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The U.S. Government, bowing to repeated Secret Service requests, is now deliberately obscuring its highest-quality aerial photographs over Washington in an effort to hide visible objects on the roofs of the White House, Capitol, and Treasury departments. The Associated Press reports this blurring policy also includes views of the Naval Observatory where the Vice President lives. Experts are concerned the unusual decision reflects a troublesome move toward new government limits on commercial satellite and aerial photography. Moreover, the effectiveness of blurring one set of government-funded photos is questionable since tourists can see the roofs of these noted buildings from dozens of taller buildings in downtown D.C. Secret Service spokesperson John Gill explained the agency worried that high-altitude photographs, so detailed that pedestrians can been seen on crosswalks, "may expose security operations." Interestingly, the policy does not extend to detailed pictures of the Pentagon, Supreme Court, Justice Department, or FBI and CIA headquarters.

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(Keep) Phone Home

An increasing number of companies are joining the ban on camera phones. Health clubs and popular gambling casinos were quick to forbid the discrete picture-taking devices for obvious reasons of patron privacy and security. Now major employers are banning camera phones on the job amid growing fears these devices pose serious threats to company secrets and worker privacy, reports USA Today. Firms worry employees will use the phones to send images of new products or other company information, or else take pictures of unsuspecting co-workers in locker rooms or bathrooms, which may lead to business or legal risks. General Motors, Texas Instruments, DaimlerChrysler, BMW, and Samsung are a few of the recent corporations to issue "no camera phone" zones in the workplace. U.S. courthouses are also starting to adopt the ban fearing camera phones can be used to photograph jurors or undercover agents serving as witnesses.

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Love/Hate Relationship

In other phone news, the cell phone topped the list of the annual Lemelson-MIT Invention Index as the invention users love to hate. Unlike recent U.K. surveys that found the majority of users developing a strong, sentimental attachment to their phones, the U.S.-based study concluded that cell phones have become a necessary part of life, but the devices in fact drive most users crazy. "The interconnections you get from the cell phones is a very positive thing. The downside is that you sometimes want to be alone," explained Lemelson Center Director Merton C. Fleming. Among the other inventions getting a collective raspberry: the alarm clock, television, razor, microwave oven, computer, and answering machine.

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Image Makeover

The image of the stereotypical Internet user, long characterized as an antisocial geek with no friends and no interest in the real world, has been shattered by a new survey that finds the typical Web surfer one that shuns TV and is quite the social animal. The UCLA World Internet Project (ccp.ucla.edu/pages/internet-report.asp), a three-year survey of Net and non-Net users in 14 countries, produced global comparisons data on social, political, and economic effects of the Net. The survey shows a digital gender gap in all participating countries and surprisingly high levels of online use among the poorest citizens of the surveyed countries. The gender gap is most prevalent in Italy where 41.7% of the users were men; 20.1% women. The lowest gap was in Taiwan (where user makeup is 25% men, 23.5% women). Internet users in all surveyed countries spend more time socializing and exercising. In fact, Net surfers also read more books (except in Germany and the U.S.). South Koreans trust Net info the most; Swedes are the most skeptical. And China boasts the most active Net socializers.

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Robot Scientist

A robot that can formulate theories, perform experiments, and interpret results (and does all more cheaply than its human counterpart) has been created by a team of scientists at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, U.K. Nature magazine reports the Robot Scientist isn't as intelligent as, say, the leading chess-playing computer, but combining the smarts of a computer with the agility to perform real scientific problems is a major engineering feat. In a recent test against human competitors, the robot worked out which genes in yeast are responsible for making vital amino acids; even beating out a biologist who claims he hit the wrong key at one point. The robot was also more sensitive in financial concerns; human players were penalized for overspending. Ron Chrisley, University of Sussex, is quick to point out that having robots work in research labs is really nothing new. "We've had robot scientists for a long time now. But in the past we've always called them 'grad students'."

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Rooms with a View

A million-dollar two-story home constructed of walls made mostly of windows that turn from clear to opaque, or to computer screens, to speakers, or to television screens was a main attraction at the recent Sundance Film Festival. The 6,000 square-foot prototype house, built in Park City, UT, is the creation of Anderson Windows and Time Warner and considered by both a research project. The windows, found inside and out including the roof, between rooms, stacked atop each other in bedrooms and bathrooms, are fitted with a microfiber LCD screen, which makes them opaque or able to display light from a TV projector. Touch-screen computer monitors are fully integrated into each window, allowing them to receive and display information without projection. Architect Michael James Plutz designed the abode with "wall plans," not floor plans. Of the resulting structure, he says: "We are a multitasking species. We want to do everything in every room. We should expect our windows to do the same."

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