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ACM TechNews
April 9, 2007

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Welcome to the April 9, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Cambridge to Host Wireless Sensor Network
IDG News Service (04/06/07) Ames, Ben

By 2011, remote researchers will be able to run experiments using a network of wireless sensors installed on streetlamps throughout Cambridge, Mass. The sensors, which will collect information on weather and pollution at first, will connect to the central servers at Harvard and BBN Technologies by forming a mesh with other sensors. The servers will then post the database information on the Internet, where researchers can submit programs to be run on the nodes. "Think of it like a virus infecting all the nodes," says Harvard computer science professor Matt Welsh. "Every node can talk to its neighbor and pass along the data, and eventually you get your program up and running on all of them." The nodes consist of an embedded PC, an 802.11 a/b/g/ Wi-Fi interface, and a variety of weather sensors. They will be placed on streetlamps and get electricity from them to avoid the common problems of powering sensors. Thanks to the mesh strategy, each node can download software or upload data to a distant server hub using a radio with a range of one kilometer. A five-node prototype is currently running in a Harvard lab. Once the system goes live, Microsoft plans to overlay the data on maps, allowing researchers to track pollution with higher resolution and a longer window of time for monitoring than previously available. The network could eventually include nodes attached to vehicles.
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Professor Lectures at U. Massachusetts on Electronic Voting
Massachusetts Daily Collegian (04/06/07) Trull, Andrew

MIT electrical engineering and computer science professor Ron Rivest last week spoke to a University of Massachusetts audience about the challenges facing electronic voting. Voting system security can be split into two sectors, according to Rivest, ensuring that votes are "cast as intended" and that they are "counted as cast." The biggest challenge to the creation of a secure system is voter anonymity, since "privacy is the most important part of any voting system," but developing a system that runs on "hundreds of thousands of lines of programming" and ensuring that all votes are counted accurately without keeping any record of how specific people voted is extremely daunting, Rivest said. Although several solutions were brought up, Rivest suggested that paper will play a role in the next election, despite complaints by election officials that "all that paper" is too cumbersome. He said that voter verified paper audit trails are a way to make sure that votes are "cast as intended" but cannot ensure that they are "counted as cast." A system known as "mix nets" offers a way to make sure that votes are counted as cast and that voters retain their anonymity throughout the process. Mix nets would encrypt randomly re-assorted votes while going through several proxy servers. Each voter would receive a copy of the encryption and be able to consult a public bulletin to check that their vote was counted correctly without revealing who they voted for. Rivest also stressed the importance of human poll workers and the need for national standards. For information about ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org
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SIGGRAPH 2007 Announces Co-Located Technology Events in San Diego
Business Wire (04/05/07)

The Graphics Hardware Workshop, the Symposium on Computer Animation (SCA), and Sandbox: A Videogame Symposium once again will co-locate for SIGGAPH, which is in San Diego this year. And the International Symposium on Non-Photorealistic Animation and Rendering (NPAR) and the Emerging Display Technologies Workshop will take place during the International Conference & Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques for the first time in 2007. ACM SIGGRAPH is the sponsor of SIGGRAPH 2007, which is scheduled for Aug. 5-9, at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, Calif. The five events will take place inside the site or nearby during the gathering, which is expected to draw some 25,000 computer graphics and interactive technology professionals from around the world. "This partnership only enhances the overall SIGGRAPH experience in San Diego," says Joe Marks, SIGGRAPH 2007 Conference Chair from Walt Disney Animation Studios. "Attendees will have a chance to delve deeper on select topics through co-located events, while also getting broad exposure to the latest developments in computer graphics and interactive techniques at the main conference." For more information about SIGGRAPH, or to register, visit http://www.siggraph.org/s2007/
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Is the Internet Ready to Break?
CIO Insight (04/07) Cone, Edward

Predictions that demand for bandwidth will cause the Internet's collapse in 2007 are meeting with disagreement, although it is widely accepted that the Internet will need to evolve in order to survive. A report from the Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT) group at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu cites the doubling of traffic at the Amsterdam exchange (AMS-IX) since last February as proof that the increasing popularity of Web video and broadband access could overwhelm the backbone of the Internet. Although the core of the Net is in good shape, and can easily handle the large increases in traffic, trouble could arise in the "last mile" of fiber, between hubs and homes. "There's nothing all that alarming going on," says TeleGeography researcher Eric Schoonover. "This whole idea that the increase in traffic is going to break something or kill something, or the providers won't keep up, seems foolhardy to me � The network operators know how to scale." The price of bandwidth is expected to increase for the next several years, but the Internet displayed its resiliency when the December 2006 tsunami that knocked out seven of the eight underwater Internet cables carrying traffic to southern Asia failed to shut down traffic completely, thanks to packets being rerouted through landlines and satellites. Recent innovations have allowed infrastructure to be used at rates as low as 1 percent of capacity, meaning the ceiling will only get higher as innovations such as 10- and even 100-Gb equipment are deployed. Another possible innovation is an Internet that can identify packets and decide which should be given a higher priority, since not all packets require the same speed.
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A Giant Leap Forward in Computing? Maybe Not
New York Times (04/08/07) P. BU4; Pontin, Jason

In February, D-Wave announced that it had built a "practical quantum computer," but this claim has been met with much doubt. The February demonstration, in which Orion, the "world's first commercial quantum computer," figured out a seating chart for a wedding party, solved a Sodoku puzzle, and searched for a protein in a database, showed that the computer is about 100 times slower than today's PCs and even brought about doubts that Orion was actually doing the work. D-Wave founder Geordie Rose said the demonstration was meant to "to run commercially relevant applications on a quantum computer, which has never even been done before--not even close." The skepticism from computing experts was based on the lack of information provided by D-Wave about the inner working of its machine, as well as the general consensus that quantum computing will not be possible for a number of years, if not decades. Orion is nothing but hype and is no better at solving problems that a "roast-beef sandwich," wrote University of Waterloo theoretical computer scientist Scott Aaronson on his blog. Other doubters have made the argument that D-Wave's machine is worthless since the point of quantum computing is to achieve a tremendous increase in speed over today's machines. "D-Wave is misleading the public by calling their device 'a practical quantum computer,'" said University of California, Berkeley computer science professor Umesh Vazirani. D-Wave claims that Orion's niobium chip foundation could eventually power a much faster machine, but experts mostly disagree. Despite the lack of acceptance in the academic community, D-Wave plans to contract Orion out to businesses as a Web service. The company has announced that third-party researchers will have the opportunity to experiment with Orion later this year.
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Ease-of-Use Critics: Designers or 'Feature Creeps'?
EE Times (04/05/07) Benjamin, David

A recent "ease of use" forum held in Palo Alto, Calif., brought together experts to debate the merits of engineering for simplicity versus the potential to maximize features. "Every possibility you add to an interface increases your likelihood of failure" in the commercial world, said Stanford University's Persuasive Technology Lab founder B.J. Fogg. Others agreed that, in interaction design, making a device that everyone can use is far more difficult than making something that only the highly-skilled can use. Ease of use has become a "grave issue" in engineering, said EE Times editor Junko Yoshida, citing an "SOS from consumers." Bill Moggridge, author of "Designing Interactions," a book focusing on complexity and ease of use, said the best way to avoid ease-of-use issues is to build a prototype and test it out on everyday users. In support of complexity, Moggridge called attention to the status workers can achieve through their mastery of intricate devices. "We feel proud that we've gotten past a barrier of difficulty," he said. The forum then turned its attention to Japan's I-Mode mobile phone platform, which included watching a video of a consumer spend 30 minutes using their phone's electronic payment system to buy a can of tea from a vending machine. Yoshida said there is a growing trend toward usability, but Fogg replied that the tendency for designers to believe that "more is more" rarely leads to the "best user experience [being] the initial winner." Moggridge explained how Web 2.0 concepts could allow users to "go, converse, and manipulate," without the restrictions of hardware or software that is designed for a specific device.
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Getting in Touch: Virtual Maps for the Blind
Scientific American (04/07) Ross, Rachel

Researchers at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece have developed a way to transform video into virtual haptic maps that can provide the blind with a better grasp of cities and building layouts. Three-dimensional models are sometimes used as maps for the blind, but can only accommodate one person at a time, and paper maps with ridges cannot provide comprehensive information. However, with the Greek system digital dioramas are available to people around the word and are accompanied by audio. After shooting video of an architectural model, each frame of the video is then processed using software designed by lead researcher Knostantinos Moustakas and his team. As the camera angle changes throughout the video, each structure is analyzed by the software to determined its shape and orientation. The result is a 3D grid of force fields representing each structure. "Each point on the grid has an associated force field," says Moustakas. The human interface consists of the CyberGrasp glove, which pulls on the user's fingers, and the Phantom Desktop, a wand that applies pressure to the user's hand in one direction. Moustakas has also designed a system that converts paper maps into 3D maps; users would run their finger or a wand down grooves representing streets as the names are said aloud to them. In tests of 19 subjects, the dioramas were found to be preferable for small groups of structures, and the 3D street maps were preferable for large areas.
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FSF Releases New Draft of LGPLv3
Linux-Watch (04/03/07) Vaughan-Nichols, Steven J.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has unveiled a new draft of the LGPLv3, and hopes that the free software community will continue to provide feedback on how to improve the Library General Public License before its final release. "The license is currently written as a set of additional permissions on top of GPLv3, a number of terms have been updated to reflect changes in the GPLv3 draft released last week," explains Brett Smith, licensing compliance engineer for FSF. LGPL primarily differs from GPL in that software or a library can be "linked to" or "used by" a GPLed or a proprietary program, and distributed to users without making the LGPLed part of the code available to other developers. And a developer would not be required to share the code that is not covered by the LGPL. Some other small adjustments have been made for LGPLv3, says Smith, who adds that comments received from previous discussion drafts are still being evaluated.
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Researchers Find GPS Significantly Impacted by Solar Radar Burst
Government Technology (04/04/07)

Cornell University researchers have confirmed that solar radio bursts can disrupt GPS and other communications that use radio waves. Solar radio bursts start with a flare sending high-energy electrons into the solar upper atmosphere; radio waves are then produced and propagate to the Earth and cover a large range of frequency, over which they act as noise. "Space weather cuts across many different federal agencies and is a particularly fruitful area in which to develop sustained partnerships between government agencies and academia," said Brig. Gen. David. L. Johnson, U.S. Air Force (Ret.). An unprecedented December 2006 solar radio burst caused many GPS receivers to stop tracking; before this, the possibility of such an event had only been extrapolated from data. "Now we are concerned more severe consequences will occur during the next solar maximum," explains Cornell electrical and computing engineering professor Paul Kintner. A New Jersey Institute of Technology solar radio telescope showed that, at its peak, the burst generated 20,000 times more radio emission than the rest of the sun. The affect of this event was seen on the Global GPS Network and on the civil air navigation system, the first time such a burst was detected by the latter. Haystack Observatory's Anthea Coster said the December solar radio burst showed that solar bursts have worldwide and instantaneous effects on technology and since the burst was unexpected in both size and timing, the frequency of such events cannot be predicted.
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Microsoft Funds New Mapping Research
IDG News Service (04/07/07) Gohring, Nancy

Researchers at Harvard University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Georgia Tech University are developing new mapping applications thanks in part to $1.1 million in grants from Microsoft. The academic research programs will use the company's Virtual Earth, a mapping product, and SensorMap, a tool for publishing and sharing sensor data and browsing live data on an interface, to develop the applications. Researchers at Illinois are building a mobile sensor application that may be used to monitor the sounds, heartbeats, and location of birds, as well as a social application that will allow someone wearing a jacket of sensors to be monitored as an avatar in a virtual world. Meanwhile, the City Capture project at Georgia Tech plans to integrate multiple cameras with Virtual Earth as researchers attempt to document the transformation of a city over time.
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International Conference at Duke to Examine Social, Educational Dimensions of Technology
Duke University News & Communications (04/03/07)

Digital technology and its impact on modern life will be the focus of the "Electronic Techtonics: Thinking at the Interface" conference at Duke University this month. Organized by the Humanities, Arts, Science Technology and Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), the April 19-21 event will bring together specialists in computer science, art, education, law, and other fields from all over the world. "It is a rare opportunity for scientists who helped develop the Internet to exchange ideas with adventurous and socially concerned educators, policymakers, artists, theorists and practitioners," says HASTAC co-founder and Duke professor Cathy N. Davidson. "Our mission is to inspire the future of digital technologies." Former Xerox chief scientist John Seely Brown will give the keynote address in a speech entitled "The Social Life of Learning in the Net Age." Another speaker will be Dan Connolly, a research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who worked with Tim Berners-Lee on the development of the World Wide Web. The semantic Web and the future of the Web will be among the issues discussed in sessions, and there will also be demonstrations of new technology and opportunities to learn about open source and proprietary software and hardware.
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DARPA Seeks Shape-Shifting War Robots
InformationWeek (04/05/07) Jones, K.C.

Developers have until July 2, 2007, to submit full proposals to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for developing chemical robots that are able to change shapes and squeeze into small openings in buildings, walls, or under doors as part of military operations in war zones. DARPA is seeking soft, flexible, and mobile robots that are still large enough to carry an "operationally meaningful payload." After the robots have gained access to denied or hostile areas, they will need to return to their size, shape, and functionality. The agency refers to the chemical robots as ChemBots, which will also need to sense small openings, and withstand different temperatures, humidity levels, and precipitation. The robots can be self-powered, self-consuming, or energy-scavenging; autonomous or user-controlled; but not limited by controllers or power sources. "Nature provides many examples of ChemBot functionality" such as mice, octopi, and insects, DARPA said in its request for proposals.
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Continuum: Designing Timelines for Hierarchies, Relationships and Scale
University of Southampton (ECS) (03/31/07) Andre, Paul; Wilson, Max L.; Russell, Alistair

Temporal visualizations are limited in that they only represent discrete data points or single data types as they occur along one timeline, and the authors present Continuum to address this limitation and represent faceted properties of temporal events. Continuum is a timeline visualization tool that facilitates the representation and exploration of hierarchical relationships in temporal data, the expression of relationships between events across periods, and user-focused control over the level of detail of any relevant facet in order to allow the system user to ascertain a focus point regardless of the degree of zoom over the temporal domain. The important data is always presented without redundancy at all detail levels. Through the use of histograms and detail controllers, Continuum can visually represent and interrogate with relevant detail levels over substantially bigger data sets than are provisioned in currently available services. With Continuum, temporal information is visualized in either a dynamic hierarchy, across concept relationships/associations, or in large-scale overviews with relevant details. Continuum users commented that the tool allows the richer, more innovative exploration of data, and some were especially drawn to the control over the data facets they could wield via Continuum.
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Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman: 'Live Cheaply'
Linux Insider (04/04/07) Blangger, Tim

In a talk given at Lehigh University, Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman explained his beliefs on the negatives of proprietary software and the importance of free software. Stallman spoke about the goal of creating an alternative to the computing landscape run by corporations and their software, which is full of hidden features and prohibitive rules. However, he did show support for the free market, saying that free software is better for such an economy than the limiting aspects of proprietary software. Choosing software or an operating system for convenience, reliability, and ease of use is "a fundamental mistake because they don't allow us to see what is important," according to Stallman. Proprietary software leaves the computing community divided "because we can't make copies to help our neighbors and helpless because we can't see the source code," he added. Stallman went on to express his disapproval of combining free software with proprietary, because this confuses the issue and sends a message "that it's OK to use proprietary software." He named Utoto, Blag, and gNewSense as popular systems that are free of proprietary software. Cell phones also came under attack, for their ability to be used as "a tracking device, even when it is turned off." In summing up a broader philosophy, Stallman suggested, "Don't buy a house, a car, or have children. The problem is they're expensive and you have to spend all your time making money to pay for them."
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Putting Some Circuit Breakers Into DNS to Protect the Net
CircleID (04/03/07) Auerbach, Karl

Smart criminals on the Internet are using viruses to take over computers and are then hiding the location of these computers and preventing the PCs from being shut down by rapidly changing the address data that domain names represent, moving the domain's control point from minute to minute. Changes to the address data normally take several months or longer to occur. But the criminals are quickly changing the DNS records in the authoritative servers for a given domain and then combining this technique with low time-to-live values on DNS information, which causes cached data to be eliminated quickly. In this manner, the criminals are protecting themselves by eliminating a potential audit trail. The criminals are using the same tactic on the name servers used for the domain, making it more difficult to come to grips with the attack. One potential solution to this problem offered by Karl Auerbach is an Internet "circuit breaker" that calls for domain names, such as example.com, to be removed from their zones, such as .com, during an emergency situation. This circuit breaker would prevent domains from being resolved and would prevent the quick shifting of A and NS records.
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Easy on the Eyes
Economist (04/04/07)

An MIT researcher has developed a computer system that mimics activities of the human brain to recognize broad categories of objects in images, such as animals. When shown an image for only an instant, people often think they would only be guessing if they answered whether to not they saw an animal in the picture, but they usually answer correctly. The functions that allow the brain to immediately carry out visual processes work hierarchically, meaning that signals from the retina go to the first area of processing, which sends a signal to the next area, and so on until the final area is able to identify general categories of objects. Thomas Serre's project aimed to reverse-engineer the brain's ventral visual pathway, where the aforementioned processes occur. He first re-created the time in a person's infancy where nerve cells orient themselves to visual features based on how often they are seen, while showing the computer a variety of photographs. Once these sensitivities were established, he showed more images, now indicating whether each contained an animal or not. The system he created had processing units in different areas that were sensitive to the same set of features as the nerve cells in analogous areas of the brain. In tests, the computer outperformed human subjects in answering whether or not photographs contained animals, with an accuracy of 82 percent compared to the humans' accuracy of 80 percent. The computer and the humans often answered incorrectly for the same image. Aside from more practical applications such as finding child-pornography sites, the technology could provide insights into how the human brain operates, as Serre has been able to create artificial "lesions" and observe their effect.
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How to Read Signs of Safe Software
Government Computer News (04/02/07) Vol. 26, No. 7, Buxbaum, Peter A.

The development of metrics for software assurance is still in its infancy, according to speakers at the DHS-DOD Software Assurance Forum in Fairfax, Va. Tony Sager, chief of the vulnerability analysis and operations group at the National Security Agency, said being able to pick the 10 best software security solutions out of a field of thousands requires some sense of measurement, an ability to determine which solutions are the best. Microsoft has been developing metrics to reduce the level of vulnerabilities in its software, including internal measurements for the assurance of the software it ships, according to senior director of security engineering strategy Steven Lipner. He said the metrics are aimed at improving future product versions, and Microsoft wants to assess products before they are shipped. Microsoft has developed two software assurance metrics. The first, known as Relative Attack Surface Quotient, measures such things as default configurations, open ports, permissions services, and the number of ActiveX controls available by default, Lipner explained. The second metric is informally known as the "vulnerability coverage method," and basically functions like an independent community of researches reporting vulnerabilities in new versions of Microsoft products. Reported vulnerabilities are analyzed by a team at Microsoft, who then determine if the vulnerability has been removed from updated versions of the product; if the vulnerability has not, the team decides if it should be removed.
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