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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 684: Friday, August 20, 2004

  • "Making a Web Search Feel Like a Stroll in the Library"
    New York Times (08/19/04) P. E5; Eisenberg, Anne

    A recent conference at the IBM Almaden Research Center included presentations on new Web and hard-drive search technologies from Ingenuity Software founder Bruce Horn and University of California, Berkeley, professor Marti Hearst. Horn has invented an information management system that enables users to individually customize and cross-index files on the desktop by inserting a "collections" layer that gathers and cross-links all references to any topic specified by the user. The software can keep track of numerous types of files without duplicating them, and objects can be added to collections in several ways, including drag-and-drop, annotation, and through the use of key phrases. Meanwhile, Hearst and a team of students have created Flamenco, a search program that lets users browse a collection of digital content in much the same way that a person strolls through a library. "It's meant to help people find things, in part, by serendipity," Hearst says. The Flamenco project began with a digitized art collection of 35,000 images that were described in text; Hearst used these descriptions to categorize the items according to medium, date, artist, and content, and then cross-linked the categories so that when users click on a category, they retrieve not only images specific to that category, but images in related categories as well. Flamenco, which was developed with help from the National Science Foundation, also allows people to view multiple subcategories simultaneously. "This way, people can compare and contrast, discovering new categories and relationships," Hearst explains.
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  • "Intelligent Surveillance Increases Public Transport Security"
    IST Results (08/18/04)

    The practicability of automating human behavior recognition has been demonstrated by the Annotated Digital Video for Intelligent Surveillance and Optimized Retrieval (ADVISOR) system, which is used to identify, report, and archive suspicious or dangerous activities imaged by video surveillance cameras in metro stations in order to enhance passenger safety. ADVISOR features technology from a variety of suppliers, including a "crowd monitor" system from Britain's Kingston University, a motion detector from INRIA, a Vigitec human-computer interface (HCI), and a Bull archive server. Thales Research & Technology consultant Charles Attwood explains that a time-base corrector system designates and adjusts the timing on the video feeds, and then digitizes and compresses the analog signals and sends them to the crowd monitor, which scrutinizes the video and returns alarms based on movements associated with crowd behavior. The motion detector then identifies and tracks individuals throughout the metro system, and a behavior recognition unit decides whether to raise alarms based on the type of behavior it sees and send them to the HCI in the control and command center. Attwood says the archive unit stores the digitized and annotated video and can either search for or retrieve specific sequences based on particularized behavior per requests from the HCI. ADVISOR spots moving zones by computing the difference between each current image and the background image, while individuals and groups of individuals are identified when the system computes the type of each moving region. Upon detection, ADVISOR monitors them through the sequence, extracting individual trajectories and using 3D spatio-temporal reasoning to label predefined behaviors. Operators can also use ADVISOR to search the video database by type of alarm, location, and time of day, while images frozen on the screen can be saved in an open format to be used by other programs or sent to the authorities.
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  • "Convergence Quagmire: Viruses with Spam"
    TechNewsWorld (08/18/04); Lyman, Jay

    A July intelligence report from MessageLabs indicates virus authors and spammers are forming a symbiotic relationship that combines their expertise and strategies into a new class of email security threat. The report finds that BugBear, SoBig, MyDoom, and other viruses are employing spamming techniques so they can proliferate, with financial gains being the ultimate goal. "What is 'cool' is to join forces with the spammers and prove that you're capable of making money out of malicious code," states the report. MessageLabs security analyst Natasha Staley says nearly all viruses released this year have been distributed via spam or have been used to penetrate systems used for spamming, and that treating spam and viruses as a single threat is the best defensive measure against the growing convergence of these two practices. "It's actually a pretty incestuous relationship and it's really hard to separate the two anymore," Staley concludes. IDefense malicious code intelligence director Ken Dunham believes the merging of viruses and spam is part of cybercrime's natural evolution, and adds that increasing dependence on network protocols and network shares, among other things, is spurring other kinds of cross-breeding between cybercriminals. He observes that the virus/spam convergence is being accompanied by the growing availability of source code, tools, and knowledge used to create and launch malware or spam. Dunham notes that virus writers use spamming techniques to better mask their identity and the starting point of virus outbreaks.
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  • "Better Times for Techies?"
    CNet (08/19/04); Frauenheim, Ed

    More U.S. technology workers are employed and optimistic about the future, according to new findings from the federal government and industry surveys, but troubling undercurrents still threaten the IT sector. The Labor Department says the unemployment rate for computer and mathematical occupations fell from 5.7 percent to 5 percent for the year ending in June, and that unemployment rates for electrical and electronic engineers are down from 6.7 percent to 3.1 percent for the same time period. Staffing firm Hudson also recently issued a report that said it had 980 IT consultants placed with client firms around the country in July, 19 percent more than in May; the company also compiles information it uses to create a IT market confidence index, which has risen to 112.1 in July, up 11 points from the May level and ahead of the overall U.S. confidence index of 108.4 for July. Still, experts say the improved unemployment numbers belie the fact that the aggregate number of technology workers has dropped in the last year, meaning there are more workers who are changing career fields instead of continuing fruitless job searches. The Hudson report also found that while technology workers were more optimistic about the job market, they were also more dissatisfied than the general workforce with their particular position, with just 67.7 percent claiming general satisfaction with their current job. And though some analysts have downplayed the effect of offshoring on the U.S. IT job market--including Forrester Research analyst John McCarthy, who says his previous offshoring study has been misused by alarmists--the long-term competitiveness of the country's IT sector is still being questioned by groups such as the National Science Board and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). IEEE-USA President John Steadman says many engineers are changing careers not only because of offshoring, but also because of the use of foreign workers inside the United States through the H-1B visa program and the lack of substantial engineering work.
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  • "Techies Praised for E-Vote Work"
    Wired News (08/20/04); Zetter, Kim

    Federal Election Assistance Commission Chairman DeForest Soaries recently told members of the IEEE that the U.S.is indebted to computer scientists for highlighting security problems with e-voting systems and for helping develop new standards for building more secure systems. Over 55 million American voters will vote in the November presidential election on optical-scan machines with paper ballots, while 50 million will use paperless e-voting machines; these systems were certified under standards that critics contend are outdated because they concentrate on hardware and software functionality and resilience rather than on the prevention of election fraud through hacking. Modern security-testing techniques and human usability studies would probably be required in new e-voting system standards that the IEEE is drafting, and that will hopefully be ready for public debate by next summer. Scientists hope Soaries' remarks indicate that a major rift between researchers and election officials has started to close, a rift that opened after reports on e-voting machines' insecurity spurred accusations from election officials that scientists were seeking media attention and impairing the public's confidence in the voting process. The newly created Election Assistance Commission is tasked with administrating voting system certification, and Soaries said that scientists are critical to its operation, as commissioners lack technical expertise. The commission must not only set up new e-voting machine standards, but establish a process for upgrading the standards as technologies advance. Soaries insisted that the commission is not politically biased, although the IEEE voting standards committee has been criticized for admitting voting-machine company employees into its ranks. Stanford computer scientist and paper trail advocate David Dill is glad that e-voting security is finally being considered, but he argues that "the committee has not embraced input from people like me as enthusiastically as they could have."
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    For information regarding ACM e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "Lecture Questions Security Level of Electronic Voting"
    Chicago Daily Herald (08/19/04); Pierce, Gala M.

    Rice University computer science assistant professor Dan Wallach detailed flaws in electronic voting at a Fermilab Colloquium lecture in Batavia, Ill., on Aug. 18. He was confident that it is "technically feasible" for a person or group of people to rig an election using e-voting systems, and do so without leaving any evidence. Wallach argued that direct recording electronic machines cannot accurately catch the intent of the voter. He pointed out that voting machine companies claim their products are reliable and secure, yet they do not permit independent parties to certify their systems, nor do the systems furnish paper ballots so that vote counts can be double-checked. Former Naperville League of Women Voters President Stephanie Hughes expressed her worries during a question-and-answer session at the colloquium. "We feel in this area, the issue is not just with the machines or the individual voter, but what goes on with the tabulation," she noted. "There is so much secrecy about the technicality on that level." Wallach was one of four researchers who published a paper on voting machine supplier Diebold, whose voting system source code was recently disclosed online. The researchers found Diebold's source code susceptible to network threats and only meeting minimal security standards.
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  • "Plankton Power"
    ABCNews.com (08/19/04); Dye, Lee

    Oregon State University oceanographer Clare E. Reimers thinks plankton, a chief staple of whale diets, could serve as a power source for ocean robots, and has teamed up with Naval Research Laboratory scientists to make that vision a reality. Replacing the batteries that current oceanographic sensors and automated vehicles run on is costly and difficult, so researchers are looking for a self-sustaining electricity source. The feasibility of fuel cells that can digest decaying organic matter on the sea floor has already been demonstrated in prototypes. However, Reimers and her collaborators desire a ubiquitous fuel source that mobile robots can capture, and plankton is the best candidate. "If you have a cup full of concentrated plankton, and you let it degrade, that would be equal to about a c-cell battery," notes Reimers. Her team has designed several prototype mobile robots that resemble fish; Reimers comments that they are shaped like a torpedo but with fins, and are able to glide through the water. "The idea is they could scoop up what's in their path and just let it decompose internally," the oceanographer explains. Such machines would be able to function for months and collect data over wide areas, substantially increasing scientists' knowledge of global weather patterns and other phenomena.
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  • "E-Passports to Put New Face on Old Documents"
    CNet (08/18/04); Kanellos, Michael

    International governments are working on biometric-enabled passports that would enhance security, but pose a number of new technical challenges for governments and their technology partners. Belgium is set to be the first country to conduct trials for e-passports, with the British, New Zealand, and Canadian governments also nearing the trial stage. Passports are just the latest document to be incorporate digital technology, but privacy advocates say e-passports will lead to greater government surveillance and more opportunities for personal data to be stolen. E-passport technology will rely primarily on facial scanning biometrics since fingerprinting, although more accurate, would meet with more resistance from a public that associates fingerprints with criminal activity. The United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization came out with specifications in 2002 after several years of deliberation; the new systems will likely involve people standing in a certain spot for quick facial scanning, and the back-end matching of that scan with a digital image stored in the embedded passport chip. The passports themselves will contain a two-chip wireless system that will contain biometric information and an encryption processor. Trial chips from Infineon contain technology that requires wireless readers to be passed within four inches of the chip for greater security and also include encryption that is not perfect, but presents better security than that offered by current passports; the chips also have multiple layers of protection against tampering. E-passport deadlines, originally set for October in the United States, have already been complicated by integration and testing issues: New e-passports need to be very durable, and new systems need to accommodate old paper passports that have been given 10-year lifespans in the United States, for example.
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  • "New Platform Improves Development of Distributed Applications"
    IST Results (08/17/04)

    The European Union-funded COACH project has yielded a complete tool chain for the component-based development of large-scale, distributed applications. The project, now completed, allows developers to focus more on the business logic instead of spending all their time implementing the infrastructure of the distributed system; moreover, COACH will save time and development costs because it simplifies development tasks and allows for the re-use of existing network services. COACH is based on the CORBA Components Model (CCM) for component-based programming: Unlike Enterprise Java Beans or CORBA, CCM supports heterogeneous platforms and provides extra functionality needed for the deployment and management of complex and distributed applications. COACH has contributed new open-source CCM frameworks--OpenCCM in Java and Qedo in C++--and a security architecture called OpenPMF, making the COACH tool chain suitable for a number of industrial, government, and commercial deployments. The COACH project also completed two first-ever prototypes using the CCM methodology, including a network element management system that helps quickly implement services such as complete networks and multiplexers, and an application-specific services management prototype called Next Generation Service Platform PARLAY. "The advantage of these prototypes is that they allow us to take a set of well-defined components, and very easily re-use them for a variety of applications," says project coordinator Gerald Lorang. "We can construct complex services out of other, simpler services already present on a network." Project partners continue to develop the tool chain and CCM development in various areas, including air traffic management and crisis management.
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  • "How to Assemble Building Blocks for Nanotechnology"
    Newswise (08/18/04)

    New nanotechnology materials and devices could be synthesized using a technique devised by University of Michigan (UM) researchers that employs sticky patches to coax nanoparticles to assemble themselves into novel structures. In a paper published in this month's Nano Letters, UM researchers Zhenli Zhang and Sharon Glotzer detail how they determined, through computer simulation, that particles with sticky molecular "patches" on their surfaces could self-assemble into discrete shapes. Zhang and Glotzer explain the challenge lies in using strongly directional patches that draw and repulse specific portions of other particles. The paper illustrates structures predicted through simulation that should be valuable in device manufacturing, one example being sheets of spheres with adjustable configurations that could yield materials with unique mechanical and optical characteristics. Other predicted shapes include rings, chains, and staircase assemblies that could function as fundamental building blocks for more sophisticated structures--tubes, 3D networks, helices, etc.--that serve as frameworks for the fabrication of optical or electronic components, or as passages for liquids or molecules. Self-assembly is critical in nanodevice fabrication, as the devices' minuscule size rules out traditional, factory-style manufacturing.
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  • "Nevada Officials Back E-Vote Systems for Primary, General Election"
    Computerworld (08/17/04); Weiss, Todd R.

    Nevada election officials plan to employ e-voting technology from Sequoia Voting Systems for the state's Sept. 7 primary and the general election in November, although a glitch was identified in an August demonstration for members of the California state legislature. The system consists of an AVC Edge touch-screen machine with a VeriVote printer so that users can confirm their vote with a paper record before it is counted and thus ensure that votes are recorded properly, according to Sequoia's Alfie Charles. The system performed well with an English-language ballot in the demo, but votes failed to print on paper records when a Spanish-language ballot was used. Sequoia blamed the glitch on the ballot's design and inadequate proofreading prior to the demo, which Charles claimed was rushed. Nevertheless, chief of staff for California Sen. Ross Johnson (R-Irvine) Susie Swatt commented that the demo "solidified for us the absolute need for a paper trail." VotersUnite.org founder and executive director Ellen Theisen said her organization is against paperless e-voting systems, and was worried about Sequoia's lack of caution in preparing for the demonstration. She declared that she and other voting activists are attempting to build support for a National Ballot Integrity Project proposal mandating that all federal elections employ manually counted ballots only. Steve George with the Nevada secretary of state's office noted that Nevada will be the first state to use an e-voting system that produces a paper trail.
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  • "New York, Washington Lead Nation in IT Job Creation"
    eWeek (08/16/04); Pallatto, John

    New York's financial services sector and government-related work around Washington, D.C., are powering the IT job market in 2004, according to statistics from the online IT recruiting Web site Dice. The numbers show the waning relative significance of former IT hubs such as Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin, Texas: Dice reports Silicon Valley companies ranks third in demand for technology workers, followed by Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas, while Boston ranks only eighth in terms of numbers of open IT positions. "Washington is the hottest technology market in the nation right now," due to new IT projects in homeland security, says Dice CEO Scot Melland. Overall, the technology job market is improving as well, with a growth rate of 190 percent for job listings seeking Linux experience. Those seeking to enter the software development job market should make sure they have some open source credentials, says Melland. Hands-on job experience is also increasingly important, according to new job requirements. Monster.com reports similar increases in IT job demand, and senior vice president Marcel Legrand says the employment slowdown shown in July government statistics probably does not reflect any weakening in demand on the part of companies. Still, the record-low unemployment rates of only 3 percent in the late 1990s should not be expected to return, as even unemployment rates of just 5 percent are historically low. Legrand disagrees with the Dice assessment that the financial services industry is an area of IT growth, and points to recent months' decrease in IT postings for that market, especially among mortgage banking companies.
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  • "The ITU Searches for Net Relevance"
    America's Network (08/11/04); Clark, Robert

    The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is currently trying to carve a role in Internet governance, which covers such subjects as domain names and e-commerce transactions. A U.N. working party has also been developed to help define what Internet governance is. Domain name governance for the past six years has been overseen by ICANN, but many say ICANN lacks transparency and features few opportunities for appealing decisions. Such complaints might be prompted by a desire to see more than one entity controlling the Internet. Kenneth Cukier at Harvard's National Center for Digital Government suggests an Internet governance approach similar to the system used by the IMF and World Bank, which is used by governments but not controlled by any single one. However, the majority of important monetary decisions are made today by administrators and bankers from Japan, western Europe, and the United States; such a system would not be feasible in the arena of information and communications technology because of the high number of participants at the community level. For instance, China dislikes the United States' authority over the Internet and would like to incorporate its own control into the U.N.'s system. But ITU is not really suited to be a force in Internet governance because it does not possess the appropriate intellectual muscle and fails to understand the true state of both the telecoms and political spheres.
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  • "A Machine With a Mind of Its Own"
    Wired (08/04) Vol. 12, No. 8, P. 100; Morton, Oliver

    University of Wales computer science professor Ross King uses a fluid-handling device that costs roughly $38,000 as the basis for his robotic lab assistant, which he calls a "robot scientist." The machine is little more than a robotic arm that deposits chemical compounds on various kinds of cells to see how they interact, but the real breakthrough technology is a brain consisting of artificial intelligence routines that can analyze experimental results, and then draw and test conclusions based on those results. King was inspired by biologist Douglas Kell's theory that the molecule-by-molecule approach to molecular biology was inadequate, and the real goal was to be able to predict the behavior of entire biological systems; King and Kell focused on enabling computers to comb through massive volumes of data as well as make choices about what new data should be produced. King developed the robot scientist with the help of Kell, Steve Oliver of the University of Manchester, and AI expert Stephen Muggleton at London's Imperial College. The machine's first task was to identify genetic variances in different yeast strains using a digital model of amino acid organization in yeast and a trio of software modules--one designed to make informed guesses about what genes were absent from what strains, one to formulate experiments to test these hypotheses, and one to convert the experiments into hardware instructions. The machine's conclusions about which genes were missing from which strains proved to be accurate 80 percent of the time. The robot follows the textbook example of the scientific method by using the outcomes of initial tests to concoct better-informed guesses, and incorporating the next batch of results into the subsequent round of experiments. The robot's developers are upgrading the machine with new hardware and software, such as an Internet link.
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  • "Prize Draw Uses Heat for Random Numbers"
    New Scientist (08/17/04); Knight, Will

    A monthly prize draw in the United Kingdom will employ a machine from Logica that uses a specialized Intel chipset to generate random numbers. The chip featured in the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment (ERNIE 4) taps thermal noise from transistors to produce random numbers. Thermal noise is generated by random fluctuations in the transistors' voltage and heat, and is harnessed to fabricate binary numbers by controlling the speed of an oscillator. "You have to use a natural source of entropy," explains Logica project manager Ed Mills. "The problem is the difference between a software random number generator and a hardware-based one." ERNIE 4, which was inaugurated on Aug. 17 for the Premium Bond draw in London, can produce 1 million random numbers an hour, whereas the first ERNIE machine could only produce 2,000 numbers an hour by using a gas neon diode as its source of randomness. A representative of draw coordinator National Savings and Investments notes that ERNIE 4 is designed to be hacker- and tamper-proof. Its immunity to viruses and hacking is supported by the fact that it is only linked to the outside world via a plug, he says.
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  • "Combat Robots Wow Crowds"
    New Scientist (08/16/04); Knight, Will

    A Japanese contest in which remote-controlled robots built by enthusiasts and specialists duke it out for the crown of champion is cited by experts as a showcase for technological trends in robotics, such as increased fault tolerance and hierarchical control. Contestants in the Robo-One competition vie for cash prizes ($9,000 for first place and $1,800 for second place) through bouts such as "The Rumble," a clash between eight robots whose fighting techniques include knife-wielding and martial arts maneuvers. Robots that cannot get up within 10 seconds of falling down, or who tumble from the fighting platform or freeze up, are declared losers. Robert Richardson of the University of Manchester in England reports that this year's Robo-One pugilists demonstrate hierarchical control--in other words, they can carry out a sophisticated job on their own just by being told what to do. "They've got many, many joints and you couldn't control them all," he notes. Richardson also points out that a trend has emerged over the last several years to increase fault tolerance in robots and make them more humanoid so that they can withstand damage and get back up after falling over. Although robotics kits are sold in Japan, Robot-One's competitors are built using a lot of specially-tailored software and hardware. This year's winner of the Robo-One contest was Kyushu University's Humanoid Project.
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  • "U.S. Policies Said to Cause Jobs Exodus"
    EE Times (08/16/04); Keenan, Robert

    Columbia University computer science and electrical engineering professor Stephen Unger told the IEEE(IEEE) New Jersey chapter last week that U.S. government policies are encouraging American companies to offshore engineering jobs. He called for a mobilization of the IEEE community to pressure the government into reversing this trend through taxes and tariffs. Unger noted that free trade is fueling the migration of jobs to overseas engineers who earn as little as one-fifth the wages of U.S. engineers. Additionally, he says this practice does not truly constitute free trade. Offshoring is being partially driven by short-term thinking at corporations, and Unger suggested the U.S. government could help change this corporate mind-set by funding more research projects. Unger cast doubt on the theory that employees in other countries are more skilled than U.S. workers in handling certain jobs and engineering tasks. "There isn't anything we cannot make and sell in the U.S.," he argued. The IEEE intends to lobby state lawmakers in Trenton, N.J., to request revisions in state legislation, while the board of IEEE-USA is planning a national educational tour to spur regional chapters into lobbying for government policy changes.
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  • "How They Could Steal the Election This Time"
    Nation (08/04); Dugger, Ronnie

    The vulnerability of electronic voting machines to inside tampering--either by officials of election jurisdictions or corporate programmers--raises the specter of election fraud on a massive scale, so massive that it could cast the outcome of the U.S. presidential election into doubt and threaten democracy. With so much at stake, Stanford professor David Dill warns that potential election saboteurs could include "hackers, candidates, zealots, foreign governments and criminal organizations," while local officials would be powerless to prevent tampering. The four leading e-voting system vendors--Election Systems and Software, Diebold Election Systems, Sequoia Voting Systems, and Hart InterCivic--are fueling the controversy with products that have malfunctioned or demonstrated insecurity, disclosure of sloppy source code, and concerns that major figures within these companies could be using their influence to promote political agendas. E-voting critics are particularly scornful of vendors, who are essentially telling people that their products can be trusted to ensure secure voting in the face of mounting evidence that no such security exists. Congress is split over legislation calling for the addition of voter-verifiable paper trails to e-voting systems to ensure accurate recounts. Objections to such measures range from accessibility limitations for disabled voters to concerns of printer failure to additional costs to falsification or theft of paper ballots. Leading citizen organizations have also been divided on the issue: The League of Women voters, for instance, balked on the need for a paper trail, but reversed its position after former ACM President Barbara Simons led a revolt in the ranks. Public interest groups are rallying for the institution of a paper trail, and about 500,000 signatures have so far been collected in support of printed ballots.
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    For details on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "The New Explorers"
    Information Highways (08/04) Vol. 11, No. 5, P. 10; Roy, Virginia

    A research team at Carleton University's Geomatics and Cartographic Research Center (GCRC) wants to help Canada become the world's standard-bearer for cybercartographic research and design by enabling "cybermaps" to combine sensory information in previously inconceivable ways in order to improve user interaction with computer databases and applications. This initiative, which is part of Carleton's Cybercartography and the New Economy project, proposes to investigate the practical value and application of sound, vision, smell, and touch to maps, and is currently developing two key products: The Cybercartographic Atlas of Antarctica and Canada's Trade with the World. The atlas will analyze declining seal populations, global warming, and other issues meriting international attention. Its development is backed by the Canadian Committee for Antarctic Research and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, which believes the atlas will play a significant role in Canadian political, scientific, and economic interests. Canada's Trade with the World is designed to shed light on Canada's trade relationships with other countries for the benefit of the general public, educators, and decision makers. Among its goals is developing user-centered multimedia interfaces by using the chief components of cybercartographic design, and then scrutinizing the design process and the end results to ascertain the optimal structure and presentation of data and information for facilitating user-database navigation and interaction. The leader of the GCRC project, Dr. D.R. Fraser Taylor, explains that successful cybercartography products must be multisensory, multimedia, interactive, integrated, topical, collaborative, and multidisciplinary.
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