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Volume 6, Issue 645:  Monday, May 17, 2004

  • "Searching Data: Browsers, Toolbars and the Desktop"
    TechNewsWorld (05/14/04); Germain, Jack M.

    Searching for information on the PC has taken a step toward greater user convenience with the emergence of applications that blend traditional desktop search with Web search, as exemplified by the recently released HotBot browser toolbar from Terra Lycos. The free tool integrates online keyword searches with desktop searches of documents and email, and features customizable desktop and Web search parameters. Search-engine providers face a tough challenge--convincing users that subscription search services are far more convenient than existing free services. Another challenge lies in attracting users to integrated, all-in-one search tools: "Consumer behavior is a hard thing to change, so the race is on to establish the turf," notes InfoSpace Search & Directory VP Leslie Grandy, who predicts that companies will lure users to paid-search services by offering them at drastically low prices, and then add premium services once users have become dependent on them. A few popular search portals offer enhanced toolbar add-ons with direct connections to search services such as news sources and dictionaries; users can also take advantage of special toolbar features in exchange for permission to receive ads, tracking cookies, preferential sponsor Web site displays, and other content. Yale University professor and Scopeware chief scientist Dr. David Gelertner developed the Scopeware Vision desktop search tool in order to improve users' ability to locate and use the information on their computers. The tool finds data via "streams" using keyword searches, and presents search results as "V"-shaped streams of index cards. These information streams are merged into a single topic, and the program is capable of accommodating limitless amounts of data.
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  • "Will DNS Rescue the Future of Search?"
    CircleID (05/14/04); Liang, Wang

    Chinese academic researchers are developing a new distributed information architecture that would make Internet searches much more efficient and effective. As the Internet continues to grow to billions of pages and millions of specialized databases, current centralized Web search engines will not be able to scale, with the result being less timely results as well as information that is missed completely. Instead of building a comprehensive mirror image of the Internet, as is currently done, search should be built into the Internet infrastructure so that the burden is shifted to the content managers; this is the basic idea behind the domain resource integration system (DRIS) under development at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China. Search architecture would be maintained locally, similar to how the domain name system (DNS) currently functions. A complementary personal search system would interface with the distributed DRIS and tailor results according to personal interests and requirements. The need for DRIS will increase with the introduction of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) and the accompanying explosion of information and information sources. The problem is not limited to the Web, but also includes the millions of specialized databases that are hidden from current Internet search engines, including special library databases. Searching for information in these systems individually is a time-consuming task and also requires users to learn the different query rules for each database, in order to retrieve the most accurate results.
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  • "Hearing Set in VeriSign's Challenge to ICANN"
    Associated Press (05/13/04); Jesdanum, Anick

    VeriSign, the company responsible for running many of the Internet's core domain databases, has filed a federal lawsuit against ICANN over the disputed Site Finder search system. VeriSign introduced Site Finder last fall as a search service for people who type incorrect URL addresses, but because VeriSign was criticized for earning money when it directed lost users to certain sites, ICANN pressured the company into shutting down the service shortly after it was launched. VeriSign has since sued ICANN over the Site Finder dispute, claiming that the California-based Internet overseer has been inconsistent in its restrictions on certain services the company has planned. A Los Angeles court will hear ICANN's motion to dismiss most of VeriSign's case on Tuesday. The dispute highlights some of the complaints lodged against ICANN since it was selected by the U.S. Commerce Department to preside over key aspects of the Internet, such as its addressing system, in 1998. "If VeriSign prevails, ICANN really is going to be legally prohibited from doing all sorts of stuff that it sees as a key part of its mandate," predicts Jonathan Weinberg, a law professor from Wayne State University. Some developing countries who are frustrated over ICANN's ties to the U.S. government are hoping the group's authority will eventually be transferred to an international organization, and a newly formed U.S. task force is scheduled to consider an alternative governing system to ICANN this summer. Meanwhile, ICANN officials say they are regularly making improvements in an effort to improve the openness and clarity of their procedures.
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  • "Computer Recycling Law Likely to Be Delayed"
    SiliconValley.com (05/13/04); Folmar, Kate

    California's precedent-setting computer-recycling law, which was supposed to be enacted on July 1, will likely be held up until October because of red tape. The law calls for a $6 to $10 surcharge to be added to the cost of new computer components in order to fund city and county recycling programs, but state Sen. Byron Sher (D-San Jose) will probably seek a postponement so that the California Integrated Waste Management Board and the state Board of Equalization can settle the issue of which agency will collect the surcharges. "The biggest failure is bureaucracy's failure to think out of the box," argues Californians Against Waste executive director Mark Murray. Sher intends to have the law implemented in time for the Christmas holidays, when many people receive electronic products as gifts. Waste board representative Frank Simpson alleges that the July 1 implementation of the recycling initiative was impeded by the state budget crisis and the hiring hiatus. Sher may not necessarily propose that the existing bill be amended to delay the start of recycling until October; he may advise that the program hold to its July 1 start date, while collection of new fees by retailers will wait until October. In such a scenario, the senator would recommend that cities and counties be compensated for any e-waste recycling they carry out between July and October.
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  • "Colleges Offering Video Game Studies"
    Reuters (05/12/04); McKenna, Holly; Berkowitz, Ben

    Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and MIT are just a few of the universities now offering coursework in video game studies, which is being cultivated by the growing acknowledgement by academics that video games are a permanent cultural touchstone that has been expanding its appeal beyond the teenage boys often assumed to be the technology's primary consumers. Statistics indicate that there are more women over the age of 18 playing video games than teenage boys, while the average age of gamers is 29. Kathleen Ruiz of RPI says that this fall students will be given the opportunity to minor in video game studies, and she will teach a class on designing games that diverge from the ultraviolent "shooter" and criminal adventure games pervading the market. The class will include students from multiple disciplines whose knowledge will encompass programming, architecture, electronic arts, and even music. The University of Southern California, meanwhile, has teamed up with Electronic Arts to initiate a video game design program that offers a master's degree in fine arts. Associate professor of cognitive science Ralph Noble reports that the number of female game designers and programmers is growing, while Ruiz attributes games' burgeoning popularity beyond 18-year-old males to more sophisticated games with sociological overtones, such as "The Sims."
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  • "States Speed Up Spyware Race"
    Washington Post (05/13/04); McGuire, David

    With several U.S. states having passed or considering the passage of anti-spyware laws, federal lawmakers may be goaded into enacting a national anti-spyware statute that would probably preempt state legislation. "If the states are busy writing laws and particularly if they're writing inconsistent laws or laws that strongly interfere with certain markets, that certainly would strengthen the case for federal legislation," declared the FTC's Howard Beales, who was sharply criticized by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) for arguing that Congress should suspend the passage of an anti-spyware bill until the government arrives at a clear definition for spyware. "We're certainly better off with the threat of a patchwork than with bad federal legislation and right now we're not sure how to write good federal legislation," Beales contended. The Bush administration and technology industry lobbyists have been arguing that anti-spyware laws could unintentionally limit the use of certain software products, such as antivirus programs that automatically update PCs. Utah's anti-spyware law, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Urquhart (R), bans spyware and pop-up advertising, while California Sen. Kevin Murray (D) has introduced a bill that would permit Californians to sue companies that install spyware on their computers without notifying them beforehand. Among the anti-spyware bills Congress is debating are ones proposed by Reps. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) and Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) that would essentially outlaw companies or individuals from downloading certain kinds of software without a consumer's permission. McAfee estimated that the number of "potentially unwanted programs" on its clientele's computers swelled from 643,000 in September 2003 to over 2.5 million in March 2004. Witnesses at an April FTC hearing said that users are often unable to explain how spyware got onto their systems, nor do they know how to remove the programs.
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  • "The Superwoman of Supercomputing"
    Business Week (05/12/04); Salkever, Alex

    Francine Berman, director of the University of California, San Diego's San Diego Supercomputing Center (SDSC), is the only female in the world to manage a supercomputing facility; Peter Freeman, director of the National Science Foundation's computer information, science, and engineering program, calls Berman a leading light in the field responsible for developing advanced infrastructure to support computational science. She has also spoken publicly about the difficulties women tech leaders face in balancing family and career, pushed for the role of women in technology, and served as a mentor to graduate students. Freeman praises Berman and SDSC for their work in building software and configuring supercomputing clusters to accommodate the huge amounts of data collected from various scientific fields, while Salk Institute for Biological Studies CTO Virginia McCurran notes that Berman has the gift of bridging the cultural and language gaps that hinder communication between academics in different disciplines. The SDSC director thinks that scientists must play a key role in architecting the mechanisms that will make data as available as any other public utility. She will also funnel her leadership skills and formidable knowledge into the TeraGrid project, whose goal it is to network U.S. supercomputer and high-powered computing clusters into the biggest, fastest distributed computing grid in the world via 40 Gbps fiber-optic connections. SDSC currently houses DataStar, a supercomputer built by IBM that can process roughly 10 trillion calculations per second. Berman notes that running a supercomputing facility is a highly vaunted position. "For a lot of us, it's like working at a Toys 'R' Us for scientists," she boasts.
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  • "Just Two Words: Plastic Chips"
    Business Week (05/10/04) No. 3882, P. 109; Port, Otis; Tiplady, Rachel; Arner, Faith

    Plastic electronic products are already beginning to roll out, and progressively more powerful applications are on the horizon. Besides organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays and cheap e-books made with "electronic paper," plastic electronics researchers foresee vastly cheaper computer chips printed on nearly every consumer item, using cheap printers instead of huge semiconductor factories. Consumer goods companies could start producing their own chips, such as tags on food cartons that turn bright red when the product expires, and inexpensive children's toys that are interactive. Motorola has estimated the plastic electronics market to eventually be worth double that of the semiconductor market last year--up to $300 billion. Dow Chemical and Xerox are currently working on printing inks and methods that would make producing plastic electronics as easy as printing newspapers. The new innovations include an ink that can be applied in normal atmosphere. Other research efforts are looking at hybridizing silicon chips or adding metal elements to plastic electronics to improve their performance. Plastic electronics currently are very slow, but University of California, Santa Barbara, physicist Alan J. Heeger, who helped create the first conductive polymer in 1977, says their speed is improving steadily. Silicon chips are also too expensive to be deployed as ubiquitously as consumer goods manufacturers would like, while plastic chips could be made for as little as one cent each. In 2010, electronics that make use of organic molecules, or moletronics, could be ready to supplant silicon altogether, says Lucent Technologies' Bell Laboratories polymer materials director Elsa Reichmanis.
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  • "Spec in Works to Secure Wireless Networks"
    eWeek (05/10/04); Hachman, Mark

    The Trusted Computing Group, an industry standards body, says it is developing a "Trusted Network Connect" specification to scan wireless-enabled PCs when they connect to an enterprise's wireless network, keeping out worms and crackers. Officials say the specification will be finalized later this year, and will enable network security and network infrastructure vendors to ensure compliance with network security best practices. Trusted Computing co-chairman and Intel architect Ned Smith says the specification will improve the ability of authentication, authorization, and accounting software to decide when to allow access to the system, and notes that although it is designed for wireless clients, it can be used with wired networks as well. He says, "It's a proactive approach to security," and notes that "Part of what's interesting to the TCG is linking identity-based platform authorization to the network connect decision." The specification's level of trust for network endpoints will use the version number of applications, whether the applications have been patched, and whether the operating systems and applications have viruses; it will quarantine clients that do not meet its requirements.
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  • "Hardware Hackers Back in Business"
    New Scientist (05/01/04) Vol. 182, No. 2445, P. 26; O'Brien, Danny

    Hardware hacking, in which tech enthusiasts reverse-engineer electronic products to see how they work and modify them for applications their creators never envisioned or intended--applications they can make money off of--is undergoing a resurgence, according to Andrew Huang, author of "Hacking the Xbox." He notes that hardware hacking can be traced back to the early days of the microcomputer revolution, when garage hackers in Silicon Valley disassembled and refined each other's work, which ignited a rash of entrepreneurism that led to the creation of companies such as Apple. This trend, however, seemingly came to an end in the 1980s when consumer electronics' complexity reached a point where reverse-engineering by amateurs was impossible. Huang believes the bursting of the dot-com bubble helped revitalize the hardware hacking push. A more modern example of hardware hacking is Rich LeGrand's dissection and retooling of Nintendo's Gameboy Advance console into a computer that drives a robot. On the other hand, the current legal climate for hardware hackers is considerably more unfriendly than it was back in the garage-hacker era: Huang's alma mater, MIT, nearly disassociated itself from his research because the publication of his book raised fears that the university might be in violation the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Wendy Seltzer recalls that hardware manufacturers and users were once united in their desire to optimize their products' usability. "Now manufacturers are making deliberately crippled products--and hackers are trying to fix them," she contends.

  • "Security Threats Raise Concerns About Bluetooth"
    Computerworld (05/10/04) Vol. 32, No. 19, P. 1; Brewin, Bob

    Some IT managers are restricting the use of Bluetooth-equipped devices on their networks due to potential security risks. Bluetooth vendors held a press briefing about security issues on May 10, and some IT managers say they need to protect their networks' Bluetooth extensions the same way they secured their corporate wireless LANs. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group trade association intends to address "bluesnarfing" and "bluejacking," and says that users must understand the situation and know how to protect themselves. A spokesman noted that patches are available for phones, and that the group is working on initiatives to make the technology more secure. Only a few phones from Nokia and Sony Ericsson are vulnerable to bluesnarfing, and the technology overall is one of the most secure wireless systems because it uses 128-bit encryption and short transmission ranges. Bluejacking, where unsolicited messages are sent to the device, are more an annoyance than threat, according to some experts. Meta Group analyst Chris Kozup says security concerns will probably grow as the number of Bluetooth-enabled devices continues to increase. A number of laptop computers are also shipping with long-range Bluetooth connectivity--up to 300 feet--that can make them more susceptible to Bluetooth-based attacks. IT managers often do not know that employees have the technology because the workers buy mobile devices themselves, out from under IT department radar. In February, UK researchers called attention to Bluetooth security issues when they demonstrated a tool that exploits a flaw in some Bluetooth connections.
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  • "Adventures in the Third Dimension"
    Forbes (05/24/04) Vol. 173, No. 11, P. 166; Fulford, Benjamin

    Japanese research labs are rolling out sophisticated 3D display technologies that can be used without special eyewear, while the 3D Industry Forum formed in April is working to standardize the technologies and help companies promote the development of 3D applications. Stereoscopic 3D displays create the illusion of three dimensions by splitting a screen image into multiple vertical slits that are beamed into the viewer's eyes; Sanyo Electric has developed a plasma TV and liquid crystal display that uses a half-dozen angles of view so the 3D effect is maintained for people looking from different directions. However, the eye strain and headaches caused by the displays is a limiting factor. The next step up from stereovision, holography, is waiting in the wings: The calculations needed to generate a hologram, which required a massive supercomputing effort a decade ago, can now be performed on a single PC, according to Toshio Honda of Japan's Chiba University. The current challenge is to find a holographic display or projector of sufficient resolution, and Sharp 3D researcher Akira Imai predicts 10 years will pass before a hologram-capable screen can be mass-produced. Hitachi Advanced Research Laboratory has put together a low-resolution volumetric display from commercially available technology and DSL lines: Reflections from mirrors surrounding the object are captured by a digital video camera, which transmits the image to a home-theater quality projector that beams the image onto a second set of mirrors reflecting back onto a spinning screen. Meanwhile, NTT DoCoMo has produced holograms facilitated by the careful alignment of mirrors to focus multiple images captured from various angles on the same spot. Once mobile transmission speeds of 30 Gbps are achieved, ubiquitously deployed miniature cameras will allow multi-angle video images to be rendered holographically.
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  • "Beauty and the Beastly PC"
    Discover (05/04) Vol. 25, No. 5, P. 20; Johnson, Steven

    Elegance has usually taken a back seat to functionality at Microsoft, but that attitude is changing in light of cognitive scientific research demonstrating that beautiful objects and graphics can relax a person and generate a cheerful mood, which can positively affect the processing of information by the brain. "When we see things that are pleasurable, when we're enjoying ourselves, it makes us more willing to explore, more imaginative," explains the Nielsen Norman Group's Don Norman, author of "Emotional Design." Microsoft is extending that philosophy to forthcoming products that sharply diverge from their predecessors' charmless, personality-free aesthetic. For example, Windows XP's default background image--a hilly and picturesque landscape--has an appeal that ties into feelings of satisfaction and well-being evoked by an instinctive unconscious yearning for ancient ancestral grassland vistas, according to evolutionary psychologists. On the other hand, Windows XP users are also confronted with mundane command-line screens as the system boots up, creating a jarring discontinuity. The next-generation Longhorn operating system from Microsoft is designed to have a seamless viewing experience: The opening screen features a list of user names, each with a pretty icon that, when selected, gently drifts to the bottom while documents and applications fill up the rest of the screen. A prototype digital photo management tool also emphasizes aesthetic appeal by organizing images with a perspective shift, whereby approaching photos get bigger, then recede as they return to the bottom of the pile. The tool also automatically clusters photos according to the date and time they were shot.
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  • "Five Killer Patents"
    Technology Review (05/04) Vol. 107, No. 4, P. 66; Staedter, Tracy; Hadenius, Patric; Arensman, Russ

    Among five 2003 patents listed by Technology Review as potentially transformative is one issued to Lucent Technologies for a software program that essentially directs data packet traffic, but makes sure that real-time packets such as voice data from Web telephone conversations have priority. This innovation promises to make Internet telephony as reliable and glitch-free as landline telephony. Another patent, from IBM, combines personal phone queries and automatic voice recognition to lower the chances of fraudulent transactions while upholding convenience: The technology records a sample of users' speech and their responses to personal questions; not only must their voice and answers match the records, but users must also correctly answer randomly asked questions about their accounts that the technology generates. Motorola received a patent for a method to more accurately write data on magnetic random-access memory chips and eliminate reliability problems stemming from manufacturing defects. The chips are designed to apply electrical pulses to flip only targeted magnetic devices or cells and avoid flipping neighboring cells, a problem that becomes increasingly likely as cells shrink and their shape becomes less uniform. Rice University was awarded a patent for chemically unsnarling and separating carbon nanotubes by subjecting them to fluorine gas, which makes them less likely to clump together and eases their incorporation into materials. The breakthrough is also important to the use of single nanotubes as nanoelectronic components. Making lung biopsies less invasive is the purpose of superDimension's new image-processing and guidance technology, which generates 3D tomographic scans and uses software to superimpose a bronchoscope's position on the image.
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  • "Homeland Security: Connecting the Dots"
    Software Development (05/04) Vol. 12, No. 5, P. 34; Mena, Jesus

    The linchpin of the Homeland Security Department's successful prosecution of the war on terrorism is the rapid retrieval and analysis of information spread out across disparate databases, and a number of technologies are being pursued to aggregate, integrate, and disseminate this information. Data collaboration and analysis cannot work without a networked, agent-based infrastructure because the information technology environment is scattered, heterogeneous, fluid, and subject to privacy and security issues. A number of data aggregation systems--the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, DataQuick's PropertyFinder, and Acxiom's AbiliTec Unique Identification Number Database among them--could be tapped to gather information from different data repositories. Data warehousing must overcome cultural hurdles and may not be supported in many cases given the breadth and variety of data collection technologies and techniques; an alternative approach is the creation of virtual databases of information culled from multiple sources via integration software. After information is aggregated and integrated, it must be disseminated to the correct parties in a timely manner, and this is achieved through collaboration software. Because much of this information is unstructured, categorization software is necessary: The software enables users to interpret huge data streams from assorted sources by creating taxonomies, and natural language processing, information retrieval, routing and filtering, summarization, and clustering are just some of the software's applications. It may be beyond software's ability to choke off terrorist money channels at the source, but systems that can recognize signs of ID theft, fraud, money laundering, and name recognition can be of tremendous aid. The most critical component of the homeland security push is data-mining technology that facilitates automatic database searches and recognition of critical trends and behavioral patterns; distributed data mining relies on autonomous software agents that perform tasks delegated by users.
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  • "Improved Algorithms Speed It Up for Codes"
    Science & Technology Review (05/04) P. 16; Parker, Ann

    Improving the mathematical algorithms used to create software code can lead to more efficient and accelerated runtimes, according to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist Eugene Brooks, one of a number of researchers who have devised purely mathematical techniques to quicken the statistical or Monte Carlo method of calculation and enable faster simulations of processes. The Monte Carlo radiation transport code used to model the movement of photons through matter has evolved over the last several decades to be more efficient: The difficulties of such a simulation lie in the division of the material the photons interact with--as well as time--into segments or zones, which are calculated on a step-by-step, photon-by-photon, zone-by-zone basis. The instability and inaccuracy of the Monte Carlo method for thermal radiation was lessened through the development of the implicit Monte Carlo (IMC) scheme, which incorporated effective scattering but still required a significant investment in computer time. Brooks has improved the process further by developing the symbolic IMC method, but the resulting nonlinear mathematical system requires large numbers of Monte Carlo particles to account for the noise in opaque materials. Brooks has co-authored with Abraham Szoke the difference formulation, a construct that subtracts all emitted and reabsorbed photons and boosts the algorithm's processing speed by factors of up to 1 million. Monte Carlo calculation improvements also aid Livermore's Quantum Simulations Group, which is tasked with modeling the properties of materials in 100- to 200-atom quantities, which diverge significantly from larger amounts because of quantum mechanics. The Quantum Monte Carlo (QMC) technique, previously effective at simulating the behavior of small numbers of atoms, has been made more scalable by Livermore physicists' introduction of the Wannier transformation to the QMC algorithm, which shrinks the processing time of a 100-atom system by a factor of 100.
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  • "No Soft Touch"
    Governing (05/04) Vol. 17, No. 8, P. 36; Sostek, Anna

    Election Data Services estimates that about 29 percent of the American voting-age population will use electronic voting machines this year, but critics are calling for voter-verified paper trails in light of findings that touch-screen voting systems are too susceptible to tampering. This conclusion has spurred lawmakers such as California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley and Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller to require the inclusion of printed receipts, while some 128 congressional legislators have signed on to a Help America Vote Act (HAVA) amendment making paper trails a national requirement. Information Technology Association of America President Harris Miller disputes critics' assertions, contending that e-voting security issues pale in comparison to the risks inherent in the re-introduction of paper trails. Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Michael Shamos claims that e-voting security flaws have a low chance of exploitation, while paper receipts might be more vulnerable to tampering. At any rate, election officials are balking at the insertion of paper trails mainly because of logistical issues, as well as the additional costs involved and the impact on poll worker training. The state of Nevada plans to hire private consultants to evaluate a voter-verified paper trail system, but the printer shipping schedule leaves little room to train poll workers before early voting begins; Secretary of State Heller has refused to use paperless e-voting systems, and promises that the state will employ optical-scan machines if the printers are late. Election Center director Doug Lewis estimates that U.S. states are running an average 18 months behind schedule in reaching HAVA's November deadline for modernizing their voting systems, but repeated delays in the allocation of federal funding authorized under HAVA and a lack of federal voting machine standards are discouraging states' acquisition of new voting gear and state-wide voter databases.
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