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May 1, 2006

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Welcome to the May 1, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Cries to Change Patent Law
Baltimore Sun (04/30/06) P. C1; Bishop, Tricia

Patents have been protecting innovation rights for centuries, but now, the current patent system is coming under fire from businesses and regulators alike, with Congress taking up its own potential patent system reform legislation. Currently three patent cases are on appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, including one that will determine if the courts can request that alleged infringers immediately cease operations. Another case would determine whether the connection between a problem and a solution could be patented; while a third case, hinges on who should be allowed to file patent infringement cases in the first place. Experts point out that the decisions in these cases will determine whether court systems will be more favorable toward patent holders or patent challengers in the future. Technology firms are interested in weakening patent holder rights in order to spur further innovation in their markets and to open up the markets to further competition. Reform recommendations have been offered by the National Academy of Sciences and the Federal Trade Commission as recent patent cases such as the near shutdown of RIM's Blackberry service have brought the issue to the forefront. "It seems like every five to 10 years there is this upheaval in patent law. But my feeling is that this [time] is more substantive, because it's happening on a lot of fronts," says Alba Therapeutics vice president of intellectual property Christopher E. Jeffers.
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Software Lets Programmers Code Hands-Free
New Scientist (04/26/06) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

New speech recognition software called VoiceCode could greatly ease the plight of the some 22 percent of all U.S. software programmers who suffer from repetitive strain injury. The tool automatically recognizes spoken syntax, converting it into correct code and eliminating the need to spell out every syntactic peculiarity as typical with most speech recognition software. The project is a joint collaboration between National Research Council of Canada researcher Alain Desilets, Harvard University's David Fox, and the University of California at Berkeley's Stuart Norton. Desilets says the software enables programmers to dictate code more naturally, and can quickly interpret spoken programming syntax. VoiceCode currently works only with Python, but Desilets says it can be adapted for use with other languages. Desilets presented the program at ACM's CHI2006 conference held in Montreal last week.
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Guidelines For Radio Tags Aim to Protect Buyer Privacy
New York Times (05/01/06) P. C6; Feder, Barnaby J.

New guidelines are being released during a technology trade show in Las Vegas to protect consumer privacy when identification and tracking systems that use small radio tags are used. RFID technology is becoming more common in libraries, hospitals, and systems that track consumer goods through the retail supply chain. The guidelines say consumers should be notified when products have radio tags and that consumers should know how to disable disposable forms of the tags easily. Procter & Gamble, IBM, Microsoft, Visa USA, and the National Consumers League are some of the participants expected to endorse the guidelines. Some opponents of the guidelines include the National Retail Federation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). EFF lawyer Lee Tien says the guidelines give the industry too much room and ignore government use of RFID along with privacy concerns for employees in business-to-business dealings. A survey last year found that 7 percent of 89 retailers and 11 percent of 120 consumer products manufacturers had delayed or cut back RFID investments over privacy concerns, according to Christine Overby at Forrester Research. RFID is currently used in wireless toll collection systems and to control access to buildings, track livestock, and manage industrial assets.
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Software Allows Neighbors to Improve Internet Access at No Extra Cost
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (04/27/06) Kloeppel, James E.

The PERM (Practical End-host collaborative Residential Multihoming) software framework allows neighbors to share wireless broadband without compromising security or privacy at no added cost to users. The peer-to-peer sharing model developed by computer scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign uses flow-scheduling algorithms to choose the best connection from those available but gives priority to participants over their wireless routers. "Significantly improved speed and the 'always on' feature of wireless routers have been driving the rapid spread of broadband Internet access in many residential areas," says Haiyun Luo, a professor at UI. "More than 56 percent of homes in the United States already have Internet access, and more than half of those homes are using Wi-Fi wireless home networks...PERM exploits the diversity of broadband Internet access in residential areas to improve connectivity in a managed way. Our design requires no support outside the user's wireless router, and is immediately deployable." The service is only available to registered users. To take advantage of it, a user must be willing to share his or her connection. Though currently requiring proximity, future rollouts of the technology may allow subscribers to share spectrum on the go. "Wireless routers are necessarily location-based," Luo says. "But the peer-to-peer sharing concept can just as easily be used between cars, or between homes and cars, as between homes. As more users join the system, the more powerful the system will become."
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New Weapons Needed for the War on Junk Email
University of Calgary (04/27/06)

Spam filters may be highly effective, but they cannot keep up with spammers who are coming up with new ways to trick people into visiting commercial Web sites or downloading rogue software carrying viruses, worms, spyware, or other dangerous applications, according to John Aycock, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Calgary. Aycock and his student Nathan Friess performed research that shows it is possible to create a new type of spam, or bulk email, that can go past the best spam filters and trick even the most advanced computer users. Aycock and Friess will present their research during the 15th annual conference of the European Institute for Computer Anti-Virus Research, being held in Hamburg, Germany, on April 30. The goal of the research is to increase awareness of the threat so that anti-spam software that anticipates what spammers will do next can be written. "We want to look at potential threats and see what we can do about them right now, as opposed to getting to the point where we're forced to react," says Aycock. The majority of spam today is sent from zombie computers, which can automatically send large email messages. Aycock predicts that spammers may soon use zombie computers to tap into a person's email account, which was previously thought of as too complex, but research shows that is now possible. Aycock wants companies that make anti-spam software and email programs to take advantage of the new information and use the suggested solutions in their existing software suites.
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Micro-Pump Is Cool Idea for Future Computer Chips
Purdue University News (04/25/06) Venere, Emil

Engineers at Purdue University continue to make progress on developing a cooling system for the computer chips of the future. After creating a tiny "micro-pump" cooling device, the researchers have successfully integrated the unit onto a silicon chip that is approximately one-sixth of a square inch. Suresh Garimella, director of Purdue's Cooling Technologies Research Center, says in 10 years computer chips will likely have around 100 times more transistors and other components, which will produce much more heat. Better cooling systems will be needed to protect electronic components of computers from becoming damaged or to keep computers operating at their highest level. "Our goal is to develop advanced cooling systems that are self-contained on chips and are capable of handling the more extreme heating in future chips," says Garimella, a professor of mechanical engineering. The researchers used electrohydrodynamics to achieve the pumping action of the microelectromechanical system, and glued a thin sheet of piezoelectric material to the top of the prototype chip's water-filled micro-channels to increase the force of the pumping action. The feature has boosted the pumping action by 13 percent in the prototype, but has the potential to produce improvements of 100 percent or more. Among the challenges the engineers face is designing a system that does not leak water and can be manufactured under the same conditions as semiconductor chips.
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Microsoft Research New Faculty Fellowship Program Honors Young Academics Who Display Extraordinary Aptitude for Innovate Research
PRNewswire (04/26/06)

Microsoft Research has named the five new recipients of New Faculty Fellowships, awarded to early-career professors who demonstrate original work in the field of computing. The winners were chosen from a pool of some 100 individuals and will each receive a $200,000 grant to advance their efforts. "Microsoft Research New Faculty Fellows represent the best new professors in computing disciplines today," says Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research. Winners will also get a chance to work with researchers at Microsoft Research. The five winners, two women and three men, will focus on finding new ways for people to interact with and use computing devices. Regina Barzilay, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is researching computational modeling of linguistic phenomena by exploring the ability of computers to summarize information found in multiple documents that contain related information. Aaron Hertzmann, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, is working on developing simulated models for computer animation that could be used to predict human motion in a variety of circumstances. Scott Klemmer, assistant professor of computer science at Stanford University, is working on human-computer interaction tools in order to make the computer environment more significant and accessible. Eddie Kohler, assistant professor of computer science, University of California, Los Angeles, is working to make computer systems easier to program by synthesizing basic systems research and component-based programming language techniques. Fei-Fei Li, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is developing algorithms designed to enable machines to see like humans in order to create new tools for personal photo organization and image searches.
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En Route to Personal Guidance for Mobility-Impaired Users
IST Results (04/28/06)

European researchers expect to complete work on a guided travel system for people with mobility or cognitive impairments, or even a larger audience, by Dec. 18. More than 80 content providers, including big telecom carriers, city governments, and chambers of commerce, have already thrown their support behind a standard ontological framework using XML, which should be ready by June 2006. IST is funding the ASK-IT project, which is readying new software that the mobility-impaired can use to program their personal needs and preferences into latest-generation mobile phones and PDAs, as well as a Web service for housing information about local facilities and services. A real-time system, ASK-IT would be able to aid a wheelchair user plan a trip to Sweden by providing information on hotels that offer suitable access and helping with travel arrangements, such as recommending buses that have suitable wheelchair ramps or suggesting parking areas that offer wheelchair access, if the individual is traveling by car. "Inside the bus it works with the bus routing system, so it can tell you when to disembark for example," says ASK-IT technical manager Angelos Bekiaris of the system, which can also work with an in-car navigation system via a Bluetooth connection. "Once inside the airport, the system links with airport wireless networks to guide you to the departure gate," he says of ASK-IT, which will make use of GSM networks and the GPS satellite system. Users will be able to book and pay for services online. Budapest, the Hague, Genoa, Helsinki, Madrid, Newcastle, Nuremberg, and Thessalonica are building pilot ASK-IT databases on local services, and are on pace launch to demonstrations in 2007.
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New Software Is Next Wave for Net Surfers
PhysOrg.com (04/27/06)

A group of researchers at the University of Alberta have created WebIC, software that streamlines Internet searches for users. Tingshao Zhu, one of the computer scientists that worked on the project, says WebIC "uses machine learning" to provide the user with desired search results, including those outside the keyword search. Zhu says, "On most search engines the order of the keyed words is very important as the associations are made sequentially. But our software uses machine learning to transfer human inquiries into the type of inquiries a computer can fully understand. Our system can point you directly to the sites that you want and not just to sites that are related to your keyed words." A number of technology trials involving university business students and others have been conducted during the last five years. The researchers plan to have a commercial version of the technology available before the end of this year. A number of entities, including Canada's National Science and Engineering Research Council, have contributed funds to the project. The software, which is both downloadable and compatible with search engines, uses past search results to help tailor new search results.
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RFID and Tracking Systems--The High-Tech Future of Old Age?
silicon.com (04/27/06) Ranger, Steve

New gadgets and computer monitoring systems are focusing on the elderly, allowing those without an extended family to live at home as long as possible. Several such products are being tested at Accenture's Technology Labs in Sophia Antipolis, France. Among these are camera systems that follow the elderly around and call for help if they fall. These systems can be used to monitor activity levels and eating habits as well. An RFID-equipped online medicine cabinet is also in the works, alerting seniors if they choose the wrong medicines. Interactions with relatives and caregivers, meanwhile, are encouraged with the "connective table," which allows users to play board games and look at important documents via camera sensors and video projectors. Accenture researcher Agata Opalach says that by 2020 there will be twice as many people 65 or older than there are today. Opalach says, "This demographic change is going to have an impact. Technology can help people stay independent for as long as possible."
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Better Organization, Focus Needed for Cybersecurity
Government Computer News (04/27/06) Jackson, William

The U.S. government needs to create clear lines of authority and clarify responsibility for an effective national information assurance policy, according to former presidential adviser Paul Kurtz, who is now executive director of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance. "We have a growing body of law and regulation bearing on information security," said Kurtz during the GovSec conference in Washington on Thursday. "We are not ready for a major disruption of the information infrastructure today, and we have a long way to go to get there." Kurtz suggested a two-tiered framework for cybersecurity where critical functionality could be identified for government attention, and less important issues are given to the private sector. Kurtz and Tom Leighton at Akamai Technologies agree that cyberspace is getting tougher and that an infrastructure needs to be built to better respond to possible attacks. An assistant secretary for cybersecurity is still needed in order to establish an effective policy, according to Kurtz. The position has been vacant for almost a year now.
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Bugs Put Widely Used DNS Software at Risk
IDG News Service (04/26/06) McMillan, Robert

University of Oulu researchers say they found multiple flaws in the software used for administering the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS), which may cause several problems such as crashing the DNS server or giving attackers a way to run unauthorized software. Oulu researchers have come up with a DNS test suite to test for such vulnerabilities. Microsoft, Cisco Systems, and Sun Microsystems are currently testing their products, but there is no word yet on whether customers will be affected. DNS servers have come under fire lately because of such attacks, which may compromise the DNS system and take down several Web sites. Just last month, unknown attackers used computers and DNS servers to spread denial-of-service attacks against about 1,500 organizations, according to VeriSign.
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Intelligent Scarecrow Can Save Aquaculture From Financial Losses
Newswise (04/27/06)

University of Southern Florida computer-science students have created what they call "The Erebus Scarecrow" that uses computing technology to scare away birds from fish ponds. The Erebus Scarecrow has motion-detection ability and the deterrence weapons of both 120 decibels sound shots, and water spraying. Neither are projected at a level that will harm birds. The machine also uses color-sensing to distinguish birds from other motions, so it does not react to everything. The machine also can email a user about each intrusion automatically. The fish pond farming industry in Florida generates $40 million annually, says USF computer science professor Ken Christensen. Among the scarecrow's equipment are relatively cheap sensors and cameras. USF student Albert Ng says, "The Erebus Scarecrow is not just another motion-detector. He is capable of intelligent detection, deterrence, and can also record the events."
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Wear Your Heart on the Screen
Guardian Unlimited (UK) (04/27/06) Knight, William

Oxford University's Integrative Biology (IB) project is using computer modeling to help scientists and doctors better understand the heart. To create models of the human heart using advanced mathematics, researchers "are looking at many sets of partial differential equations, coupled with parabolic functions, non-linear equations and just under a million unknown parameters," says IB project manager Sharon Lloyd. The human heart is so complex that years ago, computers would require 1 million seconds of running time to duplicate one second of a working human heart. Now with grid-computing and access to the world's most advanced machines, IB can perform similar work in hours. Lloyd says, "The researchers submit code though a portal interface. It puts all the data in the right place and pulls it back when you need to do things with it. It's making the day-to-day life of the scientist a lot easier. Scientists want to focus on the life science without having to think about how these big machines work." The health-care industry has adopted grid computing to some operational needs. Grid computing enables various computers to interlock and combine computing power, says Grid Computing Now project manager Ian Osborne, who notes that most of the technical issues with grid computing have been solved. He says, "The question is one of making industry and government organizations aware of the possibilities."
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Simple Networks Will Free Many Sensors From Wires
EDN (04/13/06) Vol. 51, No. 8, P. 40; Strassberg, Dan

ZigBee wireless personal area networking technology is making gains thanks to its ability to enable low-speed sensors to conserve power without breaking communications, and most ZigBee sensors are expected to be driven by alkaline batteries at first. Power efficiency can be achieved through the minimization of the duty cycle, which in this instance is the amount of time the device is on the air. Some ZigBee applications could potentially run without batteries through energy harvesting, a methodology for collecting small amounts of energy from the environment. Another possible power-saving measure is the incorporation of additional intelligence within the sensor so that it can make data-dependent decisions by itself without consuming a lot of energy, and without involving remote system elements. ZigBee boasts multiple levels of security, including DSSS coding, 128-bit encryption, access-control lists, and packet-freshness timers. It takes time to demonstrate the reliability of a low-speed protocol such as ZigBee, which is why the technology's deployment must be conservative. ZigBee aims at a broad spectrum of building automation, medical, industrial, and residential-control and -monitoring applications, and the technology could be particularly beneficial to lighting controls, wireless smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, medical sensing and monitoring, universal remote control of set-top boxes, and home security, to name just a few examples. ZigBee is expected to penetrate industrial applications in a gradual manner.
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No Limits
New Scientist (04/22/06) Vol. 190, No. 2548, P. 38; Mullins, Justin

Companies will highlight a new wave of technology at the upcoming E3 videogaming conference that enables users to interact with artificial environments in more compelling ways. Sony Computer Entertainment's EyeToy allows players to control games using input from a video camera connected to a PlayStation console. The current PlayStation generation can distinguish a moving body from the background, but identifying and tracking specific body parts is difficult. Furthermore, the EyeToy camera's frame capture rate is too slow to allow a computer to track and respond to the fastest human movements. The forthcoming PlayStation3 console will come with more processing chips than its predecessor, accommodating a higher frame capture rate for the EyeToy and enabling game control through more complex player movements. Different body parts can also be independently tracked with the PS3, while the size of the player's head can be measured to approximate the distance between the player and console; this will allow the computer to place objects ahead of and behind the player. Also on the horizon is a next-generation games console from Nintendo with a controller that can establish its position and orientation relative to the console, most likely through a gyroscopic sensor. Gaming could be additionally enhanced with a new generation of cameras that are sensitive to visible and infrared wavelengths and capable of recording accurate three-dimensional images, facilitating a more precise translation of the player's 3D movements into the actions of a game character or object.
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Autonomous Mobile Robots Point the Way to Safer Vehicles
Portable Design (04/06) Vol. 12, No. 4, P. 24; Donovan, John

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) 2005 Grand Challenge was a 132-mile race between autonomous mobile robots over desert terrain as a field test for technologies that could be applied to the development of robotic military vehicles. The technologies are already showing up in collision-avoidance systems that will one day protect the lives of civilian motorists and passengers. A team from Stanford University built the vehicle that won the Grand Challenge, a modified Volkswagen SUV named Stanley. Stanley determines its location and the location of environmental obstacles by mapping raw sensor data into an internal state machine, and then ascertains possible paths forward by combining input from its laser, radar, and vision systems. All sensor data is constantly written to a 2D map that rates the drivability of each cell. Following its environmental orientation, Stanley takes into account the number of nondrivable cells along a route, the nearness of the road center, the presence of corridor boundaries, the proximity of obstacles, and the recommended amount of acceleration to follow a given path with its path-planning module, which then estimates the path as well as the rate of speed, using data from vibration sensors to adjust acceleration to road conditions. A DARPA entry's software architecture typically consists of vision processing and detection modules that gather disparate data from lidar, visual, and radar sensors and then map the results against the position of a fast-moving object. Both a very fast computer and advanced software are needed for the vehicle to make split-second control decisions based on these approximations.
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Telephony's Next Act
IEEE Spectrum (04/06) Vol. 43, No. 4, P. 28; Mockapetris, Paul V.

Nominum Chairman Paul Mockapetris sees several challenges in telephony's transition from circuit-switched networks to the Internet, specifically those associated with enabling the network to choose the best mode of communication by keeping track of all potential communicating parties, their hardware, and their services, and choosing the proper mix for each contact. Such challenges include integrating the telephone system with the Internet via voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and fortifying the segment of the network that handles signaling across the globe and the Internet. The difficulty with melding the global phone network and the Internet resides in melding their respective repositories of data records, and the key to a successful integration is ENUM (electronic number). Mockapetris writes that the Internet is capable of handling the added burden because its fiber-optic backbone is sufficiently capacious, and extra capacity is always being added with new technology. However, the Domain Name System (DNS) lacks the storage needed to accommodate telephony, and both Naming Authority Pointer (NAPTR) resource records and the amount of names to track in some servers will vastly expand. The interval of time between the submission of a DNS query and the response to that query will also be a sticking point, especially for people calling by telephone. "The Domain Name System needs to be upgraded with software tested against the high-volume, constantly changing loads of ENUM," concludes Mockapetris. "Only by strengthening these DNS capabilities will we be ready for the demands of ENUM and other new network technologies."
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