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Volume 7, Issue 857: Friday, October 21, 2005

  • "Legislation Would Nearly Double H-1B Visa Limit"
    IDG News Service (10/20/05); Gross, Grant

    The controversy surrounding the H-1B visa program continues, with the introduction of draft legislation in the Senate that would allow technology companies to recapture unused visas for foreign workers going back to the early 1990s. The draft bill, which has the support of the Information Technology Association of America and the Information Technology Industry Council ITI), would allow companies to bring in another 60,000 foreign workers this fiscal year. "Our companies...need the highly skilled workers in order to grow their businesses," says Kara Calvert, director of government relations for ITI, which represents companies such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, and Intel. However, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA, which represents IT workers in the United States, has come out against the proposal because the group believes it would contribute to even greater job losses and lower wages for American IT professionals. The United States has an H-1B visa cap of 65,000 for fiscal year 2006, and the program drew that many applications two months before the fiscal year began on Oct. 1. The draft bill is expected to be added to a 2006 federal budget legislative package.
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  • "Andreessen: PHP Succeeding Where Java Isn't"
    CNet (10/19/05); Shankland, Stephen

    Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen recently predicted that the simplicity of PHP will make it a more popular scripting language than Java for Web-based applications. Andreessen noted that while Java enjoyed initial success because it was a simpler language than C and C++, it has since become more complicated than practical. While the huge community of Java users may bristle at Andreessen's remarks, some large corporate entities such as IBM are expressing interest in PHP due to its simplicity. PHP is an open source environment that can build its own scripts and also contains a large repository of ready-made scripts. PHP is in use by roughly 22 million Web sites and counting today, and changes to the software are in the hands of around 450 programmers. Java enjoys a broader scope of applications than PHP, as in addition to Web servers, it runs on PCs, mobile phones, and a host of other devices, though the open source project Eclipse believes that PHP has become a legitimate competitor. Oracle is developing software that will be compatible with both Java and PHP, such as the Java Specification Request 223 that will "help build that bridge between the Java community and the PHP community," says Oracle's Ken Jacobs. In a nod to Java's continuing relevance, Andreessen's own startup company, Ning, uses a combination of Java and PHP. Major corporate support has bolstered PHP's position, and a new version that promises faster script processing and higher-level abstraction is due out in November. Due partially to the instant availability it offers, Andreessen believes that the Web will be the home of most new applications, a trend that augurs for PHP's continued success.
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  • "Sue Companies, Not Coders"
    Wired News (10/20/05); Schneier, Bruce

    While some have called for holding individual programmers accountable for security vulnerabilities in the codes they write, a more sensible approach would place the responsibility on their employers, writes Counterpane Internet Security CTO Bruce Schneier. The reason for this is incentive, the same engine that drives all economic activity. If businesses see a financial disincentive for taking the time to ensure that their programs are of the highest quality, they are unlikely to do so. The preponderance of poor software speaks to the decision they have made, namely, that it is more profitable to suffer an occasional spate of bad publicity and short-term loss of sales than it is to invest in the extra programmers and extend the time-to-market to ensure consistently secure software. For consumers, proprietary formats, compatibility issues, and software monopolies make it difficult to exercise a conscious preference for secure software, thereby perpetuating the cycle of insecure products of poor quality foisted on them. Opening up software manufacturers to liability for insecure products would quickly reverse that trend, as they would have to shoulder the entire cost of a poor design, which clearly would be to their economic disadvantage. While some of the higher production costs of more secure software would inevitably pass on to the consumer, they would be no higher than the costs associated with using software rife with vulnerabilities.
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  • "Tech Sector Job Cuts Up 18.8 Percent So Far in '05"
    Computerworld (10/18/05); Weiss, Todd R.

    The technology industry continues to struggle when it comes to creating new jobs, as the sector has been unable to offset job losses so far this year. During the third quarter, the tech industry eliminated 41,439 jobs, to bring the total number of jobs lost through the first three quarters of 2005 to 140,696. Job losses for the quarter rose 4.3 percent from 39,720 jobs cut in the previous quarter, and losses are up 18.8 percent from the 118,427 jobs slashed during the first three quarters of 2004, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas. "The gradual slowdown in job cuts would be more encouraging if it were complemented by a rise in hiring, but job creation simply has not materialized," says Challenger CEO John Challenger. "The industry may indeed be recovering when it comes to revenue, profits and earnings, but certainly not when it comes to employment." Other industries are losing jobs, but they are also creating them. The federal government reports that the U.S. economy added nearly 2.2 million jobs over the past 12 months, but computer and communications equipment makers only contributed about 3,000 new positions. Industry consolidation has been a factor in the number of cuts, and rising energy prices could soon have a negative impact on tech companies as well.
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  • "A Journey to a Thousand Maps Begins With an Open Code"
    New York Times (10/20/05) P. C9; Darlin, Damon

    Google's map technology has been augmented by a growing contingent of volunteer programmers who add in specific features such as the location of potholes and coffee shops with free wireless Internet access, forming a mash-up of Google Maps. Other enhancements allow you to target the exact location of a given airplane by typing in a flight number, and find the selling price of a house by entering its address. Google facilitates this phenomenon by making its map-generating API software freely available on its Web site, so that anyone with the know-how can supplement a Google map with Craigslist postings or sex offender listings. The programming method is itself a combination of other programs, including Asynchronous JavaScript and XML. While mash-ups are not a new concept, their adoption by large companies where the community of users is allowed access to their code has only occurred recently. Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen has recently launched a site where the tools to make a Google-based map site are automated, so advanced programming expertise is not even necessary to create a mash-up. Allowing users to create special interest maps by making its code freely available meshes with Google's designs on becoming the preeminent organizer of the world's information. Yahoo has pursued a similar strategy of opening the APIs behind Flickr, Yahoo Shopping, and Yahoo Maps. As a condition for opening its code, Google reserves the right to place advertisements on any of the mash-ups that run on its programs, though it shares the revenue with the developer. Google also seeks to absorb a part of the revenue when one of its mash-ups becomes commercially successful on a large scale, as is happening with Trulia, a site that uses Google Maps to pinpoint real estate locations.
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  • "Why We Need IT"
    InformationWeek (10/17/05); Keefe, Patricia

    There is an inconsistency in the lamentations over an IT worker shortage by the same businesses that are pursuing offshoring initiatives and hiring long-term temporary workers to avoid paying benefits and competitive salaries. While many other industries have been effectively ruined domestically as foreign competition ascended with little resistance from U.S. policymakers, some argue that IT is in a unique category, as global leadership in that industry is essential to the country's interests. While the same argument could have been made about steel several decades ago, IT appears to be on a different course, as IT, unlike steel, is not likely to be replaced by less expensive, more versatile alternatives. Even admitting that the industry is inherently volatile, and as specific technologies emerge, fail, and supplant each other, the importance of technology itself is not likely to erode. While it may not be critical to keep the U.S. labor force equal in size to India's or China's, it is vital to retain a core of programmers and engineers who will drive the next wave of innovation. To ensure the continued stature of the United States in the global technology arena, greater cooperation between government and industry is needed. There is no stopping the development of IT in other countries. Instead, U.S. businesses must acknowledge that IT matters, first of all, and then formulate a strategy about what unique value they can bring to the table.
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  • "Fuel Cells May Soon Power Your Gadgets"
    Wall Street Journal (10/20/05) P. B3; Dvorak, Phred

    Japanese electronics companies Toshiba, Hitachi, and Fujitsu are separately developing fuel cells for cell phones, which could prove to be a more efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional lithium-ion batteries. These fuel cells run on methanol, an alcohol that is also derived from natural gas, and do not contain the hazardous metals or chemicals most batteries do. Toshiba's basic version of the fuel cell is about the size of a cigarette lighter and can be refilled from a bottle when empty, which will allow users to recharge the batteries on their wireless devices while on the go, rather than plugging the gadget into a wall socket to recharge; such a feature could become important as cell phones and other devices are called on to perform more power-consuming tasks, such as playing music or video clips. Toshiba also claims its fuel cells will allow users to talk on a cell phone for about five hours, which is nearly three times longer than the lithium-ion batteries commonly used in cell phones today. Toshiba and Hitachi are developing cell phones that run on or are recharged by fuel cells for Japanese mobile carrier KDDI., while Fujitsu is making a similar cell phone for NTT DoCoMo. All of the companies are hoping to introduce the first fuel-cell powered devices in 2007, by which time they expect regulations allowing methanol on airplanes will have been finalized. Japanese companies have been leading the way in developing fuel cells for cell phones, but U.S. device makers are more likely to research the technology to make sure they can integrate it into their products and will leave much of the fuel cell manufacturing to others, said Jerry Hallmark, who leads Motorola's energy-technology group.

  • "University Works on New Wireless Transport Protocol for... Transport"
    Computerworld Australia (10/21/05); McConnachie, Dahna

    A team of developers from the University of New South Wales is creating a new wireless protocol for public transport networks, with the aim of providing less expensive online access for passengers, as well as lowering power consumption. The On-board Communication Entertainment and Information (OCEAN) protocol can be embedded in chips aboard buses and trains, linking vehicles in a communications network. The researchers tout OCEAN as superior to other Australian wireless mobile Internet services because it is centered on a mobile on-board router, interfacing between passengers and the Internet, or between passengers and each other. Because the distance is so short, only minimal battery power is used. Provided that all trains and buses adopt the technology, it could offer substantial savings over other wireless services. Backers of iBurst, one of Australia's main wireless services, view the initiative as healthy competition. When buses are close together, the system can transmit data on the order of tens of Mbps, and when they are spread apart, it reverts to cellular services that offer speeds of at least 384 Kbps. As the vehicles pass each other, their computers will automatically connect through a small routing device. Semantic compression helps manage network traffic by creating a dynamic profile of each user and filtering the Internet search to only convey the most relevant information. Potential setbacks include the ripple effect that a single disruption could have, as well as the possibility of the network being overwhelmed by excessive traffic.
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  • "Info Science Blends Design, Technology"
    Cornell Daily Sun (NY) (10/20/05); Oran, Olivia

    A new program of study at Cornell University explores the impact of technology on culture, government, law, and the economy, with particular emphasis on the manner in which people interact with information systems and their design. Information Science (IS) offers students more insight into the broad effects of technology, rather than the technical aspects of how it operates. As a case study, IS would evaluate Google first by the design of its user interface before examining the specific technology it employs to make searching easy. Then, the focus would turn to Google's social and political impact, as well as a consideration of its relevance to copyright law. David Williamson, the director of undergraduate studies for IS in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, likened the difference between computer science and IS to that between "learning how to build a space shuttle and learning how to fly one." Many students concentrating in IS used to be computer science majors. IS offers an appealing course of study for students who are interested in computers but lack the patience to make a career out of programming. The program was launched in 2002, and the first five students to major in it graduated last spring. Currently, there are 50 students with IS declared as a major and 69 who are minoring in the program.
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  • "Does Open-Source Make the FCC Irrelevant?"
    Forbes (10/18/05); Fisher, Daniel

    Eben Moglen, a professor at Columbia Law School, says while the FCC might have been of good use during the 1920s, when it was created to assign particular frequencies to broadcasters so they would not attempt to drown one another out by increasing the transmitter power, a new generation of smart radios, combined with equally smart computer networks, is making it possible for anyone to access the airwaves without bothering anyone else. "My goal is to do all of the work it takes to be explaining to the Supreme Court in 2025 why broadcasting is unconstitutional," Moglen says. For almost 10 years, Moglen has been the chief legal officer at the Free Software Foundation, in charge of protecting the General Public License by banning the users of open-source software from charging money for it. Since open-source software is so simple to alter and use, companies have flocked to it, and millions of individuals have implemented the Linux operating system on their computers. Now, though, whole countries have dedicated themselves to utilizing open-source code, with most commercial Web servers operating on open-source Apache software. The expansion of open-source is a threat to old-time broadcasters, as well as to cell phone firms and additional holders of FCC licenses. By employing open-source software and low-powered "mesh networks" that can detect open frequencies and transmit over them, Moglen claims, "we can produce bandwidth in a very collaborative way," including sending video and phone conversations that would typically travel on commercial networks.
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  • "Furor Grows Over Internet Bugging"
    Wired News (10/20/05); Singel, Ryan

    The FCC recently mandated an extension of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to include voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, which essentially means VoIP services that can both dial into and be called from the traditional phone network will be required to comply with government-authorized wiretap standards that allow law enforcement to more easily eavesdrop on digital phone calls and record sensitive customer data after a call is completed. "What the FBI has asked for, and what the FCC has to date given them, would require any new developer of a voice-based technology to submit their application for the FBI's approval before even one single person on the Internet can try it," warned the Center for Democracy and Technology's John Morris. "If the FCC continues to give the FBI every power it asks for, we will see a tremendous diminution of innovation in the United States and innovation will move overseas to places that are more supportive of small innovators." Companies that employ a peer-to-peer architecture that does not route calls via a central server could find the ruling especially hindering, since they may not be able to comply technically. Among the P2P companies likely to be affected by the order is Skype, which eBay recently acquired, and which will be required to wiretap-enable its customers even during free P2P calls between Skype users. Satisfying CALEA would also be required of all broadband ISPs under the FCC mandate, while the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have announced plans to file a lawsuit challenging the FCC's power to apply CALEA to the Net.
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  • "Mother Nature's Storms Postpone DHS' Cyber Storm"
    Washington Technology (10/19/05); Dizard III, Wilson P.

    Originally scheduled for November 2005, the Homeland Security Department's (DHS) virtual cyberattack on the United States exercise, known as Cyber Storm, will occur in February 2006 due to resource demands and infrastructure damage related to recent hurricanes in the Gulf Coast region, according to DHS' Michelle Petrovich. The delay of Cyber Storm was requested by the electric utility industry in order to provide them with more time to repair their infrastructure networks, said University of Southern California computer scientist Terry Benzel, whose DETER Internet test bed project is part of Cyber Storm. The inter-agency exercise will test the response to a combined attack involving an Internet-based assault on both the financial sector and the power grid as well as physical attacks.
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  • "Senator: Keep U.N. Away From the Internet"
    CNet (10/18/05); McCullagh, Declan

    Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) has proposed a non-binding resolution that would back the Bush administration's support of the status quo in Internet governance and opposes the intervention of the United Nations in the operations of ICANN. Coleman's call for congressional support of President Bush and ICANN comes as Internet stakeholders are preparing to take part in the World Summit on the Information Society next month. During negotiations at the summit, ministers from other countries are expected to call for an end to U.S. dominance of Internet policy and for the United Nations to take over many of ICANN's current responsibilities. Coleman warns that taking powers away from ICANN and giving them to the United Nations or other countries could cause the Internet to become "an instrument of censorship and political suppression." Coleman further stated that if the United States fails to protect the Internet, "we risk the freedom and enterprise fostered by this informational marvel and end up sacrificing access to information, privacy, and protection of intellectual property we have all depended on."
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  • "Meet the Life Hackers"
    New York Times Magazine (10/16/05) P. 40; Thompson, Clive

    A study by University of California at Irvine researcher Gloria Mark finds that modern, high-tech office workers are frustrated by the many interruptions they regularly encounter in their daily grind; yet these interruptions, ironically enough, are critical to their jobs. In the emerging field of interruption science, researchers are trying to determine the best times and ways to interrupt the office worker so that the drawbacks of such distractions are minimized and the benefits maximized. The average worker does not return to the task he or she was doing prior to an interruption for 25 minutes after the distraction, a behavior partly attributed to the worker's constant shifting between multiple windows on the computer screen. Research shows that 40 percent of the time, workers ramble along a different tangent when an interruption ends because their short-term memory has been disrupted. An experiment conducted by Microsoft Research Labs' Mary Czerwinski demonstrated that workers perform more efficiently and recall things better when working with large-screen computers, and her team subsequently created tools that group documents and programs together to maximize screen space; another experiment yielded a tiny circular window that floats on one side of the screen, with moving dots representing important information to keep track of. Research by technology writer Danny O'Brien has shown that some of the most productive workers use single documents or emails as repositories for the most pressing tasks they have to do and data they need to remember. Meanwhile, Microsoft Research Lab researcher Eric Horvitz has spent the last eight years devising networks with artificial intelligence that monitor a computer user's behavior and attempt to predict future actions so that a optimal time for interruption can be determined.
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  • "Flexibility Is Key to Access"
    eWeek (10/17/05) Vol. 22, No. 41, P. D1; Coffee, Peter

    Accessibility is the latest focus of development technology as XML tools become more refined and data manipulation grows more integrated with conventional code. As XML use increases, however, programmers are often frustrated at their inability to query it with the same facility as an SQL database provides. For data reference, traditional programming languages rely on sequence and hierarchy, though relational databases lack both. SQL co-founder and IBM fellow Donald Chamberlin has noted that relational data are regularly structured, which permits the storage of descriptive metadata in an independent catalog, whereas XML metadata are distributed throughout the document. While databases have become more structured to deal with elaborate data with multiple values, mining XML documents for arbitrary attributes is still easier with multilevel nested components. Developers dealing with data that have been partitioned by XML can break the data down into relational tables, deal with the data entirely as a monolithic textual entity, or use the specific database platform XML representations. All of these approaches have inherent limitations, however, and a more sensible technique devised by Chamberlin is XQuery, a language built for both query and transformation. Even before it was adopted as a draft standard, XQuery enjoyed widespread support. Microsoft has made its own foray into the field with C#, which is steadily moving into the mainstream and could soon provide access to almost any type of data through a single syntax, receiving semantic and syntactic support from Microsoft Visual Studio.
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  • "K-12 Programs Draw Girls to Science"
    EE Times (10/17/05) No. 1393, P. 1; Riley, Sheila

    To help overcome the proportionate absence of girls in engineering, MathWorks is sponsoring an after-school robotics club for fifth grader girls where, in teams of three, they design a robotic device to improve handicapped access. That the environment is all female helps the children feel like they are not in competition with boys, and the project is also appealing because it makes them feel like they are helping others. The program is just one of many throughout primary and secondary education around the country aimed at boosting the participation of underrepresented demographic groups in math and science. At the forefront of such initiatives is the nonprofit Project Lead the Way (PLTW), which develops pre-engineering courses for middle schools and high schools. PLTW strives to offer a rigorous primer that is often a better predictor of a student's success in a college engineering program than grades and SAT scores. PLTW courses are taught by trained instructors in 45 states and the District of Columbia, spanning fields such as digital electronics, civil engineering, and computer-related manufacturing, with enrollments of more than 250,000 students. To address the gender disparity, PLTW has developed brochures marketing the classes specifically to girls that are distributed to parent-teachers associations at schools considering adopting the program, in the hopes of seeing a female enrollment of 40 percent, double the current portion of professional engineers. The programs seek to build girls' confidence and expose them to female role models. The issue has attracted corporate attention, as well, as a group of senior women from Texas Instruments has formed the Women of TI Fund, which supports programs promoting engineering to women and has established the Gender Parity Initiative, which trains educators about how their teaching techniques affect girls.
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  • "The Future of the Web"
    InformationWeek (10/17/05) No. 1060, P. 36; Ricadela, Aaron; Claburn, Thomas

    The next-generation Internet was the focus of discussion at the Web 2.0 conference in early October, which was preceded by the announcement of an alliance between Sun Microsystems and Google, whereby Sun will incorporate Google's Web-search toolbar in its Java run-time environment, and Google will plug Sun's StarOffice productivity software. Key aspects of Web 2.0 discussed at the conference included its use of viral marketing rather than advertising; the direct relationship between the accuracy of results and the number of people using a service; and content generated by people everywhere instead of just Web producers. Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel said his company would enhance its content distribution operations with content collection and creation so that content can be shared among many diverse audiences. Macromedia chief software architect Kevin Lynch expressed his view that the broad adoption of his company's Flash technology will depend on finding the right mix of proprietary and open-source tools. AT&T Labs' Hossein Eslambolchi pointed to a "massive transformation" of the communications industry in which passive information reception, proprietary solutions and software, regulated access, and licensed spectrum are giving way to standards-based solutions, active participation, open-source software, unlicensed spectrum, and unrestricted access. A mark of this transition will be the Web's assumption as an all-encompassing medium for voice, data, and video. The Yahoo! Research Labs-Berkeley facility illustrates a new approach to innovation that emphasizes openness: Such openness will facilitate peer reviews of the lab's research, and cultivate a variety of incentives designed to encourage contributions to the Yahoo! community from all kinds of people.
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  • "Pocket Braille for People on the Move"
    New Scientist (10/17/05) Vol. 188, No. 2521, P. 28; Biever, Celeste

    Researchers at the University of Tokyo have taken a step closer to developing a portable electronic Braille display, although Takao Someya still expresses concerns that the device may not be powerful enough. "If a blind person cannot feel the movement of the dots, the device will not be practical," says Someya. The device, a sheet of tiny plastic paddles that bend when voltage is applied across its electrodes, can fit in a pocket and roll up like a newspaper. Made up of flexible polymer and thin metal films, the display connects to a cell phone or laptop, and is better served when attempting to read a book or short messages, rather than usage while working. The prototype, which measures 16 centimeters square, weighs five grams, and is one millimeter thick, is much smaller than current dynamic displays, and is expected to be much more affordable. Current dynamic displays cost $3,800, but low-cost deposition techniques can be used to print the layers of the new display, which Someya says could make a price tag of $100 a possibility. Nanofabrication techniques may need to be used to speed the movement of the device's plastic paddles. Someya and his team even believe the display could be used to render a whole scene of images on its surface that the blind could feel.
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  • "Killer Maps"
    Technology Review (10/05) Vol. 108, No. 10, P. 54; Roush, Wade

    Consumers stand to benefit tremendously from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!'s competing efforts to turn online maps into browsers that organize information along geographic lines. Google offers a search-and-mapping service, Google Maps, that combines satellite pictures, map dragging capability, and pop-up balloons displaying locations turned up from local queries. Microsoft's MSN Virtual Earth, meanwhile, features satellite photos, pan-and-zoom, and interactive search listings. Yahoo!'s SmartView application lets users highlight points of interest through a series of buttons presented next to a traditional map. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! have all issued application programming interfaces allowing outside programmers to create online services that exploit the companies' map programs, and the results of location-driven queries--not to mention the precision of contextual ads--are bound to improve as more information is geotagged. One of the biggest advantages of modern online mapping systems is their ability to enable users to overlay their own data on maps. The latest interactive map services were made possible by improvements in hardware processing speed and storage capacity, the emergence of basic mapping-software standards, and database owners' realization that outside access to their information repositories would improve their bottom line.
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