ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of either Gateway Inc. or ACM.

To send comments, please write to [email protected].

Volume 3, Issue 218:  Friday, June 22, 2001

  • "Silicon Valley Is Afraid a Snake Lurks in Microsoft's Windows XP"
    Wall Street Journal (06/22/01) P. B1; Buckman, Rebecca

    Microsoft last week attempted to woo a wary crowd of Silicon Valley investors at a venture capitalist conference hosted by the company. Many in the software industry are upset over Microsoft's aggressive push for the slew of Web services bundled in its new Windows XP release. In an impromptu survey at the venture capitalist meeting, only 40 percent of attendees said Microsoft would be a good partner for new tech companies. Lisa Buyer of Technology Partners said starting a new company that escapes being squashed by Microsoft has become more difficult as it has expanded into more territory. Microsoft stirred controversy by launching a campaign to get content providers to its MSN network of sites to implement its Passport service, which is crucial to the spread of many of the new services bundled with Windows XP. Another controversial feature in Windows XP are "Smart Tags," which create links to Microsoft-related Web sites on Web pages in no way affiliated with the company. Regulators such as state attorneys general Tom Miller of Iowa and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut have promised to oppose Microsoft's renewed strong-arm tactics in any new legal proceedings.

  • "CIA: Russia, China Working on Information Warfare"
    Washington Times (06/22/01) P. A3; Gertz, Bill

    Senior CIA official Lawrence K. Gershwin testified before Congress on Thursday that Russia, China, and several other nations are developing techniques for information warfare. This kind of warfare will likely play a major role in future conflicts, Gershwin said. Among the countries on the cutting edge of the field are Russia, China, Cuba, and North Korea, while India, Iran, and Iraq are still in the early stages of developing their information-warfare capabilities. Gershwin warned that concerted efforts by one of these nations could lead to the shutdown of vital military infrastructure, such as communications and power. In a war game conducted by the Pentagon several years ago, sources say, U.S. tech specialists playing the part of North Korean hackers managed to shut down all communications among the military's Pacific fleet and could have shut down the power grid of the United States' western half. Gershwin said only nations, not individual hackers, now have the capability to damage critical U.S. information systems. The main weakness of these information systems, Gershwin contend, is that they rely on private-sector firms, which may in turn contract out part of their systems to other firms, thus making it difficult to monitor the overall system.

  • "Birth of a Thinking Machine"
    Los Angeles Times (06/21/01) P. A1; Hiltzik, Michael A.

    A group of determined computer engineers, philosophers, and even theologians are developing artificial intelligence software that promises to come close to mirroring human reasoning. Although some in the AI field have scoffed at the effort to program the software, named Cyc, with common sense, project founder and Stanford doctorate Douglas Lenat says it is necessary. He compares AI researchers' unwillingness to program basic assumptions to drivers leaving a mattress on the freeway. He and his firm, Cycorp, have been working steadily for 17 years on the Cyc project and have secured backing from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the Defense Department, and GlaxoSmithKline. A limited version of the Cyc program will be made available to the public on the Internet later this summer, although a larger version will be licensed for commercial purposes. The promise of Cyc is not so much in the ingenuity of the approach, but the 17-year head start Lenat says he has over other projects in teaching Cyc what the difference is between blue and green, for example. Other programs have been developed for specific purposes, such as designing cars or diagnosing medical ailments, but none have taken an integrated approach to all knowledge, which is what Lenat says is necessary for AI to truly fulfill its promise.

  • "Outsourcing Business Steps Up as Economy Slips Down"
    USA Today (06/22/01) P. 1B; Swartz, Jon

    The sputtering economy has helped, not hurt, IT outsourcing firms. Leading IT services providers IBM, EDS, and Hewlett-Packard have all reported increases in services-related revenue in recent quarters. No. 1 services firm IBM says its outsourcing revenue for the first quarter of 2001 rose 16 percent from the first quarter of 2000. EDS closed contracts worth $7.5 billion in its first fiscal quarter, the ninth consecutive quarter in which it has set a new watermark for total contracts, and Hewlett-Packard's total service revenue in 2000 totaled $7.3 billion, up 15 percent from the year before. IBM CEO Lou Gerstner says, "When economic conditions drive business to be more efficient, services offerings help them reduce costs." Indeed, firms that outsource their IT needs usually do not have to worry about overspending their IT budget or finding the resources to fix IT problems. With these advantages on its side, the IT outsourcing market should grow to $832.9 billion by 2005, says Gartner Dataquest. However, analysts say intense competition among outsourcing firms could lead to drastic price cuts that harm those firms' bottom lines; also, firms that outsource IT operations could be charged more than the services are worth.

  • "Growing PC's Into Supercomputers, All in a Row"
    New York Times (06/21/01) P. E7; Fountain, Henry

    Parallel-processing clusters of standard PCs can equate to supercomputing power. These supercomputers can be assembled quickly, using easily available products--thus gaining the moniker COTS, or "commodity, off-the-shelf." However, despite the combined power of these clustered systems, computations are often slowed by the nature of the individual computers' programming. Some researchers are using field-programmable gate arrays, or programmable chips, to help fine-tune the processing power. Genetic scientists already use these chips to program their computers for specific DNA combination searches. Programmable chips are used in other functions that require fast and flexible functionality, such as high-end servers and broadcast equipment. They promise to speed clustered systems by clarifying the tasks assigned to each computer, although there are some skeptics. California Institute of Technology researcher Thomas Sterling says data-rich computations requiring each computer to access the database often would likely not be affected by using programmable chips.
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors will need to register.)

  • "GOP High-Tech Agenda Emphasizes Government 'Don'ts'"
    Newsbytes (06/20/01); Krebs, Bryan

    Republicans in the House of Representatives on Wednesday pledged a renewed effort on their "e-Contract with High-Tech America." This session's version of the e-Contract is notable because it foresees less legislation to promote the tech industry's interests. House Republican leaders say it is in the best interests of both the government and the tech industry if lawmakers "stay out of the way," as House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) stated. Among the goals of the e-Contract this session are a continued moratorium on Internet-related taxes, increased trade authority for the president, greater support for research and development, and updating K-12 education for today's world. Also, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chair Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said energy policy would be key to the tech industry because Silicon Valley will need power to continue its growth and development. Armey was noncommittal on efforts to introduce Internet privacy legislation, saying the government's track record on privacy issues makes it a poor judge of other industry's efforts. Another key tech-related issue before this Congress is the broadband bill sponsored by Tauzin and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), which would lessen regulation on which telecommunications firms can offer broadband service. The House is currently attempting to reconcile the original bill with a Judiciary Committee version that places broadband carriers under a regulatory body.
    For informaion regarding ACM's work on behalf of technology and public policy visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "An Open Door to the E-Mailroom"
    Washington Post (06/22/01) P. A1; O'Harrow Jr., Robert

    Wilshire Associates failed to place its email system inside firewalls that protect computer networks, allowing outsiders access to messages about the company and its employees. The company, one of America's leading money managers, handles about $10 billion of investment money, and is owned by Dennis Tito, the first tourist ever to travel in space. Vulnerable information included details of secret negotiations over a $300 million investment deal with a European firm, financial spreadsheets, comments about the firm's computer systems, passwords, account numbers, and even passport numbers. Security experts say the lapse is just another example of companies failing to take adequate steps to protect their computer systems. The head of the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center, Ron Dick, says, "The risk is substantial," referring to the potential damages that computer attacks can inflict on the economy. Dick cited the shortage of computer systems administrators and the unwillingness of businesses to commit more money to security as the main culprits. Last year, the federal government began requiring financial institutions to inform them about any computer breaches, and so far, 65 have been reported.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "For Foreign Workers Here on Special Visas, Tech Bust Hits Hard"
    Wall Street Journal (06/21/01) P. A1; Silverman, Rachel Emma

    H-1B workers who have arrived or been laid off in the last year have found the experience harrowing, as the number of consulting jobs available to them dwindles. Without a job, H-1B holders are illegal, states Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) policy. However, INS officials admit that they are lax in enforcing the law and make special exceptions for almost every worker application that arrives late. Last year, President Clinton raised the number of H-1B permits granted annually in response to tech industry cajoling, but the cooling economy has resulted in only 16,000 H-1B visa applications in February compared to 32,000 during the same month in 2000. Some consulting companies that hire out foreign workers to other companies on a contractual basis take advantage of H-1B workers, critics charge, sometimes benching them without pay. H-1B workers, afraid for their company-sponsored visas, often do not complain to the Labor Department, although that agency awarded $1.6 million to 339 people in such cases last year.

  • "State Bills Provide Rare Chance to Win Back Privacy"
    SiliconValley.com (06/19/01); Gillmor, Dan

    Two consumer privacy bills have passed the California state Senate and could set a new standard in the privacy regulations leveled at companies. Sen. Debra Bowen's measure, SB 168, would let individuals control access to their credit reports so that they can keep new credit from being added to stolen credit-card numbers. SB 168 also targets identity theft by eliminating Social Security numbers from corporate mailings to customers and on customer ID cards and the like. The other privacy measure, sponsored by Sen. Jackie Speier, will force companies to get customers' permission before sharing personal data. This legislation would enhance a new federal law passed last year that requires corporate families to allow customers to "opt out" of sharing data with outside companies but gives them free reign to share data within their corporate family. One committee staff member said the measure would likely be weakened to require companies only to act upon specific requests from individuals if the bill is to pass the General Assembly and Gov. Gray Davis.

  • "Ellison Predicts a Future With Only One Rival"
    Financial Times (06/21/01) P. 20; Daniel, Caroline

    Oracle CEO Larry Ellison on Wednesday said only his firm and Germany's SAP will remain in the enterprise software market after the next five years. He predicted the imminent demise of Commerce One, Ariba, Siebel, Ariba, Peoplesoft, and i2. Ellison also took a swipe at Palm Pilots for being too bulky as well as at IBM, which he mocked because its hardware division ran Oracle's, not its own, database software in a recent display. Ellison said he expects SAP to return to its former practice of developing projects in-house, as Oracle still does, which would mean ditching current partners such as Commerce One. Although Ellison did acknowledge the recent falloff in Oracle's applications revenue, he forecast an upturn by the end of the year, contending that the United States is "not going into a deep recession but a slowdown."
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "IBM's Almaden Research Center Marks 15 Years of Innovation and Impact"
    SiliconValley.com (06/18/01); Plotnikoff, David

    IBM's Almaden Research Center, which turns 15 years old on Thursday, continues to be one of the leading sources of cutting-edge technology. Work in the Silicon Valley lab focuses on a wide range of fields, with a special focus on storage technologies. Researchers say what makes Almaden different from the many other top-flight research institutions in the Silicon Valley area is that its scientists are able to work efficiently across disciplines. For example, in a recent case, a Almaden researcher bound for a Mt. Everest climbing expedition asked fellow researchers to develop a disk drive that would function at 20,000 feet, a design process that might normally take nine months--it took the Almaden team three months. Products and patents developed at Almaden have had an impact on everyday users' lives as well, with the center responsible for the TrackPoint cursor-pointing device in keyboards to the relational databases that drive most e-commerce and financial computer systems. Almaden researchers are continually working on ways to maximize storage space while minimizing the size of storage devices--for example, its Microdrive device can hold 1 GB of data in a device the size of a matchbook. Almaden researchers have also made a breakthrough in what was long considered a barrier to the improvement of storage devices, the so-called "superparamagnetic effect," which held that the smaller a disk's areas of magnetism grew, the greater the chance that data would be lost, by creating a magnetic coating that is no thicker than a few atoms.

  • "The Web as Dictator of Scientific Fashion"
    New York Times (06/19/01) P. D1; Glanz, James

    The Internet could prove a hindrance to scientific innovation, with researchers keeping up-to-the-minute tabs on one another's progress. Some of the scientists attending the Seven Pines Symposium in a remote area of Minnesota contend that the rapid communication possible through the Web often discourages scientists who perceive that they are following offbeat paths of research. As scientists seek funding, they may be influenced by the popularity of others' work, especially as new scientific Web sites allow everyone to keep track of how many times a certain paper is cited. Independent and sometimes divergent approaches brought about many of history's greatest discoveries, and scientists often worked in relative seclusion up until the 17th century, says University of Pittsburgh Prof. John Norton, a symposium participant. Syracuse University Prof. Rafael Sorkin points out that the physics community benefited from the lack of communication between Soviet and U.S. scientists during the Cold War.
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors will need to register.)

  • "Labor Secretary Plans Web Program"
    Wall Street Journal (06/20/01) P. B2; Chen, Kathy

    Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao will unveil nine initiatives aimed at filling tech job vacancies with skilled U.S. workers at a conference this week. She plans to announce a partnership with job site Monster.com to cross-reference job listings with the Labor Department and a training program that would prepare disabled and veteran citizens for the new economy. Chao intends to focus on providing skills to workers so they can fill the demand for tech workers. Deron Zeppelin of the Society for Human Resource Management, lauds the plan, which he calls "thinking out of the box." The conference, "21st Century Workforce," will also feature President Bush, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and other industry executives.

  • "Women Without Businessmen"
    Wired News (06/21/01); Mayfield, Kendra

    The Women in Technology International (WITI) Professional Women's Summit in Silicon Valley this year attracted a host of women leaders in the business world. Women executives and technologists offered their advice and input on how to further the advance of women in the business-technology field. Karenann Terrell, a 20-year veteran of GM currently with DaimlerChrysler, says there continues to be a need for women in technology. This need can be met by preparing women entering the workforce and school-age girls with the necessary skills, Terrell recommends. DaimlerChrysler and WITI sponsor mentoring programs that aspire to these goals. Terrell also said the gains made in the last couple years as women moved up into mid-level executive positions might be endangered by the economic slump. She says slow growth could have an adverse effect in bringing those women further up the ladder.
    To learn more about ACM's Committee on Women in Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/women.

  • "Questions for Stephen Gorevan on Building a Better Robot"
    New York Times Magazine (06/17/01) P. 17; Kessenides, Dimitra

    Stephen Gorevan's newest robot could be the toughest ever built. Designed to fix underground steam pipes for Con Ed, WISOR (welding and inspection steam operations robot) can withstand temperatures of hundreds of degrees. The robot searches for breaks in pipes and welds them shut while resisting bursts of steam. Gorevan, who has built robots for IBM, NASA, and 3M, among others, says robots will gradually get incrementally smarter. He says within 40 years robots will perform such domestic chores as window washing. However, people will not form emotional bonds with them, he says, but will view them as we do VCRs. Future robots will also be equipped with sensors, he says. Their actions will be based on what they see, hear, and feel.
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors will need to register.)

  • "Profit From Programming Practices"
    InfoWorld (06/18/01) Vol. 23, No. 25, P. 64; Biggs, Maggie

    The method of programming has not varied much in the past 30 years: programmers, usually working alone, develop code that either they or the firm for which they work own. However, two methodologies have emerged in the past decade to challenge the status quo: open source and extreme programming (XP). Both methodologies seek to lower software production costs while improving the efficiency of programming, and both also operate on the principle of collective effort and quick response to customer demand. XP deals with customer demand by splitting them into smaller tasks that can be dispatched quickly. This is done by two programmers working together, which is the reason many IT stalwarts do not give the process much credence. Using two programmers on the same project at once wastes resources and production time, XP's critics charge, and is based on an antique notion of programmers being situated in a central area; proponents say it reduces the number of bugs in software code and the amount of time needed to locate them because two people are working in concert. Open source advocates also point to the reduction of bugs, although the open source community is much larger than two people and, in large part, operates over the Internet, making it much more flexible than XP; also, unlike XP, it can point to clear successes in the software field, including Apache and Linux. IT analysts suggest that those firms interested in these two methodologies might attempt a trial run on a small project and then ask programmers for their evaluation.

  • "The Patent Tsunami"
    Interactive Week (06/18/01) Vol. 8, No. 24, P. 65; Brown, Doug

    The tech industry is calling on lawmakers to let the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) keep the money it collects from patent applications, as the funds could help the office modernize the process of granting "business-method" patents. In the past, Congress and White House administrations have taken USPTO funds and distributed them to other areas of the federal budget. Already, President Bush wants to divert for his 2002 budget $207 million from the estimated $1.35 billion that the USPTO will collect this year. Industry advocates say the USPTO needs to hire more examiners for the business-method division and provide more in-depth training on business method patents--in fact, John Love, director of the USPTO Technology Center, wants to hire 20 examiners by October. The demand for business-method patents coincided with the initial growth of e-commerce. As the number of applications for business-method patents tripled from 2,400 in 1999 to 7,800 in 2000, the USPTO started to strain itself, and the effects, say experts, has been the granting of patents that had already received approval and long delays in granting patents. Business-method patents involving tech companies--such as pop-up advertising, the "name-your-own-price" auction method, and the one-click purchasing method--are unique for the USPTO in that they are often scribbled on the back of a napkin, unlike the documented advances of a field such as medicine.

  • "Virtually Human"
    New Scientist (06/16/01) Vol. 170, No. 2295, P. 27; Soares, Christine

    Scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have undertaken the preliminary work of creating a "virtual" human being. The virtual human would model the physiological workings of an actual human being down to the cellular level: if a doctor were to prick it, it would bleed. The possible benefits of such a model are enormous, scientists say--medical researchers could study how new medicines affect the body, while the military could study the effects of new weapons. However, creating such a model is a daunting task, the scientists at Oak Ridge admit, as it will take well over 1 billion MB to configure the model, which is far more data than the Human Genome Project generated. Also, say the scientists, a standard format for biological data is necessary so that work on various areas of human anatomy and physiology that is currently scatted in many different systems at universities and private-sector labs around the world can be brought together. Funding such an endeavor is also a challenge, and the Oak Ridge scientists realize that the size and scope of what they are planning might make the government wary to spend money. Still, that has not deterred computer engineers at Oak Ridge from beginning to construct the Web portal through which researchers will one day interact with the virtual human, and the Oak Ridge team envisions interaction with the virtual human will, at some point in the future, occur through the process of total immersion so that scientists will seem to be in a 3D, virtual reality environment that models the human body.

  • "Ant Colony IT"
    Computerworld (06/18/01) Vol. 35, No. 25, P. 46; Anthes, Gary H.

    Increasingly, software developers are studying the behavior of ants to learn new design techniques. Ants are of interest because, while an individual ant is not that intelligent on its own, a colony of ants can perform a number of tasks, from finding food to caring for young, in a highly organized, efficient manner. Developers are applying this to a field known as "swarm" intelligence, in which they confront highly complex problems with a system made up of several autonomous software agents, rather than a single program based solely on pre-programmed logic. Such software agents can adapt to unexpected changes in a process, learn from their experience, and lack a single point of vulnerability. An early user of these agents includes General Motors' Saturn subsidiary, which employs them to facilitate the flow of parts on its assembly line. The agents can detect exactly what type of part is on the line at a given moment and adapt the mechanism to its specific requirements. British Telecommunications is using a similar system of autonomous software agents to route data on its network: the system mimics how ants learn the shortest path to food, leaving a trail on the best routes. Developers caution that the technology is still in the early stages and that they still have little idea what its ultimate capabilities--and limits--will be. Also, developers say, these systems are just as likely to act in a random fashion as to organize themselves.
    Click Here to View Full Article

[ Archives ] [ Home ]