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December 8, 2006

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Big Shift Seen in Voting Methods With Turn Back to a Paper Trail
New York Times (12/08/06) P. A1; Urbina, Ian; Drew, Christopher

Federal election officials and legislators have indicated that major changes will most likely be seen in the way ballots are cast and counted by the 2008 elections, including the elimination of voting machines without a paper trail. New federal guidelines issued this week and legislation expected to pass next year are causing voting districts to either retrofit touch-screen machines with printers or otherwise scrap them all together and implement optical scan machines. Paperless, touch-screen voting machines were used by about 30 percent of voters in the 2006 mid-term elections, but scientists and politicians have become increasingly concerned about the security and reliability of those machines. However, federal Election Assistance Commission Chairman Paul S. Degregorio points out that counties that used paper trails ran into problems of their own, urging officials to think their decision through so that old flaws are not simply replaced with new ones. Legislation Congress is expected to pass next year will allocate $150 million to fund the necessary changes in local voting procedures, but some claim this would not be enough money. As part of the new election regulations, vote counting software code likely will have to be made available so it can be checked for vulnerabilities, although the manufacturers claim that doing so will only help hackers. Voting machines will also be subjected to new federal tests prior to elections. VoteTrustUSA's Warren Stewart says, "We're confident that the accuracy and integrity of voting is going to take some big steps forward with the legislation in Congress right now. But our big concern is to avoid replacing old problems with new ones."
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Guest Lecturer Focuses on Cybersecurity Threats
UDaily (University of Delaware) (12/07/06) Hutchinson, Becca

ACM fellow Eugene Spafford on Wednesday spoke at the University of Delaware concerning the precarious state of cybersecurity and the dangers to come if safety measures are not improved. Spafford, Purdue University professor of computer science and executive director for its Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security, made it clear that cybersecurity is facing a crisis with "overwhelming vulnerabilities in most commonly used software applications, and well over 130,00 known viruses and worms." Mentioning that cybercrime in general has becoming more sophisticated, "because we have not done a very good job of protecting ourselves," Spafford identified botware as the newest and largest threat. He stated that "Detection is doomed and the problem is getting worse...two out of 40 individuals is a victim of identity theft, and [only] one out of every 10 email messages is valid." The apathy toward the idea that "we're not simply users, we're victims" is Spafford's biggest concern, and he attributed blame to a lack of ownership of the Internet, the increasing abilities of hackers, and the lack of funding for math and computer science education in American public schools. He claimed that clinging to yesterday's security measures, firewalls, and virus-protections software is "insanity." Spafford is chair of ACM's U.S. Public Policy Committee http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Computer Scientists Unravel 'Language of Surgery'
Johns Hopkins University News Releases (12/08/06) Sneiderman, Phil

Johns Hopkins University computer scientists are applying speech recognition concepts to surgery in order to construct mathematical models of the most effective techniques used by surgeons. Using the system, new surgeons could be trained, and experienced surgeons could gain perspective on their work, including the way that their actions could be made safer or more efficient. JHU Whiting School of Engineering professor of computer science and principal investigator for the project, Gregory D. Hager, explains, "Surgery is a skilled activity, and it has a structure that can be taught and acquired. We can think of that structure as the 'language of surgery'...we're borrowing techniques from speech recognition technology and applying them to motion recognition." Just as speech recognition breaks down words into their most elemental sounds, the team is breaking down surgical action to its most basic gestures, which software can represent mathematically, Hager says. To teach the robot the "language of surgery," the team is using data recorded by the da Vinci robotic surgery systems to construct mathematic models for specific procedures. Hager says that using the da Vinci data, their software has become able to go "from words to sentences," and they are progressing toward their goal of creating a "large vocabulary." The project is backed by a three-year National Science Foundation grant.
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Future Net: Expanding the Web From Pages to Data Sources
eWeek (12/07/06) Taft, Darrel K.

IBM Research is developing a middleware platform code-named Infinity that will allow universal access to the data stored on mobile devices, potentially creating a boundless pool of data. The goal of the IBM team, led by Stefan Schoenauer, a researcher at IBM's Almaden Research Center, is to enable all types of mobile devices to connect to the network using various methods, including device-to-device communication. The Infinity project marks the beginning of discovering how mobile networks can provide the backbone for an innovative information marketplace that would replace Web pages with data sources. "We have all this data in a lot of different formats, and it's the middleware's job to translate those different formats," said Schoenauer. "What's there now is a scattered spectrum, and with this middleware we can have a unified platform." Several different types of mobile devices have already been successfully tested. Applications could include traffic monitoring and disaster response, which would utilize the network's device-to-device capabilities, or simple data search functions. Co-workers could make data available only to each other, allowing a higher degree of collaboration and interactivity. Some think that for such an idea to be fully realized, embedded systems must also be integrated into the network.
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More Trouble With Programming
Technology Review (12/07/06) Pontin, Jason

C++ inventor Bjarne Stroustrup lists exceptional examples of C++ code that "cleanly separate concerns in a program," allowing parts to be developed separately and simplifying comprehension and maintenance. Outstanding examples of programs written in C++ he cites include Google and the Mars Rovers' scene-analysis and autonomous driving systems. Stroustrup makes few predictions about the next programming language design paradigm shift, noting that aspect-oriented programming is not about to leave the "academic ghetto" anytime soon. But he does think the next conceptual change will tie into concurrency management somehow. The C++ creator is against the idea of "dumbing down" the coding process to overcome a computer-language learning curve, arguing that while programming languages should not be unnecessarily complex, the tools should be designed to serve skilled professionals. Stroustrup backs this statement with the assertion that the programming languages are not so difficult to learn, and contends that the difficulty lies in appreciating "the underlying techniques and their application to real-world problems." It is his wish that evolutionary changes in programming would accelerate, and doing so requires funding of "advanced development," "applied research," and "research into application" on a currently unheard-of scale. Stroustrup deems it critical that language and library evolution is supported with tools to expedite upgrades of systems and tools that permitted older applications to run in domains designed for newer systems.
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Scientific Remedies
Inside Higher Ed (12/06/06) Thacker, Paul D.

Federal government strategies for funding science and technology in the immediate future was the focus of a recent discussion at the Brookings Institution. Richard Freeman, professor of economics at Harvard University, said the federal government should focus more on targeted spending, such as on graduate research fellowships, which would empower young students to determine the future direction of science. He noted that today the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsors about the same number of students in the Graduate Research Fellowship Program as it did 30 years ago. Freeman said the NSF should triple the number of fellowships to about 3,000, and increase each fellowship by $10,000 to $40,000 annually. Meanwhile, Thomas Kalil, special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology at the University of California at Berkeley, suggested that the federal government rely more on prizes, which would allow it to essentially fund a successful project rather than a research proposal. He added that prizes are attractive to private investment and that they can captivate the public as well. Experts are concerned that the United States could lose its leadership position in competitiveness if it does not take science and technology more seriously.
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Criminals 'Target Tech Students'
BBC News (12/08/06)

IT students are being targeted by criminal enterprises before they graduate from college, and can even have their degrees paid for by these criminals. McAfee security analyst Greg Day, co-author of the "Virtual Criminology" report, which explores the digital criminal underground, says the most successful cyber gangs were partnerships between experienced criminals and people with technical computer skills. As cyber criminal gangs have expanded, skilled hackers have become more difficult to recruit, causing criminals to search Web sites, message boards, and chatrooms for potential targets around the world, some as young as 14 years old. Day says the glamour of being a "hacker" as well as the low risk of being caught and the high reward offered make the job very attractive to young people. Often, these hackers can end up being blackmailed by the criminals they work for, because they have knowledge of the crimes they have committed. Day adds that some groups even try to recruit within the very companies they hope to exploit. Day says, "Cybercrime is no longer in its infancy, it is big business."
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On Internet2, Innovating at Higher Speed
Chicago Tribune (12/06/06) Van, Jon

Internet2 members celebrated the 10th anniversary of the high-speed data network by gathering in Chicago this week. Those in attendance received a first-hand look at the 10-fold increase in the speed of Internet2 to 100 Gbps; the ultrafast link between Chicago, New York, and Washington will be expanded to the rest of the digital network by the summer of 2007. They also discussed how far Internet2 has come, as it was born out of the desire of the academic community to have a network that could be used for research at a time when the regular Internet was becoming a commercial smash. Nearly two-thirds of colleges are connected to the superfast network that is largely used by researchers to test new technology. But college students also have access to Internet2, which is increasingly being used to gauge the potential popularity and economic feasibility of new products. For example, AT&T is planning to roll out Internet-based television in some parts of the Chicago area next year, but students on the campus of Northwestern University have been watching TV programs over the Internet for the past four years. In addition to speed, Internet2 members continue to focus on secure authentication and soon hope to allow users to go online without having to identify themselves by name. "If you authenticate someone's right to use a service without giving personal information, it reduces concerns over privacy issues," says Charles Catlett, a senior fellow at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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Technology by Design
The Record (Ontario) (12/07/06) Aggerholm, Barbara

Michael Terry, an assistant computer science professor at the University of Waterloo, challenges his fourth-year students to find real-world applications for their technical knowledge that will help people with real-world problems. Students in his course on human-computer interaction have responded to the challenge by coming up with devices that help parking-meter readers write citations in any weather or lighting condition, help catering chefs call up information about similar events so they can better plan menus, and help architects plan buildings and rooms. Terry, who also holds a degree in psychology, says that "in the past, computer technology was designed...without thinking of real-world needs," but "industry is starting to recognize we have to understand what people do to better design for them." He has his students interview professionals and shadow them in real-world settings to get a good idea of their work environment and what sorts of things will help them out while integrating well with their work. The device they designed for parking enforcement can be held in one hand, so the enforcement officer can hold a flashlight or umbrella in the other, and rather than use a pen or stylus they use a button and scroll wheel to control it, employing its built-in camera to photograph the license place, OCR software to read letters and fill in forms, and GPS to identify the location. The system they created for architects uses special tokens and visualization techniques to allow architects to see more; for example, a token placed in a specific room on a paper drawing enables the architect to see a detailed zoomed-in version and all the drawings for that specific room. One token allows the architect to see the mechanical engineer's drawings, another overlaps the electrical and mechanical engineers' drawings, and another shows all the drawing revisions over time. The system designed for catering chefs is a digital notepad with pen with which the chefs can recall similar events, put together estimates and lists of requirements, and jot down notes and let their creativity flow.
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Image Analysis: Enhancing the Human Equation, or Removing it Altogether
Advanced Imaging Pro (12/06) Reid, Keith

Automated image analysis technology, although mature, still encounters difficulties as different demands are made of the technology. Software designed to study pathology specimens using image analysis can observe single cells or groups of cells, but run into problems due to cell and disease diversity, as well as lighting and image problems. However, by identifying and observing the nuclei of the cells in a sample, the software has able to perform the necessary calculations. The technology has been further applied to the identification of cancer cells, and while it is not meant to replace human pathologists, image analysis can be used before human observation to draw a human's attention to certain features, or after human observation to make sure nothing is missed. Military applications for image analysis are currently concentrated in remote sensing, automated targeting, and automated navigation, and have struggled with the same problems as other applications, but in this case a lack of real-time analysis can result in a life-or-death situation. DARPA wants to develop automated, self-navigating supply vehicles that utilize many sensors; the subject of the unmanned race across the desert that was won by the Stanford team in 2005. Another application is the automated refueling of aerial vehicles, both manned and unmanned. Researchers successfully designed a system of algorithms by which the fuel probe from an unmanned plane found and calculated its position in relation to a drogue, the basket on the end of an aerial tanker's probe, and then connected to and disconnected from the drogue, helping simplify one of the most challenging aspects of unmanned military aircraft.
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DHS Passenger Scoring Illegal?
Wired News (12/07/06) Singel, Ryan

Privacy advocates charge that the Department of Homeland Security's Automated Targeting System (ATS), which assigns terrorism scores to people traveling in and out of the United States, is a violation of the limits that have been placed on the department by federal lawmakers. Pointing to a provision in the 2007 Homeland Security funding bill, Identity Project members Edward Hasbrouck and James Harrison wrote, "By cloaking this prohibited action in a border issue...the Department of Homeland Security directly and openly contravenes Congress' clear intent. A DHS spokesperson said the appropriations bill's language--which bars government agencies from using appropriations funding to "develop or test algorithms assigning risk to passengers whose names are not on government watch lists"--does not cover the ATS, which harvests passenger data from international flights and scores each passenger's risk based on watchlists, criminal databases, and other government systems. High scorers are targeted by Customs and Border Protection for extra screening at deplaning time, and the data and scores can be kept for 40 years, broadly shared, and be used for hiring decisions; in addition, travelers are not able to see or contest their scores. According to congressional testimony by DHS official Paul Rosenzweig, the system had "encountered 4,801 positive matches for known or suspected terrorists," although it was not clear how many were correct matches. Critics who say the ATS program is illegal under the law include Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Jim Harper of the Cato Institute. DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen argues that the appropriations bill's language refers specifically to a program called Secure Flight, a planned successor to the CAPPS II screening system, but Rotenberg and Harper disagree with that interpretation.
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LinuxBIOS Ready to Go Mainstream
Linux.com (12/07/06) Byfield, Bruce

Though it faces major challenges such as a scarcity of resources and protests from certain proprietary chipset makers and original equipment manufacturers, the LinuxBIOS project is on the verge of standardizing a free BIOS for computers. Comprising LinuxBIOS is the smallest amount of code necessary for starting a mainboard to the point where a payload can complete the machine's booting, and the project's profile was raised via its inclusion in the Free Software Foundation's high priority list and its use in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. Debugging and updating LinuxBIOS is faster and simpler because it is written in C instead of assembly language, while OLPC BIOS release manager Richard Smith notes that LinuxBIOS' cost is far lower than that of its proprietary counterparts; in addition, customers concerned about security may find LinuxBIOS more attractive because it is licensed under the GNU General Public License. Perhaps the biggest benefit of LinuxBIOS, according to Los Alamos National Laboratory researcher Ron Minnich, is its ability to store BIOS knowledge that could prove invaluable to manufacturers and vendors later on. Among the obstacles LinuxBIOS faces is lack of support for the development of an alternative operating system and non-interoperability with Windows, says Smith. But he points to the promising trend of "Manufacturers...getting better about releasing specs on older boards," which could give a boost to LinuxBIOS' support and credibility; the success of the OLPC project could also be an advantage for LinuxBIOS. Minnich is optimistic about Google's funding of an automated distributed testing environment for LinuxBIOS, while momentum is building for major vendors to offer LinuxBIOS as an option.
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Microsoft Research Fights Critics, Targets Innovation
Network World (12/06/06) Fontana, John

Though Microsoft is criticized of falling short when it comes to innovation, one thing to its credit is the establishment of Microsoft Research (MSR), which currently commands a budget of over $250 million and over 700 researchers; MSR has served as the incubator of technologies that are incorporated into the Xbox 360, Exchange Server, and Windows Vista, to name a few products. Nucleus Research CEO Ian Campbell says the problem for Microsoft is its inability to complement its strong underlying technical innovation with an equally strong marketing savvy. "Technology transfer is a full contact sport," notes MSR's Rick Rashid. "It can happen by accident, but mostly it is hard work." He adds that practically all Microsoft products today stem from research in some capacity. Long-term projects the lab is focusing on include the SenseCam virtual memory and the TouchLight interface, which seeks to replace the mouse and keyboard with new input mechanisms via computer vision and sensing. Other projects of interest include Nocturnal, a social networking tool that embeds Web site bookmark-sharing into instant messaging systems, and a privacy engine that can filter data that is stored in statistical databases. Director of Microsoft Research's Silicon Valley lab Roy Levin remarks that his lab achieves a balance between near-term projects and long-term projects.
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Should the U.S. Increase Its H-1B Visa Program? CON: Wages Belie Claims of a Labor Shortage
San Francisco Chronicle (12/07/06) P. B7; Matloff, Norman

The tech industry is pushing for an expansion of the H-1B visa program not to forestall a labor shortage as they claim, but to save money by hiring lower-paid foreign workers, argues UC Davis computer science professor Norman Matloff. He says the industry's allegation of a labor shortage is contradicted by a Business Week article noting that starting salaries for new bachelor's degree graduates in electrical engineering and computer science have been flat or declining in recent years, while postgraduate-level wages have also remained level. Though H-1B holders are required by law to be paid the "prevailing wage," there are plenty of loopholes employers exploit to pay them less. "Employers who favor aliens have an arsenal of legal means to reject all U.S. workers who apply," commented immigration lawyer Joel Stewart. Though Matloff is in favor of importing the most talented people from overseas to maintain U.S. innovation, he contends that there are few tech-oriented H-1B holders who make the grade. Government data shows that most H-1B holders earn a maximum wage of around $60,000, while the most talented techies earn more than $100,000. The most common type of H-1B holder employers hire is the software developer.
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ICANN Reviews Revoking Outdated Suffixes
Associated Press (12/07/06) Jesdanun, Anick

ICANN has begun accepting public comments at its meeting in San Paulo, Brazil, this week concerning what outdated domain name endings should be revoked and deleted, with the public comment period to remain open until Jan. 31, 2007. ICANN also has launched a review of eligibility rules for registration for .int, a domain in development designed for international organizations. In terms of county code domain names (ccTLDs), one likely candidate to be nominated and cancelled is .su for the Soviet Union. While .yu for Yugoslavia still has an abundance of Web sites, Yugoslav republics Serbia and Montenegro are transitioning to their own ccTLDs. East Timor once used .tp but now uses .tl, and Great Britain's residents use .uk far more than the provincial .gb. East Germany's .dd and Zaire's .zr already have been deleted. If ICANN makes deletions, there likely will be a year-long transition period for Web site users to switch to another domain.
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The Privacy Klatch
National Journal (12/02/06) Vol. 38, No. 48, P. 52; Harris, Shane

Nascent and current technologies that could be employed for the protection of civil liberties during data collection and analysis are the focus of "privacy workshops" sponsored by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). "It was clearly an effort to reach outside of the intelligence community and reach outside of the classified environment," noted Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology. Alex Joel with the DNI's Civil Liberties and Privacy Office explained that participants recommended several technologies, such as tools for comparing multiple databases without sharing data, and data-misuse prevention technologies such as devices that generate "audit logs." Certain privacy proponents and technology experts, including some very vocal critics of the Bush administration, were not invited to the workshops, while attendees said arguments over policy were avoided. "I think the overall aim is to look at increasing the body of knowledge [on privacy protection], to further technical research within the DNI," said Factiva director of government services Tony Hall. It is no coincidence that the DNI's office is taking the reins of research that was originally conducted under the auspices of the Defense Department's now-defunct Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, with certain TIA component programs folded into the DNI and included in the Tangram program. The Tangram manager pledged that civil liberties officials would be consulted prior to the deployment of the new program. The advice of privacy workshop participants will be used by DNI officials to establish a research agenda for guaranteeing privacy in new counter-terrorism solutions and to bolster their cognizance of the cutting edge.
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Me Translate Pretty One Day
Wired (12/06) Vol. 14, No. 12, P. 210; Ratliff, Evan

Meaningful Machines has spent four years designing automated translation software, and Carnegie Mellon University professor Jaime Carbonell, who is also Meaningful Machines' chief science officer, presented a paper last summer that calls the software a major development as well the most accurate Spanish-to-English translation system in existence. Machine translation (MT) made significant advances thanks to a shift from rules-based systems to statistical-based MT, in which algorithms study collections of previous translations to determine the statistical likelihood of words and phrases in one language cropping up in another, building a model from those probabilities that can be used to assess new text. But such algorithms are only successful when applied to the same type of text on which they have been trained. The system developed by Meaningful Machines employs a large collection of text in the target language, along with a small volume of text in the source language and a vast bilingual dictionary; when translating a passage, the system examines each sentence in consecutive five- to eight-word fragments, and uses the dictionary and a process called flooding to produce and store all possible English translations for the words in each fragment. The system ascertains the most coherent candidates by scanning the English text and ranking candidates by the frequency of their occurrence in the text. As the software scans each successive text chunk, it rescores the candidate translations according to the degree of overlap between each fragment's translation choices and the ones before and after it. The system looks for unknown words in the smaller source language text collection using a synonym generator, and when they are found the system drops the original word and looks for other sentences that employ the surrounding words. The system's commercial viability hinges on dramatically boosting the speed of translation.
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Why Multigrid Methods Are So Efficient
Computing in Science and Engineering (12/06) Vol. 8, No. 6, P. 12; Yavneh, Irad

Multigrid computational techniques are established methods for rapidly solving elliptic boundary-value problems, and are also regarded as an efficient tool for solving other kinds of computational problems, writes Technion-Israel Institute of Technology professor Irad Yavneh. Multigrid methods are undergirded by the concept of employing the simple local process but applying it at all scales, and there are several jobs that must be done in order to devise a multiscale solver for a given problem. The appropriate local process must be selected; suitable coarse variables and proper techniques for transferring information across scales must be chosen; and the proper equations or processes for the coarse variables must be developed. The level of ease or difficulty for each of these tasks can vary in accordance with the application, Yavneh explains. Building appropriate equations for coarse grids requires data from a fine grid, and so care must be taken in selecting the coarse-grid variables, since coarse grids are practical only for the representation of smooth functions. Proper operators are necessary to facilitate the transfer of information between the coarse and fine grids, and the multiscale algorithm can be applied outside of the one-dimensional parameter. Solving the problem approximately on a coarser grid and then interpolating the solution to a fine grid as a representation of a first approximation is considered to be an effective strategy, according to Yavneh.
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