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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 Thunderstone or ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 7, Issue 779: Friday, April 15, 2005

  • "Keeping Watch Now Goes Both Ways"
    Seattle Times (04/14/05); Andrews, Paul

    Experts at ACM's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference in Seattle this week discussed the merits of "sousveillance," University of Toronto professor Steve Mann's concept of individual citizens recording their activities on video to counter surveillance by governments, corporations, and other institutions. Conference panelists noted that sousveillance records could, for instance, be used as evidence in cases where police or other authorities abuse citizens. Mann said a wireless camera and link could allow images of wrongdoing to be sent over the Internet in real time, which would protect the record even if the user's equipment was confiscated or destroyed. David Brin, author of "The Surveillance Society," reasoned that sousveillance and similar strategies could ultimately cultivate "an increase in the professionalism and effectiveness" of law enforcement. However, some panelists pointed out that sousveillance could engender distrust. For example, two people who are both recording may be discouraged from even speaking to each other informally. Some panelists suggested that a balance could be struck between sousveillance and surveillance, in which different constituencies collaborate to facilitate both security and accountability. Privacy International director Simon Davies thought that cooperation between citizens and law enforcement would be much more effective at upholding freedom than opposing surveillance.
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  • "Fate of $25M E-Voting System in Miami-Dade Dangling"
    Computerworld (04/14/05); Songini, Marc L.

    Florida's Miami-Dade County spent $25 million to buy and install 7,200 iVotronic touch-screen voting machines from Election Systems & Software, but persistent glitches that led to vote miscounts in local elections--including one in March in which hundreds of votes went uncounted--are forcing election officials to consider scrapping the iVotronic systems and replacing them with optical scanning equipment. "We need to do something where we can restore the confidence of the people in the electoral process--and that boils down to the equipment," says Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez. The mayor endorses the decision to instruct Lester Sola--who took over as Supervisor of Elections after his predecessor resigned amid the controversy of the March miscount--to rigorously review the voting processes, as well as determine whether the replacement of the touch-screen equipment with optical scanning gear is desirable and feasible. Sola says the undervoting was the result of human coding errors, and that the iVotronic systems are functioning properly. However, optical technology's advantages include a lower price tag and the automatic creation of a printed vote record. Optical scanning implementation costs were earlier pegged at $3 million to $10 million, but Sola says that would probably be less expensive than buying a $1,300 printer for each iVotronic machine. The punch-card-based system the iVotronic equipment was supposed to replace cost between $1 million and $2 million per election, but transporting the touch-screen systems between voting precincts helped raise that figure to $6.6 million in the November 2004 election.
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    For information regarding ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "Linux Distribution Tames Chaos"
    Wired News (04/15/05); Strahan, Alison

    An Australian programmer's Linux distribution links networked computers to perform password cracks or other complex mathematical calculations. The Chaos Linux distribution takes up just 6 MB, and can be booted on a PC either via the network or from a CD-ROM so that the networked machine's data and operating system are left alone. Chaos was originally created for security purposes, such as testing access controls. Ian Latter came up with the idea for Chaos when working as security officer for Macquarie University in Sydney, where he says the large infrastructure and available data was vulnerable to attack because of a general lack of awareness on the part of the administration; Latter saw an opportunity to harness the latent processing power of computer lab machines, and considered linking individual PC firewalls so that they reported information that could be used to head off a potential attack. Eventually, the group created Chaos for testing encryption systems at the university and released the operating system in early 2004 as a Linux distribution built on openMosix technology, which enables Linux computers to operate in a clustered environment. Latter says universities and research facilities downloaded Chaos, as well as government, military, and intelligence agencies, and security consulting firm Pure Hacking, where Latter now works, uses Chaos to perform network penetration and password-cracking. Using approximately 30 networked machines, the program can complete in one day tasks that would take an accomplished hacker one month, says Latter. Chaos' security is bolstered by using packet filters so that no open ports are available to untrusted parties and by using IPsec to encrypt transmitted data.
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  • "Putting Teeth Into U.S. Cybercrime Policy"
    CNet (04/14/05); Hines, Matt

    Cyber Security Industry Alliance (CSIA) executive director Paul Kurtz, a former member of the President's Critical Infrastructure Protection Board, explains in an interview that the CSIA's purpose is to give the federal government all the relevant information it needs when considering new cybersecurity legislation. He says a key goal of his organization "is to look across the scope from the simple awareness of cybersecurity as a safety issue to building up education in cybersecurity, to looking at the policy implications of what the executive and legislative branches are considering, to looking at criminal behavior and increasing penalties." Kurtz says the CSIA is pushing for Senate ratification of Europe's Convention on Cybercrime, which would help set up an international architecture for investigating and prosecuting cybercriminals. He says cyberfraud practices such as phishing could have a bearing on homeland security, when one weighs the possibility of a convergence between for-profit hacking, organized crime, and terrorism. The point where these various elements intersect must be established, and such considerations could drum up federal support for more stringent cybercrime policies. Kurtz says the CSIA is partnered with the Center for Democracy and Policy's working group to study spyware and adware in an effort to find a balance between consumer protection and the rights of companies that distribute spyware. "I think there is a need to look at this stuff in a comprehensive context," he remarks. Kurtz also notes that prior to the CSIA's formation, there was no organization fully devoted to cybersecurity policy issues.
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  • "Tricks on the Eyes"
    California Aggie (04/13/05); Xie, Fei

    Researchers led by professor Oliver Staadt of the UC Davis Institute for Data Analysis and Visualization are developing a virtual-reality wall that can support 3D imagery using a combination of rear-screen digital projectors, special eyewear, and algorithms. The technology will be used to simulate how large Navy ships can physically and psychologically affect the marine animals they come into contact with. Staadt thinks the wall will soon permit scientists to examine large, realistic anatomical models of cetacean organisms, and also interact remotely with project partners. The fabric-tile display wall is comprised of six linked screens with two projectors each, while users wear shuttered glasses that produce a 3D effect via stereoscopy imaging. Two overlapping images are projected onto the wall, and the liquid crystal shutters in the glasses open and close at the same rate that the corresponding image is blinking, which is faster than human detection; this allows the viewer to perceive an undisrupted 3D image. The glasses have sensors that interact with ultrasound microphones positioned around the display to pinpoint the user's location and adjust the image's angle, thus simulating the effect of walking around the image. The orientation and tilt of the glasses on the user are also measured with inertia-tracking sensors. A tabletop setup was the template for the virtual-reality wall screen, whose larger size and complexity made the technical aspects more challenging: "Since all applications on each screen have to run on a cluster, one of the biggest difficulties was to write the software that will make sure everything is synchronized," notes Staadt.
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  • "Prying Eyes Are Everywhere"
    USA Today (04/14/05) P. 1D; Kornblum, Janet

    The commercial availability of high-tech spying tools such as hidden cameras, global positioning system devices, and software that monitors computer activity is allowing average citizens to conduct clandestine surveillance on their spouses, children, friends, and neighbors. And the wide expansion of free, easy-to-find personal information online makes background checking a simple matter as well. Howard Rheingold, author of "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution," says these trends have put Orwellian technology into the hands of "your nosy neighbor, your ex-spouse, and people who want to spam you." Privacy Activism's Deborah Pierce, a speaker at this week's 15th annual Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conference, believes citizen snooping is widespread, as evidenced by increasing numbers of legal cases. Paul Saffo of the Institute of the Future warns that spying citizens run the risk of discovering knowledge they would come to regret knowing, and being found out by the people they are monitoring. One of the most common forms of citizen sleuthing is "soft surveillance," in which a curious person enters someone's name on a search engine. Many people use surveillance technologies such as spy software and hidden cameras to keep track of their children's whereabouts or activities, but UCLA psychology professor Gerald Goodman says excessive monitoring can create a feedback loop of distrust between parents and kids. There may be some value in monitoring for kids with serious behavioral problems, but experts recommend the judicious selection and use of tracking technologies.
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    For more information about the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, visit http://www.cfp2005.org/.

  • "New Chips Pose a Challenge to Software Makers"
    Wall Street Journal (04/14/05) P. B3; Clark, Don; Guth, Robert A.

    Forthcoming multicore chips from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Intel will force software companies to repurpose their software to take full advantage of the new semiconductors. Chip manufacturers are moving away from ramping up clock speed to boost processor performance, as such an approach creates power consumption problems when combined with the increasing numbers of transistors placed on chips to keep pace with Moore's Law. AMD expects programmers to adopt dual-core chips as a standard tool and ratchet up desktop multiprocessing. "This is one of the biggest if-you-build-it-they-will-come opportunities that we've seen in a very long time," notes AMD CTO Fred Weber, although "threads," or sets of software instructions that can be carried out concurrently, are needed if companies are to make the most of this opportunity. Thread-compatible operating systems can employ dual-core chips to improve the management of multiple programs running in parallel. Threads are also necessary if application programs are to run faster through the use of multiple processors. Intel plans to advertise the immediate benefits of dual-core chips to users, while enticing programmers to build new applications. Intel has also decided to let users tweak settings to increase the clock speed of one new dual-core chip, which has kindled interest from computer game developers.

  • "Eclipse Project Takes on Parallel Computing"
    Application Development Trends (04/13/05); Waters, John K.

    Greg Watson, a scientist with Los Alamos National Laboratory's Advanced Computing Lab, believes it is high time that parallel computing development tools caught up with computing industry development tools, and he has started an Eclipse technology project to help realize this vision. The Parallel Tools Platform Project announced this week seeks to build improved open-source software tools for parallel computers through collaboration with an international community of companies and institutions. Los Alamos and Watson will supervise the project, which will focus on the development of a single, portable open-source platform that will enable participants' products to run across a broad spectrum of parallel computing platforms. Watson says, "Eclipse provides the ideal extensible platform to involve the open-source community, as well as industry, universities, and other laboratories." Providing support for multiple parallel architectures, delivering an integrated parallel debugger, and devising the infrastructure to aid the integration of other parallel tools are goals of Los Alamos personnel and their outside partners. The addition of FORTRAN language support to the Eclipse IDE is another project goal, since the language is used extensively in the scientific computing community, notes Watson. Watson expects the Parallel Tools Platform Project to yield its first offerings by the end of September, assuming its international collaborators contribute adequately.
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  • "Pulling the Plug on Science?"
    Christian Science Monitor (04/14/05) P. 14; Spotts, Peter N.

    Institutional researchers in the United States worry that cutbacks in funding for basic research could seriously harm the nation's international competitiveness, especially since other regions are quickly building up their research capacity. NASA is pulling support from several projects in favor of President Bush's vision for space exploration, including the Voyager spacecraft which are now reaching the edge of the solar system and have enough power to last for another 15 years; the Department of Energy's Office of Science could possibly have to stop high-energy physics experiments altogether given current funding cuts, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has admitted to diverting funds from basic research to goal-oriented work with faster payoff. Curiosity-driven, basic research is the driver behind future innovation and economic growth, and is important for educating new generations of scientists. Moreover, the government risks losing top-notch researchers who can easily find work elsewhere, warns National Center for Atmospheric Research director Tim Killeen. Falling behind in cutting-edge research could have serious economic consequences, such as in biotechnology, where a six-month lag in research could mean foreign firms secure patents first. Overall, government nondefense research funding nearly doubled from 1976 to 2004, from more than $30 billion to about $55 billion, factoring in inflation, but much of that money went toward the National Institutes of Health and was punctuated by periods of budget cuts. The federal budget is also currently facing serious shortfalls and could reach a cumulative deficit of $1.3 trillion between 2005 and 2015. Meanwhile, Western Europe eclipsed the United States in engineering papers in 2001, while Asian universities have boosted graduate programs.
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  • "Faster Handoff Between Wi-Fi Networks Promises Near-Seamless 802.11 Roaming"
    UCSD News (04/13/05); Ramsey, Doug

    University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers have created software that dramatically speeds up connection handoffs between Wi-Fi access points so that the transition is imperceptible to users. The SyncScan software does not require any hardware upgrades or changes to the 802.11 standard, and improves the time it takes to switch from one access point to another by a factor of 100, says UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering professor Stefan Savage, who co-developed the software with graduate student Ishwar Ramani. Currently, Wi-Fi users have to stay within close range of an access point in order to receive uninterrupted connections. Without SyncScan, Wi-Fi devices hang onto the original connection until the signal weakens significantly and packets start to drop, then start a new search for stronger signals; the process can take up to a second, during which time data packets may be lost and streaming media severely disrupted, especially Voice over Wi-Fi. SyncScan checks available signals and their strength every 500 milliseconds so that the handoff is much smoother and faster. The UCSD researchers tested SyncScan on campus using the Skype VoIP application and found it took about five milliseconds to achieve handoff with SyncScan, compared to an average 450-millisecond handoff time without the software; in addition, handoffs with SyncScan experienced no lost packets. The application is important because of the expected fast growth of Voice over Wi-Fi devices; Infonetics Research estimates that sales of handsets incorporating both Voice over Wi-Fi and cellular technology could total $3 billion by 2009.
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  • "China, India Can Lead Global IT, Says Chinese Premier"
    IDG News Service (04/12/05); Ribeiro, John

    Chinese political leaders continue to tout the growth opportunities for the IT industries of China and India, if the two markets work more closely together. Wen Jiabao, the premier of China, renewed the theme earlier in the month during his four-day official trip to India, which included a stop at the country's technology center in Bangalore. Chinese leaders are ready to open up their market more widely to Indian IT companies if they are willing to invest more in China, tap global markets through its market, and hire local labor. Tata Consultancy Services, Wipro, and Infosys Technologies are among the Indian software and services companies that have software development operations in China, and Chinese companies are starting to establish a presence in India, but border issues and political differences have kept the markets from exhibiting more cooperation years ago. Also, India saw China as a threat to the software and services markets it has developed. "We have to stop looking at China as only competition and instead look at China as a big market for us," says Subramanian Ramadorai, CEO and managing director of Tata. Jiabao believes China and India can become the global leader in IT.
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  • "Surveillance Works Both Ways"
    Wired News (04/14/05); Zetter, Kim

    University of Toronto professor Steve Mann put his concept of "equiveillance through sousveillance" in action when he led about 24 attendees of ACM's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) conference in Seattle to a local shopping mall to film or take pictures of surveillance cameras and gauge the reactions of shoppers, store managers, and security personnel. The principle behind equiveillance through sousveillance is the establishment of surveillance parity between the monitors and the monitored. Mann and his party filmed smoked-glass ceiling domes in stores that may or may not house surveillance cameras, and wirelessly sent their pictures to displays in the conference lobby. Companies have been known to install camera domes without cameras in an effort to save money while maintaining the illusion of surveillance, a concept that was in keeping with the CFP event's theme of the Panopticon. The Panopticon is philosopher Jeremy Bentham's model prison, which keeps inmates in line simply by maintaining the possibility that they are being monitored. The conference attendees at the mall wore conference bags with dark plastic domes, some of which were equipped with wireless Webcams. Mann says watching the watchers often involves an element of duplicity, and he has designed technologies that promote surveillance equality. One such product is a wallet equipped with a card reader that can only be opened if someone swipes their ID through the reader.
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  • "Building the City of Tomorrow"
    Oregonian (04/13/05); Gragg, Randy

    ACM's 2005 Computer-Human Interaction conference sent teams of designers out into different Portland, Ore., neighborhoods to think up ways technology could increase interactivity between the city and residents. The "Engaging the City: Public Interfaces as Civic Intermediary" workshop involved teams scouting out possibilities in Portland's Cultural District, the Brewery Blocks, central east side, and Portland State University. Among the concepts: Garbage cans that document their contents for anthropological research, live-action reality games that teach science lessons, and using cell phones to find neighborhoods of a particular type in other cities. One group suggested the Portland Art Museum could become more interactive if it projected images onto neighborhood sidewalks instead of waiting for visitors to pay the $10 admission to see what was inside. In the Brewery Blocks area, designers described a "hopscotch game" that used cell phones and PDAs to guide shoppers through puzzles and trails. The skatepark built below the Burnside Bridge was of particular interest, and spawned the idea of a nearby outdoor amphitheater where aspiring musicians could use permanently installed sound system equipment. The amphitheater would enliven the surrounding new housing development and commercial offices.
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  • "In Touch With the Latest Virtual Surroundings"
    IST Results (04/14/05)

    Angelika Peer of the Munich University of Technology says the goal of the IST-funded Touch-Hapsys project is "to create the technological basis for engineers to conceive and build better systems for direct interaction with humans through touch, thus overcoming apparent limitations of existing devices." Central to the project is basic psychophysical research of haptic perception and feedback, the improvement of haptic displays through investigation into new technologies, and the development of haptic illusions to surmount technological constraints. Peer says the sophistication of the technology and physiological and technological limitations prevent haptic mimicry in artificial devices from providing high-fidelity feedback by themselves, so the project focuses on "perceptual tricks" related to tactile sensations to boost the efficiency of haptic displays. Producing high-fidelity touch sensations via force feedback have been examined, and Peer notes that hands-free interaction with virtual objects has received much attention; she says the development of the prototype for such an interface will involve closer investigation of magnetorheological fluids in a controlled 3D space with magnetic field profiling. The project has devised a series of demonstrators encompassing the haptic feedback areas of biological tissue interaction, rendering and recognition of textures, multimodal volumetric exploration systems, and modeling of rigid, sharp-edged objects. Peer says interaction with virtual environments is facilitated by a haptic interface that boasts 10 actuated degrees of freedom. She adds that Touch-Hapsys demonstrators can measure the force of a real object and transmit that data over the Internet, allowing a user to "feel" the object remotely.
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  • "Laptop Design Can Be a Pain in the Posture"
    USA Today (04/13/05) P. 8D; Friess, Steve

    Laptops, with their closely positioned keyboards and display screens, are forcing users into postures that can lead to back, shoulder, wrist, and neck pain, warn doctors and physical therapists. Tom Albin with Human Factors and Ergonomics Society says it is impossible for a laptop user to relax his arms and hands and head and neck at the same time, while Carolyn Sommerich of Ohio State University's Institute of Ergonomics cites a 2002 study indicating that more laptop users than desktop users complain of aches in more and different parts of the body. Posture-based discomfort is especially pronounced among college students, who work in an environment where portable computing is rapidly becoming a requirement. "They sit in lecture halls with built-in tables, hunched over their laptops eight hours a day, and you can see it's very uncomfortable with them," notes Duke University ergonomic specialist Tamara James. Ergonomists say the solution is to enable laptop users to work in an upright and flexible posture typical of desktop users. Many accessories, such as plastic stands with telescoping legs, are impractical for laptop users on the go, but Sync magazine deputy editor Rob Bernstein says major computer manufacturers have started to tackle the problem; a laser-projected keyboard is one possibility, and Toshiba intends to roll out a laptop whose keyboard and screen can be separated for more flexible positioning. A growing concern for ergonomic experts is laptop use among children, which could lead to physical problems typical of old age much sooner. James says, "I hate the fact that these are the workers of tomorrow, and they have upper-extremity problems before they even get to the workplace."
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  • "Dot-What Redux--ICANN Still Searching for Answer"
    Computer Business Review (04/11/05)

    ICANN Chairman Vint Cerf says he has some doubts about the organization's ability to add domains to the Internet smoothly, even though ICANN just approved two new top-level domains, .jobs and .travel. Cerf says the organization "ran into a lot of very interesting problems" when it approved seven new TLDs in November 2000. For example, speculators had found ways to exploit the "sunrise" registration periods that some TLD operators had enacted to stem cybersquatting. Last year, ICANN created a new designation for certain domains, called "sponsored" TLDs, that would be open only to a niche community of specific interest groups; for example, .jobs and .travel have been approved to serve the human resources and travel industries, respectively. However, this system has also encountered problems. "It seems to me overly differentiating among various types of TLDs may not necessarily be a good thing," says Cerf, citing recent problems surrounding the .pro domain, which was intended to be a "restricted" TLD but is currently being offered to just about any registrant. Cerf suggests that ICANN should have more authority to enforce its rules in order to protect legitimate registrants from bankruptcy and the DNS from exploitation. "If registrants do things deleterious to the use of the Internet--phishing and pharming, for example--that can't be good for the Internet," Cerf said.
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  • "Bulletproof Storage"
    Computerworld (04/11/05) P. 34; Mearian, Lucas

    IBM plans to offer storage systems that IT departments do not have to touch for up to three years. By including redundant software and hardware systems, the storage systems will be able to keep operating smoothly even as software errors are made or discrete components fail. IBM says customers can save money by deferring the replacement of failed parts for up to three years and minimizing possible human errors when systems are fixed. The self-healing technology actually involves several separate techniques that address disk-sector failure, user error, and software failure, and IBM will include a third parity disk into RAID configurations to multiply those systems' resiliency; normal RAID configurations today have two parity disks and allow for two disk failures. IBM's N-Version Programming will also enhance resiliency against software code failures by using two pieces of code to save data. Because the pieces of code are written differently and use different algorithms, bugs will not likely affect both; operation results will be checked against one another to ensure accuracy. IBM's storage systems will also operate under specific conditions that ensure against corrupted data, such as the sum of space taken by files and free space having to equal the total available space. IBM storage systems chief technology officer Jai Menon says the technology will be introduced over the next two to three years, but Gartner analyst Stanley Zaffos says it could be 10 years before it is fully embraced by customers.
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  • "A Conversation With Guy Steele Jr."
    Dr. Dobb's Journal (04/05) Vol. 30, No. 4, P. 17; Woehr, Jack J.

    Association for Computing Machinery 1998 Grace Murray Hopper Award recipient and 1994 ACM Fellow Guy Steele Jr. won the 2005 Dr. Dobb's Journal Excellence in Programming Award for his numerous contributions to software development. His many credits include co-creation of the Scheme programming language, which is widely used in universities and serves as a working language for research events such as ACM's Programming Languages Conference. He also co-wrote the original Java specifications and in 1996 was awarded the ACM SIGPLAN Programming Language Achievement Award. Steele is a distinguished engineer and principal investigator at Sun Microsystems Laboratories, where he heads the company's Programming Language Research Group. He also is involved in the High Productivity Computer Systems Project, which stresses general productivity, or decreasing the time between when a problem is posed to the programmer and when a solution is reached, rather than just performance, which is the acceleration of computer problem-solving. Steele thinks programmers' productivity could be improved through programming language modifications that simplify the mechanical and administrative aspects of program operations. Automated testing, new languages, and more scrupulous type systems are some avenues Sun is exploring. Steele theorizes that programming languages are finite, and argues that the time is right for a successor to Java, which has another two decades of life left. Sun is investigating whether aligning programming languages more closely to traditional mathematical notation can reduce the burden for scientific programmers, and Steele notes that the Fortress programming language is a step in this direction. He reports that making Fortress open source is a key consideration, from a research point of view.
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  • "Shaping the Future"
    Scientific American (04/05) Vol. 292, No. 4, P. 33; Popper, Steven W.; Lempert, Robert J.; Bankes, Steven C.

    Society's leaders often focus on solving short-term rather than long-term problems because of a paralysis borne out of scientific uncertainty that not even the most cutting-edge assessment can completely overcome. It is difficult for traditional analysis to evaluate near-term steps for resolving complicated long-term issues such as terrorism, sustainable development, and environmental conservation. A rethinking of analysis' role is in order, and Steven Popper, Steven Bankes, and Robert Lempert with RAND's Pardee Center have organized a methodology in which robust strategies that work well over a broad spectrum of plausible what-if scenarios are outlined with the help of a computer. Traditional analytical techniques depend on a "predict then act" criterion requiring universal consensus on models and assumptions, which fails to address many of the most pressing challenges society must deal with; the robust strategies framed by Popper, Bankes, and Lempert's method produce acceptable outcomes in both easy-to-perceive and hard-to-predict future scenarios. This approach mirrors how people frequently deal with complex, uncertain decisions every day by looking for "good enough" solutions that are open to revision instead of rigid optimal solutions. Computers are usually employed in formal decision analysis strictly for their calculative ability, but the researchers have re-cast the computer to test the robustness of candidate approaches by seeking plausible contingencies that could thwart them. The computer guarantees that all strategic assertions conform with the data and can yield contingencies that dispute venerated suppositions. The researchers conclude, "Such strategies can help cut through contentious debates by providing plans of action that all can agree will play out no matter whose view of the future proves correct."
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