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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 AutoChoice Advisor or ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 7, Issue 858:  October 24, 2005

  • "GAO Confirms Some E-Voting Problems"
    Federal Computer Week (10/21/05); Hardy, Michael

    The Government Accountability Office released a report on Friday confirming the widely held fears about the security and reliability of e-voting machines, citing many machines that fail to produce audit logs and encrypt ballots. Some machines were found to be so vulnerable that a ballot could be altered to the point where a vote for one candidate would look like a vote for the opponent. Some vendors were found to have installed uncertified versions of software in the machines, causing incidents of lost or miscounted votes. The problems stemmed largely from specific makes or models of machines. The report prompted an immediate response from Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who expressed disappointment at the inability of states and local jurisdictions to produce secure e-voting systems and issued a renewed call for the United States to develop a "world class" voting system. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) says, "The GAO report indicates that we need to get serious and act quickly to improve the security of electronic voting machines."
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    For information regarding ACM e-voting activities, visit: http://www.acm.org/usacm

  • "Senate Panel Votes to Boost H-1B Visa Limit by 30,000"
    IDG News Service (10/21/05); Gross, Grant

    The Senate Judiciary Committee has voted to increase the number of H-1B foreign worker visas from 65,000 to 95,000, a jump that is just half that recommended by an earlier proposal. The legislation enjoys the support of many technology vendors, and will provide the additional visas for years when the H-1B cap is reached by recapturing visas that went unused in previous years. The legislation, which must still be approved by the full Senate and the House, also calls for a $500 increase in the application cost for the visas. The technology industry campaigned actively for more H-1B visas, citing the permits as critical to U.S. competitiveness in the global arena and the $1,500 from each visa fee that goes toward training programs for U.S. workers. The legislation would "give U.S. business more ability to compete, succeed, remain competitive, and provide new revenue for training U.S. workers and for deficit reduction," said Microsoft's Jack Krumholtz. Conversely, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) opposed the increase in the cap, though it was pleased that the committee reduced the increase to 30,000 from the original mark of 60,000. IEEE's Chris McManes maintains that U.S. companies are not looking at U.S. workers first, citing the rising unemployment of U.S. hardware and software engineers: "Part of the reason the additional visas aren't needed is because of the abundance of unemployed U.S. tech workers."
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  • "Poor Nations Are Littered With Old PCs, Report Says"
    New York Times (10/24/05) P. C5; Flynn, Laurie J.

    Vast repositories of obsolete or unfixable electronic equipment shipped by the United States to developing countries pose a serious environmental hazard, according to the Seattle-based Basel Action Network. The group detailed its findings in a report that alleges U.S. recycling businesses are selling or donating equipment to poor nations in an effort to avoid paying for environmentally friendly disposal. As a result, the poorest countries in the world end up shouldering some of the largest concentrations of toxic waste. A computer monitor can carry as much as eight pounds of lead, as well as environmentally hazardous cadmium and flame retardants, and this year alone will see the obsolescence of more than 63 million computers in the United States. Much of the electronic equipment is shipped abroad under the pretense that it will be used for underfunded schools, though Nigeria claims that as much as 75 percent of the equipment it receives is obsolete or unrepairable. Each month, Nigeria receives 500 containers of used electronics, each carrying around 800 computers, for a monthly total of 400,000. Development of recycling facilities has not kept pace with the emerging technology industry in countries such as Nigeria, which has meant that unwanted equipment frequently ends up in landfills. The United States is the only developed nation not to have ratified the Basel Convention, a United Nations accord designed to curtail the exchange of hazardous waste. Members of the computer recycling industry maintain that the landfill accusation is a myth, and that the parts within old electronics have too much street value to simply be thrown away, though some, such as Scrap Computers President Graham Wollaston, admit that there is a paucity of documentation concerning where overseas shipments are headed.
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  • "Nanobots Will Help Battle Ills in Future"
    Investor's Business Daily (10/24/05) P. A4; Deagon, Brian

    Futurist Ray Kurzweil's new book envisions a world in 30 years that is defined by computers endowed with human faculties such as emotions, and the abilities to cure genetic diseases and defects and increase a human's intelligence. Programmable molecules, or nanobots, will fuse human and computer intelligence, Kurzweil believes, owing to his theory of exponential progression, where the evolution of progress gathers steam as technology becomes more powerful. Kurzweil predicts that hardware capable of simulating the human brain will be available by 2020 for $1,000, though he believes the software needed to reverse-engineer the brain is more critical. Kurzweil says the ongoing advances in software will bring machines capable of human-level intelligence, including emotions, into reality by 2020. The information that passes through the human brain's interneural connections travels a million times slower than electronics, and the calculations performed by those connections are a million times slower than electronics. The processing capacity of electronics, when endowed with human comprehension abilities, will augment uniquely human problem solving capabilities, such as pattern recognition, said Kurzweil. While Kurzweil accepts the prospect of conflicts between humans and artificial intelligence agents, he believes the preservation of civil liberties and freedom will mitigate the negative effects of a process he views as inevitable and natural. Kurzweil maintains that his predictions are simply the logical extent of the ongoing integration between humans and computers, a relationship that is evolving with the infusion of FDA-approved blood-cell sized neural implants into the human brain to repair damaged tissue.

  • "Microsoft Research Inspires Worldwide Digital Inclusion"
    PC Magazine (10/21/05); Johnson, Bary Alyssa

    Microsoft Research recently unveiled Digital Inclusion RFP (request for proposal) and Inspire Program, two initiatives that seek to foster computer research and adoption in developing nations. The two programs will examine the technological issues that prohibit advancements in health, education, and social climate, as well as ways to create greater collaboration in the academic communities of the first and third worlds. The Digital Inclusion project will solicit the community for research proposals to address implementation issues in urban and rural communities, and Microsoft will support the endeavor itself by exploring inexpensive wireless technologies that could accomplish that end. The technology needs of developing countries also demand a more precise definition, which will require collaboration among users, designers, and researchers. Central to the program is connectivity and the delivery of technologies such as mobile devices with usable interfaces to areas stricken by illiteracy and poverty. The Inspire Program encourages academic collaboration across cultures through such initiatives as its visiting volunteer program, which brings U.S. and European IT specialists and researchers to developing nations. The program will also sponsor summer schools in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and will grant proposal awards to 100 Ph.D. students in developing countries. "The idea that technology can make significant differences and positive benefits in individual lives is something that really captures people's attention," said Microsoft's Tom Healy. "We're now in a position, in collaboration with the academic research community, to do creative things and have such an impact."
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  • "The Sounds of Science"
    Wired News (10/20/05); Metz, Rachel

    University of California at Berkeley graduate student Cynthia Bruyns has developed software that enables users to determine how any real or imagined object would sound. The Vibration Lab is designed to work with sound-modeling software that is already available commercially. Users can input 3D models of the vibration patterns of objects, and then manipulate variables such as mass, flexibility, and force applied. A MIDI keyboard or mouse can be used to strike the model virtually and "play" the model. "Every model will be different in some ways, because the material will be different, which will change the actual pitch of the sound you hear, and if the shape is different, you'll hear different qualities in the tone," says Bruyns. Vibration Lab is currently limited to modeling the sounds of percussive instruments, and Bruyns believes her work would aid visual artists in their efforts to create more involved sound sculptures.
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  • "Colleges Oppose Call to Upgrade Online Systems"
    New York Times (10/23/05) P. A1; Dillon, Sam; Labaton, Stephen

    Universities are threatening a lawsuit over the recent extension of the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) that requires telephone carries to revamp and, furthermore, pay for the revampment of switching systems so federal investigators can easily obtain surveillance access. In an order issued by the FCC in August and published for the first time in the Federal Register last week, the federal government is mandating easy access to online communications given the proliferation of email and Internet telephony. The order, which vastly expands CALEA's reach, would force universities, airports, libraries, and other organizations as well as municipalities that provide Internet access to comply. Universities are not against the wiretapping provisions since the fed would be forced to seek a court order before wiretapping is permitted, but are against a spring of 2007 compliance date and the estimated $7 billion it will cost to comply. The American Council on Education's Terry W. Hartle says the organization is readying an appeal to the order, calling it the "the mother of all unfunded mandates." The FCC is considering an exemption for educational institutions from some provisions. Meanwhile, the Center for Democracy and Technology is preparing another legal challenge to the order, backed by companies and organizations that object to government control over the design of Internet systems.
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  • "Okawa Prize Awarded to University Professor"
    Daily Illini (10/21/05); Sood, Kiran

    The Okawa Foundation has acknowledged the contributions of University of Illinois professor Thomas S. Huang to the field of information and telecommunications technology by awarding him its Okawa Prize. The foundation in Tokyo, Japan, honored Huang "for pioneering and sustaining contributions to the theory of image sequence analysis and its applications to video compression, pattern recognition and animation," says Takuji Matsumoto, senior managing director of the organization. Huang's research is primarily in the areas of computer vision, image compression and enhancement, pattern recognition, and multimodal signal processing. His work involving images extends to human-computer interfaces and multimedia databases, in addition to 3D modeling, analysis, and animation of the human face, hands, and body. Huang co-chairs the Human-Computer Intelligent Interaction Research Initiative at the university's Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. The William L. Everitt Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering will receive a certificate, gold medal, and cash award of 10 million yen, which is the equivalent of about $90,000.
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  • "Feds Mull Wireless Auction for the Spectrum Left Over When TV Goes All-Digital"
    Investor's Business Daily (10/24/05) P. A6; Krause, Reinhardt

    With Congress apparently moving toward setting a 2009 deadline for all broadcasters to switch from analog to digital TV transmission, the question is what should be done with the vacated analog spectrum. Legislators intend to reserve about 30 percent of the spectrum for public safety services, and auction off the rest. With a mid 2009 deadline for implementing digital TV, the remaining spectrum would probably be auctioned off in 2008. The Congressional Budget Office reckons that $10 billion could be generated by an analog auction, assuming that phone and cable TV companies would be permitted to bid for the spectrum, ostensibly to supply broadband Internet services. Congress may save some spectrum for less established companies in an effort to drive competition and "stimulate new activity that challenges the business models of existing broadband providers--the Bells and cable," according to Legg Mason analyst Blair Levin. One challenge to the analog-to-digital switchover is the many U.S. households that still receive TV programs via analog broadcasting, so lawmakers plan to pass a law that could allocate up to $3 billion to subsidize the cost of digital converter boxes, leaving consumers to pay a $10 rather than $50 fee for the equipment. The analog spectrum apportioned for emergency responders is designed to enable interference-free communications between public safety agencies. High-tech firms such as Intel, Cisco, and Microsoft have asked Congress to set aside spectrum in the 700 MHz frequency band for new wireless services, while Stanford Washington Research Group analyst Paul Gallant doubts that competition could be spurred by a straight auction, since local Bells and cable operators would probably try to buy large spectrum segments in an attempt to block new competitors.

  • "Mind Over Matter"
    The Engineer Online (10/20/05)

    A team of researchers from Oxford University is seeking to create a technology that will interface with the brain and facilitate more instinctive control of devices such as robotic arms and wheelchairs. The goal is to bring control of external operations into the asynchronous realm, allowing for more gradual and precise control over external objects than synchronous brain-computer interface (BCI) technology can offer. Electrodes attached to the user's head enable control of a cursor or a robotic device merely by thinking about it in a traditional BCI system. The Oxford group wants to pare that system down to a single electrode through complex algorithms that would allow more nuanced control over the object, rather than a binary on/off switch. An asynchronous system would allow sophisticated controls over factors such as speed and the amount of movement exerted, and would be a watershed in the development of BCI technology. An asynchronous system would read a user's thoughts and guide the device accordingly, as opposed to existing systems which prompt the user for specific directional movements on a computer screen. Detecting clear signals from the cluster of neurons simultaneously firing inside the brain will be a central challenge to the development of any asynchronous system. Applications beyond helping seriously disabled people could include gaming and entertainment, as well as vehicle control.
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  • "Intel Examining 'Indoor GPS' Technologies"
    Medill News Service (10/24/05); Crouch, Eric S.

    Intel recently detailed a precision-location project as a potential solution to the problem of maintaining one's participation in a teleconference while roaming throughout an indoor setting. The project seeks to make a laptop capable of triangulating its own position in relation to other office-based devices through the use of wireless networks and fixed access points. Thus the laptop, when carried by the user, would track its movements and display the teleconference on its screen, and then switch the presentation back to the desktop monitor once the user returns to the office. In a live presentation in Washington, D.C., Intel engineer Stuart Golden demonstrated the laptop's ability to alert the user when he moves out of network range. Possible applications of the technology include letting someone know their dog has wandered out of the yard, choosing the most efficient printer on a network for a pending print job, and ascertaining the fastest route to an emergency exit.
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  • "EFF Launches Contest to Design GUI for Tor"
    NewsForge (10/18/05); Willis, Nathan

    The Tor project has unveiled a design competition as a way to gain some input on how to design and implement a public user interface for its anonymous Internet communications programs. "Tor developers are really good at network-level server stuff, but we have much less experience at making good interfaces," says developer Roger Dingledine. Tor runs as a background daemon process, configured through a traditional torrc config file, but users do not gain any information concerning connection status, error messages, or application bandwidth. The lack of a graphical interface would likely mean that most people would not use the tools that make it easy to protect privacy, anonymity, and security while online. "Usability for privacy and security systems is a particularly tricky topic, because in many cases the usability of the system affects its security," says Dingledine. The design sketch contest ends on Oct. 31, and the working implementations contest wraps up Jan. 31, 2006. Leading security and interface experts from the network security and human-computer interaction communities will serve as judges. The Electronic Frontier Foundation will announce the winners at the 2006 Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security in Pittsburgh.
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  • "Balloon Beams Broadband Internet From Stratosphere"
    New Scientist (10/19/05); Knight, Will

    The Capanina Consortium has tested a 1.25 Gbps broadband connection provided by a helium balloon hovering in the stratosphere. The rate of data transmission is thousands of times faster than a normal home connection, and the developers are hopeful that the craft might offer affordable Internet access to the developing world and facilitate communication in disaster areas. The University of York's David Grace noted that the stratospheric balloons could provide an easy communications infrastructure in areas where none exists. One of the principal concerns is preventing the balloon from interfering with other aircraft, as the balloon's controllers can regulate its altitude, but they cannot steer it. Powerful antennae were used to power the balloon's radio system on the Wi-Fi protocol 802.11b, enabling the normally short-range signals to reach the balloon's altitude. While the communications link only transmitted data from the balloon to the ground, future enhancements will feature bi-directional communication. To track the balloon as it drifted across the sky, the team employed GPS technology and a modified telescope.
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  • "Sun Official Says Open Source Needs Governance"
    IDG News Service (10/18/05); Kirk, Jeremy

    The open-source software community is not only populated by good people, which is why Sun chief open-source officer Simon Phipps called for more of a focus on governance for the diverse collective of developers, during his keynote address at the O'Reilly European Open Source Convention in Amsterdam. Phipps, who supervises 22 open-source communities at Sun, suggested that there should be standards for promoting good governance among developers. He said, "You are only free if the place where you get your supply is standardized. Standards lead to substitutability." Phipps also wants to reduce the number of available licenses. He said that although patent grants, compulsory licensing, and non-assert covenants are alternatives to software and hardware patents, they cannot solve the problem on their own.
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  • "Bush Administration Opposes U.N. Net Control"
    CNet (10/20/05); McCullagh, Declan

    President Bush brought up the topic of Internet governance this week while speaking with European Commission President Jose Barroso on Tuesday, U.S. officials said without elaborating. Several developing nations are calling for more control of the Internet, and the European Union recently gave its support to an Internet governance reform proposal. But U.S. officials made it clear this week that they are in no mood to change the current structure of Internet governance. U.S. ambassador David Gross says the United States certainly is interested in finding common ground on the issue but has no intention of "giving away our principles in order to get there." Gross also says the United States has made it clear to the European Union that it does not think a "cooperative model" for multi-governmental control of the Internet is a good idea. The State Department's undersecretary for economic, business, and agricultural affairs, Josette Shiner, also drew a line in the sand. "For all of you involved in Internet governance and the model that has been set up, we support it and we believe it's what's good for the world," Shiner said. "In no way can we imagine a situation in which we will allow what works very well to be undone." Businesses have become concerned about the various proposals being floated by the United Nations and some of its members. For example, the U.N. has in the past proposed a tax on email and the creation of an international tax agency, and some U.N. nations have called for taxes on domain names to fund "universal access."
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  • "AJAX Puts the Browser to Work"
    InfoWorld (10/17/05) Vol. 27, No. 42, P. 22; Asaravala, Amit

    Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) not only delivers full-featured browser-based user interfaces for consumer-oriented applications, but also holds significant benefits for enterprises. AJAX can boost the efficiency of networking and facilitate the implementation of zero-footprint software. Achieving the first goal involves dividing Web pages into page-independent, refreshable data compartments, and writing applications that act on browser-based rather than server-based data; this substantially reduces the amount of data and display information that must be routed over the network. AJAX's second benefit can be realized by maintaining the code in a central area and deploying it online to anybody who wants it, instead of installing the same applications on multiple office desktops. Web developers should be mindful that coding AJAX applications carries design challenges that could be problematic for unprepared users. Back buttons on AJAX-enabled sites, for instance, might unload an entire application instead of reverting a Web page to an earlier state, as users usually expect. AJAX acronym originator Jesse James Garrett of Adaptive Path expects users to accustom themselves to AJAX-enabled interfaces, as long as such interfaces boast intelligent design.
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  • "Taking the Internet to the People"
    IEEE Spectrum (10/05) Vol. 42, No. 10, P. 32; Salvador, Tony; Sherry, John

    It is possible for the vast majority of computer or Internet-illiterate people to benefit from Internet access, if the technology's deployment is informed by careful research into the social networks and local resource mobilization strategies that have laid the groundwork for successful public Internet facilities. Intel ethnographers Tony Salvador and John Sherry cite the employment of such facilities as tools for solving actual problems, especially in the developing world. Rural residents in India's Morena District and elsewhere can navigate local government's tangled bureaucracy more easily and conveniently through dial-up Internet kiosks set up by the Drishtree company, which appoints "soochaks" to enter and upload residents' complaints, claims, requests, and other documents to the district office hub, for a small fee. Peru's cabinas publicas differ from Internet cafes in that people use them to communicate with far-flung relatives, friends, and associates in a way that is cheaper than conventional methods. The facilities feature voice over Internet protocol so customers can make less expensive international calls, and can also show movies downloaded off the Net at less cost to audiences than traditional cinemas. The cabinas typically contain 10 or 20 PCs linked to the Internet through shared DSL lines, and they are independently owned. Proliferating throughout Eastern Europe and Africa is the telehaz (telecottage), a facility whose legal and operational structures are consistent, but whose goals, services, and products are tailored to the specific needs of the local community, its clientele, and its operators.
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  • "Smart Wi-Fi"
    Scientific American (10/05) Vol. 293, No. 4, P. 86; Hills, Alex

    The growing popularity of Wi-Fi Internet access is spurring engineers to upgrade the technology in order to deliver punctual, reliable service to users. Second-generation "smart Wi-Fi" enhancements seek to prevent radio-based local-area networks (LANs) from being swamped by traffic, thus avoiding delays and service disruptions. Four issues are of paramount concern to Wi-Fi network designers: Preventing service disruptions caused by radio transmissions of poor quality; avoidance of slow link speeds and long delays; providing sufficient security; and complete blanketing of the coverage area. Smart Wi-Fi technology addresses congestion through uniform distribution of clients among access points (APs), a feature known as load-balancing. To contend with changing radio conditions, smart Wi-Fi systems can expand or contract cells--service coverage areas--appropriately, which could potentially streamline the wireless LAN design effort. Dynamic channel assignment makes the execution of channel assignment during the original design process unnecessary. Wi-Fi security upgrades include augmented encryption and more secure means of access to encryption/decryption keys via IEEE 802.11i and Wi-Fi Protected Access. Some Wi-Fi equipment manufacturers have introduced additional safeguards, such as intrusion detection.
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