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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 842: Friday, September 16, 2005

  • "Is the U.S. Protecting Crucial Networks?"
    IDG News Service (09/16/05); Gross, Grant

    Executives from the power, communications, and other critical infrastructure industries told the House Science Committee on Thursday that they have enacted measures to guard against cyberthreats; the hearing came from the widespread fear that neither government nor industry is adequately prepared for a massive cyberattack. Industry representatives said the most critical services would be immune to a cyberattack because they rely on networks that are separate from the public Internet, though the oil and gas industry is shifting more of its technology to the Internet, exacerbating the potential damage from an attack. As more utility networks are shifting from private control to the public Internet, companies are exploring new encryption techniques to secure the infrastructure. Donald Purdy, acting director of the Cyber Security Division at the Department of Homeland Security, said his agency is making significant efforts at improving cybersecurity. Still, representatives criticized the failure of the DHS to develop detailed threat assessments and contingency plans; despite the growing consensus among industry leaders that cyberattacks pose a grave threat, many are reluctant to disclose their vulnerability assessments to the DHS out of the fear that they could be released publicly. When developing new technologies, companies must now rank security as a top priority, in contrast to cell phones and Wi-Fi, where it was little more than an afterthought. It was also recommended that companies narrow their focus to identify and address specific threats, rather than treating security as a monolith. The sparse attendance at the hearing provoked committee chairman Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) to implore the industry leaders to help in educating the rest of Congress about the severity of the threat.
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  • "Patent Reform Debate Gets Heated on Hill"
    Associated Press (09/15/05); Werner, Erica

    The original Patent Reform Act of 2005 introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) featured a provision that would restrict patent holders' ability to obtain court orders to halt the sale of products that potentially infringe on their patents. This was one of many reforms desired by the high-tech industry, which wants to deter "patent trolls" who generate profits without producing anything by acquiring patents and then suing others for infringement. However, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) balked at such changes, claiming they would enervate the drug industry's ability to innovate, given its dependence on patent enforcement as a protective measure for intellectual property and as a source of money while new products are developed. The court order provision and other amendments were removed from Smith's bill in response to BIO and PhRMA's objections, which prompted criticism from Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) at a Sept. 15 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on intellectual property. Another point of conflict for the high-tech and drug industries is whether infringement damages should be awarded according to the value of the whole product or the individual component of the product being patented. Remaining provisions that are still sought by high-tech firms would allow patents to be more easily challenged after being issued, and permit companies to more easily defend patent-infringement lawsuits in a favorable domain.

  • "Let's Talk Xanga: Capturing Gen-Z's Computational Imagination"
    HPC Wire (09/16/05) Vol. 14, No. 37; Madhavan, Krishna P.C.; Goasguen, Sebastien; Bertoline, Gary R.

    Purdue University's Krishna Madhavan, Sebastien Goasguen, and Gary Bertoline concur with the authors of a recent HPCWire article that U.S. computational science education is in a sorry state. They advocate a bottom-up educational overhaul in light of the ubiquitous presence of cyberinfrastructure (CI) in everyday life as well as recent progress in CI sciences. "The challenge is to teach our students that form of computational science that will help them enter modern cross-disciplinary fields, such as nanotechnology, genomics, and biomedical engineering," the authors assert. Teaching "Gen-Z" students to use CI for more than just leisure activities is challenging to educators, who face cultural barriers such as the vocabulary students use, and who distance themselves further from the kids they are trying to reach by following traditional educational methodologies that are no longer applicable. The authors cite a Time magazine article discussing modern teenagers' lifestyle and technology choices, which were characterized by the conspicuous absence of technologies (computers, TVs, etc.) that scientists, teachers, and researchers value highly. The authors believe educators should tailor learning to online gaming, instant messaging, and other everyday activities popular among Gen-Z students. "Our vision for the future will need to develop a Cyberinfrastructure Education Ecosystem where learning co-exists with students' lifestyles, technology choices, and emerging national cyberinfrastructure," they say. In addition, such initiatives should place the student learning experience on university campuses dead center at the point where CI science and pedagogical theory and practice converge.
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  • "Will Web Users 'Flock' to Social Surfing?"
    New Scientist (09/15/05); Biever, Celeste

    Bart Decrem, formerly with the Mozilla Foundation, has created Flock, a "social" Web browser designed to make it easier and faster to write, edit, share, and present Web content. He hopes Flock will satisfy the requirements of the "Web 2.0" Web user community with its seamless integration of blogging, photo blogging, and shared bookmark tools. Blogging tools such as Google's Blogger and Six Apart's Movable Type have not greatly eased the posting of content to the Web, and most bloggers are particularly annoyed with photo blogging services' lack of quality and efficiency. The best service currently available is the Flickr Web site, which users log into and download photos, and then transfer the images to their blog; however, TechCrunch editor Mike Arrington says that both the Flickr photo site and the blog site take a long time to log into, while the photos are not always formatted correctly in the blog. Flock partially addresses this problem by allowing photos to be dragged and dropped from Flickr into the blog. In addition, Flock shows users how the blog and the photos pasted into it will appear when published, while the browser's "social bookmarking" feature lets bookmarks be accessed from any PC and shared to create an index of popular bookmarked pages that other users can search. Flock's basic browser capabilities are based on the open-source code for Mozilla's Firefox browser. Flock is slated to be released to the general public next month.

  • "Georgia Tech's Ronald Arkin"
    Technology Research News (09/12/05); Smalley, Eric

    Georgia Institute of Technology professor and IEEE Fellow Ronald Arkin, who also was a member of the National Science Foundation's Robotics Council, says the field of robotics lacks fundamental knowledge about intelligence mechanisms. He says truly intelligent machines will have a better chance of being realized as scientists gain a deeper understanding of process models of human-level intelligence as well as possible and appropriate human-robot relationships. Although the basic science already exists for increasing robots' presence in the everyday world, Arkin says a dearth of reliability is holding the technology back, as is the superior flexibility, versatility, and low expense of humans compared to machines. Despite such challenges, the Georgia Tech professor is confident "that robots will continue to become more commonplace, and they will be accepted more readily, starting to vanish into the background noise of technology that many devices already occupy." Arkin cannot provide a clear timeframe when this will happen, however. He notes that the issue of trust between robots and people cuts both ways, in that robots' effective function depends significantly on trusting humans through computational models implemented via the study of how people create and maintain trust. Arkin points out that resolving ethical problems is vital to effective human-robot interaction. Questions that must be answered in this regard include major religions' views on intelligent humanoid machines; how much force robotic systems should apply toward managing people; whether robots should be permitted to mislead or manipulate human intelligence; and what the appropriate level of intimacy between people and intelligent artifacts should be.
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  • "Smart ID Card Advocates Call for Government Action"
    IDG News Service (09/14/05); Gross, Grant

    Supporters of the Real ID Act Congress passed in May say the legislation mandates minimum standards states must comply with to ensure that driver's licenses will remain legitimate federal IDs, while insisting that the law will not set up a national ID card that could infringe on citizens' privacy and security. Such machine-readable smart cards could contain not just the bearer's government-checked identity, complete with biometric identifiers, but also his credit-card accounts, check card account, and health records. The Real ID Act, which was attached to an antiterrorism and defense funding bill, requires states to provide several forms of confirmable ID before issuing driver's licenses, and licenses issued in states that do not comply with the law cannot be used as an accepted federal ID. Furthermore, the act authorizes the Homeland Security Department to define "machine-readable" technology used in federal IDs in addition to any biometric data that should be embedded in the smart cards. The Heritage Foundation's Paul Rosenzweig believes properly implemented smart card technology carries numerous benefits for users; it would grant users anonymity during credit-card transactions, for instance. Rob Atkinson of the Progressive Policy Institute wants government smart cards to have open standards that would enable many processes to be automated by businesses, and he thinks cards equipped with biometric data would make phony IDs or driver's licenses bought using faked documents harder to obtain. Nancy Libin of the Center for Democracy and Technology warns that smart cards with personal data about the bearer could be problematic if lost, and also notes that there are ways to thwart or fool biometric scans.
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    For information about ACM activities regarding the Real ID Act, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "Hacking's a Snap in Legoland"
    CNet (09/15/05); Terdiman, Daniel

    Lego executives responded with surprising enthusiasm when adult Lego aficionados hacked and modified one of its development tools for digital designers. Lego's Ronny Scherer says the company welcomes and encourages modifications that show them how to adapt their software to users' needs. The software in question is a free 3D modeling program that fans can download and use to design their own customized Lego models out of digital collections, or palettes, of bricks; Lego then manufactures the bricks and sends them to users. Members of the adult Lego modeling community complained that the design and purchase of these customized models was too expensive because the available palettes usually contained far more bricks than were needed to build the models, and also failed to include important components. Each palette is comprised of several bags of bricks, and software engineer Dan Malec and other Lego enthusiasts believed they could purchase less bricks and reduce their overall costs by lowering the number of bricks in a palette. They compiled a database listing what bags must be bought in order to collect specific bricks, and then tweaked the digital files listing the palettes users would see in the modeling program so they would be listed by bag rather than by palette. Analyst Anita Frazier reasons that Lego welcomed this hack because "it doesn't ultimately hurt the intellectual property, and [the users] aren't modifying the trademark or the core property at all."
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  • "Delivering on Digital Content's Full Potential"
    IST Results (09/16/05)

    Yael Lapid, coordinator of the IST-funded TIRAMISU project, says the project's goal is to investigate, develop, exploit, and integrate technologies that enable home users to easily and cheaply access protected multimedia content on everyday appliances such as mobile phones, PCs, and televisions. She says TIRAMISU is envisioned as having two principal uses: One of those uses is super distribution, an approach where customers also act as distributors, which "encourages free distribution of [protected] content, and maintains control over the business by enumerating content consumption rather than content distribution," according to Lapid. The second principal use is roaming, which takes locations, devices, or network connections out of the equation when it comes to using licensed content. Lapid says this scheme enables a user to access all licensed content at the appropriate quality of service by simply inserting a smart card in a device. Not only does TIRAMISU modify existing digital rights management (DRM) technologies and create new technologies based on existing and emerging open standards when required, but the project has also played a role in the development of new standards that safeguard new multimedia formats such as object-based 3D graphics in a strong, flexible, and affordable manner.
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  • "Dartmouth Researchers Build World's Smallest Mobile Robot"
    Dartmouth News (09/14/05); Knapp, Sue

    The world's smallest mobile robot has been created by Dartmouth College researchers led by computer science professor Bruce Donald. The prototype 60 micrometer by 150 micrometer robot is controllable in the sense that it can be steered on a flat surface, and is untethered, meaning it can move without need of wires or rails. Ph.D. student Craig McGray, a member of Donald's team, says the device does not stick to surfaces because it has no wheels or hinged joints; locomotion is enabled when the microbot bends its body in the manner of an inchworm, making the machine unusually fast at very small scales. The microbot sports a microactuator for forward motion and another one for turning, and is powered by teleoperation. The device walks on a grid of electrodes that provides power and the instructions that allow the machine to move freely over the electrodes. The prototype was developed with partial funding from the Homeland Security Department's Office of Domestic Preparedness, and will be detailed in a paper to be presented at the 12th International Symposium of Robotics Research sponsored by the International Federation of Robotics Research. The researchers' work will also be featured in the IEEE Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems. Ensuring information security, integrated circuit inspection and repair, and cell or tissue manipulation are some of the potential future applications for micro-electromechanical systems.
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  • "Wireless Sensor Could Reduce Traffic Congestion"
    Daily Californian (09/14/05); Elboudwarej, Omeed

    Federal and state transportation departments monitor traffic using wired loop detectors that are costly to replace and often do not last as long as they are expected to, according to University of California-Berkeley computer science professor Pravin Varaiya. He and his colleagues have spent three years researching and developing a more cost-efficient and reliable wireless sensor comprised of a magnetic sensor, a computer processor, a 10-year battery, and a short-range wireless radio. The sensors can be glued onto the road surface, and their inner workings are protected by a steel cover. Varaiya's team also developed a smaller underground wireless sensor that can be installed in roadways where snowfall is heavy. The sensors can identify the lane a vehicle is driving in by measuring localized shifts in the earth's magnetic field caused by the vehicle's iron content. In addition, the devices can distinguish between buses, cars, trucks, and motorcycles by picking up variations in the vehicle's distribution of magnetic material. In California, the sensors' radios send traffic data to roadside base stations, which in turn relay the information to Caltrans' Traffic Management Center through a cellular network. Varaiya says the technology could reduce congestion rates in high-traffic areas by up to 50 percent while having only one-third the installation costs of loop detector systems.

  • "'Magic Brush' Paints Visual World"
    BBC News (09/15/05); Macdonald, Nico

    MIT Media Lab researcher Kimiko Ryokai's I/O Brush enables users to capture colors and textures within their environment and "paint" them onto a back-projected touch screen. Ryokai, a member of MIT's Tangible Media Group, believes the device can give users, particularly children, an additional layer of meaning to their artwork. She notes that typical child-oriented painting programs only encourage children to choose colors from the computer's palette and play around with the software-attached clip art; the I/O Brush, on the other hand, "pushes kids to look around, and explore and investigate the richness of colors that surround us," says Ryokai. The brush features a small video camera at its tip that illuminates objects and surfaces with light-emitting diodes and captures images in response to pressure detected by sensors. The brush takes a still image and several seconds of video, and digitally transfers or paints that image or video onto the screen. Traditional image capture via digital cameras requires a computer connection and editing software, which Ryokai says is limited in terms of image manipulation and enhancement. "By putting the camera into a paint brush, you are no longer pointing and shooting and thinking about capturing the environment, but using the environment to create something very new," she explains. The I/O Brush can also record audio during image capture as well as five seconds of video prior to each capture, which can be played back by touching a color or texture on the screen; Ryokai says this adds a level of "secret meaning" to people's experience of the artwork.
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  • "MIT Researchers Map City by Cellphone"
    MIT News (09/14/05); Brehm, Denise

    Computer-generated images of real-time cell phone use in a metropolitan area will be on display at an exhibition in Austria's second-largest city from Oct. 1 through Jan. 8. The M-City Exhibition at the Kunsthaus Graz will feature the Mobile Landscape project, the work of MIT researchers that uses the latest techniques in locating and tracking mobile devices, and overlaid electronic images with geographic and street maps. The computer-generated images, which constantly change, are based on data that provides the density of cell phone calls, origins and destination of calls, and positions of users tracked at regular intervals. People who attend the show in Graz will be able to send a text message to a server and see the electronic map change. "This participatory act aims to engage them in the issues of social networks and distributed interaction, but also on the possible drawbacks of limited privacy and geographical surveillance," says project leader Carlo Ratti, who heads the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT. The maps could be helpful in assessing a large-scale emergency situation and in managing traffic patterns.
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  • "A Human Connection to Intrusion Detection"
    SearchSecurity.com (09/14/05); McKay, Niall

    Researchers at the University of Nottingham want to use the human body's immune system as a model for protecting computer systems. Computer science professor Uwe Aickelin and his colleagues are collaborating with immunologists at the University of the West of England in Bristol to build a computer intrusion detection system that has an artificial immune system. "The University of the West of England is carrying out 'wet' experiments to look at various aspects of cell behavior and passing on their findings to us," explains Jamie Twycross, research associate with the Automated Scheduling Optimization and Planning Lab at the University of Nottingham. "We use the results to try and build a computational model." The immunologists are employing the controversial "danger theory," which holds that a complex system that accesses the origin, seriousness, and frequency of the danger signals the human immune system. Twycross is working to recreate, for an artificial immune system, the process in which garbage-collecting dendric cells that roam the body transform into fighter cells to battle an infection. Similarly, the software would be able to assess threats to computer systems by gathering information from a number of sources.
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  • "Virtual-Reality Game Seeks to Defeat Pain"
    Baltimore Sun (09/11/05) P. 1C; Patalon III, William

    The University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Pediatric Psychology Lab is testing virtual-reality games designed to ease or eliminate pain for children as they endure often uncomfortable medical procedures. One such game is "Free Dive," which presents a colorful and relaxing underwater environment that the subject navigates to find treasure while wearing a VR helmet. UMBC pediatric pain expert Dr. Lynnda Dahlquist says "Free Dive" and other VR therapies are based on the theory of pain distraction, in which the sensation of pain can be mitigated by refocusing the brain's attention on something else. "Free Dive" lends itself to pain distraction particularly well by being both soothing and relaxing, while Believe in Tomorrow National Children's Foundation CEO Brian Morrison says the sensory isolation of the VR helmet can reduce the anxiety of awaiting a painful procedure. The foundation requested the development of the game by Breakaway, a computer game company based in Hunt Valley. Tests at the UMBC lab involved children immersing one hand in ice water under various conditions. Without a game to distract them, the kids endured the discomfort for an average of 28 seconds; kids who did the same while watching a video of someone playing an aquatic video game kept their hand under for 34 seconds, on average; and kids who played the game while wearing the VR helmet maintained an average endurance of 60 seconds. Dahlquist expects players of "Free Dive" to endure the ice water even longer because the game offers more soothing sounds and its tempo is less frenetic.
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  • "IBM Sets Real-Time Tempo for Java Code With Metronome"
    EE Times (09/12/05) No. 1388, P. 36; Lammers, David

    A group of IBM researchers has created a real-time Java platform with maximum delays of 2 milliseconds positioned in direct competition to a similar effort launched by Sun Microsystems. The Metronome technology is still being tested, and is expected to be presented to the public in a month. The inclusion of a garbage detector should free up dynamically allocated memory, as it will not be referenced by an application. Metronome is compatible with traditional Java techniques, and facilitates real-time Java programming, thanks to the garbage collector, which runs swiftly enough for most applications. To meet the short response times, the researchers employed time-based, rather than work-based, scheduling, and decreased memory fragmentation. Metronome runs on IBM's J9 VM base, and discredits the previously held notion that real-time garbage collection was an impossibility; future refinements are expected to further reduce the worst-case delay times. IBM's Perry Cheng says the garbage collection device improves on the Real-Times Specification for Java (RTSJ) blueprint that ruled out real-time collection. For its part, Sun believes that real-time garbage collection will not replace their own efforts, but rather augment them; "Applications now being developed will need all three categories of temporal behavior: Non-real-time, soft real-time, and hard real-time," says Sun's Greg Bolella. IBM's project is consistent with its goal of forcing Java into the real-time market that has long been defined by C and C++.
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  • "Mainframe Programmers Wanted"
    InformationWeek (09/12/05) No. 1055, P. 62; Dunn, Darrell

    Mainframe technology still pervades the industry, flouting the oft-repeated prediction that its days are numbered: Indeed, roughly 70 percent of corporate data are stored on mainframes. As the baby-boomers near retirement, businesses are seeing a shortage of programmers proficient with mainframe technology; the brain drain is quite measurable, as only one mainframe programmer is added for every two that leave the workforce. "There is a growing concern we are rapidly losing qualified people who understand mainframes, and we are subsequently losing the capability to use the systems, which means ultimately if you can't use them, they'll be left to rust," says Air Traffic Software Architecture's Robert Stanley. University programs do not adequately educate students about mainframes, and outsourcing efforts have also compromised the influx of mainframe programmers. Other analysts argue that the crush is not so severe, noting that the average salary of mainframe programmers has not skyrocketed as it would were the shortage dire. Still, outsourcing efforts are undermining the job pool for those programmers who are proficient with mainframes, which often produces work of lesser quality. IBM has announced a program of partnering with universities with the goal of introducing 20,000 mainframe programmers into the workforce by 2010. More universities are including mainframe programs in their curricula, but it remains a challenge to convince students to pursue them, as many are being steered toward object-oriented programming and believe that mainframes will soon be obsolete.
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  • "Fleet-Footed Worm Blocker"
    Computerworld (09/12/05) P. 36; Anthes, Gary

    Microsoft Research is developing software designed to defend networks from fast-replicating computer worms. Vigilante can spot even unknown worms in network traffic, erect "filters" against them, and notify other machines on the network so quickly that the worms can be impeded before humans are even conscious of them, according to research software design engineer Manuel Costa. He says the two biggest hurdles his research team had to overcome was to develop algorithms that could identify previously unseen worms, and to generate no false positives that would result in the blockage of legitimate traffic. Costa says further research is required for Vigilante to fully meet the first challenge, but the false positive challenge has been effectively tackled. Once computers running the software detect an attack, they produce "self-certifying alerts" and distribute them to other machines, which can confirm the alerts before taking defensive action. Costa says the computationally intensive algorithms responsible for spotting worms and issuing alerts would usually run on several nonproduction "honeypot" servers, while the protection mechanisms that reply to the alerts would operate on every network-connected machine. BT Group scientist Robert Ghanea-Hercock sees Vigilante as a potentially useful safeguard in large enterprise or government networks, but cautions that the software "is less valuable in the open network or broadband sector due to the lack of cooperation between the security vendors."
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  • "Holographic Memory"
    Technology Review (09/05) Vol. 108, No. 9, P. 64; Huang, Gregory T.

    InPhase Technologies is spearheading the commercialization of holographic storage, a technique that allows data to be stored in three dimensions by encoding bits in a light-sensitive material, vastly increasing storage capacity and access speed. Potential applications of holographic storage include cell phones equipped with postage-stamp-size chips containing movies, video games, and location-based services; ID cards into which the bearer's entire medical history could be packed; and the replacement of bulky hardware in data centers with holographic disc drives. Should hardware costs fall to the point that consumers can afford it, holographic storage could drive DVDs into obsolescence. InPhase's holographic storage system builds on the work of Bell Labs, which devised a "two-chemistry" photosensitive polymer to serve as the recording medium as well as software to correct storage and retrieval errors. After four and a half years of labor, InPhase is preparing for the September 2006 pilot launch of a holographic disc drive that can read and write 300 GB discs, and is planning a 5 GB chip for consumers the following year. The technology will initially be used for high-end archiving in data centers, financial organizations, and medical facilities, while high-definition digital video broadcasting and movie distribution for digital theaters is another market InPhase is aiming for. Addressing unresolved issues about the technology's cost and reliability is critical if holographic storage is to successfully penetrate the mainstream. Almaden Research Center's Hans Coufal says holographic storage is "very impressive but is still some ways away from a viable product."
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  • "Programming Languages for Library and Textual Processing"
    Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science & Technology (09/05) Vol. 31, No. 6, P. 21; Fosdick, Howard

    Determining a programming language's suitability for library and information science (LIS) depends on how adeptly that language processes text, as indicated by program size, simplicity, maintainability, and ease of enhancement; the occurrence of errors is also an important measure. StriNg Oriented SymBOlic Language (SNOBOL) was the language of choice for researchers for many years since it allowed many problems to be addressed via the string-processing paradigm, while PL/I was preferred by LIS practitioners because it proved that string processing was a core element of general-purpose programming languages. The trend toward scripting languages is beneficial for LIS programming because scripting is dynamic in nature, which aligns with the LIS community's central requirements. A pair of open-source scripting languages, Perl and Rexx, are driving mainstream computing's shift toward string processing, and Perl is the more popular of the two. Perl is a general-purpose scripting language with superior pattern matching and string substitution thanks to implementation via regular expressions, but its chief shortcoming is difficult syntax. Rexx, on the other hand, provides all the text-processing features required by LIS, and can be easily learned, read, and understood. Rexx programs can be developed quickly, debugged easily, are less error-prone, and can be modified, augmented, and maintained with little difficulty.
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