Timely Topics for IT Professionals
About ACM TechNews
ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of either HP or ACM.
To send comments, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Volume 5, Issue 511: Monday, June 23, 2003
- "Congress Finds Rare Unity in Spam, to a Point"
New York Times (06/23/03) P. C1; Lee, Jennifer 8.
Congressional members, interest groups, and industry are largely agreed that legislation is required to stop the rising tide of spam, which is estimated to account for 40 percent of all email. Because the debate focuses on consumer and marketing tensions, it is largely unaffected by normal partisan argument, according to Stanford University professor Lawrence Lessig. As a sign of the strong support anti-spam legislation has in the Senate, a committee approved one measure unanimously on June 19. The crusade against unsolicited email has been joined by normally regulation-adverse technology companies such as Microsoft, Yahoo!, eBay, America Online, and Earthlink. Of the several bills on the table in the both the House and Senate, some focus on a do-not-mail registry similar to the impending national do-not-call registry. Other legislation seeks to impose order on spam, making it legal to send a first unsolicited email with a clear opt-out choice. In the face of increasing government pressure, such as proposed five-year prison terms, many spam operations are expected to go overseas or find other loopholes. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and two other legislators have sought relatively low standards for unsolicited marketing email, such as allowing spam that indirectly promotes a product or service and keeping state attorneys general from prosecuting spam cases. Lessig is circumspect about much of the congressional effort and advocates non-standard enforcement, such as assigning bounties to known spammers.
(Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)
- "This Is Your Life--In Bits"
U.S. News & World Report (06/23/03) Vol. 134, No. 22, P. 51; Rae-Dupree, Janet
Efforts are underway at Microsoft and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop tools that record and store all facets of an individual's experience to serve as electronic memory aids. DARPA's LifeLog project aims to build a system that comprehensively records daily life activities via sensors, and can mine those recordings for potentially useful data. Microsoft Research's Gordon Bell speculates that the first users of the LifeLog system would probably be military personnel who need to keep tabs on multiple projects. DARPA is also hoping that more human-like robots could be developed through insights generated by LifeLog. Meanwhile, Bell and research partner Jim Gemmell are working on MyLifeBits, a project that could yield what former IBM Fellow Dave Thompson terms a "memory prosthesis." The system involves the scanning and recording of every document or auditory input--photos, phone conversations, emails, TV shows, etc.--a person receives, hears, reads, or otherwise experiences, and using this database in conjunction with a software program that imitates human recall; such a system could be used to remind a user of past experiences by playing back a phone call and simultaneously displaying any documents or material they saw at the same time, for instance. Microsoft research division head Rick Rashid expects MyLifeBits to be used by people as an "add-on personal memory," and his company plans to roll out a related software product in as little as five years. The product "will be in the [computer's] operating system, gathering data as you work," explains Gemmell.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "Tech Comes Out Swinging"
Business Week (06/23/03) No. 3838, P. 62; Hamm, Steve; Rosenbush, Steve; Edwards, Cliff
The 100 leading technology firms are hoping to knock out their competition, reestablish industry credibility, and reinvigorate the U.S. economy through aggressive and risky investments, a strategy that has paid off in the past. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison believes that innovation is still healthy, but an IPO- and rapid-growth-based tech economy is no longer feasible. A handful of tech leaders--those that couple vast financial resources with highly effective innovations--is expected to rule the industry, which will be transformed by wide-scale consolidation. Growth in demand--and company revenues, by extension--will only be rekindled if firms can develop and market essential products at reasonable prices. A key tact will be to convince corporate buyers disenchanted with technology to purchase more software and equipment. "Those that make a bold move in the downturn, and can sustain it, are positioned to come out like a rocket," speculates Mark P. Rice of Babson College. Dell is diversifying into other markets and has started selling its own printers rather than Hewlett-Packard models; Verizon has earmarked a 2003 budget of about $13 billion for numerous projects, including the deployment of fiber-optic cables to millions of homes and businesses; and Oracle recently made a $5.1 billion takeover bid for PeopleSoft in order to become the top business applications provider after SAP. IBM is reorganizing itself around its on-demand or utility computing initiative, whose research and development effort alone will eat up $1.6 billion this year. Meanwhile, Microsoft has $46 billion in cash-on-hand, enough to make "bet the ranch" investments in offerings such as Longhorn, a next-generation Windows operating system boasting major improvements.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "Building a Better Bug-Trap"
Economist (06/21/03) Vol. 367, No. 8328, P. T15
The significance and pervasiveness of programming errors are growing as software becomes more deeply integrated and embedded within society, which in turn makes traditional bug-finding methods less effective. Software that can detect bugs early in the development process is gaining more credence as a result, and such software is often derived from research into "formal methods" designed to analyze programs and confirm that they are performing correctly. One formal technique involves mathematically describing a program's appropriate behavior and comparing it to the way it actually behaves, an arduous procedure that can be bypassed by concentrating exclusively on a description of inappropriate behavior and looking for matches. Another bug-finding method is to draw comparisons between an old program that works properly and an upgraded version of that program; Microsoft Research's Amitabh Srivastaya notes that programmers may have difficulty knowing which test scripts to run, so he has devised Scout, a system that employs "binary matching" to juxtapose the programs, find differing bits, and assign applicable test scripts. A "high-level" model can be derived from a program's code and contrasted with a similar model extracted from an altered version of the program to check for the presence of both new and existing bugs. The technique can also be applied in reverse to a certain degree, using methodology such as the notation of unified modeling language co-developed by Rational's Grady Booch. Another method involves comparing a model derived from a modified piece of code with a model derived from the program's design specifications, a technique formulated to detect abnormalities that could give rise to errors. All of these options can increase the predictability of the software development process and accelerate the detection of unanticipated problems and delays, but a potential drawback is the risk of estranging programmers by comparing their performances.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "E-Mail Swindle Uses False Report About a Swindle"
New York Times (06/21/03) P. C1; Hafner, Katie
An email message sent out on Wednesday, June 18, 2003, with the subject heading, "Fraud Alert," warned of a scam related to Best Buy's Web site, but the email actually was a scam itself. The unsolicited message was sent to as many as 1 million Internet users, and its message warned that Best Buy purchases are subject to credit-card fraud, and then asked Internet users to help solve the problem by inputting their social-security number and credit card number into a BestBuy.com Web site. However, the site was a fake, using a mirror-image appearance of Best Buy's official site to fool people. Best Buy itself received thousands of telephone calls almost immediately after the spam was sent, and the company has able to shut down two fake Web sites allegedly tied to this scam. Best Buy also has subpoenaed the ISPs that hosted the fraudulent Web sites and the companies that sold the domain names to these Web site operators. The FBI already has begun investigating, and Best Buy has told everyone calling the company to disregard these spam messages and contact their banks and financial companies if they inputted any information. EBay spokesperson Kevin Pursglove says that eBay receives daily complaints and warnings about scam spam that targets eBay users. TrueSecure security research director David Kennedy says that Internet scams based on spam emailing has "surged in the last three months."
- "High-Tech Workers Fight New Threat of Foreign Replacements"
E-Commerce Times (06/20/03); Malone, Julia
American high-tech workers are protesting the increased use of L-1 visas--which are less restrictive than H-1B visas--to replace them with cheap foreign labor, and are mobilizing to curb such practices. For example, unemployed IT worker Glenn R. Dawson last week launched the National Association for the Employment of Americans to kick-start a grass-roots campaign against work visa programs. Such efforts are making an impact in Congress: Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) introduced a proposal to restrict L-1 visas, while plans to propose similar legislation were recently announced by Rep. Rosa L. DeLaro (D-Conn.). Meanwhile, Senate Judiciary Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) declared last week that he would hold a summer hearing discussing L-1 visas' usefulness to American businesses as well as their purported abuses. Rep. Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) was of the opinion that the L-1 program suffers from "a big loophole" that should be closed by the federal government. This loophole allegedly allows multinationals to transfer workers to the United States and outsource them to other companies. The Department of Homeland Security has ordered an investigation into such practices to determine if they represent an abuse of the program, which was originally developed to permit multinationals to import high-level management and company specialists to aid their U.S. subsidiaries. Unlike H-1B visas, L-1 visas do not have a cap, and employers do not have to certify that domestic employees will not be displaced by overseas talent, nor that foreign workers will receive prevailing U.S. wages.
- "McCain Promises Review of DMCA Subpoena Power"
dc.internet.com (06/20/03); Mark, Roy
Verizon was recently forced by court order to reveal the identities of several subscribers suspected of online music piracy to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which leveraged a provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that allows copyright owners to subpoena ISPs without a judge's signed approval. The first to be targeted by this subpoena power, Verizon filed an appeal, arguing that the RIAA overstepped the bounds of the DMCA's provision because the subpoena related to material transferred over Verizon's network, but not stored on it. Verizon also called for the DMCA to be re-evaluated for its constitutionality, specifically in regards to the subpoena power provision. The issue was raised at a June 19 hearing of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, when Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) suggested that an FTC reauthorization bill be amended so that DMCA subpoenas could only be granted if the plaintiff files a civil lawsuit or other legal action. Commerce Chairman Sen. John McCain announced that he would hold a hearing to address the Verizon/RIAA legal dispute, after which Brownback withdrew his amendment.
- "Smart Bricks, or a Dumb Idea?"
Wired News (06/20/03); Baard, Eric
There is a movement to develop "smart buildings" that can perform routine maintenance tasks automatically and monitor their structural integrity in real time. One innovation along these lines is a "smart brick" from researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The brick, developed by professor Chang Liu, is equipped with sensors that read temperature, vibrations, and movement, and can wirelessly transmit data to a desktop PC. However, Steven D. Glaser of the University of California at Berkeley thinks his school's own wireless sensor network research effort will yield more useful inventions, especially because the initiative combines an array of disciplines, including civil engineering, material science, and computer science. UC Berkeley scientist Kris Pister heads a company that manufacturers minuscule, low-power wireless sensors, coined "smart dust," for buildings, as well as aircraft, military hardware, laboratories, and inventory tracking. James Grayson Trulove, co-author of "The Smart House," notes that most smart building technology is scattered and unconnected, but foresees a time where it will become seamlessly consolidated "in such a way that the building becomes a virtual living organism complete, it would seem, with smart skin." Both Glaser and Liu foresee the emergence of smart skin, which could be sprayed onto existing systems and surfaces. There are concerns that a smart house could be compromised by hackers, or exploited by the government to reveal personal information about its owners, but some consider these worries to be exaggerated: For one thing, designers plan to equip houses with nodes designed to respond to sensor input separately, rather than use a central computer for all tasks. Smart home technologies might be most welcomed by aging consumers, given their potential to enhance home medical care for senior citizens.
- "Apple in 2008"
E-Commerce Times (06/19/03); Weisman, Robyn
To remain significant, Apple needs to continue leading the PC industry forward in other areas besides hardware, according to analysts. The company's marginal market share has always belied its influence on the industry, and Apple has been able to set the course for standards on the graphical user interface, CD-ROM, USB, and AirPort wireless networking, for example. Adam Engst, publisher of the Mac-specific TidBITS newsletter, says Apple's core strength going forward will be in digital media and mobile device design. Yankee Group senior analyst Ryan Jones agreed that Apple's diversity was of significant value to consumers, but warned larger vendors are constantly adopting Apple's innovations. Jones expects digital media to be Apple's strong point because the company has been more customer-savvy than competitors and creates user-friendly products. Jones predicts Apple's PC market share will grow from 5 percent to approximately 8 percent by 2007 on the strength of its media integration platform, since demand for that capability is driving the market. The Mac Observer publisher Bryan Chaffin says Apple and Linux will feed off one another's success as alternatives to Microsoft's Windows become more viable in users' minds.
- "CERT, Adobe Address PDF Vulnerability"
IDG News Service (06/19/03); Roberts, Paul
The CERT Coordination Center verified that Portable Document Format (PDF) readers for the Unix and Linux platforms suffer from a security vulnerability on June 18, less than a week after this information was disclosed online by someone using the alias "hack4life." CERT released a Vulnerability Note detailing that certain PDF readers launch external programs to retrieve content from PDF-embedded hyperlinks by implementing the Unix shell command interpreter, and warned that hackers could insert instructions within the hyperlink to break the victim computer's defenses. When posting this information on the Full Disclosure online discussion list on June 13, hack4life declared that CERT was planning to issue the Vulnerability Note on June 23, but CERT technical team member Shawn Hernan said there was little point in waiting now that the vulnerability had been revealed. He added that CERT believes the leak came from one of the software vendors it collaborates with, possibly a development team member or a hacker who broke into the vendor's network. CERT advised affected vendors to get current information on how badly they are exposed to the security flaw and what software patches are available. Few vendors have indicated whether their products are secure or not, but Adobe Systems told CERT that a patch for the flaw is available in an updated version of its Acrobat Reader software for Linux, AIX, Solaris, and HP/UX. Meanwhile, the Xpdf project released a statement to CERT providing a Xpdf reader patch link. Hernan noted that CERT is collaborating with vendors to track down the source of the leak and re-assess internal CERT vulnerability information controls.
- "A Survey of Next-Generation Storage System Architectures"
Computer Technology Review (06/18/03); Mudrow, Al
Storage architecture is just as important to consider as the storage devices themselves; so while storage devices are advancing rapidly, it is reasonable to expect improvements in storage architecture. As Harvard professor Clayton Christiansen described in "The Inventor's Dilemma," disruptive technologies mark a new generational cycle. Direct attached storage is the first-generation storage architecture, consisting of a storage device connected to a limited number of end devices nearby. The physical proximity of the system is a liability in case of disaster, and reconfiguration means significant downtime. Vinca was one of the first firms to market storage networking widely in 1992, a period former Vinca President Jay Carlson describes as "heady times." While storage networking was first seen as an interesting niche solution, it has since become the standard storage architecture in two flavors: Storage attached network (SAN) and network attached storage (NAS). SAN generally relies on faster Fibre Channel interconnects and close-quarters, block-based structure, and is suitable for high-performance transaction processing applications; NAS, on the other hand, better suits file access and lower-performance applications because of its cheap Ethernet interconnects and more nebulous file-based structure. However, a next-generation storage architecture is needed because storage networking today is too complex, with administrators forced to integrate many third-party add-ons for backup, replication, and disaster recovery, for example. A next-generation storage architecture will include these aspects and make them easier to manage.
- "McCarthy Wins Major Award"
Stanford Report (06/18/03); Levy, Dawn
Philadelphia's Franklin Institute recognized Stanford University computer science professor John McCarthy for his pioneering work in the field of artificial intelligence by awarding him the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computer and Cognitive Science on April 24. McCarthy, which fellow professor Michael Genesereth credits with helping invent the AI field, set himself the goal of developing a programming language that would enable computers to intelligently perform an array of chores by manipulating symbolic representations of objects rather than just through arithmetic. The result of his labors was LISP, which has found its way into many contemporary expert systems and natural language programs. Another innovation McCarthy helped formulate and design was time-sharing computer technology, which is embedded in all current computers. The breakthrough gives machines the ability to shift their attention between numerous tasks. More recently, McCarthy has focused on computer programs that draw conclusions using the simplest logic, and finding a way to use mathematical logic so that programs can address complications by delineating the context of complex situations. McCarthy says that imbuing machines with 3D perception is the most formidable remaining hurdle in AI research, and he would like computers to be able to process information through tactile sensation with the participation of haptics researchers. McCarthy ran Stanford's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory for 15 years and is a recipient of the 1971 ACM A.M. Turing Award.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "Movement Brings Computer Images to Life"
University of California-Davis graduate students Eric Lum and Aleksander Stompel collaborated with computer science professor Kwan-Liu Ma to develop kinetic visualization, a computer graphics technique in which the shape and structure of stationary objects is detailed through movement. Kinetic visualization involves the cascade of colored dots over surfaces representing scientific or medical data, whereas conventional animation of static shapes relies on changing the lighting and perspective. Ma notes that kinetic visualization does not consume a lot of computing power, and can be accomplished using standard PCs featuring off-the-shelf graphics cards. "[Kinetic visualization] can be used to attract attention to the most important areas, and provide shape information to supplement the visual cues from traditional rendering techniques," Ma explains. The researchers devised their method at the UC Davis Center for Image Processing and Integrated Computing, which is known for producing techniques to display scientific data in more artistic than photorealistic fashion. Ma declares that such techniques can more effectively illustrate scientific information.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "Researchers Take Initial Step Toward Much Faster Computing"
Chicago Sun Times (06/18/03); Guy, Sandra
University of Chicago researchers have built genetically engineered fibers that could bind to gold nanoparticles to form tiny conducting wires, a breakthrough that could lead to super-fast optical computing. The fibers are fabricated from self-assembling yeast prions and bonded with gold nanoparticles to make them into conducting wires. The researchers want to network the wires and integrate the network with existing equipment. "The main advantage would be that the density of information that could be transmitted or stored could be dramatically increased," says Heinrich Jaeger of the university's Materials Research Science & Engineering Center. He also notes that the experiment inverts conventional wisdom, arguing the viability of a bottom-up rather than top-down nanofabrication methodology. Jaeger adds that the project's multidisciplinary aspect, combining physics and biology, is important as well. Chicago chemistry professor Norbert Scherer, who secured a $2 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to finance a large collaborative project that includes the university's research team, says that yeast-derived proteins offer a much more diverse range of structural configurations than DNA-based nano-materials. Another major participant in the project is Susan Lindquist, a geneticist who currently heads MIT's Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "The Centrifuge Moves You"
Tech Central Station (06/17/03); Kling, Arnold
Computer technology is becoming more decentralized with wireless technology and is the process of its most profound transformation in nearly 25 years, writes economist and author Arnold Kling. The previous focus on the PC and document creation has given way to interoperable component devices that focus on transactions. Whereas the PC pulled computing together in one place, today wireless technology is separating PC functions on different devices. Whereas peripheral hardware previously was meant to connect with the PC, today devices are meant to interoperate with one another. Intel Research's personal server project is a good illustration of what wireless technology is doing to computing: The personal server is the size of a deck of cards and has no screen or I/O--it is meant to be carried about but not used for input. When a person comes to a computer station, they use the personal server to access all their files and settings stored on that device. Besides the focus on transactions and independent devices, the centrifugal effect of wireless technology means software will become increasingly commoditized, and hardware a differentiator. Software will necessarily rely on defined standards while hardware will be faced with a number of choices, including trade-offs in function and performance. Wireless technology will also change the workplace, putting more emphasis on ad hoc collaboration than the committee-type work the document-centric PC catered to.
Click Here to View Full Article
- "Eight Questions for George Dyson"
O'Reilly Network (06/17/03); chromatic
George Dyson, historian and director's visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), speaks about his keynote address at the upcoming O'Reilly Open Source Convention, where he will talk about the beginnings of digital computation in the early 1950s. John von Neumann and other IAS scientists built the first 5,000 bytes of RAM by 1951 and ran nuclear and meteorological tests on the machine. Dyson says it was viral geneticist Nils Aall Barricelli's evolutionary code experiment that is of particular interest to software developers, since it explored fundamental computer science questions still relevant today. Barricelli attempted to find out whether computer mechanization was another form of life, and compared computer calculations to nucleotides as the basis of life. Dyson says computer science is heading towards a template-based addressing system found in nature and that the computer architectures most likely to be of interest to von Neumann today would be higher-order ones based on his original concept. On the question of open-source, Dyson says one reason the IAS machine was open was because everything was being done for the first time, so there was no reference point to distinguish code and source.
- "Watching Him Watching You"
New Scientist (06/14/03) Vol. 178, No. 2399, P. 44; Samuel, Eugenie
The Pentagon's Terrorism Information Awareness (formerly Total Information Awareness) project, or TIA, is supposed to help authorities track down terrorists by mining databases of commercial transactions, credit card bills, online news releases, and other types of data for signs of suspicious activity. Critics charge that such a tool could be used to monitor Americans and target innocent parties as terrorists. However, such a system could both prevent terrorism and not infringe on civil liberties, provided that an electronic overseer is deployed to monitor TIA itself for indications of misuse or abuse. The chief component of TIA are software bots that sift through databases for specific behavioral patterns that may mark terrorist activity; these bots can be kept in check by enabling the database to inspect the bots before they start scanning. George Necula of the University of California at Berkeley has developed a methodology in which a bot must be equipped with a "proof" subroutine that details its function, the idea being that a database would compare the proof to the bot's actual structure to see if they match, thus determining whether the bot could be too intrusive and should therefore be halted. So that TIA research can continue, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently submitted a report to Congress describing how the project would uphold personal privacy. The report not only acknowledges the possibilities of an electronic guardian, but suggests that TIA itself will build safeguards to prevent abuse, including automated audit trails that record TIA users and their behavior. For TIA to be widely accepted, public attitudes toward surveillance technologies, tempered by past instances of abuse, must change.
For information on ACM's reactions to TIA, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm/Issues/TIA.htm.
- "An Uncertain Future for the IT Workforce"
InfoWorld (06/13/03) Vol. 25, No. 24, P. 50; Prencipe, Loretta W.
Results of the InfoWorld 2003 Compensation Survey seem to mirror the findings of an Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) study released in May. InfoWorld found that only 15 percent of respondents foresee their companies increasing their internal IT staff this year, which is a little better than 12 percent of respondents who expressed similar feelings a year ago. In comparison, the ITAA estimated that there would be a need for 1.1 million IT jobs last year, but for this year the group found that there would be a demand for only 493,000 positions over the next 12 months. Furthermore, industry observers are concerned about the negative impact of outsourcing, autonomic computing, increased system reliability, and overseas competition on the IT job outlook. For example, the ITAA, in its survey of 400 hiring managers, found that 12 percent of IT companies have operations overseas, and 15 percent of IT companies added that they have similar plans to move work offshore in the next 12 months or remain undecided. However, Morgan Howard Chairman Alister Piggott is optimistic that the IT job market will pick up in 2004, with accelerated growth the following year. "Companies are saying that they need to upgrade software," says Piggott, who notes that order books are improving. Nonetheless, there are concerns that the industry will suffer from a shortage of IT workers, especially business-minded managers, in the years to come.
Click Here to View Full Article