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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 ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 7, Issue 812:  Wednesday, July 6, 2005

  • "EU Assembly Nixes Software Patent Bill"
    Associated Press (07/05/05)

    The European Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the European Union's controversial software patent directive on Wednesday amid a flurry of claims among opponents that the proposed law would choke innovation and constrict the development of new software in Europe. EICTA applauded the action, arguing that the many revisions tabled by legislators prior to the Parliament's vote would have taken the teeth out of the law. The directive was designed to harmonize patent protection for computerized inventions throughout the EU, and cover computer programs when software is employed in the context of making those inventions a reality. Companies such as Siemens and Nokia claimed such protection would encourage them to fund research and development, while open-source proponents countered that individuals and small businesses would face prohibitive legal costs if patent owners deemed their products to be infringing. Many Parliament members argued that the criteria for patentable and non-patentable software needed to be clearer. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the Parliament's decision ensures that patent management will continue to fall under the jurisdiction of national patent offices, supporting variable interpretations of what constitutes patentability, outside the authority of the European Court of Justice.
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  • "Profit, Not Jobs, in Silicon Valley"
    New York Times (07/03/05) P. 1; Markoff, John; Richtel, Matt

    All the signs of a great economic recovery abound in Silicon Valley, except for job growth: Tech companies are reporting increases in demand, sales, and profits, but thanks largely to offshoring and improved technological efficiencies, the job market continues to slump. Santa Clara County, the heart of the technology corridor, has seen almost 20,000 jobs disappear in the last three years. Foreign markets, particularly India and China, are flush with workers who perform the same semi-skilled tasks as their American counterparts for much lower pay. "It was pretty clear that growth was going to come first in Asia," said John Kish, CEO of Wyse Technology, a company that began the year with 90 percent of its labor force in Silicon Valley; since then, that number has dropped to 48 percent. The rebirth of Silicon Valley is not likely to witness a return to the gold rush times of five years ago. Although profits are on the rise, with the top 100 public companies in the area reporting a 14 percent revenue increase in 2004, jobs are not keeping pace. AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley, says software jobs are leaving as the area moves up the value chain and only a company's leading engineers and creative people remain. There are signs of hope, though, as the amount of venture capital invested in startups rose 17 percent from 2003 to 2004. Still, after having lost so much in the dot-com collapse, venture capitalists are taking a more cautious approach, monitoring closely the hiring activities of the startups they are backing. With the abundance of foreign workers and streamlined production techniques, the job market in Silicon Valley is likely to remain constricted in the immediate future.
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  • "More Computer Classes Urged for Kids"
    Associated Press (07/04/05); Feller, Ben

    Educators argue that sophisticated computer use must be taught to students at a younger age in order to reverse the decline in U.S. computer science college majors and stave off a looming shortage of IT talent. At the annual meeting of the National Education Association, Mike Brown with Robertson County Schools in Springfield, Tenn., called for a greater emphasis in programming, graphics, or Web site management in high school coursework, noting that most students only receive a smattering of computer science training and thus lack proficiency by the time they graduate. Honolulu, Hawaii, elementary school technology coordinator Glenn Fernandez noted that programs to teach students desktop publishing, spreadsheets, and other advanced computing tasks are prohibitively expensive for some schools. ACM's Computer Science Teachers Association executive director Chris Stephenson said the country has a critical need for students with software development, hardware design, database management, and language programming skills, and her organization advocates a model curriculum that incorporates computer science into every grade level. She stressed, "We want to see a generation of tool builders, not just tool users, because tool builders have the economic power in the world." Computer science teachers say the dot-com meltdown has engendered a perception among students that IT careers are scarce, a view contradicted by federal job projections. Technology executives have reported to Congress that their reliance on overseas workers is increasing, and that they are demanding more computer-savvy U.S. graduates.
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    For information on ACM's Computer Science Teachers Association, visit http://csta.acm.org/

  • "Computers Simulate Terrorism's Extremes"
    Washington Post (07/04/05) P. A1; Cha, Ariana Eunjung

    Researchers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have been employing computer simulations to help model and predict terrorist behavior. Despite criticism over the inherent limitations of predictive modeling, scientists have used their simulated case studies to develop general safety advisories and response plans. Computer models have advised governors and mayors of their requirements for preparedness. Having identified several likely urban targets, biosensors that alert authorities of a potential biological attack have been placed strategically around the country. Scientist James Smith has been trying to predict the impact a smallpox attack would have given a general, preemptive inoculation versus a more targeted, reactive vaccination. His work involves modeling how a given urban center would respond to an attack, based on known variables such as a city's census data and traffic patterns. Through an understanding of how people move and interact throughout a typical day, researcher Stephan Eubank believes officials will be able to make better decisions in the event of a bioterrorism attack. "The thing that makes it unique is the estimate of who comes into contact with whom in a large urban area and how long the contacts last." The simulations run about 100 times faster than real time, allowing scientists to test the effectiveness of several possible responses to an attack in a short period of time, arriving at an estimated death toll for each. For all of their computers' best guesses, scientists realize that until an actual attack occurs, their simulations will never be provable. Researcher Steve Fernandez said that irrespective of the qualities of their simulations, "we'll never understand all the interdependencies of life."
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  • "Harvard Project to Scan Millions of Medical Files"
    Boston Globe (07/03/05); Cook, Gareth

    Medical discovery could be revolutionized and the genetic causes of various diseases uncovered faster through efforts such as Harvard's five-year, $20 million I2B2 (Informatics for Integrating Biology and the Bedside) project, which aims to build a computer capable of scanning millions of medical files. The computer's first task will be to employ artificial intelligence techniques such as natural language processing to determine whether a patient suffers from severe forms of asthma that do not respond well to usual treatment in the hopes of finding a genetic signature that could be used to identify these patients early on, thus saving years wasted trying out non-effective remedies. Other I2B2 teams are looking into the genetic roots of hypertension, Huntington's disease, and type 2 diabetes, but such research may necessitate the establishment of a DNA bank. Harvard Medical School neurology professor Shawn Murphy says the project could yield tools that accelerate many forms of clinical research: For instance, extracting a patient's medical problems and medication regime from files would allow the computer to search the entire patient population for side effects of new drugs. The project raises questions of privacy, although I2B2 team members say the medical data is protected by several layers of security, including encryption, password protection, firewalls, and extensive review board evaluation of potential users. Scientists believe the success of the project would encourage imitation, and reduce the time of carrying out medical studies from months or years to weeks or perhaps minutes.
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  • "Gates Gives His Views on the Future of Software"
    Computerworld Singapore (07/05/05); Sze, Tan Ee

    Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates related his vision for the future of software to some 7,000 developers in Singapore, saying Web services will sustain their "catalytic effect" on software development, providing a single architecture to fulfill the requirements of key audiences--namely, the information managers, developers who build application extensions, and IT departments that need to maintain directories, manage systems, deliver support, and boost productivity. Gates declared that improvements in XML and Web services allow multiple, diverse systems to exchange digital data. Once this is accomplished, software companies will compete by emphasizing the efficiency of their development tools and bringing data to standard tools. He predicted that speech recognition will go mainstream in three to four years once the technology can draw distinctions between background noise and important signals. Security issues must be ironed out in order for software development to progress, and Gates said Microsoft is attempting to tackle such challenges as authenticating system users, enabling systems to connect on an as-needed basis, and providing tools for writing secure code, automating code quality assurance, and recognizing and updating code as it is written. Information overload, the elimination of spam, email organization, and data prioritization were other issues Gates said must be addressed.
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  • "Gender Divide"
    Winston-Salem Journal (NC) (07/03/05); Giovanelli, Laura

    Despite reports of more job opportunities for women in math-intensive fields such as computer science and engineering, educators are increasingly concerned about labor shortages. Laura Bottomley, director of North Carolina State University's women in engineering outreach, says socialization has engendered an attraction among women to careers with a heavy nurturing element (medicine, for instance) that math-intensive careers apparently lack. "Women tend to gravitate toward the fields they see as having social relevancy," says Jo-Ann Cohen with N.C. State's College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. Educators such as the University of North Carolina's Aja Wright argue that many girls express a lack of confidence in their math skills as early as elementary school, and this attitude often determines the courses they choose in high school and college. Theories that there is some biological factor to account for the disparity between men and women's concentration in math and science remain unproved, although Bottomley and other educators note that girls' attitudes toward these fields can change with the onset of puberty. Cohen believes many women are discouraged from pursuing scientific careers because there are few role models. Efforts to change girls' attitudes about math and science include summer "math camps" that de-emphasize the stigma of giving wrong answers and downplay the social obsession with possessing nothing less than exceptional math skills.
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    For information on ACM's Committee on Women in Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/women

  • "DTCP Prevents Mass Copying, Allows Streaming"
    IDG News Service (07/01/05); Krazit, Tom

    In the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling that supported the position of content providers on the issue of file-sharing, new digital rights management (DRM) technologies are on the horizon. Digital Transmission Content Protocol (DTCP), developed by a coalition of companies including Intel, Sony, and Toshiba, offers a compromise between users and providers that allows limited copying of protected files within a household. DTCP works by recognizing and enforcing the specifications a content provider has applied to a given piece of material, which could effectively prohibit widespread sharing of files across the Internet while still allowing for reasonable uses such as granting a user permission to record a television program on a DVR and stream the content to another device in the house. While many content providers still see DTCP as too much of a concession, to capitalize on the protection it does offer they will have to embed copying specifications into their material. For the technology to take off, electronics manufacturers will also have to embrace DTCP and incorporate it into their future products. DTCP insists that content providers allow for at least one copy to be made of each piece of material. While some users argue with the sweeping control DTCP offers content providers, Intel's Stephen Balogh says the gradual evolution of the technology has saved users the small freedom they still enjoy: "If we had just invented a technology like DTCP and let it loose, everything would be marked copy-never." The inevitable adoption of programs such as DTCP has Intel and Advanced Micro Devices looking to include hardware-level security that would ensure future compatibility with complex DRM technologies.
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  • "Scientific Imaging Explores Many Worlds"
    Advanced Imaging Pro (06/30/05); Adams, Larry

    Advances in digital imaging are shedding important light on an array of scientific concerns, such as treating disease and studying the environment. One example involves the work researchers at the State University of New York at Stony Brook have done to image the chemical makeup of a fruit fly as it develops through studying protein levels in each cell of an embryo. At MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, researcher Chris Hill capitalizes on the 10,240-processor Columbia Altix supercomputer at NASA's Ames Research Center to help with his work studying such complex environmental processes as climate patterns and seismic activity. A collaboration between Merck-owned Rosetta Inpharmatics and the Netherlands Cancer Institute is working to generate prognoses for breast cancer patients based on a tumor's gene expression profile. They enlisted the help of MathWorks' MATLAB software, which performs a micro array analysis of DNA to determine which genes likely indicate future metastasizations. Developers expect the software tool to cut down on unnecessary treatments and predict metastasizations. The tool pre-screens TIFF images of DNA clusters and reports the presence of a gene in a given cell, allowing scientists more time to focus on identifying the precise gene that can predicts cancer, rather than manually reviewing each image. Bruce Tannenbaum of MathWorks says tool providers such as his company offer the valuable service of providing useful research tools to scientists who "don't want to waste their time on low-level details like device drivers, basic math routines, or standard image-processing algorithms."
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  • "Alliance Raised Hope in Fight Against Spam"
    Washington Post (07/03/05) P. A1; Cha, Ariana Eunjung

    In response to the escalating threats posed to email, researchers have been working to create more secure alternatives to today's email programs, but disputes within the industry have prevented solutions from reaching users. Meng Wong, a computer engineer at the University of Pennsylvania, believes its possible to provide secure email for everyone at little or no cost. That vision led him to found Pobox.com, an email company quickly noticed by Microsoft, which had been looking into its own email authentication service, as had several other companies. Wong and Microsoft agree that the surest way to reduce email scams and junk mail is to impede users from "spoofing" their identity by authenticating the sender's information. Their partnership resulted in the development of an authentication program called SenderID, which Microsoft took to the Internet Engineering Task Force in pursuit of a patent. Amid a flurry of criticism, the acceptance process stalled, and the email branch of the IETF disbanded. Microsoft's inability to impose its program as a universal standard has left the market open to competing authentication technologies, such as that offered by Yahoo, though compatibility problems have resulted. Whether Microsoft's SenderID is the future of email security or not, Wong believes that some widespread authentication technology is necessary to save email. "The Internet has changed from a small town where you can leave your doors unlocked to a big city where you don't even want to talk to some strangers on the street anymore. So when you don't want to know your neighbors you need a way for people to be accountable to each other."
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  • "DIP Project Makes Pitch to W3C Standards Body"
    IST Results (07/05/05)

    Researchers from the Device Independence Principles (DIP) project recently submitted their Web Services Modeling Ontology (WSMO) framework to the W3C with the aim of establishing a unified infrastructure for Semantic Web services (SWS). The comprehensive framework is designed to overcome the current limitations of enterprise application integration and will use an open source strategy to encourage broad industry adoption. WSMO features a specification language (WSML) and an execution environment (WSMX). Professor Dieter Fensel, scientific director of the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI), said that WSMO "contributes substantially to solving one of the most difficult and costly problems in IT, namely allowing disparate systems to share and integrate information in a cost effective way." Fensel also noted the financial significance of the advance, given that integration efforts consume roughly 30 percent of the worldwide IT budget. Pending review, the WSMO standard will be the subject of further review and enhancement. WSMO was joint the submission of five European W3C organizations: DERI Innsbruck, DERI Galway, British Telecom, the Open University, and SAP.
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  • "U.S. Retains Control of Web, Worrying Foreign Critics"
    Associated Press (07/02/05); Moore, Matt

    The U.S. Commerce Department's decision to retain control over the Internet's 13 "root servers" has many wondering if the World Wide Web could eventually splinter into multiple networks. The issue is sure to be raised at the upcoming U.S. information society summit in Tunisia. Meanwhile, foreign critics are accusing the United States of overstepping boundaries in an effort to lock its grip on the Internet as part of ongoing security responses to 9/11. Calling the move expected, Patrik Linden, a spokesman for the foundation that oversees the Swedish national domain .se, sees the declared intent as "rather confrontational." Masahiko Fujimoto of Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications data communication division said the move would likely spark debate. "When the Internet is being increasingly utilized for private use, by businesses and so forth, there is a societal debate about whether it's befitting to have one country maintaining checks on that." Robert Shaw, a policy advisor with the Switzerland-based International Telecommunications Union (ITU), said "Many governments are legitimately concerned that another country has ultimate control of basically their communications infrastructure." Lebanese Web business owner Naji Haddad says, "The announcement will definitely drive countries and organizations toward creating private solutions similar to what is currently offered by New.net and Walid.com, which will result in fracturing the global Internet into several networks." Some countries have called for oversight to shift to an international organization like the ITU, a U.N. group.
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  • "Feds Slacking in Shift to Next-Generation IPv6"
    CNet (06/29/05); Broache, Anne

    The House Government Reform Committee heard testimony last week from government and industry leaders on the transition from IPv4 to IPv6. "The government's transition has been slow," said David Powner of the Government Accountability Office, holding out the Department of Defense as an exception. Experts believe the shift to IPv6 will improve data routing, security, and service and particularly benefit applications that use wireless sensors, cameras, and other systems that benefit from intelligent links. While many government computers already operate software that is IPv6-compatible, little progress has been made in formalizing a strategy to implement the updated network. In spite of some concerns that the current software contains security risks, the Office of Management and Budget outlined a timetable for the transition, with a completion deadline of June 2008. Some expressed concern that the United States would be outpaced by Asia in adopting IPv6. Charmed Technology and IPv6 Summit CEO Alex Lightman warned, "If we don't show leadership in the new Internet, we get a loss of millions of jobs and market share across thousands of companies." Others take a more moderate approach, such as John Curran of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, who believes that there is no threat of running out of IPv4 addresses before 2018. In light of the OMB schedule, the government seems to be taking the potential of IPv6 seriously. As Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) put it, "We can take the lead in developing the Internet as we did 30 years ago, or we can wait for this evolution to pass us by and play catch-up."
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  • "Revealed: The True Cost of Computer Crime"
    New Scientist (06/25/05) Vol. 186, No. 2505, P. 30; Biever, Celeste

    The economic impact on 18 software suppliers whose products were deemed vulnerable to attack was an average stock price drop of 0.6 percent and an average drop in value of $860 million, according to a new survey by Sunil Wattal and Rahul Telang of Carnegie Mellon University. The financial impact incurred by software companies is likely to produce more secure software releases and better efforts to eliminate vulnerabilities among products already on the market. The CERT Coordination Center, which receives funding from the Department of Defense, uses benign software hackers to determine software vulnerabilities. Software companies are notified of the vulnerabilities and given 45 days to create a patch before the CERT Coordination Center publicizes the information. There is concern that immediate disclosure of vulnerabilities would cause an overwhelming number of attacks by hackers taking advantage of new information otherwise not available. However, University of Cambridge vulnerability researcher Andy Ozment puts the risk of a hacker finding a vulnerability during the 45-day period at 8 percent. Ozment is working on a means for software companies to evaluate potential pros and cons of vulnerability exposure, so software companies can then either decide to release a bunch of security patches at one time or a single security patch for each discovered vulnerability as they happen. Ozment also points out that despite high losses associated with denial-of-service attacks, the attacks are not much more costly to companies than a power outage.

  • "Colleges Split Over Effects of Court Ruling on File Sharing"
    Chronicle of Higher Education (07/08/05) Vol. 51, No. 44, P. A1; Foster, Andrea

    College officials are uncertain of the impact the recent Supreme Court decision concerning file-sharing and copyright infringement will have on their students: Some expect little to change on campus, while others view the ruling as an opportunity to steer college students toward legal forms of sharing. Many in the technology industry viewed the decision as having upheld the court's finding in the 1984 Betamax case, when it ruled that a technology that could be used to violate a copyright is still permissible, provided it also holds a substantial, non-infringing use. Upholding that standard was critical for technology developers, as Eugene H. Spafford noted in a statement issued by ACM that were it not for the Betamax precedent, "researchers working in computing and communications development would need to fear liability for uses of their inventions that may not exist yet." Given the rampant file-sharing that occurs on college campuses, some officials believe the court's ruling will not be a sufficient deterrent, and that more institutions will join the roughly 20 that currently provide students with free access to legal sharing services such as Napster and Cdigix. Others, such as Margaret O'Donnell, a lawyer for Catholic University, believe that universities will make few changes in their policy on students sharing files. "Colleges are already maxed out on their resources they can expend policing students," reports O'Donnell. Legal alternatives for students could become more important as the Recording Industry Association of America prepares for a new wave of lawsuits against individual users, many of whom are expected to be college students.

    For more on this ruling, and ACM's reaction, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm

  • "Q&A: An Internet Pioneer Looks Ahead"
    Computerworld (07/04/05) P. 24; Anthes, Gary H.

    UCLA computer science professor Leonard Kleinrock, credited as a founding father of the Internet with his creation of packet switching principles, warns in an interview that Internet security has gotten dramatically worse in the 11 years since he called for "a proper security framework." He sees no single panacea for Internet security woes, and points to robust authentication, IPv6, and anti-spoofing data source identification as just a few examples of potential solutions. Kleinrock believes the growing complexity of system design and the increasing governance of system behavior by intelligent agents and distributed control will ensure catastrophic failures, and his recommendation for beefing up systems' safety and reliability is to make protective control functions transparent by placing them "in one portion of the design, one portion of the code." He points to the advent and expansion of mobile Internet services as an illustration of the improved multimedia capabilities he called for in 1994, noting that there is still room for improvement. He expects mobile Internet access to become easier with the establishment of a billing/authentication interface that permits people to identify themselves with less difficulty in a global, mobile, roaming manner. Kleinrock foresees voice recognition, haptic technologies, and expandable devices becoming increasingly important elements in the further development of the human-computer interface.
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  • "Welcome to the World of "Smart Space""
    GeoWorld (06/05); Batty, Peter

    Geospatial sentient computing, or "smart space," is emerging as a new technology that can identify a person's location and respond accordingly, typically through a local positioning system (LPS). Employing a method that departs from traditional LPS technologies such as Wi-Fi and ultrasound, smart space has many potential applications in the medical and personal security fields and makes it possible to intuitively interact with computers in new ways. Significant benefits could be realized in elder-care facilities, for example, where smart space technologies could track a patient's movements or indicate that they had fallen down. Developers also envision a smart-space application that would automatically display a child's location to their parent at a kiosk in a shopping mall, and even show them a real-time video of their child's movements. The technology could also be used in homes to detect intruders. In the workplace, smart space could enhance security verification by identifying a system's user simply through their proximity to a machine, or a scanned document could automatically be sent to the user's computer over the network after being recognized by the smart space system.
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  • "Metadata: A Promising Solution"
    Educause Review (06/05) Vol. 40, No. 3, P. 10; Liddy, Elizabeth

    With nearly every large institution having to ensure access to growing repositories of information, metadata is becoming a widespread issue. However, there are currently no empirical studies or ROI analysis to show metadata projects are worthwhile for corporations and other non-library groups. Traditionally, metadata has been assigned either through manual assignment or self-assignment by document producers. Researchers at Syracuse University's Center for Natural Language Processing have developed a third method that uses natural language processing technology to automatically identify and assign appropriate metadata values in documents. The MetaExtract technology has been tested on a large set of educational resources, where 24 metadata elements were identified and included in the metadata record. The resulting metadata was evaluated and found to be comparable in quality to manually assigned metadata, with even more consistent and broader coverage of elements. Users said the automatically generated metadata was useful for finding resources, summaries, and browsing of search results. However, MetaExtract does not deal with the fundamental challenge of creating a metadata schema. Creating such a schema should involve expert users, but also be based on standardized schemas such as the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative or the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting to ensure future interoperability.
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  • "The Digital Dynamic: How Communications Media Shape Our World"
    Futurist (06/05) Vol. 39, No. 3, P. 31; Miller, M. Rex

    M. Rex Miller, author of "The Millennium Matrix," anticipates a dramatic transformation in how people think, create, relate, and behave as digital media overshadow all other communication. He notes that the printing revolution nurtured a cultural shift toward rational thought and intellectual enlightenment, while television erased social barriers and inspired emotional, reflexive thinking. By the end of the current decade, when digital media will be the dominant means of communication, Miller expects the underpinnings of knowledge and understanding to have completely shifted "to an interactive, global, anytime, anywhere, multimedia experience with countless sources to explore and test." He outlines seven qualities of the Digital Era: Interconnection, in which problems and opportunities are so tightly wound together that changes reverberate exponentially; complexity, which makes predicting the potential consequences of actions impossible with old analytical approaches; acceleration, wherein change--and the pace of human life--is ramped up with each new technology and concept; intangibility, where reliance on information and reputation fosters dissociation from the physical world; convergence, which dissolves organizational and knowledge boundaries; immediacy, where response time is dramatically shrunk; and unpredictability, so that well-meaning attempts to make things better do not guarantee improvement. Miller says the ascendancy of digital media will present challenges to most institutions, and rethinking these institutions to be agile, environmentally aware, stable, and adaptable is necessary if they are to weather the turbulence of the Digital Era. Digital media will likely lead to the rise of self-learning, a distinct advantage for education. However, care must be taken to ensure that students use the media responsibly to avoid more sinister consequences, such as videogame-inspired violence.