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July 21, 2006

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Welcome to the July 21, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Experts Tell Congress U.S. E-Voting Security Is Flawed
EE Times (07/19/06) Leopold, George

Eugene Spafford, chairman of ACM's Committee on Public Policy, told a joint House hearing Wednesday that ACM has concerns about the federal qualification process for computerized voting technology. U.S. standards for voting equipment are voluntary, but application of the federal specs has been inconsistent, according to a recent report from the Government Accounting Office. Meanwhile, critics of electronic voting machines say they can be hacked into to compromise elections. "New federal standards and a certification process hold promise for addressing some of these problems, but more must be done to ensure the integrity of our elections in the face of software and hardware errors as well as the possibility of undetectable tampering," said Spafford. Clear security standards would be helpful because they would reduce the number of designs, according to a list of steps to shore up accuracy and security released by Spafford. A more transparent testing process, a mechanism for periodic security updates, and voter-verified paper trials are the other steps. For more information about ACM's e-voting action, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Feds Sharpen Secret Tools for Data Mining
USA Today (07/20/06) P. 5A; Kelley, Matt

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies have spent millions of dollars on software to form connections between previously unknown people and terror suspects, track the flow of money through international financial institutions, and monitor global communications. The actual cost of Pentagon and CIA data-mining programs is classified. At least five such programs were developed under the Pentagon's now-defunct Total Information Awareness (TIA) program. Congress scrapped the program three years ago out of privacy concerns, but the Bush administration claims that citizens' privacy is protected under the current surveillance programs. Privacy advocates worry the administration's claim that counterterrorism is a legitimate use for warrantless surveillance is the first step down a slippery slope. "There's a tendency with all of these systems to lead with terrorism and then find other applications," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Among the data-mining technologies in use by intelligence agencies are hardware that can search through databases up to 4 million GB, a program aimed at identifying terrorist networks and the most important members within those networks, and software containing personal information about Americans compiled by other agencies and commercial groups. At least eight TIA projects, including the five data-mining initiatives, have continued since Congress pulled the plug on the program in 2003. The law dismantling TIA allowed research to continue in some areas, including the development of two computer simulations to test a variety of counterterrorism situations. Supporters claim the TIA's data-mining programs could be continued under the exemptions, while critics warn of a lack of accountability.
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High-Tech Hairdo: New Cornell Method Gets That Natural Look in Computer-Generated Blond Hair
Cornell News (07/19/06) Steele, Bill

Researchers at Cornell University have developed a technique that promises better and much faster simulations of blond hair. While computers can develop accurate 3D structures that resemble hair, using computer graphics to simulate its natural sheen and glow has always been a challenge. The process of rendering demands sophisticated calculations that factor in the spacing between the hairs, and current technologies can create adequate simulations of dark and brown hair, but fall short of the mark when it comes to blond hair. "The model that's been around since the 80s works for black hair, and a model we introduced in 2003 in collaboration with workers at Stanford gets brown hair right and makes blond hair better," said Steve Marschner, assistant professor of computer science at Cornell. "Using that model with our new work provides the first practical method to use physically realistic rendering for blond hair and still get the right color." Perfect rendering can only be achieved by a process known as "path-tracing," where the computer begins with each pixel and works backwards toward the original light source through a series of complex calculations. While the rendering produces a perfect result, the process takes hours, and most artists rely on approximations. The new algorithm traces rays from the source of the light to the hair, using some approximations to produce a scatter map of the photons throughout the hair. In testing, the algorithm produced a simulation of blond hair that was nearly identical to that produced by path tracing, though the new method took only 2.5 hours, while path tracing for the simulation took 60 hours. Marschner is now looking to develop better techniques for simulating the motion of hair. Cornell graduate student Jonathan Moon will present the new research at the 2006 SIGGRAPH conference in Boston on July 30.
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Graduate Foundation in S&E Rise Slightly in 2004, Drop in CS
CRA Bulletin (07/18/06) Vegso, Jay

While enrollments in science and engineering graduate programs rose slightly in 2004, the number of first-time enrollments among foreign students dropped for the third consecutive year, and the numbers were down across the board in computer science, according to the NSF. The 0.3 percent increase in science and engineering enrollments in 2004 followed four years during which enrollments rose almost 15 percent. Enrollment among first-time foreign students fell more than 7 percent from 2003 to 2004 to 27,486, contributing to a nearly 20 percent decline from 2001 to 2004. After a three-year period marked by a 29 percent increase, enrollments of first-time, full-time U.S. graduate students dropped 1 percent. Graduate computer science enrollments fell 6.3 percent to 50,331 in 2004. Graduate enrollments of first-time, full-time U.S. citizens and permanent residents in computer science fell 6.2 percent; among foreign students, enrollments dropped 3 percent. Despite the declines, there were still 51 percent more first-time, full-time graduate students who were U.S. citizens or permanent residents in 2004 than there were in 2000. The number of science and engineering postdoctoral students dropped almost 2 percent in 2004, propelled by a 3 percent drop in enrollments among foreign students, the first such drop since tracking of foreign enrollments began in 1977.
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Divining AI, and the Future of Consumer Robotics
CNet (07/20/06) Lombardi, Candice

In a recent interview, Sebastian Thrun, the leader of the Stanford University team that took first prize in last year's DARPA Grand Challenge, discussed his thoughts on artificial intelligence and robotics. The most significant obstacle to widespread consumer adoption of robots remains cost, Thrun said, noting that while iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaner is a "fantastic step," consumer robots are still nowhere near as practical as robots used for industrial, scientific, or military applications. In order for home assistance robots to become a reality, Thrun argues, robots need to do a better job identifying household objects and understanding human intentions. Robots' ability to manipulate objects lags behind their navigational skill, Thrun says, noting that while the Roomba can ably navigate around a room, its only functionality is collecting dust. Thrun envisions household robots that users could log into to monitor their homes, checking to make sure that the oven is off and the doors are locked. Another potential use for robots would be to improve on the state of elder care, which Thrun describes as "disastrous." Thrun also believes that self-driving cars will become a consumer reality. They are already feasible from a technological and cost perspective, he says, pointing to features such as active cruise control and parking-assistance technologies, noting that they will only become more intelligent as new features are added. The enthusiasm behind robots comes from a mix of necessity and novelty, Thrun believes. While the potential benefits of robots are clear, people have historically had a fascination with robots and held them apart from other machines. It remains to be seen if the most popular robots will adopt a humanoid form, as some people feel strongly that they should resemble humans, while others find human-like machines unsettling. Microsoft's Robot Studio is a good initial step toward opening up the field to the development community, though Thrun believes that it will have to be refined to reach out to a broader group of users.
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Surveillance Bill Meets Resistance in Senate
Washington Post (07/21/06) P. A9; Eggen, Dan; Babington, Charles; Eilperin, Juliet

Democratic senators and national security experts opposed a Senate surveillance bill proposed by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) that would permit the Bush administration to submit the National Security Agency's (NSA) warrantless eavesdropping program to a clandestine intelligence court so that its legal ramifications can be assessed, arguing that the legislation would extend the government's powers to monitor Americans without being watchdogged by the courts. The NSA program allows the agency to eavesdrop on emails and phone calls between the United States and overseas locations without court sanction if one of the parties is believed to have terrorism links. Specter's bill would allow all pending lawsuits related to the NSA program to be transferred to a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) appeals court that could dismiss the cases "for any reason," and permit the White House to seek the legal okay for the NSA program from another secret FISA court. In addition, the bill would extend the length of time the government could monitor alleged terrorism suspects before getting warrants, and would categorically assert the president's "constitutional authority" to undertake spying programs by himself. Critics complain that the legislation would eviscerate the FISA law and allow the government excessive latitude in secret surveillance, as well as let the FISA court approve surveillance in its entirety instead of evaluating warrants for particular cases. Meanwhile, House GOP leaders Reps. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) are endorsing a competing bill. All GOP proposals that address the NSA issue are opposed by Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) on the House intelligence committee, who said the bills are "solutions in search of a problem."
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Lawmakers Pledge Support for Supercomputing
Washington Technology (07/19/06) Beizer, Doug

Technology experts addressing the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Technology, Innovation, and Competitiveness on the importance of high-performance computing received verbal assurances from the lawmakers that supercomputing research would remain a government priority. "To stay competitive as a nation, we must maintain U.S. leadership in high-performance computing and computational sciences," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). While commercial ventures must shoulder some of the burden of development, the government is still the primary user of supercomputers, and the field depends heavily on government funding. "As the largest user of supercomputing, the federal government understands how necessary supercomputers are to fulfilling the requirements of government missions--from national defense and homeland security to scientific leadership," said Cray's Christopher Jehn. Subcommittee Chairman Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) agreed, noting the role that high-performance computing will play in managing oil resources, investigating alternative energy sources, and researching cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's disease. Cantwell was a co-sponsor of the High End Computing Revitalization Act of 2004, which dealt expressly with Energy Department programs. Cantwell is now calling for similar legislation to support high-performance computing in the other agencies of the federal government.
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Department of Homeland Security Establishes Center at Illinois
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (07/19/06)

Working under a three-year, $2.4 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security, researchers at the University of Illinois will develop applications capable of processing vast quantities of data in a variety of formats. Illinois is sharing a $10.4 million grant with researchers from the University of Southern California, University of Pittsburgh, and Rutgers University. The grant will help Illinois establish the Multimodal Information Access and Synthesis (MIAS) Center. "The MIAS will advance the understanding and technologies required to deal with large amounts of information available today in multiple text forms," said Dan Roth, professor of computer science at Illinois and the director of the center. "The center builds on department of computer science strengths in such areas as machine learning, natural language processing, information retrieval, image processing, databases, and data mining." In the coming years, scientific research will produce huge amounts of multimodal information that will require systems capable of interpreting and analyzing data in multiple formats, developing and verifying hypotheses, and incorporating observed data into domain names. Though their work is commissioned by DHS, the researchers expect the MIAS center to produce technologies that will also have significant impact on the business community. The center will also include a summer school for undergraduate and graduate students. "Altogether, the overarching goal is to use science and technology to reduce threats to our nation's security by providing new knowledge and cutting edge technology and by helping produce a growing number of professionals through our educational programs," Roth said. "It will also have significant impact on the growing industry of information access, search engines, and mining knowledge from data."
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Microsoft's Latest Is Flat-Out Impressive
Seattle Times (07/19/06) Romano, Benjamin J.

Researchers at Microsoft are working on a technology that can use any smooth flat surface as a computer display and user interface, complete with software to monitor hand movements in lieu of a mouse and keyboard. The technology, called PlayAnywhere, can interface with a piece of paper, a cell phone on the desk, and other items. PlayAnywhere is a more intuitive method of interacting with computers, said Guri Sohi, chair of the computer science department at the University of Wisconsin. "I think that's much more powerful," said Sohi, one of the many computer science professors attending the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit. With no specific commercial applications in the works, the project is meant to be a more general test of sensing and display technologies. Another innovation showcased at the summit was a technology that could create a richly detailed panoramic image that could fill out a billboard. The image on display depicted the Seattle skyline, and consisted of 800 distinct images taken from the top of a building one morning in February. The image is 700 times larger than a normal photo taken by a standard consumer digital camera, according to Microsoft's Matt Uyttendaele. Microsoft has also developed a digital version of the family calendar that stores the last 100 changes made, so parents can undelete appointments or notes if needed.
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H-1B Remains a Hot-Button Issue
Computerworld (07/17/06) Violino, Bob

Calls to increase the cap on the H-1B temporary visa program have resulted in the crafting of bills such as the Securing Knowledge, Innovation, and Leadership (SKIL) Act of 2006 (S. 2691) in the Senate that would raise the ceiling from 65,000 to 115,000 annually. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (S. 2611), recently passed by the chamber, would go a step further in automatically boosting the cap 20 percent in any year when the 115,000 ceiling was met, and eliminating limits for the number of foreign students who graduate from U.S. colleges and universities with advanced degrees. However, Gartner analyst John Bace says the firm's clients are not demanding more visas, and ultimately believes there will be little change in the program. Former president of the Society for Information Management Nancy Markle maintains that the program needs to be expanded because of the shortage of skilled IT workers in the country. "We're just not training [enough students] in technology, science, engineering and mathematics," which is forcing employers to look elsewhere for IT talent, says Markle. Some observers view an expansion of the program as a negative for U.S. IT workers. Nonetheless, job opportunities in IT will be available regardless of whether lawmakers decide to increase the cap, leave it alone, or scale it back.
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Echoes of Tech Wreck Fading Away
Australian IT (07/18/06) Lea, Victoria

Despite widespread evidence that the technology job market has rebounded and indeed is poised for substantial growth over the coming years, students are ignoring the message. All of the 20 jobs projected to grow the most in the next decade are related to IT or health care, and the highest salaries will be in IT, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Australia is looking ahead to similar growth in its tech sector, if not quite as dramatic. IT jobs online in Australia are up 44 percent from a year ago, according to the Olivier Group. "The medium-term outlook is pretty good," said Olivier Group Director Robert Olivier. Despite these positive indicators, student enrollment at Australia's top IT facilities has fallen an average of 40 percent since 2000, though some schools report a slight resurgence in the past year. If enrollments remain essentially flat, Australia could face a critical shortage of skilled workers in the next few years. Though the market that shortage will create will be favorable to job seekers, it is not a viable situation for the IT industry as a whole. Many IT deans believe the lack of student interest in IT is the result of an image problem and the fear still lingering from the dot-com crash that IT is a volatile field. Outsourcing has been a big issue, as well, though the more intellectual development jobs are not migrating overseas, according to Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic, head of the school of information systems, technology, and management at the University of New South Wales. "This is a huge misconception among not only students, but parents. In fact, it's a widespread public belief that's absolutely wrong." The sciences will be a major area where IT will come to play dominant role, though students are largely unaware of that trend. The perception that there is no social aspect of computing also detracts from the appeal of the field, particularly among young women. In an effort to curb this trend, universities have been partnering with schools to target students at a young age, talking to parents, and modifying degree programs to appeal to both students and employers.
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With 'Open Innovation,' No Idea Is Left Behind
CNet (07/21/06) Fried, Ina

A growing number of companies are adopting a model of product development known as open innovation, where good ideas can come from developers within the company or from licensing technology from other companies, according to participants at a recent event hosted by Microsoft. Many look for the open innovation model to replace the longstanding concept of the sieve, where many ideas are produced but most are filtered out along the way. This is especially important for large companies as their smaller competitors are ramping up research spending. Indeed, companies with a workforce larger than 25,000 accounted for $7 out of every $10 spent on research and development in 1981. Twenty years later, they spent less than $4 out of every $10, while companies with fewer than 1,000 employees accounted for a quarter of all research spending. The shift toward open innovation affects every industry, though its impact is especially strong in software development. The emergence of companies centered around acquiring unused technology will likely continue, while some businesses could even sell their own technologies and lease back the right to use them. This concept of a secondary patent market has been the subject of considerable speculation, but has yet to materialize due to the problematic nature of evaluating the worth of a patent. Some companies are tempted to hold on to unused patents because of the leverage they can provide in legal disputes. Still, companies that scoop up patents for the express purpose of licensing the technology to others can come under intense criticism.
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Camp Allows Girls to Connect With Technology
Roanoke Times (VA) (07/19/06) Key, Lindsay

Radford University in Virginia gave high school girls from around the state an opportunity to learn more about the information technology industry during a three-day camp in late June. The Summer Bridge Program, hosted by Radford's College of Information Science and Technology, drew 29 young girls, including Elizabeth Meade, a rising senior at Lebanon High School who says the thought of taking an IT class full of guys was a turnoff to her girlfriends. Radford officials involved in the math, science, and IT program hope it can help get more young girls interested in pursuing a career in IT. They say females accounted for 40 percent of IT students in 1986, but 20 years later females make up less than 10 percent of IT students. Hwajung Lee, an assistant professor in the IT department and director of the program, says young girls are not attracted to the field because it is largely viewed as a domain for boys, there are not enough female students to act as a support system, and because they believe they will have to sit alone in front of a computer for years to come. The free camp introduced the girls to a network track, a database track, and a Web site track, and included lectures, projects, presentations, and an ice cream social and game night among its activities. Radford offered the camp for the first time this year, and hopes to bring it back next year.
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Computer Card Game Detects Cognitive Changes
OHSU News (07/17/06)

Researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University have shown that the popular computer card game FreeCell can be modified with cognitive performance assessment algorithms to help detect cognitive changes in the elderly. Mild cognitive impairment is a leading indicator of a person's likelihood to develop dementia, which is most frequently caused by Alzheimer's disease. "We discovered that we can take an existing computer game that people already have found enjoyable and extract cognitive assessment measures from it," said Holly Jimison, OHSU assistant professor of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology. Playing FreeCell successfully requires planning, says Jimison, which a key ability that neuropsychologists try to evaluate in clinical settings. Early trials have highlighted differences between seniors with even mild cognitive impairment and those with normal capacity. A "solver" within the program that calculates the minimal number of moves required to complete the game evaluates each player's efficiency. Jimison describes the solver as a "dynamic algorithm that is solving the game at every moment in time, and it knows the minimal number of steps you would need to complete it." The FreeCell research paved the way for follow-up studies, such as the research funded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Advanced Technology Program that led to a system that can adjust the difficulty of the game based on a player's previous results. As the elderly population increases, Misha Pavel, OHSU professor of biomedical engineering and computer science and electrical engineering, believes that unobtrusive home-monitoring technologies will become a mainstay in health care.
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Web Sites Improve Service for Blind People
Wall Street Journal (07/20/06) P. D1; Vascellaro, Jessica E.

Google, Yahoo, and other major Internet companies are working to make their sites more compatible with screen-reading software to improve access for blind users. The complex programming behind feature-heavy sites can be difficult for many screen readers to translate. Screen readers generally read a description of the site aloud and sometimes display descriptions in Braille. To better meet the needs of its blind users, Google is rolling out Accessible Search, a search application that bases its rankings on the simplicity of the pages' layout, giving higher rankings to sites that have numerous subject headings and other features that make them easier for screen readers to understand. AOL is updating its Web mail to make it more accessible to screen readers, and, in the same vein, Yahoo included a greater number of subject headings when it redesigned its home page. Meanwhile, Microsoft is developing tools that will make it easier for screen readers to navigate feature-rich Web sites. Of the approximately 10 million blind or visually impaired Americans, just around 200,000 who are completely without sight have access to the Internet, according to the American Foundation for the Blind. "The biggest frustrations are these sites with some 500 different links and lots of graphics," said Dena Shumila, who is blind and runs a consultancy in Minneapolis. When Web designers do not adequately label their links and buttons, the screen reader translates them into generic commands like "nav bar link one" and "nav bar link two." "Then you don't have a clue what is going on," Shumila says. Online shopping is a constant challenge, as graphics and videos are indecipherable to a screen reader unless they carry alternative text. The redesign of many Internet companies' sites coincides with a drive to revise federal standards for Web accessibility; currently, there is no law requiring Web sites to be accessible to the disabled.
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Virtual Reality Puts Telepathy to the Test
University of Manchester Press (07/18/06)

The University of Manchester is using a virtual reality world to provide a more objective environment for testing telepathic abilities. Dr. Toby Howard, a researcher in the University's School of Computer Science who helped implement the virtual computer world, says questions surround previous studies because the results could be manipulated by participants to give the impression that telepathy was real. "By creating a virtual environment we are creating a completely objective environment which makes it impossible for participants to leave signals or even unconscious clues as to which object they have chosen," says Howard. Nearly 100 people are expected to participate in the experiment that will feel like a life-size computer game, in which participants wear a head-mounted 3D display and electronic glove to move through the virtual world. During the tests, two people who know one another will be ushered to different parts of the same building to prevent any communication while they are in the virtual world and presented simultaneously with a lineup of computer-generated objects. Each participant will try to choose which object the other person is thinking about transmitting to him or her. "Our aim is not to prove or disprove its existence but to create an experimental method which stands up to scientific scrutiny," says project researcher David Wilde from the School of Psychological Sciences.
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RFID Privacy Concerns Spark a Closer Look by a U.S. Senate Panel
Investor's Business Daily (07/18/06) P. A4; Bonasia, J.

A bipartisan Senate panel headed by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) last week convened for the first time to address the future of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology and related privacy concerns. Commonly used now to track goods, the technology could one day be a mainstay of commerce, utilized much like barcodes are today. But RFID technology can store much more than just product information and can be scanned from a distance. Privacy advocates have expressed concern that the technology could leave consumers exposed to tracking and are calling for RFID sensors to be disabled at the point of sale. States have begun to implement their own measures to address such worries. Wisconsin in May passed a measure that makes it a crime to require a person to be implanted with an RFID chip for security clearance purposes. Thirteen states or more are considering similar controls on the use of the technology. Dorgan and Cornyn would like to see guidelines for use set at the federal level without threatening the U.S. lead in RFID technology R&D.
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Tuned for Speed
InformationWeek (07/17/06)No. 1098, P. 46; Ricadela, Aaron

Concerns that multicore computer chips may hit a performance wall are prompting computer scientists to pursue alternatives in the form of specialized chips that can ramp up supercomputing speed without significantly raising heat output, power requirements, parallelism, or costs. Specialized chips include field-programmable gate arrays, graphics processors, video game-designed chips, and application-specific integrated circuits. To facilitate an evolution in computing performance via hardware acceleration, technologists must meet formidable challenges, such as programming. IBM's Dave Turek notes, for example, that programming accelerators carry a "prohibitively high" cost for IBM customers; they require a lot of development time, a new code base, and in-house skills that are currently in short supply. The specialized chip approach dovetails better for applications with predictable patterns than for Web searches. The specialized strategy allows applications to be accelerated by multiples of their original speed, offering enhanced performance while consuming less power and eliminating the need for additional node-to-node networking. Among the companies, institutions, and research centers focused on supercomputing via hardware acceleration are the Tokyo Institute of Technology, AMD, Cray, Sun Microsystems, and the University of California at Berkeley. The increasing convergence of high-performance computing and business data processing could hasten the hardware acceleration approach's transition from a research project to a practical technology.
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AJAX Is the Future of Web App Development
Network World (07/17/06) Vol. 23, No. 27, P. 35; Powell, Thomas

In addition to improving the user's Web experience by updating only small portions of a Web application instead of refreshing the whole page, AJAX can also moderate the strain on bandwidth and servers. Using AJAX requires an advanced proficiency in JavaScript, which, though often maligned, is a powerful object-oriented scripting language with a closer resemblance to academic languages such as SELF and Scheme than Java itself. There is a significant shortage of tool support, which makes debugging a laborious process. Though Microsoft and Sun are working to include AJAX in their mainstream applications, many AJAX developers continue to create their own libraries and use open-source frameworks such as the Dojo Toolkit. Moving farther toward the client side, applications tend to have a faster responsiveness, though that often comes at the expense of lesser reliability, more complexity, and a more opaque user interface. Many AJAX applications are built out of the assumption that they will be executed in ideal environments, where bandwidth is plentiful, security concerns are nonexistent, and errors occur only infrequently. In the real world, however, this is never the case, and AJAX applications can be slowed or halted by network outages. AJAX can also disrupt the "one URL equals one resource" notion that has long characterized the Web, altering the semantics of the "back" button on a browser and making bookmarking difficult. Since conventional Web applications deliver vast amounts of redundant information, particularly if the coding is in HTML and loaded with tags, AJAX can conserve bandwidth by only updating data as needed. Still, some developers feel that XML is a cumbersome transport format, and opt instead for a format called JavaScript Object Notation. Others are concerned that the continual polling of some AJAX applications could place an undue strain on a server farm, particularly if the demands of many users are synchronized.
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