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February 26, 2007

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Welcome to the February 26, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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The Turing Award Honors Frances Allen
BusinessWeek (02/23/07) Hamm, Steve

IBM Fellow Emerita Frances Allen became the first female to receive the prestigious ACM A.M. Turing Award for her pioneering work in the "theory and practice of optimizing compiler techniques." In the 1970s Allen helped promote higher-level languages over machine languages and was responsible for ways to improve compilers so programs could run on different machines. "She's really the mother of customer-oriented computing," says IBM VP Robert Morris. "She was an early proponent and practitioner of what has become our innovation model. There was a time when we thought of innovation as being just associated with invention. Now we see it as a path from the invention through to where it has an impact on how people live their lives." Allen sees the award as a way to further her efforts to bring more women into computing. She says, "I have worked hard for women to be recognized, and I'll use this as a platform to get more attention to the role of woman in computing." One of ACM's goals is to get more women interested in computer science, as only 26 percent of U.S. IT workers are female, down from 33 percent in 1990, and only 15 percent of undergraduate CS degrees from major universities go to women. "It's essential for women to participate," says Allen. "A diversity of people can bring a much more creative environment and better results." For more information on the ACM A.M. Turing Award, see http://campus.acm.org/public/pressroom/press_releases/2_2007/turing2006.cfm< /A>
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Panel Cites Voter Error, Not Software, in Loss of Votes
New York Times (02/24/07) P. A9; Drew, Christopher

A team of computer experts from several universities has announced its unanimous decision that there is no evidence supporting the argument that voting machine malfunction was to blame for the undervote in the 2006 Sarasota County Congressional race. Possible explanations offered by the team, which was lead by Florida State University computer science professor Alec Yasinac and University of California, Berkeley professor David Wagner, were that voters could have touched the screen twice, erasing their own vote, or could have missed the race entirely, due to poor ballot design. The race did not have the colorful heading that others did, was sandwiched between long lists of candidates for the Senate and Governor elections, and was squeezed in at the top of a screen. Wagner said, "I'm persuaded that this wasn't caused by machine failure." However, in the days following the election, a local paper reported several voters complaining that although an "x" appeared in the box for Christine Jennings when they touched it, the "x" was gone when they reached the verification screen at the end of the ballot. The report did indicate that aging hardware could have been responsible for isolated problems, but such problems would have also impacted other races. This investigation marks the first time software code has been audited to resolve an election, but some computer experts are not satisfied. "The study claims to have ruled out reliability problems as a cause of the undervotes, but their evidence on this point is weak, and I think the jury is still out on whether voting machine malfunctions could be a significant cause of the undervotes," says Princeton's Ed Felten.
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IT Heavyweights Plot the Green Grid
InfoWorld (02/23/07) Samsom, Ted

Eleven of the biggest computing companies have formed the non-profit Green Grid, with the intention of dealing with the impending data center power crisis. One of the largest problems the industry faces is a lack of power consumption metrics for data centers, so the group plans to develop technology standards, metrics, and best practices for lowering computing's power consumption. Currently, the organization is asking more companies and government agencies to get involved. "No one player owns the kingdom," says AMD's Bruce Shaw. "It's not just a processor problem. It's not just a server problem. It's not just a memory problem. Everyone in the ecosystem needs to be involved." Three white papers have been released by the group: "Greed Grid Opportunity," which explains the need for standards for energy-efficiency and practices and cites research on several energy-use topics; "Guidelines for Energy-Efficient Datacenters," which discusses best practices for creating more energy-efficient data centers without going into much detail, but does go over system design, cooling, and virtualization; and "Green Grid Metrics: Describing Datacenter Power Efficiency," the most technical paper, which expresses support for both the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) metric, which measures the ratio of "Total Facility Power" to "IT Equipment Power," the Datacenter Efficiency (DCE) metric, which reverses the ratio, and the Datacenter performance Efficiency (DCPE), which measures the ratio of "Useful Work" to "Total Facility Work" and is described as a natural evolution of the two previous metrics. The paper states, "In effect, [the DCPE] calculation defines the datacenter as a black box--power goes into the box, heat comes out, data goes into and out of the black box, and a net amount of useful work is done by the black box."
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The Future of Search: Reaching for a Piece of Google's Pie
TechNewsWorld (02/25/07) Morphy, Erika

Researchers and entrepreneurs are confident that Google's ranking as the No. 1 search engine will not last as other companies develop competing technology. "Many of these firms are focused on solving niche or smaller or industry-specific issues," notes SiteSpect President Erik Hansen. "They are not necessarily big enough for Google to focus on now, but perhaps down the road they will be developed for general use." One unique technology is the WebSifter system, which lets individuals and companies specify a conceptual taxonomy tree relating to their search needs and/or their line of work. Search concepts are first expanded using synonyms, and then sent to Google and other search engines as an alternative to the direct transmission of keyword requests to Google; WebSifter's patented ranking algorithm ranks and displays the aggregated results, and the user supplies feedback so that WebSifter can adapt search results to the user's preferences. "Storyteller" is a "creative discovery" search engine devised by Virginia Tech researchers that finds links between information that appear dissimilar at first glance, and the application has been employed by Virginia Tech biochemistry faculty members Malcolm Potts and Richard Helm to discover a unique protein related to chemical stress via an abstract search of 140,000 publications about yeast. The university reports that this research was detailed in the proceedings of the ACM and the Special Interest Group on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining's (SIGKDD) International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining in August 2006. "As more and more resources are put on the Web, people will be looking not only for that one piece of information, but also a whole body of information that can be used to create knowledge," predicts WebSifter creator and George Mason University professor Larry Kerschberg.
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Surveillance Cameras Get Smarter
Associated Press (02/25/07) Manning, Stephen

The next generation of surveillance cameras are incorporating "intelligent video" technology in order to not only observe but interpret the images they capture. Cameras used in Chicago and Washington, D.C., can detect gunshots and call police, while cameras deployed in Baltimore can play a recorded message and take pictures of illegal dumpers or graffiti artists. Intelligent video technology can analyze a person's gait, for example, to determine whether a person may be concealing a weapon, and it can even recognize faces. "If you think of the camera as your eye, we are using computer programs as your brain," said the Army Research Lab's Patty Gillespie. University of Maryland engineering professor Rama Chellappa and a team of graduate students have created a system that can both watch for changes in an environment based on what it is programmed to see as "normal," and track people who cross established perimeters. The system places a box around the suspicious person or object on a computer display and alerts security to evaluate the threat. One exhibition showed the system recognized a suspicious person who got out of his car in a garage and went from car to car, looking in the windows, and placed a box around him as he moved. However, before intelligent video technology makes it to the market, the technology needs to be improved, and liability issues must be worked out. Ultimately, Chellappa wants to develop systems that can see what someone might be concealing and actually stop some threats.
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Design on Diagonal Path in Pursuit of a Faster Chip
New York Times (02/26/07) P. C5; Markoff, John

Cadence Design Systems believes computer chips designed using its new tools can bring about a significant reduction in power consumption as a result of diagonal wiring that decreases the total wire length needed to run over the surface of the chip. This design approach, known as X Architecture, is said to address problems of increasing complexity while improving the speed, efficiency, and performance of the next generation of chips that are beginning to emerge. "The math is clear--if you can go diagonally, the wires will be 30 percent shorter," says Cadence's Aki Fujimura. Some in the industry say that such innovation will become necessary as 65-nanometer chip manufacturing becomes the standard. "The risks associated with getting designs out are going up dramatically," and new ideas that can reduce risk will be sought out, says IBS President Handel Jones. However, Cadence competitor Synopsys does not agree that X Architecture will make such an impact. "It's not a new concept--it's been around since designers used litho paper and cut it by hand," said Synopsys' Steve Meir. Synopsys also claims that its test showed a lower level of performance and efficiency than Cadence claims for X Architecture. Companies that have begun using X architecture have reported saving in power consumption, but Cadence admits it has had trouble convincing the industry to convert to the new technology.
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Monitoring With Minimum Power
USC Viterbi School of Engineering (02/15/07) Mankin, Eric

Researchers at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering's Information Sciences Institute (ISI) have developed a communication protocol for wireless sensors that improves on the energy efficiency of previous models by a factor of 10. Sensor networks, or sensornets, are already being implemented in wildlife parks and other inaccessible or unwired areas, and are being considered for use in industrial settings. Three years of research went into special Media Access Control (MAC) control rules known as SPC-MAC protocols, which are responsible for the activities of battery-operated sensor units. The protocol uses both "low power listening," in which units turn on for very short periods, and "scheduled channel polling," which schedules and synchronizes the listening. "The basic approach of SPC-MAC is to let units alternate periods of sleeping with very brief periods of listening," says lead researcher Wei Ye. "To minimize the listening cost, SPC-MAC utilizes 'low-power listening,' which detects channel activity very quickly." Earlier protocols needed each unit to be active for about 29 to 45 minutes of each day of sensornet activity, but SPC-MAC brought this number below two minutes per day. "It further reduces the transmission cost by synchronizing the listening schedules of nodes, so that a unit can wake up its neighbors by transmitting a short tone," says Ye. The research was presented in November at the Fourth ACM SenSys Conference in Boulder, Colo.
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Emotion Robots Learn From People
BBC News (02/23/07)

British researchers are leading a team of roboticists, developmental psychologists, and neuroscientists in a three-year, 2.3 million-euro European project to create robots that are capable of emotional interaction with people. The goal of the project is to construct robots whose behavior can be shaped by sensory input from the people they are engaging with. "We are most interested in programming and developing behavioral capabilities, particularly in social and emotional interactions with humans," notes project coordinator Dr. Lola Canamero. The hardware component of the robots will be very simple, though Canamero says some of the machines will boast specially-built expressive heads. The robots will receive feedback from cameras, tactile sensors, audio, and proximity sensors, while artificial neural networks are being employed because they can help the machine adjust to changing inputs and spot patterns in movement, voice, behavior, and so on. "The physical proximity between human and robot, and the frequency of human contact--through those things we hope to detect the emotional states we need," explained Canamero. She said the robots will be designed to learn emotional cues much like a human infant does.
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SIGDOC 2007 CFP
Kairosnews (02/21/07)

The ACM Special Interest Group for Design of Communication has issued a call for papers for the 25th ACM International Conference on Design of Communication. The ACM SIGDOC 2007 conference will focus on communication processes, methods, and technologies and designing printed documents, online text, hypermedia applications and other communication artifacts. More specifically, researchers and practitioners should address multidisciplinary approaches to information design and information architecture, processes for developing information, genre and discourse analysis of information design and delivery, or agile documentation processes for information design. Other topics include the methods, methodologies, and approaches to participatory and user-centered design; and the design, development, and impact of personalized information systems, time management systems, and project management systems. Participants have until June 1, 2007, to submit research papers, workshop proposals, and experience reports, and notifications of acceptance will be made by Aug. 1. A month later, final versions will be due. The ACM SIGDOC 2007 conference is scheduled for Oct. 22-24, in El Paso, Texas.
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Enter 'Junior': Stanford Team's Next Generation Robot Joins DARPA Urban Challenge
Stanford Report (02/23/07) Orenstein, David

Although robotic vehicles in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge could maneuver simply by knowing what was around them and avoiding obstacles, those in the DARPA Urban Challenge, to be held Nov. 3, 2007, must know exactly what is going on around them all the time. The Urban Challenge will involve simulated traffic and traffic signals, whereas the Grand Challenge was simply a race across the desert. The Stanford team has equipped Junior, a Volkswagen Passat station wagon, with a range-finding laser array that can spin 360 degrees to provides nearly real-time 3D feedback, six video cameras, radar, and GPS and internal navigation hardware. Junior's brain, a Core 2 Duo processor chip, has about four times the power of Stanley's, Stanford's successful entry in the Grand Challenge. Software that handles perception, mapping, and planning gives Junior machine learning abilities that improve its driving and can translate sensor data into an understanding of what is happening around it. This software has been in the testing stage since the beginning of the year. "You could claim that moving from pixelated perception, where the robot looks at sensor data, to understanding and predicting the environment is a Holy Grail of artificial intelligence," says Stanford project leader Sebastian Thrun.
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Robot Swarms 'Evolve' Effective Communication
New Scientist (02/23/07) Simonite, Tom

The robotics community is excited about research conducted in Switzerland that has shown communication abilities evolving artificially in robots. Such evolution in robots could result in more sophisticated bots, says Noel Sharkey, a robotics researcher at Sheffield University in the United Kingdom. In Switzerland, roboticists Dario Floreano, Sara Mitri, and Stephane Magnenat at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne teamed up with biologist Laurent Keller from the University of Lausanne to create simulated robots and real bots with an attraction for food and an aversion to poison, and randomly-generated genomes that determine movement, processing of sensory information, and use of lights for signaling. They were able to evolve 500 generations of colonies of robots in software and real robots employing various pressure conditions, and sophisticated communication occurred in some situations. "We saw colonies that used their lights to signal when they found food and others that used signals to communicate that they had found poison," says Keller. Some misleading behavior, such as bots leading others away from food, also evolved. The breakthrough could allow designers of robot swarms to employ simulated evolution instead of writing behavior from scratch.
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Computer Majors Down to Bits
Ithaca Journal (NY) (02/24/07) Sanders, Topher

Hiring for technology-related jobs has returned to the level of the dot-com period, but college students are still down on computer science studies. For the first time since 2000, enrollment in the computer science program at Cornell University has increased. Cornell computer science professor Ken Birman says students do not seem to be aware that jobs that would allow them to use computer science degrees are available in the United States. In addition to memories of the dot-com crash, perceptions about outsourcing are also a problem, university professors say. "The people coming up to us and asking us about outsourcing are not the students, it's the parents," says Cornell computer science professor Lillian Lee. Birman says tech-related jobs are moving overseas, but he adds that the positions that are exciting and creative remain in the country. "The kind of work taking place in India really isn't the kind of cutting-edge work you associate with a company like Google," he says. Between 2007 and 2014, the United States will have nearly 1 million computer science-related jobs, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
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Poet's Voice Used for Hi-Tech Speech Aid
Yorkshire Post (UK) (02/21/07)

Researchers at the University of Sheffield are developing a computer-controlled device that is able to decipher the speech of someone with a speech disorder, rearrange their words, and deliver the message in new sentences so they can be more easily understood. A handheld computer and a wireless Bluetooth headset comprise the Voice Input Voice Output Communication Aid (VIVOCA), which is intended to be worn on the body of the speaker. People who have problems controlling muscles used for speech would be able to take advantage of such a device. The researchers enlisted poet Ian McMillan to be the voice of VIVOCA, which they believe needs to produce natural speech sounds that are recognizable locally to gain acceptance. "If the person is using the device as their primary mode of communication, it is important that the output voice is suitable to represent that person," says Phil Green, a professor in Sheffield's computer science department. "Eventually we would like to be able to present a client with a choice of male and female voices, and perhaps also adapt their chosen voice to resemble that of the client before their speech deteriorates."
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Homeland Security Cyber Czar Sees Challenges Ahead
National Journal's Technology Daily (02/22/07) Greenfield, Heather

Cyber threats reported to the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team increased from 5,000 incidents in 2005 to 23,000 incidents in 2006, and there have already been 19,000 reports of cyber attacks in 2007. Homeland Security cyber czar Greg Garcia said groups vulnerable to cyber attacks are interdependent and need to establish a level of trust and share information on vulnerabilities and threats. In an interview with National Journal's Technology Daily, Garcia outlined three broad goals to increase security. Those objectives are to strengthen information sharing, create stronger network security within federal agencies, and establish sector-specific infrastructure protection plans, as about 90 percent of critical infrastructure belongs to organizations in the private sector. Garcia also said U.S. CERT and the National Coordination Center, which is responsible for monitoring disruptions in the telecommunications network, will soon be housed under one roof, but the location was not disclosed for security reasons. Garcia said that although globalization of the world's technology industry will provide more opportunities, it also creates new security challenges, as does the move to a single, integrated Internet protocol. He says, "There are cost savings, productivity enhancements, but it also introduces a new level of vulnerability in our networks."
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The 'Intelligent' Web of Tomorrow
Hindu (02/23/07) Subramanian, Karthik

Researchers believe that having the human brain serve more as a model for the Web will improve the online network of tomorrow. Wendy Hall, a leading computer scientist in the United Kingdom, discussed the Semantic Web while in Chennai to deliver a lecture on the "Science of the Web" at the Indian Institute of Technology. Hall, head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton, said the Semantic Web would be based on an artificial intelligence system and that its primary building blocks would be its association with data, and not documents. Hall says universities and peer groups are already creating Web ontologies to define the basic interoperable data blocks in which information would be packaged on the Semantic Web. The different protocols and standards required is one reason why it will take some time to create the Semantic Web. The Semantic Web is a "web of actionable information--derived through the semantic theory of interpreting symbols," according to a paper that was co-authored by Hall, Web inventor Tim Berners Lee, and Hall's Southampton colleague Nigel Shadbolt.
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The 309th Software Maintenance Group
Technology News Daily (02/21/07)

The software applications developed by the Air Force's 309th Software Maintenance Group (SMG) handles ballistics calculations, communications between units, and speed, target, and status displays in Air Force vehicles, without requiring pilots to be aware they are even running. The 309th SMG's work is somewhat similar to video games, although the work is less graphics-oriented and slower-paced. "With navigation pods, data links, and guided weapons, F-16 (Fighting Falcon) pilots have been able to put weapons directly on target time and time again to avoid collateral damage, which helps limit enemy opposition and U.S. combat casualties," says 309th SMG technical program manager Kevin Tjoland. Development can take as long as 18 months and contain as much as 500,000 lines of code, with testing occurring throughout the process. Carnegie Mellon University awarded the 309th SMG with the Capability Maturity Model Integration Level 5 Rating for Software Development, signifying that the software successfully integrates organizational features that are normally separated and meets process improvement goals. In 2004, a transition from a previous model for engineering best practices, known as Capability Maturity Model (CMM), was undertaken, but "The changes themselves were not overly difficult since we were already a process-oriented organization," explained the 309th SMG's Mr. Cain. Perpetual software upgrades have allowed 20-year old aircraft to remain effective.
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All the Lab's a Stage
CITRIS Newsletter (02/07) Shreve, Jenn

CITRIS' December gala showcased 3D immersive technology that allowed groups of dancers in two different locations to be displayed on the same screen and collaborate in semi-real time. The performance was the work of the Renaissance Project, which uses tele-immersion technology that enables geographically separated groups to interact in a third environment as if they were face-to-face. A group of dancers were recorded by 48 cameras divided into 12 clusters placed all around them, and the images were then sent by computers via Internet II to a third computer, which combines the images with those of a single dancer transmitted from another location onto a 3D virtual stage. Glitches in the technology such as the lack of haptic feedback and problems processing fast movements are still being worked out, although the latter is said to give the images an 'Impressionistic" look, says Renaissance Project founder Lisa Wythe. The performance allowed researchers to observe their work and consider possible improvements. Improvements are expected to help the speed of image acquisition and reconstruction, improve the ability to recognize and adjust photometrics such as light levels and reflections, and decrease the amount of computers and cameras required. The technology could have a major impact on geographically distributed collaboration of all sorts.
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