declined steadily to the point of stagnation, because the urgency to set up new Web sites has diminished, while many existing sites are being discontinued or abandoned due to economic pressures. Although public sites used in 1999 and 2002 survey samples originated from entities spread throughout 76 countries--seemingly indicating internationalization of the public Web--the number of sites supporting a significant portion of textual content in English remained pretty much the same at about 75 percent. Web sites originating from U.S.-based entities accounted for approximately 50 percent of the public Web in 1999 and 55 percent in 2002, while only eight other nations owned over 1 percent. The five annual OCLC surveys, when studied collectively, indicate that the usage of metadata on the public Web is increasing: The number of public sites that feature metadata on their home pages and Web pages extracted from public sites boasting some type of metadata grew steadily over the last five years. However, analysis also shows that few people are making an attempt to boost the detail of metadata (metadata-bearing Web pages contain an average of two to three elements), and there appears to be little impetus for content creators to embrace formal metadata standards. The lack of such standards limits the degree to which information on the public Web can be easily searched and retrieved.
    http://www.dlib.org/dlib/april03/lavoie/04lavoie.html

  • "Never Too Thin"
    Photonics Spectra (05/03) Vol. 37, No. 5, P. 66; Hogan, Hank

    Flat panel displays are gaining ground thanks to improved image quality and falling prices, coupled with already established advantages such as low power consumption and small size. Although liquid crystal displays (LCDs) are the flat panel display of choice, other kinds of materials and devices offer certain benefits. Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) being developed and manufactured by the likes of Kodak, Universal Display, and Cambridge Display Technology require no backlighting, boast wider viewing angles and higher contrast than LCDs, eat up less power, and are more tolerant of extreme temperatures. OLED screens are highly flexible, to they point where they could eventually be rolled up like a piece of paper; research is afoot to extend the lifetime of OLED material and find an optimum emitter for the color blue. Meanwhile, Texas Instruments' digital light processing (DLP), which uses micromirrors to create digital images by directing reflected light, could one day facilitate high-speed optical switching, but first costs must fall. Liquid crystal on silicon, another alternative technology, boasts high pixel density, thus yielding a smooth image, and relies on reflected light for imaging. However, Three-Five Systems CTO Bob Melcher notes that "the smaller [liquid crystal on silicon devices] are, the more difficult they become to illuminate efficiently." It is also too early to rule out LCDs, which continue to dominate the flat panel market thanks to economies of scale, increasing manufacturing aptitude, and enhancements to liquid crystal and thin-film transistors.