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ACM TechNews
February 23, 2007

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Welcome to the February 23, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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The Promise of Supercomputers
Technology Review (02/23/07) Greene, Kate

The announcement of Intel's project to create a programmable "terascale" supercomputer on a chip signifies changes that present incredible possibilities but will require a significant leap in software and hardware development. Intel will use the chip to test techniques for improving the programmability of multicore technology. Such technology could bring about real-time voice translation on cell phones or real-time video search using speech or images. Some computer engineers do not believe that consumer computers with hundreds of cores are plausible. So far parallel programming has been placed in the realm of high-performance computing (HPC), which traditionally does not address consumer applications. One difficulty in parallel processing lies in the fact that some applications have components that cannot be separated, but HPC developers have now compiled portfolios of algorithms that could be applied to consumer parallel programs. Chips are being produced that have over a hundred cores and are designed to run different general-purpose tasks, such as the graphics used in video games. New approaches to both transactional memory and chip architecture and code could let programmers think more sequentially, while the system takes care of parallelism. Such a method would require cooperation between hardware vendors and software engineers; transactional memory will most likely combine different approaches. Although the current lack of agreement on how multicore technology should advance could delay its entrance into consumer computing by about five years, "industry has a way, with its economic imperative, to settle on a solution pretty quick," says Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory computer scientist John Shalf.
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Court Takes on Software Patents
Washington Post (02/22/07) P. D1; Barnes, Robert; Sipress, Alan

The Supreme Court is hearing a case that asks whether or not the distribution of computer code, separate from any hardware, can be subject to patent laws. Microsoft is being tried for copyright infringement for the global distribution of a system that translates speech into code, which was patented by AT&T. Microsoft has admitted to infringing on the copyright in computers sold in the United States, but claims that it is not responsible for its programs being installed on computers by foreign manufacturers. A patent law amendment passed by Congress in 1984 forbids the shipping of components of patented inventions overseas for assembly in the attempt to sidestep patent laws. What justices must decide is whether code is a "component" of a patented invention, and whether it was "supplied" from the United States. Software companies are worried that a decision in favor of AT&T would make U.S. patent law apply to worldwide use of U.S.-developed software, potentially making it more appealing to move research and development operations overseas. "Facts resolve this case," says AT&T attorney Seth Waxman. "Microsoft has 'supplied' a 'component' that when 'combined with hardware' enables the practice of AT&T's invention." Microsoft attorney Theodore B. Olson claims the code is more of a blueprint, as it can be used to produce programs that do not infringe on the AT&T patent. The government sees the software that utilizes the code as the component in question, not the code by itself, explains Assistant Solicitor General Daryl Joessefer. He compares the code to the ridges on a key and a program to the key itself, pointing out that "a key has a series of ridges on it that enable it to open a lock. But the component is the key that actually turns the lock, not the abstract sequence of ridges on the key." Two lower courts have sided with AT&T, and now the Supreme Court must make its decision by July.
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SIGGRAPH 2007 Announces 32-Hour Animation Challenge
Business Wire (02/22/07)

SIGGRAPH 2007, which will be held August 5-9, 2007, in San Diego, will include the inaugural FJORG! international computer graphics animation competition. Sixteen three-person teams will be chosen to take part in the 32-hour competition that will be held before a live audience. The challenge will be to develop a character-driven animated sequence that is at least 15 seconds long and based on a theme supplied by the competition's judges. Aside from animation abilities, teams must be able to deal with staged distractions and show creativity and physical endurance. A panel of judges made up of entertainment industry professionals will decide a winner based on criteria set forth in the FJORG! Official Rules at www.siggraph.org/s2007/presenters/fjorg/. "We encourage everyone from throughout the international community to submit their reels for consideration," says FJORG! chair Patricia Beckman Wells. "This is expected to be the most challenging animation contest in the world." Prospective teams must include three people and submit demo reels to www.siggraph.org/s2007/presenters/forms between March 1 and May 1. Teams can only submit one reel, and individuals cannot be in more than one team. SIGGRAPH is expected to host about 25,000 computer graphics and technology professionals from six continents, and showcase over 250 exhibits. For more information on SIGGRAPH 07, visit http://www.siggraph.org/s2007/
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Security Experts Draw Bead on How Malware Targets and Dupes Internet Users
Indiana University (02/19/07)

As cyber crooks focus more of their attention on consumers, security experts are questioning what role Internet users play in becoming victims of malware attacks. Security researchers and practitioners addressed the issue during the symposium, "Malware: The Next Big Internet Threat," during the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "It's only recently that researchers and security practitioners have recognized the human factor of Internet security, and criminals already have established an advantage," says Markus Jakobsson, associate professor at the Indiana University School of Informatics. They now realize that programs are not always configured correctly, consumers do not always use programs the right way, and users do not always heed securities warnings, says Jakobsson, who is also associate director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at IU. He also says the emergence of phishing shows that cyber criminals are focusing on tricking consumers. Jakobsson participated in the Feb. 18 panel that discussed the economic forces behind malware, how cyber criminals launch the attacks, and how to guard against them.
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$490,000 NSF Grant Will 'INSPIRE' Future Computing Professionals
Lamar University (02/21/07)

Lamar University hopes that its program to encourage women and minorities to join the field of computing will serve as a model for other schools to follow. The NSF funded program, known as INSPIRED, is based on the idea that "Engaging students in applied research at an early stage lets students experience the thrill of discovery and gives them a chance to apply the principles that they learn in the classroom to real-world problems," says program leader Peggy Doerschuk. She adds that computing jobs are some of the fastest growing in the country, and such efforts are needed to fill them. The program will focus on mentoring, tutoring, helping students enter advanced study or careers in computing, and dispelling myths concerning women and minorities in the field. The grant will also help pay for research and outreach programs. A research seminar will be held every year where the students will be exposed to current themes in research. They will also be exposed to the amount of opportunities open to them and to the diversity of computing professionals through various activities. Summer camps will be held to encourage interest in computing among middle and high school students.
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Darpa Chief Speaks
Wired News (02/20/07) Shachtman, Noah

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) director Tony Tether says in an interview that his organization is working on or has developed several technologies that contribute to the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. One is the Wasp, a small, battery-powered drone aircraft that can help facilitate situational awareness for small squads of troops, and another is a two-way translator that is suited for checkpoints and other specific functions. The DARPA director describes the agency's cognitive program as "game changing" in fulfilling its goal of raising the ratio of combat troops to support troops by giving computers the ability to learn user preferences. With such an innovation, a command post computer could be augmented so that shift changes can proceed seamlessly, without requiring personnel to prepare briefings for whoever takes over. Tether explains that DARPA's mission to avoid technological surprise equally applies to low and high technological surprises, and points out that quantum computing is a particular area of concern. He says the development of a quantum computer, which can enable incredible parallel processing and have a revolutionary impact, is just as high a concern as the development of biological weapons. Tether notes that events such as the Grand Challenge to create autonomous vehicles, where prizes are offered to winning teams, are not only useful as a force for driving research closer to DARPA's goals, but as something to nurture interest in science and engineering among young people. He believes one of the effects of the Grand Challenge is that "we now have tens of thousands of people interested in autonomous robots ... that weren't." Though Tether foresees more competitions in the future, he insists that there would have to be a specific motivation for doing so.
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Crime Fighting Potential for Computerised Lip-Reading
University of East Anglia (02/21/07)

University of East Anglia researchers will begin a project next month that seeks to create a program that can read lips, possibly for use in law enforcement. Although nearly everyone has some ability to read lips, little is known as to the amount of visual information that is needed for the process. The Surrey University Center for Vision, Speech, and Signal Processing has created accurate face and lip trackers, and will collaborate on the project; so will the Home Office Scientific Development Branch, which plans to use the technology for fighting crime. "To be effective the systems must accurately track the head over a variety of poses, extract numbers, or features, that describe the lips and then learn what features correspond to what text," explains UEA project leader Dr. Richard Harvey. After collecting data for lip-reading, the goal will be to create a system that can turn video of lip motion into text. "This project will also investigate how to use the extensive information known about audio speech to recognize visual speech," says Richards. The number of trained lip readers is currently decreasing as the use of sign language is increasing.
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Carnegie Mellon Folds Open Source Into New Degree Offering
TechNewsWorld (02/21/07) Mello, John P. Jr.

Carnegie Mellon West will offer a new degree program known as the Master of Science in Software Management that aims to incorporate business and organizational components into software development. Building on the school's software engineering curriculum, the program "breaks with tradition by giving students the broader perspective needed to collaborate with and lead the global, distributed teams that are defining next-generation software organizations," according to the school. Carnegie Mellon says the program is not simply an MBA labeled as an MS, but a response to the changing economics in the realm of software, resulting from open source software, globalization, and outsourcing. "The software management program aligns with the changing employment demands of typical software companies, where the business of software and the management of development teams are becoming paramount to success," explains Kleiner Perkins & Byers. Students who choose can study open source software and ways it influences development tactics. One such activity would be looking for open source components that could be applied to new products and analyzing the effect on cost. As today's developers have an increasing need to understand their company's business, the program aims to "balance management, organization, business, and technology," says CMW Associate Dean of Education Martin Griss.
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Grand Challenges Free Researchers to Explore What Can Be Imagined
Daily Yomiuri (Japan) (02/20/07) Jernery, John

British researchers are investigating a broad range of grand challenges, an example of which is the Architecture Brain and Mind project, whose goal is to create a single demonstrable system that marries the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, and cognitive science. Meeting this challenge entails addressing tough problems focusing on natural intelligence, perception, learning, problem solving, and reasoning; one potential result of this project would be an autonomous robotic aide to disabled people that can get around the house without explicit environment-related programming. Another U.K. grand challenge is the Dependable Systems Evolution project, which seeks to create a model and set of associated technologies that aid in the engineering of more dependable products. This project could be especially important as computers and software systems are placed in increasingly critical societal roles. The Learning for Life project seeks to determine the meaning of learning in the coming era of ubiquitous machines, with researchers stressing the comprehension of the "co-evolutionary nature of learning and computer systems." At the heart of this goal is the process in which increasing knowledge of computers raises understanding of learning mechanisms, and potentially expedites development in both domains. A fourth grand challenge project is Journeys in Nonclassical Computation, which delves into the fields of biology and physics to unearth new insights on computing to make increasingly complex systems manageable and scalable from a theoretical and engineering standpoint.
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That's No Transformer: It's SuperBot
USC Today (02/22/07) Mankin, Eric

Video of autonomous robotic modules that are able to self-assemble themselves into various systems to address a specific task is available online. The posting of the video follows a recent presentation that University of Southern California researcher Wei-Min Shen gave on the progress of the development of the Lego-like "SuperBot" during the Space Technology and Applications International Forum 2007 (STAIF) in Albuquerque, N.M. Shen, a researcher at the university's Information Sciences Institute, showed video of the identical modular units, which can flexibly connect to form a robot that can crawl, wiggle, roll, climb, move like a snake, use long arms, and fly. "Each module is a complete robotic system and has a power supply, micro-controllers, sensors, communication, three degrees of freedom, and six connecting faces [front, back, left, right, up and down] to dynamically connect to other modules," said Shen. There is totally distributed control, and self-status and environmental parameters monitoring. "They can form arbitrary configurations [graphs] and can control these configurations for different functionality such as locomotion, manipulation, and self-repair," Shen added.
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Biologically Inspired Sensors Can Augment Sonar, Vision System in Submarines
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (02/21/07) Kloeppel, James E.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne researchers are developing a system of sensors that mimic fish's sensory organs in hopes of improving the ability of artificial devices to navigate marine environments. Known as the lateral line, a row of sensory organs allows fish to find food and avoid predators, among other things. The synthetic lateral line the project has produced is an integrated array of microfabricated flow sensors, with sizes and spacing corresponding to their biological counterparts. "By detecting changes in water pressure and movement, the device can supplement sonar and vision systems in submarines and underwater robots," allowing devices to detect and track moving objects and avoid collisions, says project leader Chang Liu. To build the tiny sensors, individual parts are cast in place in sacrificial layers using photolithography and planar deposition techniques; a small amount of magnetic material is then electroplated onto each component, which are then etched out of the substrate. The sensors have metal-oxide-superconductor circuitry that provides on-chip signal processing, noise reduction, and data acquisition. So far, the largest array created had 16 sensors spaced 1 millimeter apart. Tests have shown that the synthetic lateral line allows a device to place itself near a vibrating source and detect a hydrodynamic wake, which could allow tracking at long distances. Liu thinks that vehicles could eventually create images of hydrodynamic events autonomously.
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Rover and Pals Help Troops Tell Friend From Foe
New Scientist (02/24/07) Marks, Paul

The portion of U.S. troops killed by friendly fire during the first Iraq war was higher than that of both the Vietnam War and World War II, but new systems are being developed that will allow troops to better identify their allies on the ground. An aircraft system currently being used in Iraq and Afghanistan, known as Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (Rover), sends a signal from a camera mounted on a fighter or bomber to the laptop of an air controller on the ground, who can circle objects on his screen and have the same thing appear on a pilot's cockpit screen. The laptops can even use wireless Internet connections to allow troops to send instant messages or access video from aircraft using portable devices. Beyond air support for ground activity, NATO is seeking a wider-ranging technology, and has narrowed its search down to two "combat ID" systems. The first is the Battlefield Target Identification Device (BTID), a millimeter-wave radio transceiver in ground vehicles that sends out an ID code containing GPS coordinates that can be picked up by friendly vehicles that "interrogate" it. The second system being considered, Radio Based Combat ID, utilizes existing GPS-equipped radios in ground vehicles and aircraft to transmit the location and ID of all proximate vehicles. While this system has proven effective, many nations have not implemented such radios into their vehicles. NATO is currently using a non-standard version of radio ID technology, the Friendly Force Tracking System (FFTS), which uses on-board GPS receivers to report the location of each vehicle via radio; a central control center then retransmits the information from friendly vehicles to all units in the network.
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Cerf: Internet Is a Reflection of Society
IDG News Service (02/21/07) Ribeiro, John

Cybercrime and Internet fraud are problems that are socioeconomic in nature, not technical problems, says Google VP and ICANN Chairman Vinton Cerf. He says the problems that plague the Internet are a reflection of society itself. "If you stand in front of a mirror and you don't like what you see, it does not help to fix the mirror." Cerf predicts that the next big Internet growth area will be sparked by mobile applications. In support of this prediction, Cerf points to the IP packet layer architecture, which separates applications from the communications medium, which can be wireless and wireline. Cerf says it does not matter how the IP packet is carried or what it is carrying. There are 2.5 billion mobile phone users across the globe, and this number will grow with increasing development in India and China. Cerf explains that people do not have to get permission from ISPs to run applications on the edge of the Internet system because the architecture of the Internet keeps intelligence at the outer edge, thereby sparking an outburst of creativity, such as the founding of Yahoo and Google.
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Algorithm Helps Computers Beat Human Go Players
Reuters (02/21/07) Gergely, Andras

The board game "Go" has long been a challenge for computers because numerical values cannot be assigned to pieces, as they can in chess, but a combination of dual processors and software that uses a method gleaned from slot machine strategy has almost allowed computers to reach the level of professional players. Chess programs can use numerical values to calculate the value of a position, but Go programs must evaluate each move by playing out an entire game resulting from that move, with possible results increasing exponentially with each resulting potential move. Researchers at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences have applied the philosophy that a slot machine that has paid out less than others has the best potential for holding a jackpot, but a balance should ideally be found between these machines and those that have paid out the most. When deciding each move, the Go software they developed, known as UCT, uses this concept to find the best sample of scenarios resulting from each move to play out. Previous programs had to choose a sample at random and choose the best of these moves. UCT decides which routes, similar to branches on a tree, are most worth testing based on a consistent record of beating other machines. The 19 by 19 board used by the world's best Go players was once beyond the reach of computers, but "programs using this method immediately improve if you use two processors instead of one," says Hungarian Academy of sciences computer researcher Levente Kocsis.
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Computer Scientist Reveals the Math and Science Behind Blockbuster Movies
EurekAlert (02/19/07) Levy, Dawn

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held a symposium on Monday titled "Blockbuster Science: Math and Science Behind Movies and Entertainment," where Stanford computer science professor and Industrial Light and Magic consultant Ron Fedkiw spoke about the computations that make solids and liquids look incredibly realistic in the movies. "Since these motions are governed by physical processes, it can be difficult to make these phenomena appear natural," Fedkiw said. "Thus, physically based simulation has become quite popular in the special effects industry." Computer graphics experts used to be limited to either running optimal algorithms on a single processor or running inferior algorithms on many processors, but Fedkiw developed a way to run the best algorithms on many processors, allowing for advances in computational fluid dynamics, solid mechanics, computer graphics, computer vision, and many other fields. "The simulation of gases, liquids, and combustion for scientific reasons quickly translates into the ability to make animations of smoke, water, and fire," says Fedkiw. "Similar statements hold for soft biological tissues, muscles, fractures and other solid material problems. Once the scientific numerical simulations are worked out, interesting animations can be made shortly thereafter." Once he joined Stanford's computer science department in 2000, he submitted two papers to the 2001 ACM SIGGRAPH CG conference, and in 2005 ACM SIGGRAPH awarded him the Significant New Researcher Award for his work in the CG community.
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CRA-W Cohort of Associate Professors
Computing Research News (01/07) Vol. 19, No. 1, P. 2; Irwin, Mary Jane; Soffa, Mary Lou

America's global innovation leadership is threatened by a lack of diversity--particularly women--in the IT workforce, according to Penn State University computer science department chair Mary Jane Irwin and University of Virginia computer science professor Mary Lou Soffa. The authors say the disparity between the representation of women in computer science and engineering and their representation in other scientific disciplines is partly attributable to "the presence of senior women faculty in other fields who serve as leaders for young girls and women." Only 27 percent of professional computing-related positions and 15 percent of board and executive seats in the leading IT-related companies are held by women. A paucity of females in the highest levels of academia is especially troubling, considering girls' desperate need for role models and mentors if they are to become IT-proficient; boys also need female mentors and instructors in order to get a fair and balanced perspective of female colleagues, write Irwin and Soffa. A recent national study uncovered a bias against females in academia, noting evidence of women being passed over for promotion, assigned heavier workloads, and offered lower salaries than men. CRA-W's Cohort of Associate Professors Project (CAPP) seeks to create and mentor a cohort of female associate professors in an effort to boost women's representation in the higher academic ranks of computer science and engineering. The centerpiece of the initiative is the participation of senior women, elevated to the position of CRA-W Distinguished Professors, who are active role models, mentors, and advisers. CAPP workshops feature two days of events, with a focus on promotion and building a leadership role in the computing community on the first day and a professional development seminar on the second.
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A Better Experience
SD Times (02/15/07)No. 168, Taft, Darryl K.

Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) is rapidly being adopted by the enterprise because of its ability to facilitate a more fluid and less fragmented user experience by turning HTML pages into Web applications, according to Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group. He cautions that AJAX could allow pop-ups to be employed to disseminate spam or irritating advertising, while another shortcoming is the complexity of AJAX's programming. Among AJAX's advantages is instant feedback and a greatly improved degree of control, says Fog Creek Software CEO Joel Spolsky. Because of this, many developers are attempting to incorporate AJAX into every single Web application. Though AJAX's underlying technology has existed for quite a while, "what's new is the growing consensus that Web application user experiences can and should be improved, and an umbrella term for the collection of techniques that Web developers can use to incrementally improve Web applications," states Adobe Systems' Jeff Whatcott. None of the AJAX technologies are vendor-controlled, and the technologies can bring an open client that delivers a service-oriented architecture model. Zimbra CTO Scott Dietzen says the two biggest obstacles to the further mainstream penetration of AJAX are debugging and ease of development, while the lack of a standard AJAX user interface paradigm is also a problem, according to Canoo engineer Christian Stettler.
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