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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 AutoChoice Advisor or ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 6, Issue 597: Friday, January 23, 2004

  • Internet Voting System Set for Upcoming Elections Not Secure, Computer Experts Say"
    UC Berkeley News (01/21/04); Yang, Sarah; Sneiderman, Phil

    Four prestigious cyber-security experts--former ACM President Barbara Simons, Avi Rubin of Johns Hopkins University, David Wagner of USC Berkeley, and David Jefferson of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory--have concluded that the U.S. Defense Department's Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment (SERVE) is highly vulnerable to hackers or even terrorists who could compromise the outcome of elections without being detected. The experts are unanimous in their recommendation that the system, designed as an online absentee voting tool for 6 million U.S. citizens and servicemen living overseas, be shut down. SERVE's vulnerabilities are fundamental to the Internet, which leads to the conclusion that online electronic voting is essentially unworkable. Simons says, "Voting in a national election will be conducted using proprietary software, insecure clients, and an insecure network," while Jefferson notes that SERVE is susceptible to problems common in electronic touch-screen voting systems as well as denial-of-service attacks, spoofing and virus assaults, and automated vote buying and selling. SERVE trials are slated to take place in 50 counties in seven U.S. states for the 2004 primary and general elections, but the researchers are concerned that the system's scope will be expanded if the trials are problem-free. Rubin contends that expanding SERVE because no problems are encountered in the low-stakes pilots is "like saying you don't ever need to wear a seat belt because you drove to work without crashing the car this morning." The four experts are part of the Secure Peer Review Group which was organized to evaluate SERVE by the Federal Voting Assistance Program. "Congress and the Department of Defense should understand that providing soldiers with an insecure system on which to vote is not doing them any favors," Simons insists.
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    Barbara Simon's is co-chair of ACM's U.S. Public Policy Committee; http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "ACM Members Voice Support for Policy Against Expanding Protections For Scientific Data"
    ACM (1/23/04)

    ACM Council has approved a policy statement that opposes new restrictions on access and use of data collections, concluding that current U.S. laws provide adequate protection for this information. In a unanimous vote reflecting opinion poll results of ACM members, ACM's governing body said pending U.S. legislation would create broad new legal protections on collections of data that negatively impact the availability and use of facts and ideas. They agreed that open sharing of such data, traditionally thought to be in the public domain, has been fundamental to the advancement of knowledge, technology, and culture. They cautioned that new protections would impose an unwarranted cost on the process of scientific discourse. ACM Council's action came after polling its membership in regard to the association's position. Over 4,000 members registered an opinion and over 90% agreed with ACM's statement opposing expanded protections for scientific data.
    For background, ACM's statement, and polling results, see http://myacm.acm.org/opinion/poll.cfm.
    For information about USACM's activities on public policy issues, see http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "Easing of Internet Regulations Challenges Surveillance Efforts"
    New York Times (01/22/04) P. A1; Labaton, Stephen

    The FCC and law enforcement agencies are embroiled in a dispute that pits two central tenets of Bush administration policy against each other: On the one hand, FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell is working to loosen regulations on high-speed cable services that would foster emerging technologies such as voice-over Internet protocol. However, the Justice Department, FBI, and the DEA oppose the loosened regulations because it would inhibit their ability to tap phone calls and other communication sent over those networks. The Justice Department recently tried to block the FCC from appealing an appeals court ruling that partially struck down an FCC deregulation attempt; in Brand X Internet Services v. Federal Communications Commission, the FCC is fighting to classify cable broadband as an "information service" and bring it under the 1996 Telecommunications Act. That move would make it difficult for law enforcement to enforce wiretap orders since they only have clear legal right to do so for "telecommunications" under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Justice Department deputy assistant attorney general John G. Malcolm says the FCC effort and resulting ambiguity has already emboldened some telecommunications carriers to deny law enforcement wiretap privileges. If cable broadband falls under the 1994 law, then service providers would be required to make provisions for wiretaps. Telecommunications industry counsel Stewart A. Baker says the industry fears the FBI or similar agencies could eventually enforce technical rules on the Internet. Law enforcement officials say how to fulfill the requirements are up to the service providers, but other onerous requirements under the 1994 law, including access to 911 emergency services and universal availability, could hinder deployment of new services.
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  • "Foreign Tech Workers Finding Jobs Stateside in Healthier Economy"
    Investor's Business Daily (01/23/04) P. A1; Howell, Donna

    Despite the fact that companies continue to cut IT jobs, some industry observers see a need for skilled foreign workers, especially specifically trained programmers. Congress' H-1B visa cap has dropped regularly over the last few years from a peak of 195,000 in 2001 to just 65,000 for this fiscal year; that may be too little to meet the needs of many companies, says American Immigration Lawyers Association federal liaison Bob Deasy. He notes that many firms are preparing for early cap restrictions this year by submitting petitions earlier and telling human resources departments to make quick hiring decisions. Information Builders recruiter Jason Kreuser says his company relies heavily on H-1B workers, but that Homeland Security scrutiny makes it much more difficult to hire those workers. He says foreign tech workers from places such China and India are trained well for the type of work done at his firm. Kreuser denies that H-1B workers, who make up 20 percent of payroll, provide his company with a lower-paid workforce compared to American workers and adds that the few extra thousand dollars spent on immigration paperwork is well worth the investment. Immigration expert Richard Ellis says that U.S. companies rely on foreign IT workers for their skill, but also for low-wage benefits. Whereas U.S. tech workers largely receive the same compensation for similar work, analysis of foreign workers' pay shows clusters at both ends of the pay scale; that implies that some firms are hiring for low-wage benefits while others are taking on H-1B workers for needed skills, says Ellis. However, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation demographer Michael Teitelbaum says much of the demand for H-1B workers in past years was the result of heavy political lobbying by a few groups: The reality is that any IT skills shortage was due to inadequate industry planning.

  • "Security Pros Question Flaw Find"
    CNet (01/22/04); Lemos, Robert

    A pair of Internet software developers recently claimed that they discovered a method to freeze or shut down entire computer networks and created a program for doing so, but Computer Coordination Response Team (CERT) Coordination Center security researchers say the exploit is nothing new--all the program does is inhibit the proper function of computers by deluging the network with data. CERT Internet security analyst Jason Rafail asserted that the developers' posting is no indication of a new flaw, and noted that the issue shares a similarity to a 1996 CERT advisory. The developers claimed in their Web posts that they stumbled upon the flaw while developing software, and notified Microsoft and the CERT Coordination Center of the vulnerability in November 2003. Stephen Toulouse of Microsoft's Security Response Center said that reproducing the developers' precise findings has been impossible, and noted that the discoverers' refusal to share source code only made testing for the flaw more difficult. Both discoverers cited two papers that disclosed similar findings: One was presented at the Gigabit Networking Workshop five years ago, and the other was published in the ACM's Transaction on Computer Systems. Some researchers concluded that the postings were a fabrication, while others contended that the developers may not have realized that the flaw had already been discovered. The discoverers' claim that the fault causes computers to crash and fail drew a lot of controversy, and Rafail attributed the crashes to older, less stress-tolerant hardware.
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    For more information on Transactions on Computer Systems, visit http://www.acm.org/tocs.

  • "NASA's New Anti-Terrorism Mission"
    Wired News (01/21/04); Shachtman, Noah

    The Electronic Privacy Information Center used the Freedom of Information Act to pressure NASA to disclose a homeland security program for anticipating terrorist threats known as Data Mining and Aviation Security. The project takes advantage of NASA's extensive data-mining expertise, but has critics concerned that the space agency is wasting resources when there are more worthwhile goals--such as a renewed push for lunar exploration--to pursue. The objective of Data Mining and Aviation Security is to build an anti-terror database by mining flight-safety records collated by NASA's Aviation Data Integration System (ADIS) and Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS). The ADIS database is reportedly designed to "pinpoint potential problems in flight operations" by integrating weather reports, observations from air traffic controllers, and information from flight-data recorders. ASRS is supposed to index dangerous scenarios and conditions by culling numerous air safety "incident reports" ranging from bird collisions to airsick passengers to parachutist disagreements. Privacy proponent Bill Scannell strongly doubts that such a system can provide accurate terrorism forecasts, arguing that "You might as well stick a couple of employees in a subbasement and have them read tea leaves." David Morse of NASA's Ames Research Center insists that the system will uphold privacy because all personal or corporate names are removed from the flight-safety reports, but Scannell is not reassured by this, noting that the NASA program can still employ behavioral profiling.
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  • "Desktop Computers to Counsel Users to Make Better Decisions"
    Newswise (01/23/04)

    A human being's decision-making is affected by the various physiological and psychological pressures he or she encounters; Sandia National Laboratory researchers are working on desktop computers that can read users' vital signs and advise them--or their teammates--on the proper action to take to reduce stress and improve effective collaboration. Sandia project manager Pete Merkle envisions a machine that uses a Personal Assistance Link comprised of sensors and transmitters to monitor perspiration, heartbeat, facial expressions, head motions, and tone of voice to determine a person's feelings, and inform that person of those feelings in real time. He says the scheme is similar to the wearing of monitors by heart patients at home. Merkle's team is mapping out the physiological cues that correspond to "personal-best" performances by studying how participants engaged in a computer game respond under pressure. "If someone's really excited during the game and that's correlated with poor performance, the machine might tell him to slow down via a pop-up message," explains Merkle. "On the other hand, it might tell the team leader, 'Take Bill out of loop, we don't want him monitoring the space shuttle today. He's had too much coffee and too little sleep.'" Preliminary findings show that personal sensor readings induce lower levels of arousal, which promotes better teamwork and good leadership in longer collaborative sessions. The next step after mapping out individual performance is to connect that data into a collaborative model through a working group as part of the Mentor program.
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  • "Consumers Deluged as Fake E-Mails Multiply"
    MSNBC (01/21/04); Sullivan, Bob

    "Phishers" are attempts to scam consumers by making them think they are receiving helpful email from well-known Internet sites or companies; the Anti-Phishing Working Group reports that about five new phishing attempts occur every day, while as much as 5 percent of recipients respond. Identity theft is practically guaranteed for those who answer such emails, and new phishing strategies are springing up that make it even more difficult to tell genuine messages and fake messages apart; one commonly advised way of spotting the difference is to check the Web browser's address window for any abnormalities, but criminals can thwart this tactic by exploiting a recently discovered vulnerability in Microsoft's browser. There are also legitimate Web companies that solicit personal financial data in generic emails, which flies in the face of conventional anti-phishing wisdom and confuses consumers even more. And sometimes Internet firms send out marketing solicitations that consumers mistake for phishing emails because of their close resemblance. FTC lawyer Eric A. Wenger says con artists are taking advantage of consumers' deep trust of established trademarks, committing what is known as "corporate ID theft." Examples include attaching well-known corporate logos to bogus emails, or placing trusted company names in scam Web sites. Anti-Phishing Working Group Chairman Dave Jevans says the proliferation of phishing is having such a detrimental effect on corporate marketing initiatives that Web firms have begin to look into digital signatures and other new security methods to reestablish trust with consumers. Wenger notes that at this point the only reliable method for distinguishing true emails or sites from false is to comb through the HTML source code, a tactic that goes beyond the patience of most Internet users.
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  • "Mutating Software Could Predict Hacker Attacks"
    New Scientist (01/21/04); Knight, Will

    Cambridge, Mass.-based Icosystem claims to have developed an intrusion detector that can anticipate hackers' future tactics by mutating the software they use to attack computers into their most deadly possible iterations. These future attack strategies would be produced at a central location and then embedded remotely in intrusion-detection software worldwide. In this way, security systems could be trained to shield PCs and networks against attack scenarios hackers have not even developed yet. The attack mutations carried out by Icosystem's software remain simple to ensure that the code still runs, and the software can also predict more complex attacks by blending parts of different hacking programs. "It tries a lot of different mutations and recombinations, but they are all grammatically and syntactically correct," explains Icosystem CIO Eric Bonabeau. "The idea is to continue to evolve scripts and new forms of attacks will undoubtedly emerge." Though the system's initial purpose is the prediction of hacking, the mutation method can also be applied to viruses. Icosystem is testing the software in collaboration with the U.S. Army's Computer Crimes Investigation Command.
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  • "Flexible Screen Technology Ready to Roll"
    University of Toronto (01/20/04); Wahl, Nicolle

    University of Toronto engineers have successfully constructed flexible organic light emitting devices (FOLEDs), a breakthrough that could pave the way for next-generation elastic display technology. "It opens up a whole new range of possibilities for the future," declares Zheng-Hong Lu of the U of T's Department of Materials Science and Engineering. "Imagine a room with electronic wallpaper programmed to display a series of Van Gogh paintings, or a reusable electronic newspaper that could download and display the day's news and be rolled up after use." The FOLEDs were created on various flexible, lightweight materials including reflective metallic foils and transparent polymer films. Lu developed the technology with the assistance of engineering science student Brian Fung and post-doctoral fellow Sijin Han. Lu notes that FOLEDs could be mass-produced via an inexpensive manufacturing technique, and the U of T team believes a commercial FOLED product could emerge in just a few years.

  • "Perens: New Patent-Suit Threats Poised to Strike"
    InternetNews.com (01/22/04); Wolfe, Alexander

    Desktop Linux Consortium executive director Bruce Perens told attendees at this week's LinuxWorld Expo that a critically flawed patent system is responsible for a sorry state of affairs in which vendors can extort licensing fees by filing or threatening to file lawsuits for alleged infringement on software patents. "In the United States, at least 50 percent of software patents--some experts say 95 percent--should never be granted," he argued, adding that such patents should have been rejected on the grounds that they are too broad in scope, or cover already invented technology. In the long run, this overabundance of patents could lead to extensive litigation against Linux vendors, and Perens declared that potential actions will avoid Linux kernel-related technologies and focus instead on downloads and other surrounding features. He also implied that further suits could target Web-browser technology, which would have a detrimental effect on big businesses running browsers. Perens was of the opinion that patent problems would most likely occur after the SCO Group's lawsuit against Linux users is concluded. He said the open-source community must anticipate this threat and plan preventative measures before it emerges. "We need organizations that set Web standards to protect their implementers better than they do," Perens insisted.
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  • "Now Where Was I? New Ways to Revisit Web Sites"
    New York Times (01/22/04) P. E8; Guernsey, Lisa

    Electronic bookmarks were hailed as a premier tool for recalling Web sites and pages important to users, but their use has fallen by the wayside. The University of Maryland's Ben Bederson calls the bookmark concept fatally flawed, "because it assumes in advance that this is a page that you want to revisit, and you don't always know that." The Keeping Found Things Found project led by University of Washington professors William Jones and Harry Bruce and sponsored by the National Science Foundation aims to determine the best techniques to keep track of Web sites by studying the many approaches people take: Rather than bookmarking pages, the professors found that some people send themselves emails that include the page link and its potential usefulness, while others use sticky notes or print the pages out, and still others rely on search engines to revisit pages. The researchers learned that context is key to how people retrieve sites; subjects in their study who described a particular site in their own words had little trouble finding it again when they were given the descriptions six months later, but such annotation is not usually featured in current bookmark applications. The Add to Favorites 2 software prototype developed by Jones and Bruce enhances the Favorites feature in Internet Explorer with a description box, and allows users to email the link and store it in a document folder. Another tool the researchers are focusing on is AutoComplete, a software program that can recall the complete address of a previously visited site when the user enters the first few characters of the URL. Meanwhile, Microsoft researcher and University of Washington research team member Susan Dumais has co-developed Stuff I've Seen, software that uses a unified search interface to help people recall emails, Web sites, and other documents. Dumais and Bederson agree that bookmarks or home-made filing systems could be rendered obsolete by improved search engines.
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  • "NT Trains Students to Oppose Net Threats"
    North Texas Daily (01/15/04); Tsai, Joyce

    The University of North Texas has established a new center that will teach students how to protect computers and information networks from Internet viruses, worms, and other online threats such as Trojans, logic bombs, and SQL poisoning. The Center for Information and Computer Security will teach Internet security, information assurance, and cyber crime. The center will take an interdisciplinary approach to learning, and make use of experts from its departments of Computer Science and Engineering, Criminal Justice, and Business Computer Information Systems. Steve Tate, NT associate professor of computer science and engineering, will serve as the director of the center, which will offer two federally certified credentials from the U.S. National Security Agency, as well as two permanent courses, Intro to Computer Security and Secure Electronic Commerce. Moreover, changes have been made to undergraduate and graduate-level courses to prepare students for the requirements of the certification. "Network security is on everybody's mind in enterprises and government agencies," says Ram Dantu, who has worked for Cisco, Nortel, and Alcatel over the past 12 years before joining the computer science department. "In this context, detecting and preventing intrusions is a hot research topic pursued by industry and universities."
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  • "Linux Takes on the Windows Look"
    Wired News (01/23/04); Delio, Michelle

    Products showcased at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo indicate that the open-source Linux operating system appears ready to move onto the desktop and give Windows a run for its money, even though Linux interfaces bear a striking resemblance to Windows. The Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) officially launched the Desktop Linux Working Group initiative. OSDL CEO Stuart Cohen said the working group, which has PC heavyweights such as IBM and Sun Microsystems in its corner, will devise standards that will allow Linux to run seamlessly across desktop and portable computers. Sun was on hand to promote Linux desktop products such as the Java Desktop System and the prototype Project Looking Glass. Java Desktop System shares similarities to Windows, while the Looking Glass interface is more graphically dynamic: All objects on the Looking Glass desktop have a three-dimensional appearance, and can be manipulated like 3D objects. KDE's K Desktop Environment 3.2, to be rolled out in February, combines user friendliness with functionality, and will supplement features such as the KOffice Suite and Web browser with an electronic wallet for storing passwords, a better spell-checker, more robust security, and greater accessibility for the handicapped. Desktop Linux Consortium executive director Bruce Perens stated at the expo that Linux is ready for its long-awaited desktop transition, but this move could be impeded by software patent lawsuits. Nevertheless, he forecast that Linux will be running on three out of 10 business desktops by 2006.
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  • "Big Brother in the Passenger Seat"
    New Scientist (01/10/04) Vol. 181, No. 2429, P. 24; Randerson, James

    Variants of "black box" technology common in aircraft have begun showing up in automobiles, the most sophisticated being memory units embedded in airbags that store critical information--engine running speed, seatbelt status, etc.--gathered by sensors in the last five seconds before the airbag is deployed. The technology would be significantly advantageous to law enforcement and crash investigators who find it increasingly difficult to reconstruct car crashes because of advanced automotive technology such as anti-lock brakes. Other potential black box beneficiaries include insurance companies looking for ways to make sure that motorists deserve their lower premiums by driving responsibly, and parents who wish to keep track of their teenagers. Companies that make products designed to collect and process the information stored in automotive black boxes also stand to benefit. However, the technology faces reluctance on the part of manufacturers to adopt it, while drivers cite privacy concerns. In Europe, most new autos gather data in some way, but lack a central memory unit in which to store it; furthermore, no consensus has been reached on what data should be stored or how such data may be easily downloaded without the involvement of manufacturers. The situation is very different in the United States, where General Motors, Ford, Isuzu, and Toyota are rolling out or planning to roll out cars with black boxes. U.S. manufacturers are eager to embrace the technology as a tool to discredit false accident claims by car owners, while accident investigators applaud GM's decision to uphold a recent court ruling that collecting crash data does not constitute privacy infringement.

  • "Listening For a Buzz"
    Federal Computer Week (01/12/04) Vol. 18, No. 1, P. 60; Moore, John

    Linux, grid computing, and robotics are just some of the technologies expected to make significant progress in terms of development or commercialization in 2004. Customers will be able to run the Linux open-source operating system on larger servers thanks to this year's rollout of the Linux 2.6 kernel, which boasts greater scalability; Illuminata President Jonathan Eunice says the 2.6 iteration will manage 99 percent of potential application loads and boost customers' confidence in Linux. Observers believe enterprise content management is poised to explode this year in the storage software sector, and be used by federal agencies tasked with managing regulatory compliance data. Grid computing is on track to move out of the academic arena and into mainstream data centers in 2004, thanks to the rollout of new grid-oriented products. Information security efforts are anticipated to gain traction in several areas this year: Intrusion resilience measures such as RSA's Nightingale technology are on the slate, Rainbow Mykotronx's John Droge expects products that are fully interoperable with the Pentagon's Cryptographic Modernization initiative will emerge in 2004, and improved test suites to evaluate security systems are high priorities as well. Autonomous robot technology could take a step forward this year through efforts such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge, a land race between self-guided robotic vehicles. The Palo Alto Research Center, Cisco Systems, and Intel are planning to address compatibility problems in wireless communication by enhancing and/or commercializing products such as PARC's Obje and Intel's prototype universal communicator. Technologies expected to develop in 2005 to 2007 include microprocessors from Intel that operate more efficiently, produce less heat, and have more transistors than current models, and Microsoft and Apple's respective Longhorn operating system and Macintosh OS X Version 10.3 operating system.
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  • "The Next Big Thing?"
    Economist (01/15/04) Vol. 370, No. 8358, P. 51

    An invisible, ubiquitous computing infrastructure in which computing is provided to users on an as-needed basis like any other utility is within the realm of possibility, but determining when such a breakthrough will emerge is difficult to pin down, even as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and other vendors hype the promised benefits of "utility computing," "on-demand computing," "adaptive" information technology, and numerous other designations for the same thing. This infrastructure relies on two core technologies: Grid computing, in which data processing power is distributed across multiple Internet-linked machines to maximize efficiency, and Web services software housed in shared server computers that can be located and employed by applications on other servers. Although some basic standards for Web services programming languages have been developed, Phillip Merrick of webMethods notes that security, transaction certification, and other key operations still need to be addressed. Web services are most apparent in the business model of application service providers, the most successful being Salesforce.com, which supplies software for customer data management and marketing leads. Tech Strategy Partners' Rahul Sood says such Web services are chiefly tailored to small enterprises that do not require extensive application customization, and are insufficient for the rigors of on-demand computing. Flexibility is the most important component, and Sood points out that firms can currently enhance cost flexibility by either remaining with a single vendor or making one of their computing functions flexible. Utility computing, however, requires that firms become capable of switching vendors for all their computing functions with meter-based pricing--a development that is several years away.
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  • "Internet-Era Democracy"
    Discover (01/04) Vol. 25, No. 1, P. 22; Johnson, Steven

    The presidential candidates are putting the Internet to greater use, but electronic populism is often limited to efforts that will get more people out to vote. For example, Howard Dean has implemented Web-based grassroots fund-raising efforts, and campaign supporters are using the social-networking site Meetup.com for their political gatherings. Nonetheless, the Internet still has not been used by ordinary people to influence the positions of the candidates. True populism on the Web Wide Web would be similar to the open-source approach of developing software, in which a collective of programmers outside a corporate hierarchy develop an application for free. Innovation occurs quickly in the open-source world because programmers share their ideas publicly, and applications tend to be stable because of all the eyes that ultimately review the code for bugs. Similarly, ordinary people can use the Internet to tell the candidates what is truly important to them, before the would-be presidents have a consultant shape an appealing campaign for them. Candidates could use the Internet to help them develop their position papers, while political parties could use such collaborative technology to form party platforms. Party positions could be "seeded" with statements from party professionals, while its constituents could add refinements. For example, the open-source Wikipedia encyclopedia, developed by the Wikimedia Foundation, is an open authorship model that contains freely submitted material that is then audited and enhanced by other users. Critics say that such use of the Internet will be no better than poll-driven politics and reduce the importance of politicians, but would also provide them with a deeper understanding of the public's opinions.
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  • "Opening Up Online Education"
    Technology Review (01/04); Atwood, Sally

    A coalition of 10 universities, industry vendors, and education organizations are promoting the Open Knowledge Initiative, an open-standards approach to learning-management systems. The Open Knowledge Initiative was conceived by MIT academic computing director Vijay Kumar and then-Stanford University official Jeffrey Merriman, who is now project director for the initiative; Merriman cites frustration at the difficulty of adding features to Stanford's online platform. The Open Knowledge Initiative seeks to create standards for online educational tools so they can be swapped in and out, customized, and shared between universities without requiring complex technical work. Collaborative partner Indiana University has already led development of a test-making tool that generates individualized tests and answer keys for professors with large class sizes. The tool is one of the first to take advantage of the new open-source specifications released last summer on the Open Knowledge Initiative Web site. The goal is to eventually generate enough sharable resources and adopters that the technology platform will become an international standard. Already, the U.K. Center for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards is basing its nationwide infrastructure for e-learning on Open Knowledge Initiative specifications, and the Mellon Foundation is funding Open Knowledge-based tools development. E-learning tools vendor WebCT has also signed onto the plan and created a Microsoft Outlook tool that automatically updates users' calendars with dates and events from the school's learning-management system. Indiana University associate vice president Brad Wheeler says the Open Knowledge Initiative promises a way to ease the financial and IT-personnel strain on universities operating online education systems.
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  • "RFID: A Key to Automating Everything"
    Scientific American (01/04) Vol. 290, No. 1, P. 56; Want, Roy

    The development and implementation of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology is seen as an important step on the road toward ubiquitous computing. RFID tags are already employed in automatic toll systems, ID cards, and anti-theft devices, among other things; their inventory and supply-chain tracking applications are currently being tested, while other near-term future applications will likely include anti-counterfeiting safeguards embedded in currency. Predictions vary on when RFID will penetrate the mainstream: Some experts expect the retail sector to use RFID regularly by the end of the decade, while others do not believe the technology will be widespread until about 2015 or later, when RFID tags are cheap enough to be embedded in inexpensive items. An RFID-enhanced store inventory is an attractive prospect for retailers--RFID-based "smart shelf" systems, for instance, would boost sales by ensuring that items are always in stock, and save labor costs; other potential benefits include theft prevention. Still, these systems are a far cry from the late Mark Weiser's concept of unobtrusive "calm technology" that frees people up to concentrate on personal activities by automating toilsome chores. A key ingredient of this vision, in addition to ubiquitous computing, is what Intel's David Tennenhouse terms "proactive computing" systems that anticipate and fulfill user needs; widescale proactive computing requires RFID reader networks that collect information from RFID tags and send the data to remote computers. Two general types of proactive RFID networks have been outlined: A cable-connected network of permanently fixed readers that power and read permanently fixed tags, and an ad hoc wireless network consisting of readers (or network nodes) that can be distributed whenever and wherever necessary to read surrounding tags and relay data node-by-node to a Net-linked gateway node. The establishment of pervasive RFID networks that feed into responsive computer systems will usher in Weiser's vision of invisible computing that augments even the most mundane tasks.