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Volume 7, Issue 884: Friday, December 30, 2005

  • "Chip Industry Sets a Plan for Life After Silicon"
    New York Times (12/29/05); Markoff, John

    A host of atomic scale technologies have been added to the forthcoming semiconductor road map, the industry's cooperatively developed guide to how research and development funds should be spent. Nanotechnology is unlikely to replace silicon for at least another decade, though it has become a popular topic of discussion as conventional materials near the end of their ability to perpetuate Moore's Law. Today's smallest transistors measure only a few molecules across, which are still larger than nanoelectronics of a single molecule. Researchers believe that they will be able to make switches out of a single electron reliably and at a low cost by 2015, around the time that scaling existing technologies will have reached an end. Nanoscale switches also avoid the unpredictability that occurs when devices enter the quantum realm, reliably representing ones and zeroes. Intel is readying to move from devices manufactured at the 65 nm node to 10 nm or smaller, said the company's Paolo Gargini. Current microprocessors have more than one billion transistors, though new materials and switches will most likely be used to produce chips with 1,000 times more processing capacity than today's devices. Gargini says that Intel expects to develop chips with more than one trillion transistors over the next decade, with their first application in home media products and inexpensive laptops, signifying the guiding impact consumer electronics have on the semiconductor industry. One possible technique uses what is known as a spin transistor, which can change its orientation without an electrical charge and retain information even when its power is off. Another method, known as crossbar latch, uses a molecule that can be turned on and off, potentially enabling developers to achieve their goal of one trillion switches on a single chip.
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  • "Sony to Settle Copy-Protection Suits"
    USA Today (12/30/05) P. B1; Graham, Jefferson

    Sony BMG has reached a settlement with consumers that consolidates most of the lawsuits that have been filed against the music distributor concerning the copy-protection software installed on millions of CDs that expose PCs to viruses and spyware. Sony has agreed to offer each consumer who purchased one of the estimated 10 million affected CDs a combination of cash, free downloads, and replacement music. There are still some pending lawsuits not covered by the settlement, which must now be approved by a New York court. The affected CDs used software provided by SunnComm and First 4 Internet designed to limit the number of times users could copy their CDs to a computer. However, many users had trouble with the software, which prompted several lawsuits, including one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. A pending lawsuit brought by Texas' attorney general is still outstanding. Inside Digital Media's Phil Leigh says Sony's troubles show that "people want CDs without restrictions," while analyst Gene Munster says the incident is "a major step back for copy protection."
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  • "Most Important Infotech Stories of '05"
    Technology Review (12/30/05); Greene, Kate

    The ongoing march of Moore's Law has manifested itself in a host of new and unlikely technology initiatives this year. While just a year and a half ago there were only a few communities toying with the idea of a municipal Wi-Fi network, there are now more than 300 cities considering investing in Wi-Fi networks to provide ubiquitous wireless Internet access. Google is bidding to finance the Wi-Fi network in San Francisco, paying for the project through advertising revenue. Philadelphia has awarded the contract for its Wi-Fi network to EarthLink, despite staunch opposition from local phone provider Verizon. Wi-Fi networks will also benefit cell phone users, as well as facilitating services for the whole city, such as shopping guides. Another major development came from Intel, where Mario Panicia discovered new techniques for infusing light into silicon, known as silicon photonics. Panicia developed a silicon laser through the discovery that silicon can house both photons and electrons, a breakthrough that could result in faster, smaller, and less expensive processing devices for a broad range of applications. The Internet was also reshaped this year by the emergence of social machines, as evidenced by Yahoo!'s acquisition of the photo sharing service Flickr and Delicious, a social bookmarking service, and News Corp.'s purchase of myspace.com, a two-year-old social networking site with 40 million members. Search was another area of extensive development, as Google-style algorithms became more targeted, vertically organizing content by industry, subject, or activity. Also emerging were alternative search methods where users post and tag content in the fashion of Flickr and Delicious. This year also saw the emergence of feeds, such as podcasts and RSS, automatically delivering vast amounts of information to users around the world.
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  • "The Man With the Perfect Memory--Just Don't Ask Him to Remember What's in It"
    Guardian Unlimited (UK) (12/28/05); Sample, Ian

    Gordon Bell of Microsoft's Bay Area Research Center in San Francisco is capturing his life in the present, using a miniature camera to take pictures, sensors to note changes in light and temperature, recorders to store conversations, and a GPS receiver to log his whereabouts. Health data is also now being captured, including heart beats and calories burned. Bell, 71, is compiling a surrogate memory of his life, and is storing it in a digital database called MyLifeBits. Microsoft researchers are now considering issues such as how to organize the mountain of information of an electronic mind, and are also observing problems that Bell faces during his experiment. For example, Bell has not contributed all of his personal experiences to the digital database because of privacy concerns, and a crash has resulted in the loss of four months of data, which he described in a report as "a severe emotional blow, perhaps like having one's memories taken away." Bell no longer has to focus on using his memory, but he has come to realize that the digital database may mean that he may never be able to forget anything, including the warts of his life. Dr. Frank Nack of the Center for Mathematics and Computer Science in Amsterdam, equates Bell's work to surveillance of the people, by the people, and believes it would ultimately have a negative impact on social development. Nonetheless, a similar system is being tested in Cambridge to see if it can help people with degenerative brain disease remember key moments throughout the day. Since Bell's project began in 2001, he has recorded 42,000 digital pictures, 100,000 emails, 1,300 videos, and 5,067 sound files. Microsoft researchers estimate that as technology improves, one terabyte of memory will be sufficient to store all data except video for 83 years. If video were captured continuously, another 200 terabytes would be needed to store it all. (For more on Bell's work, and the field of Personal Information Management, see the January 2006 issue of Communications of the ACM)
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  • "Camera Phone Helps Label Snaps"
    New Scientist (12/23/05)

    Marc Davis of Yahoo!'s Berkeley research lab in California is working to give Bluetooth-enabled camera cell phones the ability to automatically identify and label people and places as pictures are taken. Davis and his team of researchers are making use of a central server to capture details such as the nearest cell phone mast, the strength of the call signal, and the time the photo was taken. The system is able to pick up other Bluetooth-enabled cell phones nearby, and use the information to develop a shortlist of people who might be in the picture. Moreover, the identities of the people on the shortlist can be determined by using facial-recognition algorithms, and places can be distinguished through the use of image-recognition software. Tests revealed that people could be correctly identified 60 percent of the time when using context information and facial recognition software, compared with 43 percent accuracy when solely relying on the software.
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  • "A Man and His Vision for the Browser"
    eWeek (12/25/05); Hines, Matt

    In a recent interview, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee shared his thoughts on Web browsing technology and its future. Berners-Lee looks at the popularity of blogs and wikis as validation of his original intention of making browsers creative and interactive. His original idea was that anyone could be an editor, and that people should be able to produce content themselves rather than just passively read it. Blogs and wikis could still be easier to manage, however, and interface devices could still be improved to give users more latitude. Both browsers and the standards behind them have developed significantly since Berners-Lee released the first Web client in 1990, and he expects that their content input capabilities will continue to improve. Berners-Lee believes that there is room for both proprietary and open source browsers. While some people are willing to pay for the support that commercial software offers, Berners-Lee insists that the open source community is a vital part of the Web's development. In his role as the head of the W3C, Berners-Lee is assembling a group to improve the security of browsers so that they can confidently confirm what site they are interacting with, and whether its security certificate is legitimate. While many of the latest versions of browsers do not use existing standards as they should, Berners-Lee is excited about the new crop of devices that is expanding the browser space beyond the traditional laptop or desktop. The W3C's Mobile Web Initiative is working to ensure that browsers are compatible with any portable device. New technologies such as voice commands could also enhance the browser experience on smaller screens where some people feel that it is compromised.
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  • "A New MPEG Standard Is Born, MPEG-a ALS"
    LinuxElectrons (12/29/05)

    Nippon Telegraph and Telephone's (NTT) research in lossless coding, aiming to create high-quality broadband services, has been formalized as the MPEG standard MPEG-a ALS. As broadband networks have steadily improved, NTT recognized the necessity of a lossless compression technology to be standardized for audio signals, with interoperability, long-term maintenance, and clear IPR status in mind. The standard will be used to ensure perfect decoding of compressed files indefinitely, while only requiring minimal time for the decoding process and yielding significant reductions in the transmission and storage costs. Existing audio coding mechanisms come with slight distortions in waveform, while lossless coding reconstructs the waveform perfectly, a significant feature for waveform editing and the archiving of top-quality audio signals. The compression performance of the new standard is superior to ZIP, and offers a variety of operational modes with varying speeds and performances. The new standard can be used in almost any application, and typically decodes 10 times faster than the music playback. Compressing files also reduces download time. Among the rudimentary tools NTT contributed to the standard are time domain linear prediction, multi-channel coding, long-term prediction, coding of common factors masked compression for floating-point data, as well as random accessibility through progressive order prediction.
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  • "UM Computer Lab Releases Multi-Platform Graphical Toolkit"
    Programmers Heaven (12/23/05)

    Piccolo 1.2, a freely available toolkit for 2D structured graphics program and zoomable user interfaces (ZUIs), is now available at the Piccolo Web site. The University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Lab collaborated with Microsoft Research to develop the toolkit, which will enable Java and C# developers to build graphical applications for different platforms and mobile devices. Piccolo makes use of the "scene-graph" model often found in 3D environments, giving application developers the hierarchal structure of objects and cameras needed for meaningful orientation, grouping, and manipulation. The infrastructure takes care of the lower-level details for application developers. Versions of the toolkit include Piccolo.Java, which is built on Java2 and uses Java2D for rendering; Piccolo.NET, which is built on the .NET Framework and uses GDI+ for rendering; and PocketPiccolo.NET, which is built on the .NET Compact Framework and uses GDI for rendering applications for PocketPCs and Smartphones.
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  • "Dems Press for Cyber/Telecom Security Czar"
    TelecomWeb (12/28/05)

    U.S. House of Representatives Democrats released a 40-page House Committee on Homeland Security investigative report, prepared for member Bonnie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), questioning the Department of Homeland Security's ability to secure the United States. Several Democrats have questioned whether the United States security is in jeopardy and expressed concern over the lack of a new cyber/telecom security chief. The report listed 33 alleged "unfilled promises" DHS vowed to make such as enhancing warning and response times for possible cyber attacks. "In order to protect the nation from a potentially devastating cyber attack, the department must correct these problems," the House report said. The report suggests DHS should reorganize its operations and appoint a new Assistant Secretary for Cyber and Telecommunications Security who will be in charge of coordinating the task of protecting the nation's technology infrastructure, identifying and assessing the vulnerability of critical telecom infrastructure and assets, and providing information on possible threats. The report says that since Secretary Chertoff finally created the position as part of his reorganization of the department in July, "during the last 6 months he still has not appointed a person to fill this important position. As a result, the department's focus on all aspects of cyber security has remained weak." The appointment is being viewed as a way to enhance and merge the DHS coordination and deployment of resources and other assets.
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  • "Busted!"
    New Scientist (12/17/05) Vol. 188, No. 2530, P. 44; Biever, Celeste

    The cracking of MD5 and later SHA-1 by Chinese cryptographer Xiaoyun Wang has stirred up the security community, since both hash algorithms represent the most popular cryptographic tools currently used. But Wang puts a positive spin on this development, noting that her work allows people to "understand whether a hash function is secure and how to design secure hash functions." Wang's breakthrough was discussed by cryptography researchers convened by William Burr of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in late October; many attendees said the only workable way to exploit the SHA-1 vulnerability would be through distributed computing, but Burr expressed reluctance to publish Wang's work out of fear that hackers would use it to their advantage. Columbia University's Stephen Bellovin warns that the replication of original documents through hash reversal could endanger many supposedly "secure" applications, such as secure Internet sites and passwords. Such exploitation has not taken place because cryptographers have only just begun to investigate the ramifications of Wang's break, but NIST's John Kelsey says he is worried "that waiting for someone to publish a pre-image attack might be a little late." Increasing SHA-1's safety through a slight modification to the algorithm is one way to thwart Wang's vulnerability, and methods to do so have been devised by IBM cryptographer Charanjit Jutla, independent security consultant Yiqun Lisa Yin, and RSA Security's Michael Szydlo. But attendees at the October workshop organized by Burr overwhelmingly agreed that SHA-1 should be eliminated as rapidly as possible.

  • "'I'm Looking for Uncle John"
    Discover (12/05) Vol. 26, No. 12, P. 22; Johnson, Steve Berlin

    Grassroots efforts could be the key to filling in the gaps of a crisis of information during catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina. In fact, communication became such a problem in the wake of the hurricane that Michael Brown of the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not know that people were trapped inside the New Orleans convention center until news reports. Tech-savvy volunteers took the initiative to pull missing-person notices from dozens of sites and move them to a single database, making it much easier for people to find out that their loved ones were safe. The PeopleFinder project was up to speed within four days, and the folks behind it were able to pull off the data-management initiative without a budget. Ordinary people with tech skills also launched www.katrinahousing.org, a site for offering a guest cottage, spare bedroom, or foldout couch for shelter, and 5,000 people found temporary homes through the site within two weeks of the hurricane. Another group brought computers and voice over IP phones to damaged areas so that evacuees and first responders would have a wireless network for communication. Although the tech volunteers did not pull anyone out of the water, they served a key role in the response effort by tackling various communications problems.
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  • "What Happened to American Innovation?"
    Chief Executive (12/05) No. 214, P. 22; Brody, William R.

    Significant government investment in education as well as basic scientific research and development across all disciplines is critical if the United States is to revitalize its flagging global lead in innovation, according to Johns Hopkins University's William R. Brody. The percentage of America's overall GDP represented by federal R&D spending has fallen from just below 2 percent in 1965 to approximately 0.8 percent in 2005. Western Europe already publishes more science and technology articles than the United States, and European schools' output of scientists and engineers is more than double that of U.S. schools, while Asian schools' output is roughly triple. Only 17 percent of Americans graduate with science and technology degrees, compared to the world average of 27 percent, the Korean average of 34 percent, and the Chinese average of 52 percent, according to the National Science Foundation's 2004 Science and Engineering Indicators report. As co-chair of the National Innovation Initiative sponsored by the Council on Competitiveness, Brody has hit upon the equation that knowledge feeds into innovation, which feeds into productivity and propels economic growth. He partly blames the decline in skilled graduates for the breakdown of this formula in America. "We must re-dedicate ourselves to transmitting existing knowledge to the next generation through the world's best educational system," Brody reasons. "And we must recognize that in order to continue leading the world in the discovery of new knowledge, we must aggressively fund research and development in all areas of science and technology." Brody writes that science and technology exports will most probably enable the country to regain its once-positive balance of trade for high-tech items.

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