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July 26, 2006

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Welcome to the July 26, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Tech Trouble in the Voting Booth
Washington Post (07/26/06) P. A15; Goldfarb, Zachary A.

The authors of last year's report, "Asking the Right Questions About Electronic Voting," have found that some jurisdictions may not have adequate safeguards in place to ensure the security and reliability of electronic voting systems in time for the November elections. Election Data Services reports that more than a third of the 8,000 voting jurisdictions in the country will use e-voting systems for the first time this year. "This is a moment of truth for electronic voting," said Richard Thornburgh, co-chairman of the National Research Council panel that authored the study and a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania. "You've got a lot of people who are working for the first time with the new technology. It should impart a greater note of caution than what you might normally attend to a regular election." Though the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 accelerated deployments of e-voting technology, just 10 percent to 15 percent of jurisdictions had replaced traditional voting machines with electronic systems by 2004. The initial concerns about electronic voting centered around fears that the results could be manipulated, but most problems that have arisen in this year's primaries have involved machines breaking down or being improperly used by election officials. The National Research Council notes that because some states may not be able to meet the HAVA deadlines for upgrading their systems, it is unclear if they will use old or new machines in this year's elections. Other questions involve the potential confusion some voters could have about the machines and whether jurisdictions will have enough time to train poll workers. One of the council's recommendations is that election officials conduct random tests of the machines on Election Day. "You're always looking for the latest threat," said Dana DeBeauvoir, a clerk of Travis County, Texas, where she is credited with having developed one of the most thorough plans for Election Day. For information regarding ACM's e-votings actions, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Funding Innovation Where It's Incubated
InformationWeek (07/24/06) Ricadela, Aaron

Speaking at the opening session of Microsoft's annual faculty summit, University of Maryland President Dan Mote addressed the problem of declining student interest in computer science and IT. "Students do not see opportunity in our field," said Mote, who co-authored a report on federal report last fall highlighting the problem. Declining student enrollments could translate into critical worker shortages for technology companies in the future. In an attempt to develop strategies to remain competitive with India and China and to figure out why U.S. students produce such low test scores in math and science, Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) turned to the National Academies of science, engineering, and medicine. The Academies assembled a group of academic and industry leaders, including Mote, to address the issue. The committee recommended using scholarships to recruit 10,000 math and science teachers each year, and increasing federal funding for basic research. Their report also recommended giving visa extensions to international students working toward PhDs in science, technology, engineering, and math. Meanwhile, fewer than one-third of U.S. fourth- and eighth-graders demonstrated proficiency on math tests, the committee found. Also, the committee reported that most grade-school math and science teachers are not credentialed in the field. Most grade-school computing instruction focuses more on literacy than on fluency, said Lucy Sanders, CEO of the National Center for Women & IT. Too often schools equate computing with programming in their coursework, Sanders says, noting that computer science is most productively viewed as a tool to solve problems, rather than a laundry list of esoteric programming languages.
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Database Guru to Run Yahoo Social Search Research
Reuters (07/25/06)

Leading academic database expert Raghu Ramakrishnan will lead Yahoo's social search research effort as the company attempts to develop a social search . Ramakrishnan, a specialist in databases, data mining, and privacy-preserving technologies, was a computer science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for nearly 20 years, and he co-founded the university's Data Mining Institute. Social search involves the mining of the collective knowledge of users to improve Web-search tools. "At Yahoo you have this unique opportunity to integrate conventional search with Flickr, Del.icio.us, Yahoo Answers, Yahoo Groups, and Yahoo Mail," Ramakrishnan says of the company's services that focus on human contributions. "How do you make all of this [search activity] as natural as possible to users?" Ramakrishnan, 45, will serve as a vice president and research fellow at Yahoo. He is the chair ACM's Special Interest Group on Management of Data, and an ACM fellow.
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Moore's Law Threatened by Multi-Core Programmability Challenge
Electronic News (07/24/06) Mutschler, Ann Steffora

The EDA industry must do a better job of addressing the issue of multi-core system programmability, said Gary Smith, managing vice president of design and engineering research at Gartner Dataquest. "Programmability has now replaced power as the number one impediment to the continuation of Moore's law," Smith said during the annual Sunday pre-DAC EDAC-Gartner forecast panel. Smith noted that the cost of designing an IC has fallen to between $10 million and $20 million since 1997, and verification costs have been steady over the past seven years. However, the cost of embedded software is raising design costs. "We can do as good a job as we can and we have been doing a great job keeping the design costs down for the silicon design, and we're not doing that bad with the PCB design either but the cost of software is killing us right now, and we've got to do something about that," said Smith. With 38 percent of designers using EDA tools developed in-house, compared with 27 percent last year, opportunities for growth remain, and there needs to be some focus on analog, RF, and systems design tools, according to Smith. The industry must find a way to design software concurrently to use in a multi-core environment, said Smith, adding that the architectural workbench will be the most popular killer app.
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Computing's Future on Display at IBM's Research Center
San Jose Mercury News (CA) (07/24/06) Langberg, Mike

Among the most exciting ideas presented at this year's New Paradigms for Using Computers conference held at IBM's Almaden Research Center was a wallet-sized device that could serve as a cell phone, car key, iPod, credit card, and TV remote control. Another concept presented at the conference was the technology that would enable a user to navigate the Web simply by staring at the screen and pushing a button on the keyboard. The all-in-one device, called Lil'me, would have a color screen and be able to obtain new music without linking to a computer. It would be a voice and video phone, and could be programmed to open compatible electronic locks. With GPS capabilities, Lil'me could help users navigate or transmit its location if it was lost, and it could store and transmit credit card information to cash registers and gas pumps. To counter identity theft, Lil'me would verify its user's identity through fingerprints, retina, or voice scans. IBM's John Varghese, who presented the device, believes that Lil'me could be ready for the commercial market within two years, noting that most of the technology already exists. The Gaze-enhanced User Interface Design, or GUIDe, is the product of Stanford University graduate student Manu Kumar. To calibrate the system, the user sits in front of the screen and follows the movements of a yellow dot. At that point, the user can lock his eyes on a portion of the screen, press a button on the keyboard, and the small section will appear on the screen magnified. After looking into the blown-up area and depressing the button, the Web browser follows the link the user was focusing on. "My hypothesis is that it will be easier and faster than using a mouse," Kumar said. Complex tasks such as drawing lines would still require a mouse, but routine applications such as surfing the Web and switching applications could use the eye-tracking technology.
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Self-Healing Chips Will Live Forever, Researchers Hope
PC Magazine (07/25/06) Del Conte, Natali T.

In partnership with the NSF and the University of Michigan, the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) is launching a three-year program to develop defect-tolerant chips that can detect and fix flaws using online collaboration software. The ability for chips to heal themselves without human assistance is expected to increase the lifespan of products powered by semiconductors. "On the chip, there can be system-level checking going on and monitors so that when parts of it fail, the computation can be switched to other parts of the chip and maintain the functionality while not having to throw that chip out or having the system fail," said SRC's William Joyner. "In general this will be transparent to the user. The chips would be able to recover without great overhead in space and performance through the use of online software and components within the chip." Chips currently discover and diagnose problems using redundancy, which takes up considerable space on the chip and undermines performance power. The researchers want to create chips that are more efficient at scanning for problems and can move the operations of a problem area to a different part of the chip. The new chips would then be able to autonomously fix the problem area before putting it back to work. The researchers are not attempting to create flawless chips, says Todd Austin, associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Michigan. Rather, their work is driven by the reality that the continued scaling of chip features inevitably leads to errors that new architectures must be able to work through. The researchers will explore a variety of new failure models, evaluating the reliability of everything from the software applications that the system runs to individual circuits and wires.
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Souped-Up Mesh Networks
Technology Review (07/25/06) Greene, Kate

BBN Technologies has reported the development of a mesh network that requires far less power than cellular, Wi-Fi, and other conventional wireless networks without compromising speed. DARPA funded the research to create ad hoc networks for combat situations, though some features of the network could also be applied to emergency networks or cell phone systems in remote locations, and could even be used to extend the battery life of wireless devices. Mesh networks are most commonly deployed in research settings, where scientists pepper a volcano or swath of rainforest with sensors to collect data about the natural world. Mesh networks can be created quickly, and, since they do not require costly infrastructure, they are useful for establishing communications in areas without electricity. Slow data-transfer rates and high power-consumption rates have thus far hampered the utility of mesh networks. With double-digit Kbps data-transfer rates, existing mesh networks are not nearly fast enough for applications such as military surveillance. The mesh network developed by the BBN team can send megabits of data per second, achieving speeds comparable to Wi-Fi networks and sufficient for streaming video. The BBN researchers modified the hardware in each network node to develop more energy-efficient radios. They also reexamined the algorithms that synchronize communication among the nodes and developed an energy-saving protocol that eliminates the need for nodes to be constantly listening for each other. The third change they made to existing mesh networks was to apply a different type of algorithm that monitors for network traffic and directs the nodes to adjust their activity accordingly, an adaptability that is critical for power conservation. DARPA will test the network in the field beginning next year.
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Teaching Computers to Make Art
CNet (07/26/06) Olsen, Stefanie

Romanian-born computer artist Alex Dragulescu has been developing a new form of creative expression based on computational modeling and information visualization. In one project, he developed algorithms to analyze the text and data points in spam to develop images of plant-like structures, or "spam plants," that grow continuously based on the arrival of new email. In his latest project, Dragulescu is developing software based on computational linguistics algorithms that culls together information from thousands of blogs across the Internet to produce a meaningful graphic novel. "By analyzing text using computational linguistics methods, you can detect anger and sadness. Turning those into gestures in three dimensions, that would be interesting," said Dragulescu. His work is especially relevant at a time when scientists and researchers are struggling to extract meaning from the massive quantities of data being amassed in fields such as earth science, drug discovery, and genetic research. That effort collides with art, Dragulescu says, when novel visualization techniques can help researchers identify patterns that otherwise would have gone unnoticed. To create the spam plants, Dragulescu parsed the data in the email such as the subject lines, headers, and footers to uncover hidden relationships, which he then represented visually. The email's size might determine how bushy the plant is, for instance, and specific keywords, such as "Nigerian," could create more branches. Dragulescu recently completed a project that can create images from Mozart's music using software to analyze the characteristics of the notes.
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Women in Engineering Seek to Balance Efforts, Results
EE Times (07/25/06) Yoshida, Junko

The "Women in Design Automation" workshop at the Design Automation Conference addressed a broad spectrum of issues ranging from getting the kids ready for their day in the morning to a blunt consideration of traditional management practices. The workshop's topic was "Working the 80/20 Rule for Success"--80 percent of the results come from just 20 percent of the effort applied, but NVidia's Reynette Au said the goal should always be 100 percent. Au argued that women need to be single-minded and identify what motivates them and what they do best. Convincing others, including supervisors and colleagues, of the importance of their work is also important, Au said. "Rarely people around you pay attention to what you do. What you do is often unappreciated and undervalued." Rather than concentrating on strategies for climbing the corporate ladder, engineers should focus on doing the best job they can, "then results will follow," said Kathy Papermaster, director of the Sony/Toshiba/IBM Design Center. Participants also stressed the importance of networking, both online and in person.
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Hearing Looks at Internet Name Privatization Plan
Reuters (07/24/06) Rothstein, Joel

The U.S. Commerce Department plans to hold a hearing on Wednesday to discuss whether the nation should cede control of the Internet domain name system (DNS). The Commerce Department faces a Sept. 30 deadline to either cede the DNS or assert continued control over it. Various Internet stakeholders have heterogeneous opinions on this matter. NetChoice Coalition director Steve DelBianco believes the United States should control ICANN and the DNS for another two years until ICANN as an organization is strong enough to provide impartial global leadership. Some European Internet stakeholders are still seething about U.S. control of the Internet in the wake of ICANN's refusal to launch .xxx, a cancellation some blame on behind-the-scenes U.S. influence.
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Hackers Fight Authority in NYC
Wired News (07/24/06) Newitz, Annalee

The sixth Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) conference in New York drew about 2,000 attendees of all ages and affiliations. The conference, run by members of the hacker group 2600, embraced the spirit of the hacker community, said Greg Newby, co-organizer of the conference and a professor of computer science at the University of Alaska. "This involves political awakening, as well as open sharing of information," he said. Presentations offered tips for stymieing wiretappers, history lessons on computer crime, and technical discussions of security patches. There were hands-on tutorials where participants, all in attendance anonymously, could try their hand at picking locks, creating light graffiti with so-called "light throwies," and learning about the technology behind ham radios. Among the speakers at the conference was free-software pioneer Richard Stallman. Another speaker described a cell phone jammer she created that can block out cellular signals emanating from a tower. A trio of security consultants shared their analysis of data intercepted from improperly configured networks. They found that companies were using protocols that lacked the proper authentication and sending tax information, trade secrets, and other sensitive information over their wireless networks. "Attackers could exploit these vulnerabilities to turn themselves into a node on the corporate network," said security expert Raven Alder. At that point, the hacker could initiate a denial-of-service attack or launch a spam campaign. The emergence of Wi-Fi has only amplified these security problems, Alder said. Computer scientist Matt Blaze demonstrated how he and three of his graduate students had used two phones and wiretap equipment he had purchased on eBay to send out false phone numbers to defeat eavesdroppers and neutralize wiretap recorders by playing a low-volume tone through the connection.
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What Happens When the Net Is Attacked?
Government Computer News (07/24/06) Vol. 25, No. 21,Jackson, William

An obscure research institute under the Department of Homeland Security is working to formulate an estimate of the real cost of cyberattacks. Despite frequent studies by consultancies and an annual FBI report, the actual extent of the damage brought on by denial-of-service attacks and other malicious network activity is obfuscated by the fact that the companies that own the infrastructure typically do not want to reveal the information. "So much of what we have been hearing about cyberattacks was just hearsay," said Scott Borg, director of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit (US-CCU). "We found a lot of things people were worried about were extremely unlikely." US-CCU was created in 2004 with a shoestring budget to spend four months conducting surveys of the electrical power and health care industries, with more critical infrastructure areas to be incorporated later. Having been extended into its second one-year contract, the scope of the project became much larger than initially planned. So far, US-CCU is reporting that a devastating attack on the Internet or the power grid is not likely to occur in the immediate future. To ensure that such a scenario never materializes, US-CCU has developed a checklist of 478 items that organizations can address to shore up their portion of the nation's infrastructure, though it has elicited little response from leaders in the DHS Cyber Security Division. Through his on-site visits, Borg began to see that many organizations had adopted best security practices, but that they contained gaping vulnerabilities nonetheless because they only dealt with security at the periphery. Cybersecurity is hamstrung by the lack of adequate tools for measuring the consequences of attacks and the reluctance of companies to share data, Borg says. He argues for a holistic view of the costs of cyberattacks that factors in the broad shifts in business operations that can arise from security breaches. Borg says his next goal is to develop security tools tailored to individual industries.
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Sun Opens Doors to Its Lab Sensors, Interval-Based Programming Top Project List
SD Times (07/15/06)No. 154, P. 3; Handy, Alex

Though Sun's June research exhibition was a chance to show off its bleeding-edge gadgets and projects such as the experimental scientific computing language Fortress, the company's efforts to replace flawed floating point math with interval-based programming stole the show. Sun introduced interval-based programming to its Fortran compilers in 1995, and later extended interval support in the form of an external library to its C++ compilers. Sun researcher G. William Walster likens intervals to ranges of numbers that, when calculated ahead of time, can quickly determine if an equation solution is correct or incorrect. Though they have the capacity to deal with extremely large numbers, most CPUs can still only calculate to a certain number of digits, meaning that at a certain point, numbers will have to be rounded. Replacing floating point units (FPU) is still a ways off, Walster says, though he stresses the importance of continued research to improve the accuracy of scientific and technical calculations. Walster says researchers "more and more want to use the speed of digital computers to replace physical experiments that are difficult or expensive or impossible to conduct, and replace them with cheap, fast substitutes. The difficulty is, if you know nothing about the accuracy of your computing, there's a huge risk involved." In Sun's Fortran and Fortress compilers, intervals are treated like any group of real numbers or integers. Fortress, which Walster says "is designed to do for Fortran what Java did for C++," is a natively parallel language, making it ideally suited for clustered environments. Among the other projects on display at Sun's exhibition were its Sun SPOT (Small Programmable Object Technology) sensors that can detect motion, light, and wireless traffic, as well as its research in technologies to improve digital media on the Internet.
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Up Next in Quantum Computing
InformationWeek (07/24/06)No. 1099, P. 18; Chabrow, Eric

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have developed an electromagnetic "trap" for ions that could bring the mass production of quantum computers closer to reality. The trap is different from previous traps for electrically charged atoms in that all electrodes are arranged in a single, horizontal layer. The single layer would make it easier to scale components and processes in manufacturing. Described in June in the journal Physical Review Letters, the single-layer can trap a dozen magnesium ions without the onset of a heating problem from changes in electrode voltage, according to David Wineland, who heads the NIST team. The researchers are now focused on building more complex structures for the single-layer traps. Quantum computing researchers hope to use ions as quantum bits, represented by a 0 and a 1 simultaneously, to achieve the enormous calculation speeds of a quantum computer. In theory, problems that take today's computers hours to solve could be cracked in seconds with a quantum computer. They could be used to break data encryption codes and to search large databases quickly, for example.
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ICANN Turns Sights on Africa
IDG News Service (07/25/06) Malakata, Michael

ICANN executives acknowledged during last month's meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, that the Internet oversight body has not done enough to help Africa develop its IT and communications infrastructure, according to the chairman of the Sudan Internet Society (SIS), a group that promotes the Internet in Sudan. SIS Chairman Mohamed El Bashir Ahmed also blamed ICANN's failure to involve African representatives in its policy decisions as a reason for the underdevelopment of the Internet in Africa. "In view of the diversity of Internet users in Africa, issues such as multilingualism and multiculturalism have to be resolved," Ahmed said, adding that these issues can be resolved by increasing African involvement in policy decisions. ICANN has plans to open an office in Africa to help coordinate the group's African initiatives. A decision has not yet been made on where the African office will be located.
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In Search of the Sixth Sense
Nature (07/13/06) Vol. 442, No. 7099, P. 125; Abbott, Alison

Before brain implants can allow paralysis victims to control robotic limbs, neuroscientists must understand the mechanisms that enable the brain to know the relative spatial positions of different parts of the body, an ability known as proprioception. Several projects have taken great strides in the field of neuroprosthetics: A team of scientists at Brown University and Cybernetics Neurotechnology Systems has enabled a quadriplegic man to move an onscreen cursor by thought through an electrode array implanted in his motor cortex, while a Stanford University group has used a brain-computer interface integrated with the premotor cortex of a non-paralyzed primate to explore similar neuroprosthetic applications. But a method must be worked out for neuroprosthetic devices to deliver feedback to the brain if the devices are to replicate more sophisticated functions, according to Daofen Chen of the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Deeper understanding of sensory input is key to making interactive brain-machine interfaces a reality. One project conducted by University of Pittsburgh researchers involves stimulating the sensory nerves from the limbs of an anesthetized cat via electrodes just before they enter the spinal column and concurrently recording from sensory cortex neurons, and then repeating the recording while manipulating the cat's limbs manually. The pattern of cortical neural activity will be compared in both experiments to see whether the researchers can imitate the patterns received in reaction to passive movements with artificial stimulation. A neurophysiologist based at Northwestern University is electrically stimulating the region of the primate cortex responsible for processing proprioception while simultaneously recording neuronal activity in the motor cortex in the hope that such work will eventually facilitate the design of stimulation patterns capable of mimicking the brain's own proprioception signal processing.
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Unnatural Selection
New Scientist (07/22/06) Vol. 191, No. 2561, P. 46; Thompson, Clive

A lack of diversity among computer operating systems makes those systems highly vulnerable to hackers, and a cadre of computer scientists is attempting to address this problem by cultivating "software diversity" through the electronic equivalent of genetic mutations. "Every computer should have its own unique properties," remarks University of New Mexico at Albuquerque computer scientist Stephanie Forrest. She realized that buffer-overflow attacks, though simple to mount, require the hacker to know exactly what part of the computer's memory to assault; Forrest reasoned that scrambling the way a program employs a computer's memory can thwart such attacks. The computer scientist pioneered the technique of memory-space randomization to test her theory, and her method has been adopted by Linux provider Red Hat and Microsoft, which is prepping a new Windows operating system, Vista, that uses Forrest's technique. Forrest has also experimented with another method involving the replacement of the "translator" program responsible for interpreting instruction sets with a specially modified program that encrypts the sets with a randomized encoding key. Studies have shown that randomization can be foiled by "brute force" attacks, but absolute immunity may not be a prerequisite for survival. Epidemiologist Dan Geer thinks a small number of diverse computers connected to the Internet would be enough to fragment the operating system monoculture and make systems immune to many digital attacks. Gabriel Barrantes, a researcher who collaborated with Forrest on the instruction set encryption randomization experiment, believes blending distinct randomization techniques yields the best kind of protection.
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