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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 7, Issue 737:  Monday, January 3, 2005

  • "Bush Urged to Ramp Up Cybersecurity in New Year"
    InformationWeek (12/28/04); Greenemeier, Larry

    Some critics are skeptical that the Bush administration's cybersecurity policies will be able to effectively shield the country from increasingly advanced cyberattacks and incursions, and are urging the White House to be more aggressive in its cybersecurity efforts. The Cyber Security Industry Alliance is calling on the administration to ramp up its initiatives to persuade the private sector to adopt cybersecurity standards, and for President Bush to exert his clout to fulfill the promises laid out in his National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace. The strategy advocates the organization of a national cyberspace response system as well as programs to promote cybersecurity awareness and training and reduce cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities. The alliance's executive director, Paul Kurtz, would also like the Homeland Security Department to create a second assistant secretary position for cybersecurity, rather than have both cybersecurity and physical security supervised by just one assistant secretary. Karen Evans with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) disagrees, arguing that any exclusive cybersecurity position in Homeland Security is a management matter that should be handled internally. However, she and Kurtz concur that the safety of the country's data and critical infrastructure can only be ensured through government-industry collaboration, an effort that hinges on the private sector securing its systems as well as on the government applying industry cybersecurity programs to its own systems. Should the U.S. Senate ratify the Council of Europe's Convention on Cybercrime, Kurtz believes cybersecurity will get better. Meanwhile, the OMB recommends that federal agencies lacking satisfactory plans to boost cybersecurity hold off on any new IT projects until the situation has been remedied, Evans notes.
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  • "Jigsaw Puzzles Cause Xmas Arguments But Excite Boffins"
    Science a GoGo (12/24/2004)

    A University of Bath research project focusing on how people collaborate in various activities has uncovered diverse strategies employed in the solving of jigsaw puzzles, which is aiding the design of more effective collaboration software. The researchers studied how two people built a 120-piece jigsaw puzzle, first by themselves and then as part of a larger group; puzzlers categorized as "border obsessives" sift through all the pieces in order to construct the border first, while "opportunistic" puzzlers follow more complex criteria to sort piles and finish the puzzle using a variety of techniques, such as employing a top-to-bottom construction strategy or focusing on a major element of the picture based on the pieces they choose. The researchers noted that opportunists can be more skilled at doing a jigsaw puzzle alone than those with a different approach, but border obsessives can play a dominant role in terms of group decisions and behavior. "A person's jigsaw strategy closely reflects both their personality and level of skill, and although they may not be as extreme as opportunist or border obsessive, they frequently share behavior with one of these two extremes," explains University of Bath researcher Hilary Johnson. "The strategies people employ to construct a jigsaw on their own can alter dramatically depending on their leadership skills and force of personality when they have to work with someone else." The level of competition can rise when collaborating puzzlers use different strategies, thus raising the odds that collaborators might try to one-up each other. Johnson reports that the study has led to the assembly of knowledge "structures" that help the researchers comprehend how people collaborate on shared projects, which can be applied to the development of software that supports more effective collaboration. The project was detailed in ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction.
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  • "How New Document Tech Rates Intent"
    NewsFactor Network (12/29/04); Martin, Mike

    Recent conferences hosted by the ACM and American Association of Artificial Intelligence showcased Xerox researcher the work of Steven Harrington and colleagues in developing software that can quantify a document's intents and aesthetic elements so that the document can be automatically rendered in different media while preserving its meaning and impact. "Embedding aesthetic criteria in documents allows you to change the display media, yet maintain the spirit that the author originally intended," notes Rochester Institute of Technology computing and bioinformatics professor Rhys Price Jones. Harrington says the new Xerox software could check a submitted document against the quality traits and rate it for compliance, as well as indicate what characteristics have not been fulfilled. He says the technology could also automatically arrange submitted components into an agreeable design by applying aesthetic principles. Harrington foresees a "transformation matrix" that would allow one type of document to be analyzed so that its intent could be accurately and automatically displayed in the style of another medium. "There may be other factors influencing the aesthetics of documents, but the rules we have developed are relatively efficient and have yielded good results when applied to the problem of automatic document layout," says Harrington.
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  • "Robots Are Learning, But No 'Terminators' Are About to Appear"
    Investor's Business Daily (12/31/04) P. A4; Isaac, David

    Machine learning--the ability for a machine to expand its intelligence through experience--is making great strides, but a "Terminator" scenario in which the machines take over will not arrive anytime soon, according to researchers. Machine learning is a much more efficient and practical alternative to coding every circumstance a robot might have to contend with via programming. Tom Mitchell with Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Automated Learning and Discovery is using machine learning in an attempt to determine what kinds of neural activity take place when a person is reading, and he believes such research could delve into how the human brain organizes conceptual categories; at the same time, Mitchell cautions that machine brains cannot equal human brains, noting that the human mind's architecture is much more distributed than that of a computer. "We are frequently assured by the popular press that we are on the verge of having household robots that will do all of the housework, baby-sit our children, amuse us with lively conversation, and take care of us in our old age," explains philosopher John Searle, who dismisses such visions as "nonsense." Still, parallels can be drawn between machine learning and human learning: One such case is reinforcement learning, in which a reward impulse encourages proper behavior. Mitchell says that in much the same way the chemical dopamine "rewards" the brain with a pleasurable sensation, so does pressing a green button indicating good behavior reward a robot for proper responses or actions. Applied Perception research scientist Mark Ollis says the biggest challenge for robots is interpreting the things they see, and he is developing a self-navigating robot for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). IRobot, meanwhile, is working with DARPA on swarm, a project involving the development of hardware and software for robot communities; swarm technology would enable robots to communicate and learn from one another as they move, and be an ideal application for pinpointing an object's location.

  • "'TaskTracer' to Revolutionize Computers"
    KVAL 13 (OR) (12/20/04); Woodward, Dawn Marie

    Oregon State University (OSU) computer scientists have devised a new "TaskTracer" system that automatically organizes all the materials required for various projects using artificial intelligence and machine learning so that users can continue tasks effectively even after being sidetracked. "Our whole idea is to create a list of tasks you are working on at any one time, organize everything around those tasks and let you reclaim your desktop computer," notes OSU computer science professor and TaskTracer co-developer Jon Herlocker. TaskTracer enables the computer to constantly monitor the user's jobs, taking note of spreadsheets, emails, Web pages, folders, and other relevant materials, as well as identifying and furnishing access to materials employed in previous jobs that might be applicable to the task at hand. TaskTracer co-developer Tom Dietterich says the current system is chiefly compatible with PCs, but envisions a system that could be integrated with a phone and caller ID in the future. He says the system also features speech recognition software so that the outgoing side of phone conversations can be recorded and recovered, although the incoming side is not recorded due to legal and privacy issues. Such a system will be valuable to people in professions where multitasking is important, and OSU researchers believe TaskTracer will help boost productivity, lower stress levels, and guarantee that less information is lost as jobs continuously shift. "Ultimately, the computer itself will learn your operational approaches and you'll need to tell it less and less," Herlocker predicts. The researchers say TaskTracer will come with privacy interfaces and data encryption tools in order to shield personal information.
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  • "A New Script for Searching Texts Written by Hand"
    New York Times (12/30/04) P. E8; Austen, Ian

    Handwritten documents are the last frontier for digitization, and University of Massachusetts research assistant professor R. Manmatha is leading a team that aims to make handwritten archives accessible through search. Though Google Scholar will prove a huge benefit to scientists who need to quickly reference previous research, historians are left to read through handwritten documents themselves. Manmatha treats handwritten text as images, but instead of the handwriting systems in use by the United States Postal Service and U.S. Census Bureau, Manmatha has to deal with a much broader context. Letter addresses and census forms are relatively easy to automatically decipher because there is a limited set of inputs and a great number of human readers ready to assist, but to make handwritten documents available for Web search requires a much more sophisticated system, and Manmatha's group is starting with technology used to search digital photos. The team also noted that humans read words in context and often times as blocks of words, and treating handwritten text similarly could increase accuracy. The team is testing its software on roughly 1,000 pages of personal correspondence from George Washington, with images derived from microfilm; Washington used several secretaries and also wrote letters himself, and Manmatha is training the software according to each writer's style of handwriting, assisting the program by standardizing font size and eliminating slant. The program is currently about 65 percent accurate and needs several enhancements before it can be applied to all 140,000 pages of Washington's correspondence. The method of retraining needs to be streamlined and techniques applied to compensate for different quill pens and inconsistent ink fading. Even if the software is not completely accurate, Manmatha says it will still enable researchers to quickly identify themes in collections of handwritten papers, while within a decade, it may be possible to search manuscripts as easily as any other Web content.
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  • "Interview With Richard Thieme"
    Linux Journal (12/27/04); Bauer, Mick

    "Islands in the Clickstream" author and business consultant Richard Thieme explains in an interview that there is no way to tell for sure if free and open-source software will drive the concept of intellectual property into obsolescence, in view of people's tendency to exaggerate the impact of new technologies in the short term. He says, "many eyes make for many exploits as well as few bugs or more secure code, some people have a disproportionate influence on decisions, and there is no customer orientation because programmers work on what they like without regard to customer input." Still, Thieme notes that Linux is starting to resemble commercial software in many aspects as it moves into the commercial arena. He believes hackers are a misunderstood community, given people's long history of resisting unconventional thinking. Thieme observes that massive multiplayer global game environments exert an acute influence on how people think about and compose responses to everything, but says the game-developing community is not reaching its full potential; he points out, for instance, that seniors comprise the fastest growing online segment, while media coverage is chiefly focused on young males who prefer shoot-em-ups and similar games. Thieme believes interactive fiction games will outlast the more violent games in the long run. The author regards the Department of Homeland Security as window dressing, but acknowledges that window dressing has its uses, especially when perception management is so vital; he says there are both good and bad points to the current state of homeland security, including significant and successful efforts to prevent or disrupt attacks and persistent vulnerability. In describing America's prospects for civil liberties, Thieme warns that "The convergence of enabling technologies of intrusion, interception, and panoptic reach, combined with a sense of urgency about doing counter-terror and a clear mandate from the White House to do everything possible and seek forgiveness afterward rather than permission in advance has created a dire but often invisible set of threatening conditions."
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  • "Past Predictions About Technology Turning Into Reality"
    Valley Morning Star (Texas) (12/31/04); Del Valle, Fernando; Saldana, Albert

    U.S. News & World Report's 1973 book, "1994: The World of Tomorrow," has been remarkably prescient in terms of the technology predictions it made, although Edna Claus of Texas State Technical College's Computer Science Technology program notes that many of the book's forecasts did not come to pass until after 1994. She says the book's prediction of wireless miniaturized phones worn on the wrist is in keeping with watch-like cell phones currently sold in Japan, while "smart card" technology fulfills the book's anticipation of "electronically readable credit cards that make possible automatic credit verification, granting of credit or transfer of funds from a buyer's to a vender's account." Other technologies accurately predicted by the book include fiber-optic cable, and electronic libraries or databanks used for the storage and retrieval of printed data. Claus says the latter technology has been enabled by the Internet and search engines. The Internet has also eased online transactions and banking, another achievement projected by the book. "There have been phenomenal changes in technology and it's not going to stop," proclaims Claus. Valley Baptist Family Practice Residency Program director Dr. Bruce Leibert notes that the book's health technology predictions have also been very close, although forecasts such as "routine lung and liver transplants" have yet to pan out.
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  • "Mills Teacher Computes Way to Advance Women"
    Contra Costa Times (CA) (01/03/05); Guynn, Jessica

    Mills College computer science professor Ellen Spertus encourages other women to pursue computer science careers. The professor says she was genetically predisposed tomath and science, and her accomplishments include writing her first computer program at the age of six. Spertus first noticed the barriers faced by scientifically minded women as a student at MIT; she joined Anita Borg's Systers online community for women in computer science to learn more; she has since strived for digital equality between the sexes. She elected to teach at Mills, a liberal arts college, for the opportunity to inspire other women to excel in computer science. Spertus' dedication and the number of students her classes attract (they often face a surplus of subscribers) is a remarkable achievement, considering that she is one of only four full-time computer scientists on the college faculty. Spertus spent her sabbatical last year at Google, where at least one female engineer interviews prospective recruits. She also invited students to visit the Google campus in order to "show them that technology at Google is not a scary thing and that it takes all kinds of great people to make a great product," notes Google engineer Tom Nielsen. Spertus participates in Mills' two-year graduate program for liberal arts students who wish to learn how computers can be applied to other fields; one student enrolled in the course assessed handheld technology to support microfinance in an African country, while another constructed software that helps people control their brain waves.
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  • "Why the Web Is Often Woeful"
    BBC News (12/29/04); Thompson, Bill

    Computer users will never have the capabilities they want unless they are willing to give up existing infrastructure and learn new approaches, writes Bill Thompson. No matter how much better Google is than other search engines, it is still incapable of discerning between the English word "die" and "die" in German, which means "the;" that is because few Web sites take the time to add necessary metadata tags, leaving search engines without any way of understanding what they are searching for, besides link counts and text matches. And while some sites such as the Flickr photo sharing service require users to add metadata such as date, title, and category, enforcing such metadata tagging on the entire Web is a daunting prospect. Even when Semantic Web standardization is complete, tens of millions of existing sites are unlikely to be updated, notes Thompson. Other second-best technologies still in use include IPv4 and the Qwerty keyboard, which was originally designed to prevent typewriter hammers from colliding with each other. Microsoft and Apple products must be backwards compatible or those companies risk massive outcry from their customers. In the United Kingdom, worries about people who do not yet own digital TVs have impeded the switchover from an analog to digital broadcast. The threshold for changing to better technology is very high in many cases, but when Google launched in 1998, many Web users quickly switched from other search sites because it did not even require installing a program. The Firefox browser has quickly gained more than 12 million new adherents, but those users represent only 1.5 percent of all Web users.
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  • "IT Professionals Are an Integral Part of the National Security Strategy"
    TechRepublic (12/27/04); Kaelin, Mark

    In his book, "Implementing Homeland Security for Enterprise IT," Michael Erbschloe examines the key role IT professionals play in cybersecurity, contending that governments are not equipped to manage an effective cybersecurity strategy by themselves. "The main reason I wrote the book was to extract the core information that IT pros need to examine their role in homeland security and how homeland security efforts may impact their organization," Erbschloe says in an interview with TechRepublic. He says IT pros are highly aware of cybersecurity issues, yet most do not make a connection between their cybersecurity initiatives and homeland security, unless they work in environments considered to be essential industries; this low awareness level is the reason why Erbschloe does not perceive any resistance among IT pros to their homeland security role. His book presents survey results indicating that many companies have deployed disaster recovery and security plans, but have not made a major effort to train staff or end users on how to effect those plans, a gap Erbschloe attributes to a lack of seriousness among enterprises that is only countered when incidents take place. Erbschloe is concerned that the routine presence of minor cybersecurity events endemic to doing business online is fostering a complacent attitude toward security among enterprises and raising the network's susceptibility to a major assault, while a disparity between corporate managers or federal officials' understanding of the world's interconnectedness and that of IT security pros is leading to a cybersecurity funding shortage. End users are often a source of consternation for IT security pros, in that their behavior can undo an organization's well-planned security measures. Erbschloe says the solution to this is a mix of end user education/training and technology. Erbschloe concludes, "I have little faith in the near-term evolution of technology. The cyber-safe computer is not going to come anytime soon."
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  • "High-Tech Gifts Elevate Post-Holiday Stress"
    Baltimore Sun (12/29/04) P. 1A; Tucker, Abigail

    Techno rage--the fury people feel toward high-tech equipment because of the frustration they experience in its assembly, setup, and operation--has been especially pronounced this Christmas, where high-tech toys and appliances were frequently given as gifts. Towson University computer science professor Jonathan Lazar thinks high-tech toys can have a negative impact on the quality of life by raising people's blood pressure and stress levels, and darkening their mood. University of Maryland psychology professor Kent Norman says the high-tech holiday season shines a light on people's deep-seated veneration of, and trepidation toward, machines, noting that the computer is regarded as "almost this hallowed object." He explains that the reverence people display toward machines bottles up gradual irritations that could boil over into full-blown rage. In a continuing survey Norman devised, 80 percent of respondents admitted to subjecting a machine to verbal abuse at least once, while 20 percent confessed to dropping a computer on purpose. Factors that could be contributing to techno rage include a perhaps culturally-induced anxiety toward instruction manuals, and the anger people feel when they compare their latest gadget to older equipment, driving them to spend additional time, money, and sweat to upgrade their households. One solution to techno rage Norman advocates is parsing out the setup, learning, and operation processes for new equipment among family members. He and his graduate students have also filmed videos of equipment being demolished in creative ways to offer people an outlet for their techno rage without damaging their own machinery.
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  • "Smart Traffic System on Slow Road in Japan Despite Congestion"
    Associated Press (01/03/05); Kageyama, Yuri

    Despite a wealth of state-of-the-art car navigation technology in Japan, only about 1 million out of 70 million vehicles on Japanese roads employ it, which is all the more discouraging when taking the country's high traffic levels into account. Japan leads the world in telematics because both the government and auto manufacturers are lobbying for the technology, while Japan's National Institute of Information and Communications Technology has tested a wireless communications system that allows cars to share information about a traffic accident or an approaching ambulance. Telematics can also have pedestrian applications, one being a wearable gadget that picks up infrared signals to alert blind users whether a light is flashing red or green at upcoming intersections. Most commonly sold navigation systems in Japan provide motorists with only a sliver of the traffic data available, while the more sophisticated systems come with a high price tag. Furthermore, such systems are not highly promoted in the country. Another problem is the nonprofit oversight organization for Japan's highways and transportation systems, which the current administration is trying to privatize in order to repair an image tarnished by long-standing accusations of corruption and profligacy. The sluggish adoption of smart transportation is not restricted to Japan, given the complexity of integrating the many components involved. "To have the whole system, everybody has to agree on how to do it, what kind of technology you're going to use, what kind of standards you're going to use, and who's going to pay for it," explains Intelligent Transportation Society of America director Gabriel Sanchez.
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  • "A Video 'Curse' Snares Would-Be TV Pioneers"
    Reuters (12/27/04); Sorid, Daniel

    The movement to replace cathode-ray tube TVs and expensive plasma displays with liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) has left many bodies in its wake, including those of Philips, Hewlett-Packard, and Intel. But the technology continues to attract investors because of its promise to deliver large, rich TV displays inexpensively--a major draw for chipmakers, since improvements with LCoS displays keep pace with the advancement of their silicon components. An LCoS display is designed to reflect light off one or more microchips comprised of a liquid crystal layer and a transistor layer, projecting an image onto the front of the display. HP's effort to market LCoS did not pan out because the company failed to achieve the price and performance it needed to successfully sell the technology in bulk, according to Insight Media analyst Chris Chinnock. Intel's highly publicized LCoS project was delayed and then terminated altogether: The company claims the technology's economic payoff was distorted, but experts contend that Intel's design was impractically complex. Prior to the Intel project's cancellation, Philips withdrew from its own LCoS initiative, arguing that it lacked the scope to rapidly commercialize mature products. These failures do not necessarily mean LCoS is a dead end, Chinnock argues; they were simply the wrong approaches to take. MicroDisplay CEO Sandeep Gupta notes that developing a good LCoS product requires engineers skilled in eight technological disciplines, including optical expertise, software, and analog chip design.
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  • "An Electron Runs Through It"
    Science News (12/25/04) Vol. 166, No. 26, P. 394; Weiss, Peter

    Thanks to technology that can image the flow of electrons beneath the surface of microchips, physicists have discovered unexpected and visually stunning patterns, along with deeper insights into electron behavior that could help speed up electronics and lead to quantum computing. Electron-flow visualizations supported Nobel prize-winning breakthroughs and the demolition of long accepted precepts about uniform electron flows, and these visualizations could become even more important as transistors shrink dramatically over the next few decades. Cambridge University's Charles Smith predicts that electron behaviors currently exhibited in larger devices at lower temperatures will ultimately crop up in smaller devices at higher temperatures, while Stanford University's Mark Topinka thinks such behaviors could either be advantageous or deleterious. Experiments that study the flow of electrons in two-dimensional electron gases at low temperatures have yielded both practical and artistic benefits: An example of the former is new types of lasers stemming from investigations in the corralling of electrons in quantum dots, while an example of the latter is aesthetically pleasing prints of electron flow patterns developed by Harvard researchers using an atomic-force microscope (ATF). The surprising patterns were originally uncovered by Harvard researchers employing the ATF-imaging-process; they consulted with physicist Eric Heller, who determined that the non-uniform flows were caused by ions that the researchers incorporated a short distance above the gas. The Harvard scientists also perceived tiny ripples that seemed to be superimposed on the electron flow branches, resulting from constructive and destructive interference with waves bouncing back to the channel. The researchers have harnessed this phenomenon to lay the groundwork for measuring the varying energies and densities of electrons throughout the gas, which could be important to high electron-mobility transistor manufacturers. Further research is focusing on visualizing quantum dots' intrinsic quantum-wave configurations, a breakthrough that could be applied to the utilization of those electrons as basic elements of quantum computers.
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  • "Coding a Bridge Across the Data Divide"
    Scientist (12/20/04) Vol. 18, No. 24, P. 25; MacNeil, Jane Salodof

    Data integration rather than data collection represents the biggest challenge facing the bioinformatics sector, according to Russ Altman, co-chair of a recent National Academy of Sciences colloquium on bioinformatics frontiers. The problem stems from vast databases that are for the most part incapable of exchanging data with related resources, and diverse interfaces and output formats of bioinformatics tools that can potentially restrict users' ability to insert the data within other programs. An expanding stable of bioinformatics services are attempting to rectify these difficulties, and the overarching goal for some developers is a "semantic Web" that enables researchers to search multiple databases for key concepts and perform automated, self-updating analyses. The various integration initiatives have yielded an infrastructure that echoes Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory researcher Lincoln Stein's proposed "knuckles and nodes" data integration scheme, whereby nodes are focused databases and knuckles single-task services allowing researchers to connect data between nodes. Of the two front-running models, Stein says one is composed of large, broad, and shallow database services that function as intermediaries between smaller databases, while the other is a deeper model of less scope. Altman recommends that end users at the laboratory bench should not wait for major data integration projects to trickle down to their level; they should enroll their colleagues and graduate students in bioinformatics courses, or recruit people skilled in searching databases to find the required information. The Stanford Genome Technology Center's Richard Hyman is among a large group of researchers worried that standardized data access could encourage data poaching before full analysis and publication. Les Grivell, head of the European Molecular Biology Organization's E-BioSci data network, recommends that researchers maintain data trails throughout their work.
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  • "The Human Touch Keeps the Elderly and Disabled Technology-Connected"
    EDN Magazine (12/17/04) Vol. 49, No. 20, P. 47; Dipert, Brian

    There are various technological solutions designed to keep housebound people connected to friends, family, physicians, and caregivers, although each comes with its own set of pluses and minuses. A person's needs should be of paramount consideration when choosing such solutions, which ideally combine minimal-to-zero-maintenance with intuitive usability. Broadband Internet access is one possibility, although consideration of upstream-bandwidth capability must be at least equal to that of downstream bandwidth in a purchase decision. Networking peripheral devices to high-speed Internet and each other can be done several ways, although each has drawbacks: Wireless networks, for instance, are easy to install but their reliability can be affected by the presence of interfering materials or broadcast sources. Computers are becoming more and more user friendly, but purchasers must choose a level of sophistication that is not excessive, given the user's needs; one recommended system boasts a small number of functions that are more dedicated. Voice recognition may seem well-suited for physically impaired individuals, but the technology leaves a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy. Videoconferencing can facilitate virtual face-to-face interaction, although the technology's high upstream-bandwidth requirements can be a hindrance, and some solutions have bewildering authorization processes. Telephony options for the housebound include cordless phones, headsets for people whose arms get tired from holding a handset, and frequently-called number preprogramming for those with limited dialing ability. IP telephony is attractive from a fiscal point of view, but is problematic as far as reliability and emergency-response needs are concerned.
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  • "Are Your Systems on the Edge of Disaster?"
    CIO Insight (12/04) Vol. 1, No. 47, P. 19; Parkinson, John

    Capgemini chief technologist for the Americas John Parkinson warns that pushing the envelope of business automation increases the risk of a calamitous system crash. He has run failure-mode analysis simulations of "edge" events--cases in which a system is stretched to the limits of its operational parameters so that any disturbance causes a catastrophic failure, unless countered immediately. Nearly every event model demonstrates that a system crashes when the event propagation speed surpasses the reaction time, while increasingly complex systems exacerbate the situation. Parkinson explains that "emergent" behaviors manifest themselves once a system reaches a certain level of complexity and interconnection, and though it is unlikely that most current "engineered" systems have the complexity to support emergent behaviors, the Internet, the cellular telephone system infrastructure, and the Public Switched Telephone Network probably do. "As the business systems we build become more and more interconnected with each other over these already interconnected platforms, we ought to be asking: 'Is this safe?' 'What might go wrong?' 'What can I do about it?'" Parkinson argues. In addition, the increasing centralization of "real" data, which is also enfolded in layers of abstraction, can be problematic if ties to that database are severed through lost user interfaces. To avoid disastrous crashes caused by minor problems, Parkinson recommends a deeper investigation of possible failure modes and the system's operational thresholds; outlining plans for some appropriate responses; more penetrating analysis of managing "graceful" degradation modes for the affected systems; the incorporation of circuit breakers to restrict a disaster's impact; and continuous vigilance based on the likelihood that disasters will still occur even with the above safeguards in place.
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  • "Managing Care Through Air"
    IEEE Spectrum (12/04) Vol. 41, No. 12, P. 26; Ross, Philip E.

    The swelling elderly population threatens to make medical care costs prohibitive, unless a way is found to keep labor expenses to a minimum. Remote monitoring technologies such as wireless sensor networks could do this while allowing the aged to live more independently rather than face institutionalization. Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and other companies have partnered with the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST) to enable wireless remote monitoring. CAST Chairman Eric Dishman believes the core technology of this effort will be unobtrusive, battery-powered, self-organizing "mote" sensor networks that share data about the patient's physical and behavioral health with each other and with computers that physicians, support groups, and others can access to help manage the patient's care. Behavioral monitoring via wireless networks could help spot the onset of neurological diseases much earlier, as well as help patients take their prescribed medication properly. Sensors and monitors worn on or implanted within the body can also enhance elderly care: One example is CardioNet's mobile cardiac outpatient telemetry system, in which a wearable electrocardiogram wirelessly transmits heart data to a personal data assistant equipped with software that automatically alerts a constantly manned monitoring center when a potentially serious aberration is recorded. Biotronik, meanwhile, makes implanted cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs) with software that delivers an electric jolt to the heart when problems are detected; the ICDs are also programmed to automatically transmit cardiac information to a special cell phone, which emails the data to a monitoring center. Before remote health care monitoring can be deployed, its practicality must be proven to the health care community and its cost-effectiveness must be confirmed for insurers and governments.
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