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Volume 6, Issue 682:  Monday, August 16, 2004

  • "Trying to Take Technology To the Masses"
    New York Times (08/16/04) P. C3; Markoff, John

    Bringing computer access to the impoverished segment of the world's population--a segment that totals 4 billion people--without a dependence on philanthropy is the motivation behind PCtvt, the brainchild of Carnegie Mellon University professor and artificial intelligence pioneer Raj Reddy. His project, which is receiving support from UC Berkeley researchers, Microsoft, Korean computer manufacturer TriGem, the Indian Institute of Information Technology, and the Indian Institute of Science, involves the development of a $250 wirelessly networked PC designed to serve communities in developing countries marked by a high degree of illiteracy. The device can be controlled by a TV remote control and boasts TV, telephone, and videophone functionality. Microsoft's contribution to the project is a streamlined version of the Windows operating system, while TriGem is providing the prototypes and the Berkeley researchers are readying high-speed wireless digital networks for rural areas. Reddy believes that even communities where people earn less than $2,000 in yearly income can constitute profitable markets for computers, especially when products such as the PCtvt offer entertainment. "Entertainment is the killer app, and that will smuggle something that is a lot more sophisticated into the home," notes UC Berkeley's Tom Kalil. Reddy hopes to begin deploying the first 100 PCtvt prototypes in India and perhaps several other nations, and he points out that a technology with high wireless network bandwidth is essential to serving highly illiterate communities where the population is more likely to understand audio and video transmissions rather than text messages. The Carnegie Mellon professor has constructed a control screen that enables the PCtvt to be employed for audio and video conferencing, email, and viewing local newspapers online.

    Raj Reddy was co-recipient (with Edward Feigenbaum) of ACM's 1994 A.M. Turing Award; http://www.acm.org/awards/turing_citations/reddy.html

  • "GIS Maps Bring Tourism, Telecom, and Environmental Info to PDAs Throughout Europe"
    Directions (08/04); Ahern, Dan

    The European Commission's ODIN Project is bringing GIS map data and other Web information to wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) in Ireland, Greece, Norway, and Italy: The project has created a platform for presenting GIS data on the Web and delivering it to mobile devices. The first iterations of ODIN Project technology were available ahead of the infrastructure, and the developers spent time improving on the technology before the faster mobile data-rate GPRS technology was rolled out in 2002. Norway, Ireland, and Greece offered varied mixes of tourist, government, and health information, including locations of hospitals, post offices, and other general information. Italy put ODIN technology to use improving work processes at its regional environmental protection agency in Tuscany: Engineers inspecting a chemical plant, for instance, now have access to a Web database containing maps and other information, such as plant safety supervisors, regulations, and industry data; the Tuscany environmental agency extended the ODIN platform for its wastewater quality inspectors as well, enabling them to more than double their productivity. In Sicily, the Italian government has piloted a tourist-targeted GIS service that provides interactive maps via PDAs. ODIN Project manager Uberto Delprato says the key to making GIS map information useful is to provide some type of information that is not available to users in printed form, such as information that applies to people's immediate location and situation. "Whether for tourists or public servants, having mobile maps and other information available makes it easier to do and find any number of things," he says.
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  • "Turning Jukeboxes Into Teaching Aids"
    News Observer (NC) (08/11/04); Cox, Jonathan B.

    Tracy Futhey, Duke University CIO and information technology VP, explains that the distribution of Apple iPod digital music players to freshmen this year is part of an experiment to see if IT can augment education. The iPod is particularly appealing for a number of reasons: It is already likely to be highly popular among students, it can function as both an audio player and a massive drive, and its storage capacity is formidable. Futhey says that the iPods will be preloaded with general campus information and content, and a Duke-specific iTunes Web site will be set up where students will be able to download additional material. Among the educational applications she foresees for the iPods is their use in language courses where students learn by listening to exercises, or songs in native dialects. Futhey reports that the iPod experiment will be evaluated on a course-by-course basis, and in general considers technology to be another weapon in the educator's arsenal rather than an all-in-one solution. "Technology is not going to take a mediocre teacher and make them a good teacher," she reflects. Futhey is not too worried about whether the iPod distribution could spur a rash of music piracy, because the device offers students a legal alternative to ripping off songs, and the administration makes it very clear to students that they are expected to use the iPods responsibly. The Duke CIO says her department is formally asking faculty what kind of projects involving the iPod they would like to do, and these proposals will be subjected to formal assessments.
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  • "Training Seen as Way to Counter Offshoring"
    IDG News Service (08/13/04); Ribeiro, John

    In his upcoming book "Outsource: Competing in the Global Productivity Race," Cutter Consortium co-founder Edward Yourdon asserts that the trend to offshore jobs to countries that can deliver similar or better quality work for less money is not only a threat to U.S. software development jobs, but to a wide range of knowledge-based work that includes call center and help desk operations, clinical pharmaceutical research, and legal services. The author forecasts that competing suppliers will be pressured into offshoring knowledge-based operations to cheaper countries as consumer demand for cheaper products and services increases. Offshoring decisions are not just based on the comparatively lower salaries of overseas workers, but on their relative quality and productivity, and Yourdon contends that some companies may elect to keep knowledge-based work within the United States because American workers are much more productive than offshore workers. India has become the gold standard for offshore outsourcing centers thanks to its well-educated, English-speaking, inexpensive workforce, although Yourdon reports that China, with even cheaper professionals, is catching up. High-end and low-end American jobs could be affected by China's growing knowledge-based outsourcing industry, a threat validated by China's 2003 announcement that it will work with Japan and South Korea on a new computer operating system (probably based on Linux) to compete with Microsoft Windows. Yourdon suggests that the offshoring trend could be countered if the U.S. government invests more in education, public school educational system reform, and "lifelong education" for people whose university training becomes irrelevant. Another recommendation is to spur long-term corporate investment in employees and productivity improvement by revising U.S. tax and accounting regulations.
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  • "Sensor "Memory" System: Faster, More Precise Damage Assessment"
    Newswise (08/12/04)

    University of Missouri-Rolla (UMR) researchers are developing a distributed cable sensor system that promises to more accurately evaluate structural damage by "memorizing" its location, a breakthrough that could significantly speed up emergency responses to disasters. UMR's Dr. Genda Chen, associate professor of civil engineering, says the system can determine the area and severity of damage within two inches, and envisions a time when people could employ a hand-held device to find damage rather than send engineer inspectors to check every bridge along an emergency vehicle route. Chen adds that the system can also spot cracks and other damage that eludes visual inspection. The National Science Foundation has provided $240,000 over a three-year-period to the UMR research team to support the distributed sensor system's development. A prototype cable sensor was tested on a fifth-scale reinforced-concrete column within a high-bay structures lab on the UMR campus prior to the cable system's installation in a Missouri bridge last fall. The UMR team, which includes UMR electrical and computer engineering professors David Pommerenke and James Drewniak, has been asked by the New York Department of Transportation to devise a pressure sensor to monitor the weight limits of a bridge bearing, while the California Department of Transportation wants the team to measure the performance of piles with the distributed sensor system. Chen's team is also focused on developing a methodology for networking the sensors so they could be employed in buildings.
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  • "Canadian Robot May Ride to Hubble's Rescue"
    Baltimore Sun (08/11/04) P. 1A; Roylance, Frank D.

    A robot called the Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator, known as "Dextre" for short, may be used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope now that a manned mission to Hubble appears unlikely. Made by Toronto-based MD Robotics, which also has developed robot arms for the Space Shuttle, Dextre has been demonstrated to engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center that it is able to replace the telescope's failing hardware and install two new instruments. Unless funding is not made available by Congress or some showstopper of a solution comes along by next summer, Dextre could be sent up to Hubble sometime in 2007 or 2008, when scientists believe critical Hubble components could start to fail. NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe touched off a national debate in January when astronaut safety concerns related to the Columbia disaster led him to cancel a planned 2006 mission in which astronauts were to replace the Hubble's worn-out batteries and gyroscopes and install the two new instruments. While it will not be easy to design and build a robot-based rescue mission, said Al Diaz of NASA's science mission directorate, O'Keefe "told the team that if it wasn't complex or difficult it might not be the kind of thing NASA ought to be doing." A full-scale version of Dextre has undergone extensive Earth-based testing since late April on a detailed mockup of the Hubble in the "clean room" at NASA Goddard, and the robot was able to meet every challenge the Goddard engineers presented. NASA believes that a near-duplicate of Dextre mounted at the end of 39-foot grapple arms could be built quickly and reach any spot on the telescope. Among the challenges engineers will have to face as they design the mission will be deciding how Dextre will respond to things that might go wrong on the mission, as well as how to design the spacecraft needed to fly the robot to the telescope and automatically dock it.
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  • "Old Boys' Clubs Contribute to Gender Gap in IT"
    EurekAlert (08/10/04)

    Penn State researchers are trying to gain a deeper understanding of why women are underrepresented in the IT industry. "The lack of women isn't due to the biological traits of the sexes, and it isn't just because IT is a male domain," said Penn State professor Eileen Trauth while presenting a paper entitled, "Exploring the Importance of Social Networks in the IT Workforce: Experiences With the 'Boys Club,'" at the Tenth Americas Conference on Information Systems on Aug. 8. Trauth says some women enjoy interacting with men and prefer to do so. Other women respond to old boys' networks by developing interests that will lead to acceptance, or by creating alternative networks or choosing not to participate. The multiyear study, funded by the National Science Foundation, included 45 women between 23 and 57 years of age representing a range of racial backgrounds, who were in and not in committed relationships, and had different educational levels. Managers would do well to create more social networking opportunities, and help develop skills for creating social networks. "Our research is showing that the gender gap in the IT workforce results from the complex interactions of a number of factors that includes what one obtains from a social network--namely, access to information, resources, and opportunities," Trauth says.
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  • "Trojan Hits Windows PDAs for First Time"
    Network World (08/09/04) Vol. 21, No. 32, P. 1; Bednarz, Ann

    Kaspersky Labs last week warned of the first Trojan horse threat for mobile devices. The Backdoor.WinCE.Brador.a utility lets the hacker remotely control a device running Windows CE Version 4.2 and newer, as well as recent versions of Windows Mobile. A few weeks earlier, security experts identified Duts, the first proof-of-concept virus to target the Pocket PC platform. "We were certain that a viable malicious program for PDAs would appear soon after the first proof-of-concept viruses emerged for mobile phones and Windows Mobile," says Kaspersky Labs head of antivirus research Eugene Kaspersky. The new Brador Trojan horse is completely functional, Kaspersky Labs says, and is able to upload or download files. The Trojan listens for and receives commands via a TCP port. It is not clear how damaging Brador's attacks on wireless-enabled handheld devices could be; Symantec has given Brador its lowest level rating in its threat range. Security consultant Rodney Thayer says that while compromised cell phones could bring vandalism and information leakage, they are not likely to take down an entire corporate network. University of Massachusetts network analyst Christopher Misra says, "Given that the majority of CE devices in production currently are not network connected, [any] exploit will hopefully be minimal. However given the trend toward network connection for handhelds, and increased wireless coverage, this may become more serious." Analyst Joel Snyder notes that data access is a concern and advises IT managers to restrict users' network access through mobile devices. He points out that mobile devices do not have many security resources.
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  • "Gov't, Enterprise Data Sharing Efforts Crumbling"
    eWeek (08/09/04) Vol. 21, No. 32, P. 1; Carlson, Caron; Fisher, Dennis

    The federal government says it wants more information from private network operators concerning vulnerabilities, outages, infrastructure, and traffic routing, yet government officials and agencies have been in turn making less information available to the private sector. As a result, many network operators and private security researches say they will take their information back underground. Insiders say that this means that less information will be available, at least temporarily, to the enterprises that use information-sharing programs to stay up-to-date on security and vulnerability issues. "The security industry is very competitive, [and] to give full information on such issues loses your competitive edge," notes Next Generation Security Software co-founder Mark Litchfield. CERT has closed its public mailing list and does not share its technical advisories with the public, even though most of its bulletins are based on data from the private sector. AT&T vice president Bob Collet warned the House Government Reform Committee recently that a compilation of critical infrastructure assets can increase vulnerability. The information can also become a valuable commodity, and many companies offer some customers early versions of research for a price, which makes them less likely to give it to the federal government for free. As security sources dwindle, state and federal agencies are responding by increasing regulatory pressure to get more data and keep their intragovernmental data-sharing initiatives alive.
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  • "Clearing the Fog"
    Aviation Week & Space Technology (08/09/04) Vol. 161, No. 6, P. 48; Scott, William B.

    The goal of NASA's Aviation Safety and Security Program is to lower fatal accident rates by 80 percent over a decade, and a key enabling technology is "tunnel-in-the-sky" synthetic vision systems (SVS) that were recently tested on a Gulfstream V aircraft in Reno, Nev. The test flights demonstrated new integrated SVS concepts such as voice-controlled synthetic vision displays, a runway incursion protection system, database integrity monitoring technology, and enhanced vision sensors meshed with SVS images. The primary objective of NASA's Synthetic Vision Systems Project is to create technologies and procedures for preventing controlled flight into terrain in conditions of low visibility, and most pilots in the Reno test thought the demonstrated systems fulfilled this goal. Daniel Baize, SVS project manager at NASA's Langley Research Center, says the integration of enhanced vision and synthetic vision technologies facilitates an overlay of sensor and terrain data to give the flight crew a virtual perspective of the environment regardless of visibility conditions: Their position within a terrain database is pinpointed via a differential GPS system at the airport and verified by sensor readings. SVS sensors deployed in the demo-flight phase included forward-looking infrared to supply thermal imagery for head-up and head-down displays; a weather radar system; collision avoidance and automatic traffic position broadcast systems; and a Flight Dynamics HGS-4000 head-up guidance unit. When taxiing the aircraft to the active runway, the pilots were kept on course by following virtual "bread crumbs" through turns and staying within the borders of virtual magenta "cones." In the air, pilots stayed on course by keeping a virtual flight path marker representing the plane aligned with a magenta "tadpole" guidance cue. Baize says, "SVS is another layer of protection on top of enhanced ground proximity [warning systems]" that "will give a more intuitive and more advanced warning of a potential terrain [encounter]."
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  • "A Remote Control for Your Life"
    Technology Review (08/01/04) Vol. 107, No. 6, P. 42; Mann, Charles C.

    Japanese mobile phone behemoth NTT DoCoMo plans to turn the cell phone into a versatile machine that can perform dozens of other tasks in addition to traditional capabilities such as email, gameplay, and phone calls. Such tasks include personal identification, unlocking doors, electronic transactions, and appliance activation and operation. The device, which is being patched together from existing hardware and software, aims to become the first step toward universal or ubiquitous computing. Key to the technology DoCoMo envisions is FeliCa, a "contactless IC" chip from Sony that contains 9 KB of RAM and can respond to short-range radio signals transmitted by chip reader/writers. Integrating the FeliCa smart card with the cell phone can protect the card against deterioration, ease recharging and balance-checking, and open up both devices to new applications. DoCoMo's Nobuo Hori explains that membership cards, building passes, and any other form of ID or access control should be packed into the phone so that users are not burdened with a lot of paper, while Sony engineer Tadashi Morita says the phone should ultimately function as the chief interface between networked household/office devices and their owners: "You will walk into a room and tap your phone on the wall, and the room will know who you are," he projects. Such a scheme could be defined as ubiquitous computing, according to NTT DoCoMo managing director of i-mode strategy Takeshi Natsuno. Morita points to security and privacy issues as examples of societal impediments that are slowing down the full deployment of such technology. To thwart thieves from scanning phones and stealing their data, the FeliCa cards support a transmission range of only 10 centimeters, but there are also worries that the devices' ability to record many personal details about users' habits, transactions, or whereabouts entails a risk to personal privacy.

  • "Cellphone Viruses: How Worried Should You Be?"
    Business Communications Review (07/04) Vol. 34, No. 7, P. 14; Krapf, Eric

    Security experts warn that the Cabir virus, which spread through smart cell phones last month but did not actually do damage, is an example of the havoc that could take place. Cabir may or may not have been the first wild cell phone virus; it used the Bluetooth specification to spread through phones that use the Symbian operating system. Core Competence President David Piscitello says Cabir arrived as a message. "The reason it can infect other phones by proximity is that lots of phones are left with default settings on their Bluetooth interface," he explains. Cell phone viruses can also spread through ring tones, email attachments, text messaging, skins, pictures, or audio recordings. Piscitello considers cell phone viruses serious because the phones' operating systems are fairly fragile. He says, "You can create all sorts of denial of service attacks against the relatively fragile operating systems of handhelds and cell phones. Remember, these devices don't have lots of memory or CPU, so overwhelming them isn't exactly hard." Core Competence vice president Lisa Phifer also notes that few people may even know if their phones are infected. PDAs are also at risk, but there is some antivirus software available for them; users should also consider host-based intrusion-detection and personal firewalls for handheld devices, Phifer adds. Phifer also warns that VoIP is at risk for Wi-Fi-enabled VoIP technology connected to WLANs. Piscitello advises users to consider their IP phones more computer than phone, and thus just as vulnerable to viruses.

  • "Computing Gets Physical"
    Technology Review (08/01/04) Vol. 107, No. 6, P. 56; Kushner, David

    Gesture recognition technology has finally started to emerge from the domain of science fiction into reality, and it is the ambition of the technology's proponents and developers to make it the remote control of the 21st century. One example is the EyeToy, a peripheral for Sony Computer Entertainment's PlayStation 2 game console that places the real-time image of the player into the gaming environment through a video camera connected to a USB port. Video from the camera is compressed and funneled through the USB port, and processed via "conceptual abstraction" in the PlayStation; players interact with the game by moving their body around. For EyeToy to work, one must stand in a specific place relative to the camera, but Cybernet's GestureStorm software system does not have this limitation. GestureStorm is used by TV weathermen to manipulate the display of meteorological forecasts through gestures. Other gesture recognition technologies Cybernet is readying for commercial release include Navigaze, an interface that taps eye movement, and Use Your Head gaming technology that enables users to input directional commands through head movement. Gesture recognition could be used to enhance rather than displace conventional interfaces: One example is a personal digital assistant from Canesta that projects the image of a keyboard onto a flat surface, and uses an infrared light beam to track the location of the user's fingers at any time. Other gesture recognition interfaces include a "gesture panel" developed by Georgia Institute of Technology researchers that could enable motorists to control various automotive systems without taking their eyes off the road, and a "conversational humanoid" from MIT that detects and reacts to a person's movements as they are recorded by a wearable tracking device.
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  • "Crippled But Not Crashed"
    Scientific American (08/04) Vol. 291, No. 2, P. 94; Corder, Mike

    Making flight computers capable of safely landing damaged aircraft has been an area of research for the past 15 years, and one of the more recent breakthroughs is a system based on neural-network software developed by the Intelligent Flight Control (IFC) group at the NASA Ames Research Center. Neural-network software is designed to imitate the behavior of the human brain by learning through experience. The IFC system draws a comparison between how a plane should by flying and how it actually is flying, and monitors any disparities that could be caused by damage or other factors so that it can compensate for them. The system was tested by running flight simulations with professional airline pilots and NASA test pilots, and in nearly every situation the IFC system outperformed a conventional fly-by-wire control system. NASA researchers intend to flight-test the neural-network system on F-15s and C-17s over the next few years, and military aircraft manufacturers will most probably be the first to embrace the technology. Flight controls that can compensate for damage should be especially beneficial for fighter pilots in combat situations. The IFC system is a follow-up to NASA's Propulsion Controlled Aircraft (PCA) project, which developed software that would permit jet engines to counterbalance damage to an aircraft's control surfaces. Although the PCA system was successfully demonstrated in 1995, the technology was not adopted by aircraft manufacturers, despite its potential for significantly boosting airliner safety.
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  • "Downloading the Sky"
    IEEE Spectrum (08/04) Vol. 41, No. 8, P. 35; McDowell, Jonathan C.

    The Virtual Observatory (VO) is an international effort to mesh thousands of scattered databases of cosmological data accrued over the last several decades into a single online resource that also functions as a grid computing network. The VO, which would be available to virtually anyone, promises to revolutionize cosmological investigation by supporting multiple comparative analyses of phenomena in a single interface, thus relieving astronomers of the onerous, time-consuming task of searching for and collating data. The quantity of data is such that "You need to combine information management, computer science, new statistical approaches, and your own domain-specific expertise, whether that's astronomy, or genomics, or oceanography, or business," notes Johns Hopkins University astronomer Alex Szalay, who is co-directing the U.S. segment of the VO project. Making any astronomical data set accessible to any user anywhere requires the harmonization of data formats, the development of a computational infrastructure and a query language for accessing the VO, a mechanism for keeping the VO up to date, and universal adoption of software standards and protocols. The VO is being organized around registries to connect disparate archives, and the data in the registries will be processed by Web services. The method for combing through the various databases will initially employ Flexible Image Transport System (FITS) files augmented with XML data descriptions, while FITS keywords will be enhanced with Unified Content Descriptors. Users will be able to tap the distributed computing power of far-flung machines to carry out large-scale computations on their PCs through the VO Grid, which will be configured around existing networks such as the TeraGrid. Computer scientists hope that the technologies underlying the VO can be used to transform drug research, aerospace design, and other areas where the rapid retrieval and comparison of vast amounts of data is key.
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  • "Learning Management Systems: Are We There Yet?"
    Syllabus (08/04) Vol. 17, No. 12, P. 14

    Ira Fuchs, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's VP for research in information technology, explains that the purpose of the Mellon-funded OKI project was to create an architecture that expedites collaborative development of the elements comprising a modern learning management system (LMS), and notes that the Sakai project will take the next step and deliver an open-source, open standard, production-quality, extensible LMS. Fuchs says the LMS is already a core technology for institutions of higher learning, and sees both a positive and negative side to this trend: The systems strengthen communications between students and faculty and make course information and content available online, but on the other hand they complicate the transition from proprietary systems to open systems. Fuchs says that such a transition entails a cost to change, and minimizing this cost as well as converting content from one system to another are among OKI's goals. Fuchs maintains that LMS usability--especially the ease of publishing or creating new material--needs to be improved significantly, and hopes this comes to pass once Sakai is introduced. Fuchs predicts that both one-way and two-way video will be supported by future LMSes, while two-way video incarnated in desktop videoconferencing will become more commonplace with technological improvements. In order for libraries to become better integrated with the LMS, Fuchs says they must maximize the transparency, from the end user's perspective, of the information's origins or how to search for it. He also thinks learning objects will be more widely used and shared once initiatives such as MIT's OpenCourseWare project figure out how to package objects. Fuchs concludes that the success of Sakai, Chandler, and similar projects will pave the way for an organization he dubs Educore, which will administrate and fund open-source software projects that enhance higher education.
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  • "Quest for Eternal Storage"
    NE Asia Online (08/01/04); Kawai, Motonobu; Arai, Masayuki

    The growing popularity of digital storage technologies such as DVD recorders has made the reliability of data storage a key issue, and adding urgency to the matter is increasing reports from users that their recorded data is becoming unreadable. These trends are fueling demand for "eternal storage" to prevent the loss of digital content, and such storage must fulfill three central criteria: The preservation of data against long-term degradation, wear and tear, improper equipment operation, and mechanical and electrical accidents; universal data accessibility on all equipment; and consistent utilization of data by available technology. Accelerated testing of optical disks predicts 20 to 50 years of data life, but many manufacturers have established in-house standards of approximately one decade of data life, although they are calling for the development of technologies to increase the data's lifespan. The Consumer HDD Working Group of the International Disk Drive Equipment and Material Association has been focused on the development of technology to lower the failure rates of hard disk drives (HDD) for home use since June: Methods being investigated include reducing the temperature in the case, perhaps by utilizing PC water-cooling modules or scaling back the platter diameter. Many researchers also see promise in perpendicular magnetic recording as a method that can expand recording density while obviating thermal fluctuation after-effects. System-level protection of digital content is another essential component of eternal storage, and this cannot be achieved without networking multiple recording media in an environment where users can freely and transparently transfer data between systems. To be practical, the storage system must implement virtual recording media, perhaps by allocating certain file functions to the media; distribute the media over the network using common operating procedures; and standardize description methods for storage parameters.
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