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April 11, 2007

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ISI Leads $13.8 Million in E-Science Effort to Tame Terabyte Torrents
USC Viterbi School of Engineering (04/08/07)

The University of Southern California Information Sciences Institute's Windward project aims to achieve "Scaleable Knowledge Discovery through Grid Workflows," to allow researchers to analyze data at the same speed it is gathered. Windward will incorporate the ideas of industrial engineering, to bring together machinery and raw materials to create automated workflows. "Significant scientific advances today are achieved through complex distributed scientific computations," explains project leader Yolanda Gil. "These computations, often represented as workflows of executable jobs and their associated dataflow, may be composed of thousands of steps that integrate diverse models and data sources." Gil and her research team plan to achieve Windward's goals by integrating artificial intelligence and gird computing. ISI project leader Paul Cohen has extensive experience in using AI systems for complex data analysis and in developing the Semantic Web, which will be incorporated into the Windward system. Grid computing will allow the construction of the regional, national, or even intercontinental AI structures needed for workflow science. ISI collaborator Ewa Deelman has created a workflow system called Pegasus, which maps large numbers of computations to distributed resources while ensuring optimal performance of the application. AI and grid collaboration has already proved successful in earthquake science at ISI. Researchers will now create new workflow techniques to represent complex algorithms and their differences so they can be autonomously selected and arranged to meet the needs of applications.
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Strategy Consultant at ACM SIGCHI to Address Role of Mobile Phones in Driving Emerging Markets Development
AScribe Newswire (04/10/07)

The ACM Special Interest Group on Computer-Interaction's CHI 2007 conference will conclude with a keynote address from strategy consultant Niti Bhan, who will discuss the importance of the mobile phone in emerging markets. Bhan's speech, "The mobile phone as a post-industrial platform for socio-economic development," will discuss the device's ability to provide services such as health care, finance, early warning, and disaster communications for millions of underprivileged people worldwide. In 2006, the mobile phone became the first communications device to be used by more people in the developing world than the developed world. Bhan will provide examples of mobile phones providing remote expert medical consultation and transactional banking to people who would otherwise have no such access. She will explain her beliefs that communications technology offers the ability to close the digital divide between the "haves" and "have nots" of the world, creating a higher standard of living for everyone. The theme for CHI 2007, which takes place between April 28 to May 3 in the San Jose Convention Center, is "Reach Beyond," which both celebrates the past and welcomes the future. More information can be found at www.chi2007.org.
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Carnegie Mellon P2P System Could Speed Movie, Music Downloads
Carnegie Mellon News (04/10/07) Spice, Byron; Watzman, Anne

Carnegie Mellon University researchers have developed a way to speed up P2P downloads by using not only identical files, but similar files as well. Having more possible sources to download from could decrease download times significantly. Using a process known as handprinting--taken from techniques used in clustering search results or identifying spam--to identify files with similarities to that being downloaded, Similarity-Enhanced Transfer (SET) has shown its ability to accelerate the downloading of MP3s by 71 percent. And SET downloaded a movie trailer 30 percent faster by using files that were only 47 percent similar. "This is a technique that I would like people to steal," says CMU computer science professor David G. Anderson. "In some sense, the promise of P2P has been greater than the reality," as a result of both Internet service providers limiting the amount of bandwidth used for uploading and users that decrease their computers uploading capabilities to allow improved downloading. Analysis shows evidence that the files most commonly shared on P2P networks probably contain many of the same elements. Music files could be identical but have different artist-and-title headers, for example. Theoretically, a user downloading a movie translated into German could be downloading the video portion from the English version and the audio from the German. SET works the same way as BitTorrent, by breaking a source file into many smaller pieces that are simultaneously downloaded from sources with the identical file, but unlike BitTorrent SET keeps looking for similar files and downloads matching pieces.
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Efficient Hardware Repair
Technology Review (04/10/07) Ross, Rachel

University of Illinois-Champagne computer science professor Josep Torrellas is developing a system dubbed Phoenix designed to fix defective computer chips using downloadable patches. Phoenix is based on field programmable gate array technology that sits on the chip and can identify defects and provide solutions. Torrellas' system works like an antivirus program, and if it finds a defect the manufacturer could instantly transmit the necessary patch to all affected machines. Included in the patch is a defect signature that identifies the cause of the problem. After being installed, the patch reprograms Phoenix to look for the defect signature and prevent a crash. Phoenix technology could allow manufacturers to produce chips faster, knowing that any problems could be fixed with patches. Although Torrellas is not the first to design a hardware patch system, he claims that his is the most efficient and can address more problems than other systems. The system is not able to remedy all hardware problems, but it can address those bugs that would result in a crash. Torrellas' team conducted a study of past problems with major manufacturer's chips and decide upon the problem areas that Phoenix would focus on, such as memory subsystems. Despite its ability to detect and fix bugs, vendors may find the technology too time consuming and costly to implement. However, Torrellas believes that Phoenix will prove its worth, since "there is more scope for miscommunication" as "bigger teams are designing the processors."
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Game Developers Adapt to Multicore World
CNet (04/11/07) Krazit, Tom

After years of using patches to make software written for single core processors take advantage of multicore architectures, video game developers have begun taking multicore into consideration from the beginning of development. Intel has recently announced the release of software development tools to help developers make the switch to multicore. When parallel processing first appeared in consumer machines in 2005, the games being released had been in development for several years. At that point the video game industry was at a "D-minus," in programming for multicore, said Intel gaming director Randy Stude. "I'd say we're at a 'C-plus' right now." Intel and AMD both made significant efforts to promote simple ways of making games use parallel computing. "It won't give the same kind of performance, but it's going to help, and it's better than nothing," explains Jon Peddie Research's Ted Pollak. There are currently about 25 games on the market that were built with multicore in mind. "We feel it's a choice you have to make from the outset," said THQ representative Ben Collier. However, Intel believes the move to multicore is inevitable as all PCs are expected to be at least dual-core in the near future, while quad-core PC chips are on the way. "The learning curve is becoming less and less to get threading work done," says Intel's Stude.
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Assitive Robot Adapts to People, New Places
MIT News (04/09/07) Trafton, Anne

MIT researchers have developed Domo, a robot that can both interact with humans and pickup unknown objects and place them on a shelf. Domo represents the kind of technology that could one day assist the elderly or work in fields such as agriculture or space travel. "The real potential of robots in the future is going to be realized when they can do many types of manual tasks," says Domo contributor Aaron Edsinger. Unlike assembly machine robots, intelligent robots would not have to be placed in a controlled environment. "We want the robot to adapt to the world, not the world to adapt to the robot," Edsinger says. Domo's cameras relay information to 12 computers that analyze what is seen and choose what to focus on, such as unexpected movements or a human face. If the robot is told to place an object on a shelf, it uses one hand to feel for the shelf and the other to reach for the object. Once Domo has a hold of the object, it finds the tip of the object and wiggles it a bit in order to understand the size of the object and the best way to transfer it to the other hand or to place it on the shelf. To make it safe for human interaction, Edsinger's team put springs in Domo's arms, hands, and neck that let it feel pressure when a person touches it. The researchers believe that robots and humans working together could do things that neither could do separately. "If you can offload some parts of the process and let the robot handle the manual skills, that is a nice synergistic relationship," he says. "The key is that it has to be more useful or valuable than the effort put into it." Rather than having a single robot housekeeper, the home of the future is expected to have many specialized robots.
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More Power to Google
eWeek (04/06/07) Taft, Darryl K.

In a talk entitled "Watts, faults, and other fascinating 'dirty' words computer architects can no longer afford to ignore," Google engineer Luiz Barroso explained the company's desire to achieve optimal data efficiency for its data centers. "Power/energy efficiency and fault-tolerance are central to the design of large-scale computing systems today," said Barroso. "And technology trends are likely to make them even more relevant in the future, increasingly affecting smaller-scale systems." Building a data center costs more than powering it for 10 years, so the goal is to build them to use as few watts as possible, since price is directly related to watts. In its research of its own data centers, Google found that warm temperature was not a significant factor in failures. In its efforts to reach optimal usage, Google has accepted that single-thread performance "crashes into a power wall," and that distributed shared memory systems can be crippled by "a single fault," Barroso said. He imagined a day when power companies gave away servers for free so long as the customer signed an energy contract. Google is currently working with partners, including Intel and AMD, "to create open standards for higher-efficiency power supply units," Barroso said. The applicability of multicore processors and growing parallelism is subject to the ability of programmers to develop efficient and concurrent programs. However, this could be easier for Google, since it is working with an extremely large amount of data. Along with fault-tolerant software, Google uses System Health Infrastructure to provide additional monitoring of servers. This technology may be open-sourced, but "some of this is infrastructure and we build it so intertwined with other software we have that it's hard to pull things apart," Barroso said.
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Social Computing Study to Track College Students' Networking Habits
Rochester Institute of Technology (04/04/07)

Rochester Institute of Technology professor Susan Barnes is developing an undergraduate online course in social computing, and it will also serve as a case study of technology and social networking. Barnes, a professor of communication who is the co-director of the Laboratory for Social Computing, will head a team of researchers from RIT's College of Computing and Information Sciences and College of Liberal Arts in preparing the course for spring 2008 and about 90 students. An emerging discipline, social computing or media involves the use of software for social and organizational collaboration, and its tools include email, instant messaging, interactive Web, and blogs. For the course, students will be required to complete social computing assignments in text-based myCourses, visuals-heavy Second Life, and a third environment that is open source and can be modified, and the researchers will analyze how the students network and solve problems in the various settings. "How students interact in different environments will tell us a lot about what's going on in online education," says Barnes. The project is made possible by a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation.
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Uncle Sam Asks Kids to Be Inventors
EE Times (04/10/07) Merritt, Rick

A Department of Commerce initiative is targeting children ages 8 to 11 in hopes of staving off an impending decrease in U.S. global competitiveness. Several Commerce advertisements will lead children to www.InventNow.org, which aims to stir up interest in innovation among children by showing them videos of other children inventing devices to solve problems. "In an innovation-driven economy, the key to our future success and competitiveness lies in making sure we are sharing America's culture of innovation with our young people," said Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is optimistic that the ads will inspire children who see them to become "more inventive; explore math, science, and other creative fields," according to USPTO director John Dudas. Given the recent fall in undergraduates pursuing computer science, "Jobs will go begging in the next few years because we don't have the people willing to take on field," says Microsoft Research VP Rick Rashid. Rashid says the number of U.S. PhD computing candidates could be 50 percent less by 2010. "We are at a low point of interest in computer science," Rashid says. The advertising effort is a product of USPTO's work with the National Inventor's Hall of Fame Foundation. The two will also collaborate on a summer camp and club for young inventors.
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Protecting Electronic Information From Theft and Abuse Is the Goal of Virginia Tech CAREER Research
Virginia Tech News (04/09/07)

Virginia Tech researcher Patrick Schaumont has been awarded a prestigious NSF grant to fund his efforts to improve information security in computing devices. The NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award is the top honor given to promising young researchers and includes a five-year, $400,000 grant. Schaumont says that as more and more information is being stored on portable computers such as an electronic key fob used to unlock a car door or the image of a signature on an electronic passports, encryption technology has not kept up to protect data stored on portable devices. "Computers of all sizes can be stolen," says Schaumont. "The way we use computers everyday is changing, so we need to rethink how to safely store information." He intends for his CAREER project to produce a methodology by which secure embedded systems can be designed. Such innovation would allow protection of information in cell phones, RFIDs, and copyrighted materials, such as audio files on portable devices. For the mandatory educational element of his CAREER project, Schaumont plans to expose students to hardware-software co-design--the development of hardware and software in an embedded system.
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IT Jobs: Tapping Teens to Fill the Gap
SearchCIO.com (04/05/07) Tucci, Linda

A Memphis summer program has had great success in stirring up interest in technology among students. After realizing that college was too late to get students interested in a career in computing, Society for Information Management (SIM) founder John Oglesby collaborated with a Memphis library to create Teen Tech Week. "We put together a program with SIM helping guide the curriculum, and the library doing all the heavy lifting," said Oglesby. Students ages 12-15 can apply for the program, which was kicked off by an orientation for students and parents that explained the opportunities available due to the current shortage of IT workers. Each program day began with a presentation by a SIM member and then introduced the "bright shiny object" of the day, new technology intended to attract attention and interest. The culmination of the project was a webcast for the library's "Teen Web Page." Three years later, the program is heavily codified and has spread to other cities. Meanwhile, public schools in Naperville, Ill., started its own IT curriculum and certification program almost 10 years ago, but in five years realized that enrollments had fallen from 100 students to eight students, and that only 1 percent of the students were passing the Cisco certification test administered by the program. Organizers realized that they had done the students "a disservice," says Naperville school technology specialist Brett Thompson, who then wrote a graduate thesis inspiring schools nationwide to change the way they teach technology. The Naperville program then began using materials from the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), and enrollment has increase by a factor of five in the networking class alone. Students that have received certification can now make money repairing computers and in summer jobs. "Even if the kids don't pursue an IT career, at least they are smarter consumers," says Thompson.
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The Future of Learning
Duke University News & Communications (04/06/07) Hicks, Sally

Duke University will host the Future of Learning Conference, an event that seeks to close the gap between the digital world and the traditional classroom setting. The April 19-21 conference, which hopes to spark dialogue by bringing together educators, public officials, and intellectuals, will address the fact that while technology has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives, the classroom remains unchanged. "There's an incredibly energetic, rich way of learning at home, and then kids go to school and it's standardized," says event coordinator Cathy Davidson. "But the education in formal learning environments can be as exciting as what they're learning at home." The conference's keynote address will be given by former Xerox chief scientist John Seely Brown, a supporter of collaborative education and learning tools that engage students rather than treating them as a passive observer. "With every new piece of technology, to make this technology work, you have to change your teaching practices," says Seely Brown. "Part of it is (thinking about) how to go from sage on the stage to being a real mentor." On the conference's final day, several "digital visionaries" will convene to discuss topics including universal access and intellectual property. "People who are learning in an Internet age are leaning in different ways," says Davidson. "If you were born after 1991, you don't know there was another way of doing things." The event is part of an international conference on the humanistic aspects of technology put together by Duke's Humanities, Arts, Science Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC).
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Compilers and More--What to Do With All Those Cores?
HPC Wire (04/06/07) Vol. 16, No. 14, Wolfe, Michael

The Portland Group compiler engineer Michael Wolfe recalls that at the Principles and Practice of Parallel Programming conference, Purdue University professor Rudolf Eigenmann cast a baleful eye on the parallel programming community, lamenting the lack of a widely accepted technique to generate parallel applications despite three decades of research. His views were countered by keynote speaker Dr. Andrew Chien of Intel, who argued that massively parallel systems and the applications that run on them are testament to the research community's success with parallel programming, but when Wolfe pointed to the need for breakthrough innovations, Chien explained that parallel programming now stresses an entirely different target environment, programmer class, and expectations. Offered as one solution to the problem of synchronizing between parallel threads or activities is transactional memory, which in the parallel programming domain entails entering a transaction, executing updates, and committing the changes; this model requires the implementation to buffer the modifications until the commit and then commit them simultaneously, but the manner of implementation has yet to be locked down. This and other challenges can be tackled in managed software environments, but there is uncertainty as to how much time must pass before transactions can move into high-performance computing. There are also a lot of unresolved matters concerning multicore processing architectures, with designs such as an array of minuscule, low-power cores on the chip or one or two large, power-guzzling cores enclosed by smaller, lower-power cores being bandied about. "My summary of all the hype for [general purpose graphics processing units] is that processors or coprocessors unconstrained by compatibility requirements, with the freedom to redesign to the latest technology, can deliver higher performance than general purpose CPUs," writes Wolfe. He explains that massively parallel systems could show up in workstations or laptops before 2020, so there is no time like the present to start brainstorming productive uses for such systems.
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Boffins Say Thin Clients Emit Less CO2
Techworld (04/05/07) Betts, Bryan

A new report from the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany indicates that the use of thin clients could save British businesses 78 million pounds in electricity and reduce CO2 emissions by 485,000 tons a year. The research assumes the replacement of 10 million desktop PCs in the United Kingdom, and it takes into consideration the extra energy costs of servers needed for thin-client computing. Dr. Hartmut Pflaum says thin clients and their server consume about 40W to 50W, compared with about 85W for PCs. Fraunhofer Institute considers the research to be timely because of the increase in focus on the change in the climate and the need to lower CO2 emissions. "Gartner says PCs contribute half a percent to global CO2 emissions so if we remove half of that it is very significant," says Stephen Yeo of Igel Technology, the maker of the thin clients used in the study.
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For Him, Scrabble Is a Science
Boston Globe (04/09/07) Baker, Billy

Jason Katz-Brown, a 20-year-old junior studying computer science at MIT, has developed Quackle to play Scrabble competitively the same way he plays the popular game, but the artificial intelligence program often loses to humans. Brown, who has emerged as a top-flight Scrabble player over the past three years, and Quackle created a stir last November when the computer program defeated a former world champion in the finals of a human versus computer tournament in Toronto. Like highly competitive Scrabble players, Brown has memorized every word in the Scrabble dictionary, and says within a few seconds of looking at his rack he is able to find potential seven-letter words. Quackle has the mathematical prowess to respond to the game as new words are played, but luck is more of a factor in Scrabble, giving it a third dimension that Chess lacks. According to many experts, Quackle is unable to match top human players in the ability to gauge future moves based on unseen tiles, the score, and the layout of the board. If such "look-ahead" analysis is performed too early in the game, "you're wasting your time because there's too much randomness ahead of you," says Joel Sherman, who says he beats Quackle about half the time. Katz-Brown plans to study the way Quackle plays and apply his findings to "maximize the luck" of the computer program.
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Biggest Threat to Internet Could Be a Massive Virtual Blackout
National Journal's Technology Daily (04/05/07) Noyes, Andrew

A distributed denial of service attack presents the biggest danger to the Internet in the 21st century, according to ICANN's Susan Crawford. Speaking at a Hudson Institute briefing, Crawford said the Feb. 6 zombie attack on six root-zone servers called attention to the fact that such servers have little or no oversight. To reduce the risk of DDOS attacks, the number of zombie computers must be reduced, but "people are turning millions of PCs into weapons ... and we don't have a lot of data about what is happening," said Crawford. "Researchers are often operating in the dark." DHS has shown an inability to address this danger, she added. "They're trying, but many of their efforts lack timeframes for completion." Crawford does not believe legislation could prevent DDOS attacks, because Congress' reach "is too local for the networked age." The best solution would be to focus money and attention on potential global educational initiatives, perhaps through the founding of a multi-stakeholder body with a "new, friendly-acronym," she said. ICANN's power is overly based on contracts and is not wide enough to have the necessary impact, and the Internet Governance Forum is "highly political" and "not necessarily the best forum for a technical discussion of best practices," claimed Crawford. She named routing security as an important future consideration, because the ability of hackers to place false paths in a routing system to obtain packets or spur a DDOS attack increases as "routing tables" grow in size to meet the needs of IPv6.
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The H-1B Limit
InformationWeek (04/09/07)No. 1133, P. 29; McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

With the H-1B visa cap met in a single day and the attention-hogging presidential election only one year away, the time seems to be ripe for new H-1B legislation. A bill introduced by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) would prohibit outsourcing of H-1B or L-1 workers to other companies; require that H-1B employers make "good faith" efforts to hire U.S. workers; and require that jobs and H-1B applications be posted on the Department of Labor Web site. Opponents of an increase in the visa cap insist that companies are abusing the visas by bringing workers to the United States for training, only to ship them overseas to work, so many software vendors who do not use the visas for this purpose are trying to differentiate themselves from those who do. Over the last four quarters, the U.S. IT unemployment rate has been at 2.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor, compared with unemployment rate across all management and professional jobs of 2.2 percent. The number of IT jobs is up only 1 percent from 2001 and 5 percent from 2003. Thanks to exemptions for those working at universities and other nonprofits, about 120,000 new H-1B visa holders enter the United States each year, but the 10 biggest H-1B applicants in 2006 were India-based IT companies, says Rochester Institute of Technology's Rob Hira. Hira supports the Grassley-Durbin bill, since it should eliminate the need for a cap increase, and believes the way to improve the country's ability to retain skilled workers is through green cards, although the current system is slow and subject to quotas. With politicians very likely to turn their attention to presidential and reelection campaigns next year, H-1B reformers understand the importance of getting legislation passed soon.
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Mixed Feelings
Wired (04/07) Vol. 15, No. 4, P. 152; Bains, Sunny

Expanding our range of sensory input by tapping the neuroplasticity of the human brain is the focus of research in labs around the world. The key lies in determining the manner in which the sensory data should be changed into a form that the brain is already programmed to receive, such as taste, sound, touch, and visual imagery. Tackling the problem of spatial disorientation was the motive behind the development of the Tactical Situational Awareness System, a garment equipped with vibration elements that tell the wearer which way is down. A more advanced model, the Spatial Orientation Enhancement System, can make flight intuitive by triggering vibrations on specific parts of the body in response to a change in direction or orientation. Neuroscientists at Wicab, founded by the late researcher Paul Bach-y-Rita, have developed a "tactile display" consisting of an electrode-studded mouthpiece connected to a pulse generator that triggers electric current against the tongue. Testing has demonstrated that the device can restore balance to people with inner-ear disorders by generating a tactile square that moves in relation to the user's movements. The usability of sensory prosthetics ultimately depends on achieving a greater understanding of the brain's information processing capabilities.
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