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March 31, 2006

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Most See Visa Program as Severely Flawed
Washington Post (03/31/06) P. D1; Kalita, S. Mitra

Buried in the debate over immigration and illegal workers is the discussion of the H-1B visa program that allows skilled foreign workers to stay in the country for up to six years before either obtaining a green card or returning home. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to increase the H-1B cap from 65,000 to 115,000 and permit some students to sidestep the program and become sponsored for a green card immediately upon entering the country. Opponents of the increase claim that foreign labor brings down the wages of native-born workers, while advocates of the cap increase say that foreign workers are healthy for the economy and prevent U.S. companies from having to export jobs overseas. H-1B supporters claim that the process must be simplified, and that it takes too long for guest workers to obtain green card sponsorship. "What you want is a system where people can get hired directly on green cards in 30 to 60 days," Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, told a House committee yesterday. Economists disagree about the impact of skilled immigrants on the position of U.S. workers, with some contending that foreign workers keep wages depressed and take jobs from their U.S. counterparts. "Those who are here on H-1B visas are being worked as indentured servants. They are being paid $13,000 less in the engineering and science worlds," said Ralph Wyndrum, president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which advocates green-card-based immigration only for outstanding candidates. Recruiting and hiring managers counter that with current green-card caps on workers from India and China reached, the H-1B visa program is the best way to hire the most qualified candidates.
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U.S. Tech Jobs Back on Track
Investor's Business Daily (03/30/06) P. A6; Howell, Donna

The aftermath of the tech bust and the phenomenon of offshoring caused many U.S. IT jobs to disappear, though in recent years the situation has brightened for U.S. workers. With several studies identifying sustained growth and interest in computer science among college students falling off, the industry could actually experience a worker shortage. A recent Robert Half survey found that 12 percent of companies plan to increase their IT workforces in the second quarter of this year, compared to just 4 percent that plan cuts. "Companies have hired in finance, information technology, administration, sales--you name it--over the last six months to a year," leading to a greater demand for IT workers, said Robert Half's Jeff Markham. That demand is particularly strong in the retail sector, where companies are investing, or, in some cases, re-investing, in technology for customer relationship management and business intelligence to enhance customer contact, efficiency, and to better understand buying patterns. Security, enterprise resource planning, and health care are also hot fields for IT workers, according to the placement company Yoh. ACM reports that the approximately 2 percent to 3 percent job loss rate in IT due to offshoring is much smaller than the rate of job loss and creation within the United States, and that tech jobs should stay strong in the areas where they have historically been healthy. The telecom bust, driven by massive over-extension leading up to Y2K, combined with the dot-com collapse to constrict the supply of jobs, according to Moshe Vardi, co-chair of the ACM study and a computer science professor at Rice University. "We essentially had the perfect storm in terms of jobs -- and then there were job losses," he said. "We found IT turned around by late 2002." Still, Vardi said the proportion of college freshman planning to study computer science dropped from about 4 percent in 2000 to 1.5 percent in 2004, because the tech crash caused so many to lose faith in the stability of IT. The ACM Globalization and Offshoring of Software Report is available at www.acm.org/globalizationreport/
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Science Agency Chiefs Laud Bush's Budget Request
National Journal's Technology Daily (03/29/06) Belopotosky, Danielle

The federal government's role in funding basic research was the subject of a Senate Commerce Technology, Innovation, and Competitiveness Subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. The private sector sought to remind policymakers that the federal government should share some of the burden of funding basic research, which has an impact on U.S. competitiveness. Chairman Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) acknowledged that the United States must continue to provide money for basic research, even when there is little room in the budget for such spending. President Bush wants to cut the deficit in half, but has still requested a 2 percent increase in non-defense research and development spending, or an additional $1.1 billion, reaching $59 billion, for his fiscal 2007 funding request, according to John Marburger, director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. He described the budget as targeted with investment in key initiatives at the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department's science office, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Biotechnology, nanotechnology, information technology, manufacturing, energy sources, and biometrics are areas targeted by the budget. ACM President David Patterson's statement on the importance of increased funding for technology education and R&D investment is posted at http://campus.acm.org/public/pressroom/press_releases/2_2006/sotu.cfm
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Touch-Screen Voting Isn't the Answer
Baltimore Sun (03/31/06) P. 11A; Schneider, John

In framing the electronic voting-machine debate in Maryland around security, many experts are missing the point, writes John Schneider, an Internet and data security consultant. Because any system can technically be rigged or manipulated, security is a relative term, generally a function of the effort and risk of breaking into a system weighed against the rewards of doing so. Without a sufficient recovery plan, voters will have to take on faith from a small group of technologists that their votes have been counted and recorded accurately. Most involved in the debate agree that some kind of paper recording mechanism is in order so voters can confirm their choices. Paper ballots also enable officials to conduct a hand recount if the machines experience problems. One type of paper trail would feed a roll under glass for voters to lean forward and read, while another would have the voter create an individual ballot to be read by an optical scanner. Schneider writes that the critical difference between optical scanners and touch-screen systems is that voters prepare a ballot by hand with an optical-scan system so it cannot be hacked should a recount be necessary. Given the value of Maryland's inventory of touch-screen systems, an optical-scan voting system could be deployed for a net cost of around zero while offering the invaluable benefit of restoring confidence in the state's voting process, Schneider concludes. ACM's statement on the importance of verified voting procedures is at www.acm.org/announcement/ acm_evoting_recommendation.9-27-2004.html. The ACM news release on voter registration guidelines to assure privacy and accuracy is at http://campus.acm.org/public/pressroom/press_releases/2_2006/vrdfindings.cfm
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Artificial Intelligence: The Edge of Research and Beyond
ZDNet UK (03/29/06) Goodwins, Rupert

Despite failing to live up to its early expectations, artificial intelligence still commands the attention of researchers. IBM and the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne are partnering on Blue Brain, a project using a Blue Gene supercomputer to model the 10,000 neurons in a rat's neocortical column (NCC), a building block that is close to its counterpart in the human brain. The computer currently has 8,096 processors, each capable of modeling up to 10 neurons, with a peak capacity of 22.8 trillion floating point instructions per second. Once the scientists successfully model an NCC, they will replicate it to build a complete neocortex consisting of about 20 billion neurons. A full model of every component of the brain would contain about 100 billion neurons, and a computer powerful enough to create such a simulation could appear within 10 years, though in the meantime scientists expect to discover important findings about neurological diseases, the functions of memory and sensation, and brain data processing. With 1 billion PCs on the Internet, each containing 1 billion transistors, there is already enough hardware to model a human brain, and some experts have argued that the Internet's processes are not too far behind the mechanisms of the human mind. "Both the brain and the Web have hundreds of billions of neurons (or Web pages)," said futurist Kevin Kelly. "Each biological neuron sprouts synaptic links to thousands of other neurons, while each Web page branches into dozens of hyperlinks." Scientists are also looking to quantum computing to advance neural simulation, taking advantage of the similarities between parallel processing architectures and the neural links in animal brains. Artificial intelligence enthusiasts look ahead to the singularity, the stage at which the capabilities of artificial intelligence surpass human intelligence, though even the most advanced system today still cannot match the intelligence of a primitive mammal.
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Women Underrepresented in IT
Minnesota Daily (03/30/06) Aquino, Jeannine

The University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology has stepped up its efforts to attract more women to its science programs, according to Peter Hudleston, associate dean for student affairs of the department. A new hire will work with admissions and also focuses on recruiting women, says Hudleston. The Institute of Technology Center for Education already offers the "Exploring Careers in Engineering and Physical Science" program, which gives high school girls the opportunity to meet science majors at the university over the course of a week. The efforts come at a time when the number of women studying engineering at the Institute of Technology is on the decline. "The percentage here [in the Institute of Technology] and nationally was 20 percent five years ago," says Hudleston, adding that the number had fallen to 17 percent in the fall of 2004 and to 15.3 percent this year. Only 7 percent of women at the Institute of Technology study electrical engineering, and the figure includes junior Sara Nasiri-Amini, who had concerns about the low number of women in science programs. "I thought maybe I'm picking the wrong major because no other girls were here," says Nasiri-Amini, who ultimately decided that she would continue studying what she enjoyed. For information on the activities of ACM's Committee on Women in Computing, go to http://acm.women.org
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Brain on a Chip May Be Closer to Reality
Photonics.com (03/29/2006)

Stanford University associate professor of bioengineering Kwabena Boahen is leading a team of researchers trying to imitate the functions of the brain's neural system with silicon chips. Boahen says that neuromorphic processors could eventually serve as small computers and replace damaged neural tissue or restore vision with silicon retinas. Boahen believes a better understanding of the brain's functions could also lead to more efficient computers. "When I tried to figure out how computers worked, I was disgusted," he said. "I thought it was totally brute force. I felt there had to be a more elegant way to do this." He found it while studying adaptive computational models at Johns Hopkins University. After an unsuccessful project where he tried to develop an associative memory chip, Boahen moved on to study neural circuitry at the California Institute of Technology. While a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Boahen developed a silicon retina with image processing capabilities comparable to a living retina. Now at Stanford, he is exploring learning and memory in the human brain as he tries to build a chip with 100,000 neurons, allowing the researchers to model the activities and interactions of different cortical areas. Ultimately, Boahen wants to model the different cortical regions, which control functions such as language, image processing, and hearing, on an artificial network to study how the brain works. Figuring out how neurons organize themselves will be critical to making a computer that can match the performance efficiency of the human brain, and could help those who suffer from conditions relating to neurology.
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High Court Considers eBay Case on Patent
Washington Post (03/30/06) P. D1; Noguchi, Yuki; Lane, Charles

The Supreme Court heard preliminary arguments yesterday in the eBay patent infringement case that could rewrite the rules governing the use of intellectual property as it revisits a century-old precedent holding that court-issued injunctions are in order when patent infringement has been proven. The case has drawn interest from a diverse group of interested parties, with tech firms such as AOL and Yahoo! rallying behind eBay, arguing that current laws give patent holders too much power. MercExchange, which says that it developed the idea for eBay's "Buy It Now" feature, claims that it is standing up against large companies that are unwilling to pay for the use of intellectual property. Supported by the pharmaceutical industry, MercExchange claims that when negotiations with eBay to purchase the invention, which allows users to make a purchase from an online auction at a fixed price, broke down, eBay stole the invention and used it on its Web site. Coming on the heels of the dispute between Research In Motion and NTP, the eBay/MercExchange case is the latest to highlight the weak points in the troubled patent system, and it could spark action in Congress. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has already introduced a bill that would restrict the use of permanent injunctions to cases where patent holders could prove that they would be harmed irreparably without one, though the bill stalled, due largely to the lobbying efforts of the pharmaceutical industry. "I think the biggest issue this is going to result in is a more urgent push for patent reform" in Congress, said patent attorney Brian Ferguson. EBay has argued that the current patent system is too rigid to adapt to the fast-moving environment of software technologies. The court is expected to reach a decision by July.
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CMU Uses Game Maker's Characters to Interest Girls in Computer Programming
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (03/29/06) Roth, Mark

Electronic Arts has agreed to allow Carnegie Mellon University to use the animation for characters in "The Sims" to teach computer programming in a more appealing and less technical fashion. In the "Alice" course, students will be able to manipulate animated figures on a computer rather than simply writing code, which Carnegie Mellon says should increase interest in computer science among women and others who might not otherwise consider the field. When Carnegie Mellon first developed the Alice program a decade ago, computer science professor Randy Pausch admits that the characters were a little primitive, but he said that they were "the best we could make with our own hands. Our characters are a little robotic, while 'The Sims' are literally state of the art." Programs such as Alice are intended to curb the overall decline in interest in computer science among students, and particularly among women. The number of freshmen interested in majoring in computer science has dropped more than 60 percent in four years, and the proportion of computer science degrees awarded to women has fallen below 30 percent. Caitlin Kelleher, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon, has modified the Alice program, which is currently used in 113 colleges and at least as many high schools, to appeal to the storytelling instincts of girls. Kelleher identifies middle school as the crucial time when many girls form their opinions about math and science, and says that couching programming in the context of telling a story is a more palatable way to introduce girls to computer science. Kelleher has created new motions in the Alice characters to prompt students to develop new story lines. The addition of the Sims animations will greatly magnify that process. Steve Seabolt of Electronic Arts says the company undertook the program out of "enlightened self-interest," as it hopes to see more qualified women and minorities in the video game field. For information on the activities of ACM's Committee on Women in Computing, go to http://acm.women.org
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A Better Way to Cool Computer Chips Receives Support
UCR News (03/28/2006)

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, are exploring new cooling techniques for microprocessors in high-performance computers. The performance of VLSI microprocessors is compromised by heat and high power consumption, which in turn undermines their reliability and shortens their life cycle, according to Jun Yang, assistant professor of computer science and engineering. "We are developing a software-based thermal sensing system that is more accurate at monitoring heat changes during run time," said Yang. "Usually, these chips have only one thermal sensor that cannot get accurate readings for the range of temperatures found throughout the chip." The effectiveness of existing temperature sensors is limited by signal noise caused by electronic interference, as well as their ability to only read temperature at one point on the chip. Yang's solution calls for a thermal sensor that can quickly and accurately read temperatures from across the microprocessor, as well as a technique for heat control that anticipates which areas heat will build up heat by communicating with the software-based thermal sensor and rapidly cool them. The research is backed by a three-year NSF grant.
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Business Skills in Demand for IT Workers
Network World (03/29/06) Dubie, Denise

IT employers will be placing more emphasis on business-related skills in the years to come, according to a new survey of 100 companies by members of the Society of Information Management (SIM). Kate Kaiser, a charter member of the Wisconsin chapter of SIM and an associate professor at Marquette University, says there has been a need for IT professionals to pick up business skills for some time, but employers now want them to have business and industry knowledge much earlier in their careers. "Computer science is very technical by design, but two of the more popular areas in demand are systems analysis and systems design, both of which are customer-facing positions that require user interaction and communications skills," says Kaiser. Companies cited business-related capabilities as five of the 10 skills they need to retain. They also said there are not enough project managers with skills in project planning, leadership, and risk management, adding that entry-level employers often lack communication skills. The report says employment numbers for the IT industry, including in-house, independent contractors, and third-party provider full-time equivalents, will remain largely the same from 2005 through 2008. And outsourcing will have little impact on employees in the United States. The ACM Globalization and Offshoring of Software Report is available at www.acm.org/globalizationreport/
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Researcher: DRM Technology Fails in Practice
IDG News Service (03/27/06) Kirk, Jeremy

The music and film industries should focus more on their business models than digital rights management (DRM) technology, computer security researcher Ian Brown said during the Changing Media Summit in London. Brown said DRM remains a flawed encryption technology because the algorithms used for watermarks--the invisible instructions that determine the usage of the file--are not sophisticated. Brown, a senior research manager at the Cambridge-MIT Institute in England, believes DRM technologies would work better for time-based events, such as a broadcast of a live sporting event, because a determined hacker would eventually be able to remove the watermark and post a file to a peer-to-peer network. Entertainment companies view DRM technology as a way to place limits on what consumers can do with music and movies, and protect against piracy. "Fundamentally, it's an anti-user technology," said Brown. "It's a technology that allows content owners to provide data to their customers with restrictions on how they can use it that aren't justified by copyright law."
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Device Warns You if You're Boring or Irritating
New Scientist (03/29/06) Biever, Celeste

Researchers are scheduled to present a device that will inform people with autism that they are boring or annoying the person they are talking to at next week's Body Sensor Network conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The "emotional social intelligence prosthetic" device is an improvement from previous computer programs that detect the basic emotional states of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust because it focuses on the more complex states of agreement, disagreement, concentration, thinking, uncertainty, and interest, which appear more frequently in conversation. Built by Rana El Kaliouby of MIT's Media Lab, colleagues Rosalind Picard and Alea Teeters, with Peter Robinson of the University of Cambridge, the device consists of a camera (small enough to be attached to eyeglasses) connected to a handheld computer that uses image recognition software, and software that can read the emotions of the images. The software makes the handheld vibrate when its wearer does not engage the listener. The device, which gets emotions right 64 percent and 90 percent of the time when presented with video footage of ordinary people and actors, respectively, is based on a machine-learning algorithm that was trained by showing it more than 100 eight-second video clips of actors expressing different emotions. The researchers say they still need to reduce the device's computing demand for a standard handheld, find a high-resolution digital camera that is easy to wear, and train autistic people to use it. In addition to autistic people, teachers could benefit from the device.
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Researchers Cooperate to Create Better Ways of Finding Reliable Information Online
Chronicle of Higher Education (03/29/06) Kiernan, Vincent

R. David Lankes, an associate professor of information studies at Syracuse University, and Michael Eisenberg, a professor in the University of Washington's Information School, want to make it easier for Internet users to find credible information online. The two researchers have received a two-year, $250,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to build a Web site, Credibility Commons, which will offer computer programs to help Web users assess the credibility of information they find online. Lankes says librarians, college instructors, and other information specialists continue to note that the quality of information online varies tremendously, and that they are more likely to trust information if a site has a professional appearance. Lankes adds that users are more likely to believe information if it is in line with their own thinking. As co-directors of the project, Lankes and Eisenberg are considering developing a search engine that would direct users to the Web sites used by skilled searchers, such as reference librarians. Although software developed by Credibility Commons would be available for free at the project's Web site, anyone who creates software based on the work of Lankes and Eisenberg would have to share their new application as well. "If you use it, you've got to share what you used it for," says Lankes.
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Everything, Everywhere
Nature (03/23/06) Vol. 440, No. 7083, P. 402; Butler, Declan

Tomorrow's computers could be networks of minute, low-cost sensor nodes with built-in data processing and transmission capabilities; by constantly monitoring environments, buildings, and even the human body, these networks could usher in a transformation in the field of science. "We will be getting real-time data from the physical world for the first time on a large scale," says University of Washington computer scientist Gaetano Borriello, noting that this will facilitate a paradigm shift in which theories can be generated and tested much more rapidly. Robert Detrick with the National Science Foundation's Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI) explains that sensor webs will allow researchers to integrate inputs from diverse sensors interactively and build "virtual observatories." Programming a sensor web for a specific scientific application is currently a formidable challenge, given the customization effort. Center for Embedded Networked Sensing director Deborah Estrin says scientific fieldworkers must contend with major sensor-web shortcomings: The price of sensors currently precludes the node densities researchers frequently need to conduct detailed field tests, while not all monitoring requirements can be fulfilled by sensor webs alone. Estrin projects that sensor webs will often function as just one tier in a stack of data collecting systems, and machine-to-machine communication will be needed on a grand scale to manage these stacks, thus necessitating the development of new operating systems and standards. Sensor-web tools will have to become more user-friendly if they are to break out of niche applications, according to Dust Networks founder Kris Pister.
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Future Shock
Network World (03/27/06) Vol. 23, No. 12, P. 54

A quintet of futurists--Burrus Research Associates CEO Daniel Burrus, Institute for Global Futures CEO James Canton, Technology Futures' David Smith, Foresight Nanotech Institute President Marc Lurie, and AT&T Labs' Sid Ahuja--project upcoming breakthroughs in networking. Burrus foresees a lifestyle revolution through super-intelligent agents that use neural networks to learn people's habits and preferences and eventually anticipate their needs; he expects quantum computing advances to make such agents feasible, while access to agents will be made possible through Web-based services. Canton anticipates the emergence of collaborative, intuitive, personalized, predictive, self-reflective, and self-repairing networks, as well as embedded devices that augment human productivity and/or intelligence, from the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and IT. Smith envisions strong demand for IPTV and the extension of electronic games beyond consoles and PCs thanks to peer-to-peer networks that support do-it-yourself, individual content generation, which will piggyback on increasing computing power, storage expansion, the penetration of broadband, and the axiom that large networks scale exponentially with the size of the network. Ahuja is looking forward to the day when employees can do their jobs from anywhere and stay connected to the network and the data they need via broadband video, and he expects such services will be outsourced to mobile virtual network operators, while internal networks and corporate information databases will still be controlled by IT executives. Finally, Lurie believes Moore's Law will eventually be trumped by nanotech, paving the way for innovations such as network systems fashioned from human ribosomes, and a roughly 1,000-fold gain in network computing power and performance.
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Louisiana Invests in Immersive Technology
Federal Computer Week (03/27/06) Vol. 20, No. 8, P. 44; Sarkar, Dibya

Officials in Louisiana are finalizing the construction of the Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE), a $27.5 million 3D visualization complex powered by a supercomputer that they expect will become the center of a new Silicon Valley in the Bayou. LITE, which could be operational as early as the end of April, will be immediately used for the development projects of gas and oil companies, though if successful, it could draw companies engaged in medical, biotechnology, environmental, and other activities, as well as helping the Gulf Coast recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "We're not trying to be industry-specific, but we are trying to be science-specific," said Gregg Gothreaux, president and CEO of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, which is also partnering with the state government and the University of Louisiana to develop the LITE facility at the university's Lafayette campus. The 70,000-square-foot site will house 22 SGI servers and have a data storage capacity of 8 TB. One of the center's four rooms is an immersive space, where visitors can surround themselves with data represented visually by six projectors beaming images onto the ceiling, floor, and walls. This technology could help gas and oil companies search for resources in the Gulf of Mexico and aid in medical procedures, notes Ramesh Kolluru, director of the university's Center for Business and Information Technologies. Other companies expect to use the technology to help with hurricane recovery efforts. Louisiana's state-wide computing network, the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative, links to the National LambdaRail, providing the researchers with added computing capacity if the resources at the center are exhausted.
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A Tiered Test Approach to Validating Software
Software Test & Performance (03/06) Vol. 3, No. 3, P. 33; Dada, Aditya

Aditya Dada with the Sun Java System Application Server Quality Engineering group recommends the use of a tiered testing model to catch defects as early in the software development process as possible, because such a model embeds checks within every phase. To ensure the least number of bugs in every product development stage, the product build was released to the test and development engineers in various ways and increments in order that each increment could be employed to run a more comprehensive test suite. Dada's group devised a tier of different builds and sets of tests to go with them: Tinderbox builds that track engineers' product changes through continuous compilation, nightly builds, more thorough weekly builds, and milestone builds that typically take place after a system freeze. Quick-look tests were created to confirm the integrity of engineers' changes, while smoke tests were designed to help the release engineering group spot problems in weekly builds. There are also basic acceptance tests that run on any platform and that deeply analyze all of the most-supported features and configurations; the full test base that the quality engineering team runs on all supported configurations; developer unit tests; and the compatibility test suite. The tiered product build testing approach employs a strategy to catch bugs on a per-change, per-night, per-week, and per-milestone basis. Per-change testing can combine the tinderbox build with quick-look tests, per-night testing executes the quick-look tests, and per-week testing involves the execution of quick-look, smoke, compatibility, and sometimes basic acceptance tests. Per-milestone testing involves running the entire test base on the milestone build.
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