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February 27, 2006

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Welcome to the February 27, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Taking Snooping Further
New York Times (02/25/06) P. B1; Markoff, John; Shane, Scott

Officials from the National Security Agency met with a group of venture capitalists to outline their wish list for new data-mining systems that would support and advance the Bush administration's surveillance efforts by better uncovering connections between seemingly unrelated communications. Privacy advocates have vigorously protested the surveillance program, claiming that privacy is violated whether it is a human or a machine that is doing the snooping. Data mining is not a new practice, as insurance and credit card companies have been using it for years to conduct risk assessments and detect fraud, though by applying advanced software analysis tools intelligence agency systems go a step further. Costing up to millions of dollars for an agency-wide deployment in an organization such as the FBI, software tools enable investigators to compile and cross-reference financial data and phone records to look for patterns of suspicious activity. Critics claim that the government has misdirected its surveillance activities, spending vast sums on intercepting the phone calls of American citizens while neglecting to monitor obvious and available resources such as chat rooms frequented by al Qaeda operatives. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed a suit against AT&T, alleging that the company's storehouse of phone records and information about Internet messaging, the Daytona system, provides the foundation for the NSA's surveillance, though a company official noted that the system has in place strict access controls. Among the new technologies that the government is developing are a technique to identify the physical location of an IP address and an application that compiles a list of topics by analyzing computer-generated text, while Virage has provided the government with a program that captures up to 95 percent of the spoken content of television programming, with potential applications for monitoring phone conversations.
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A 1,000-Processor Computer for $100K?
CNet (02/24/06) Kanellos, Michael

To address the time lag between hardware development and software design, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, and MIT have developed the Research Accelerator for Multiple Processors (RAMP) program, to create a laboratory computer with FPGAs. ACM President David Patterson notes that while hardware simulators do exist, software developers rarely use them to their fullest extent, but that an FPGA-based computer could be easily and inexpensively assembled. "If you can put 25 CPUs in one FPGA, you can put 1,000 CPUs in 40 FPGAs," Patterson said, estimating the cost for such a system at around $100,000, while only taking up about one-third of a rack and consuming 1.5 kilowatts of power. A comparable cluster would cost around $2 million, spread over 12 racks, and consume 120 kilowatts. "What we are not trying to do is build an FPGA supercomputer," Patterson said. "What we are trying to do is build a simulator system." An eight-module version of the computer is expected in the first half of this year, with the complete 40-module version expected in the second half of next year.
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Researchers Developing Precise Search Software
News-Gazette (02/26/06) Kline, Greg

Computer Science professor Anhai Doan and his colleagues as the University of Illinois are developing new search techniques that aim to refine the broad-brush approach of Google and Yahoo! through knowledge and patterns embedded in the massive repositories of digital records. Privacy advocates have raised concerns about how much data people should disclose about themselves in order to improve search results, who controls the information, and where and how it is stored. "All of these things add up eventually in the public consciousness to sort of a justified paranoia about releasing any kind of information," said John Unsworth, dean of the Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, noting the Bush administration's controversial domestic surveillance program and the highly publicized data breaches at major credit card companies and other organizations with large databases of sensitive information. The proliferation of data in competing digital formats confounds search technologies, though increased processing power has led to the creation of computers that are capable of synthesizing and applying that information in novel ways. Computers can work through entire data sets without having to make inferences from a statistical sample. Unsworth is helping to develop an international test project called NORA (No One Remembers Acronyms) to apply data mining techniques to a digital repository of 18th and 19th century English and American literature. Another University of Illinois project is the Evolution Highway, an international data mining system that cross-references human and mammal genomes to detect the origins of diseases. While new search technologies promise to improve data mining, computers still have trouble with telling the semantic difference between like words through their context, and users are becoming more adamant that they receive assurances of anonymity before giving out personal information.
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Fast Chips, Kill, Kill, Kill
Wired News (02/24/06) Gain, Bruce

Representatives of some of the world's leading chip companies at last week's SPIE Microlithography Conference in San Jose, Calif., announced a host of new products that promise to sustain Moore's Law over coming generations with smaller, faster processors. IBM intends to print circuits with 30-nm features, one-third the size of those on the market today, through existing lithography and imaging techniques, while ASML Holding unveiled a production process for 42-nm chips, claiming that it has the technology to scale to 35 nm. Having already reported the production of a 45-nm SRAM chip, Intel expects to produce 30-nm wafers next year. The Semiconductor Industry Association's technology roadmap calls for the number of transistors on a CPU to double to 2 billion within two years, and to 4 billion in four years, with densities increasing and sizes shrinking through 2020. AMD and Intel report that the increase of clock speeds will fall off as power consumption and heat become increasingly prohibitive factors, though increased chip densities will enable the manufacturers to improve performance with multiple cores: Intel has said that a single processor could hold up to 100 cores within 10 years. While 5 GHz clock speeds are on the horizon within four years, Insight64's Nathan Brookwood believes that multicore processors are the key to achieving performance gains on par with previous years. "Processor makers will focus on architectural approaches such as parallelism," Brookwood said. "They will go from dual core, to quad core, to octal core." According to the roadmap, DRAM per chip is also expected double twice over the next four years, reaching and potentially exceeding 4 GB per chip.
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Municipal Mesh Network
Technology Review (02/27/06) Savage, Neil

The city of Cambridge, Mass., this summer will unveil a city-wide wireless Internet project based on an experimental system called Roofnet, an unplanned, multiroute mesh network developed at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Roofnet has already been operating for about three years across an area of roughly four square kilometers near MIT, using a few dozen transmitting/receiving nodes and one wired Internet connection through MIT. The nodes--which consist of a small box containing a hard drive, software written by MIT researchers, a Wi-Fi card, an Ethernet port, and a connection to a rooftop antenna--have been located in the homes and offices of volunteers, most of whom are MIT students and staff. The original idea behind the network was to take advantage of the benefits of a random, unplanned network. With simple-to-use equipment that requires minimal maintenance, the Cambridge-wide network could be inexpensive and grow organically, although service can be unacceptably poor in areas where a node is far away from its nearest neighbor. The city plans to rectify these coverage problems by attaching antennas to as many tall buildings as possible. In addition, some of Roofnet's nodes may get radio interference from a passing truck--which can reflect radio signals and cause interference--or from water--which strongly absorbs the network's transmissions sent on the Wi-Fi frequency of 2.4 GHz. In order to circumvent these problems, Roofnet's nodes constantly broadcast status reports that signal where they are and which nodes they are in communication with. By tracking these status reports, the network can select the best route between any two nodes at a particular moment.
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Tech Gurus Drum Up Ideas for a Better World
San Francisco Chronicle (02/26/06) P. A1; Abate, Tom

Leaders from the technology industry gathered in Monterey, Calif., for the Technology Entertainment Design (TED) conference, historically a discussion ground for cutting-edge technologies that began in 1984, when Apple showcased its new Macintosh. Attracting such influential attendees as former Vice President Al Gore and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, this year's TED kept its traditional focus on the environment and social consciousness. Gore gave an hour-long presentation on global warming, imploring the members of his influential audience to take up the challenge of changing the world in their daily work. Hans Rosling of Sweden's Karolinska Institute gave a presentation on U.N. income and mortality statistics, calling for a search tool to make similar data throughout the world available. He later met with Google executives, who invited him to present his ideas to the company's engineers. The conference also saw presentations from the evangelical minister Rick Warren and the atheist scholar Daniel Dennett, both of whom exhorted the crowd to pursue meaning beyond corporate interests in their work, albeit invoking different philosophical justifications. Among the new gadgets unveiled at the conference was New York University computer scientist Jeff Han's new touch-screen technology that enables multiple users to manipulate maps and images by running their fingers over the objects.
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IANA Up for Grabs?
Computer Business Review (02/27/06) Murphy, Kevin

In a step that could foreshadow the placement of a contract out to bidding, the U.S. Commerce Department last week posted a request for information (RFI) soliciting interest from anybody interested in running the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which is currently controlled by ICANN. The IANA oversees functions that include the maintenance of available IP address space, the protocol and port number database, and the list of which servers the global domain name system top-level codes operate on. The last function requires governments that wish to change who runs the local ccTLD to ask ICANN's permission, and the latest RFI from the Commerce Department defines that function as "receiving requests for and making routine updates of the country code top level domain contact and nameserver information." The reason for the government's decision to look for other potential bidders after ICANN's long-term stewardship of IANA remains unclear, though ICANN observer and blogger Bret Fausett suggests that .us domain and North American numbering plan operator NeuStar lobbied for the rebidding of the IANA contract. However, a definite theoretical conflict of interest would arise should NeuStar, a ccTLD operator, win the contract. Other entities likely to be interested in bidding on the IANA contract include the Council of European National Top-Level Name Registries, Afilias, and VeriSign. The possibility also exists that the IANA functions could be split up among different organizations.
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DOD Funds National Information Fusion Center
University at Buffalo News (02/21/06)

The Department of Defense is establishing the National Center for Multi-Source Information Fusion Research at CUBRC and the University at Buffalo to advance the technology underpinning critical national security endeavors in the area of information fusion, a technology that aids in the understanding of complex situations confounded by disparate and at times conflicting information. Through its $1 million grant, the Defense Department is making the center the focal point for information fusion research and development for national security and defense, in addition to advancing applications for the field in business and medicine. Researchers at the institution will devise algorithms and software programs to track moving targets, such as a plane or a ship, and predict their destinations. "These tools will be able to provide enhanced situational awareness to a commander so he or she can make a decision, determining not only what a particular object or target is, but what it might be trying to do," said Michael Moskal, research associate professor of engineering and applied sciences at Buffalo. The center intends to develop prototype software for both military and civilian applications within the next 18 months, while also addressing more long-term security issues, such as infrastructure threats and the development of widespread computer networks. The "Event Correlation for CyberAttack Recognition System" is under development to improve analysts' ability to defend against widescale, organized attacks on networked computer systems. Information fusion draws heavily on data mining, giving it a broad range of applications, particularly in medicine, where the center hopes to use it to predict and contain disease outbreaks. The center is also developing new techniques for signal processing, estimation and inference methods, and technologies for visualization and human/computer interaction.
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Universities Diffused Internet Technology in Mid-1990s
University of Toronto (02/22/06) Hall, Jenny

The Internet shows how important universities can be in transferring technology to the larger society, according to a researcher at the University of Toronto. Avi Goldfarb, a professor at the university's Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, credits students with bringing the Internet to the public, compared to the traditional way in which universities disseminate technology through research journals and business partnerships. Goldfarb's paper is published in the March issue of the International Journal of Industrial Organization. Although there is little empirical research on the subject, Goldfarb analyzed data from nearly 105,000 surveys, which paints a picture of how the Internet emerged as a tool in university life in the mid 1990s. Moreover, Goldfarb says students who graduated from universities began to introduce the Internet to their families, and even notes that low-income households were over 50 percent more likely to embrace the Internet if a family member pursued higher education in the mid 1990s. He wonders whether universities are the unsung heroes in the emergence of the Internet. "IBM invents a lot of things and their employees might use them--but they stay at IBM, so it's harder for those technologies to have a wide impact," says Goldfarb.
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Carnegie Mellon Scientists Show How Brain Processes Sound
Carnegie Mellon News (02/23/06)

New research into how the brain processes sound has the potential to lead to improvements in digital audio files and contribute to the design of brain-like codes for cochlear implants. The Carnegie Mellon University study, which appears in the Feb. 23 issue of Nature, offers a new mathematical framework for understanding the process, and implies that optimization of signal coding is involved in hearing a range of sounds. Signal coding refers to the process the brain uses to translate sounds into information. The researchers abstracted from the neural code at the auditory nerve, and referenced sound as a discrete set of time points, or a "spike code" for representing acoustic components in their temporal relationships. "We've found that timing of just a sparse number of spikes actually encodes the whole range of nature sounds, including components of speech such as vowels and consonants, and natural environment sounds like footsteps in a forest or a flowing stream," says Michael Lewicki, associate professor of computer science at the university. Improvements in signal processing could enhance the quality of compressed digital audio files. "We're very excited about this work because we can give a simple theoretical account of the auditory code which predicts how we could optimize signal processing to one day allow for much more efficient data storage on everything from DVDs to iPods," says Lewicki.
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Make Sure Your Android Went to Finishing School
New Scientist (02/18/06) Vol. 189, No. 2539, P. 30; Marks, Peter

As robots come to occupy a more prominent role in industry and begin appearing in the office and home, leading edge manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda, and Toshiba are working to ensure that the devices are built with safeguards to protect the humans with whom they will interact. Domestic robots, much like pets, will demand added vigilance from their owners to avoid charges of negligence and other legal issues. While autonomous robots base their navigation on maps created through data gleaned from the environment, Stephen Sidkin, a lawyer for the Law Society of England and Wales, says that manufacturers will have to do more. "Designers will have to ensure a robot's software is capable of learning how to avoid all problems like hot drink spills. The onus has to be on the manufacturer to get it right." The Japanese government is also concerned about robot safety, having commissioned a long-term study to form safety standards for robots employed in health care and domestic settings. If safety becomes a significant enough issue, it could entail costs that undermine the commercial viability of the industry. While it is acknowledged that robots, much like humans, will not be able to handle every situation that they face, researchers are working principally to improve sensors, develop more intelligent control strategies, and produce robots with softer, more rounded designs. Robots could include a "Go Limp" technique that halts the device's motion once it runs into an object with sufficient force. Backup motors would give robots more fluid movement to prevent sudden motion stoppages caused by a system failure. Given that Honda and Toyota are at the forefront of robotics, some analysts look for safety and compliance measures that roughly parallel the automobile industry.
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Search and Destroy
Software Development Times (02/15/06)No. 144, P. 30; Handy, Alex

The open-source Bugzilla tool comes highly recommended as a first step for companies looking to deploy their first Web-based software defect-tracking system, given its reliability. "With Bugzilla, it's a giant duct tape and bailing wire tangle of Perl scripts, but it's solid duct tape and bailing wire," says testing and quality assurance consultant Matt Hargett. He notes that a major factor behind the weakness of many bug-tracking systems is the back-end database. Exporting the database itself to a standard file format can be a godsend in the event of a system crash or corruption. Hargett also notes that the effectiveness of a widely accessible defect-tracking system can be hindered by co-workers seeking their own field, which can lead to excessively elaborate databases and result in confused information or slower searches. Breaking up defect listings into tiers can help address this problem. The first recommended step following a bug's listing in the defect-tracking system is replication, which should then be written into an automated test. No one in the organization should be shut out from submitting bugs easily and quickly into the system.
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Mobile Downloads Pick Up Speed
BBC News (02/27/06) Ward, Mark

Third-generation (3G) technologies on the horizon promise to significantly enhance data transfer, although meeting the projected data demands of future subscribers--such as delay-free mobile downloading--will require basic improvements in 3G technology itself. The GSM Association's Mark Smith said operators were fine with upgrading, and acknowledged the need to upgrade despite their sizable financial investments in license acquisitions and network build-outs. High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) is the most likely candidate technology to supply the bandwidth upgrade, and installed HSDPA networks deliver speeds as high as 1.5 Mbps while on the move; later versions will offer even faster speeds. In comparison, available 3G technology offers a basic data rate of 384 Kbps, which is only slightly higher than Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution (Edge) technology's peak speed. Smith says the first HSDPA networks are beginning to show up, and the United States will probably host the first complete HSDPA network. Meanwhile, 3G-Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology could yield as much as 100 Mbps in bandwidth, and Sound Partners research director Mark Heath said 3G-LTE may be necessary if mobile TV explodes and operators have to deliver shows to many people simultaneously. It is more probable that operators will favor network hardware upgrades rather than competing technologies such as Wi-Fi or Wimax, given that they could wield greater control over the former.
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Robot Migration
National Journal (02/18/06) Vol. 38, No. 7, P. 53; Munro, Neil

With business owners protesting the tightening of immigration restrictions on the grounds that their supply of cheap labor will dry up, companies have been exploring new ways to replace human labor with machinery. Subway has replaced its cashiers with electronic kiosks at one of its sandwich shops, enabling the staff to process 70 more sandwiches per hour during its lunch rush. If immigration caps remain unchanged, companies will have to explore ways to increase worker production while reducing costs. Technology lifted the curbs on U.S. economic growth and productivity in the mid 1990s when retailers such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot began using back-office software packages to control delivery and just-in-time inventory, ATMs began to replace bank tellers, and Americans used online services to invest in the stock market. Retail productivity growth increased at an average annual rate of 3.8 percent from 1995 to 2002. Online sales, self-checkout services, and wireless scanners will further increase workplace efficiency. The construction and restaurant industries have also seen increased worker productivity from new technologies. Economists have reached a general consensus that higher labor costs, a product of tighter immigration policies, lead companies to invest more heavily in technology, though the relationship is difficult to quantify. Companies are advised to focus first on technologies that produce revenue, rather than those that cut costs, such as a car rental company that has invested in wireless devices that precisely measure the amount of gas used. The trucking industry has enjoyed a 20 percent increase in productivity due to wireless email and other technologies, with the next big jump coming in the form of robots to handle cargo and drive the trucks as early as eight years from now, according to iRobot CEO Colin Angle, who notes that the technology exists, but that "the devil is always in the details."
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Linux Joins the Consumer-Electronics Revolution
EDN Magazine (02/16/06) Vol. 51, No. 4, P. 57; Webb, Warren

As the user-interface, networking, and multimedia requirements of current consumer-electronics (CE) products expand, designers are adopting the open-source Linux operating system to address those requirements. Linux offers considerable cost savings thanks to its free source code as well as the lack of a licensing fee and per-unit royalties. Linux is applicable to a wide range of next-generation CE devices as the price of 32-bit processors and memory drops, while the Linux kernel can be configured for small-footprint systems and offers many features of a powerful operating system. In addition, designers can avail themselves of a broad online community of Linux developers in order to get advice and solve problems quickly. The Linux kernel, which usually takes less than 1 MB of RAM, boasts a memory manager that facilitates the secure sharing of system memory by multiple programs; a process scheduler to guarantee that programs will have fair CPU access; a virtual-file system that conceals hardware details and presents a common file interface; and a user network interface whose complexity or simplicity can be tailored to the user's preferences. Design teams that traditionally relied on in-house operating software development are embracing Linux to tackle the challenge of increasing device complexity, while Linux vendors make revenues by combining subscription support, tools, and services with custom distributions. Issues generating uncertainty include legal challenges contesting the novelty of Linux code, the possibility of fragmentation via kernel modification, and General Public License provisions requiring the isolation of source code for modified GPL software.
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The Social Side of Services
Internet Computing (02/06) Vol. 10, No. 1, P. 90; Vinoski, Steve

Technologists are reluctant to admit the substantial role nontechnical issues play in the success of service-oriented architecture (SOA) development projects, according to IONA Technologies' Steve Vinoski. Success cannot be achieved just by making services operational and interactive through a registry; the human factor must be taken into account as well. "Pushing your organization to adopt service-oriented approaches and create a production SOA network requires a multipronged effort that depends somewhat on where you fit into the organization," reasons Vinoski, who adds that SOA faces unique challenges on different corporate levels. In the upper management echelon, SOA adoption hinges on understanding how such an approach can contribute to the bottom line; middle managers and technical leaders, meanwhile, may perceive SOA as a threat to their authority, a challenge against their own trusted techniques, or a perilous gamble if their reputation for delivering on time and on budget is already established; finally, developers are known for resisting the adoption of new technology unless there is no other option. Communication and socializing is critical to SOA adoption on all levels of the company. "Essentially, you have to employ marketing and sales tactics to socialize your ideas and win over the key people who can help make your dreams a reality," writes Vinoski. Methods and tools to consider using in pursuit of this goal include wikis, blogs, and "elevator pitches." Ultimately, face-to-face communication is the most important method, Vinoski concludes.
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The Trouble With the Turing Test
The New Atlantis (02/06)No. 11, P. 42; Halpern, Mark

The Turing Test is considered by many to be the ultimate measure of machine intelligence, through its reasoning that a machine can be considered capable of thought if a person cannot distinguish it from a human during interrogation. But AI researchers have been unable to pass the test through their inability to produce machines that can reply to questions responsively, and thus demonstrate that they grasp the remarks that prompted them. Mark Halpern finds the principle of the test to be flawed: For one thing, people in general automatically regard each other as thinking beings on sight rather than judge each other by conversational skills, as the test assumes. For another, the test's inventor, mathematician Alan Turing, suggested that computers would be accepted by the public as thinking machines by the end of the 20th century, which has not happened. Halpern notes that "while we continue to find it convenient to speak of the computer as 'trying' to do this or 'wanting' to do that, just as we personify all sorts of non-human forces and entities in informal speech, more and more of us are aware that we are speaking figuratively." The lack of a compelling methodology for rating the success or failure of artificial intelligence, apart from the Turing Test, has thrown the field into disarray. Halpern concludes that "it is becoming clear to more and more observers that even if [successfully passing the Turing Test] were to be realized, its success would not signify what Turing and his followers assumed: Even giving plausible answers to an interrogator's questions does not prove the presence of active intelligence in the device through which the answers are channeled." He advocates a more agnostic perception of AI, which accepts that AI has yet to be achieved, with no idea if it ever will be.
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