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December 4, 2006

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Welcome to the December 4, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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ACLU Urges U.S. to Stop Collection of Traveler Data
Washington Post (12/02/06) P. A5; Nakashima, Ellen

The ACLU, in formal comments submitted to the Department of Homeland Security, requested that the government end its data-mining efforts that examine every traveler entering or leaving the country. Begun as a cargo screening program by the customs agency, the Automated Targeting System (ATS) has been stepped up to establish "risk profiles" that will be kept on file for 40 years, meant to single out travelers who warrant scrutiny by customs officials. According to a Customs and Border Protection official, information has been collected on air passengers for the last 10 years, and ground passengers for the last two years. Electronic Frontier Foundation senior counsel David Sobel said, "I don't see the logic of collecting massive amounts of information on millions of innocent citizens in the name of locating a small number of suspected terrorists. Casting that large a net raises issues both with respects to the security benefits as well as the privacy impact of the system." Customs spokesman Patrick Jones answered such criticism by asking, "How do they expect us to determine who's safe and who's at risk? We have over one million people coming into the country everyday." The customs agency plans to eventually enter data for all those who cross the borders, including name, date of birth, itineraries, and credit card information into its database. The agency explains that this wealth of information will allow it to construct models of travelers, both threatening and non-threatening
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Internet Governance: It Ain't Broke Yet, But Might Need Fixing
Financial Times Digital Business (12/04/06) P. 4; Cane, Alan

While many of those in attendance at the first-ever Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Athens were pleasantly surprised by the commitments pledged there to tackle the relevant issues of managing an Internet whose quickly growing user base now numbers some 1 billion, the very nature of the event highlighted the informal structure of Internet governance. Nitin Desai, a former U.N. under-secretary-general and chairman of the IGF advisory group, noted this structure while commenting on the forum, saying, "It�s not a forum with a fixed membership. It is open to anybody in the stakeholder groups who has an interest and a basic bona fide competence in this area to join the meeting." ICANN, which has been accused of being a puppet of the U.S. government, has drawn more heat than any of these stakeholders. Many in the international community seek to wrest control of the DNS away from ICANN and give it to a U.N.-like organization that has a global presence. "ICANN has been inadequately effective and over the years I have always wished it did better at introducing competition at the registrar level faster and more effectively, and I wished they did better at introducing more interesting and competitive top level domain names," says Jonathan Robinson, COO of U.K.-based domain names manager NetNames. "ICANN tries not to appear U.S.-dominated but the truth is, its entire authority is given to it by the U.S. government." The other side of the argument is espoused by ICANN CEO Paul Twomey. "It�s a fundamental battle of ideas between those who want a bottom-up, virally growing, innovative Internet and those who want to impose command and control," he says. "There is no point of control on the Internet. It is a highly redundant network of networks specifically designed not to have any geographical boundaries. The key aspect of its design is that innovation takes place at the edge of the network, although there have to be points of coordination so the computers can find each other...People should be careful. The structure of how it works, how it has been engineered, and how it manages itself is unique."
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Nike+iPod Sport Kit Raises Privacy Concerns
University of Washington News and Information (11/29/06) Hickey, Hannah

A device that allows runners to track their distance, speed, and amount of calories burned after a jog can also be used as a tracking device, without the knowledge of the person being tracked, according to researchers at the University of Washington. The kit consists of a small chip and a receiver that fits into an iPod Nano and collects data from the chip's movements. The small chip, designed to be slipped into a shoe, can be detected from 60 feet away, and the researchers were able to build devices that picked up and monitored this signal using a laptop or matchbox-sized computer with wireless Internet capability, the latter actually being able to show whereabouts of the chip on GoogleMaps. Decoding the unique tag on each receiver took the team about 10 minutes, and writing the code to interpret the information from the sensor took a few hours, but they guessed that someone with moderate knowledge of electronics could concoct a tracking system over a weekend, especially if the code were published online. The team imagined, and tested as best they could without infringing on privacy of others, scenarios such as a jealous ex-boyfriend who could hide receivers at locations that his ex-girlfriend frequents, in order to track her movements. Nike advertises the chip as something that can be dropped into a shoe and forgotten about, but the researchers urge users to remember to turn it off after a workout. Doctoral student in computer science and lead author of the technical report, which suggests ways the product could be made more secure, Scott Saponas, explained, "It's an example of how new gadgetry can erode our personal privacy."
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Minsky Talks About Life, Love in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
Boston Globe (12/04/06) Goldberg, Carey

In his new book, "The Emotion Machine," MIT computer science professor and contributor to the founding of the field of artificial intelligence Marvin Minsky explains why he sees emotions as simply another way for us to solve problems, to think in different ways, rather than distortions that complicate rational thought. For example, "being angry is a very useful way to solve problems, for instance by intimidating an opponent or getting rid of people who bother you," says Minsky. The book targets human "resourcefulness" and asks, "why are people so much better at controlling the world than animals are? The argument is: because they have far more different ways to think than any competitor," Minsky says. Humans are able to think on several different levels, even to "think about the way you've been thinking--and then use that experience to change yourself," and emotions provide us with different "self-images" that can "add to [our] resourcefulness," according to Minsky. While the creation of a machine that is truly able to think like a human is still far off, his immediate goal is to call attention to the need to examine the human mind and the tools it utilizes, and changing the perception of the function of emotions is at the heart of this idea. Minsky claims that we must build machines that have "common-sense human abilities" in order to maintain our quality of life as labor shortages result from longer life spans and people having fewer children.
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Will a 'Conscious' Machine Ever Be Built?
IDG News Service (12/01/06) Weil, Nancy

Human intelligence in machines was the focus of a debate last week at MIT between inventor Ray Kurtzweil and Yale University professor David Gelernter. During the debate, they addressed the question: "Are we limited to building super-intelligent, robotic 'zombies,' or will it be possible for us to build conscious, creative, even 'spiritual' machines?" Kurtzweil said technological advances in software and computer power in the next 20 years or so will enable machines to pass the Turing Test on exhibiting intelligence through conversation with a human. "The machines will be very clever and they'll get mad at us if we don't [recognize their intelligence]," said Kurtzweil. Gelernter disagreed, saying developers will be essentially programming machines to lie because computers will never be able to feel what a human feels. For example, he noted that no one gets wet when researchers simulate a rainstorm. Nonetheless, Kurtzweil and Gelernter agreed that the issue is more of a philosophical matter. MIT marked the 70th anniversary of the "On Computable Numbers" paper of Alan Turing with the debate and a lecture.
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What's on Tap for IT Pros in 2007?
eWeek (12/01/06) Rothberg, Deborah

The release of Vista, an improving job market, changing opinions of certifications, and H-1B visas dominate the IT outlook for 2007. Currently, Vista is the subject of a plethora of questions, and many experts believe its impact will not really be felt until the end of 2007. IT experts agree that plans for robust hiring, decreasing unemployment rates, and competition for well-qualified employees, all signal an appealing IT job market. The retiring of baby boomers as well as the skills shortage among younger generations will mean that highly skilled workers will receive many attractive offers. Should the economic downturn predicted by some occur, the IT field is not expected to be hit too hard. The most sought-after skill sets include project management and security, followed, in no particular order, by networking specialists, database managers, and information architects. Financial services, pharmaceuticals and biotech, and technology product development are becoming the prominent market for technologists. While certifications help IT professionals distinguish themselves, many employers are more concerned with specific experience. Congress is being lobbied heavily for more H-1B visas, but in the meantime a lot of R&D is being offshored as companies find themselves without the specialized skills they grew accustomed to. Some claim that there is still adequate talent available, but this pool is shrinking. Finally, 2007 should witness IT professionals becoming eager to be more involved with businesses as a whole.
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'Revenge of the Nerds,' Part V: Can Computer Models Help Select Better Movie Scripts?
Knowledge@Wharton (11/29/06)

Wharton marketing professor John Eliashberg believes that Hollywood executives could benefit from statistical analysis and computer models designed to judge a film's chances for financial success. Over 15,000 screenplays are submitted to the Writer's Guild of America each year, and choosing which will make profitable movies is not an easy process: "Despite the huge amount of money at stake, this process known as 'green-lighting,' is largely guesswork based on expert's experience and intuitions," say Eliashberg and his co-authors of the report titled "From Storyline to Box Office: A New Approach to Green-Lighting Movie Scripts." Their model was devised by examining 200 script summaries and dividing them into those that performed better than the median return on investment (ROI), -27.1 percent, and those that did not; 81 movies were then fed into the program, which tried to identify them as above or below median ROI. The results were that the model correctly predicted the films' success or failure (above or below median) two-thirds of the time. When the researchers pulled out the 30 that were rated the highest by the model, they figured out that studios could have seen a 5.1 percent ROI by making only these films, which does not seem impressive until compared with a random selection of 30 films from the batch of 281, -18.6 percent ROI, or a system designed to mimic the typical studio selection criteria, -24.4 percent. The researchers fought off claims that they're system would lead to overly-formulaic releases, claiming that there "is room for creativity within the structural regularities."
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NSF Awards Adelphi Associate Professor Stephen Bloch Nearly $500,000
Adelphi University (11/22/2006)

Adelphi University mathematics and computer science professor and ACM member Stephen Bloch will head an effort to train more than 150 college faculty members on a new way to teach introductory computer programming. "TeachScheme, ReachJava!" focuses heavily on problem-solving skills. Dr. Bloch developed the technique with colleagues from Northeastern University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, University of Utah, and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. He will also lead the effort to study the impact of the method on students as program participants introduce the technique in their classrooms. "Our curriculum starts students with a consistent and simple language," Bloch explains. "Students develop good programming habits and a solid understanding of concepts like 'variable,' 'data type,' and 'function' and then learn to apply the same skills and concepts in other, more complex languages." Bloch received a four-year, $499,688 grant from the National Science Foundation to host the week-long workshops during the summer.
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What Comes After Web 2.0?
Technology Review (12/01/06) Roush, Wade

While the innovations that have recently been popping up on the Web are referred to by some as Web 3.0, this benchmark still remains rather far in the future. The effort to integrate human intelligence into the Web in the form of metadata, and links between data nodes has taken on two forms: The Semantic Web vision of adding metadata to all information on the Web, and the application of human intelligence to jobs that computers cannot figure out. While being worked on currently, the enormous effort required to achieve a Semantic Web, as well as the lack of concurrence as to the form that this metadata should take, show how far away it still is. Friend of a Friend (FOAF) files allow users to create a searchable personal description of themselves in RDF format, so they can be found and matched with compatible users. Another technique of moving toward a Semantic Web is known as "Piggy Bank," which takes pieces of data from crowded sites and allows them to be utilizes in different ways, such as taking an address and finding it on a map. The second type of post-Web 2.0 projects underway are exemplified by Google's Image Labeler, which creates a game out of giving labels to images to help people searching for them; the type of task a computer could not do alone. All of these projects are making progress, but they have not produced as any realistically practical tools, for the time being.
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Decade Old Data Formats an Obstacle to Information Sharing
Computerworld Australia (12/01/06) Bushell-Embling, Dylan

XML Language (XLink) could be the answer to the need for a standard that would allow for the sharing of data across systems and formats used in the scientific community, according to Andrew Woolf of the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) in the United Kingdom. During the Solid Earth and Environment Grid Conference at the CSIRO Discovery Center in Canberra, Woolf spoke about the CCLRC's participation in the National Environmental Research Council (NERC) Data Grid project, noting that XLink "enable[s] a powerful scalable mechanism" for accessing the large amounts of data that the grid compiles from a wide range of sources, including older legacy systems. XLink, which focuses more on the elements behind the relationships in resources placed in existing XML documents, connects cross-format metadata with remote or local links to produce a simple script that can be used to read from various file formats with the right access tools. And using XLink with Geography Markup Language (GML) would allow researchers to aggregate constructs across multiple files. "We've got 40 terabytes of data at the BADC [British Atmospheric Data Center] and we can make that conceptually interoperable with kilobytes of GML," said Woolf.
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Iowa State Researchers Developing Software to Improve Colon Exams
Iowa State University News Service (11/30/06)

Computer researchers have developed technology that would allow doctors to analyze video of their efforts to check for colon cancer, which should ultimately improve the examinations. The colonoscopy technology consists of a suite of software tools, dubbed EndoMetric, that automatically assesses the quality of a colonoscopy procedure and offers a view of the breakdown of the used measurements. There is also a software system, EndoPACS, that records video of an examination and uploads it to a central server for further analysis. As a result of the technology, doctors would be able to know how much time they spent looking at a colon, or whether exam images were too blurry to be of any use. EndoPACS and EndoMetric are the work of Iowa State computer science professors Johnny Wong and Wallapak Tavanapong, University of North Texas computer science and engineering professor JungHwan Oh, and Mayo Clinic College of Medicine professor Piet C. de Groen. They are still waiting to receive a patent for the technology, which could be used for other procedures in which endoscopes are used. "Our number one goal is to see how we can use computer technology to assist physicians in providing better health care," says Wong.
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Work Together to Avert Shortages of IT Graduates, Urges BCS President
Computer Weekly (12/05/06) Hadfield, Will

British Computer Society President Nigel Shadbolt has called for a wide-ranging drive to prevent a potential shortfall of computer science graduates in Britain. He said, "The effort will need to include all stakeholders: The Department of Education and Skills, the school sector, the relevant government agencies, the professional bodies, and employers." The fact that an inadequate number of computer science graduates are being produced every year must be confronted and remedied, said Shadbolt, who pointed out that the market for IT professionals in countries such as India are "growing so fast that they are having difficulty filling their own vacancies." According to a study by the Council for Professors and Heads of Computing, only 12,804 students out of 31,450 that started toward a computer science degree ended up with an IT job in Britain, and the number of graduates in upcoming years is expected to be even lower. Shadbolt said that universities must take twice as many undergraduates as are required by employers.
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It's No Contest: Preeminent Researchers Using National LambdaRail Dominate SC06 Bandwidth Challenge
AScribe Newswire (11/29/06)

National LambdaRail (NLR) was used by the winning team and two honorable mention award winners at the supercomputing bandwidth challenge at SC06. The National Center for Data Mining at the University of Illinois at Chicago's "Transporting Sloan Digital Sky Survey Data using SECTOR" was named the winner for achieving 8 Gbps of sustained data transfer on a 10 Gbps line, with a peak rate of 9.18 Gbps. Center director Robert Grossman says, "Winning...shows that with the proper software and network protocols, a working scientist can now easily transport terabyte-size e-science data sets from disk to disk over wide-area 10GE networks, such as provided by the National LambdaRail's PacketNet." Indiana University's team was awarded the "Spirit of Competition Award," and the school's Data Capacitor Project Manager, Stephen Simms, said, "A network like NLR's PacketNet allows IU's Data Capacitor to play a role in all steps of the data life-cycle, from acquisition to creation, through computation to visualization, to archive storage." The "Heroic Effort" award was given to a Caltech high energy physics team that used a single 10 Gbps link from NLR to carry data in both directions, achieving a disk-to-disk throughput of 17.77 Gbps between server clusters on the show floor and at Caltech.
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ISSCC 2007 Preview
EDN (11/29/06) Wilson, Ron

Multidimensionality is the theme of the upcoming 2007 International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) scheduled for Feb. 11-15. The technical papers to be presented at the conference point out that scaling can no longer deliver higher performance and improved density with a low level of innovation, and assumptions about how architecture and system design play into the multiple dimensions of chip engineering are being reevaluated, as illustrated by papers that cover processor design, analog design, and packaging. Multicore chips are described for the first time in all of the papers in the microprocessor section, and also to be detailed are increasingly broad sensor networks implemented across chips to watchdog operating parameters, and more advanced mechanisms to keep chip operations within their functional thresholds. A 2.5 GHz, 90-nm fractional-N synthesizer that runs at 650 mV will be the focus of one paper, while voltage regulators to be incorporated into systems-on-a-chip (SOCs) will also be described. Data converters that fall into the 90-nm technology domain will be detailed in at least eight papers, and 3D packaging techniques will be stressed. Efficient capacitive- and inductive-coupling methods for the transmission of extremely high-frequency signals between dice in 3D schemes will be covered. The advent of medical applications for IC technology will also be emphasized at ISSCC 2007.
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Online World as Important as the Real World?
University of Southern California (11/30/06)

Online communities are as important as real-world communities to a large number of Internet users, according to the sixth annual survey of the social impact of the Internet, conducted by the University of Southern California-Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future. The survey found that 43 percent of respondents answered that they "feel as strongly about" online communities as they do about those in the real world. USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future director Jeffrey I. Cole says, "We are now witnessing the true emergence of the Internet as the powerful personal and social phenomenon we knew it would become." Over 20 percent of the members of online communities were found to take part in actions related to these communities offline, and 64.9 percent of those involved in social activism communities online were not involved in any social activism before participating online. Blog use by America has more than doubled over the last three years, from 3.2 percent of Internet users to 7.4 percent, and 12.5 percent of Americans currently maintain a personal Web site according to the survey, a number that has seen steady increase. Respondents say they have made an average of 4.65 friends online who they have never met in person, and have met 1.65 friends in person who they met online. Over 40 percent of users say that using the Internet has allowed them to communicate with more friends and family, although this number has decreased by a few percentage points since 2002.
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It all Depends on Your Point of View
Economist Technology Quarterly (12/06) Vol. 381, No. 8506, P. 6

Carnegie Mellon researchers have developed software that is able to create a 3D image from 2D images. The system analyzes images of outdoor settings, differentiates between sky and ground, and then uses visual cues to differentiate vertical surfaces from horizontal ones. Then, by cutting and folding the images, applying real-world knowledge such as the sky is blue and objects tend to rest on the ground, the system reconstructs the scene in three dimensions. Several different images of the same setting are used to eliminate the ambiguity that often troubles attempts at such technology. Other researchers are using the system to enhance surveillance systems, and aerodynamics of the sails of yachts. Rensselaer researcher Richard Rake is developing a system whereby hundreds of cameras, divided into small groups, examine and analyze their surroundings by comparing what they see, in order to recreate the scene in front of them. Real-time 3D modeling could also have major implications for military or disaster response technology.
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Race to Succeed Flash Memory On
Nikkei Weekly (11/27/06) Vol. 44, No. 2262, P. 14; Matsuda, Shogo

There is a race to develop the successor to flash memory, but no clear contender has yet emerged. NEC and Toshiba are collaborating on the development of magnetoresistive random access memory (MRAM): NEC wishes to use MRAM as a memory for mixed chips, while Toshiba's goal is to have MRAM succeed flash for standalone memory. Freescale Semiconductor in the United States is leading the MRAM field, promoting a commercial 4 MB MRAM chip for system backup and large-capacity reserve memory, with designs on the automotive sector once the high temperature issue is addressed. Other materials being designed as possible successors to flash include phase-change RAM (PRAM), which stores data by shifting between the crystalline and amorphous states of the recording medium; ferroelectric RAM (FeRAM), which does the same by changing the orientation of a ferroelectric material's atoms; and resistive RAM (RRAM), in which data is stored as a change in resistance in an oxide film of a transition metal positioned between electrodes. RRAM is of particular interest as an inexpensive, power-efficient material for high-density storage, though it may have other traits and applications that are still unknown. "I can see RRAM being used as embedded memory in microelectromechanical systems," projects Masayuki Fujimoto of the Shizuoka University Innovative Joint Research Center. Japan leads the world in RRAM development, while the United States and South Korea are leading the development of FeRAM, MRAM, and other kinds of memory.
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The Shortest Path to the Future Web
Internet Computing (12/06) Vol. 10, No. 6, P. 76; Ayers, Danny

The World Wide Web Consortium purports to be the body that can lead the Web to realize its full potential, but independent developer and consultant Danny Ayers says whether such a feat can be accomplished is a question whose answer lies within the Web itself. He lists human interface, services, and data as Web domains that can be studied with improvement in mind, and projects the Web's transformation from an archive of interconnected documents to a more dynamic system of interconnected data. Ayers writes that application developers and possibly end users can combine all types of information distributed around the world through the use of Semantic Web technologies, but the technical feasibility of this approach is countered by the chasm between the current Web and a Web of Data; the typical Web developer is not very familiar with Semantic Web technologies, but the move toward a Web of Data is proceeding incrementally. Incremental development's pluses include greater control over the project, feedback that can receive rapid responses, and continuous assurance that the system is functioning properly. Interaction is being augmented, at least ornamentally, by the Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) toolset, but mashups--the combination of data or content from multiple online sources--have the potential to be significant, according to Ayers. He points to three general approaches incremental developers can take for finding what he terms "the appropriate language in which to make [data] available on the Web": The addition of Semantic Web-oriented interfaces to existing systems; the embedding of machine-readable data in existing HTML content; and the enhancement of human-readable content with machine-readable metadata. "I think one path [to a future Web] begins with document metadata (as found around microcontent and syndication) and travels through the world of microformats and embedded data," Ayers concludes. "A waypoint will be a Semantic Web that leverages these approaches, along with those offered by an environment more capable of managing first-class data directly."
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