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Volume 4, Issue 407: Friday, October 4, 2002

  • "Government Releases Top 20 Vulnerability 'Hit List'" Computerworld Online (10/03/02); Verton, Dan

    The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) on Wednesday issued its third annual target list of the top 20 Internet security flaws, which was compiled by the SANS Institute and the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC). This year's list illustrates the growing involvement of security vendors in the initiative to boost security by furnishing a raft of product upgrades designed to patch the holes. The NIPC's Bill Murray says the listed vulnerabilities are responsible for about 80 percent of major network intrusions, and stresses that vendors will now enable people to scan for such holes, whereas in the past companies were left to their own devices. The GSA also announced that federal agencies will be able to test for the vulnerabilities and get help to eliminate them through its SafeGuard contracting program. Foundstone and Internet Security Systems are among the vendors offering product upgrades, while Qualys will provide a free scanning service that targets the top 20 flaws without requiring organizations to deploy new software on their networks; Advanced Research and The Nessus Organization have also released free open-source scanning tools. U.S. Air Force CIO John Gilligan lauds the scanning applications for being affordable, which will allow a broad range of organizations to use them. At the same time, he and Critical Infrastructure Protection Board Chairman Richard Clarke are urging the software industry to be more proactive in the improvement of baseline security and product reliability. Gilligan called on software industry leaders "to work together to establish new standards of software quality, as well as effective methods to reduce the impact of current vulnerabilities."
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Congress Asked to Unpick Copy Lock Laws"
    CNet (10/03/02); McCullagh, Declan

    Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and John Doolittle (D-Calif.) introduced legislation on Thursday calling for amendments to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that would allow consumers to circumvent anti-copying technology measures for legitimate purposes. The bill includes an exemption permitting people to distribute code in order to further "scientific research into technological protection measures;" a fair-use provision for bypassing safeguards; and legal authorization to "manufacture, distribute, or make noninfringing use of a hardware or software product capable of enabling significant noninfringing use of a copyrighted work." The bill would also require vendors of copy-protected CDs to include a clear warning label notifying consumers that the discs feature anti-copying measures that could prevent them from being read by certain players. The introduction of the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act comes after more than a year spent drumming up support; companies and organizations that Boucher and Doolittle were able to get on their side include Intel, Verizon, Gateway, Philips, Sun Microsystems, the American Library Association, and the Consumers Union. Copyright holders such as movie studios, publishers, and music labels are likely to oppose the bill fervently. Meanwhile, Heritage Foundation lawyer James Gattuso cautions that certain provisions such as the warning label requirement could be an added burden to consumers, and lead to rising prices. Although it is unlikely the Boucher-Doolittle bill will be passed before the end of the year, it was referred to the House Commerce Committee, where it might fall on more sympathetic ears. Meanwhile, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) proposed a bill on Wednesday that also called for DMCA revisions so that consumers could practice fair-use rights and copy digital files "for archival purposes."

    For information about ACM's activities regarding DMCA, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "More Patents, Please!"
    Wall Street Journal (10/03/02) P. B1; Tam, Pui-Wing

    Technology companies are pushing their staffs to produce more patents, which can boost the bottom line with licensing fees and strengthen their competitive edge; many firms are trying to encourage patent generation by offering engineers incentives such as a share of the licensing fees, stock options, and cash, and hold regular brainstorming sessions to foster more ideas for patents. Hewlett-Packard, for example, awards money to engineers for each patent idea submitted, applied for, and published in a trade journal. IBM is currently the leader in terms of the number of patents it receives on a yearly basis, and has held this position for nine years--it was issued 3,411 patents in 2001, compared to 1,700 four years before. Meanwhile, Korean and Japanese electronics companies lead in terms of effort, having captured eight of the top 10 spots among patent recipients in 2001. Microsoft has also shown enormous growth in terms of the software patents it received between 1995 and 2001, which skyrocketed from 113 to almost 2,000. However, experts warn that excessive patent enforcement can have a damaging effect on innovation. Silicon Valley lawyer Gary Reback observes that companies are increasingly threatening or discouraging other companies with patents. "Large tech companies aren't particularly quick and nimble [at product development], but they are sitting on a wealth of patents, so they use those to prevent smaller companies from beating them to the punch," says 3Com CEO Eric Benhamou.

  • "Robotic Vision"
    NewsFactor Network (10/03/02); Diop, Julie Claire

    Engineers at Caltech and the University of Southern California (USC) are investigating a form of robotic vision known as selective-attention modeling, which is based on neuroscientific research that suggests the human brain's recognition of salient objects is essential to environmental perception. Robots are being equipped with pan-and-tilt cameras to find objects, and being programmed to notice those objects because they stand out in some way. Machines being developed by USC researcher Laurent Itti build various maps based on contrasting features such as color, motion, orientation, light intensity, and edges, then integrate them into a composite. For instance, the robots would pick out a bright purple tree house along a wooded road based on its striking color as well as the contrast of its horizontal profile to the vertical trees. Itti and Christof Koch of Caltech are also programming robots to find specific objects with this method. Many robots currently see via object segmentation, which IRobot researcher Polly Pook says is unreliable and cumbersome. Using this technique, robots examine and extract objects from pictures, and then extrapolate the way the objects look at various angles and scales so they can search for them in an actual environment. However, visual selective-attention modeling has its own drawbacks: Robots still cannot distinguish between textures, but engineers hope that the incorporation of texture-mapping will solve this problem. Scientists are also considering how other sensory input--touch, for example--can be added to the composite map.

  • "Quantum System Keeps Secrets Safe"
    MSNBC (10/02/02); Boyle, Alan

    British scientists report in this week's issue of Nature that they successfully transmitted encryption keys on a weak beam of light between two mountaintops in Germany across a distance of 14 miles--the longest distance yet for a transmission of this type, according to John Rarity of QinetiQ. The experiment involves quantum cryptography, in which the key's digits are paired with individual photons whose state is easily changed whenever the key is intercepted and read. Rarity believes that the method could be used in conjunction with satellites to send encryption keys to any receiving station on Earth within seven years. However, he notes that technical hurdles must be overcome first: The system must be improved so that it can better tolerate leakage of information-carrying light particles, which increases along with the distance the beam must travel. New satellites must also be built and launched into orbit, Rarity explains. He expects that the military will probably be the first institution to use quantum cryptography, which will also offer insurance in the event current encryption technology becomes outdated. Rarity notes that quantum cryptography systems are currently being used in hard-wired systems. "We already have, in Europe, a little company that will sell you a fiber-based system, and were looking into commercialization of a free-space system [that would work over] shorter ranges--rooftop to rooftop," he says.

  • "The Mac OS That Can't Be Tweaked"
    Wired News (10/01/02); Kahney, Leander

    Apple Computer has reversed its tact of letting individual users make changes to the Macintosh operating system with the new OS X. Although the company published the application program interfaces of previous operating systems, CEO Steve Jobs has stopped the practice and closed off the operating system to third-party developers. When Jobs returned to Apple several years ago, for example, he discontinued the Appearance Manager, which was a company-sponsored tool for customizing the look and feel of the Mac OS. In previous years, Macs were renowned for the ease in which people could customize the operating system, making it look different and adding new features, and Apple incorporated many of the improvements in later versions. Even OS X owes much of its lauded design and function to work done previously by independent developers. Third-party developers and individual hackers still can reverse-engineer OS X operations and create work-arounds, but Apple engineers are not allowing those improvements to continue by changing the code with new updates, such as the recent Jaguar upgrade. Customization can also lead to difficulties for the company, since tweaks can make the operating system unstable and customer support cannot help users with off-standard versions. But Lloyd Wood, an active member of the Mac OS customization community, says that Apple is doing itself a disservice by shunning the developer community that provides free research and development, and improvements that make the company's products famous.

  • "U.N.: Robots Could Lighten Load of Household Chores"
    Reuters (10/03/02)

    The U.N. Economic Commission for Europe's World 2002 Robotics Report issued on Thursday suggests that robots could soon ease the burden of housework from homeowners, thanks to falling prices, rising labor costs, and technological advancements. The report also predicts a huge upswing in the industrial use of robots, which could offset a loss of manpower due to retiring workers. Out of 760,000 robots used in industry by the end of 2001, 360,000 were based in Japan, 220,000 were in Europe, and 100,000 were in North America; the report estimates a 50 percent increase in Europe and a 30 percent increase in North America, contributing to a total of 965,000 industrial robots operating by 2005. Meanwhile, industrial usage of robots in Japan is expected to decline slightly in the next few years, due to the prolonged recession and the country's early start in "robotizing" industry. Some 21,500 domestic robots were sold worldwide in 2001, but the U.N. report estimates that that number will skyrocket to more than 700,000 over the next three years.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Invisible Circuits in a Flash"
    PhysicsWeb (10/02/02); Pennicott, Katie

    Scientists in Japan have discovered a transparent material that acts as an electric conductor when exposed to ultraviolet light, paving the way for invisible computer chips. Such chips could be unnoticeably integrated into LCDs and other optical devices. Although most transparent materials are not conducive to electric charges, the team from the Japan Science and Technology Corporation discovered a unique process in which electric conductivity could be induced. The original admixture was made from calcium oxide and aluminum oxide and naturally formed a thin crystal lattice structure, but when heated in hydrogen a single hydride ion became trapped in the mesh structure. With the hydride ions, the material still acted as an insulator, but after being exposed to ultraviolet light, the hydride ions ejected extra electrons, which move atop the layer's surface and increase the material's conductivity by a factor of more than 10 billion. The scientists said electric circuits could be formed by shining ultraviolet light through a mask to create a stencil effect on the material. Only the areas exposed would be conducive, and act as electric "wires," while the non-exposed areas would act as insulators. Future applications could also include high-density optical storage, the team predicted.

  • "Upgrades to Boost [email protected] Alien Search"
    Space.com (10/01/02); Jong, Diana

    [email protected], the grid computing effort that recruits home users to help search for signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life, will be upgraded with new software and switch to a telescope that can scan a greater area of sky. The first software release will be the online AstroPulse program, which will analyze three years' worth of data compiled from the Arecibo radio telescope for signs of broadband signals; such signals are theoretically emitted from the evaporation of quantum black holes, according to David Anderson, the project director of [email protected] at the University of California, Berkeley. Concurrent with the release of AstroPulse will be the introduction of Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Networking Computing (BOINC), a software layer that parcels out the various parts of the [email protected] program, allowing changes to be implemented without interrupting the screensaver that harnesses the idle processing power of home computers, or asking users to download upgrades. Anderson says that BOINC will significantly reduce the installation cycle for new [email protected] versions, which used to take as long as a year. Furthermore, BOINC users will be able to smoothly integrate [email protected] with other computing projects, such as the [email protected] protein folding simulation program. Processing power can also be divvied up between projects with the program. Meanwhile, [email protected] will transition from Puerto Rico's Arecibo telescope to Australia's Park Observatory telescope, which has 40 degrees more scanning range as well as a multibeam receiver, which records data from multiple points in the sky, making it easier to distinguish between transmissions from outer space and those that originate on Earth.

  • "Super Goop"
    ABCNews.com (10/02/02); Onion, Amanda

    MR fluid is liquid material that stiffens into a more clay-like consistency when it is subjected to a magnetic force, and researchers are studying potential applications in robotics and building stability, among other things. The substance is already being incorporated into exercise bicycles and home step machines, where it provides resistance, while certain vehicle shock absorption systems and prosthetic limbs also use it. A typical professional MR fluid consists of an engineered hydrocarbon and minute iron fillings, and the material has been tweaked to the point where its stiffness can be adjusted 1,000 times per second. MIT and NASA researchers will be sending a sample of MR fluid to the space station next month so that they can study particle interaction in a low gravity environment, and thus draw insights on how to improve the fluid's performance and prevent clumping. The problem of clumping is being addressed to some degree by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, who recently synthesized an anti-clumping additive. Such a breakthrough could be very important in the performance of building damping systems, in which motion detectors trigger an appropriate magnetic pulse to stiffen the MR fluid in order to counteract movement and prevent shaking. Meanwhile, MIT chemical engineering professor Alice Gast notes that adding the fluid to robotic limbs and hands could enable them to mimic the natural movement of their human counterparts.

  • "Working in IT: Where Has All the Fun Gone?"
    TechRepublic (09/30/02); Hiner, Jason

    The image and purpose of IT has changed significantly since the late 1990s, when insatiable demand for high tech and IT professionals made it cool to be a tech enthusiast and for companies to invest heavily in new technology, observes TechRepublic writer Jason Hiner. In the wake of massive layoffs and shrinking tech budgets and staffs has come a repurposing of IT, in which workers now concentrate primarily on refining the performance, reliability, and security of internal systems, rather than deploying new software and hardware. Hiner explains that this is actually part of a normal business cycle, in which a period of growth marked by new ideas and initiatives is followed by a period of consolidation, when those projects are assessed and scaled back or polished accordingly. The drawback is that the work carried out during the consolidation cycle is less interesting, and is often characterized by tedium, which may cause workers to reconsider their IT career paths. However, Hiner believes that the start of a new growth cycle "is just around the corner," and writes that IT is actually becoming more important to society. He cites the implementation of self-scanning checkout terminals in Midwest department and grocery stores as an example. Such a system, which only requires one worker to provide tech support, illustrates how technology is automating various societal tasks; furthermore, the IT department plays a key role in the development and maintenance of such technology. Hiner predicts that these trends will cause IT departments to grow both in terms of value and personnel, and adds that "The lessons of the current consolidation period will be of critical value for the next growth phase."

  • "A Moment of Clarity"
    IEEE Spectrum Online (10/01/02); Moore, Samuel K.

    MIT researchers say a new anti-glare coating could lead to innovation in optic technologies. Although traditional anti-glare coatings allow for the near-complete transmission of light--which is important in solar cell panels and optical telecommunications as well as displays--MIT's new nanotechnology-based coating is much easier to apply, opening up a number of new possibilities. The coating is applied in a simple dip procedure, where objects to be coated are alternately dipped in two water-based chemical solutions, adding a single molecular layer at a time. The technique allows for significantly more control over the coating's thickness so that different wavelengths of light can be allowed to pass through. Besides being very thin, the coating also incorporates nanoscale air-filled pores, the concentration of which can also be controlled so that refraction levels can be optimized. The coating sets at much lower heat levels than other coatings, and can be applied wherever the water-based solutions can go. Research leader Michael F. Rubner says that because the new coating is so much easier to apply and serves many purposes, it should lead to new innovations in optical components. Adding or removing acid to the coating can change its composition from porous to nonporous and back again, a property that could find use in drug delivery systems, while the replacement of the nanoscale pores with silver particles could be used to fabricate mirrors.

  • "From Humble Materials, a Burst of Power for Batteries"
    New York Times (10/03/02) P. E5; Eisenberg, Anne

    The lithium cobalt oxide most rechargeable batteries use is relatively expensive, and this has prompted research into cheaper alternatives. Dr. Yet-Ming Chiang of MIT reports in the October issue of Nature Materials that his team has successfully raised the conductivity of low-cost lithium iron phosphate to a level equal to that of lithium cobalt oxide. "By inducing inherent conductivity by this eight orders of magnitude, the group has transformed the electrical properties of the material substantially," writes Argonne National Laboratory's Michael Thackeray in an accompanying article. Battery industry consultant Ralph J. Brodd adds that the material is highly stable. Dr. Chiang estimates that the raw materials the compound is made from cost about 25 percent of those that go into lithium cobalt oxide. It took roughly a year to conduct the experiments, in which a metal doping agent was added to the lithium iron phosphate; the trials yielded over 50 samples of the material. Dr. Chiang has since co-founded a battery technology company that has licensed the process and is currently working to commercialize it, but experts such as Dalhousie University's Jeff Dahn say that his material is probably best suited for large batteries where inexpensive power is the primary concern. Such batteries could find their way into hybrid gas-electric vehicles and power tools. Although lithium-based rechargeable batteries are used in portable electronic devices such as laptops, the new battery material does not yet store enough energy for its size to offer a practical alternative, says professor M. Stanley Whittingham of the Institute for Materials Research at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)

  • "Where the Girls Aren't"
    Raleigh News & Observer Online (10/02/02); Dyrness, Christina

    For over 10 years, educators have tried to get girls interested in pursuing computers, math, and science as a course of study and a possible career using a broad range of programs, and now researchers at North Carolina State University are studying whether such programs have had any noticeable effect. Their project involves following the progress of middle-school girls who participate in the "Girls on Track" summer day-camp program, and they have received $500,000 from the National Science Foundation to continue the initiative. The money will help them see if the participants continue to flourish in math, technology, and science through high school and early college. College is particularly critical, since many female computer science and engineering majors drop out at that point. It is estimated that women account for less than 28 percent of U.S. computer science college graduates and less than 20 percent of the technical workforce, and North Carolina State computer science professor Mladen Vouk believes more women choosing technology-oriented careers would boost the nation's edge in terms of international competition. Vouk says, "The country would be better off in the sense of not having to import work from overseas or outsourcing work overseas." Sarah Berenson, director of North Carolina State's Math and Science Research and Development Center, adds that women who do not study math and science could restrict themselves from attaining better or higher-paid jobs. Although recent statistics indicate that more women are slowly entering the technical workforce, the real trick is changing the image of science, math, and technology as male-dominated areas.

    To learn about ACM's Committee on Women and Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "Prospects Dim for Future Tech Pros Prepping for Spring Job Scramble"
    InformationWeek Online (09/30/02); George, Tischelle

    People who earn bachelor's degrees in technology fields this year will have an even tougher time finding jobs. The National Association of Colleges and Employers says companies are planning to hire fewer college graduates this year compared to last year. In addition, fewer companies are recruiting entry-level IT workers at campuses, says the association's information director Mimi Collins, even though autumn is normally the busiest recruiting period for spring graduates. Recruiter Don Weis says the trend is due to an already large pool of talented professionals. Meanwhile, firms are also requiring candidates to have work experience as well as experience with a specific application or system. An Information Technology Association of America survey of more than 700 hiring managers revealed that demand for IT professionals plummeted by 27 percent in the last quarter. The survey predicted 834,727 IT jobs will be filled by next summer. ITAA President Harris Miller says the current lack of jobs may discourage many students from pursuing studies in IT, which could result in a job shortage in the future.

  • "Sounds Could Make Smart Devices Smarter"
    NewsFactor Network (10/02/02); Martin, Mike

    Parham Aarabi of the University of Toronto says he is incorporating sound navigation into electronic devices, and he predicts that it will be five to 10 years before such communications devices are offered to consumers. Aarabi claims his system involves equipping devices such as cell phones and handheld computers with microphones. One of the advantages the system offers, he explains, is better noise filtering for cell phones. Both the natural sonar of creatures such as bats and the artificial sonar generated by submarines and satellites rely on echo-location, in which the positions of objects are located by bouncing waves off them, notes Vaughn Pratt of Stanford University. However, he adds that finding objects using Aarabi's method, like eyesight, is dependent on the available sources of sound or light. "Unlike radar and unlike bats, which emit signals and 'listen' to the echoes that return, my technique is passive," says Aarabi. "It only listens to the active speakers, compares them to its own internal map of where the speakers should be, and based on that, finds its own position and orientation."

  • "Welcome to Feedback Universe"
    Forbes ASAP (10/07/02) Vol. 170, No. 7, P. 20; Malone, Michael S.

    A feedback loop--a closed system in which the results of an event send back data that helps shape the event in the future--is being applied to practically every aspect of life. Feedback, in its most basic form, is either negative--progressing toward balance and stasis via the subtraction of error with each cycle--or positive, in which the variations of each cycle accumulate, a potentially dangerous scenario. The human brain is thought to be a highly sensitive feedback system that actually processes the input it receives so that it can modify it. One theory goes that the sensory data the brain picks up is overwhelming; in order to cope, the brain essentially arranges that data into a simplified perception of reality that only focuses on the most vital elements. Terry Sejnowski of the Salk Institute postulates that it is during sleep that positive feedback loops are processed so that the brain can fine-tune its view of reality upon awakening. Feedback is also being applied to the evolution toward thinking machines: Already, feedback technology is used by the automotive industry, and research efforts are underway to create reconfigurable computer chips that operate on the feedback principle. British scientist Steve Grand believes that feedback will ultimately result in a convergence of semiconductor technology and biology into "squishy" protein-based machines. Feedback will likely become pervasive to the point that humanity will be asked to surrender its fate to intelligent, adaptive machines, while the danger is that an overdose of negative feedback results in a static experience.

  • "Fighting Terrorism With Technology"
    CIO Insight (09/02) No. 18, P. 46; Baker, Edward H.

    Harvard University professor Lewis M. Branscomb says that industry and government must work together so that an effective IT counterterrorism strategy can be implemented. He co-chaired the National Academies' Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, which issued a June report that listed IT infrastructure vulnerabilities; two key concerns that Branscomb cites are terrorists using cyberattacks to amplify more conventional attacks and hamper recovery efforts, and the general insecurity of the Internet and other components of the critical infrastructure. Branscomb says the lack of a security market has prompted most infrastructure industries to await the announcement of a government regulatory policy, but he does point out two factors that could spur corporate improvement of network security--lower insurance rates for companies that deploy better security, and liabilities for economic loss suffered as a result of non-deployment. Branscomb notes that both corporate and academic efforts to beef up IT security are insufficient, and his committee has recommended that the federal government fund long-term basic research and get top industry experts involved. He says that government must lead industry through aggressive investment in attack analysis and simulation so that the private sector can develop the best solutions accordingly. To do this, the government must leverage its intelligence resources in order to determine the most pressing vulnerabilities for industry to focus on, and Branscomb believes the government should cover half the cost of implementing fixes. He acknowledges that the committee's report gives a higher priority to information fusion--the tapping of analytical and intelligence technologies to anticipate terrorism--but notes that the project is hampered by a lack of cooperation between institutions, as well as the sheer arduousness of the task.

  • "Data Extinction"
    Technology Review (10/02) Vol. 105, No. 8,; Tristram, Claire

    The built-in obsolescence of digital technologies threatens the preservation of data--photos, documents, video, etc.--especially since decoding programs are rendered out-of-date by evolving computer languages and operating systems. Migration is one of the most popular proposed solutions; it involves updating or rewriting files or programs to new formats on an individual basis, a painstaking and time-consuming process that does not guarantee 100 percent data retrieval. Emulation attempts to bypass rewriting by building programs that mimic older hardware to enable old files or software to run on newer systems. The drawback is that it gives rise to inconsistencies and discrepancies. Meanwhile, libraries and archivists around the world are developing encapsulation, in which digital objects are clustered in a descriptive "wrapper" that includes instructions for future decoding; text files seem to be the best candidates for this form of preservation, but more complicated files may not be so easily saved. Raymond Lorie of IBM's Almaden Research Center has his own solution: The universal virtual computer, a software and hardware-independent program that continuously works to preserve digital objects from the moment of creation. However, demand for pursuing such an approach is low. Yet another solution is to preserve decoding specifications on a tried and true recording medium--paper. Paper-based records can last 500 years or more, while digitally-created files may not last five years. Abby Smith, director of programs at the Council on Library and Information Resources, is working with the Library of Congress to push Congress to find a long-term solution to storing digital information. She says, "Once you begin to understand what's going at a technical level, you realize that what's lost could be catastrophic."

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