Tech News from Arkansas

by John Adams

Today's Quiz: In Arkansas, tech news often as not means Wal-Mart. Which of these seven items are Wal-Mart related? In increasing order of fearfulness:
  1. RFID

  2. GIS

  3. Nanocars

  4. Data theft

  5. Microsoft

  6. Terrorism

  7. Garth Brooks

RFID: The University of Arkansas opened an RFID Research Center. It says here that "The RFID Research Center has no vested interest in the use or implementation of any one type of RFID technology over another. The companies who use the facility to test their products can remain confident that they will receive unbiased results on the most efficient application of RFID tags and readers on their products." I wouldn't have it any other way. Wal-Mart related? Yep--they're one of the participants and funders.


GIS: Also at UA-Fayetteville, Leica has established a chair in geospatial imaging. The first person in that chair is Dr. W. Fredrick Limp, director of the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies. It says here "Limp was a founder and served on the board of the Open Geospatial Consortium." I like the sound of that! (If I were better suited for academia, I'd be getting into the master's program in geography/GIS at UAF, but I'm not, so I'm not.) Wal-Mart related? Not really, other than that they hire a lot of their graduates.


Nanocars: No, not this nanocar. A neat non-technical presentation at UAF by Dr. James Tour of Rice University presented on "Nanotechnology’s Active, Hybrid and Passive Applications: NanoCars, Hybrid Silicon/Molecule Electronics and Carbon Nanotube Composites", and the coolest bit was the nanocar/nanotruck. (No, not this nanotruck.) Here's the abstract of his talk and another touching on it from Kevin Kelly, also of Rice.


Kelly's summary is succinct:

The NanoCar is synthesized similar to a macroscopic automobile by integrating three essential components: a semi-rigid "chassis," a set of rotating "axles," and four fullerene "wheels."

Tour's is more detailed, but here's the gist of it:
nanocars: nanometer-sized vehicles that are each a single molecule possessing four wheels (spherical C60 units) connected through four independently-rotating axles (alkynes) to a chassis (an oligo(phenylene ethynylene) (OPE) moiety).

Tour's presentation doesn't seem to be on the web, which is too bad for you. The imaging of the little nanocars rolling on a gold surface was especially fascinating--one sequence appeared to show a nanowheel rolling over a gold atom.


My notes also show a nanotruck, made by placing an organic group (pyro-something--sorry!) capable of capturing an atom, ion, or molecule, in the middle of the chassis, the idea being that it could function like a heme. My thought was this would be great therapy for heavy metal poisoning--little nanotrucks running through your bloodstream picking out the lead--and more speculatively at a larger scale, area decontamination.


There was also a powered model, created by inserting a group capable of translating photon capture into angular momentum. (I believe this model used a different wheel, for reasons that weren't dwelled upon.) This group (I didn't catch its name--sorry!) is chiral, but since the nanotruck can be flipped over without losing functionality, the chirality of the group isn't relevant to which way the motor turns.


A neat presentation--I see why our Senator, Mark Pryor, wanted to introduce Dr. Tour. Wal-Mart related? No.


Data Theft: There are other tech companies in Arkansas, the most prominent of which is probably data broker Acxiom. (An aside: Acxiom, like Little-Rock-based Alltel, makes considerable use of open source tools.) A federal trial in the largest (by dataset size) data theft case so far just ended with a conviction of Snipermail CEO Scott Levine in the theft of 1.6 billion customer records from Acxiom. There's a lot that could be said about the case, and if there's interest I'll say it, but here are the top points, in no particular order:

  • I have no sympathy for a CEO who can't control his employees, the defense offered by his wife, also a Snipermail corporate officer.

  • The programmers quoted as saying "Whoops--we just downloaded another file from Acxiom" lacked a sense of proportion. I wonder why?

  • The eight publications who (as of this writing) can be found via this query abuse the word "hacker" beyond belief with the title "Hacker found guilty in massive data theft case". Testimony in court stated that Levine wrote e-mails out by hand to be entered by someone else. If this CEO is a hacker, that's because he's a lousy golf player. Just call this case what it was: Fraud. The means of committing fraud are much less important than the crime itself. The eight publications? Computerworld (New Zealand, Malaysia, and Austrialia), Macworld, Infoworld, itWorldCanada.com, PC World, and CIO.

  • Speculating on Acxiom's statement that "only one external server was accessed, and there was no intrusion of Acxiom’s internal security firewalls or internal databases" (yes, they should have written "intrusion into" instead of "intrusion of"), I'm going to guess the "hacking" involved in this case didn't even rise to script kiddie level. Probably someone configured a "secure" file transport system in an insecure way--I've seen that sort of insecurity through installation of security products all too often--and the "hack" was along the lines of chdir ../someone_elses_stuff. That's just a guess, but it's a pretty good one.


Okay, I did have quite a bit to say about it after all, and I didn't even get into the prosecution and the defense explicating various participants' e-mail names in order to indicate their guilt. Wal-Mart related? No.


Microsoft: Okay, surely you've heard that Microsoft's new COO is Kevin Turner, most recently the CEO of Sam's Club. What you may not know is that Turner came up through the Wal-Mart IT organization, eventually heading it before becoming the Sam's CEO. That's interesting for a variety of reasons, particularly in that it shows that Wal-Mart understands IT to be at the heart of its business. (How many other VPoIT/CIO to CEO transitions can you think of in non-IT businesses?) The world's most notoriously cost-conscious corporation--there's a Sam Walton quotation about cost cutting over the main entrance to the machine room--knows better than to nickle and dime where it counts.


Turner's reputation is that he was exceptionally tough even for the Wal-Mart environment, an aggressive and intimidating place to be a vendor. My limited personal contact with him didn't show that, but then, I was a grunt--those higher up the food chain than I undoubtedly had a different experience.


One thing I did notice as a Sam's customer, long after I was no longer a Wal-Mart vendor, was the increased emphasis on serving convenience store owners Turner initiated. For instance, quite a few of our most frequently purchased products went from one corner of the store to its opposite, while a large selection of C-store items replaced them, right next to the heavy-duty check-out counters on the far right of the store. Some others disappeared from stock.


These changes are part of why we quit going to Sam's. If we'd stayed in Atlanta, we'd've shifted to Costco, as our exploratory trip there suggested the overall price difference (for our market basket) between the two was perhaps a percent. As it is, we're now in the largest Arkansas city without a Sam's Club (yes, our streets are paved), so the question is moot for us.


This shift cost Sam's our family's business--and it was the right thing to do, from the Sam's Club point of view. I bet they lost a lot of smaller, less profitable customers like us as they captured more and more of the more profitable C-store market. It was a smart strategic move, both for Sam's and for Wal-Mart overall--as the company experiments with its smaller "neighborhood markets", the information gained by wholesaling to C-stores should, when the time comes, help Wal-Mart snatch their business out from under them.


Is this important to you? It might be. Again, speculating: Wal-Mart has used a lot of open source technology over the years. If Turner's new job involves pushback against open source, he's smart enough technically to do it at a very high level and hard-nosed enough businesswise to do it effectively. He's going to fit in just fine at Microsoft. Wal-Mart related? Well, duh.


Terrorism: Arwah Jaber, A UA-Fayetteville doctoral candidate in the chemistry department (disclosure: I programmed there, and I also wrote freelance for the daily from which I'm about to quote here and in the next item. Both were paid positions), has been indicted on one charge of "knowingly attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization" and three other relatively minor charges. (The charges seem to be pretty thin stuff, but that's neither here nor there.) What I found interesting about the most recent hearing was these three points from this article:

  1. Jaber...allegedly told federal authorities he told his doctoral professor and others at the university he was going to Palestine to "fight for freedom, peace and justice."

  2. Jaber...was ordered not to have contact with UA professors and students to whom he allegedly made statements or sent electronic mail.

  3. U.S. Magistrate Judge Beverly Stites Jones also set a further condition that Jaber, a chemistry student, continue working to complete his doctoral dissertation and defense.

How the heck can he complete his dissertation and defense if he can't speak to his doctoral professor? Go figure. Wal-Mart related? No.


Garth Brooks: Now we get to the scary stuff. Garth Brooks has changed labels. He's dropped EMI Capitol in favor of...make sure you're seated...in fact, let me ROT-13 it for you: Jny-Zneg.


That's right. If you want your new Garth Brooks multi-disc set, you have to go to Wal-Mart. From Anita French's story:

Wal-Mart's deal with Brooks marks the first time an artist has aligned his entire catalog with one chain. Although neither Brooks nor Wal-Mart would comment on the first arrival under the pact, industry sources say that it will be a multiple-disc box set including previously unreleased material.


As Ebeneezer Scrooge's old business partner, Sam Marley, used to sing as he counted the day's receipts:

If you are a long tail

Then I am a short axe

Sharpened to cut off your head

Ready to cut off your head

I haven't done the calculations, but I'd guess there are two or three hundred acts for whom a deal like this would make sense strictly on their numbers. Probably a third of them are too tied to their current contracts to make such a deal, and of those remaining, probably half of them aren't suitable for reasons of demographics, content, or philosophical disagreement. (Survey question: Who is more hated, the recording industry or Wal-Mart?) That leaves around a hundred top acts ready, willing, and able to divert those obscene profits away from the record companies. Isn't that great news?


Is Amazon cut out of the deal? Apparently so. The deal covers Wal-Mart, walmart.com, and Sam's Club. What about Apple--will Garth Brooks downloads come from walmart.com only? That's not yet clear.


Wal-Mart related? What isn't?

How many weblog entries should this have been?