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February 13, 2006

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Welcome to the February 13, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Bush May End Federal Tech Funding Program
IDG News Service (02/12/06) Thibodeau, Patrick

President Bush's proposed budget for 2007 eliminates funding for the Advance Technology Program (ATP), a federal program that funds technologies deemed "high-risk" that has long been a target of the administration. Rejecting Bush's previous recommendation, Congress awarded the program $80 million this year, though that was roughly half the money that it garnered the year before. Bush says the private sector should fund high-risk research, including such ATP areas of focus as handwriting recognition, fault tolerance software development, and cognitive learning systems. While Bush and other critics say that the ATP is tantamount to corporate welfare, the ATP's Michael Borrus argues that the program fulfills the vital role of researching projects that are not yet well enough developed to garner commercial funding. The ATP is subsumed under the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is actually slated for a 24 percent funding increase, though that spending is earmarked for information security.
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EU Plan for Technology Institute Put to Test
Financial Times (02/13/06) P. 2; Parker, George; Boone, Jon

The proposal for the controversial European Institute of Technology (EIT) is entering a pivotal stage this week as EU officials work to finalize details to submit the plan for approval to European leaders at next month's economic summit. An obvious symbol of the European Commission's concern that Europe is falling behind in research and development, the EIT would serve as "a pole of attraction for the very best minds, ideas, and companies from around the world," according to EC President Jose Barroso. The Commission says the percentage of Europe's gross domestic product constituted by R&D lags behind that of both Japan and the United States. However, critics of the program claim that its top-down, centralized structure could undermine other initiatives promoted by the European Research Council (ERC). Drawing on the MIT model of collaboration between business and academia, however, Barroso sees no conflict. As proposed, the EIT would be overseen centrally, but would function as a virtual university, granting degrees and funding for research conducted throughout Europe's existing universities. Championed by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, the EIT would draw funding from the EU's central budget, member states, and private industry. While Barroso describes the EIT as a necessary instrument to revive the foundering ERC, EURAB, the EC's own advisory group, has warned that the it could compromise the ERC's objectives by ultimately undercutting its funding.
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Chinese Sensors of Internet Face 'Hacktivists' in U.S.
Wall Street Journal (02/13/06) P. A1; Fowler, Geoffrey A.

While the Internet's growing pervasiveness in China has made it difficult to police the activities of an estimated 111 million users, the Chinese government is nonetheless attempting to reinforce its authority, requiring all bloggers to register with the state and continuing its block on objectionable content, such as Wikipedia and the BBC, as well as dispatching roughly a dozen state agencies to monitor Internet activity. Chinese Web censorship, sometimes referred to as the 'Great Firewall,' has sparked an insurgent community of U.S.-based 'hacktivists' who have developed programs such as Freegate, which links computers within China to U.S. servers, enabling users to access prohibited sites. Other efforts mask the identity of Chinese Web users through multilayered host messages that obscure their trail, and adopt-a-blogger programs furnish Chinese writers with external servers to transmit their message. Practitioners of the Falun Gong--the banned Chinese spiritual group that has been persecuted for alleged subversion--have contributed substantially to the development of anti-censorship applications such as Freegate. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia also contribute to Freegate, and a major boost in funding could come from the renewed congressional consideration of legislation to create an Office of Global Internet Freedom in response to harsh criticism of Google, Microsoft, and others for complying with Chinese censorship laws. Freegate, run by North Carolina-based programmer Bill Xia, cannot be blocked by Chinese censors because it constantly switches the address of its U.S. server. Freegate's effectiveness is limited in China, however, as it is employed mostly by technically proficient users, and many Chinese censor their own Internet use, consciously avoiding keywords and content that could be considered subversive. Meanwhile, the government continually devotes more resources to combating Freegate and other anti-censorship applications.
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APAC Ramps Up Australian Computing
HPC Wire (02/10/06) Vol. 15, No. 6,Feldman, Michael

In a recent interview, John O'Callaghan, executive director of the Australian Partnership for Advanced Computing (APAC), outlined the scope and future of the organization. Initially created in 1999 to bolster Australia's advanced computing capabilities through the development of a grid infrastructure, APAC now comprises eight organizations in a national partnership with each state individually represented, and supports the activities of an estimated 2,000 researchers. APAC's top system, a 1,680-processor SGI Altix 3700 Bx2 cluster, checked in at No. 35 on last November's list of the Top500 supercomputers. The recent upgrade to that system provided APAC users with higher-resolution climate simulations and a host of other processing capabilities. In response to ever greater storage demands, the researchers are expanding the National Facility's data storage system. Ultimately, APAC plans to integrate Australian research into the global infrastructure by providing uninterrupted access to distributed resources. The beneficiary of $25 million in annual funding, APAC has coordinated the activities of a broad group of Australian research organizations. APAC has supported the efforts of the Center for Computational Prototyping, which is developing virtual engineering and automated production techniques, and ac3, which hosts a digital TV service and maintains a secure data center. O'Callaghan notes that researchers are using APAC for a host of projects, including climate modeling, astrophysics, and pharmaceutical research. He believes that APAC's biggest challenge will be to implement a grid infrastructure that, while still relatively immature, will nonetheless offer significant benefits for the diverse body of Australian researchers for whom it is being created.
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Computer Downtime Rising up to Work on World's Problems
San Antonio Express-News (TX) (02/12/06) Lorek, L.A.

The nonprofit World Community Grid has harnessed the excess computing power of more than 250,000 PCs throughout the world to provide researchers with faster processing capabilities for such complex problems as developing new drugs for AIDS treatment. "The World Community Grid takes research projects that were unimaginable by researchers before and makes them possible," said IBM's Viktoris Berstis, who spearheaded the project's development. Computer users can download software developed by United Devices to make their excess processing power available to the grid. The grid's first endeavor, the Human Proteome Folding Project, began in November 2004, modeling the structures of roughly 120,000 protein domains comprising 90 complete genomes. Without the aid of the grid, researchers estimate that processing all the data would have taken the project's central supercomputers 100 years. Rather than spend millions of dollars to purchase and maintain additional supercomputers, the researchers harness free computing power and divert their funds toward scientific advancement. The grid's latest endeavor, the FightAIDS@Home project, is working to develop better HIV treatments as drug resistance continues to evolve, testing chemical compounds through millions of computations to stem the reproduction of the proteins within HIV. The World Community Grid counted 263,000 PCs running in 157 countries as of last week, providing enough processing power to rank the grid among the world's top five supercomputers.
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Wireless to Organize--and Maybe Save--Lives
Reuters (02/11/06) Carew, Sinead

The popularity of wireless technology has some laboratories rushing to insert electronic chips into a variety of different products. Sensor chips may one day even be embedded into underwear to send laundry-related text or voice alerts to cell phones, according to Institute for Global Futures President James Canton. "It will tell you when it needs to get cleaned," Canton says. Others predict that wireless sensors may be helpful for saving lives. MIT electrical engineering and computer science professor John Guttag is currently studying how wirelessly connected medical devices may automatically send warnings of a problem to the patient's mobile phone and then on to a relative or a physician. Guttag cautions that such devices would only work if they are sophisticated enough to avoid false alarms. The use of cell phones, software, computers, and sensors can also make our jobs easier and get rid of daily chores, according to researchers at Motorola. Motorola human interaction researcher Tom MacTavish says voice-recognition technology on cell phones could improve with the use of pattern-recognition technology. Image-recognition technology is also in the process of being developed, which could assist law enforcement with the use of wireless devices that can read license plate numbers. Many analysts predict location-aware phones will have an important impact in the future, despite critics who are skeptical about focusing on sophisticated applications, which they say will take years to develop.
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Security Gurus Report on the State of Cybersecurity at Demo 2006
ZDNet (02/08/06) Farber, Dan

John Patrick led a discussion on the state of security with Arizona State University cryptography professor Partha Dasgupta, Shinkuro CTO Hillarie Orman, and Charles Palmer of IBM Research at the recent Demo 2006. The panelists all say that security problems are here to stay. Not all computer users today know enough about computers and security. "Some products and techniques are bringing security down to the mainstream to protect people who can't protect themselves, said Dasgupta. "It's a cat and mouse game, but we need to bring it to level we can live with it." Palmer said part of the problem is that computers were not designed with security in mind, and today's hackers are more motivated by financial gain than ever before. Dasgupta suggested the use of PKI and smart cards as a way to improve security, despite the reluctance from financial institutions to use smart cards. The experts all agreed that smart cards are not invulnerable, and that they can be used to extract data, which is a problem for high value transactions. Dasgupta also said teaching programming students how to write safe code is not done anymore, which causes problems. Orman added that computer security started with a trusted operating system and that is where it will return to. The panelists were also asked if they thought the NSA could crack 128-bit encryption, and Dasgupta said the answer is unknown. Other forms of security, such as biometrics, were another popular topic of discussion.
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Chips That Really Get Under Your Skin
CNet (02/08/06) Krazit, Tom

At the recent International Solid State Circuits Conference, scientists at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology presented a chip that is implanted in a user's forearm to function as an audio signal transmission wire that links to an iPod. Many of the presentations featured devices that conserved power, though this chip goes a step further, harnessing the human body's natural conductive properties to create personal-area networks. It is not practical to wire together the numerous devices that people carry with them, and Bluetooth connections fall prey to interference, leading scientists to explore the application of the human body as a networking cable. The Korean scientists augmented an iPod nano with their wideband signaling chip. When a user kept his finger pressed to the device, it transmitted data at 2 Mbps, at a consumption rate lower than 10 microwatts. Researchers from the University of Utah also presented a chip that scans brainwave activity by wirelessly streaming data through monitors in the hopes of creating prosthetics that quadriplegics could operate with their brain waves, though both projects are still in the preliminary research stages.
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Computer Senses User's Frustration
Discovery Channel (02/06/06) Staedter, Tracy

Researchers at Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics in Rostock, Germany, are developing technology that will put computers more in tune with the feelings of its users; the team plans to demonstrate the emotion-sensing tool at the CeBIT Exhibition in Hanover in March. The emotion-sensing technology consists of a wireless electronic glove that measures heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature, and transmits the information to a base unit that stores it on a memory card and then sends it to a computer database. Software has been developed to analyze the data and find patterns that would indicate the emotional state of a computer user. For example, the combination of rapidly rising heart rates and the fall of skin temperature below a certain level may indicate that computer users are not happy. And such a conclusion might prompt the computer to tone down the background color of the screen, lower the volume of background music, adjust graphics and the flow of information, or even apologize. "With humans, somebody who ignores feelings of others is not liked as much as somebody who shows some sort of emotional feedback," says computer scientist Christian Peter. "Why should it be different with computers?" Peter and his team are also developing a tool that uses a regular Web cam to read the face of a computer user.
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Not Quite a Lie Detector But...
Excalibur Online (02/08/06) Vanderhart, Tessa

Researchers at Queen's University are testing a new spin detector program on speeches delivered by Canadian politicians. Based on deception detector research conducted at the University of Texas, the software is able to identify "markers" such as exception words, negative emotion, actions, and correlations to unusual syntax that are likely to suggest the use of deceptive language. "We'll be able to label politicians who spin more overtly," says David Skillicorn, a professor of computer science at Queen's University who developed the algorithm. Skillicorn noted that the Liberals party had the highest spin score of 124, but said that was likely the result of their being the incumbent party. The NDP received a score of 88, and the Conservatives used the least amount of spin, according to their score of 73. The Queen's University researchers have also used the computer program to analyze the email correspondence between Enron employees. Communications specialists question the need for such technology, and journalism experts say it is their job to determine when a politician has resorted to using spin.
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Students Win Video Contest
The Poly Post (California State Polytechnic University) (02/07/06) Sanchez, Melina

This year's Security Video Contest, sponsored jointly by EDUCASE/Internet2 Computer and Network Security Task Force and the National Cyber Security Alliance, received 62 entries from students at 17 universities. The contest, designed to promote cyber security awareness among college students, divided the winners into two categories, one addressing the broad spectrum of security issues, with the other focusing on one specific topic. The $1,000 top prize in the single subject category went to California State Polytechnic University's Johnson Chau, Kevin Atef, and Michael Wong for a three-minute video detailing a scenario in which a fictional character engages in online banking and dating and eventually falls prey to a phishing scam. "The contest results show that the student community is a talented resource that colleges and universities should tap to enhance their security awareness programs," said Shirley Payne, security and coordination policy director at the University of Virginia. The three Cal Poly students had never been enrolled in a course together, but met through the school's chapter of the IEEE's Students With an Interest in the Future of Telecommunications program, which aims to prepare students for networking and telecom careers. Selected for content, creativity, and quality of information, the winning entries will be used on campuses nationwide to promote cyber security.
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Student-Friendly GIS Leads to Real-World Science Inquiry and Fulfills NRC Report's Recommendations
EurekAlert (02/08/06)

Schools throughout the United States are now using student-friendly geographic information systems (GIS) software designed by researchers at Northwestern University. The researchers designed My World GIS with the needs of K-12 teachers and computing environments of schools in mind, in bringing students dynamic and customizable mapping capabilities that will allow them to see spatial patterns. "My World software's unique strength is enabling students as young as middle school to visualize and analyze geographic data," says Daniel Edelson, associate professor of education and computer science at Northwestern. Edelson is also the director of Northwestern's Geographic Data in Education Initiative (GEODE), and his team designed My World GIS, which was first published in 2004. My World GIS is a timely tool, considering the National Research Council recently published a report that calls for using GIS to help students think spatially. However, until now, GIS had only been designed for scientists and was too complex for elementary and secondary school students. Edelson and GEODE are studying whether GIS helps develop spatial reasoning abilities, and whether there is an impact on how science and geographic content is understood.
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They Saved the Internet's Soul
Wired News (02/08/06) Singel, Ryan

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA) it preserved the Internet as the free-for-all space it is today. This now has become a landmark case in recognizing the essential free speech nature of the Internet, and it prevented the government from imposing "decency" standards on the Internet that would have had a wider-than-expected muzzling effect. The 1996 CDA made Web sites and ISPs legally responsible for all content on their sites and services, and this would have forced companies to severely limit message board postings, blogs, and all sorts of content. The ACLU challenged the CDA in court and won, though at the time no one knew whether the Supreme Court would see the Internet as a zone of speech, or in terms of the licensing restrictions imposed on television broadcasters. Center for Democracy and Technology staff counsel John Morris remembers how back in 1996 the legal team attacking the CDA had to bring computers into courts to educate judges about the Internet. These days 75 percent of the U.S. population uses the Internet to keep in touch, peruse news, download music, blog, and for other purposes. However, a free and open Internet still faces threats. The U.S. Justice Department plans to appeal an injunction preventing enforcement of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, and censorship by governments such as China not only affect the Internet, but have influenced Google and Microsoft to cooperate with their censorship relating to search-engine users and bloggers, respectively.
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Sorting Out the Patent Craze
Working Knowledge (HBS) (02/06/06) Grant, Sara

Standard setting organizations (SSOs) face the responsibility of striking a balance between the interests of consumers and the interests of sponsors when facilitating widespread adoption of new technologies, and Harvard Business School professor Josh Lerner explores how SSO certification influences user acceptance of standards in his paper, "Certifying New Technologies." Standards bodies cannot be one-sided, otherwise adoption could be stifled by end users who feel the group is not giving their needs due consideration. Lerner says the chief benefit of SSOs is their ability to let tech companies coordinate with other firms much more easily than if they had to negotiate individual contracts, thus lowering the odds that the firms will practice opportunism. The professor comments that SSOs are more likely to make deep commitments to standardization if people expect them be effective standardizers. Conversely, initial skepticism about the group severely reduces the likelihood of success. Among the most challenging problems facing SSOs today is the courts' unwillingness to embargo companies that manipulate the standard setting process for selfish reasons, says Lerner. He notes, for instance, that patent applicants strategically file divisional patents in an effort to shape their patents to changing circumstances while keeping the priority date affiliated with the original application.
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Researchers Fired Up Over New Battery
MIT News (02/08/06) Halber, Deborah

Researchers at MIT's Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems (LEES) have developed an application that could result in the first major economically feasible alternative to the conventional battery since Alessandro Volta's original design in the 19th century. LEES researchers Joel Schindall, John Kassakian, and Ph.D. candidate Riccardo Signorelli have developed a nanotube-based ultracapacitor that can hold the equivalent charge of conventional batteries. Capacitors store energy electrically, rather than the less efficient chemical reactions that provide energy to batteries. Atomic-level electrical field storage improves the capacity of current commercial ultracapacitors, which, having only recently become economically viable, can be found in a host of electronic devices, such as fuel-cell cars and computers. Much larger than conventional batteries, ultracapacitors suffer from physical limitations that have severely undercut their storage capacity, and the best models still hold roughly 25 times less energy than a comparably sized lithium-ion battery. The vertical alignment of single-wall carbon nanotubes could overcome those limitations, however. By aligning the nanotubes vertically, the LEES model regulates the pore size of the carbon, and greatly reduces the surface area. "This configuration has the potential to maintain and even improve the high performance characteristics of ultracapacitors while providing energy storage densities comparable to batteries," said Schindall.
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Darwin's Ideas Evolve Design
EE Times (02/06/06)No. 1409, P. 13; Brown, Chappell

Evolutionary principles are giving rise to new design approaches in such diverse fields as bioinformatics and artificial systems, and researchers believe these approaches will have a transformative effect on the field of engineering. "We now realize that the processes of mutation and selection--which in nature seemed to apply only to living forms--can also be applied to inorganic realms," says Michigan State University professor Richard Lenski. "I have become convinced that the wedding of biological principles with engineering materials, both software and hardware, offers tremendous potential for technology in many forms." John Koza cites 21 cases on his www.genetic-programming.com Web site where genetic algorithms produced results that competed with or outclassed the results in patented, human-made designs--and even yielded patentable inventions in several instances. Lenski explains that bioinformatics and computational biology have vast potential for producing revolutionary breakthroughs at the point where biology and computational science intersect, which he defines as "experimental evolution and engineering." The growing momentum surrounding the evolvable systems field stems from the increasing real-time flexibility delivered by configurable chips. Computer scientists seeking effective methods for modeling complex system behavior could get invaluable assistance in the standardization of biological data so that a wide variety of groups can access and share it. Merging standardization with the Internet could lead to advances in comprehending fundamental life and evolutionary principles.
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Now Hear This
New Scientist (02/04/06) Vol. 189, No. 2537, P. 44; Boyd, John

Researchers at Japan's Waseda University are working on robots capable of more natural speech and interaction with people, and the potential applications of such a breakthrough include reduced bandwidth load for cell phone communications; improved control over artificial vocal cords for people who cannot speak; and better tools for speech training and language learning. The underlying goal of research into speaking robots is understanding how the human brain controls speech actuators when people talk: "What we don't clearly know is...how the different circuits in the brain work together to produce speech sounds," says Waseda University computer scientist Masaaki Honda. "And we won't understand it exactly until we can reconstruct the brain circuitry and machinery of speech." Honda is the creator of the Waseda Talker, a robot that produces human-like speech sounds by pushing compressed air through an artificial vocal tract equipped with motors that move the lips, tongue, and vocal cords. The device is also outfitted with teeth and a nasal cavity. Key to the Talker model's development over the years was the increasing flexibility of its palate, tongue, and lips; with the addition of such elements as protruding lips and a new control mechanism for the vocal cords, the Talker could generate more natural-sounding speech. The robot can mimic certain words by copying humans, with the help of sound analysis software. The machine could one day mimic words on its own once researchers have developed a computer model for voicing phonemes.
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Hidden in Plain Sight
Queue (02/06) Vol. 4, No. 1, P. 26; Cantrill, Bryan

A lack of software observability is responsible for lengthy and often needless diagnosis of serious performance problems that usually have a relatively simple root cause, according to Bryan Cantrill with Sun Microsystems' Solaris Kernel Development Group. Software cannot manifest itself physically, which means modifying the software is the only way to observe the software being executed; but such constructs can slow down the system by their very presence. Avoiding this scenario supports the paradox that addressing performance problems seen in production requires replicating the problems in either a development or test environment. Cantrill also notes that performance problems are usually introduced at the highest software abstraction layers, but are often first seen at and blamed on the lowest abstraction layers. Therefore, it stands to reason that unintentional or unnecessary work could be eliminated by moving up the software stack to uncover underlying performance problems instead of focusing on their cascading symptoms in the lower stack. Shifting the observability infrastructure's focus from software development to production and from programs to systems is Cantrill's solution, and it requires the optimization of software when it ships, dynamic instrumentation of the production system, and, above all, absolute safety of the infrastructure. Sun's DTrace system was designed with dynamic production system instrumentation in mind, and it offers the flexibility of such instrumentation without sacrificing safety by drawing a line between the system's manner of instrumentation and the framework that consumes the data. "The architectural elements of DTrace--safe and heterogeneous dynamic instrumentation, arbitrary actions and predicates, and scalable, in situ data aggregation--allow for unprecedented observability of production systems," Cantrill writes.
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