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February 28, 2007

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Welcome to the February 28, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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US Immigration Reform Bill Could Pass by July
IDG News Service (02/26/07) Mullins, Robert

An immigration reform bill with a provision to boost the cap on the H-1B visa program could be passed by July, according to U.S. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.). "It could pass both houses by July, go to conference, and be on the president's desk by September," Berman said in a speech during the first Tech Industry Summit in San Jose, Calif. Berman, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, said he is more optimistic about the bill because Democrats have control of both chambers. The H-1B program currently has a limit of making 65,000 visas available to skilled foreign workers per year, which has already been reached for 2007. An increase to 115,000 H-1B visas per year is favored by technology companies. "About half of the students enrolled in engineering schools in the U.S. are foreign nationals who have to return to their home countries after earning their degrees, depriving U.S. companies of the chance to hire them," Microsoft's Pamela Passman said at the summit.
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From Math Teacher to Turing Winner
CNet (02/27/07) Lombardi, Candace

New A.M. Turing Award Winner Frances Allen spoke recently with CNet about the past, present, and future of computer science, diversity in the field, and her role in both. Allen considers her greatest achievement to be "enabling users to have access to high-performance computing ... being able to achieve high performance by the use of parallel computational computers." She says that when she began working for IBM, the term "computer science" did not exist, and the field was more open to broad experimentation. However, as the field became more structured in the 1960s and became a science, Allen noticed that it was mostly men who met the new requirements being established. She does not believe that women are less interested in science than men are, and espouses the abilities of mobile technology to allow people to work from outside the office, since the "culture of the workplace" may not cater to some women, especially mothers of young children. Mentoring has allowed Allen to make in impact on the number of women going into sciences and to be "an advocate for women," she says. Allen plans to place her $100,000 Turing prize money into a fund that will help educate poor people, with an emphasis on young women, who would not have such an opportunity otherwise. As for the future of computing, Allen "would like to see the computer languages change to be a little bit more user-friendly ... there are lots of experts in that. But we build very high-performance computing machines--and they're getting ever faster and ever bigger, not in size but in terms of their capabilities. We've got to find ways for them to be easier to use." For more information on Frances Allen and ACM's A.M. Turing Award, visit http://campus.acm.org/public/pressroom/press_releases/2_2007/turing2006.cfm< /A>
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The Art of Identification
Technology Review (02/28/07) Erard, Michael

Researchers at the Netherlands Institute of Cultural Heritage are working on a system that generates traceable "fingerprints" for works of art as a way to discourage the flourishing underground trade in stolen art and artifacts. The system, known as FingArtPrint, creates a fingerprint using two steps. First, a one-centimeter square of an original work of art is selected, and the color of every pixel in the area is mapped using a scientific-grade digital camera. Next, the roughness of the area is examined using a white-light confocal profilometer, a type of microscope that scans micron by micron, turning what appears to be two-dimensional into a three-dimensional landscape that is unique to the object. The color and roughness information is then combined to make a fingerprint that is stored in a computer database. To ensure the authenticity of an object, a curator or buyer would have to capture a fingerprint from the object and match it to the original fingerprint stored in the database. A test conducted by the research team showed that FingArtPrint was able to capture reliable fingerprints from a variety of works of art and could even distinguished between two sculptures made from the same mold. The system has an advantage over other techniques for verifying authenticity because it has no physical effect on the object itself. However, because FingArtPrint examines patterns of cracking or fading due to aging to create fingerprints, further aging after an original fingerprint is taken could make an original work appear to be a forgery.
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How IT Makes Johnny More Productive
Computerworld (02/26/07) Malymuka, Kathleen

Marshall Van Alstyne won the award for best paper at the International Conference on Information Systems in December for his pioneering research into the effects of IT use on productivity at the individual desktop level. By measuring dollars generated, contracts executed, and start and stop dates of projects, compared with what IT applications employees were using, Alstyne found that overall, increased IT use resulted in decreased speed, but multitaskers, though slower at completing individual tasks, were found to be more productive overall. The relationship between multitasking and productivity appears as "an inverted U-shape," according to Alstyne, where productivity increases to a point of multitasking, then begins to wane as multitasking increases past this point. His advice is to cultivate IT skills, but to be aware of "your limits." Emailing and databases were found to facilitate multitasking most efficiently. A social networking statistic called "betweenness" was measured by observing the frequency that someone appears in the shortest communication path between two other people. Another indicator dubbed "reach" was found by measuring the number of people that a worker talks to and then the number of people they talk to. Increased betweenness and reach were both found to be related to increased productivity. Alstyne recommends that businesses "invest in IT skills. High IT skill levels reduce the perception of information overload and facilitate multitasking, which is directly associated with increases in revenue."
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BCS: Funding Cuts Will Harm Computing Research
ZDNet UK (02/27/07) Espiner, Tom

The British Computing Society (BCS) criticized the United Kingdom government recent announcement to cut science and technology research funding. The government said that funding for research councils was cut 68 million pounds this year, down to 128 million pounds, with science and technology councils receiving the worst of the cuts. Funding for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been lowered to 29 million pounds. "It is unclear what the impact will be on EPSRC's future ability to fund computing research," said BCS vice president Steve Furber. "The government seems to be signaling to potential science applicants that computing research is not accorded a high priority." BCS says that with less money going to research, there will be less financial incentive for IT and engineering graduates to stay in the U.K. Last November, the BCS cited a 30 percent decrease in the number of students pursuing full-time undergraduate computer science degrees, a trend that, when combined with an IT sector that is losing skilled workers, could do significant damage to the U.K. economy, according to BCS President Nigel Shadbolt. Research councils have also expressed concern over the budget cuts, especially since a good deal of their budgets are committed several years into the future.
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European Research Goes for Gold
BBC News (02/27/07) Amos, Jonathan

After five years of planning, the European Research Council (ERC) has been established, with the goal of increasing the global competitiveness of Europe's scientific community. In the past, the EU's Framework Programme was in charge of funding public research, and was known to be overly bureaucratic and to favor intricate collaborations. But the ERC, which will receive 7.5 billion euros by 2013, will not require specific themes, collaboration, or the return of a proportion of grant money to contributing nations. A main point of the ERC's philosophy is the importance of emerging researchers, those who have held a Ph.D. less than nine years. The administrative structure will support the young researchers, allowing them to put their own teams together. One ERC application, being created by Dr. Kalina Bontcheva, a Sheffield University computer science professor who specializes in natural language processing, will investigate the use of "virtual characters" to help people interface with computers. "We want to make it easier for people to interact with our advanced search technology," says Bontcheva. "You could then ask these characters what you want and they would understand you and go away and get the information for you." The success of the program will be measured by the amount of scientific papers published by ERC researchers, citations they receive, and the ability to both bring researchers back to Europe and attract new ones. "We have a collection of small scientific communities, and that means you have a tendency to select the best in small parts, rather than looking for what will survive in global competition," says ERC President Fotis Kafatos. "The ERC is about pooling our efforts so that all of Europe can be a big player."
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Professor Fights a Mathematical Battle to Keep the Virtual World Running Smoothly
University of New Mexico (02/26/07)

University of New Mexico computer science professor Jared Saia has completed algorithms that are able to support computer systems that have hundreds of millions of users and provide formidable resistance to an attack. Based on the Byzantine Agreement that traitors are working behind the scenes to plot an attack, the algorithms make use of mathematical tools such as expander and extractor graphs that can be used to develop reliable distributed systems, in addition to the probabilistic method. They are robust and scalable. Saia says that people collaborating on a Web-based project should be able to proceed with their work even if one-third of the participants are working to sabotage the effort. He now plans to focus on turning his research into a commercial product. Saia recently received a National Science Foundation Career award, and he will use the $400,000 award over five years and other grant money that he has received from the NSF and Sandia National Labs over the years to press ahead with the project.
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Experts: No Cure in Sight for Unpredictable Hard Drive Loss
Ars Technica (02/25/07) Anderson, Nate

A study by Google researchers entitled "Failure Trends in a Large Disk Drive Population" concluded that individual drive malfunctions cannot be effectively predicted with Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology (SMART) information, and that there is no correlation between drive failure and temperature and CPU utilization levels. Alfredo Milani-Comparetti, creator of the SpeedFan temperature and SMART monitoring tool, found Google's argument that SMART cannot be employed to model individual drive failure to be "very odd," and he thinks his tools and SMART data together can help people spot failing hard drives. SpinRite creator Steve Gibson notes that drive watchers have long regarded the SMART system's value with skepticism, although he acknowledges that the optimal methodology for determining whether a drive is failing or not is sector reallocation counts. Gibson observes that the "very high temperatures" that can impact drive lifetimes often occur in home PCs. "Failure rates are always much higher than the manufacturers claim," he says, but the manufacturers' need to continue selling drives to remain in business creates an incentive for not boosting their products' reliability. This month's FAST '07 conference cited an exemplary report on disk failures from Carnegie Mellon computer science professors concluding that the rate of drive failures is actually much higher than indicated in the manufacturer's mean time to failure. Also discovered in the study is a steadily rising rate of failure that starts at a very early point in a drive's lifetime. "This is an interesting observation, because it does not agree with the common assumption that after the first year of operation, failure rates reach a steady state for a few years, forming the 'bottom of the bathtub,'" the researchers wrote.
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Group Might Be the Key to Bridging the Digital Divide
Investor's Business Daily (02/27/07) P. A4; Kontzer, Tony

Although there have been several programs aimed at bringing computers and the Internet to the Third World, they have mostly worked in isolation and have struggled to make a real impact. But a new project operating out of the University of California, Berkeley, known as the RiOS (research, innovation, organization, and societies) Institute aims to enhance the effectiveness of such programs by supplying technology development organizations with business advice and supplying businesses with technology development advice. Since its inception at a conference in Silicon Valley, RiOS has signed a 10-year pact to work with the United Nation's Global Alliance for Information and Communications Technology Development. "There's no use having lots of programs to get technologies out to societies that can derive no value from them," said Cassatt CEO Bill Coleman. Coleman says that without true economies, "the digital divide doesn't mean anything" to many countries. Providing computers so that people can do something like play video games is useless, "But if you can create jobs, then you're making a fundamental change," says the World Bank's Djordjija Petkoski. One example of the type of work RiOS plans is a program conducted by the Development of Disadvantaged People, which allowed women in India to produce 225 liters of drinking water a day, for only one dollar, and sell the water for profit. "What used to be philanthropic activity is now becoming a more important part of doing business," says RiOS executive director Paul Braund. "There's no single government and no single company that can deal with all these issues."
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Technology Keeps Tabs on Newborns
Star Phoenix (02/26/07) French, Janet

A system developed by Monique Frize, a professor at Carleton University's systems and computer engineering department, could allow computers to monitor babies' vital signs to predict health problems and alert doctors. Doctors would use the system as a decision support tool, since predicting whether a sick baby will live or die is a very difficult and sensitive task. Although the computer's decision may not change a doctor's mind, it could alert them to watch for warning signs or to act faster. To train the computers to make predictions, the Frize compiled health information from about 24,000 babies whose outcomes were already known. Frize also created a program for predicting premature births, using information from a U.S. Center for Disease Control Database. She hopes that she can develop tests for mores specific conditions such as Down syndrome. "My machine works with just data," Frize said. "You don't have to do any tests on the person. You just glean some information, you put it in and it seems to be as accurate as some of the invasive techniques." Babies are normally hooked up to many machines that analyze data independently, and Frize's aim is to integrate this analysis into a single machine that takes information from several sources. She is also involved in a project that is exploring the use of infrared light to visualize pain in patients.
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EPA Begins Evaluation of Data Center Power, Cooling Issues
eWeek (02/23/07) Preimesberger, Chris

An EPA workshop was held last week to establish a new "Energy Star" certification for data center power consumption. The workshop included representatives from major IT companies, power and cooling service providers, and others who have an interest in the matter. "We don't want to look at incremental change," said the EPA's Andrew Fanara. "We're thinking 'whole system design' change here. We need to produce more energy-efficient servers, no question about it. This is the group that's going to help quantify all this." A recent report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory approximated that the electricity used by servers doubled between 2000 and 2005, due in large part to the significant increase in the number of active servers as well as critical ancillary systems such as cooling and lighting. Stanford University scientist Jon Koomey, who worked on the Berkeley National Laboratory report, says, "There's a lot of opportunity for improvement." Rep. Ann Eshoo (D.-Calif.), who co-authored the bill that called on the EPA to review the issue, says, "The cumulative energy cost for servers and data centers in the U.S. is approximately $3.3 billion annually, and studies have shown energy-efficient servers can save up to 80 percent in electricity and cooling costs." The workshop produced several industry-centric groups that will add to the EPA's final report to Congress by focusing on areas such as software, architecture, and processors.
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Scientists: Data-Storing Bacteria Could Last Thousands of Years
Computerworld (02/27/07) Mearian, Lucas

New technology developed by researchers at Keio University Institute for Advanced Biosciences and Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus offers huge possibilities for long-term data storage. Current disk and storage systems can store data for up to 100 years in most situations, while the use of bacteria DNA could provide a medium for storing data for thousands of years. The researchers used the technology to create an artificial DNA that can carry more than 100 bits of data within the genome structure. The artificial DNA carries data, makes numerous copies of its DNA, and inserts the originals and the copies, or the backup files, into the bacterial genome sequence. The Japanese researchers say the first application of the technology could be to track medication. The new technology has the potential to enable the storage of text and images for many millennia.
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Videos Have Net Bursting at the Seams
Chicago Tribune (02/23/07) Van , Jon

The growing popularity of sending video clips over the Internet is testing network limits and requiring significant investment from operators, but whether or not regulation is needed to keep pipes from becoming clogged is a point of much contention. "We don't see anything catastrophic near term, but over the next few years there's this fundamental wall we're heading towards," said Qwest CTO Pieter Poll. Traffic volume has outpaced computer power, and a recent report by Deloitte Consulting predicted that Internet demand would exceed capacity in 2007. Deloitte partner David Tansley says that "so many business models assume Internet capacity to be ubiquitous and inexpensive that capacity isn't seen as a limiting factor in applications." He says network operators will soon need to extend capacity, although some will not have the required capital. Telecoms have always viewed the Internet as a scarce resource, and are now claiming that it needs to be regulated in order to survive, an argument that Internet executives call posturing, citing past efforts to regulate VoIP on the grounds that it would exceed network capacity. Changing habits, such as the trend of sending video from user to user, have made telecoms' job of predicting demand quite difficult. Internet companies have always treated the Internet as an abundant resource, noting that technology such as VoIP has come on gradually, allowing networks to step up to meet demands. As high-definition video becomes easier to record and access, the bandwidth crunch will continue, although "With appropriate continuing investment, the Internet is capable of handling any applications," claims Level3 Communications vice president John Ryan. "What we're starting to see is a distinction between those operators who have the capital to fund expansion and those that don't."
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Will C# Ring True for Embedded Apps?
EE Times (02/26/07)No. 1464, P. 46; Goering, Richard

Embedded designers have been slow to embrace the C# language that Microsoft has developed. Primarily limited to the desktop, C# does not have as many symbolic requirements as C++ and as many declarative requirements as Java. "We're trying to bring that sort of capability into a new environment," says Colin Miller, Microsoft director of the .Net Micro Framework. The company recently introduced a free software development kit that embedded developers will be able to use to build applications in C# with a subset of the .Net libraries that are available for the desktop. Miller notes that C# runs inside a managed environment, is more foolproof than C/C++, and makes debugging easier, facilitating desktop developers' transition to deeply embedded applications. Researchers at the University of Montreal saw the same potential in the use of .Net and C# for system-level design a few years ago. Professor El Mostapha Aboulhamid described C# as bringing together "what is nice in Java and what is nice in C++."
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To Be Almost Human or Not to Be, That Is the Question
Electronic Design (02/15/07) Vol. 55, No. 4, P. 37; Harris, Daniel

Researchers developing robots as caregivers and assistants to the handicapped and the elderly are on the horns of a dilemma: Whether to strive for a more humanoid appearance and function or embrace a more artificial, science-fiction model. Advocating the first case are scientists such as professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University's Department of Adaptive Machine Systems, while project leader of Honda America's North American Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility (ASIMO) Stephen Keeney and other researchers support the second option. ASIMO uses a variety of sensors and algorithms to access distance and direction, process moving objects, and interact with people, but Keeney says the robot's human features--legs instead of treads or wheels, hands to manipulate objects, etc.--are incorporated so it can fulfill its function as a caregiver. "We should always be cognizant that ASIMO is a machine and should be approachable and not be scary to children," notes Keeney. "It is a comfortable middle ground between machine and humanoid androids that others are working on." Ishiguro's goal is to create androids that are indistinguishable from humans at first sight with such technologies as tactile sensors, actuators, and human-looking artificial skin. Of particular interest to the scientist is the use of androids to provide entertainment, fulfill communication needs, and serve as companions, and one of the bigger obstacles researchers face is the Uncanny Valley, which is people's tendency to reject machines that look, move, and act human beyond a certain point of acceptability. Human-like movement is key to the success of androids, according to Ishiguro, and other necessary breakthroughs include the ability to comprehend answers, deduce information based on conversations, and distinguish individuals within a crowd.
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Interview: Once More With Feelings
New Scientist (02/24/07) Vol. 193, No. 2592, P. 48; Gefter, Amanda

AI pioneer and author Marvin Minsky believes that by studying human emotion artificial intelligence researchers can gain insight into what makes them so resourceful. Humans are able to look at something in many different ways and use different mental and physical resources to solve problems, while computers usually have only one way of thinking about something. Minsky believes that emotional states are actually simpler than most other ways of thinking. He says emotions simply block certain mental processes, or resources, allowing a system to have many processes, yet only make use of what it needs. Computers have never been capable of what we call "common sense," since people are able to take in millions of fragments of information and thousands of processes, while computers only are fed information about a single subject, although some projects are now collecting massive amounts of everyday knowledge and looking for ways to organize and apply it in computers. Minsky, recipient of ACM's A.M. Turing Award in in 1969, has developed the "Critic-Selector" model of mind, which imagines the brain as a machine containing numerous resources that make up "ways to think" when combined in certain ways. The Critic element would be aware that a task was too difficult as it was being carried out and try to approach the problem from a new angle, or divide it into parts, and the Selector could turn processes on or off to suit relevant needs. AI has not progressed much since the 1980s, according to Minsky, because "AI researchers have developed many techniques for solving various types of problems, but few of them have tried to come up with schemes that combine multiple ways of thinking."
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W3C Publishes Eight New XML-Family Specs
SD Times (02/15/07)No. 168, P. 5; Worthington, David

XQuery, Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformation (XSLT) 2.0, XML Path Language (XPath) 2.0, and five other specifications were published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in order to hasten enterprise initiatives to connect databases to the Web and influence the integration of databases and document systems. "These specifications provide a much needed bridge between two worlds: Documents with complex but irregular internal structure on the one hand, and databases and simple data with atomic values on the other," said Michael Sperberg-McQueen of the W3C. The goal of XQuery is to deliver a unified interface for multiple-source data access using tools for querying structured and semi-structured data that is not restricted by schemas. XPath 2.0 is described by W3C as a superset of the original language as well as a subset of XSLT 2.0 and XQuery, with the added functions of stronger text processing via regular expressions, support for conditional statements by path expressions, and additional data type support that augments the language's information processing capacity. "XPath is widely regarded as the standard mechanism for locating objects in XML," reported IBM research fellow Don Chamberlin. "The fact that this is adopted in common for XSLT and XQuery is very important to the industry because these have become a suite of standards and are converging into a compatible family." Broadening the range of XML transformations with an expanded library of functions that maintains most backward compatibility is the purpose of XSLT 2.0, and the standard's authors claim that the spec eases error filtering, primarily due to data conversions between XML schemas. The other five specs are complementary to XQuery, XPath 2.0, and XSLT 2.0 as supporting technology.
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Enabling the 21st Century Health Care Information Technology Revolution
Communications of the ACM (02/07) Vol. 50, No. 2, P. 34; Agrawal, Rakesh; Grandison, Tyrone; Johnson, Christopher

The U.S. government's push to create a health care information infrastructure requires technologies that support the sharing of electronic medical records while protecting the privacy of patients, and the authors write that such technologies are components of their Hippocratic Database (HDB). HDB's Active Enforcement (AE) component is responsive to emergent privacy and security requirements, permits the negotiation of policies covering the disclosure of personal information between patients and health care institutions, and enables cell-level management rather than row- or column-level management in the database, using the three-stage process of policy creation, preference negotiation, and application data retrieval. HDB AE provides a general methodology for managing and classifying policy and preference information, transparent policy enforcement for enterprise applications, underlying database-technology agnosticism, and enhanced query processing speed. There are methods AE can be combined with to allow queries over encrypted data without incurring a performance penalty. HDB's Sovereign Information Integration component enables autonomous entities to exchange information securely and privately through the use of a Web services framework that applies a series of commutative encryption functions to uniquely recognizable information in different orders and at different sites, yielding encrypted values that can be matched against each other while maintaining the privacy and security of the data sets. The government's vision of a health care information framework calls for efficient and cost-effective data access tracking systems for determining the identification of people who access patient information and whether such access is authorized, and HDB meets this challenge with its Compliance Auditing solution. Compliance Auditing employs a logical logging system to register all queries and contextual data and an audit application to recreate the state of the database at any given past time using query logs and backlog tables. HDB can de-identify information for research and analysis through its Privacy-Preserving Data Mining component and its optimal k-anonymization component.
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