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ACM TechNews
May 4, 2007

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Welcome to the May 4, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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ACM Expands Online Resources for Continuous Learning
AScribe Newswire (05/03/07)

ACM is doubling the number of online courses from SkillSoft to cover a wider range of computing, information technology, business management, and leadership subjects in an effort to offer more continuous learning opportunities online for professionals and students. ACM members will find IT professional certification courses on new technologies from IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun, and the Linux Professional Institute; courses on topics from Web development to database design; and business-related courses on project management, time management, leadership, and team building. ACM also says it is expanding the number of online books in its virtual high tech library. Members will be able to access the online resources for free. "With these easily accessible resources, ACM is providing a place for computing professionals and students to turn for continuous learning opportunities in their respective fields," says ACM CEO John White. "Our goal is to enable our members to improve their skills, increase their knowledge, and stay competitive in industries that have become increasingly global." For more information, visit http://pd.acm.org/cp_home.cfm
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I.B.M. to Announce an Advance in Making Chips Faster and More Energy-Efficient
New York Times (05/03/07) P. C3; Markoff, John

IBM scientists have developed a new material that could increase the speed of semiconductors and reduce their energy consumption. The new material is made by a manufacturing process that uses heat to create trillions of atomic-sized holes in a thin layer of material deposited on top of the conducting wires at different steps in the chip-making process. The material is extracted through the holes, leaving insulating vacuum channels around the ultra-thin wires that make the microchip. The holes make themselves as a result of the heating, instead of being drilled or etches as is the current practice, and the self-assembly process creates features much smaller than the limits of current chip-making systems. The use of a vacuum insulator is not a new idea, but the new approach is what makes it possible for the technique to be used in mainstream chip manufacturing, and the researchers say the technique is the first use of a new series of technologies that may one day allow complete electronic circuits to be made on a molecular scale without photographic machines. IBM says the technique can increase chip speed by as much as 35 percent while reducing energy consumption by 15 percent.
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Web Services 'Wizard' May Help Computers Do People's Work, Researcher Says
Stanford News (05/02/07) Levy, Dawn

Charles Petrie, a senior research scientist in the Stanford Logic Group of the Computer Science Department, is working to create software that enables computers to negotiate with each other over the Internet and perform tasks that currently require human time and effort. Petrie's "world wide wizard" would know when situations changed on the Internet and in the real world and be able to adapt and create solutions. Petrie uses an example of a band to illustrate how the wizard could perform human tasks. The wizard could schedule auditions, get copyright advice from a free legal source, solicit equipment bids from vendors, find venues available for performances, hire roadies, and schedule tasks into a plan that could be executed as a tour. The wizard would also be able to create backup plans in case a venue is cancelled or equipment is lost. Petrie says the wizard would be able to do the same type of planning, decision making, and scheduling for disaster relief efforts, plan a business meeting, or schedule a trip. Petrie says the problem is that different sites frequently use abbreviations for words, such as "flt" for "flight," and while a human has no problem understanding that the two are the same, a computer would exclude the abbreviation. Petrie says the solution is to develop formal semantics, or logical expressions from which meaning can be inferred. "The goal is to come up with a formalism that allows everybody to express things the same way so that your machine can go out and access all these different services and put them together to give you exactly what you want," Petrie says.
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The ACM Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy
Technology Review (05/03/07) Garfinkel, Simson

The annual ACM conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, now in its 17th year, was once the only venue where topics such as cyber-rights, wiretaps, and cryptography policy were discussed. SRI International's Peter Neumann, who has been following computer security and related risks for years and is the man who named Unix, opened the conference by saying the problem is that people believe computers are trustworthy and that while we try to boost security systems, the threat truly comes from people who have legitimate access to those systems and intentionally violate their positions. Bruce Schneier from Counterpane Systems spoke on how the younger generation has a different approach toward security, commonly posting everything in their lives online at social networking sites, even to the extent that some reveal company secrets. Whitfield Diffie, from Sun Microsystems and inventor of public key cryptography, talked about the need for the government to run surveillance so it can know what its citizens need, but that surveillance should be regulated. Diffie pointed out that the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which required all telephone switches to have wire-tapping technology built in and originally excluded the Internet, could now be applied to VoIP as it is being to replace regular phone service. Some of the other speakers touched on subjects including the use of computers in mapping the human genome and rights surrounding the use of genetic information, and problems with organizations, particularly non-profits, losing their domain names to pornographic sites.
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Florida Acts to Eliminate Touch-Screen Voting System
New York Times (05/04/07) P. A19; Aguayo, Terry; Sexton, Christine Jordan

Florida state legislators passed a vote to replace touch-screen voting machines in 15 counties as a result of trouble with the machines in the 2000 presidential election. The new system, which is scheduled to be operational in time for the 2008 presidential election, uses optical scan voting machines, which are used in Florida's other 52 counties. The plan was approved by the Florida Senate last week and passed through the House of Representatives unanimously on May 3. In November 2006, more than 18,000 votes cast on touch-screen machines were not recorded in what became a close and highly contested Congressional race in Sarasota County that was won by Republican Vern Buchanan by only 369 votes. Florida state officials said the switch to optical scanning is expected to cost $28 million, but the federal Election Assistance Commission said the state could use money from the Help America Vote Act, which provides money to improve voting equipment. Critics say the switch will be more costly than estimated. Palm Beach County election supervisor Arthur Anderson believes his county alone will cost $19 million. Touch-screen machines can still be used for voters with disabilities until 2012, under the new legislation, but after that paper-ballot technology will be required.
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Japan One Step Closer to Quantum Computer
Associated Press (05/04/07) Freire, Carl

Researchers at NEC in Japan and the state-funded Institute of Physical and Chemical Research have demonstrated a circuit that can control the state of qubits and how strongly the pair of elemental particles interact with one another. The development has huge implications for researchers who would like to build a quantum computer. NEC's team is the same group of researchers that was able to get qubits to interact with one another and control their ability to seemingly be in a number of places simultaneously. Quantum computing would surpass the speeds of current machines that handle factoring, simulations, and other exhaustive problems, according to many researchers. Nonetheless, most observers believe researchers are many years away from building a quantum computer, and that the idea of such a device is still hypothetical. And while D-Wave Systems earlier in the year claimed to use quantum mechanics in one of its machines, experts are skeptical about the Canadian company because it has not made its research available for peer review.
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Anita Borg Institute Honors Three 'Women of Vision'
Business Wire (05/03/07)

The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI) recognized and celebrated Deborah Estrin, Leah Jamieson, and Duy-Loan Le May 3, 2007, for the examples they have set for women in technology. Estrin, a professor of computer science at the University of California Los Angeles, won the award in the Innovation category for her research efforts in network interconnection and simulation, embedded networking, sensornet, and security. ABI honored Dr. Jamieson, Dean of Engineering at Purdue University, with the award in the Social Impact category for her education and social change efforts through the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program, which she co-founded. And Le, a senior fellow at Texas Instruments, received the award in the Leadership category for the major roles she has played in projects that have had an enormous impact on science and technology. "Women, individually and collectively, have the power to improve our world and change the face of technology," said ABI President Dr. Telle Whitney. "These women are using that power in ways that have earned them a rightful place as role models for the next generation."
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HAL 9000-Style Machines, Kubrick's Fantasy, Outwit Traders
Bloomberg (05/03/07) Kelly, Jason

Computer scientist and machine learning expert Michael Kearns, in conjunction with Lehman Brothers Holdings, is one of numerous researchers writing software that can mine billions of trades and recognize promising stocks as part of an effort to equip computers with artificial intelligence. Aite Consulting predicts that the percentage of U.S. stock trades fueled by algorithms will expand from 33 percent in 2006 to 50 percent by the end of the decade, but the fluid nature of the stock market is a tough challenge for current AI programs, which function better in scenarios that follow rigid, unchanging rules, such as chess matches. Kearns explains that even refined AI programs are missing a vital ingredient, common sense, which is especially risky when it comes to trading. It is possible that machine learning could enable computers to develop their own intelligence and distill rules from massive data sets, while natural language processing (NLP) could imbue software with the ability to comprehend human language and deduce stock market knowledge from a variety of sources. Machine-learning programs are being deployed by financial service firms, and these programs learn to execute trades by solving problems in reverse. The neural networking field concentrates on building systems that can mimic neurons and human thought processes, which could be immensely helpful in understanding the subtle nuances of the stock market. One researcher forecasts an integration of machine learning and NLP that will be applied to trading, and an important breakthrough will be the determination of what categories of data the AI programs should use.
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Camera Flashes Reveal Scenes in 3D
New Scientist (05/03/07) Simonite, Tom

Researchers Kazunori Umeda and Naoya Ogawa at Chuo University in Tokyo, Japan, say they are working on digital cameras and camera-phones that can capture 3D information using only a built-in flash and software. A prototype device called a Motion Processor, made by Toshiba in 1999, inspired the two researchers. The Motion Processor used infrared LEDs to capture 3D information by recording the pattern and intensity of reflected infrared light. By calculating the distance and orientation of an object, the Motion Processor could detect hand gestures to control software. "Toshiba proposed the infrared system as an interface device for a PC--a kind of 3D mouse," Umeda says. "Our aim is to add range measurement function to a standard digital camera." Umeda's team used an ordinary consumer digital camera and took several pictures of simple objects with and without the flash. Mathematically subtracting one image from the other allowed the team to examine just the reflected light from the flash. By comparing the pattern and strength of the reflected light, the team was able to estimate the distances and relative angles of different surfaces in the scene. A rough 3D model can be reconstructed from this information, although some surfaces, mainly highly reflective ones such as mirrors, are difficult to correctly estimate. Umeda says one application for the system would be to distinguish a person in an image from the surroundings.
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Technology Helps Visualize 'Faces' of Biology
ASU Insight (05/01/07) Jenk, Dan

Arizona State University assistant professors Michael Rosenberg and Jieping Ye of the Biodesign Institute's Center for Evolutionary Functional Genomics were recently awarded more than $1.2 million in grants from the National Science Foundation to expand and create technology to help sort and navigate a rapidly growing biological datapool. Ye, a computer scientist, is developing a computational framework to analyze biological images using machine learning technology to compare expression patterns in images of embryonic fruit flies to see if the genes share the same function. Ye hopes to design a system that can automatically identify an embryo's developmental stage and identify spatial overlaps in the gene expression patterns. Rosenberg is developing the second generation of a methods and software package called PASSaGE (pattern analysis, spatial statistics and geographic exegesis) that can be used to analyze any information that has a geographical or spatial component. Rosenberg says such information could be the clustering of diseases in different regions of the world or the distribution of species in an ecological environment. Rosenberg says that although there have been tools that perform this type of function for a long time, each research discipline has its own way. PASSaGE takes elements common to methods in scientific disciplines such as ecology, geology, and geography and combines them into a single, more user-friendly package.
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Hacking the Online Ballot Box
Guardian Unlimited (UK) (05/03/07) Bradbury, Danny

A series of high-tech pilot projects gave some voters in the United Kingdom the opportunity to cast their votes over the Internet in elections on May 3, but experts are questioning the reliability and security of Internet voting. Despite security evaluations by the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) and the Electoral Commission, independent experts identified flaws in a least two of the election's pilot projects, calling them "catastrophically weak" and claiming it would have been easy to manipulate votes in some districts testing the software. The DCA said it was aware of potential loopholes but believes security procedures were strong enough to withstand hacking attempts, and the Electoral Commission said Internet security will be one of the major areas it will examine while reporting on online voting. Even with these reassurances, the e-democracy organization Open Rights Group's voting campaign coordinator Jason Kitcat worries that the lack of a paper trail makes oversight difficult and even threatens democracy. Part of Kitcat's fears may stem from problems in the United States with direct recording electronic voting machines (DREs), which became a heavily debated issue in the 2000 election when George Bush and Al Gore were within a few hundred votes of each other. Talks of vote stealing were widespread, and some states have since banned the heavily scrutinized machines. Former ACM President Barbara Simons, a computer scientist and Internet voting expert, notes some of the dangers in Internet voting that DREs avoid. "At least you have a chance of doing an audit with a DRE," Simons says. "With Internet voting, you can't." Simons says DRE voting could be made more transparent by designing the machines to print marked ballots based on the voter's entry that could be fed into an optical scanner to register the vote, and provide a paper trail in case of an audit.
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A Program That Gives Saudi Women a SWIFT Start in Technology
MIT News (05/02/07) MacMillian, Amy

An MIT graduate student in system design and management has won the first runner-up prize in the Jeddah Economic Forum Collegiate Business Venture Award 2007 for her efforts to provide Saudi Arabian women with basic computer skills and the experience of working for a real company. After obtaining undergraduate and master's degrees in computer science and math in the United States, Nada Hashmi returned to her native country in 2005 to work for the College of Business Administration, and the lack of technology in Saudi Arabia and the limited opportunity for women to gain IT skills inspired her a year later to coordinate a partnership for women at the private college with Women in Technology (WIT). The female students became Microsoft-certified through an outside trainer, and they were able to teach the entire Microsoft Office suite, the basics of the Internet, and e-commerce to other women. Hashmi set up a nonprofit company, Student Women Initiative For Technology (SWIFT), for the 50 participants. "They had to go through finance to raise and manage funds, and they had to deal with a president and a vice president," says Hashmi. "I wanted to do a project that's good for society and the school."
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Send in the Robots: Robot Teams Handle Hazardous Jobs
Kansas State University News (05/01/07) Hall, Michelle

Kansas State University associate professor of computing and information sciences Scott DeLoach has been using a $219,140 grant from the Department of Defense to research and create intelligent sensor networks. DeLoach's approach uses robots, sensors, laptops, and servers to handle dangerous but necessary tasks such as searching buildings for weapons of mass destructions or clearing supply routes of improvised explosive devices. DeLoach's projects examine how robot teams can respond to changing environments when performing a task, an action that will require the robots to have knowledge of the team's organizational structure, individual team member capabilities, the environment, the team goal, and appropriate reasoning mechanisms. "The goal is to establish 'organizational reasoning' as a key component in a new approach to build highly robust cooperative robot teams," DeLoach says. So far, a model of autonomous teams has been developed that allows teams to reason about organizing and reorganizing, along with a goal model for dynamic systems that allows the dynamics of the environment to be captured, according to DeLoach. The project has also developed a high-level simulator that tests the teams reasoning algorithms to determine if the team actually adapts the problem-solving process to their environment. The robotic team structure will allow a small number of operators to control multiple teams of robots, rather than multiple operators controlling a small number of robots.
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Motion-Sensitive Laptop Developed
BBC News (04/30/07)

BT's research labs is developing the BT Balance, a type of tablet laptop capable of responding to movement controls and designed to help people with disabilities or the elderly who may have difficulty moving the mouse or keyboard. BT researcher David Chatting said the objective is to create a machine that is as easy to use as an Etch-A-Sketch. The BT Balance can be used to read books or documents, flipping the monitor to tell the computer to turn the page, or navigate a map by tilting the computer up for north, down for south, right for east, and left for west. BT says the system could be useful for someone using their laptop in tricky conditions or with one hand, such as a crowded train. BT Balance works through the use of an accelerometer, which works be detecting changes in the acceleration and gravity of an object compared to the static gravity of the earth. Accelerometers are used in cars to detect accidents and inflate the airbag, and in devices such as the Nintendo Wii controller and Apple computers to detect when the laptop is being dropped. BT has combined an accelerometer with software to interpret the data and control the cursor and programs. Chatting said the project is still a research project, as BT is interested in developing communication tools for BT Balance so users can create messages and perform common day-to-day tasks.
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Net Neutrality Advocates Ready for New Congress
PC Magazine (04/26/07) Albanesius, Chloe

Claiming that the future of the Internet is at stake, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) recently announced that he intends to renew his push for "net neutrality" legislation in the Senate. Net neutrality is a concept that would provide all Web sites with equal rights to fast download and access speeds, the theory being that larger retailers with faster access would have a distinct advantage over small retailers on the Web. Net neutrality "has moved from an unknown technology issue to one of the dominant telecom and Internet policy debates in D.C.," Dorgan said. The CEOs of some top ISPs have made it clear that they oppose efforts to legislate net neutrality, arguing that ISPs should be allowed to provide quicker download times to companies that are willing to pay for such services. Representatives of MoveOn.org and the Christian Coalition voiced their support for the issue of net neutrality, with the latter group expressing concern that ISPs would effectively be able to "control our content" because the coalition's church services are highly dependent on Internet broadcasts. Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, predicted that the issue will heat up during the summer and fall, once the transition of power from Republicans to Democrats has been completed.
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Network Warfare
Government Computer News (04/30/07) Vol. 26, No. 9, Jackson, William

The Cyber Defense Exercise is not only the capstone program for information assurance classes at the nations military academies, but is also a rigorous competition that will test the academies' computer science students against a hand-picked group of National Security Agency security experts called the Red Team. Students from West Point, the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, the Coast Guard Academy, and the Merchant Marine Academy all participate in the five-day competition where the Red Team will try to break into and shut down a network built by the students. The network is required to include a Web server providing dynamic content from a back-end database, an email server with public encryption, chat service, file sharing, and a Domain Name System for name resolution. To simulate real-world use and the possibility of users exposing the network to malicious programs, the NSA hid malware in a virtual machine that must be included in the network. The students are allowed to search the machine for malware, but the NSA experts are too good at hiding things, according to Air Force Academy assistant professor of computer science Capt. Sean Butler. The test starts with the Red Team probing the networks, looking for obvious points of entry, and gradually escalates as the hidden malware sends information back to the Red Team and they eventually begin their full assault on the last day. The score is based on how long the academies can keep their network working, and the winner will receive the coveted NSA Information Assurance Director's Trophy and bragging rights for a year, but the exercise is more than a competition. "Are they fully prepared for it? No," said Coast Guard Academy electrical engineering instructor Lt. Joseph Benin. "But they learn that what they are learning in class has value."
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High-Performance Happy
Campus Technology (04/07) Vol. 20, No. 8, P. 44; O'Hanlon, Charlene

Increasing numbers of universities are centralizing their high-performance computing (HPC) resources, yielding advantages to IT departments as well as researchers in terms of time, money, and resource access. Factors contributing to this trend include the increasingly critical role research is playing in universities' institutional identity and competitiveness, while participation in regional and national research efforts such as the National LambdaRail project requires the ability to pool resources and create an immense computing environment. HPC centralization is usually shepherded by the CIO, which makes it a priority for the university to enlist and empower an experienced CIO. "IT management of HPC takes more than just an effort to educate the researchers; there has to be buy-in on both sides," notes Texas Tech University CIO Sam Segran. Also vital to the success of central IT management is the foresight to understand where technology is going, according to Princeton University CIO Betty Leydon. "Plus, you need to link research and instruction," she adds. Centralization has not only increased the HPC capacity researchers enjoy, but has also removed the burden of cooling, power, security, and IT support from their shoulders. Through centralized IT management, universities can deliver a cutting-edge research facility that reinforces the school's reputation as a world-class institution.
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Innovation, Adoption, and Learning Impact: Creating the Future of IT
Educause Review (04/07) Vol. 42, No. 2, P. 12; Abel, Rob

Implementing technology to improve the performance of institutions of higher education requires aligning technology to the goals of improved access, affordability, accountability, quality, and innovation, as dictated in a 2006 report from a commission appointed by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, writes IMS Global Learning Consortium CEO Rob Abel. IT leaders must take an active role in strategic planning and policy discussions about institutional evaluations and outcomes, and a perspective of where institutions are in terms of the evolution of the application of technology to support learning must be obtained. This evolution has experienced substantial shifts since the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, and the root cause of these changes is the spread of Internet access, high-performance networks, and mobile devices. The design of the learning environment is guided by desirable learning types that Abel says will be enabled by the emerging science of learning, and he identifies the core components of the environment as the background, needs, and interests of the learners; an organized body of knowledge; a learning community; and formative assessment. IT is envisioned to support the learning environment, instructional strategies, and learning outcome analysis. Compelling new learning tools projected by "pragmatic" study that considers the challenges associated with the adoption of new technologies include a combination of classroom and online environments, easy publishing to Internet for a majority of faculty, augmented effectiveness of students' study, formative assessment and quality and learning outcomes through student-faculty learning interactions, and content management of faculty-produced, published, and recorded rich media. "The most important role of assessment is to provide feedback that improves the learning experience," Abel notes.
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