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Volume 7, Issue 852:  Monday, October 10, 2005

  • "U.S. Cybersecurity Due for FEMA-Like Calamity?"
    CNet (10/10/05); McCullagh, Declan

    The Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity division has been coming under increasing scrutiny as critics have drawn a parallel to the lack of preparedness evidenced by FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The flight of many senior staff members is one of the most alarming signs of weakness in the division. The top position in the cybersecurity unit has been unoccupied since Robert Liscouski quit in January, though Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has promised to fill the vacancy. Many in the industry believe there is little appealing in that position, as its occupant is far more likely to meet with blame than praise. Legislation has been reintroduced in Congress this year that would establish the position of assistant secretary for cybersecurity, who would report to Chertoff directly. Currently, cybersecurity is removed from the top position by multiple layers of bureaucracy. The Homeland Security Authorization Act for 2006, which contains the cybersecurity reorganization, has passed in the House, but has been stalled in the Senate Homeland Security committee since May. The Sept. 11 attacks signaled a clear departure from cybersecurity as a top government priority, as preparedness for hypothetical threats gave way to the realities of responding to Al Qaeda and the invasion of Iraq. Many federal cybersecurity efforts had been characterized as ineffectual before Sept. 11, and the consolidation of divergent programs into the DHS did little to advance government readiness to contend with spyware, spammers, and cyber terrorists, as the department has labored under incompatible computer systems and inefficient data sharing practices. The department counters that measures such as the creation of the National Cyber Alert System demonstrate a response effort coordinated with private industry, though University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska says the department still has a lamentably narrow focus on cyber security.
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  • "In a Grueling Desert Race, a Winner, But Not a Driver"
    New York Times (10/09/05) P. A24; Markoff, John

    A robotic vehicle known as Stanley earned the Stanford researchers who created it a $2 million prize after winning the Grand Challenge, a 132-mile race through the Nevada desert. The Pentagon-sponsored race was designed to advance the cause of artificial intelligence and self-guided vehicles, and saw 23 entries from coalitions representing universities, automotive firms, and computer and aerospace companies. DARPA designed the competition to scour sources of innovation and research that might otherwise go unnoticed by the leading military firms. The second Grand Challenge boasted much greater success than the first event held in March 2004, in which many vehicles did not get out of the starting gate and none finished. Two entries from Carnegie Mellon, a Hummer and a Humvee, finished behind the Stanford team's modified Volkswagen Toureg. Stanley averaged about 17 miles an hour on a course that tested the vehicles' navigational abilities across mountain passes and through tunnels in which the vehicles could not receive satellite navigation signals. Throughout the race, DARPA monitored for illicit radio signals that the teams might use to guide their vehicles, which, under the rules of the Grand Challenge, had to complete the course without human intervention. The competition was born out of a Congressional directive for the Pentagon to automate one-third of the military's land vehicles by 2015. While much of the self-guiding hardware has not changed since the first Grand Challenge, there have been significant advances in the software. The official Web site of the race counted more than 12 million hits in eight hours.
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  • "U.S. Won't Lose Its Tech Edge, Says Microsoft's Mundie"
    IDG News Service (10/07/05); Ribeiro, John

    Microsoft CTO Craig Mundie believes the United States will maintain its competitive advantage over emerging powers such as China and India due to its strong capacity for innovation. Mundie's remarks come amid increasing industry concern that a lack of government funding for research and development will erode innovation and compromise the United States' position as the global leader in technology. Speaking in Bangalore at the inauguration of a Microsoft research center there, Mundie noted that India will be a focal point for innovation due to the nation's well-trained workforce, though he called for greater protection for intellectual property to facilitate the growth of native Indian businesses. The central challenge will be in the commercialization of the inventions produced by India's engineers. The advances in software seen in India have been impressive, though the country has yet to produce businesses that target the specific demands of the market. To keep up with demand, India needs to steer a greater portion of its students toward computer science, and of those, there must be some with a specific concentration in the business of software, in addition to the actual development.
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  • "MIT Designs Low-Tech Flood Alarm"
    Boston Globe (10/10/05); Lloyd, Marion

    A group of students from MIT has been developing a flood warning system for Honduras' Aguan River to augment the satellite-powered system that was introduced in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Maintenance of the existing system is costly, and it is frequently the target of vandalism that confounds its numerous other technical problems. MIT's FloodSafe Early Warning System employs inexpensive automatic radios to relay water-level information from flood-gauge sensors within the river. Each sensor system will cost roughly $2,000, compared to the satellite-transmitting sensors, which cost $20,000 each. The radio sensors can be repaired by local technicians, whereas the satellite-based devices required U.S. trained technicians to oversee repairs. Due largely to the absence of an early warning system, Hurricane Mitch killed almost 10,000 people and left more than 1 million homeless. The central achievement of the new system is to eliminate the need for human monitoring of the river level, as most tropical rains occur overnight, when there is no one checking the water level. Instead, the radios sound an alarm relayed via 20-foot radio towers which, like the sensors themselves, are designed to be impervious to vandalism. The students expect the system to be in place by 2006, and foresee its widespread use throughout the Third World if it proves successful. Backers of the satellite system maintain that theirs is more reliable than the students' system, as the radio towers could get knocked down in a tropical storm.
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  • "CMU Scientist Honored for Novel Method of Using Computers to Simulate Collisions of Objects"
    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (10/10/05); Spice, Byron

    Carnegie Mellon's Doug James has developed a method for simulating collisions on a computer that operates a thousand times faster than previous techniques. James, an assistant professor of computer science and robotics, was recognized by Popular Science magazine as one if its "Brilliant 10" young scientists, and has attracted the attention of industry groups such as Pixar. In one application, 3,600 white plastic lawn chairs cascade across the screen reminiscent of a waterfall in a simulation that only took a couple of hours to produce. In conventional graphics programs, tens of thousands of tiny triangles constitute an image's shape, each of which have to be recomputed when the object collides with something. That process is inordinately time-consuming, which impelled James to look for a shortcut. Since most objects have a finite number of shapes that can appear, James instructed the computer to pay attention only to the critical points of an object's shape and orientation, and only to the triangles that actually touch. The net increase in speed is exponential, yielding potential applications both in computer graphics and real-world navigation issues such as those that confound the robotics industry. Seeking to answer his own question of whether you can "make a virtual environment that is truly immersive," James has turned his attention to complementing his collision simulations with comparable applications for touch and sound.
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  • "Artificial Intelligence Helps Make Life Easier"
    Red and Black (10/06/05); Caldwell, John

    The definition of intelligence may need to be reconsidered, because many people continue to disbelieve in artificial intelligence, says Don Potter, director of the Artificial Intelligence Center and a professor of computer science at the University of Georgia. "Maybe there's a bigger, better idea of 'what is intelligence,'" says Potter, who is involved in research for the U.S. Department of Agriculture on genetic algorithms, which can accommodate more variables than the human brain. Potter works with a program that is able to model the evolution of the ecosystem better than human observers. "The amount of artificial intelligence an average person touches in a normal day is astounding," he says. Computers are now able to discover stock market trends that have eluded their program creators, and some new cars have the ability to learn the habits of the driver in order to get better fuel mileage. Several years ago, researchers developed a virtual assistant, complete with cameras, sensors, and a glove that delivered signals to a blind and wheelchair-bound student who needed help getting around campus.
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  • "Why Kids Aren't Going Into IT"
    InformationWeek (10/03/05); Wagner, Mitch

    Businesses that hire information technology managers have to share some of the blame for the lack of interest college students are showing in tech-related careers. The number of students in U.S. colleges and universities pursuing degrees in computer science today is no longer enough to fill the IT jobs that are available. For the past five years, IT mangers have slashed wages, laid off workers, and outsourced jobs to India and China. As a recent Cap Gemini Ernst & Young study shows, companies can pay workers in these markets substantially less than what they would an American IT professional. Meanwhile, last year there were 25 percent fewer IT jobs than there were in 2000. Although InformationWeek senior executive editor Chris Murphy notes that IT recruiting begins at home, the quotes from IT professionals show that they do not always have good things to say about the industry today. "I would recommend that my children look for skills and an occupation that can last them a lifetime [40-plus years] and not be stolen away from them by a cheaper worker/industry changes," said Erin Wells.
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  • "Europe Telecoms Object to EU Plan for Policing Web"
    Dow Jones Newswires (10/06/05); Miller, John W.

    The European Union (EU) is attempting to curtail the United States' influence on Internet governance, according to the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association, an organization that represents 42 top telecom companies in 35 countries. "I've been getting urgent calls from our members, and they are upset" at the EU's latest Internet governance proposal, says the association's director, Michael Bartholomew. The EU's latest plan calls for "an international government involvement at the level of principles" in overseeing ICANN. Just five of ICANN's 21 board members and less than half of its employees are American. "ICANN understands the calls for further internationalization, but we're very concerned that the Internet technical coordination should not become the basis for politicization," says ICANN director Paul Twomey, himself Australian. Carl Bildt, the chairman of Swedish telecom Teleopti, says the EU's proposal is disturbing and goes "a long way towards the position that a number of states headed by Iran had been advocating, opening for a political control mechanism." EU officials have been quick to say the proposal has been misinterpreted and that the EU is opposed to governments being involved in the day-to-day functions of the Internet.

  • "The Upgraded Digital Divide: Are We Developing New Technologies Faster Than Consumers Can Use Them?"
    Knowledge@Wharton (10/04/05)

    Companies must take care not to upgrade and replace technology products too quickly, lest their complexity overtakes the speed with which consumers learn to use them. In a new paper, Wharton's Robert Meyer and Shengui Zhao, along with Singapore Management University's Jin Han, point out that consumers' decisions to buy new products fall into a "paradox of enhancement," in which the consumer purchases next-generation products expecting to benefit enormously from new features, only to be discouraged from using them because they are overwhelmingly complex. The authors say consumers' purchase decisions are informed by overly optimistic beliefs about the value of the latest upgrades. Conversely, the researchers note that people who buy new and enhanced products to avoid product deterioration—as opposed to obsolescence—are less inclined to acquire next-generation products. The complexity of products often compels consumers to seek advice on purchasing decisions from a spouse, friends, associates, salespeople, or published experts, according to Wharton marketing professor Barbara Kahn. Their are various approaches companies can take to draw customers—specifically, average users—to their products: Branding is one strategy, while increasing consumer-support capabilities is another. Wharton marketing professor Peter Fader recommends consumers disregard new product upgrades until they are used by early adopters. Wharton IT director Kendall Whitehouse expects simplicity to become a key factor in consumers' purchase decisions, and foresees the emergence of products that are easier to use yet more sophisticated in terms of design and capabilities; broader user interface standardization will be part of this trend.
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  • "Researchers Advance Versatile Tech"
    The Pitt News (10/03/05); Medici, Andy

    The University of Pittsburgh held a special event Sept. 28, 2005, commemorating the creation of the Radio Frequency Identification Center for Excellence. Officials from approximately 30 organizations attended the gathering and were treated to demonstrations of RFID technology. As part of one demonstration, groceries embedded with RFID tags were purchased without removing the items from a shopping cart. "We walked it past a checkout station, and everything was rung up without taking it out of the cart," says Marlin Mickle, director of the center, who is also a professor of electrical, industrial, and computer engineering at the university. Mickle says there are numerous possibilities for using RFID for homeland security, medical research, and communications, but more research needs to be performed before it is applied in certain, life-critical circumstances. The center consolidates the university's research in RFID, and Gerald Holder, dean of the School of Engineering, said it "will be a powerhouse of creativity and technological innovation that should lead to significant improvements in the economy and simplify the lives of consumers."
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  • "Devices Help the Blind Cross Tech Divide"
    CNet (10/05/05); Singer, Michael

    The Smithsonian Institution estimates that assistive technology constitutes a $5.4 billion market, which is being fueled by the aging populations of industrialized nations as well as a government initiative to address the requirements of special needs groups. Examples of recent assistive technology products include software from Eatoni that enables visually impaired users to read email on cellular phones, and an AgentSheets device that helps the handicapped use public transport by tracking GPS-equipped buses, notifying users when the bus they want is coming, providing audio and visual cues to help them board, and telling passengers when they have reached their destination. HumanWare's Trekker, meanwhile, is a GPS-based talking personal guide for the blind that provides digital maps. There are also refreshable Braille displays that allow the blind to read information displayed on a computer screen. The World Health Organization says that between 750 million and 1 billion people worldwide suffer some type of mobile, cognitive, speech, vision, or hearing disability, while 2002 census figures indicate that over 54 million U.S. residents are disabled in some way, a number that will undoubtedly increase with the impending retirement of baby boomers. Major tech companies developing or supporting assistive technologies include IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Apple, while smaller companies such as Electronic Vision Access Solutions (EVAS) derive much of their business from clients in the federal and state governments. EVAS, for instance, has a contract with Dell to develop customized PC technology for veterans participating in rehab programs for the visually impaired through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
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  • ""Next-Gen Net Seen at a Crossroads"
    Network World (10/03/05); Duffy, Jim

    At the recent Next Generation Networks 2005 conference, the hot topic of debate was whether the network of the future will be more of an offshoot of the current Internet or the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Given that there is considerable overlap in the functionality of both, the choice is not clear, and is indeed confounded by aging platforms that were conceived long before the advent of applications such as wireless, video, and message-based routing. The shakedown could ultimately cost carriers and consumers and redefine their relationship with each other, as well as fundamentally alter the business models under which carriers operate. The telecommunications industry is placing its bets with the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) architecture that would supplant the infrastructure that powers the current circuit-switched telephone network, and would also support services such as voice mail, file sharing, and text messaging; while IMS is backed by the telecom coalition Third Generation Partnership Project, the IETF and other critics claim it gives carriers too much license at the expense of consumer choice. The major alternative, the Internet, is notoriously vulnerable to denial-of-service attacks and other security breaches, causing some, such as MIT senior research scientist David Clark, to call for a rebuilding of the platform from scratch. The level of comfort most users feel with the Internet is a strong argument against incremental revision of the current network. One alternative is the NSF's Global Environment for Network Investigations (GENI), which supports new research and deployment initiatives, inviting the gradual evolution that until recently had seemed a dim prospect.
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  • "Landscapes on the Computer"
    Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (10/05)

    Average Internet users have taken to maps available online to gain aerial views of the earth. They are joining city planners, architects, public safety agencies, and other specialists in viewing virtual images of the earth, as a result of the emergence of software programs such as Google Earth and NASA WIND that can be accessed from the desktop of a standard PC. While average Internet surfers have used two-dimensional map representations to plan trips, the new programs offer three-dimensional geo-data, which allows users to view geographical renderings that are more closely aligned with the natural human perception of terrain. For cyclists and hikers, the visuals can help them to determine the uphill and downhill grade of a route, instead of having to calculate raw numbers. The Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research IGD offers the CityServer3D software, and any browser that makes use of the Java 3D plug-in can offer direct views of its data. Routes can be imported into the software to obtain information such as gradients, differences in altitude, and the lengths of the various areas of the route.
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  • "White Hat, Gray Hat, Black Hat"
    Federal Computer Week (10/03/05) Vol. 19, No. 34, P. 19; Arnone, Michael

    When cyberattacks first appeared they were often the product of loosely organized or independent hackers who viewed the disruption of networks or Web sites as a path to earn prestige among the community and build a reputation. Modern attacks increasingly stem from highly centralized outfits, often commissioned by foreign governments or organized crime syndicates with profit as their sole motivation. Because hackers typically secure their computers better than most other users, the government and commercial communities could stand to learn a lot from white and gray hat hackers. White hat hackers, the professionals commissioned to scour a system for vulnerabilities to bolster its security, have long used penetration testing to search for weaknesses, and that method is enjoying increased popularity in the federal government. The spate of government compliance regulations mandating greater protection of data is rooted in actual hacking incidents. Many military and intelligence agencies maintain a lively exchange with the hacking community, tipping each other off to new developments and threats, though some more traditional agencies, such as the FBI and the Secret Service, are reluctant to enter into dialogue with a community they mistrust and view as criminals. Hackers typically follow the path of least resistance, meaning they will only hack as much as they have to in order to access a network. Neither government nor industry taps into the hacker community as much as they could, owing largely to the misconception that all hackers are black hats. There is also often a disconnect between the independent mindset of the hacker and the procedural structure of government agencies and large corporations. As cybersecurity becomes a more critical issue, though, government and industry must approach it with the vigilance and tenacity that characterize the hacker community.
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  • "Competitiveness, Truth, and Today's Universalities"
    InformationWeek (10/03/05) No. 1058, P. 88; Evans, Bob

    As the fissure widens between the majors college students are selecting and the skill sets in the greatest demand by employers, universities rarely shoulder the blame, as more popular targets include offshore outsourcing, the dubious future of IT as an industry, and a declining pay scale. Universities claim to be in the business of demand fulfillment, and insist that the choice of major should be left up to the students. For his part, Bill Gates conducted a speaking tour at five universities where he responded to a question about offshore outsourcing with the answer that he felt it was important to keep IT development centralized, and vowed that Microsoft would not pursue major foreign labor initiatives in his lifetime. Since that speech was given a year and a half ago, however, Microsoft has been significantly increasing its hiring activities in India, owing to a mounting shortage of qualified U.S. graduates. Critics contend that as the global marketplace has become increasingly competitive, with China, Japan, and Europe emerging as real superpowers, the U.S. university system has abandoned its responsibilities to produce the most capable graduates and future innovators in favor of vacuous multiculturalism initiatives. Hoover Institution fellow Victor Hanson argues that university presidents have succumbed to campus orthodoxy and forsaken their primary commitments to honesty and truth. One possible, if unlikely, solution would be to tie university funding to the school's demonstrated ability to produce graduates with the required skills to comprise the next generation of innovators needed to preserve U.S. global hegemony.
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  • "Double Identity"
    CIO Insight (09/05) No. 57, P. 33; Rothfeder, Jeffrey

    Recent incidents in which prestige data management companies lost sensitive data through theft—or more likely, mishandling—have shaken consumers and security experts alike, and spurred U.S. lawmakers to propose bills that introduce strict regulation. The most sweeping proposal is the Personal Data Privacy and Security Act of 2005, which sets severe monetary and criminal penalties for companies that compromise or fail to adequately protect personal data. One section of the bill mandates that companies engaged in interstate commerce and possessing at least 10,000 digital files on individuals must establish a data protection program guaranteeing that sensitive records will remain confidential and personally identifiable information will not be accessed without authorization. Publication of data privacy procedures and regular testing of system security are also required, and failure to comply with these rules could mean fines and government prosecution for violators. Data encryption is the minimum requirement for satisfying the bill's criteria, and companies that suffer data breaches must immediately publicize them, unless they employ encryption to make sensitive data illegible to information thieves. On the other hand, Cyber Security Industry Alliance executive director Paul Kurtz thinks third-party certification of data security programs could "drive insurance companies to underwrite policies that cover losses for data security breaches because they would have real data that could help them determine risk." Another critical element for fulfilling the bill's benchmarks is bolstered authentication of individuals as a measure to prevent unauthorized people from accessing or downloading information. If the effects of earlier data protection legislation such as HIPAA or the Gramm-Leach Bliley Act are any indication, the Personal Data Privacy and Security Act may very well be the driver for more responsible and secure data management among businesses.
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  • "Big and Bendable"
    IEEE Spectrum (09/05); Chalamala, Babu R.; Temple, Dorota

    Lightweight flexible electronics promises to deliver scores of long dreamt-of products, but the technology will remain a niche industry without inexpensive fabrication techniques. Another challenge to broader flexible electronics applications is the need for a plastic-compatible transistor technology capable of switching millions of times a second, and the answer may be found in amorphous silicon or organic polymers. The manufacturing processes for plastic circuits are simpler than those for conventional silicon ICs, which means plastic circuits can be theoretically fabricated at less cost. Relatively cheap inkjet printing technologies can perform the critical assembly processes for numerous kinds of flexible circuits, and companies are working on solutions that involve piezoelectric and thermal printing. Roll-to-roll processing of circuits on plastics is another area of development, but neither it nor direct printing can produce transistors that switch millions of times a second because of the limits of the material, misalignment of circuit layers, the low melting temperature of plastic, and the transistor size. The fastest transistors are those made with single-crystal materials, whose generative temperatures can far exceed the plastic melting point; to overcome this obstacle some researchers are opting for conventional single-crystal wafers. Alternative approaches include searching for plastic substrates that are less heat-sensitive than substrates already in use, or materials whose crystalline structure plays no part in switching speed. Flexible circuit applications under investigation include roll-up displays, space-based radar receivers, radio circuits that can be weaved into fabrics, disposable radio-frequency identification tags, and lightweight X-ray imagers.
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  • "Scholarly Work and the Shaping of Digital Access"
    Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (09/05) Vol. 56, No. 11, P. 1140; Palmer, Carole L.

    Much of the discourse in the academic community pertaining to the future of scholarly communication centers on the methods of publishing and disseminating articles. The digital production of access resources, such as indexes, bibliographies, and directories, figures to have a more sweeping impact on scholarly communication than even the electronic publication of books and journals. Conventional access resources indexed journal entries by discipline, usually providing bibliographic information, with the possible supplement of domain-specific descriptors and abstracts. Historically, it has been difficult to establish meaningful relationships among printed materials, as cross-referencing efforts often yield results that impede researchers. The digitization of full-text articles greatly aided the process of mining scholarly repositories, as researchers previously relied on digital abstracts and the bibliographies of other books and articles. As scholarly literature consolidates into interdisciplinary bundles, research libraries are now basing their acquisition decisions on availability, rather than on quality and perceived demand. Though scholars are relying increasingly on digital resources, online access has not significantly eroded the popularity of the printed journal. Scholars in the sciences and humanities rely most heavily on the Internet for confirmation searching, discovery searching, collecting, and consultation, or the process of collaborative research. The digital assemblages scholars have created to inform their research can be essentially divided into thematic collections, or bundles of research centered around a common theme, and literature-based discovery tools that search databases for relationships among literature. Though the tools to navigate scholarly repositories must match the disciplinary interests of the researcher, it is important to avoid the fragmentation that can come with overly specialized searches.