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November 3, 2006

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Welcome to the November 3, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Group of University Researchers to Make Web Science a Field of Study
New York Times (11/02/06) P. C6; Lohr, Steve

Internet researchers at the forefront of their field are beginning to shift their attention from the function of a single computer on the Web, to the function of the entire Web, as a huge, decentralized system. Research into Internet social networks is beginning to garner a lot of attention, as businesses and researchers can benefit more and more from understanding such concepts. "The Web isn't about what you can do with computers," says Tim Berners-Lee, MIT senior researcher, University of Southampton professor, and director of the World Wide Web Consortium. "It's people and, yes, they are connected by computers. But computer science, as the study of what happens in a computer doesn't tell you about what happens on the Web." The Web science program aims at creating a more "intelligent" Web, with the goal of the Semantic Web in mind. Web science research is "a prerequisite to designing the kinds of complex, human-oriented systems that we are after in science," according to Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a technology strategist at IBM and visiting professor at MIT. Undergraduate and graduate programs are being considered at the present, with support from both MIT and the University of Southampton; workshops will soon be held, as well as the awarding of research fellowships. "Computer science is at a turning point, and it has to...understand the social dynamics of issues like trust, responsibility, empathy, and privacy in this vast networked space," says Ben Shneiderman a professor at the University of Maryland. "The technologies and companies that understand those issues will be far more likely to succeed in expanding their markets and enlarging their audiences."
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Researchers Teach Computers How to Name Images by 'Thinking'
Penn State Live (11/01/06) Hopkins, Margaret; DuBois, Charles

A paper presented at the recent ACM Multimedia 2006 conference describes a system that can automatically annotate entire collections of photographs. The paper, "Real-Time Computerized Annotation of Pictures," and was written by Jai Li, associate professor in the Penn State department on statistics, and James Wang, associate professor in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology. Wang says, "By inputting tens of thousands of images, we have trained computers to recognize certain objects and concepts and automatically annotate these new or unseen images. More than half the time, the computer's first tag out of the top 15 is correct." Simply by analyzing pixel content of a given image and comparing that against a knowledge base of the pixel content of tens of thousands of images, the Automatic Linguistic Indexing of Pictures Real-Time (ALIPR) system provides 15 possible annotations or words for the image. Li and Wang's previous creation, ALIP, used computational-intensive spatial modeling, while ALIPR models distribution of color and texture, to characterize images. For 98 percent of images tested, ALIPR was able to provide at least one correct annotation in its top 15 selected words.
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Voters in Fla., Texas Complain of E-Voting Glitches
Computerworld (11/01/06) Songini, Marc

Allegations were made in Miami-Dade County, Fla. that e-voting machines flipped votes, meaning the candidate chosen was not the one registered by the machine. Officials denied these claims. "I'm happy to report that there are no glitches in any of the electronic voting machines at Miami-Dade early voting locations," said Lester Sola, supervisor of elections for the county. Subsequent investigation of the Election Systems & Software machines also reported no problems. Sola explained that when a machine is reported to be malfunctioning, it is closed until a technician is available. He assures that no votes were lost. Neighboring Broward County also experienced reports of vote flipping on the same company's machines. Peter Corwin, assistant to the Broward County administrator, said that such problems are common for a small portion of voting machines. Several complaints have also come out of Texas concerning vote flipping, but Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams contacted the Florida judges who assured him that a fingernail or some other object had inadvertently hit the wrong button. A spokeswoman for Williams points out that "this only serves to emphasize the importance of the summary screens, where a voter can make sure the correct ballots are cast." Avi Rubin, e-voting critic and Maryland election judge, said, "While most of my comments about e-voting have to do with security threats that are invisible, I am also discouraged by the widespread technical problems that are not just noticeable, but screaming for attention." For information about ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Computer Scientists Track Prediction Markets in Run-Up to US Elections
University of Chicago (11/01/06) Koppes, Steve

The academic and corporate worlds are starting to display a renewed interest in prediction markets, thanks in large part to James Surowiecki's book "The Wisdom of Crowds." Companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Hewlett-Packard operate them internally to gain a better understanding of the thinking of their employees, and take the information into account when making decisions. Meanwhile, computer scientists at the University of Chicago and Yahoo Research have teamed up to track an Irish securities trading market, Tradesports.com, that correctly predicted all but one senate race and every state in the electoral college during the U.S. elections in 2004. The researchers, who created a Web site that offers a map of the country with anticipated Republican states in red and Democratic states in blue, are also studying the computation power of prediction markets to determine how they work and predict what will occur. "My main research is studying different models of computation, and to me information markets are another model of computation," says Lance Fortnow, a computer science professor at the University of Chicago. The computation issues for an information market such as Tradesports involve the market's extremely quick reaction to news, as people access and process information impacting the buying and selling of securities and other financial decisions. Prediction markets will be a topic of discussion at ACM's Conference on Electronic Commerce, taking place June 11-15, 2007, in San Diego, Calif.
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GAO: Better Coordination of Cybersecurity R&D Needed
Government Computer News (10/31/06) Wait, Patience

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report stating that the federal government is doing an insufficient job of coordinating R&D on cybersecurity matters and must improve its information sharing and collaboration efforts concerning cybersecurity. The director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been called upon to create a strict time line for compliance with the federal cybersecurity R&D agenda, released in February 2003 by the National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace. "Most cybersecurity technologies "offer only single-point solutions by addressing individual vulnerabilities," the GAO report states. "As a result, many researchers have described the use of these types of near-term solutions as being shortsighted...Research in cybersecurity technology can help create a broader range of choices and more robust tolls for building secure, networked computer systems." Cybersecurity R&D funding is divided between a number of agencies: Homeland Security, which allocated about $17 million of its funds in fiscal 2006 to the subject; DoD, which was provided with about $150 million in fiscal 2005 by the federal government for cybersecurity R&D; and NSF, which requested about $94 million for their effort in fiscal 2006.
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Tech's Threat to National Security
Business Week (11/02/06) Hamm, Steve; Kopecki, Dawn

The Department of Defense's use of software that has been outsourced has led to concern that malicious programming could endanger national security. In 2001, the Defense Security Council noticed a significant rise in "suspicious attempts" by hackers abroad, and declared that foreign software companies and applications developed overseas were potentially a bigger threat than domestic hackers. In one of two attacks since July, a bureau of the Commerce Department had to cut off Internet access and get rid of virus infected computers due to an attack by Chinese hackers. "It's clearly a legitimate and present security concern," as the use of high-tech combat systems continues to increase, says Paul G. Kaminsky, a member of the Defense Science Board. A DoD task force is currently in the final stages of creating a recommendation for how to deal with the fact that the military uses software bought from overseas developers. There is much concern among the industry that the Pentagon will force tech suppliers to eliminate elements of overseas production, or return to purchasing too many custom-made products, both of which would drive prices up significantly. "Most of the software the DoD uses has elements that are written overseas, and that isn't a problem," says William Schneider Jr., chairman of the Defense Science Board "The problem is in ultrasensitive defense applications where they are mission-critical" and the highest degree of confidence in the software is required. Vendor screening and software testing has been stepped up by the pentagon recently, but costs are rising for extensive testing on increasingly sophisticated weapons systems.
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New NSF Center Targets Reconfigurable Computing
HPC Wire (11/01/06) Vol. 15, No. 44,

A new national center and consortium for research in fundamental computing, comprised of about two dozen organizations, has been developed by NSF's Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRC) and will begin in January 2007. In a recent interview, the director of the Center for High-Performance Reconfigurable Computing (CHREC), Dr. Alan George, said that high-performance reconfigurable computing will be able to better serve the needs of a wide array of applications. A reconfigurable approach is capable of superior performance, power, size, cooling, cost, versatility, scalability, and dependability, among other areas where conventional computing is falling short of what today's critical applications demand. George says the goals of the center are to "establish the nation's first multidisciplinary research center in reconfigurable HPC" in partnership with the government, industry, and academe; "directly support the research needs of industry and government partners in a cost-effective manner;" provide an enhance education experience for students; and to "advance the knowledge and technologies in this emerging field and ensure relevance of the research with rapid and efficient technology transfer." He says reconfigurable computing has shown its ability to bring out the "potential of underlying electronics in a system," and for this, has "come to the forefront." George says, "RC can also be leveraged from other IT markets to achieve a better performance-cost ratio." George foresees both "revolutionary and evolutionary advances," as a result of the center's research.
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Driving Impulse Shopping With a Smart Cart
Technology Review (11/02/06) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

Supermarkets are hoping a new breed of "smart" shopping carts will be able to increase impulse purchasing by scanning the radio frequency identification (RFID) tag of items placed in them. Using the information they gather from reading RFID tags, a screen on the carts will alert customers as to what has been bought the most today in a given aisle, for example, or what product the most customers have in their cart at that moment. Ronaldo Menezes, an expert in retail swarm intelligence at the Florida Institute of Technology, says impulse buying comprises 40 percent of all purchases made in supermarkets. However, the potential for abuse exists with such a system. Many retail enterprises use fake shoppers who pretend to buy products in order to pique the interest of other shoppers, says Nigel Marlow, and as far as this "smart" shopping cart technology, he believes "There's no doubt it will be abused. They will do anything to make a sale." Menezes points out that such abuse would be in line with numerous other marketing tactics, and that shoppers have the choice of ignoring the messages that pop up. Because of the size, and subsequent slow rate of change, of the food industry, second only to government, the process of deploying "smart" carts is expected to take five years.
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Using Mathematics and Computers to Understand the World
Rensselaer News (11/01/06) Gorss, Jason

A $1.2 million grant from the NSF will give Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Howard University undergraduate students an opportunity to pursue research that combines mathematics and computational science. Rensselaer professors are currently designing the program that will introduce students to important applications of mathematics in a wide variety of fields, from ecology to medicine. "We are developing an innovative program that will help students use mathematics and computers to understand the world," says Mark Holmes, professor of mathematical sciences at Rensselaer and principal investigator in the project. "Our goal is to teach these students the power of mathematics and how to harness that power to solve problems in science and engineering." The grant is part of NSF's new Computational Science Training for Undergraduates in the Mathematical Sciences (CSUMS) program, which aims to illuminate computational aspects of the undergraduate curriculum of mathematical sciences. Applied research is the core of the program: "We have a number of carefully chosen projects ready for students to investigate, each involving different equations that arise in a variety of applications from field including fluid mechanics, biology, combustion, and nonlinear optics," according to Holmes. The hope is that other fields which need more people skilled in math will be able to attract some of the math students involved in the program.
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Getting a Feel for the Fabric--Virtually
IST Results (11/02/06)

Researchers developing a system that would allow users to "feel" a virtual garment will provide an update of their work at IST 2006 during the networking workshop "HAPTEX'06--Advanced Haptics." University of Geneva professor Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann, the organizer and chair of the workshop, is the project coordinator of the HAPTEX team that is pursuing multimodal perception of textiles in virtual environments. Though Internet users can go online and shop for sweaters, suits, or lingerie by style, color, and size, they still are unable to touch the garments. The HAPTEX project team hopes to change this by next November by providing a combined haptic and tactile interface that would enable users to "touch" a garment that they see online. The HAPTEX team's booth at IST 2006 will feature a haptic interface that visitors will be able to interact with to experience a realistic simulation of touching a textile as they sit at a laptop. "They will feel the force-feedback of the fabric when interacting with it," explains Magnenat-Thalmann. Although the project has developed the methodology, a test bed, and a preliminary demonstrator, there needs to be major changes in current technology and continued research before a product for commercial application can be developed.
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Software to Improve Efficiency of Medical Research
Arizona State University (11/02/06) Emeneker, Kelley

Computer science, information management, medical research methods, and clinical practice have been brought together by a new computer application that is able to analyze vast amounts of biomedical data in order to find and extract information needed for research efforts. Over 1,000 articles and research papers are published in the field of biomedicine everyday, so keeping up to date with the latest finding is almost impossible, according to Chitta Baral, a professor in ASU's Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and an affiliate faculty member with the Department of Biomedical Informatics. Collaborative Bio Curation, or CBioC, is able to search not only by term but by higher-level concepts, such as "genes related to brain cancer," unlike Google. Baral explains that CBioC will save researchers time and effort spent looking through hundreds of thousands of articles to find information that applies to their area of study. CBioC runs within PubMed, the primary repository of biomedical papers maintained by the National Library of Medicine, extracting and displaying facts reported in a given article, and allowing users to search for similar facts in other articles. Researchers are able to vote and share comments on the accuracy of the facts that have been extracted. Consensus reached among researchers allows information to be updated, assuring the highest level of correctness possible.
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Doing it for the Kids, Man: Children's Laptop Inspires Open Source Projects
LinuxWorld (10/27/06) Marti, Don

The past decade has seen efficient programming become a low priority as a result of faster processes and inexpensive memory, but the effort to build the "Children's Machine 1 (CM1)," which has minimal memory and processor speed, is challenging developers to do as much as they can with just about as little as possible. The One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC), which the machines are being built for, wants to create a machine that functions as a textbook collection, as well as a writing, drawing, and music tool. The current CM1 prototype has a 500 MHz AMD Geode processor, 128 MB of RAM, 512MB of Flash memory, no hard drive, and is underclocked to 366 MHz to conserve power. Only open source software will be used. "Today's laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways," according to the laptop.org FAQ. The CM1 operating system will be less than 100 MB in size, a challenge which has excited Red Hat engineers. "Fundamentally everything we do is of benefit to everyone's desktop," says Jim Gettys, VP of software engineering for OLPC. "We're just sensitive to it. Five to 10 percent of the work has anything to with OLPC. Most of it is all over the place in lots of different projects." Red Hat has even been able to fix its community Linux distribution, Fedora, using applications from OLPC.
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Care Urged With Language Domain Names
Associated Press (11/01/06) Gatopoulos, Derek

ICANN CEO Paul Twomey is warning that international domain names (IDNs) using non-Latinate characters need to be developed carefully and adeptly, as a faulty launch of IDNs could "permanently break the Internet." Right now China has created a Chinese intranet that features a Chinese-language version of .com. In addition, an Arab consortium is testing an Arabic language Internet in a lab setting. Twomey believes ICANN's IDN testing and policy discussions can reach a conclusion and "resolution by the end of 2007." Cisco Systems engineer Patrik Falstrom says that getting IDNs right is paramount because a fractured Internet along language barriers, none of which span the globe, would destroy the usefulness of the Internet. In a fractured Internet, email addresses would depend on the country's Internet, rather than be universal, notes Falstrom. In addition, duplicate domain names and email addresses could help cyber-criminals impersonate bank account holders and others, warns the Internet Governance Forum. Patrik Falstrom is working on ICANN's IDN project, and says the technological challenges are thorny. He says, "We have 6,000 languages in the world. So should we register the name of countries--like Greece--in all 6,000?" ICANN Chairman Vint Cerf says the right policies need to work out and test ahead of time before IDNs can be implemented. He says, "The ability to enter the entire domain name in a particular script, we're not there yet," but notes that testing scheduled for later this year will help locate any possible troublesome side effects.
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Phone Creates Interactive Maps From Snapshots
New Scientist (10/31/06) Simonite, Tom

Researchers in the United Kingdom are developing technology that will allow camera phone users to snap a picture of a printed map and receive an interactive version of the same map on their handset. The Map Snapper system would return a map with clickable icons for points of interest, including restaurants, hotels, and temporary events such as festivals, and featuring images, contact information, and links to Web sites. "If someone is walking and reaches a town, they'll be able to simply point their phone at the map and find out places they could go for lunch, or other information not on the map," explains Paul Lewis, a researcher at Southampton University who developed the system. Map Snapper, which is designed to send a photo of a portion of a map to a central server, was developed in cooperation with the Ordnance Survey, the U.K. map-making agency. "The server uses the image to generate a unique signature for that area of the map and then finds matches in a database of signatures for all the [Ordnance Survey] maps," adds Jonathan Hare, who assisted Lewis in developing Map Snapper. Lewis and Hare also plan to allow users to generate their own content for maps using an online interface. They acknowledge that the technology could become obsolete shortly with the emergence of cell phones featuring GPS receivers.
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Quantum Attacks Worry Computer Scientists
Security Focus (10/31/06) Lemos, Robert

While quantum computers may one day be capable of unprecedented calculations, they are incredibly vulnerable to failure caused by unauthorized activity when networked together. Daniel Lidar, an associate professor in electrical engineering, chemistry, and physics at the University of Southern California, and Lian-Ao Wu, a research associate in the Chemical Physics Theory Group at the University of Toronto, are working on ways of defending quantum computer networks against something as small as a read access to a single qubit on one machine, which would require a network-wide reset. Their solution has been to only send messages at prearranged, seemingly random intervals, use long average wait times between legitimate network connections, and fill the rest of the network time with decoy transmissions. Performance advantages could be maintained while reducing the chance of a successful attack. "We would not want to use this method against any threat beside malware, because it is not efficient," says Lidar. "We are talking the network down for a long period of time." Quantum computers must be protected against "stray cosmic rays and things like that--if they interact with this stuff, then something changes and the computer crashes," according to John Lowry, a principal scientist at the Internet service provider BBN, and member of the company's research team working on the DARPA quantum network. "The thing is that people could do that on purpose." Lidar doesn't know what form an attack would come in; data destruction or circumventing a calculation would be the easiest. He says, "Quantum malware to us just looks like any malicious instruction sent to an attacker. As long as we can keep the local nodes free from malicious intruders and build a heavily fortified castle around them, we can assume the ancilla qubits are malware free."
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Phishers Beware
CITRIS Newsletter (10/06) Shreve, Jenn

Researchers at CITRIS' Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology (TRUST) have developed tools that help defend Internet users against online identity theft. "The threats and risks and vulnerabilities change everyday. It's moving at a very fast pace. All the tools, processes, and policies, and procedures are reactive for the most part. And the attackers are in a global environment, attacking from foreign countries we can't reach out to...We're inundated," says Robert Rodriguez, former secret service agent who directed the Secret Service West Coast Electronic Crime Taskforce and is now working with CITRIS. Rodriguez approached John Mitchell and Dan Boneh of Stanford University with his concerns three year ago, and the two have now completed five Web browser extensions: one encrypts passwords so they cannot be used by a thief; another alerts users when they have landed on a fake site; two protect Firefox users against malicious programs that track the sites they visit; and the last is a resource that blocks passwords from any keylogging software embedded on an unknowing user's computer. "One of our best outcomes for us would be to have some of the ideas we've developed in our prototype software get adopted and built into browsers," says Mitchell. Social and legal aspects are also being addressed, including more effective notices to warn users of the risk of downloading unknown software.
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Firsthand Lessons in Globalization
EE Times (10/30/06)No. 1447, P. 1; Goering, Richard

The goal of San Jose State University dean of engineering Belle Wei's Global Technology Initiative is to help U.S. engineering students obtain the ability to be globally competitive by having them tour Asian research institutions, corporations, and universities over the summer. By comparing notes with their peers in China, students get a clearer picture of how hard Chinese students work and how competitive they are. This acts as a wake-up call for American students, who give more consideration to their competitive abilities, according to Wei. "Because there's a very diverse culture here, American engineers, if given some training in sensitivity toward other cultures, will be in a very good position to integrate a global technical team," she explains. Wei thinks the most likely EE jobs to be outsourced overseas are functional engineering tasks that can be well defined and require little interaction, while less likely to be offshored are tasks positioned closer to technology's cutting edge. She cites the need to produce more domestic engineering graduates in order to continue supporting knowledge-based innovation, especially as other countries make economic gains; to draw more students into the engineering field, San Jose State University works with high schools to increase their students' exposure to the discipline. Wei believes a background in multidisciplinary engineering can give U.S. students a clear advantage in the global arena. She notes that her university is also trying to attract and retain sorely underrepresented groups, such as women and Hispanics, in engineering.
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A Dragon in R&D
BusinessWeek (11/06/06)No. 4008, P. 44; Einhorn, Bruce

Chinese President Hu Jintao threw down the gauntlet with his recognition that China needs to become a hub of innovation through government funding and research and development investments by both foreign and domestic companies, and multinationals and local businesses are following through on his mandate. In terms of patent applications, China is the fifth largest producer globally, with 130,000 applications in 2004, according to recently released figures by the World Intellectual Property Organization. "It's inevitable that [the mainland] will become an innovation center," says General Atlantic Partners managing director Vince Feng. "Whenever manufacturing is located in a country, innovation always follows." Lenovo's innovation team in Beijing is working to roll out intelligent new computer products, while Beijing is helping to fuel the development of Vimicro and other local semiconductor design businesses. Telecom tech provider Huawei Technologies, meanwhile, is assembling an R&D team with facilities in China, Sweden, India, and the United States. Health challenges unique to China, such as the threat of avian flu, are also sparking innovative R&D. Multinationals are giving Chinese universities a much-needed boost by opening research institutes nearby, while training programs sponsored by Western companies are helping make Chinese knowledge workers capable of more creative thinking.
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Database Challenges in Enterprise Information Sharing
IEEE Distributed Systems Online (10/06) Vol. 7, No. 10, Vargas, Luis

Luis Vargas of the University of Cambridge writes that the integration of messaging functionality into the database system shows promise as a cross-enterprise information sharing methodology, but the independent evolution of messaging and database technology demonstrates the need to couple separate concepts and functionality as a required step in the implementation of database-messaging systems. "Our goal, then, is to support functional, reliable, and scalable mechanisms for detecting, propagating, and consuming of information of interest from the database," Vargas attests. "To reach this goal, we should consider the many relevant contributions from distributed systems as well as research done within the database community." By deploying queue-based messaging features directly at the database systems, the transmission, receipt, and processing of messages to and from queues within the database can be facilitated. Vargas cites two fundamental approaches to integration: The creation of a message queuing system as a database application and the incorporation of message queuing into the database infrastructure. The first strategy yields limited functionality and scalability, while the second requires database system augmentation via integrated messaging support, queue-based index maintenance, enhanced active support, or a combination of the above. Though active technology supplies information sharing with the means to spot interesting situations at the database, trigger implementations must be extended to satisfy a new set of requirements, including flexible coupling modes, scalable trigger evaluation, and composite event detection.
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