Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hey, we beat Iceland! (and the UK)

BBC News has a story saying that the US is "no longer technology king."
The US has lost its position as the world's primary engine of technology innovation, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.

The US is now ranked seventh in the body's league table measuring the impact of technology on the development of nations.

A deterioration of the political and regulatory environment in the US prompted the fall, the report said.

The top spot went for the first time to Denmark, followed by Sweden.

Countries were judged on technological advancements in general business, the infrastructure available and the extent to which government policy creates a framework necessary for economic development and increased competitiveness.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

It's as easy to lose big numbers as small ones

This AP story on CNN reports that a technician accidentally erased a disk containing the accounting records for a $38 billion account, and the backup disk.

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) -- Perhaps you've experienced that sinking feeling when a single keystroke accidentally destroys hours of work. Now imagine wiping out a disk drive containing an account worth $38 billion.

That's what happened to a computer technician reformatting a disk drive at the Alaska Department of Revenue. While doing routine maintenance work, the technician accidentally deleted applicant information for an oil-funded account -- one of Alaska residents' biggest perks -- and mistakenly reformatted the backup drive, as well.

There was still hope, until the department discovered its third line of defense had failed: backup tapes were unreadable. "Nobody panicked, but we instantly went into planning for the worst-case scenario," said Permanent Fund Dividend Division Director Amy Skow. The computer foul-up last July would end up costing the department more than $200,000.

Backing up your data regularly is important. So is checking your backups to make sure they contain what you think they do and can actually be used to restore lost data. I say this from bitter personal experience.

I also have anecdotal evidence that a major New York bank once had a more expensive data loss than the one reported in this story. The main database was corrupted by a software error. Then the operators mounted the backup disks and did what they did every night: copied the database onto the backup disks...



Friday, March 16, 2007

Warsaw University team wins programming contest

A team from Warsaw University has won ACM's 31st annual International Collegiate Programming Contest. (See also this and this.)
New York, NY - March 15, 2007 - The results of the 2007 ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ACM ICPC) indicate the continuing strength of global competition for the best computer programmers in the world. The top five winners were Warsaw University (Poland), Tsinghua University (China), St. Petersburg University of IT, Mechanics and Optics (Russia), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (U.S.), and Novosibirsk State University (Russia). This international competition, now in its 31st year, is hosted by ACM (the Association for Computing Machinery), a society of more than 83,000 computing educators, researchers, and professionals worldwide.

The international competition took place this week in Tokyo, Japan, with 88 teams competing in the final round. Earlier rounds of the competition featured more than 6,000 teams representing 1,765 universities from 82 countries.

The only U.S. university to finish in the top 10 was MIT, which placed 4th. Other top finishers from the U.S. were California Institute of Technology, at number 12, and the University of Texas at Dallas, which was tied for 14th place with 12 other schools.
I know one of the coaches of the winning team. Prof. Jan Madey is Vice-Rector of Warsaw University, but he has always found time to mentor exceptional students. His teams have done well in previous competitions (7th in 2006, 10th in 2004, World Champions in 2003, ...).

I met Jan in 1971 at the IFIP Congress in Ljubljana (then Yugoslavia, now Slovenia), and our paths have crossed many times since then, in Poland, the US, Canada, and assorted global sites. A wonderful person.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Not bedtime reading

Avi Rubin has posted a summary reaction to the expert panel report on their analysis of the source code supposedly used in the voting machines that lost 18,000 votes in Sarasota County, Florida.

His bottom line:
I would not suggest reading this report before bed, because it is quite scary. To me, the Princeton work, coupled with this FSU report should serve as wake-up calls to the elections community that these sorts of studies need to take place before voting systems are deployed, not after an election has proven problematic. Studies such as the FSU one should be done as part of the certification process. This report clearly uncovered problems that would have been show stoppers, and yet, relatively little attention has been paid to this.

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Oddest book title of the year?

You can vote on it (lower right hand column), The Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Title of the Year.

The short list:

  • Tattooed Mountain Women and Spoon Boxes of Daghestan
  • How Green Were the Nazis?
  • D. Di Mascio's Delicious Ice Cream: D. Di Mascio of Coventry; An Ice Cream Company of Repute, with an Interesting and Varied Fleet of Ice Cream Vans
  • The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification
  • Proceedings of the Eighteenth International Seaweed Symposium
  • Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence
According to AP, last year's winner was "People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting bystanders and What to Do About It," by Gary Leon Hill.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

New GAO Report on Electronic Voting

The Government Accountability Office (the investigative arm of Congress) has released a new report, All Levels of Government Are Needed to Address Electronic Voting System Challenges.

COMPUTERWORLD has published a trenchant commentary by Brad Friedman. Excerpts:

The report covers the lack of security and reliability standards and testing for all electronic voting systems across the country at the federal, state and local levels. It reveals a system of democracy in utter disarray in the wake of the ill-conceived and ill-administered Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 and the technological nightmare now facing voting jurisdictions across the United States...

We concluded in 2005 that these concerns have caused problems with recent elections, resulting in the loss and miscount of votes.

Doesn't get much clearer than that, does it...

As well, Hite's report underlined yet again that the e-voting activists once criticized as "conspiracy theorists" have been right all along. It's hard for someone who's been following the trail for years not to break into a chorus of "I told you so," dedicated to the Republicans, Elections Officials, Voting Machine Companies (and a few utterly reckless and reprehensible Democrats to boot) who simply refused to handle the truth...

[E]lectronic voting systems are an undeniably critical link in the overall election chain. While this link alone cannot make an election, it can break one. The problems that some jurisdictions have experienced and the serious concerns that have surfaced highlight the potential for continuing difficulties in upcoming national elections if these challenges are not effectively addressed.

Note the word "effectively" in the above paragraph. Election Reform legislation is not enough; if it's not effective, it's meaningless and sends democracy back over the same cliff over which the process pitched in Florida 2000, Ohio 2004 and Sarasota 2006. Without a DRE ban -- as in Holt's bill if it's not amended -- there's nothing to stop us from heading off
that same cliff all over again in 2008.

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