Volume 5, Issue 494: Monday, May 12, 2003
- "Open Source Lobby Struggles in EU Patent Debate"
InfoWorld (05/08/03); Meller, Paul
Open-source and free software advocates held a conference in Brussels on May 8 to protest against a Europe-wide software patent protection directive drafted by the European Commission that the European Parliament will vote on in early June. However, some Parliament officials said that conference organizers nullified the event's purpose by not inviting key legislators such as Arlene McCarthy. "It's not smart to snub the rapporteur on the lead committee responsible for guiding this debate," declared one anonymous official. Although the proposal is less restrictive than similar legislation in the United States, conference attendee and AB Strakt co-founder Laura Creighton argued that European patent law will follow the same route. Other free software advocates such as Ada Core Technologies President Robert Dewar said that a reliance on innovation will fuel competition better than a dependence on software patents. Other proponents attending the conference agreed that the proposed European patent law would favor large corporations while driving smaller firms out of business by choking innovation. McCarthy noted that her lack of an invitation indicated that conference organizers apparently wanted the debate closed to Parliament officials. The European directive authorizes purely technical software patents and bans patents on business methods, which are allowed in the United States and Japan.
- "Feds Seek Broader Surveillance Power"
Medill News Service (05/09/03); Wenzel, Elsa
The U.S. Senate voted 98-4 to approve the lone-wolf bill, also known as the "Moussaoui Fix," on May 8. Under the bill, which was introduced by Sens. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would be amended so that certain phone and computer wiretap requests could be transferred to the clandestine Foreign Surveillance Court, while suspected "lone wolf" terrorists with no apparent ties to foreign regimes or political organizations could also be monitored by law enforcement. The lack of such amendments is the reason why the FBI was unable to search the laptop of Sept. 11 figure Zacharias Moussaoui prior to the attacks, according to the bureau. However, Center for Democracy and Technology staff counsel Lara Flint challenges that assertion, alleging that Moussaoui's link to Chechen rebels could have permitted surveillance under FISA. Before the Senate approved the measure, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) added a requirement that the Justice Department annually disclose to Congress about what kinds of FISA wiretaps are issued. "It's the worst of both worlds," says Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU. "It's part and parcel of the continued expansion of the use of intelligence laws to spy on Americans." If passed into law, the bill would be in effect until 2006, when the statute is scheduled to expire along with certain provisions of the Patriot Act of 2001.
- "Pumps, Not Fans, May Cool Tomorrow's Computers"
NewsFactor Network (05/09/03); Martin, Mike
Analysts expect the amount of heat produced by computer chips in PCs to quadruple within three years, and one possible solution is a "pump-less" fluid-cooling system devised by Issam Mudawar and Swaraj Mukherjee of Purdue University. The chip is attached to a metal plate that includes micro-channels through which a dielectric liquid flows. The heat generated by the chip creates bubbles of vapor in the liquid that travel up one of two vertical tubes. A fan positioned at the top of the tube cools the vapor and triggers condensation. The reconstituted liquid flows down the other tube and re-enters the plate. Researchers were worried that bubbles might impede the flow of liquid, while engineers argued that the system would need electric pumps to drive circulation. The Purdue system offers solutions to both these problems: For one thing, there is no need to worry about bubble blockage because the bubbles are smaller than the micro-tube's diameter, and the reliance on a closed-loop design makes pumps unnecessary. "With this liquid-cooling system, computers would be able to run without a fan, and everybody would be happy about that," declares Laszlo Kish of Texas A&M.
- "PCs Have Become Just Like Appliances: Both Are Too Complex"
Wall Street Journal (05/12/03) P. B1; Gomes, Lee
Consumers are complaining about how complex PCs are, and wishing that the devices were as easy to use as home appliances, writes Lee Gomes. Unfortunately, Gomes observes that appliances are becoming harder to use, while PC difficulty has not decreased. He explains that "a new epidemic of man-machine alienation" has opened up because the chips that add intelligence to PCs are now so cheap that they can be incorporated into every conceivable consumer device. Appliance development is following a similar track to that of software, in that the devices' value is determined by how many features they possess, rather than simplicity. Gomes argues that the feature most lacking in home appliances is good design, and cautions that good design does not necessarily mean simplicity, since following such a tack may rob the appliance of much of its usefulness. "Sometimes, good designers will have the courage of their convictions to force people to spend time teaching themselves how to use something worthwhile," Gomes writes. However, Gomes finds it frustrating that, these days, operating a once easy-to-understand appliance like a toaster requires reading a hefty manual because the device has been enhanced with smart electronics.
- "Etch a Site as Easy as Pie"
Wired News (05/12/03); Kahney, Leander
A research team at the University of California at Berkeley last month released Denim, a software sketching tool that enables designers to build interactive Web sites. "We're trying to replicate the way designers have traditionally worked in the early stages of design, which is with pen and paper," explains UC Berkeley's David Landay, who led the three-year project under the auspices of the Group for User Interface Research. The designer first sketches an overall schematic of the site, including components such as the home page, branching sections, and each section's page network; the next step is to detail individual Web pages. Using Denim's storyboard tool, which renders thumbnail versions of each page, the designer can set up hyperlinks by drawing a line between pages. The tool includes a browser that permits almost-live site testing, while the site can be posted on the Web or relayed to a customer or a service that tests usability. Desktop software interfaces can also be designed with Denim, a case in point being a Linux software interface developed by Carlson Reynolds of MIT's Media Lab. The catalyst for Denim's development was a study of real-world Web site designers that concluded that the majority sketched out the sites with paper and pencil at the beginning. The free software can run on Linux, Windows, or any Java platform. Landay thinks Denim is "ideal" for Tablet PCs.
- "Social Climbers"
Guardian Unlimited (05/08/03); Schofield, Jack
Social software was a hot topic at the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies conference (ETCon) in April; presenters discussed the increasing importance and usability of social software, which allows many-to-many communication in addition to one-to-one personal and one-to-many broadcast communication modes. Social software has been around since the early days of the Internet in the form of bulletin boards and even games such as Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), but New York University's Clay Shirky says the technology has only recently really taken off because of the overlap between the online and offline worlds. So many people today are online that offline social groups take for granted online components. At Shirky's ETCon talk, many participants were online, either recording aspects of the talk in live blogs or working collaboratively on a multi-user note-taking application called Hydra, which runs on the Mac platform. Some participants active in social software, however, warned against "hysteria," including Tom Coates of UpMyStreet.com, a message board site. Coates spoke about UpMyStreet.com's Conversations program, which links online users according to geography rather than interest--opposite to what most Internet applications aspire to. Other ETCon users said such approaches would not create the best applications because the software dictates how people use it. Instead, social software should follow the Internet model, allowing end users to mold the application's utility. ETCon presenter Eric Bonabeau gave the example of ant colonies, which are able to create complex structures without centralized intelligence. Currently, the blogging phenomenon continues to take new forms as more participants influence each other's sites on a more frequent basis.
- "Light Show Makes 3D Camera"
Technology Research News (05/07/03); Patch, Kimberly
University of Kentucky researchers say they have a new technique that can capture 3D video data with just one camera. While existing 3D camera setups require arrays of cameras, the new system uses patterns of light to gauge the depth of recorded objects. University of Kentucky researcher Chun Guan says the new light pattern system also requires less computational power than traditional systems and processes the data as fast as the image can be digitized. A simpler setup built from off-the-shelf parts means relatively cheap 3D computer interfaces that could prove useful for disabled computer users, according to Guan. A head- and hand-tracking device using the technology should be possible for under $4,000. The research team is investigating a range of possible applications, including 3D video surveillance, computer interfaces, and even manufacturing quality inspection. Guan says the technology could be married with regular video to produce 3D feeds that could be projected like in the film "Minority Report," but that the current depth-capturing light patterns would have to be moved into the infrared range. A practical 3D camera using the technology will be available in two years.
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- "Digital Maps Tell the Time"
BBC News (05/09/03)
Scientists at MIT's Media Labs Europe in Dublin, Ireland, are trying to incorporate a feature into digital maps that gauges time. Users could know whether they have enough time to walk to the park during lunch, for instance. Based on walking speed and time available, the map will display a bubble plan indicating how far a person can stroll while still arriving on time to a designated place. "The bubble is not a perfect circle as the software is taking account of actual street patterns and the physical features of a city," says scientist Brendan Donovan. He says the system could be made even more useful if merged with various features of a metropolitan area such as cafes or train stations. The Media Labs scientists envision using the software at stalls in hotels or tourist information areas, and say it might also be used on the street when combined with a GPS-equipped handheld computer, allowing users to track their location as they walk around a city.
- "Chinese Lab Hopes to Commercialize Sign-Language Recognition Platform"
EE Times (05/07/03); Clendenin, Mike
The Institute of Computing Technology (ICT) in China has developed a software platform that can translate spoken and written Chinese and other languages into sign language via a virtual character that hearing-impaired users would read. Digital gloves are used to make signs that the program translates back into verbal or written cues. The software is about 85 percent to 90 percent accurate, according to researchers. The program taps into a vast database of words, facial expressions, and hand gestures the ICT has collated over several years, but the software needs to be refined in several areas. The digital character's face needs to be more expressive, while the correspondence of hand gestures to facial expressions must be improved. "It is very difficult to get the face expressions but it is important because if you do not use the expression, you cannot always understand the meaning," explains Wang Zhaoqi of ICT's Digital Laboratory. Researchers are currently building a database of facial expressions using computer-generated models of volunteers who make expressions while wearing an array of sensors. The program is currently restricted to desktop PCs and notebooks with robust chips, and ICT project manager Huang Shu thinks getting the software to work with handheld devices such as personal digital assistants will be key to the technology's commercialization.
- "Cobol Enters the 21st Century"
InformationWeek (05/05/03); Babcock, Charles
Cobol has been modified with new object-oriented features that will make it easier for companies to integrate Cobol-based applications with other systems. Although some observers believe it will take some time for Cobol programmers to learn the object-oriented programming methods of Cobol 2002, experts says the new standard ultimately will make it easier to develop discrete modules of code that interoperate with other systems. Don Schricker, chairman of the standards committee that served a key role in having Cobol modified and adopted by the International Standards Organization and the International Committee for Information Technology Standards, calls the changes to the programming language long overdue and "the biggest change ever in Cobol." Cobol 2002 comes at a time when the number of Cobol programmers is on the decline, and the number of Java programmers is expected to surpass the number of Cobol programmers in early 2004. Still, 200 billion lines of Cobol code remain in use and 30 billion Cobol transactions are executed daily.
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- "The State of OS X"
NewsFactor Network (05/07/03); Brockmeier, Joe "Zonker"
Apple is winning over Macintosh fans with each new release of the OS X operating system. Little changes have made a huge difference in improving the speed of the OS X operating system in three major releases since its introduction in 2001. Apple's OS X operating system does not compare to Microsoft Windows in the amount of available packaged commercial software, but it has become "an application magnet" because of its 5,000 native applications and other applications written for Unix and Linux that do not run on Windows. This has made it popular with Java developers. The addition of a journaled file system will improve its standing as a server OS, and OS X now includes a number of server-specific applications such as Sybase and Oracle 9i, as well as some Unix server applications. The OS X operating system has attracted more than 5 million active users, but Brian Croll, senior director of OS product marketing at Apple, says there is still work to be done to improve it. Apple plans to release a preview version of 10.3 for Mac developers in June. TidBITS newsletter editor Adam Engst says that many small, little fixes has finally made OS X into a "smooth, more pleasant OS to spend your time in."
- "Computer Systems Going on the Road"
Knight-Ridder (05/08/03); Ojeda-Zapata, Julio
Telematics startup Truman Mobile says the hardware is now available for a reliable on-board PC that can sync with a home wireless network, play people's MP3 collections, and read email, news, and driving directions aloud. So far only three customers have bought the various PCs, but co-founders Alex Huff and Truman Kellie plan to be at the forefront of tremendous demand as hardware improves. Though planning systems for several years, only recently was the company able to build a product because of hardware advances. The firm's PC is stored in the trunk and resistant to jostling and extreme temperatures, and the Windows 2000 operating system is much more robust than Windows CE, which larger manufacturers have used for on-board computers. Huff says software on his on-board PC scans for open Wi-Fi networks so that he can check his email and the news in the car. E-books and audible versions of the Wall Street Journal are available from sources such as Audible.com. In his garage, Huff says the on-board PC links to his home wireless network so he can easily transfer files. Truman Mobile also uses GPS technology to pinpoint a car's location and deliver driving directions, and plans to incorporate cellular data service so that users are able to connect to the Internet in a wider area. Being a small firm, Truman Mobile uses off-the-shelf components, including the small Alpine flat-panel screen that stores itself in the dashboard when not in use, which Huff calls "the most underutilized technology I've ever seen." Huff and Kellie realize that more design work is needed to bring car-based PCs into the mainstream, while more technology advances such as better voice recognition systems are also needed.
- "Is That a Computer Chip in Your Carpet?"
IDG News Service (05/05/03); Blau, John
Infineon Technologies has developed a chip sensor network that is woven into industrial fabrics. The technology is useful for monitoring movement or structural integrity in buildings when embedded in the carpet or in textiles wrapped around support beams, for example. Infineon also says it can embed light-emitting diodes in carpets as well to provide directions to the nearest exit in case of an emergency, for example. The network comprises chips set in a checkerboard pattern, with conductive threads connecting them. Each chip has four connections so that the network can configure itself flexibly according to however it is cut. Infineon, which last year presented "wearable electronics," plans to release a commercial sensor network fabric within two years in conjunction with textile manufacturers.
- "Product Activation Gains Ground"
PCWorld.com (05/07/03); Spanbauer, Scott
Product activation technology for fighting piracy is now being used in more and more software, including Symantec's Norton AntiVirus 2003 program. Symantec is currently testing the technology in downloadable editions of the application, and could include it in other applications by fall if proven successful. Adobe has also turned to product activation for its Australian products, but says worldwide deployment will not commence until the firm is assured the technology does not cause problems for customers. The technology, which has already been used in Windows XP, Office XP, and Intuit's TurboTax, generally restricts installation of a program to a single computer. The program has a unique product key and a randomly created number that is sent to the vendor's server, generating a "fingerprint" of the computer's hardware configuration. If a customer tries to install the program again, another fingerprint is generated, and the user must defend the new pairing of the product key and new fingerprint. Many users of TurboTax have complained that they were not able to print or files returns electronically from more than one computer, and others said some versions did not remove the product activation software when the program was removed, taking up as much as 1MB of the computer's RAM. Meanwhile, an ongoing class-action lawsuit argues that Intuit's inclusion of the technology was misleading and negligent; the firm has now released a patch that can eliminate the product activation software when TurboTax is uninstalled.
- "On the Tube"
Economist (05/08/03) Vol. 367, No. 8323, P. 68
Nantero has developed a prototype memory chip based on carbon nanotubes that could allow manufacturers to reach the Holy Grail of fast "non-volatile" memories that retain information even in the absence of a power source. The chip consists of billions of conductive nanotubes hanging from a silicon wafer about 100 nm above a second wafer; a small electric charge on the lower wafer attracts several dozen nanotubes to it, which are held in that position by Van der Waals forces until additional voltage is applied. These nanotubes can therefore serve as a memory element and store a single bit of binary code. The closeness of the wafers combined with the smallness of the nanotubes enables the memory chip to achieve read/write speeds as short as half a nanosecond, compared to the 10 nanoseconds that the best RAM chips require. Other manufacturers who have tried to exploit nanotubes for memory have found it difficult to align the nanotubes on the first wafer. Their usual recourse is to grow all the nanotubes in the desired orientation, but Nantero simply zaps incorrectly aligned nanotubes with an electron beam using established lithographic methods. Nantero expects to bring nanotube-based memories to the market within 12 months, and is confident that it will be able to produce the chips in high volumes using standard semiconductor fabrication techniques. Nantero's Greg Schmergel believes his company's engineers could boost data density to over 1,000 times that of existing RAM within a few years, while reading speed could be ratcheted up by a factor of 100.
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- "Sleuthing Out Data"
CIO (05/01/03) Vol. 16, No. 14, P. 108; Hapgood, Fred
Companies can increase worker productivity and lower costs through categorization software that makes it easier for users to find necessary information. The software automatically assigns data into categories and subcategories that are arranged in a top-down configuration, providing searchers with a multifaceted view. Autocategorization can facilitate a number of new services, such as incorporating uncategorized or poorly categorized content into a company's searchable data space, thanks to converging developments. One is the maturation of a pair of "natural language recognition" technologies. The first builds a document profile by outlining the frequencies of words in a document and their positions relative to each other, and then compares that profile with those of already categorized reference documents and/or those of new documents. The second, semantics-based method, involves the software filtering out keywords in a document, referencing their synonyms, meanings, and thematic relationships, and then tallying those relationships to determine which words are the most probable representations of the document's ideas. Perhaps autocategorization software's biggest benefit for designers is its ability to take advantage of data related to information, such as email headers or meta-tags in Web pages. Categorization technology is a young field, and establishing the rules the software must follow requires a sizeable investment in terms of time and effort.
- "Tech: Where the Action Is"
Fortune (05/12/03) Vol. 147, No. 9, P. 78; Kirkpatrick, David
The tech downturn has not stifled innovation, and companies reaping profits despite the slump are those that offer software and services that chiefly benefit end users rather than investors. Declining hardware sales and prices are good news for companies and consumers that previously could not afford devices to support software and services. "We're moving from an era of killer apps to an era of killer systems, killer business models, and killer businesses," declares Bruce Harreld of IBM. "Just spending money on IT never creates any value. It's what you do differently in terms of business processes that matters." Companies such as Dell and Intel have experienced tremendous growth because they lead the software market in terms of standardization, a trend that eliminates the need for software developers to code for multiple platforms, and supports easy product management and deployment. A number of technologies besides the Internet are offering customers more bang for the buck while simultaneously stressing the Internet's importance. They include Wi-Fi, whose primary value may be as an enablement tool for new businesses and business models; voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), which will be even more attractive when it is integrated with Wi-Fi; open-source software such as Linux, which is penetrating numerous markets and offers companies a competitive sales advantage; as-needed software services such as IBM's "on-demand computing" option; growing household broadband that is encouraging companies to develop and provide new kinds of content and services such as home networking; and online retail and e-marketing.
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- "Scale-Free Networks"
Scientific American (05/03) Vol. 288, No. 5, P. 60; Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo; Bonabeau, Eric
A wide array of complex systems--cellular metabolism, social networks, and the World Wide Web, to name a few--have a shared network architecture featuring a small number of nodes connected to a vast number of other nodes; some nodes can support a virtually limitless number of links, which is what makes them "scale-free." Scale-free networks also follow predictable patterns of behavior: They can be crippled by coordinated attacks, yet can recover easily from accidental node failures. Research has demonstrated that scale-free structures occur in the Internet's virtual and physical framework, among certain sexual relationships and scientific research collaborations, in business situations, and throughout biological systems such as cells' protein-interaction networks. Understanding the organizing principles of scale-free networks could be applied to many areas, including the development of better drugs, more effective defenses for the Internet, and controlling outbreaks of disease. Two factors lead to the creation of scale-free hubs: Growth that gives older nodes an advantage in acquiring links, and "preferential attachment," whereby connections are established with a bias toward more connected nodes. The robustness of scale-free networks is attributed to their topological inhomogeneity--small nodes, because they are more numerous than hubs, are more prone to failure, and the severing of the relatively small numbers of links they support has little effect on the network topology. However, the systems can be disrupted if their hubs are targeted, so the best apparent solution is to shield these hubs. Identifying Internet hubs to guard against cyberattacks is one thing, but controlling disease epidemics is a harder proposition, though one proposed strategy--immunizing the most connected individuals in a population--has potential.