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June 4, 2007

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


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Research That's Changing the World: The Latest in Computing and Innovation
AScribe Newswire (06/01/07)

The Federated Computing Research Conference (FCRC) will offer more than 16 affiliated research conferences. Sponsored by ACM, FCRC is scheduled from June 9-16, 2007, at the Town and Country Resort and Convention Center in San Diego, Calif. The speaker schedule includes Bjarne Stroustrup, from Texas A&M, on June 9, in an address on C++: Evolving a Language for the Real World; and the following day ACM 2006 Turing Award winner Fran Allen will discuss Compilers for High Performance Computing. On June 11, Chuck Moore of Advanced Micro Devices will give an address on A Framework for Innovation, and Christos Papadimitriou of UC Berkeley will present Algorithmic Lens: How the Sciences are Being Transformed by the Computational Perspective. David Culler of UC Berkeley and Deborah Estrin of UCLA will give a speech on Wireless Sensing as the Internet's Front-Tier on June 12, a day that will also offer a presentation on the Future of Computer Architecture by independent consultant Bob Colwell. Other speakers include Princeton's Avi Wigderson on the Art of Reduction, Guy Steel of Sun Microsystems Labs on Designing by Accident, and the University of Washington's Ed Lazowska on Computer Science: Past, Present, and Future. FCRC will also feature the ACM Student Research Competition.
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EDA 'Software Challenged,' Gary Smith Says
EE Times (06/04/07) Goering, Richard

Although the electronic design automation (EDA) industry is growing, it needs to help solve the software development crisis, said analyst Gary Smith during a presentation on the eve of the Design Automation Conference. Smith said EDA tools need to adopt parallel programming, and many tools need to be completely rewritten. Smith said that while the industry looks strong it is "software challenged," and that semiconductor vendors want EDA vendors to provide tools for all the design challenges they are facing, and the biggest problem is software. "They're now looking for EDA vendors to provide a total hardware and software solution," Smith said. "If you want to stay providing the stuff you've always provided, you probably won't be around in five years." Smith said that EDA vendors need to parallelize their algorithms to handle designs at and beyond 100 million gates, and while some vendors have done "surface rewrites" to include parallelism in their tools, most will have to be completely replaced. Objective Analysis analyst Tom Starnes said particularly challenging areas include task partitioning, memory hierarchy, bus structure, power domains, process technology, verification, simulation, and power dynamics.
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Inside the Black Box
New York Times (06/03/07) P. BU1; Hansell, Saul

Engineers are compelled to keep modifying Google's search engine because the company is determined to reduce instances in which users are unable to find the subject of their searches quickly and accurately. Google jealously guards the mechanisms of its ranking algorithm, which is used to ascertain what Web pages best represent the targets of user queries. Google engineer Amit Singhal leads a "search-quality" team that tweaks the mathematical formulas that drive the ranking algorithm about six times a week. Among the challenges the search engine constantly faces is the sheer immensity of its scope, which ranges from services offered in over 100 languages to indexing tens of billions of Web pages and managing hundreds of millions of queries every day; filtering out a growing percentage of fraudulent pages; and rising user expectations that the engine will yield precise results with a minimal amount of input. Many complaints about broken Google queries are forwarded to Singhal and his team, who must consider how to fix them while maintaining a balance between the positive and negative effects such changes could facilitate. One recurring complaint Singhal has spent a lot of time focusing on is a lack of "freshness," or the inclusion of new or recently changed pages in a search result. Singhal concluded that simply displaying more new pages often reduces search quality, so his group concocted a mathematical model that tries to detect when users do and do not want new information, based on the level of current online enthusiasm for the topic. More and more, Google is tapping users' search histories for clues about their interests that the search engine can take into account to refine results. Federated Media CEO John Battelle estimates that search engines are responsible for bringing in 25 percent to 50 percent of visitors and a majority of new customers to online stores, while media sites are realizing that many people are skipping their home pages and jumping to the specific pages they desire via Google.
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A Few Good Women Are Needed in Computer Gaming
Computerworld (06/04/07) Pratt, Mary K.

Women are highly valued by the gaming industry for the fresh insight they can bring, and this is creating opportunities for female tech professionals looking for job options outside of the usual corporate IT departments. "If we want to have [game] titles that reach a diverse audience, our workforce has to reflect that diversity," argues Sirenia Consulting game designer and developer Sheri Graner Ray, who is also chairwoman of Women in Games International's steering committee. Peter Gollan of Iceland's CCP Games believes adding more female game designers could result in the production of content that draws more female gamers, while University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts professor Tracy Fullerton suggests that more women would become game designers if there were more games on the market that appeal to them. According to the International Game Developers Association, only 11.5 percent of the gaming industry workforce was female as of 2005. Graner Ray points out that most game designer tutorials follow a distinctly male learning paradigm, that of jumping right in and playing with the game environment, while women are more inclined to first understand games before they experiment with them. Also discouraging to female game designers are negative portrayals of women and a strong anti-female bias in popular games, notes ECD Systems CEO Jack Hart. Meanwhile, JupiterResearch analyst Michael Gartenberg observes that women and girls have a greater affinity for games that involve strategy and puzzles than in violent first-person shooter scenarios.
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See-Through Transistors
Technology Review (06/04/07) Patel-Predd, Prachi

Researchers from Purdue University and Northwestern University have developed a flexible, clear transistor that could be used to make see-through organic light-emitting diode (OLED) devices such as maps on visors and windshields, television screens in eyeglasses, and roll-up, see-through computer screens. Although it was already possible to make OLEDs transparent, a see-through display had been impossible due to the lack of a clear transistor. The new transistor uses zinc-oxide and indium-oxide nanowires that are not only see-through, but perform better than their silicon counterparts and are easier to fabricate on flexible plastic. Purdue University professor of computer and electrical engineering David Janes says the transparent transistors could lead to brighter see-through OLED displays. Other attempts to make see-though transistors either had inferior performance or were not completely see-through due to tiny metal contacts between nanotubes and electrodes. However, the new transistor provides excellent mobility, flexibility, and transparency, according to John Wagner, an electrical engineering and computer science professor specializing in transparent electronics at Oregon State University. The biggest question surrounding the transparent transistors is if they can be manufactured on a large scale. The current construction technique deposits several thousand nanowires without any method to control where the nanowires settle or how they line up. The researchers must wait until they find one appropriately aligned. Janes says there needs to be a way of putting the desired number of nanowire is the correct location.
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Prof Pioneers New Field in Nanotechnology
University of Alberta (06/01/07) Smith, Ryan

A University of Alberta research team led by Abdulhakem Elezzabi has applied plasmonics principles to spintronics technology to create a novel way of controlling the quantum state of an electron's spin, a new nanotechnology called "spinplasmonics" that the researchers believe will lead to revolutionary advances in computer electronics and many other areas. Spinplasmonics may result in the creation of very efficient, electron-spin-based photonic devices, which could be used to build computers with extraordinary memory capabilities. "We've only just begin to scratch the surface of this field, but we believe we have the physics sorted out and one day this technology will be used to develop very fast, very small electronics that have a very low power consumption," Elezzabi says. Using gold and cobalt samples, Elezzabi and his team were able to demonstrate a plasmonically-activated spintronic device that turns a light on and off by controlling the spin of electrons. The researchers believe that with a slight alteration to the sample structure the effect would become non-volatile, so any result could be indefinitely maintained without a power source. Elezzabi believes this technology will move computer electronics away from silicon-based semiconductors to a new era of metal-based electronics with light driven circuits. "To me, this is almost a natural evolution of the two fields," Elezzabi says. "This opens up a lot of possibilities; this is just the beginning."
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UIC Working on Making Virtual Chats a Reality
Chicago Tribune (06/04/07) Van, Jon

University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) researchers, working with colleagues from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, have received a three-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to explore and monitor the development of virtual, 3D online chat. Director of UIC's Electronic Visualization Laboratory Jason Leigh notes that graphics technology has already advanced enough to create realistic-looking human avatars in three dimensions, speech recognition is more than 90 percent accurate, and computer image-processing speeds are close to real time. UIC has also developed technology that can create 3D images without the use of special glasses. UIC professor of communication Steve Jones says an important factor in the project is to create body language for the avatar as it responds to comments and questions. Subtle movements, gestures, or speech patterns such as a slight pause before speaking, can have great meaning and have been missing from software programs so far, Jones says. The project will use video cameras to record a person's mannerisms, feeding that and other information into the avatar program. Leigh says that such technology may be applied to preserve virtual avatars of people with unique knowledge, such as knowledge vital to running a business or other organization. "The goal is to combine artificial intelligence with the latest advanced computer graphics and video game technology to enable us to create historical archives of people beyond what can be achieved using traditional text, audio and video footage," Leigh says.
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UTSA Computer-Sci Professor Earns $400K NSF Award
University of Texas at San Antonio (05/31/07)

The National Science Foundation has awarded a five-year, $400,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant to University of Texas at San Antonio computer science professor Carola Wenk. The CAREER award will enable Wenk to continue to research the theory and practice of geometric shape handling. Wenk could pursue the development of computational tools for analyzing two-dimensional electrophoresis gels and protein samples, which could benefit the medical industry and improve the process of developing pharmaceutical products. Wenk could also use the award to apply theoretical algorithm research to global positioning systems or car-navigation systems. A year ago, Wenk created real-time traffic estimation and prediction systems using data from GPS receivers in school buses and taxis. "I would like to apply similar technology here in San Antonio and maintain a database for each road segment to determine current travel situations using GPS receivers in cars traveling all over this area," says Wenk.
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No Escape From the Bullies
University of Nottingham (05/31/07)

Bullying, it seems, is a universal constant, even in the virtual arena, according to University of Nottingham researchers. Abuse of digital avatars, swearing, and nudity are just some examples of belligerent behavior observed by researchers who are using the Second Life computer-based environment as a testbed; Second Life citizens say newcomers are frequent targets of bullies. Experts think the ramifications of cyber-bullying can extend to everyone, and a team led by the University of Nottingham's Dr. Thomas Chesney is conducting research to study similarities and/or differences between virtual and real-world bullying behavior. "In Second Life it appears that the power imbalance between a griefer [bully] and a target is focused on knowledge and experience," notes occupational psychologist Dr. Iain Coyne. "A new resident [newbie] may be targeted because of their naivety and inability to stop the griefing." Coyne points out that this power imbalance also plays a key role in the bully-victim relationship at school and work. It is possible that the anonymity offered by the Web is a critical factor behind the higher incidence of virtual bullying compared to real-world bullying, claim researchers. "If we are to be in a position to address the problem [of cyber-bullying], we need to be able to understand the nature and extent to which it occurs--that's why I think the research project is an important one," says University of Nottingham Dean of Business, Law, and Social Sciences Christine Ennew, the project's primary sponsor. The researchers will present their findings at The European Conference on Information Systems in early June.
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Switchable Hologram Promises Memory Boost
New Scientist (05/31/07) Simonite, Tom

Holographic memory is already available and is capable of storing more information than memory technologies such as CDs and DVDs because information can be encoded in three dimensions, but holographic data can only be written to once. Xiaowei Sun and Liu Yanjun of the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have developed a technique that could be used to create rewritable holographic memory devices. By using software to calculate an interference pattern, the researchers were able to use a single laser to record information on a cell containing an 8-micron-thick layer of liquid crystal polymer. Normally holographic imaging requires two lasers, so although the technique simplified the process, it also reduced the resolution of the holograph. The real technological advancement, however, was that by applying a voltage to the cell, the recording was temporarily wiped clean because the liquid crystal molecules were forced to realign. After the voltage was removed, the hologram returned. Sun said the hologram functions like a transistor. "Instead of turning a current on or off, it is switching a holographic image," Sun explained, adding that it should be possible to integrate the hologram technology into regular electronic devices. Neil Collings, a hologram expert at Cambridge University, said the technology could lead to rewritable holographic memory, "but it has a long way to go."
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Computer Science Thesis Helps Train Firefighters
USC Viterbi School of Engineering (05/25/07)

University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering graduate student Nathan Schurr, working with artificial intelligence expert Milind Tambe, created DEFACTO, a training program that will help firefighters practice simulated emergency situations. The program, part of Schurr's thesis project, can be used by fire departments as an alternative to the traditional training system of assembling a veteran team to create, describe, and monitor emergency scenarios that trainees would respond to in another room. DEFACTO uses a committee of artificial intelligence "agents" to create vivid disaster scenarios, complete with images and maps, and allow small training groups, or even individuals, to make response decisions and receive immediate feedback on their choices. DEFACTO features an "omnipresent viewer" that allows the trainees to view the disaster in full color 3D images. The agents can also help the trainees develop response strategies and allows them to gauge their success by comparing their reactions to ones proposed by the program. Schurr says the responses proposed by large committees of artificial agents were only slightly behind those of human responses, and that disagreements between humans and the agents occasionally resulted in a compromised plan. "Even wrong decisions can lead to better results," Schurr said. Los Angeles Fire Department Fire Captain Ron Roemer praised DEFACTO. "It's a lot more controlled," Roemer said. "You can see if you're heading toward a mistake much more quickly."
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China Prepares for First Strike in Electronic War
eWeek (05/30/07) Vaas, Lisa

The U.S. Department of Defense's yearly congressional report warns that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of China is gearing up for electronic warfare by establishing information warfare units that are creating viruses to lay siege to adversarial computers and networks, while simultaneously implementing strategies to defend its own computer systems and networks and those of its allies. Electronic and infrared decoys, false target generators, and angle reflectors are some of the other electronic countermeasures China is exploiting outside of malware. Internet Security Advisors Group President Ira Winkler said China is second only to Russia as the country most capable of cyber-espionage, and maintained that China has vast resources to devote to acquiring "first strike" capability in a cyber-warfare scenario. Breaches of U.S. computer networks have been attributed to Chinese hackers, who Winkler said are successful because of their ability to exploit both their highly methodical analysis of target systems and their victims' inadequate security deployments. The DoD's report was condemned by China foreign ministry representative Jiang Yu, who claimed the study distorts his nation's military strength and expenses "out of ulterior motives." "Each sovereign state has the right and obligation to develop necessary national defense strength to safeguard its national security and territorial integrity," he argued. "It is totally erroneous and invalid for the U.S. report to play up the so-called 'China Threat.'"
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Robots to Help Children to Form Relationships
PhysOrg.com (05/30/07)

Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire are bringing KASPAR (Kinesics and Synchronization in Personal Assistant Robotics) into local schools in an effort to study the effectiveness of using robots to help children with disabilities develop socials skills. The Interactive Robotic Social Mediators as Companions (IROMEC) project, follows Hertfordshire's success with AuRoRA (Autonomous mobile Robot as a Remedial tool for Autistic children) in encouraging imitation and turn-taking behavior. "This previous research led us to using KASPAR, a child-sized humanoid robot, with minimum facial expressions, which can move its arms and legs and allows the child to interact with it," says Dr. Ben Robins. The three-year project, funded by the European Sixth Framework, will help reveal the potential of robotic toys as mediators of human contact for children with special needs. "We are seeing already that through interacting with the robot, children who would not normally mix are becoming interested in getting involved with other children and humans in general and we believe that this work could pave the way for having robots in the classroom and in homes to facilitate this interaction," add Robins. Other members of the Hertfordshire team include professor Kerstin Dautenhahn and Dr. Ester Ferrari in the School of Computer Science.
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Semantic Search: An Antidote for Poor Relevancy
Read/Write Web (05/29/07) Berkan, Riza C.

Hakia CEO Dr. Riza C. Berkan writes that there is plenty of room for improvement in search engine technologies, and discusses how semantic search can effectively address the poor relevancy challenge. Berkan explains that a semantic system is truly semantic if it encompasses language knowledge, and what is required is a deterministic language processing model based on algorithms that match the definition of concepts and mimic "understanding." The author lists two fundamental semantic search models: A Semantic Web model in which semantic resources are incorporated into the Web pages, and a Semantic Search Engine model in which semantic resources reside in search engines that implement algorithms that use them. Berkan contends that the Semantic Web strategy "is based on an unrealistic assumption that every Web author will abide by the complex rules of semantics--not to mention the education it requires--and place content in the correct buckets of mysteriously unified standards." The Semantic search engine approach--which hakia, among other companies, is focusing on--requires embedding language knowledge into a framework that permits a swift and scalable search process, which entails a major investment in time and money; also time-consuming is the next step of using the system to analyze all Web pages to ready a retrieval platform. A Semantic search engine can support on-the-fly analysis of long-tail queries that yields contextually accurate results. Berkan anticipates that current search engines will eventually be supplanted by semantic search because the effectiveness of the approach on long-tail queries should encourage its application to simple queries. The author notes that a semantic search engine's recognition of the correct context for a given query term makes a Web page's popularity irrelevant, so the page's credibility, which is relatively easy to assess, becomes the prime factor.
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FSF Releases the Final Draft of GPLv3
eWeek (05/31/07) Galli, Peter

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) announced on Thursday that the final version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) 3.0 should be released before the end of June, and also published the "final call" draft of GPL version 3. "We've made a few very important improvements based on the comments we've heard, most notably with license compatibility," says FSF's Peter Brown. "Now that the license is almost finished, we can look forward to distributing the GNU system under GPLv3, and making its additional protections available to the whole community." The draft follows accusations by Microsoft that free and open-source software infringes on more than 200 of the company's patents. The draft bans deals similar to Novell's arrangement with Microsoft to distribute software under GPLv3, although that deal in particular is not prohibited because under GPLv3 the patent protection Microsoft has extended to Novell's clients would be broadened to include everyone who employs any software Novell distributed under the license, according to the FSF. But the draft says some companies would be allowed to distribute GPLv3 even if they have forged such a deal, provided the arrangement was made prior to March 28. Included in the draft is a measure declaring that distributors must supply installation information only in situations where they are distributing the software on a user product and in which the clients' buying power will probably be less structured.
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Sea Change in Database Management
Software Development Times (05/15/07)No. 174, P. 31; Connolly, P.J.

Enterprise database management systems are evolving under pressure from governance, mobility, stability, and scalability issues, says Gartner analyst Donald Feinberg, who believes major DBMS vendors are making a noble effort to address the challenges of scalability and the increasing volume of rich data. Their strategy in the first instance is to align the scalability of the databases created with their DBMSes with the customer's needs, while vendors' answer to the second challenge is to embed within the database "the capability to store many different types of data, efficiently," says Feinberg. Hardware virtualization has a lot of ground to cover before it yields true value to the DBMS community, in Feinberg's opinion. In his view, numerous online transaction processing (OLTP) databases will eventually adhere to a model where the majority of the data, if not the whole of the data, is warehoused. "The architecture of applications is going to be [such] that they're going to get some of their operational data out of the OLTP or the transaction databases, but some of it is going to come out of the data warehouse," Feinberg predicts. "And as more and more of that happens, as you get BI and analytic code in OLTP applications that access data warehouses, the warehouse becomes much more critical." Storing data directly into the warehouse where it can be most efficiently utilized will become even more important as the amount of data being processed by companies explodes with the implementation of mobile applications and radio-frequency identification, Feinberg says.
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Providing for Older Adults Using Smart Environment Technologies
Today's Engineer (05/07) Cook, Diane J.

Smart environment technologies created from the integration of pervasive computing, sensor networks, and artificial intelligence would be a major boon to elderly people with mental or physical handicaps who wish to live independently at home, writes Washington State University School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science professor Diane J. Cook. Software that runs smart environments can employ data collected from sensors to identify residents' actions and construct a model for daily living, making deviations that could signify a health crisis easier to recognize and rectify. An automated home and work environment affords a degree of control for physically limited people that obviates the need for frequent caregiver assistance, while cognitively impaired people can be automatically reminded of tasks, routines, and directions to make their day-to-day living easier. Augmenting the quality of life is another thing smart environments are designed to do. One example is the environments' use of wireless sensors to observe the social interactions of older adults, report those activities to caregivers, and make suggestions to enhance a person's social life. Smart environments are also useful to hospitals, for such things as making patients and doctors safer and monitoring the progress of people following surgery. "Much continued research is needed to make these technologies robust and ready for widespread adoption," explains Cook. "Investigating these issues is imperative if we want to adequately care for our aging population and provide the best possible quality of life for them and, ultimately, for ourselves."
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