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March 27, 2006

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

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Justices Will Hear Patent Case Against eBay
New York Times (03/27/06) P. C4; Hafner, Katie

The Supreme Court's consideration of MercExchange's suit against eBay has attracted widespread attention as a referendum on the threat posed by patent challenges to large companies. The technology in dispute is eBay's "Buy It Now" feature, which a federal court ruled to be subject to an injunction under a patent infringement precedent dating to 1908. Members of the pharmaceutical industry, General Electric, the University of California, and others have all filed briefs on behalf of MercExchange, while Microsoft, Oracle, and Intel have rallied around eBay, alleging that the threat of injunction quashes innovation and invites frivolous litigation. MercExchange first filed suit against eBay in 2001, alleging that it had infringed on three patents registered to Thomas Woolston, the MercExchange founder who had patented an online auction system with an automatic payment feature. In 2003, a federal court in Virginia found that eBay had infringed on two of the three patents, and ordered it to pay MercExchange $25 million in damages, but did not issue an injunction to force eBay to stop using the patented technology. A federal appeals court that specializes in patent cases overturned that decision, ruling that injunctions were the general rule by which patent infringements are handled, save for rare cases when an injunction would compromise public health. Large companies have rallied behind eBay as part of their broader attempt to reform patent law and contain the threat of patent trolls. Unlike the recent case brought by NTP against BlackBerry maker RIM, eBay's Hani Durzy says that even if the court rules in favor of MercExchange, he does not anticipate any immediate effect on the company's operations because of changes that eBay made to the "Buy It Now" feature after the 2003 ruling.
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Java Facing Pressures From Dynamic Languages
InfoWorld (03/25/06) Krill, Paul

Panelists at TheServerSide Java Symposium agreed that dynamic languages such as Ruby are mounting a threat to Java, but that the language itself can be improved and the ability of Java Virtual Machine could reach to dynamic languages. Admitting that Java falls short on the low end, the panelists agreed that Java's future lies with enhanced development of its Web applications. "Ruby on Rails is quick and clean and that's the reason it's taking off," said independent consultant Bruce Tate, who is closely watching the JRuby project, which claims to be developing a Java-based Ruby interpreter. While Java is faring well at the enterprise level, Tate argues that the Java Virtual Machine should extend further into low-end applications. Bruce Snyder, a founding member of the Apache Geronimo project, said he is surprised by Ruby's popularity, given its lack of enterprise capabilities. Tate counters that Java also began in a simple form, arguing that the two languages should be able to co-exist. As the Internet moves from a publishing environment to an application environment, Web 2.0 becomes increasingly important. "Hopefully, we'll see a new breed come along for developing lighter-weight applications and [using] Web 2.0," said Snyder, though others claimed that the entire Web tier is simply not working, inviting the possibility of open-source systems undermining commercial revenues, whittling down companies' research and development budgets. Others contended that free and open source are not the same thing, and that open-source software can provide services that add value and produce revenue.
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Plotting the Road Ahead for Wireless Sensor Networks
IST Results (03/27/06)

The IST project Embedded WiseNts is developing new cooperation techniques for integrating wireless sensor networks with the objects from which they draw data. In laying out their vision of the wireless sensor network of the future, the scientists analyzed existing systems in the areas of common application scenarios, algorithms, vertical system functions, and middleware. "By looking at these four areas, we identify the gaps in our knowledge, what is missing right now," said Pedro Marron of the University of Stuttgart. "With this starting point, we can begin to work out what people will be looking at in the next 10 years." Designers are currently working to develop energy-efficient hardware to match the advances in the energy efficiencies of software. The project participants also developed a contest, inviting researchers to submit their work in cooperating objects technology. A team of researchers from the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro won first prize for an application detailing a system for monitoring animals that cattle ranchers could use to track the health of their livestock and prevent against infection. Students at the University of Zurich won second place with their proposal for an intelligent waste system that would embed RFID tags in disposable consumer goods and place tag readers in waste bins and to monitor the type of refuse being disposed of and track the recycling efforts of waste producers. A doctoral student from Lancaster University took third prize for his proposal of a traffic system in which vehicles would communicate with each other to negotiate space on the road in accordance with 'virtual vehicle slots.' "The promise of cooperating objects in robotics is very big," Marron said, adding that a new IST project, AWARE, "will be looking at how to develop a sensor system for the robots being introduced for fire fighting, as well as for the support of tiny autonomous flying objects."
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The Evolution of IM
Technology Review (03/24/06) Greene, Kate

Open source is beginning to reshape the instant messaging landscape, as mainstay provider AOL has recently made available a development kit that programmers can use to modify its AIM software, so long as they obtain a license if they are developing content for a mobile device or distributing software to large companies, and do not use the kit to build on the platforms of AOL's competitors. Meanwhile, the open-source service Jabber has emerged to offer greater innovation and fewer regulations. The Jabber Software Foundation's Peter Saint-Andre likens Jabber's relationship with proprietary instant messaging services to Linux's competition with Windows. VoIP is also driving open-source IM innovation, according to David Reed of MIT's Media Lab. Using Jabber, the Gizmo Project enables users to communicate with each other through text or audio across different IM networks through an open-source variation on Skype. Gizmo offers audioconferencing for as many as 99 people (Skype's audioconferencing capability can handle just five people), and offers a publication feature that enables users to publish a conversation as a blog. Gizmo runs on the open-source Jabber platform and the open Internet voice server SIPhone, enabling any user to create software to connect with the network, unlike AOL, MSN, and Yahoo!, which do not share details about their server or client software. Software such as Meebo that has reverse engineered proprietary networks only creates a unified interface, but falls short of genuine interoperability, according to Gizmo Project founder Michael Robertson. "The world I'm trying to create is one in which you have one screen name that works everywhere, very similar to email," Robertson said.
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The Automat Understands Me
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (03/06)

The Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research (IGD) and Fraunhofer Institute for Media Communication (IMK) are among a number of research organizations that are attempting to improve interaction between humans and machines. Researchers are trying to develop virtual humans that are able to interact with people similar to the way in which people respond to each other. "The idea behind the virtual character is to design the human-computer interface as naturally as possible," according to Christian Knopfle, head of Virtual Reality at the IGD. Researchers face the daunting task of creating a virtual being that would have a human-like appearance, speak and carry on a credible dialogue, communicate non-verbally through gestures and facial expressions, interact socially, and respond to the needs of users in real time. Building modules for generating dialog, understanding speech, and for graphic output, interfaced via the Web, has become a focus for researchers involved in developing virtual humans. Such virtual beings could eventually serve as ticket sellers for railway businesses, tutors for students taking e-learning courses, or as tools for training employees on how to interact with customers.
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We're Flying Without Wing Flaps and Without a Pilot
Innovations Report (03/22/06)

Researchers at the University of Leicester will play a key role in the development of a flapless air vehicle. Engineering professor Ian Postlethwaite and Dr. Da-Wei Gu are heading research into areas of coordinated control, integrated control, and condition monitoring, in an effort to improve the autonomy and performance of uninhabited air vehicles. For the past year, the Leicester group has developed software for flight path planning that makes use of several planning strategies, runs in real time, and takes unexpected events into consideration. They are also focusing on distributing sensors across an airframe to deliver virtual air data, which could be used for health monitoring and improving the control of future UAVs. Leicester's efforts are part of the larger flapless air vehicle integrated industrial research (FLAVIIR) program, a five-year, 6.2 million pounds initiative that brings together researchers in aerodynamics, control systems, electromagnetics, manufacturing, materials and structures, and numerical simulation from all over the United Kingdom. "The concept of a flapless vehicle, using fluidic thrust vectoring [where direction is changed with a secondary air flow] and air jets, is one important area of investigation," says Postlethwaite. "Another is the replacement of the pilot by sophisticated software that can autonomously fly the vehicle without collisions in what might be dangerous or remote environment." FLAVIIR, funded jointly by BAE Systems and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, plans to produce a single flying demonstrator model by 2009.
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Drop in CS Bachelor's Degree Production
Computing Research News (03/06) Vol. 18, No. 2, P. 5; Vegso, Jay

The Computing Research Association's (CRA) Taulbee Survey has found a declining number of students pursuing bachelor's degrees in computer science at institutions with doctorate programs since the late 1990s. Another survey reported a 70 percent decline in the number of entering freshmen who intended to major in computer science at all degree-granting schools from 2000 to 2005. CRA reports 7,952 new computer science majors at the Ph.D.-granting institutions that it surveyed in fall 2005, compared to 15,958 in fall 2000. CRA reports a 17 percent decline in the number of computer science degrees awarded in academic year 2004/2005 compared to 2003/2004. The NSF suggests that degree production can be cyclical, as the number of computer science degrees awarded almost quadrupled from 1980 to 1986 before dropping rapidly and eventually leveling off in the 1990s. It is not surprising, then, that the number of computer science degrees awarded has again fallen off after peaking five years ago.
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Concerns About Wireless Tracking Devices Discussed
National Journal's Technology Daily (03/22/06) Casey, Winter

Representatives from both the government and business are still confident in the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID), despite research that indicates it may contain security vulnerabilities. Governments and businesses worldwide use RFID applications for tasks such as tracking groceries and identification verification. A recent study by Amsterdam's Vrije University, called "Is Your Cat Infected with a Computer Virus?," showed that computer viruses could move from RFID tags to exploit some software systems. The United States plans to launch new passports with RFID technology this summer, according to a State Department official. The number of passports issued over the past few years has risen from 7.3 million in fiscal 2003 to more than 13 million expected to be issued this year. The use of RFID has some privacy advocates concerned. "There is absolutely no need to use an RFID technology," says privacy advocate Bill Scannell, who adds that it is a bad idea to depend on RFID for security. Evan Scott at Evan Scott Group International disagrees and says he has confidence in the system and works with RFID companies everyday. "There are risk and concerns with all technology," says Scott. "RFID issues will be resolved and fixed through good technology. We are in the information age now. Everything is on the Internet or through the airwaves."
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Survey Offers a 'Sneak Peek' Into Net Surfers' Brains
USA Today (03/27/06) P. 4B; Baig, Edward C.

The difference between the Web content surfers claim to look at and what they actually view was measured by Nielsen Norman Group using eye-tracking technology, and the results were reported today. The firm requested over 230 participants to research specific tasks and companies on the Internet, and the survey's outcome demonstrates that companies still have a considerable amount to learn in order to be able to present a Web site or online image in a way that attracts the most attention. Randolph Bias of the University of Texas at Austin's School of Information says companies would do well to subject their sites to more thorough testing before rolling them out. The Nielsen study reveals that individuals read Web pages in an "F" pattern, in which they tend to read longer sentences at the top of a page and less and less as they scroll down; this makes a sentence's first two words of prime importance. "People are extremely good at screening out things and focusing in on a small number of salient page elements," says Nielsen's Jakob Nielsen. In addition, surfers establish a good connection to images of people that appear to make eye contact with them, although pictures of models and other excessively attractive people can turn surfers off. Also, pictures in the middle of a page can impede a surfer's progress; people respond better to pictures that are informative instead of just ornamental; and consumers will glimpse ads in search engines as a "secondary thing" because they are usually targeting specific products, according to Nielsen. The study shows that poorly designed Web sites are rampant, and cases where the site was so confusing that its status as an official company site could not be determined were also reported.
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Work May Speed Interplanetary Communications
MIT Tech Talk (03/22/06) Vol. 50, No. 21, P. 1

A team of MIT researchers has developed a miniature light detector that could enable ultra-fast broadband connections on an interplanetary scale. Currently, wireless radio frequency applications can take hours to relay scientific information from Mars, but optical links could do the job thousands of times faster, according to Karl Berggren, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science. The new detector boasts a 57 percent detection efficiency at the 1,550 nm wavelength, a significant improvement over the current detection efficiency of 20 percent. The almost threefold increase in speed will enable real-time transmission of large volumes of data from space, and could eventually lead to full-color video transmission between astronauts and scientists on Earth. Using nanowires and superconductor technology, the detector senses laser signals or very low light at the single-photon level in the infrared portion of the optical spectrum. Though it is designed for interplanetary communication, the detector could also be used for quantum cryptography and biomedical imaging. Current optical systems consume too much power to be practical for use in spacecraft, but the new detector is sensitive enough to receive signals from smaller, more efficient lasers. The addition of a photon trap improved the detector's efficiency, which had hindered the utility of previous single-photon detectors. As the trap captures more photons, the detector becomes more efficient, though Berggren and his colleagues are still working to improve it further.
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Delving Into the Meaning of Artificial Life
EE Times (03/20/06)No. 1415, P. 38; Brown, Chappell

Advances in synthetic biology could eventually lead to the development of artificial organisms with levels of complexity almost equal to biological systems, blurring the definition of what it means to be alive. A recent study, written mainly by Hubert Bernauer of ATG:Biosynthetics, found that scientists in the United States lead the world in research papers on synthetic biology, a field so new that the report's authors offered a working definition: "Synthetic biology is the engineering of biological components and systems that do not exist in nature and the re-engineering of existing biological elements; it is determined on the intentional design of artificial biological systems, rather than on the understanding of natural biology." MIT's BioBrick project has amassed a database of common DNA sequences that synthetic biologists can use to reliably synthesize a strand of DNA. The study argues that the gap between synthetic life and actual life is not merely a function of complexity, but also a question of the relationship between the physical system and the information that it represents. According to biologists, living organisms must be self-creating, self-organizing, and self-sustaining. The report finds it unlikely that systems based on silicon will ever attain the information processing and physical replication capabilities of living systems, due mainly to the natural differences between silicon and carbon. Without the molecular flexibility of their carbon-based counterparts, artificial-life systems running on silicon circuits will never be considered fully alive. To bridge the gap, researchers are trying variously to engineer the evolutionary principles that guide living systems, and to assign the basic DNA functions in inorganic building blocks in a shift from molecular biology to what the authors call modular biology. The idea of using past experiments and research as a ready-made basis for future work is similar to the prevailing ethos of the EDA industry.
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At the Five-Year Mark, Agile Manifesto Still Stands
SD Times (03/15/06)No. 146, P. 1; DeJong, Jennifer

Adoption of agile software development methodologies is just now starting to take off, five years after the drafting of the Agile Manifesto. Manifesto contributor and software consultant Martin Fowler says the agile concept that effective customer interaction is crucial to the production of good software has taken root in the mainstream, while Forrester analyst Carey Schwaber notes that even development teams that do not practice agile methodology on a conscious level are making the transition to more incremental software delivery and earlier testing. A November 2005 Forrester report found that 14 percent of European and North American enterprises are using agile software development processes, while an additional 19 percent are planning to go agile or are weighing the possibility; the study also pointed to a second wave of agile adoption led by enterprise IT shops that want to reduce time-to-market, improve software quality, and bolster relationships with business stakeholders. There are six agile methodologies--Extreme Programming (XP, the most well-known), Adaptive, Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM), Scrum, Crystal, and Feature-Driven Development (FDD)--with Fowler noting more similarities than disparities between these frameworks. Exampler.com's Brian Marick, another contributor to the Agile Manifesto, acknowledged in a Jan. 29 blog entry that semi-flexible languages such as Java and the fast machines that run them play an essential role in agile's adoption, whereas five years ago he thought tools were less important. "Moreover, each new tool--JUnit, Cruise Control, refactoring IDEs, FIT--makes it easier for more people to go the Agile route," he wrote. Marick has also reevaluated the importance of the customer to agile projects since the Manifesto's creation.
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Code Warriors
Network World (03/20/06) Vol. 23, No. 11, P. 46; Hope, Michelle

New tools to aid developers in the creation of secure code are being employed by adroit security executives. Depository Trust and Clearing CISO James Routh cites SecureSoftware's CodeAssure, a tool for automating vulnerability scans, as a solution that helps developers become more adept at writing secure code. "Our experience with CodeAssure has taught us that the better the contextual help is at explaining the vulnerability, the more valuable it becomes as an education tool that developers will understand and incorporate going forward," he explains. Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald notes that static and dynamic software scanning and assessment tools can analyze the state of uncompiled code or a compiled application and generate reports that identify the types of vulnerabilities found in the application while also suggesting preventive or corrective measures. Forrester analyst Michael Gavin adds that introducing such methods into the development process earlier makes sense in terms of cost-effectiveness. MacDonald and Gavin admit that the early application of security tools is both a complicated and expensive proposition. "If you adopt more-secure coding practices directly in the code cycle, it's going to add about one-third more time to the process," notes MacDonald, who says most of that additional time is spent educating and retraining developers in security vulnerability recognition and prevention practices. He expects security professionals, internal auditors, and compliance professionals to be the most enthusiastic users of most dynamic black-box scanning tools, at least initially.
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Wireless-Sensor Networks Find a Fit in the Unlicensed Band
EDN (03/16/06) P. 46; Conner, Margery

A host of recently introduced standards, protocols, and enablement equipment for unlicensed radio frequency bands is ushering in new applications for low-power, short-range, low-data-rate wireless-sensor networks. Wireless-sensor network application designers must select between 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz in the unlicensed industrial/scientific/medical (ISM) band, and the choice of frequency band depends on which nation a vendor wishes to sell to, the vendor's power limitations, the desired broadcast range, and the vendor's data-transmission rates. Analog Devices' David Boylan explains that vendors frequently opt for the 2.4 GHz band either because they or their clients prefer the security of standards, but other companies favor devising their own proprietary networks because of such networks' value-added and security aspects. The 900 MHz band can be technically advantageous for building automation applications because of the band's longer range and improved indoor penetration, which permits less power consumption, according to Dust Networks CEO Rob Conant. The 2.4 GHz band "is the only way to go for companies that want to bring out global products," he adds. "Although 2.4 GHz products suffer a penalty in power consumption to get the same range [as 900 MHz], 2.4 GHz is a standard, and customers know it's going to be around for years." Both Boylan and Chipcon's Karl Torvmark expect customers who prefer custom protocols to choose 900 MHz. Chipcon's customers, for example, desire customized networks, which offer benefits and shortcomings in terms of power consumption, according to Torvmark.
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E-Paper Enters Practical Use
NE Asia Online (03/06) Otani, Takua

The growing use of hardware that employs electronic paper (E-paper) is increasingly evident with new market entries and the development of a wide spectrum of E-paper products, many of which are currently available. Recent developments include Hitachi's practical E-paper display for general use, Citizen Watch's E-paper-equipped device clock, a practical public display terminal from Asahi Glass, and a time piece from Seiko Watch that uses E-paper for the face display. E Ink and other manufacturers are developing electronic inks, some of which are practical and being used by certain equipment makers. Fueling the adoption of E-paper by these companies is their desire to develop gear that is too complex or impractical for use with traditional displays. The chief distinction between conventional displays and E-paper displays is the latter's lower power consumption. There are many less obvious instances where E-paper could potentially be used, including smart cards and e-money, advertising above windows, toys and home appliances, rear mobile phone displays, and, looking further ahead, notebook PCs. E-paper products expected to reach practical application in the next year or so fall into two general categories: Particle-based E-paper that uses an electric field to manipulate black and white particles to change the image, and cholesteric liquid crystal E-paper that exhibits stability in both transparent and reflective states by exploiting the unique characteristics of liquid crystal. Fuji Xerox has embarked on an initiative to replace paper with E-paper through an "optical rewritable" technique in which new data is rear-projected onto the paper to change the displayed image. There are still technical issues that must be addressed before E-paper can be widely used: For example, flexible varieties of E-paper cannot accommodate dot displays, while dot-display models lack flexibility.
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Software Insecurity
Scientific American (03/06) Vol. 294, No. 3, P. 26; Dupont, Daniel G.

Acting on the warnings of a team of Pentagon advisors that the reliance on foreign-manufactured microelectronics compromises national security, the Defense Science Board has recommended the creation of "trusted foundries" to produce hardware for sensitive applications. The science board cautions, however, that the effectiveness of these foundries would be undermined without a parallel focus on producing secure software. The Defense Department only writes the code for its most sensitive applications in-house, importing the rest, including that used for fighter planes and missile defense systems, from overseas. The Government Accountability Office has found that in addition to the Defense Department's growing reliance directly on foreign software, an increasing number of prime contractors are farming out their software development to subcontractors who frequently use foreign companies. Foreign software can contain vulnerabilities that will inflict damage subsequent to installation and back-door entry points into the systems that they power, as well as carry the risk of being copied and distributed to opponents of the United States, according to Nancy Mead of the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute. Mead argues that because it is easiest to catch and correct errors at the software development phase, that stage needs to be monitored most closely. The Defense Department has begun conducting threat assessments and high-level discussions about foreign software. Robert Lucky, head of the science board study, notes that a higher level of security comes at a premium, and the crucial question is, "How much security can you get for how much money?"
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Isn't It Semantic?
ITNOW (03/06) Runciman, Brian

In a recent interview, Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee reflected on the development and the future of the system that he created. Berners-Lee says that in retrospect, he would have dispensed with the double slash and reversed the order of the domain name. He identified the Google algorithm as one of the Web's standout innovations, but says that he is most impressed with the Web's diversity, noting the gratification that he feels when he hears from users who have benefited from medical or dating sites. Security is one of the major deficiencies of today's Web, Berners-Lee says, noting that the padlock icon says nothing about the owner of the certificate. In addition to security, Berners-Lee believes that the greatest issues facing the Web are compatibility with the growing number of mobile devices and the continually changing enterprise software of Web services. He described the Domain Name Server as "the Achilles heel of the Web," calling for the United States to demonstrate a willingness to share control of the Web. Berners-Lee warns of superfluous patent claims, noting that the exorbitant costs of patent litigation often prevent companies or individuals from defending their intellectual property. He is also conscious of accessibility issues, such as casting the content of a Web site in a reasonable size font. In order for the Semantic Web to become useful, it must tap into existing databases, model their content, and develop a schema through an application such as the Web ontology language. The Semantic Web will also be able to conduct much more thorough analysis of machine data than humans can with HTML. Explaining why a Web year is 2.6 months, Berners-Lee describes the Web as nearing the end of its adolescence, noting that phishing and spam have been an important part of its education.
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Knowledge Discovery From Sensor Data
Sensors (03/06) Vol. 23, No. 3, P. 14; Tan, Pang-Ning

There has been a focus in recent years on applying data mining techniques to the extraction of useful knowledge from raw sensor data, and achieving greater data processing efficiency through these methods requires the resolution of various technical issues, writes Pang-Ning Tan, PhD, at Michigan State University's Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Prior to the application of data mining techniques, the raw sensor data must be converted into a suitable format for processing via feature extraction, data cleaning, and data and dimension reduction. There are four distinct data mining task categories: Predictive modeling (the construction of a model that can be used to anticipate future values of a target attribute based on known samples), cluster analysis (the division of a data set into several groups to enable data points that belong to the same group to more closely resemble each other), association analysis (the discovery of strong co-occurrence relationships between events extracted from data, which are encoded into logical rules), and anomaly detection (the identification of unusual activity occurrences within the data). Applying data mining methods to sensor data requires first and foremost the determination of the most appropriate computational model, which is either centralized or distributed. The centralized model consumes a lot of energy and bandwidth, and cannot scale up to very large numbers of sensors. The distributed model's drawback is the need to equip each sensor with an onboard processor that features a reasonable volume of memory storage and computing power. The noisiness and measurement uncertainty of sensor data could be more robustly accommodated via probability-based algorithms, while the challenge of missing data due to sensor malfunctions can be tackled in either the preprocessing or mining phase. Concept drift--the effect of attributes of the monitored process changing over time--must also be accounted for.
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