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ACM TechNews
March 5, 2007

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Welcome to the March 5, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Open Call From the Patent Office
Washington Post (03/05/07) P. A1; Sipress, Alan

The United States Patent Office will soon allow members of the online community to post and evaluate information concerning patent proposals on a new wiki-style Web site. "For the first time in history, it allows the patent-office examiners to open up their cubicles and get access to a whole world of technical experts," said IBM's David J. Kappos. The pilot project will start this Spring and feature a community rating system that prioritizes the most respected comments. During the pilot phase of the project about 250 software design applications will be posted on the Web site since examiners have an especially difficult time finding documentation for them. Any user can post information relating to patent proposals, but a "reputation system" will be put in place to rank submitted materials and measure the expertise of contributors. In order to develop a reliable reputation system, the Patent Office has forged partnerships with several e-commerce specialists. Patent examiners will be able to award "gold stars" to those who provide exceptionally useful information. The information submitted will eventually be voted on by registered users, with the top 10 items being sent along to an examiner who will make the final decision on the patent. "The idea is to make something as important as decision-making about innovation more transparent to the public and more accountable to the public," says new York Law School Professor Beth Noveck. The system is expected to go through some changes, specifically the voting process, which may limit the ability to vote or give more weight to some votes.
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Software Vulnerability Index Making Progress
IDG News Service (03/01/07) Hines, Matt

The Common Weakness Enumeration (CWE) project expects to publish the sixth iteration of their software vulnerabilities index in April, and says the final draft of the encyclopedia should be ready later in the year. The security experts involved in CWE continue to aggregate and organize the enormous amount of data on software flaws that they have collected, and lately they have focused more on testing commercial security scanning tools to determine their effectiveness. The applications target 45 percent of the 600 common vulnerabilities that have been entered into the CWE index thus far. "We found that less than half of what we already have in CWE is covered by these tools, so this helps prove that there are a lot of known issues out there that aren't being addressed," says Citigal's Sean Barnum. "We also thought that the tools would look for the same types of things, but they are actually very different, and there's not a lot of overlap; that's something that developers need to be aware of as they choose tools; you want to right set for aggregated coverage." A central resource on common flaws is viewed as a helpful tool for improving software quality, and project participants believe it could lead to a common language and standard procedures for addressing the loopholes in source code today. The Department of Homeland Security is sponsoring the CWE initiative.
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College Coders to Compete in Tokyo at IBM-Sponsored ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest
Market Wire (03/01/07)

The 31st annual World Finals of the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest will take place March 12-16, 2007, in Tokyo. The United States will be heavily represented at the event with teams from 20 universities, while the Asia-Pacific region is sending 31 teams, including 12 from China and three from Japanese universities; and Europe will have 20 teams, with nine coming from Russia. There will also be teams from Brazil, India, Vietnam, Iran, South Africa, and Kazakhstan, among other countries. The teams will only have five hours to solve at least eight enormously challenging computer programming problems that will be based on real-world business issues. The ICPC champion will be the team that solves the most problems in the least amount of time, and its members will earn scholarships and receive prizes from IBM, which continues to sponsor the event. "In the first decade of IBM sponsorship, ICPC participation has skyrocketed eight-fold," says Baylor University professor and ACM-ICPC executive director Dr. William Poucher. "Together, we shine the spotlight on tomorrow's superstars." The ACM Japan Chapter and the IBM Tokyo Research Laboratory are the co-hosts.
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Turing Award Recipient Discusses IBM, Then and Now
eWeek (03/01/07) Perelman, Deborah

In a recent interview, ACM A.M. Turing Award winner Frances Allen spoke about the changes she has witnessed in the IT industry regarding women and what can be done to bring more women into the field. "In 1960 it was just fine for women to be managing; it was nothing exceptional," says Allen. But once "computing became a profession," engineering courses were required, and there were very few women in engineering school at the time. "This is the point when I think things changed dramatically for women," Allen says. "As a field, it really hasn't recovered from that." The gender gap has been closing in every other science, but computing has not witnessed the same integration. Although Allen spends a lot of time pondering it, she admits to not understanding what keeps women from pursuing careers in computing, but she suggests attention be paid to two aspects. First, to the curriculum and the experiences it affords, since "the decision to go into computing is difficult for both boys and girls," Allen says. "Many choose it as a major and then drop out." Second, the workplace needs attention, since studies have shown that diversity yields better results. Allen laments that the enthusiasm in the field has decreased since 1960. She believes women could provide the element missing from the industry. She says, "I think they could make contributions--maybe on the ease of use of computers, or in the style of work."
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Computer-Science Slide
Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (IN) (03/04/07) Stockman, Krista J.

The perception that computing jobs are hard to come by is prevalent among today's students, although it could not be further from the truth: The sector is the fastest growing in all of science and engineering. There will be 1.4 million new computing jobs over the next 10 years, according to Purdue University College of Science Dean Jeffrey Vitter. He blames parents for telling their children not to study computing based on a false belief in the scarcity of jobs in the field. Schools have the responsibility to implement computers more effectively into the classroom at all grade levels to expose students to real-world applications of technology, rather than letting them think that computer science is simply about sitting in front of a computer all day writing code. "What we're trying to do in our school system is if people feel computer science is something only computer geeks do, they have to understand that the whole world is going to computer-based technology to conduct business," says Cisco's Andy Melin. Students usually show an early interest in computers, but schools must do more to turn this enthusiasm into motivation to enter the field, especially in females. In order to maintain a competitive advantage, the nation must make a greater effort to fill this growing job pool, Vitter says. He says, "We will be at a competitive disadvantage if we cannot fill the job pool."
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Clash of the Robots
InternetNews.com (03/02/07) Hickins, Michael

Tests conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology have shown that the communication abilities of search and rescue robots could suffer from crossed and disrupted signals. Military robots are given special frequencies on which to operate, but urban search and rescue robots use the unlicensed industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) band, used by most commercial electronic devices. Features such as mobility and dexterity have received a great deal of attention, while "wireless capability has been almost an afterthought," explains NIST wireless systems expert Kate Remely. "It's certainly not an insurmountable problem, but it needs to start being considered by the manufacturers," she says. The NIST field test of 14 robots showed that signals from other systems caused 10 of the robots to stop functioning completely, and neither the use of ISM frequencies or protocols intended to minimize interference could ensure optimal communication between robot and human operator. Radio interference occurred when the ISM bands became too crowded or one user had a significantly higher power output than the others. Solutions being explored include changes in frequency coordination, transmission protocols, power output, access priority, and implementing relay transformers to increase the range of wireless signals.
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Computer Sleuths Try to Crack Pioneer Anomaly
New Scientist (03/02/07) Clark, Stuart

Scientists looking into the anomaly that caused two pioneer spacecrafts to veer off course by hundreds of thousands of kilometers should know within a year whether the problem was caused by human error or unexpected gravitational behavior. Both spacecrafts were found to have decelerated slightly, even as they traveled in different directions, suggesting that the gravitational pull was stronger than Newton's law would indicate. One suspected cause of the anomaly is heat escaping from Radioisotope Thermal Generators (RTGs) on board the spacecrafts. Software developer Viktor Toth has obtained all 40 gigabytes of telemetry data from each of the spacecrafts' 120 sensors and created programs that can analyze it. "I essentially wrote new software to do what the old software used to," explains Toth. The telemetry data, which contains information on the crafts' internal behavior, can be compared to the crafts' tracking data to find if the changes in the amount of heat escaping throughout the crafts' lifespan corresponds with the anomaly. In order to analyze the tracking data, each piece of information must be translated into a common form, since tracking systems have changed so frequently. This data set should be completely translated by June 2007, when it can be used to indicate the direction in which the anomaly acted; if it acted in the direction of Earth, the crafts' technology is to blame, but if it acted in the direction of the Sun, new gravitational physics may be needed to understand what happened.
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Researchers Peel the Onion Router
IDG News Service (03/02/07) Kirk, Jeremy

Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder say they have cracked The Onion Router (Tor), but add that such networks remain effective. In fact, their Web site describes Tor as the "most secure and usable privacy-enhancing system available." Nonetheless, the researchers say they have built their own Tor network, which includes malicious servers that were able to draw a substantial amount of routing requests by misrepresenting their bandwidth capability, and used an algorithm to connect the "path" of a Web site request. According to their paper, paths could be calculated, revealing where the traffic came from, more than 46 percent of the time. Tor is designed to provide anonymity to users by facilitating the development of networks of servers that send traffic over a number of different routes. However, the researchers say law enforcement officials or organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America would be able to use their approach to track down Tor users. "We have never seen such an attack 'in the wild,' and we think it no more likely that this paper would make such an attack easier or more likely than it was a few years ago when another version of it was documented," responded Tor executive director Shava Nerad in a blog.
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Confronting Parallelism: The View From Berkeley
HPC Wire (03/02/07) Vol. 16, No. 9,

Two co-authors of "The View from Berkeley," a new paper detailing the challenges of parallelism, spoke about their work with HPC Wire, discussing the need for a "manycore" architecture over "multicore" architecture, and the problems facing the software industry, among other things. The main hurdle for future parallel architectures is to find a way for programs to be easily written for manycore processors. The paper recommends RISC over CISC, autotuners instead of compilers, and human-centric design rather than machine-centric design. Underlying these arguments is the idea that parallelism is really a retreat from the challenges that have made uniprocessor architectures ineffectual. A new project, known as RAMP, aims to build low-cost scalable hardware/software prototypes, two of which have already been built to show the project's potential. The current state of parallel software development has led to "what can only be characterized as widespread panic in the mainstream software development community," says co-author John Shalf, a computer scientist with NERSC. "To maximize programmer productivity, programming models should be independent of the number of processors, allow programmers to use a richer set of data types and sizes, and they should support successful and well-known parallel models of parallelism: Independent task parallelism, word-level data parallelism, and bit-level data parallelism," says co-author and former ACM president David Patterson, a UC Berkeley professor of computer science. The paper also discusses the value of learning from embedded computing and the serious problems facing legacy codes. If the HPC community is unable to effectively implement large-scale parallelism, multicore will become influential in the centralization of computing through software as a service.
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Walking Robot Steps Up the Pace
BBC News (03/02/07)

Dexter is a humanoid robot that can learn from its own mistakes, rather than relying on movements dictated by programmers. Designed by Anybots, an independent research group of three engineers, Dexter records about 200 statistics 100 times per second, including joint positions, force applied on the feet, and the body's orientation, which is measured in humans by the inner ear. Dexter began with only a basic idea of what walking should look like, and "the first time it [tried] it just fell over right away," says Anybots founder Trevor Blackwell. The goal is develop a robot that can adapt to different environments and roles, without needing specific programming as Honda's Asimo does. Before being able to do something, Dexter requires some encouragement but also uses self-motivation. Anybots hopes that Dexter will have taught itself to run in a few months.
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Foolproof Quantum Cryptography
Technology Review (03/02/07) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

Current quantum-cryptographic systems are hindered by the fact that sending information more than a short distance allows the encryption keys to be intercepted in a manner that is undetectable. When sending bursts of light over optical fibers, stronger pulses often contain more than one photon, meaning single photons can be intercepted without the transmitter or receiver being aware. Toshiba has developed an "unconditional security" system that allows stronger signals to be sent, using individual "decoy photons" sent along with the signals in order to detect eavesdropping. Using this system, eavesdroppers' attempts to block single photons and siphon off multiple photons from other pulses will result in more decoy pulses than the rest of the signal being blocked, and by measuring the ratio of decoy pulses that make it through to signals that make it through, an attack can be identified. This ability to detect eavesdropping allows stronger signals to be used, and therefore allows encryption keys to be sent greater distances. The new challenge confronting researchers is to create a system that more reliably produces single photons, which would eliminate the need for "decoy pulses." Toshiba envisions an array of quantum dots each measuring 45 nanometers in diameter and capable of emitting only single photons.
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Winning Computer Program Created by a Graduate Student Beats World Champion Scrabble Player
Daily Illini (02/28/07) Sackley, Kristen

University of Illinois-Champagne graduate student Mark Richards created Inference Player, a Scrabble-playing program that was able to beat the computer world champion by implementing a strategy that considers what tiles the other player could have. "What normal programs do is they generate all the possible plays and they rank them not only according to how many points they score on the current turn but on the quality of the letters they leave behind," said Richards. "But what they often fail to take into consideration is what does my opponent have." Using open source Scrabble-playing software, Richards manipulated the program to narrow down the possibilities of what the opponent has by assuming that all letters remaining on the rack after a move could not have been used to make any words worth more points than that which the opponent just played. His computer science professor, Eyal Amir, points out that opponent modeling is useful in many real-world applications, though the technology is only in its infancy. Richards' work has been commended by many programming publications, and he plans to investigate other uses of the program's thought process.
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Black Hat Demonstrations Shatter Hardware Hacking Myths
eWeek (03/01/07) Vaas, Lisa

At the Black Hat Briefings in Arlington, Va., two long-standing hardware security beliefs, that reimaging would remove a rootkit hit on a system and using a PCI card or a FireWire bus was the best way to search a PC's volatile RAM memory, were proven false in two demonstrations. The first demonstration exploited a way to subvert system memory through software, destroying the long-held conviction that "going to hardware" to secure incident response worked as a security failsafe. Following such an attack, the only way to correct the system's memory corruption would be to reboot, erasing all evidence of the subversion and leaving digital forensic teams unable to figure out, or prove in court or to auditors, what the attackers did on the company's computers. The second demonstration proved that rootkits can persist on a device, or firmware, rather than on only a disk, and can survive a machine being reimaged, and can even survive reformatting. Though these hacks are not widely known or frequently deployed, they prove that a significant number of assumptions about hardware security are false.
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Get Ready for the Data Dump
InternetNews.com (03/05/07) Boulton, Clint

Information management technology will need to improve in order to handle the enormous increase in digital information in the years to come, according to IDC chief research officer John Gantz. A new IDC report predicts that digital information will increase sixfold from 161 billion GB last year to 988 billion GB by 2010. Businesses will need to use more advanced techniques for transporting, storing, securing, and replicating the information, says Gantz. "You can't treat all data, all packets, and all bytes the same," he says. "That's where you get into interesting situations of classifying data and determining what you save and what you don't." The Internet, which has grown from 48 million users in 1996 to 1.1 billion users in 2006, is a key reason for the proliferation of digital information, and IDC expects another 500 million users will be online by 2010. The largest number of bytes, more than 500 billion, will be from images taken from digital cameras, camera phones, medical scanners, and security cameras. Individuals will generate close to 70 percent of the information, and most of it will reach businesses.
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Face of the Future
Engineer (02/26/07)

The European Union is funding a robot research program, Ubiquitous Robots in Urban Settings, that aims to produce robots capable of several applications, including acting as "robo-cops" in urban areas. These robots would patrol and monitor urban areas for suspicious activity and would be able to react to and interpret pedestrians, vehicles, and other moving objects. Using data that has been programmed into them, the robots would be capable of detecting abnormalities such as suspicious activity, litter, or vandalism. "For example, if you have a robot with a camera that looks down a road and it knows it is normal behavior for people to just walk along, then it will know that if somebody shimmies up a drainpipe, it is something the system has never seen before," explains University of Surrey professor Richard Bowden. When the robot spots suspicious activity, it would then share data with other networked robots, including its location, and send an alarm. This would effectively serve as a higher form of CCTV--one capable not just of videotaping criminal actions, but detecting and reporting these actions at their source.
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Herding the Mob
Wired (03/07) Vol. 15, No. 3, P. 110; Newitz, Annalee

The increasing popularity of online recommendation systems in which services, vendors, Web sites, and others are ranked according to group feedback is inevitably attracting the criminal element. Manipulation of eBay's feedback scheme, the premier standard for recommendation systems, is not difficult. A scammer can work the system by selling lots of low-end items to build up a high feedback score, and then cheat customers on big-ticket sales. A study conducted by UC Berkeley Haas School of Business professor John Morgan uncovered more than 6,000 instances in which buyers and sellers engaged in eBay transactions for the express purpose of raising each other's rankings. Crowd scoring systems are also being used to rate online stories and postings for the benefit of readers, but such a setup can also be rigged through Sybil attacks, when a single individual opens multiple accounts and has them all recommend the same item. The largest and most well-known news and article aggregator site, Digg, employs watchdogs who are expert in the legitimate ways that stories are assigned popularity, and who constantly modify algorithms that target nonstandard voting patterns that could indicate attempts at crowdhacking. University of Michigan information studies professor Paul Resnick is confident that the continuing development of algorithms designed to filter out crowdhackers will ultimately lead to victory. "A good reputation system makes people more trustworthy, because word gets around if they're not," he maintains.
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3D You
Government Technology (02/07) Vol. 20, No. 2, P. 26; Vander Veen, Chad

Researchers at Intel and Carnegie Mellon University are working to bridge the chasm between science fiction and science fact with the development of "dynamic physical renderings," or 3D holograms that have texture, weight, and mass. The project took root with CMU computer scientists Todd Mowry and Seth Goldstein's vision of remote, 3D representations of people that could be used for telepresence applications; these representations would be constructed from claytronics atoms (catoms). The research team is hoping to roll out a 3D fax machine in a few years that would capture and replicate any arbitrary, stationary object out of catoms that are 1 millimeter in diameter, according to Goldstein. The perfection of the technology would yield catoms so small that they could reproduce any texture precisely. Addressing the hardware challenge of building and powering the catoms is an easier task than developing the software, which must relay to each catom instructions for movement, the color of light they should emit, the configuration they must assume to properly duplicate texture, and so on. "On the software front, we've made great strides in the last year and a half or so--identifying ways to form shapes and route power and start to control some of these devices--but we have a long way left to go," notes Mowry. Being considered as a solution to most of the problems researchers face is a vat where catoms are stored, which is powered with a direct link between the vat and the completed object. The project's sponsors include CMU, Intel, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the National Science Foundation.
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