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December 18, 2006

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Welcome to the December 18, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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An Ominous Milestone: 100 Million Data Leaks
New York Times (12/18/06) P. C3; Zeller, Tom Jr.

Wired News senior editor Kevin Poulsen announced on his blog last Thursday that with announcements from UCLA (800,000 records stolen), Aetna (130,000 records stolen) and Boeing (320,000 records stolen), over 100 million records had been stolen since the ChoicePoint breach almost two years ago. While perpetrators of the Aetna and Boeing laptop thefts were probably not after personal records, the same cannot be said for the UCLA data theft, where a hacker had been accessing the university's database of personal information for over a year before being discovered. A Public Policy Institute study, using data from the Identity Theft Resource Center, showed that of the 90 million records stolen between Jan. 1, 2005, and March 26, 2006, 43 percent were at educational institutions. "College and university databases are the ideal target for cyber criminals and unscrupulous insiders," says Guardium chief technology officer Ron Ben-Natan. "They store large volumes of high-value data on students and parents, including financial aid, alumni and credit card records. At the same time, these organizations need open networks to effectively support their faculty, students and corporate partners." While some claim that 100 million is a modest estimate, Indiana University Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research director Fred H. Cate says the threat posed by loss of personal data is exaggerated because people are too quick to equate the loss of data with its illegal use. However, others argue that once a Social Security number or birthday is stolen, it can be used indefinitely since these never change. Criminals have not yet devised ways to make use of the massive amounts of information they have obtained, but this inability will not last forever. While Congress has failed to pass data security legislation, 18 states now allow citizens to freeze their credit lines, and seven more allow victims of identity theft to do so.
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What If Your Laptop Knew How You Felt?
Christian Science Monitor (12/18/06) P. 12; Lupsa, Cristian

Using "affective computing" techniques, experts from a range of disciplines are working to develop software that can detect human emotion by analyzing the slightest details of facial expressions. Currently, researchers are developing software that analyzes faces in videos and photographs to determine the person's emotions. The software isolates a face and extracts both rigid features (head and neck movements) and nonrigid features (facial expressions); this information is then placed into categories using codes for the various features. Finally, a database of images displaying various patterns of expression is consulted, which the program uses to identify the basic emotion shown by face in the image, or the program describes the movements it has seen and makes a conclusion as to their meaning. MIT's Affective Computing Group has developed a system called "Mind Reader" that they hope can one day help those with autism to pick up on the emotions displayed by others, something that the condition makes very difficult. Mind Reader uses a camera to conduct analysis of facial expressions in real time, and uses color-coded graphics to indicate someone's response to stimuli. University of Pittsburgh psychologist Jeffrey Cohn, one of the few specialists certified to use the Facial Action Coding System that classifies over 40 Action Units (AUs) of the face, can use subtle precise movements, such as those of the corners of the lips or eyebrows, to identify the emotions of a subject. He is working with computer scientists to teach machines to read AUs and describe the exact muscle movement witnessed. The security industry is very interested in emotion recognition technology for use in lie detection, identification, and expression reading, but for now, controlled lighting is required, meaning surveillance cameras could not utilize the technology. The potential for confusion also exists, where one pattern of expressions could be understood as multiple emotions that are quite different.
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Researchers Demonstrate Direct Brain Control of Humanoid Robot
UW News (12/14/06) Hickey, Hannah

University of Washington researchers have developed a system whereby a humanoid robot can be instructed to pick up objects and move to specific locations by detecting signals from a human brain. UW associate professor of computer science and engineering Rao Rajesh said, "This is really a proof-of-concept demonstration. It suggests that one day we might be able to use semi-autonomous robots for such jobs as helping disabled people or performing routine tasks in a person's home." The "master," who wears a skull cap with 32 electrodes attached to it that sense brain activity using a technique known as electroencephalography, looks at a computer screen that shows displays from two cameras mounted on and above the robot, upon which objects and locations randomly light up. When the object the master wants the robot to pick up, or the location they wish the robot to go to, lights up, the user's sense of "surprised" brain activity alerts the robot to execute the command. "One of the important things about this demonstration is that we're using a 'noisy' brain signal to control the robot," Rajesh says. "The technique for picking up brain signals is non-invasive, but that means we can only obtain brain signals indirectly from sensors on the surface of the head, and not where they are generated deep in the brain. As a result, the user can only generate high-level commands such as indicating which object to pick up or which location to go to, and the robot needs to be autonomous enough to be able to execute such commands." Further tasks, such as the robot avoiding obstacles through awareness of its surroundings, will require giving it greater learning ability. The system allows robot and master to be anywhere in the world, so long as there is an Internet connection between them. Rajesh calls it a "primitive" step in the direction of having robots aid disabled people or perform household chores.
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Researchers Create DNA Logic Circuits That Work in Test Tubes
Caltech (12/07/06) Tindol, Robert

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have built DNA logic circuits that can operate in saltwater, technology that one day could lead to embedding intelligence in chemical systems that could be used for bionanotechnology. While water and digital logic wouldn't normally mix, these circuits are based on chemistry rather than electronics, explains Caltech computer scientist and group leader Erik Winfree. Circuits are encoded in high and low concentrations of DNA molecules, taking the place of high and low voltage signals. Information processing is executed by chemical logic gates, intricate bundles of short DNA strands, that release their output molecule when they encounter the right input molecule. Caltech postdoctoral scholar and head author of the paper Georg Seelig explains, "We were able to construct gates to perform all the fundamental binary logic operations--AND, OR, and NOT. These are the building blocks for constructing arbitrarily complex logic circuits." The series of circuits created, while small by normal computing standards, could prove very helpful in scaling up biochemical circuits. "Biochemical circuits have been built previously, both in test tubes and in cells," says Winfree. "But the novel thing about these circuits is that their function relies solely on the properties of DNA base-pairing. No biological enzymes are necessary for their operation. This allows us to use a systematic and modular approach to design their logic circuits, incorporating many of the features of digital electronics."
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Your Buddy in the Sky
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (12/15/06)

Researchers at the University of Bath have designed a new system for computerized cockpits that would enable autopilot to handle more explicit details, such as the next course of action and the objective of a maneuver. Professor Peter Johnson and Rachid Hourizi believe that allowing the flight computer to perform such calculations would ultimately improve the way pilots and autopilots work together. Pilots usually oversee the more explicit details of a flight. Communication problems between pilots and autopilot rarely occur, but when they do it usually results in a moment of confusion, but can also lead to an accident. The limited interaction and communication capabilities of autopilot are usually at fault, and not the pilot. "The interface is based on the communication procedures used in a number of safety critical domains from fire fighting to military operations where the current situation, action to be taken, and objectives are explicitly stated," says Hourizi. "Our new system brings the interaction between autopilot and pilot onto a more robust level." It should take 10 years or less to integrate the technology into active autopilots, the researchers believe.
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P2P: From Internet Scourge to Savior
Technology Review (12/15/06) Roush, Wade

Having received a lot of blame for a large portion of digital piracy, P2P networks are now proving their worth in helping the Internet deal with the huge bandwidth demands brought about by digital video. Experts have predicted the end of the Internet in the past, and each time they have been proven wrong; now the threat posed by Internet video seems to have been overcome as well. P2P programs, which allow users to download content from other user's hard drives, could be very beneficial to service providers and content distributors who are struggling to meet the bandwidth demands that Web video imposes. Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Hui Zhang says, "2006 will be remembered as the year of Internet video. Consumers have shown that they basically want unlimited access to the content owners' video. But what if the entire Internet get swamped in video traffic?" P2P downloads may comprise 60 percent of network traffic, and 60 percent of that traffic is video, according to CacheLogic. Researchers and others are working on various P2P programs that take advantage of both the downlink and uplink capacity in the Internet infrastructure. Several P2P programs are being released that allow users to purchased movies and TV shows legally and download them to a shared folder. Zhang points out that although it would bring about increased traffic, P2P traffic could also be labeled, allowing service providers to keep track of it and decide exactly how much can pass through their network; "Otherwise, as applications like video downloading really take off, we will see a congested network, which will in turn impede the development of video-sharing technology."
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Just the Stats: A Closer Look at STEM Majors
Diverse: Issues in Higher Education (12/15/06) Majesky-Pullmann, Olivia

In response to an inquiry as to whether a department's predominant ethnic composition shapes the educational accomplishment of international science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students of that race or ethnicity, Olivia Majesky-Pullmann attempts to put the issue in perspective. She notes that international students comprised close to 28 percent of science and engineering doctorates awarded at minority-oriented institutions and 43 percent at all schools during the 2003-2004 academic year. Majesky-Pullmann also cites a study by the National Science Foundation, NASA, the U.S. Departments of Education and Agriculture, NIH, and the National Endowment for the Humanities demonstrating that the percentage of international students in doctoral STEM programs is high; between 1974 and 2005, the segment of international doctorate recipients rose from 11 percent to 33 percent, while temporary visa holders tended to gravitate the most to engineering and physical sciences last year. Over 58 percent of all engineering doctorates, 44.5 percent of physical science doctorates, and 27.4 percent of life science doctorates were awarded to non-U.S. citizens. The population of foreign professors on U.S. campuses increased 8.2 percent between the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 academic years to total 96,981, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE); most international professors teaching in the United States in 2005-2006 specialized in STEM. Majesky-Pullmann referred to IIE data to determine the 10 leading U.S. institutions with the highest international student populace, but five of the schools could not or would not release data on which fields their foreign scholars teach. The percentages of foreign STEM students and foreign STEM professors at Columbia University are almost mirror images, while the ratio of international STEM faculty to international STEM students is four to one at Ohio State and the University of Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis and two to one at Bucknell University and the University of Texas at Austin.
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Not YouTube, HugeTube: Purdue Researchers Stream Massive Internet Video
AScribe Newswire (12/15/06) Talley, Steve

Purdue University researchers say their new approach to streaming video over the Internet could offer real-time collaboration opportunities for more than just scientists. In the entertainment industry, for example, movie studios could have employees work together in real time as they proceed with films that are in production, and they could also use the technology to simultaneously stream a new release into theaters across the country. The new method was on display at last month's SC06 conference in Tampa, Fla., as the high-speed National Lambda research network was used to stream an animated video, that was the equivalent of about 12 movie DVDs, in two minutes. Researchers at Purdue's Envision Center for Data Perceptualization transmitted video measuring 4096 pixels by 3072 pixels (about 12 17-inch computer monitors arranged in a grid of three monitors high and four monitors wide) at 7.5 gigabits per second, reaching a peak rate of 8.4 gigabits per second. They were able to stop, replay, and zoom in the video in real time. Laura Arns, associate director and research scientist at the Envision Center, says the equipment used could be purchased off the shelf for less than $100,000. "The video was not compressed and it wasn't done using expensive, highly specialized equipment," Arns says.
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NCSA Increasing Nontraditional Users
News-Gazette (12/18/06) Kline, Greg

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois has become renowned for creating tools for scientific uses that require large-scale number-crunching abilities, but the center has recently found its services in demand by many nontraditional users, such as the manufacturers of Mars candy, who wanted to use supercomputing technology to improve their business. In response, NCSA has opened the new Institute for Advanced Computing Applications and Technologies, which is designed to integrate supercomputing experts into research groups throughout the campus, specifically in disciplines the center does not regularly deal with, although science and engineering users will be included. "It is an incredibly powerful mixture that will profoundly affect the future of both research and education," UI Chancellor Richard Herman said at the program's introduction. NCSA director Thom Dunning predicts that this initiative will help prepare the center for the upcoming challenge presented by peta-scale computing. The institute will be organized by themes, and is accepting theme proposals for one or two projects that will start next year. Two new supercomputing clusters, one of which is capable of 45 trillion calculations per second, will be dedicated to the institute.
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Configuration: The Forgotten Side of Security
Linux.com (12/12/06) Byfield, Bruce

Configuration-centered security, also known as security architecture or proactive security, is often overlooked in favor of reactive measures such as anti-virus programs or security patches, even though it is more efficient. The configuration security approach involves making the computer system's design and installation a security component. "The right time to apply best practices is during system design," says MIT professor emeritus Jerry Saltzer. "That way, installation, configuration, and daily use will automatically tend to be more secure." Saltzer says the stress on reactive rather than proactive security is partly driven by vendors who roll out flawed systems, and partly by organizations who erroneously consider security to be an IT-only issue. A major reason why configuration-centered security is ignored is the tendency to balance security against user convenience, with convenience typically having priority. A system's design and configuration should proceed with five objectives in mind, according to Keith Watson with Perdue University's Center of Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security: These objectives include building for a particular purpose and inclusion of the bare minimum for fulfilling that purpose; protection of idle data's availability and integrity; safeguarding dynamic data's confidentiality and integrity; disablement of all redundant resources; and restriction and recording of access to required resources. Watson notes that an emphasis on constructing secure and resilient systems at the outset makes reactive security less necessary later on. Among the suggestions experts offer for improving security awareness are enforcing a clear security policy, the removal of "a culture of blame," and inclusion of "a clear line of escalation."
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Flexible Electronics Advance Boosts Performance, Manufacturing
EurekAlert (12/13/06) Orenstein, David

Researchers at Stanford University and UCLA have found a way to manufacture an organic transistor that will offer a high performance level. "Until now, the possibility of fabricating hundreds of [organic single-crystal] devices on a single platform [had] been unheard of and essentially impossible from previous methods," says Alejandro Briseno, the lead author of the study who is no longer at UCLA. Their approach to manufacturing large arrays of single-crystal transistors involves placing electrodes on silicon wafers and flexible plastic; using the polymer polydimethylsiloxane to make a stamp for the desired pattern, coating the stamp with octadeclytriethoxysilane (OTS), and pressing it to the surface; and then adding a vapor of the organic crystal material onto the surfaces. Where the OTS is placed, semiconducting organic crystals will grow after the vapor condenses, forming transistors as the crystal bridges the electrodes. "The work demonstrates for the first time that organic single crystals can be patterned over a large area without the need to laboriously handpick and fabricate transistors one at a time," adds Zhenan Bao, a chemical engineering professor at Stanford. The breakthrough may clear the way for placing low-cost sensors on product packaging and making thin and floppy e-paper displays.
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White Goods Become Smart Goods
Electronic Design (12/15/06) Allan, Roger

Household appliances are being transformed into smart machines thanks to the incorporation of semiconductor ICs, whose inclusion is becoming more practical because of the greater cost effectiveness they deliver. Design engineers face the challenge of balancing a call to boost white goods' intelligence, reliability, and ease of use with consistent market pressures not to exceed consumers' cost expectations. Texas Instruments systems applications engineer Arafee Mohammed says integration of both hardware and software at the design level is essential to addressing this challenge. Among the factors impacting the use of electronics in white goods are energy-efficiency legislation, water conservation issues, the Restrictions of Hazardous Substances directive, and radio-frequency interference/electromagnetic interference mandates. Energy efficiency can be greatly enhanced by advanced motors and motor controllers, which can be driven by many commercially available microcontroller chips. Customer satisfaction is impacted by the effectiveness of the appliance's human-machine interface, and a well-designed graphical user interface can marry ease of use, stylishness, and intimacy. Among the challenging design factors for white goods is the fact the refrigerators and other devices are in constant operation. It is anticipated that in the future, home appliances will be organized into a network that is capable of appliance-to-appliance communication through the Internet or some other medium.
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Time to Cool It
Economist (12/13/06) Vol. 381, No. 8508, P. 82

As the processing power of computers increases, so does the need for a way to keep them from overheating, so many experts have devoted themselves to developing the next big advancement in cooling technology. One option is paraelectric materials, which cool down when a current is applied to them. Cambridge University researcher Alex Mischenko has achieved temperature drops using paraelectric materials that are five times bigger than any recorded. Advancements in heat sink and fan technology have reached their limits, as has the technique of dividing processing power between two and even four processors. A lot of work is being done with the thermoelectric effect, which generates electricity using heat and creates a cooling effect from an electrical source. In order for this technology to be maximized, its crystal structure must allow electrons to flow freely, but the paths of vibrations that carry heat are often blocked. Nextreme Thermal Solutions researcher Rama Venkatasubramanian claims to have developed thermoelectric refrigerators that can be placed on computer chips and cool them by 10 degrees Celsius, and UC Santa Cruz's Ali Shakouri claims to have made even smaller refrigerators. However, a new system launched by Apple that cools a PC by pumping liquid through channels in the processor, and then to a radiator where heat is given up to atmosphere, may be the most practical solution. IBM is working with tiny jets that can agitate this liquid so all of it touches the outside of the channel, where the heat exchange occurs. A combination of all of these technologies may eventually be used to cool down processors.
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Four Key Trends in Building Better Datacenters
Business Communications Review (12/06) Vol. 36, No. 12, P. 45; Robb, Drew

The growth, cost containment, and efficiency improvement of datacenters are rooted in four key operational trends--consolidation, virtualization, network upgrades, and better power and cooling infrastructure--that are inextricably connected. Infrastructure consolidation is seen as a route to streamlining datacenter management; this trend is represented by increasing server consolidation and processor density, as well as growing use of blade servers and switches. "Many companies are consolidating their IT equipment into fewer locations to improve management and reduce costs," observes Kevin McCalla with Emerson Network Power subsidiary Liebert. Virtualization, which is chiefly employed to consolidate servers, removes lock-in to particular applications or operating systems, facilitating easy sharing and automatic repurposing of servers according to service level agreements and business priorities, notes Egenera executive Susan Davis. Many organizations must upgrade to 10 Gbps Ethernet to handle the increased network load that results from consolidation and virtualization, says TheInfoPro's Bill Trousell. "In order not to have the network contribute to any latency issues, companies have to make sure the backbone has the bandwidth to handle the aggregate server total, which is much larger than it used to be," he explains. Consolidation and virtualization not only raise datacenter density, but also complicate sufficient power and cooling provision. Increased cooling and heat management is only an interim measure, when what is really needed is a reduction of power consumption and heat generation.
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Bits on the Big Screen
IEEE Spectrum (12/06) Vol. 43, No. 12, P. 42; Wintner, Russell

Digital cinema standards are finally emerging after almost 10 years of discussion and inaction. For moviegoers, the transition means better film image quality, more diverse entertainment at local theaters, and more 3D offerings; for theater owners, digital cinema will streamline and lower the cost of handling, shipping, storing, and discarding films, as well as allow on-site movie replication; and studios will save a lot in terms of film processing and distribution. In the first stage of digital movie distribution, the film is digitized if it is 35-mm or converted to cinema format is it if a digital movie file, and then compressed using JPEG2000, which combines the best possible image quality with the least-burdened intellectual property. The compressed files are encrypted to thwart piracy, and from there the film can take one of several directions to get to the cinema: The files can be put in a hard drive that replicates digital cinema, and from there get shipped to the theater; or the files can be sent to a theater management system via satellite. The files are transferred to a media player, which is mated to the digital projector. The media players must be networked with a central management server in order that the films can be shown in a multiplex. The digital projector usually employs a Digital Light Processing (DLP) micromirror system. The digital cinema industry group opted for standard uncompressed CD-quality audio, specifically the Wave digital encoding format. Obstacles to mass adoption of digital cinema include the upfront costs to studios and the risk to theater owners, and one solution is to implement a "virtual print fee" that the studio pays to the company that supplies and sets up their digital cinema equipment and software for each screening of a movie on the digital cinema system.
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The Science of Software
Redmond Developer News (12/06) Barney, Doug

The Microsoft Research European Science Program brings together Microsoft scientists with leading researchers to tackle some of the most challenging problems in the world by developing new software tools, and the initiative has the potential to revolutionize software and even corporate development. Hardware innovations will underlie the creation of new and distinctive computing paradigms, but software will supply the muscle; Microsoft is touting robust, peer-to-peer networks and replicated databases for common access so that programs and data can be effectively shared by researchers. Service-oriented architectures will play a vital role in next-generation distributed environments by facilitating recognition, interaction, and data-exchange between distributed programs and components. Source code, executable code, and the "expertise" of their builders are defined by Microsoft as software components, and new and streamlined program paradigms must be crafted in order to make it easier for researchers to write code. Microsoft Research's "Towards 2020 Science Report" says it is Microsoft's aspiration to provide researchers with "a front-end that is something akin to an 'Office for Science': an extensible, integrated suite of user-facing applications that remain integrated with the development environment that help address the many human-computer interaction issues of the sciences." The codification of knowledge, which for Microsoft involves transforming knowledge into a computer-manipulable discrete program or data for the purpose of uncovering hidden meaning within large data sets, can be achieved through emerging computing technology. The convergence of computers and science raises the possibility of synthetic biology and molecular computers, which could serve as platforms for smart drug systems. Microsoft is also leading an inquiry into systems biology, which could lead to a computational model constructed from bioinformatics and help create a rich and executable programming language that describes sophisticated biological systems and behaviors, according to Microsoft Research European Science Program director Stephen Emmott.
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