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ACM TechNews
June 11, 2007

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Welcome to the June 11, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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A Dog or a Cat? New Tests to Fool Automated Spammers
New York Times (06/11/07) P. C1; Stone, Brad

Captchas security puzzles are becoming increasingly easier for programs to solve, and increasingly more difficult for humans. The problem is that as online miscreants create better ways to bypass or defeat captchas, Web companies are responding by developing puzzles that are more difficult to solve, even for people. "They are creating tests that a reasonably healthy adult can't pass," says Gordon Weakliem, a programmer and blogger who said he failed a captcha test several times on the Microsoft Windows Live sign up page. To create puzzles that will block computers but be easier for people to solve, researchers are focusing on expanding the test beyond the current repertoire of 26 letters and nine digits. Microsoft has developed a captcha that asks Internet users to view nine images of household pets and select just the cats or dogs. "For software, this is wildly hard," says Microsoft research John Douceur. "Computers are tripped up by all the photos at different angles, with variable lighting conditions and backgrounds and the animals in different positions." The project is called Asirra, short for Animal Species Image Recognition for Restricting Access, and uses graphics of animals from a database of more than 2 million images. Other companies have chosen to keep their captcha projects secret, but PayPal's chief information security officer Michael Barrett says that PayPal's new tests may resemble image recognition and present pictures of, for example, a whale, a tree, and a head of lettuce, and ask the users to select the vegetable. "Captchas have gotten as good as they are going to get, and it is likely they are going to be slowly supplanted with a different technology that achieves the same thing," Barrett says.
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Carnegie Mellon Scientists Devise Method to Increase Kidney Transplants
Carnegie Mellon News (06/11/07) Spice, Byron; Watzman, Anne

Carnegie Mellon University computer scientists have created the first kidney exchange algorithm that is scalable for use on a national pool of donors and recipients. Kidney exchanges are considered the best chance to increase the number of kidney transplants in the United States. The matching algorithm makes it possible to create matches between pairs of donors and recipients that do not match their relatives. A paper detailing the algorithm, which was developed by professors Tuomas Sandholm and Avrim Blum, and graduate assistant David J. Abraham, will be presented Friday at ACM's Conference on Electronic Commerce, part of the 2007 Federated Computing Research Conference taking place June 11-15 in San Diego. The Alliance for Paired Donation, which helps 50 transplant centers in 15 states, began using the program in December. Alliance director Michael Rees says the algorithm improves on previous methods by including three and four way matches, and by including altruistic donors, or donors without a specified recipient. Sandholm says computer memory becomes a limiting factor when dealing with a pool of this size, particularly with numerous restraints such as different blood and tissue types. "We work around this by using incremental problem formulation," Sandholm says. This approach means the algorithm does not consider every constraint at once, but formulates them in the computer's memory as needed, allowing the algorithm to analyze up to 10,000 donor-patient pairs at once.
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Alberta Poker Computer Program Will Try to Outplay Two Top Human Players
Canadian Press (06/11/07) Cotter, John

University of Alberta researchers have created a poker-playing computer program called Polaris that will compete against Phil Laak and Ali Eslami, two of the world's most renowned poker players in a 2,000-hand, $50,000 match. Aside from creating a fun experiment, the purpose of the match is to test advances in artificial intelligence, according to Jonathan Schaeffer, leader of the computer science team that created Polaris. "We have developed a format that has helped us factor out luck and make it into a scientific experiment to determine how good humans are relative to the best program in the world," Schaeffer says. "The goal is to eventually produce a poker program that is stronger than all human players." Polaris is actually one of a number of different computer programs with different playing styles. One is very aggressive, but does not account for other players' styles, another learns the strengths and weaknesses of other players and will compensate, and all of the programs are experts at bluffing. "There is a mathematically optimal rate at which you should bluff," Schaeffer says. "Computers can calculate that. Humans don't understand the mathematics of poker." The human players will not know which program they will face, but they hold an advantage if they can analyze the computer's playing style. Eslami, who is a computer consultant in addition to being a professional poker player, says that human players are better at quickly discerning patterns of play. The match, which will take place July 23 and 24 in conjunction with the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, will be divided into four matches of 500 hands each, over the course of two days. After each session, the combined bankroll of the human players will be compared to the computer's to determine the winner.
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UARC Researcher Wins Best Paper Award at AAMAS Conference
Currents--UC Santa Cruz (06/11/07)

A paper describing the use of learning agents in managing the flow of air traffic won the best paper award at the recent 2007 International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multi Agent Systems, co-sponsored by ACM's Special Interest Group on Artificial Intelligence. "Distributed Agent-Based Air Traffic Flow Management" details the use of the Future Air Traffic Management Concepts Evaluation Tool (FACET) in part to achieve the separation needed for individual routes to respond to congestion. The innovative architecture of the software offers flexibility and adaptability in simulation and modeling, as well as the performance and reliability necessary for developing and evaluating air traffic management algorithms. The system is said to be very efficient, portable, and extensible. Adrian Agogino, a research scientist with the University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) at NASA Ames, and NASA researcher Kagan Tumer are behind the research.
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Helpful Robot Alters Family Life
LiveScience (06/08/07) Spice, Byron

Carnegie Mellon University assistant professor of human-computer interaction and design Jodi Forlizzi recently conducted a study exploring the social impact of robots. The study, part of a National Science Foundation-sponsored study, gave six Pittsburgh and Harrisburg, Pa., families either an automatic vacuum robot, the Roomba, or a handheld stick vacuum with similar cleaning capacities. Forlizzi asked family members to keep diaries, take photos, and check in with the researchers periodically over the course of the year. "The surprising thing to me was how much the Roomba changed the way that people cleaned," Forlizzi says. Subjects with a Roomba were more likely to keep clutter off of the floor, older women abandoned planned cleaning times for an opportunistic approach, and younger people cleaned more frequently. Many families named their Roombas, and some even admitted to talking to the robot while it worked. All of the families also paid close attention to how their pets reacted to the robot. One family said their cat liked to sit near the Roomba "to keep it company," while another family felt their aging dog was afraid of it. The stick vacuum did not impress anyone with its cleaning ability, and one user noted that it was designed for "people who don't really clean much." Forlizzi says that because the stick vacuums and the Roombas had similar cleaning capabilities, the Roomba's autonomous, semi-intelligent features likely accounted for its greater impact. While the small scale of the study prevents any generalizations from being made, Forlizzi says this type of ethnographic study is frequently used in design to develop new theories and determine directions for future research.
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Keynote: EDA Brings Life to Synthetic Biology
EE Times (06/07/07) Goering, Richard

The last keynote speech at the Design Automation Conference focused on the application of manufacturing and design approaches in microelectronics and synthetic biology. The speech, a tribute to the late A. Richard Newton, was given by University of California professor of engineering and computer science Jan Rabaey, a colleague of Newton. Newton, who died in January 2007, was a former dean of engineering at U.C. Berkeley, a founder of the EDA industry, and was extremely passionate about synthetic biology and believed the future of technology is bio design automation. Rabaey defined synthetic biology as "the creation of novel biological functions and tools by modifying or integrating well-characterized biological components into higher-order systems using mathematical modeling to direct the construction towards a desired end product." An example of synthetic biology is efforts at University of California to modify the yeast implant of artemisin, a naturally-occurring plant that can kill the malaria parasite, to make the plant less expensive to produce. Rabaey said the key to making synthetic biology successful were the same elements that made microelectronics successful, scalable and reliable manufacturing processes, a scalable design methodology, and a clear understanding of the computational model. Rabaey said the field needs a way to generate thousands of genes in a very short time period and with very few errors, and the difference between what is needed and what is available is about a trillion to one. Rabaey said that microelectronics can also benefit from biological techniques. For example, IC designers could use a variety of cheap oscillating elements, similar to the sound crickets make, to create distributed synchronization through local communication and without precision timing elements.
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'Push-Button' Climate Modeling Now Available
Purdue University News (06/05/07) Tally, Steve

The availability of the Community Climate System Model (CCSM) is about to be extended to a much wider audience with the rollout of a new Web-enhanced version that will allow science to get "done at the push of a button," according to Purdue University professor Matt Huber. The climate modeling tool's Web interface is now easier to use, while the powerful computing resources needed to run models are supplied through a link to the National Science Foundation's TeraGrid, explains Purdue research scientist Carol X. Song. The climate modeling TeraGrid service tool is designed to encourage high school students, not just cutting-edge researchers, to test their own climate models, Huber says. The CCSM portal has the added advantage of not requiring a lot of TeraGrid expertise to be utilized. Purdue earth science portals architect Lan Zhao notes that this development should accelerate the generation of additional portals for other scientific fields. "We developed many generic, configurable components for this portal that can be used in other portals, which means new portals can be created rapidly and not from scratch," he says. The CCSM is currently underwritten by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, and was developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
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AU Finds Success With Voting System
Opelika-Auburn News (06/11/07) Weaver, Amy

The Prime III voting system, developed at Auburn University's Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, has tested well on three separate occasions and has already impressed some state officials. The machine's designers are confident that it will win at the University Voting System Competition in Portland, Ore., next month, and hope that it will continue to gain support with state and federal legislatures. Associate professor of computer science and software engineering Juan Gilbert says the machine is usable by anyone, even if they cannot read, hear, or see, and even if the person has no limbs. Prime III gets its name for its three methods of voting--touch, voice, or both. Instructions are provided through a headset or on a computer screen. Votes are cast by either touching the screen or saying a corresponding number. After testing with students and faculty at Auburn last fall, area senior citizens in February, and students at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind a few weeks ago, the system changed slightly from its original design. Paper ballots were abandoned as a back up system in favor of a video system that records what buttons are pressed and serves as an additional security measure, making it impossible for any hacker that managed to get into the system to go undetected, according to Gilbert. "It is so straightforward for a voter and yet is so complicated for a hacker," Gilbert says. The system's security has not been tested, but Gilbert says that will happen soon.
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Robots in Disguise?
Gauntlet (06/07/07) Anderson, Katy

Researchers, scientists, and professors from 23 countries recently gathered at the University of Calgary to discuss how technology can be used to improve performance in athletics. Everything from biomechanics to integrating Blackberries and other tech-ware into coaching was addressed at the International Association on Computer Science in Sport conference. Larry Katz, a conference co-organizer who is the head of the faculty of kinesiology's sports technology research lab, says using technology properly can determine whether an athlete finishes first or last. He noted that all of the winning long track speed skaters at the Olympics in Japan used the clap skate, and soon everyone else started to wear the new invention. Elite athletes tend to use technology because they have the resources to do so, says Katz, but he adds that it is for athletes of every level. "One of the challenges that were raised by a number of speakers in the conference was to ensure that the technology would be available at the grassroots, with kids in schools as well as for amateur athletes," says Katz. "We hope that all these resources will be made available in schools, so that kids can monitor their own performance and that way we can deal with issues like obesity and wellness."
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Kiss Boring Interfaces Goodbye With Apple's New Animated OS
Wired News (06/08/07) Gilbertson, Scott; Kahney, Leander

Apple's Mac OS X update, Leopard, is expected to include a toolkit for building Core Animation program interfaces, which developers think could stimulate interface experimentation on a grand scale and perhaps transform the desktop into a highly refined 3D environment. With Core Animation, next-generation developers will be able to create unique, intuitive interfaces easily. Numerous developers are already migrating toward small-scale, task-specific applications, and Core Animation tools may indicate a shift in Mac application design that favors animated and lightweight applications that function like widgets. One upcoming Leopard application, Time Machine, is a content-version-control system that backs up the hard drive automatically and periodically, but users can also move through time with a 3D visual browser that offers a virtual "time tunnel." Another application, Spaces, supports the management of multiple virtual workspaces, and users can flip back and forth between the workspaces with a visually exciting navigation system. Delicious Library developer Wil Shipley expects future interfaces to also facilitate the direct manipulation of documents. There is more to animated interfaces than mere eye candy, according to madebysofa interface designer and engineer Austin Sarner. "Animation in general creates continuity and more direct feedback to a user experience," he notes. "In addition to obvious graphical speed boosts, the elegance [that animation] can add to a UI is pretty substantial."
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Antivirus Fix in Works by Security Researchers
Network World (06/07/07)

A new report from researchers at the University of Michigan's Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department and network security company Arbor Networks offers a solution for improving antivirus technology. In the report, "Automated Classification and Analysis of Internet Malware," the researchers call for a new classification technique that "describes malware behavior in terms of system state charges (e.g., files written, processes created) rather than in sequences or patterns of system calls. To address the sheer volume of malware diversity of its behavior, we provide a method for automatically categorizing these profiles of malware into groups that reflect similar classes of behaviors and demonstrate how behavior-based clustering provides a more direct and effective way of classifying and analyzing Internet malware." Over a span of six months, the approach proved to be useful on 3,700 malware samples. Antivirus products lack some consistency in identifying worm, phishing, and botnet attacks, and some experts have termed the traditional, signature-based approach dead because of the growing virus and malware problem.
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A Step Toward a Living, Learning Memory Chip
Scientific American.com (06/06/07) Swaminathan, Nikhil

The desire to achieve more accurate results about how information is learned has prompted Israeli scientists not to focus on so-called excitatory cells, which amplify brain activity. Instead, physicist Eshel Ben-Jacob and graduate student Itay Baruchi at Tel Aviv University in Israel used inhibitory neurons in their attempt to trigger cells to create memory patterns of repeating signals sent from neuron to neuron. Though research using excitatory cells has produced random escalation that does not closely resemble the learning process, Ben-Jacob and Baruchi sought to imprint a memory on neurons cultured outside the brain by injecting a chemical suppressor into nerve cell connections between inhibitory neurons, which dampen brain activity. The effort to imprint memories on a culture of neurons proved to be a success in that the rudimentary memories persisted for several days, and did not interfere or eliminate the others. Their research into stimulating memory patterns appears in the May issue of Physical Review E. "These findings hint chemical signaling mechanisms might play a crucial role in memory and learning in task-performing in vivo networks," Ben-Jacob and Baruchi write. Ben-Jacob envisions the development of a neuromemory chip paired with computer hardware to create a type of cyborg machine that is able to detect toxins in air, bring sight to the blind, help the paralyzed to regain muscle use, and handle other tasks.
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Woz Ponders Apple II's Impact and DIY
eWeek (06/05/07) Turner, Daniel Drew

When Steve Wozniak was creating the Apple I and Apple II years ago, his vision for computing did not necessarily include the Internet, music, videos, or digital cameras. Wozniak, currently executive vice president, chief technology officer and chief visionary officer for Jazz Technologies, says he did expect to see data being sent between computers, perhaps like posting to bulletin boards. As the driving force behind the machines that led the way in moving computing from massive to personal, Wozniak says the focus was on providing people with a universal platform and a tool for solving any problem. Wozniak says he learned about computers by watching how other people did things, and the idea was to develop a teaching device for people to learn programming and create the applications they needed. Apple provided some software to inspire users to write their own programs, but commercial software would catch on to point where most users would no longer think of becoming the master of their machines, he says. Apple encouraged people to do it themselves, and Wozniak believes the thrilling technology environment that he experienced while still in school exists today in the form of the subculture connected to MAKE magazine. "These things have no practical use, but these are the people who are going to stumble on the next big thing someday," says Wozniak.
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Machines Get Connected
Chicago Tribune (06/02/07) Van, Jon

Automatic machine-to-machine communication, requiring no human involvement, will soon be a part of everyday life. Nortel CTO John Roese predicts that about 10 billion microprocessors will be sold this year and installed in everything from computers to coffeemakers. The machine-to-machine trend, which Roese calls "hyperconnectivity," will create networks that are able to track where we are and what we do. Roese describes air conditioners and clothes dryers that would communicate with the electric company to take advantage of low hourly rates, and phone networks that would automatically make schedule changes based on phone calls, if a client should call to cancel, for example. Federal officials are creating standards that will allow cars to receive signals from traffic lights, receiving advanced warnings as to when a light is going to change and automatically slowing down, according to Booz Allen Hamilton senior associate Craig Pickering. Pickering says a test of a traffic system is planned for the Detroit area, and that security and privacy are top concerns. Exercise machines will be able to play someone's favorite show and send workout information directly to that person's physician. Networked workout machines may also add an element of competition to keep people interested and motivated. While such networks may seem futuristic, experts believe that hyperconnectivity is not far off. "All machines will talk seamlessly," Roese says. "Nothing new need be invented. It's just a matter of linking things to the network." Roese believes that the hyperconnectivity industry will mature by 2009 or 2010.
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Digital Library Director Says Innovation, Leadership Require More Than a Vision
Computerworld (06/04/07) Vol. 41, No. 23, P. 16; Tennant, Don

National Digital Library Program director and 2007 EMC Information Leadership Award winner Laura Campbell estimates in an interview that 161 exabytes of digital content will be generated in 2007, while 988 exabytes will be produced by 2010. The sheer immensity precludes complete collection, and Campbell says it is partly the responsibility of libraries and archivists to help select and vet the material to be preserved. "The plan that we put forward distributes the responsibility among a set of trusted partners--trusted agents, if you will--to help share in the responsibility and the cost of collecting and preserving content that's both interesting and important to have," she explains. Campbell projects that within a decade the ranks of the program's partners will have swelled significantly, that certain issues of copyrighted and restricted materials will be resolved, that the tracking and addressing of standards will be ongoing, and that her organization will be more savvy at negotiation. "Leadership understands that communication throughout all three steps--envisioning and strategy development, as well as execution--is a very important tool, so you are constantly paying attention to realigning the work and adjusting the strategy," Campbell attests. She also describes creative collaboration as the key to innovation, and the willingness of innovators to be open to diverse ideas. Giving workers the freedom to experiment and encouraging them to do so, seeking their input, is critical. The success of Hewlett-Packard was borne out of such creative collaboration, and Campbell considers this important since HP co-founder Dave Packard was a major role model.
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Web Credibility: Hard Earned, Harder to Prove
InformationWeek (06/04/07)No. 1141, P. 34; Hoover, J. Nicholas

Verifying one's credentials online is a tough prospect, considering the Internet's ability to support anonymity, its lack of accountability, and its authentication challenges. These problems must be addressed by the development and deployment of a solid certification system. Such a system will be essential as the number of wikis, blogs, and social networks increases, complicating the separation of trustworthy and untrustworthy sources and content. Among the building blocks of Web credentials are such tools as OpenID, which manages identities across Web sites; Security Assertion Markup Language, which is a standard for sharing XML data across domains; the virtual Trufina ID Card, which confirms education, employment, and email addresses; Microsoft's CardSpace, which serves as a virtual wallet for multiple digital identities; the ClaimID Web service for generating profiles and reputations; and Liberty Web Services, which offer cross-domain identity data exchange between applications. There are several industry attempts to merge numerous identity specifications into a single interoperable system, which Microsoft terms an identity metasystem. However, it will be a challenge to design digital IDs and credentialing systems that can protect users' personal information by allowing them to assert control over what data is shared, when, and with whom.
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Hop, Jump, and Spread: Wireless Machine to Machine Interfaces
EDN (06/07/07) P. 52; Rako, Paul

Wireless machine-to-machine (M2M) networks are the focal point of the convergence of emergent technologies such as embedded processors, network-routing protocols, and spread-spectrum wireless, yet there is no clear idea about what the networks' killer application will be. Self-configuring wireless M2M systems are also surrounded by unresolved technical, cost, battery life, interference, and security issues. Cell phone or industrial/scientific/medical (ISM) bands are primarily employed by wireless M2M networks. Although wireless networks supported by cell phones may offer "everywhere" connectivity, they cannot support uninterrupted real-time connectivity, while spread-spectrum methods do not yield unlimited available bandwidth. New frequencies will be supplied by Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMax) and 700 MHz analog-TV bands. Frequencies can be hopped over by frequency-hopping spread spectrum (FHSS), smeared by digital-sequence spread spectrum (DSSS), and jumped by agile radios. Interference can be kept to a minimum and battery life to a maximum when M2M wireless networks are designed carefully. M2M technology is not expected to be either a meteoric success story or a calamitous debacle, but rather will occupy a middle ground in the analog discipline.
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Spinning the Semantic Web
eWeek (06/04/07) Vol. 24, No. 20, P. 31; Rapoza, Jim

Tim Berners-Lee's Semantic Web is a vision of the Web as a database where inference through text searches and guesswork is unnecessary because the data would be tagged specifically and marked up to clearly articulate its meaning. This vision is finally being fleshed out as businesses, sites, and Web applications start to define, establish connections to, and generate data models that exploit Semantic Web technologies to facilitate new functionality types. "The last 10 years we've been building the foundation of the Semantic Web in the sense of building the data formats and building the ontology language and all the things related to them," Berners-Lee says; essential Semantic Web building blocks include uniform resource identifiers, the Resource Description Framework, the Web Ontology Language, and the SPARQL Protocol and RDF Query Language. In one instance of everyday Semantic Web technology usage, the SPARQL component is employed as a powerful tool for querying the Wikipedia.org online encyclopedia under the auspices of the DBpedia.org initiative. Longtime director of the World Wide Web Consortium's Semantic Web effort Eric Miller founded Zepheira to help businesses understand and implement Semantic Web innovations, and an important step to reaching this goal is enterprises' realization that a massive amount of their rich semantic data is lying idle. Obstacles to the adoption of the Semantic Web include its susceptibility to exploitation by fraudsters and other shady parties, which stems from the technology's relative newness. Hype is another problematic issue, and Berners-Lee suggests that the authenticity of an alleged Semantic Web product can be easily verified by checking to see whether it supports core Semantic Web standards. Some observers see corporate monopolization as the biggest hindrance to the Semantic Web, but Berners-Lee and Miller cite numerous ways for converting proprietary data into Semantic Web data, which will be essential to sustaining the competitiveness of sites and products.
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