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November 13, 2006

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Welcome to the November 13, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Entrepreneurs See a Web Guided by Common Sense
New York Times (11/12/06) P. 1; Markoff, John

An increasing number of computer scientists and startup companies are dedicating themselves to adding a layer of meaning to the Internet by mining human intelligence. The effort, known as Web 3.0 or the Semantic Web, will make the Internet into more of a guide than a series of lists. While some see the ideas as impossible, many believe that data mining will one day allow predictions to be made concerning the next top song, comprehensive personal financial management to be done by Internet services, and in what has been called the "holy grail" of Web 3.0, the ability for actual answers to be given to direct questions, rather than current search results based on given terms. Nova Spivack, founder of a company planning to pioneer Web 3.0, describes his vision as "the World Wide Database," made possible by the documentation of the innumerable relationships among the information, including individuals, present on the Web. While some have in mind a new creation that will replace the Web as we know it, others are working toward systems capable of comprehending the information that is already present, but all are in agreement of the commercial value of the Semantic Web. A University of Washington project dubbed KnowItAll, for example, has developed technology called Opine that can extract and organize product reviews posted by users. Another KnowItAll project is working with reviews of hotels to help users find a place to stay. University of Washington artificial-intelligence researcher Oren Etzioni, a leader of the project, says "There is the growing realization that text on the Web is a tremendous resource." "Smart" systems are already implemented in the Internet today, and as W. Daniel Hillis, a veteran AI researcher, says, "It is pretty clear that human knowledge is out there and more exposed to machines than it ever was before."
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Supercomputing's Next Revolution
Wired News (11/09/06) Tulloch, Paul

Graphics chips created for the consumer video game market hold the key to the future of high-performance computing. A comparison between specialized graphics processing units (GPUs) developed for the games industry and all-purpose central processing units (CPUs) will be presented next week at the SuperComputing 2006 conference by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers, and the study claims that an inexpensive parallel data processing GPU system offers superior performance over the latest CPU-based systems. In addition, Stanford University's Folding@Home project is running a public beta test of software designed to tap idle graphics processing power in Internet-linked PCs and game consoles, and as of Nov. 7 test data showed a 20-fold to 40-fold performance gain over CPUs. Heated rivalry for high-volume and commodity applications such as computer gaming has been the driver of GPU innovation, according to Dinesh Manocha of UNC Chapel Hill's Gamma Research Team. Though GPUs marry the advantages of low cost, speed, and power efficiency, they are not finding their way into garden variety PCs because they are only suitable for operations that involve some type of number crunching. Tricking the GPU into executing non-graphics-based computations is a formidable challenge made all the more difficult by the GPU's parallel processing environment. The refusal of the leading GPU suppliers, ATI and Nvidia, to divulge key aspects of their technology is a limiting factor.
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'Vote Flipping' Is Real, But Its Cause Is the Subject of Debate
Computerworld (11/13/06) Weiss, Todd R.

Voters in several states said during last week's election that electronic voting machines counted their vote for the candidate they did not select. Charges of "vote flipping" were made in the 2004 elections as well, but the cause of the problem remains unknown because the issue has not been studied. Some opponents of e-voting maintain that the problem is caused by e-voting machines, but other observers say vote-flipping could be the result of voter error or machine calibration. Experts who believe user error is the problem, such as Voting Technology Project co-director Ted Selker, say voters are dragging their fingers across the touch screens instead of tapping their selection, which is resulting in their choice of the wrong candidate. Machine calibration could be a contributing factor as well, and Rice University computer science professor Dan Wallach says e-voting machine vendors may need to make bigger selection buttons and create more distance between them on the screen. Stanford University computer science professor David L. Dill, who rules out a vote defraud conspiracy, says the issue needs to be investigated. "I want facts...and all I've heard for two years is speculation," he says. For information about ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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ACM Group Honors Computer Security Experts
AScribe Newswire (11/08/06)

ACM's Special Interest Group on Security, Audit, and Control (SIGSAC) presented its top honors to Michael Schroeder of Microsoft Research and Eugene Spafford of Purdue University during the Computer and Communications Security Conference in Alexandria, Va., last week. Schroeder received the SIGSAC Outstanding Innovation Award for his contributions to the Needham-Schroeder authentication protocol, which is used in many commercial security products today. Industry standards are based on Needham-Schroeder, the protocol that provides mutual authentication for two parties communicating over a network that is not secure. Schroeder was named an ACM Fellow in 2004, while Spafford was named one in 1998. The computer science and electrical and computer engineering professor received the SIGSAC Outstanding Contributions Award for his participation on a number of national panels that helped set the U.S. cybersecurity policy. Spafford, also the chairman of the ACM's U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM), most recently served on the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) in 2003-2005. Schroeder and Spafford received a $1,000 prize along with the awards.
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The Software Challenges of Petascale Computing
HPC Wire (11/10/06) Vol. 15, No. 45,

Kathy Yelick, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley with a joint appointment in the Lawrence Berkeley Lab's Computational Research Division, where she leads the Future Technologies Group and the Berkeley Institute for Performance Studies, took some time to explain software-related issues that arise in petascale and other large-scale computing systems. Yelick sees software being overlooked as a result of the push for unprecedented performance. The advancements of hardware parallelism brought about by "multi-core processors within the compute node and the trend towards building machines out of a larger number of smaller compute nodes...will require a complete redesign of applications," says Yelick. In her opinion, reliability is the greatest challenge facing software development for large-scale computing; and while fault-tolerant software is in the works, no solution has been found so far. She says, "A new compiler challenge" is presented by "the presence of heterogeneous processors...because, at the very least, they increase the optimization space for code generation, which is already very difficult to navigate." Although recent advancements in programming languages still fall victim to poor machines, "one of the goals of the Berkeley UPC compiler is to make UPC an effective language for a larger class of machines and for less sophisticated programmers," according to Yelick. She says that UPC is effective for petascale machines, but encounters problems with "two-sided protocol in MPI" and the "high...barrier for entry" of an application code, which results in a small community of programmers. In conclusion, Yelick believes that now is the time for the HPC community to "innovate in parallel hardware, languages, and software," in order to manage the growth of parallelism, or otherwise fall behind.
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A Sneak Peak at a Fractured Web
Wired News (11/13/06) Anderson, Mark

The OpenNet Initiative is putting together an unprecedented report on government censorship of the Internet, with the help of about 50 cyber law, free speech, and network specialists from nations where censorship is known to occur. Transparency of censorship practices vary: from Saudi Arabia where blocked sites are listed and users are urged to recommend sites for censorship; to countries such as Tunisia where the government uses "Page not found" messages made to look "exactly like the Internet Explorer 404 page" to hide their censorship practices, says Elijah Zarwan, an ONI consultant from Cairo. Some government utilize denial of service (DoS) attacks, carried out by a third party, that allow them "some plausible deniability," says Nart Villeneuve of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab. While DoS attacks primarily target opposition party sites, commercial motives also exist for censorship: the United Arab Emirates grants a monopoly to its telecommunications provider, therefore the government blocks VoIP citing legal reasons. Attempts to prevent, or get around, censorship include Web applications and browsers that hide a user's IP address and emails sent from ever-changing addresses. While China was the first nation to censor Internet material, many dictatorships have followed its lead in the past five years, says Reporters Without Borders' Julien Pain, who praises the ONI project. However, the project has its risks: even project manager Rob Faris recognizes the danger that the project will provide valuable information that enhances governments ability to censor content, such as revealing Web sites that governments would want to block but had not known about.
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Sun Picks GPL License for Java Code
CNet (11/13/06) LaMonica, Martin

Sun Microsystems today plans to release Java source code under the Linux-friendly GPLv2 license. Both Java Platform Micro Edition and Java Platform Standard Edition will be available. The GPL stipulates that programmers using the open-source software must release the subsequent application they develop as open source, although Sun is utilizing a "classpath exception" that makes it possible for a company to limit the software covered by the GPL. Sun's Rich Green explains that "In the case of Java SE, we're enhancing (the GPL) with the classpath exception. So when you're working on top or shipping applications with the (Java) libraries and virtual machine, you're not affected by the Java license." The open-source release of the code comes after years of Sun worrying that such a move could cause incompatibility between "forked" models of the code. Green says that GPL and the general respect of the current Java product market decreases the chances of incompatibility: "GPL is the proper forcing function," he says. " By keeping all the industry innovations viewed and shareable, it pushes everyone toward compatibility." No "governance" organization or formal open-source projects for Java ME or SE have been created by Sun, because as Green says, "We will be very active in these communities but we don't want to prescribe the outcome."
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Putting the Smarts Into Your Mobile Life
IST Results (11/10/06)

An IST project known as CASCOM is working on providing context-aware applications on portable devices using the Semantic Web, intelligent agents, intelligent P2P networks, GPS, and other technologies. The CASCOM platform will enable users to locate and contact a doctor, or plan and book travel, as well as many other tasks. Project contributor Oliver Keller, of the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, says that, "In general, P2P offers flexibility, mobility, autonomy, fault tolerance, and scalability. Users can join, leave, or rejoin the system at any time and any place, using the mobile or desktop devices of their choice." However, he says the software "infrastructure parts of the system can be distributed and also be moved when required. Thus, a couple of standard PCs, notebooks, or even PDAs can host the CASCOM systems as well as a dedicated sever." Keller further explains that services developed will utilize "automatic reasoning on formal logics of information retrieval methods," and that "collaboration of individual agents, employing methods and protocols from multi-agent systems" will bring about "overall intelligent behavior." Health care is a primary target for Keller; as the technologies involved in the CASCOM project have already made an impact in the field, and will continue to improve accessibility.
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Girls Want More Than to Sit at a PC
Financial Times Digital Business (11/08/06) P. 5

Developing countries have been more successful in encouraging girls to pursue careers in information technology than in the U.S. and the U.K. "In emerging markets, where you have a higher percentage living in undeserved areas and where they need jobs, girls see IT as a great opportunity to enter the global marketplace," says Tae Yoo, VP of corporate affairs at Cisco, whose Network Academy Program has nearly double the percentage of girls in India as in the U.S., 30 percent versus 15 percent. Programs have been devised in subjects that are found to interest preteen girls, the age where most lose interest in technology; these include music, fashion, and design. In one project, made possible by e-skills U.K.'s Computer Club for Girls, 11-year-olds designed new school uniforms, developed a business case to present the uniform changes to the administration, and created a Web site to sell the new uniforms to parents. "For girls, the opportunity to see technology as a way to solve problems they can identify with real human problems is very appealing," says Wendy Hawkins, director of Intel's educations programs. The problem has never been aptitude: annual Siemens math, science, and technology competition in the U.S. has just as many girls as boys and girls have won either the team or individual award for six of the past seven years; but getting them to consider IT as a career is a greater challenge. Microsoft's DigiGirlz summer camps aims to do this by showing girls that work in IT is more than sitting in front of a computer, by stressing creativity and teamwork, because as Hawkins says, "It's difficult to picture a career with a living wage that you can imagine a girl doing 10 years from now that is not immersed in IT." To learn about ACM's Committee on Women in Computing, visit http://women.acm.org
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Robot Learning to Grasp Everyday Chores
Stanford Report (11/08/06) Lee, Brian D.

Stanford scientists are working on a robot that is capable of figuring out and performing everyday tasks. "Within a decade we hope to develop technology that will make it useful to put a robot in every home and office," says Andrew Ng, an assistant professor of computer science who is leading the wireless Stanford Artificial Intelligence Robot (STAIR) project. The four tasks being used to test and tweak the robot are: cleaning up a living room after a party, retrieving a person or object from an office when verbally commanded, taking guests through a dynamic environment, and putting an IKEA bookshelf together using a variety of tools. "Imagine you are having a dinner party at home and having your robot come in and tidy up your living room, finding the cups that your guests left behind your couch, picking up and putting away your trash, and loading the dishwasher," says Ng. The project requires artificial intelligence that combines speech processing, navigation, manipulation, planning, reasoning, machine learning, and vision. STAIR's most important aim is the development of an algorithm that gives the robot the ability to see a new object and figure out the best way to pick it up, partially based on past objects it has picked up. Ng believes that if such a robot can be deployed, it "will free up vast amounts of human time and enable us to go to higher goals."
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What the Democrats' Win Means for Tech
CNet (11/09/06) McCullagh, Declan

With the Democratic takeover of the House and apparent takeover of the Senate, technology issues such as Net neutrality could be addressed promptly. Previously, under the GOP dominated Congress, Net neutrality legislation failed to pass, with an 11-11 vote at the committee level in the Senate, with all but one republican voting against the measure, and similar failure was experienced in the House. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who will most likely be the next House Energy and Commerce Committee, which writes telecommunication laws, says, "Clearly, we're going to have to address the question of network neutrality." He calls the charging of content providers for optimum placement and faster transmission by network operators "private taxation of the Internet." Network operators claim that this revenue is needed to recoup investments in new broadband infrastructure. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the next speaker of the House, says, "Without Net neutrality, the current experience of the Internet users enjoy...is in jeopardy." Meanwhile, Bush's push for Congress to pass data retention laws requiring Internet companies to track customers' activities will most likely meet opposition from the newly Democratic Congress, and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is likely to push for greater privacy protection. Digital copyright issues are also likely to receive more attention, as many of the big Hollywood content creators are major Democratic boosters. However, Hollywood's efforts to pass "broadcast flag" legislation to prevent digital TV privacy have met with bi-partisan opposition so far.
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Grad Students Receive Funding for High-Tech Research Projects
ITBusiness.ca (11/07/06) Sutton, Neil

Canadian graduate students pursuing research in robotics and intelligent systems technologies have received a total of $405,000 from Ottawa-based non-profit Precarn. In all, 54 graduate students from 16 universities each obtained $7,500 to proceed with projects that range from improving artificial intelligence in video games to enhancing the resolution of MRI medical images. Precarn says the funding serves as a supplement to the primary scholarship that the graduate student has received. At Dalhousie University in Halifax, Hilmi Gunes Kayacik, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in computer science, is developing security software that will be more in tune with the thought process of a hacker. Rather than making responses to attacks on the foundation of the application, the software will make use of evolutionary computation models that will allow it to predict future hacking strategies and respond to them as they are attempted for the first time. And at the University of Alberta, Rimon Mikhaiel, who is also working toward a Ph.D. in computer science, is developing software that will provide a deeper analysis of RNA molecules, and serve as a prediction tool for those who are looking into the structure of newly discovered molecules. "By [comparing] old viruses to new ones, we can anticipate what would be a good cure," says Mikhaiel.
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Face of Things to Come in Robots
Dallas Morning News (11/07/06) Godinez, Victor

David Hanson believes that the market for personal robots is about to take a significant step forward on the strength of advances in technology and a better understanding of what people want in a robot. Hanson, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD), recently won a $1.5 million grant to commercialize the humanoids he is developing. Hanson describes his product as a "consumer character bot," more than a simple novelty or toy. He is not a believer in the "uncanny valley" theory, which states that people are not comfortable around robots that look very human. Rather, he thinks that realistic robots are useless unless they are indistinguishable from people; for example, he has been working on a Phillip K. Dick robot. Specializing in the face, which he calls "the weak link for conversational robots," Hanson uses skin-like "frubber" and numerous motors to perfect facial movement and expression. Currently, a life-sized robot would cost around $130,000, but Hanson thinks mass production could bring the price down to $2,000, and smaller droids to $300. He also thinks that the first of his robots could walk off the assembly line as soon as six months from now. Dr. Mihai Nadin, who holds the Ashbel Smith Professorship in Interactive Arts, technology, and Computer Science at UTD, says robots such as Hanson's could have very practical uses, such as helping the elderly to follow doctor's orders at home by taking their medicine as scheduled.
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Spintronics Approach Advances Toward Live Chips
EE Times (11/06/06)No. 1448, P. 38; Johnson, Colin R.

A technique known as bipolar spintronics may be the key to using spintronics in standard silicon chips. Bipolar spintronics uses spin carriers of both polarities (electrons and holes), as opposed to devices such as MRAMs that use unipolar spin. Researchers have successfully injected electrons with spin into silicon chips using a ferromagnetic semiconductor junction with silicon. MRAMs have already shown how magnetic spin can be electrically stored in silicon semiconductors, and the junction recently demonstrated shows how spin-polarized electrons can be injected into silicon. Igor Zutic, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and two colleagues have developed a "cookbook" of proposed methods for spin injection into silicon, which among other things, should give scientists a blueprint for electrically identifying spin-polarized electrons that will give way to a new generation of spintronic devices, with the first devices working in 2007, says Zutic. While his theoretical work, called the spin-voltaic effect, has been shown to work in gallium arsenide, Zutic claims that his collaborators at the University of Tohuko (Japan) are aiming to do the same thing in silicon structures by next year.
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UB Researchers Work Today on the 'Electricity of Tomorrow'
The Spectrum Online (11/08/06) Pellegrino, Melanie

Nanotech sensors capable of pinpointing power outages in real time, and thus easing their repair, are being developed by University of Buffalo scientists. Currently, electrical crews have to go street-by-street searching for the location of the problem causing an outage, but the tiny, wireless transistors will save time and prevent people from being left without power and heat for very long. Not only can they monitor an electrical system, but the sensors can alert the utility companies if they are damaged or malfunctioning themselves. The only thing holding back the implementation of these sensors is funding and research, says W. James Sarjeant, the UB Energy Systems institute chair. Researchers are confident that this technology will be the future of electricity, replacing the current four feet tall and four feet wide transistors. "There's not a lot of downsides [to the new sensors]," says Albert Titus, an electrical engineering professor and researcher for the project. Titus says the sensors could also be used to detect natural disasters. Sarjeant says the sensors could even be used to monitor electrical systems running on AC 120 volt of above power, such as HDTV's, refrigerators, medical systems, and emergency response equipment. "It's very difficult to get people to accept new technology. It's based on a larger picture," says Cemal Basaran, BU professor of civil, structural, and environmental engineering, and a researcher on the project.
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Internet Governance: It's Like an Arranged Marriage
Guardian Unlimited (UK) (11/09/06) McCarthy, Kieren

A majority of participants at the first-ever Internet Governance Forum outside Athens said the event outstripped their expectations. Prior, there was no certainty that the event would ever be repeated, especially given its birth at a contentious World Summit in Tunis last year and the fact that the four-day conference was organized not to make policy decisions regarding Internet governance but simply to discuss the issue. So when representatives from both Lithuania and Azerbaijan requested that the 2010 event be hosted in their respective countries, attendees knew that naysayers had been silenced. About twice the expected number of participants showed up for the event, which was hit by a shutdown of its wireless network during the first two days, a lack of food, and consternation among some government officials over questions pertaining to online censorship. But in the end, emerging from the forum was a push by the OECD to create a global coalition to fight spam, a stated commitment for open standards, and a determination to establish the "Internet Bill of Rights." Event organizer Nitin Desai of the U.N. likened the forum to an arranged marriage. "The first meeting between the boy and the girl, they are scoping each other out, so the conversation tends to cover everything," he said. "And at the second and the third meeting they start talking about more specific things. And it is some time before they actually start holding hands. So let's just treat this as a first meeting where people have just gotten to know one another and maybe it will lead to marriage."
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Petascale Storage May Trickle Down to You
Computerworld (11/08/06) Anthes, Gary

Computer scientists at three universities and five Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories have collaborated to create the Petascale Data Storage Institute (PDSI), with the help of a five-year, $11 million dollar grant from the DOE. "The overall goal is to make storage more efficient, reliable, secure, and easier to manage in systems with tens or thousands of petabytes of data spread across tens of thousands of disk drives, possibly used by tens of thousands of clients," says Ethan Miller, a computer science professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Problems that the researchers will take on include: disk access times have fallen behind disk capacity; as the number of disks used by a system goes up, so does the chance of one failing; after a disk fails, those charged with restoring data are at a greater risk of failing because they are working harder. "The use of high-performance computer clusters in many commercial applications, [such as] oil and gas, semiconductors and biotechnology, is growing substantially," says Garth Gibson, principal investigator for the PDSI and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He points out that companies are more commonly using supercomputers to boost revenue. "High-performance computing is not so much about cost reduction as it is about improving the quality of products," Gibson says.
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Ballot Roulette
Science News (11/04/06) Vol. 170, No. 19, P. 298; Weiss, Peter

Improved methods for voting reliably and securely are being investigated by mathematicians and computer scientists whose forte is encryption. Simplifying programs used in touch-screen voting systems is one method proposed by a research team at an August voting-technology meeting in Canada; the process involves the election officials mocking up all possible ballot screens in advance, and having the voting machine display the screens and record voters' responses on Election Day. A second research team suggested that an election district's central computers could be made more secure by a cheap device that stops incoming messages, permitting data to move only from the secure election machines to the outside. Harvard University's Ben Adida and MIT's Ronald Rivest have designed a cryptographic voting process, Scratch & Vote, that uses paper ballots to enable voters to check that their votes were properly recorded while also allowing observers to test the accuracy of the vote tallying without infringing on voter privacy. Scratch & Vote involves the use of a perforated ballot with voting boxes on one side and candidates' names on the other; once a ballot is marked, each voter removes and destroys the portion with the candidate names, and then feeds the other portion, which has an encrypted version of the names and the order in which they are arranged, into an optical scanner that records the vote. The voter retains that portion as a paper receipt, offering incontestable documentation of the ballot. The Punchscan cryptographic method, meanwhile, features scannable ballots with a pair of layers that voters mark with ink daubers. Either layer can be kept by voters without revealing their selections.
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The Firefox Kid
IEEE Spectrum (11/06) Vol. 43, No. 11, P. 26; Kushner, David

Blake Ross is co-founder of the Mozilla Firefox project, which developed one of the most popular open-source Web browsers in the world through its ability to offer Web surfers more safety and security than Microsoft's Internet Explorer. For an encore, Ross is trying to vastly simplify the process of storing and sharing content online by developing a coherent tool for such a purpose; the tool, called Parakey, is designed to be mostly or completely open source, and it differs from Firefox by being constructed around a for-profit business model. Parakey will use a single interface to unify the Web and desktop user experiences. Parakey has the appearance of an ordinary Web site, which can be edited, and its many potential capabilities stem from its design to run locally on a home computer. A user who wishes to share his or her content with others can use Parakey to transmit a digital "key" to whomever they wish to have access; this key features a unique identifier, and upon clicking on the key's icon the recipients install a cookie that contains the identifier so they can access content. Using Parakey involves downloading a core application with software that turns the computer into a local server, and Ross and programming partner Joe Hewitt have created a Parakey programming language called JUL to enable independent developers to produce Parakey applications. A single Parakey application is supposed to be initially rolled out to demonstrate its potential, and outside developers will be courted following the provision of a scalable infrastructure; without revealing any specifics, Ross says ad revenues in Parakey will come in a different manner from the way they do in Google. Ross' universal interface aims to eliminate the many hurdles users must currently jump over to post and manipulate their content on the Web.
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