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June 18, 2007

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Welcome to the June 18, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Game Designers Test the Limits of Artificial Intelligence
Boston Globe (06/17/07) Kirsner, Scott

Bruce Blumberg, senior scientist at Blue Fang Games in Waltham, Mass., and former professor at MIT's Media Lab, says game developers are doing some of the most interesting work in artificial intelligence. "You have really bright kids who are dealing with problems they don't realize are insoluble. They're very motivated," Blumberg says. Today's video game developers are working to create more intelligent and realistic characters by mimicking human intelligence. Meanwhile, online sites such as Second Life and "massively multiplayer games" such as World of Warcraft have created incredibly intelligent characters because they are controlled by other humans. Players in these games create their own character, and then spend the majority of their time interacting with other peoples' characters. "In some ways, all of these massively multiplayer games have shone a light on the deficiencies of artificially intelligent characters in games to this point," says Blue Fang CEO Hank Howie. One possible approach that could create more human-like artificial intelligence is to have humans "train" the AI software, which is what MIT Media Lab grad student Jeff Orkin is doing. Orkin has developed The Restaurant Game, which has players assume the role of a restaurant's wait staff. Orkin's objective is to capture their behavior and dialog to build more realistic software-driven characters, much like motion capture cameras are used to record and replicate human movement. "Ideally, AI systems in the future will observe as designers directly control characters, and learn to play roles and even converse," Orkin says.
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Students Unlock the World of Advanced Computing
Grid Today (06/18/07)

At the second annual TeraGrid conference, high school, undergraduate, and graduate students participated in three competitions designed to increase their technological prowess, improve their creative problem-solving skills, and encourage young people to enter careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. One competition, called "Impact of Cyberinfrastructure on Your World," allowed students to display their knowledge and creativity through research papers, posters, and videos focused on the impact of cyberinfrastructure in everyday lives, and how scientific discovery and the global community benefit from cyberinfrastructure. The "Student Research Competition" focused on student submitted posters describing the applications and benefits of grid computing to specific research projects. Finally, the on-site competition called "Advancing Scientific Discovery," new to the TeraGrid conference this year, allowed students to use TeraGrid resources and TeraGrid Science Gateways to solve science-driven problems with challenges such as time limits and working remotely with team members. University of Northern Iowa associate professor of computer science Paul Gray said the competition was definitely not a "pencil-and-paper exam," or a traditional programming competition. "Students who participated in this particular competition overcame a key impediment in computational science--'barrier of first use'--a term used to describe people who would use computational tools for scientific discovery, if not for the lack of understanding of how to use the tool," Gray said. "These students were exposed to a new way of doing science, and a new way of doing competitions."
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ISS Computer Woes Concern Europe
BBC News (06/18/07) Klotz, Irene

The recent failure of two computer systems on the International Space Station (ISS) has raised concern about the Columbus laboratory and the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), two additions with the same systems. The Columbus laboratory is scheduled to be launched in December, and the ATV large supply vessel is scheduled to be launch early next year, but the European Space Agency (ESA) has launched an investigation to see if the same problem might occur with those two systems. The ESA formed a team that joined the multi-national effort to fix the ISS computers. The Columbus laboratory has similar computers, but the ATV has completely identical ones, so the ESA wants to ensure any corrective action is taken before the two sections are launched. The computer systems on the ISS control the rocket-steering system the station uses to maintain proper alignment with the sun for heat and energy, and with the earth for communications. The computers also control life-support equipment, though that equipment can also be operated manually. Engineers have not yet been able to identify a specific cause for the computer malfunction, but NASA and Russian engineers believe the failure was caused by a change in the electrically charged plasma field that occurred when astronauts from the shuttle Atlantis attached a new metal beam with a huge pair of solar wings. NASA space station program manager Mike Suffredini says such sensitive problems could continue to occur as the space station continues to change.
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Developer Expectations Run High for Google Gears
IDG News Service (06/16/07) Perez, Juan Carlos

Many developers are working on ways to use Google's Gears, an open-source browser plug-in that allows users to access Google's Web-hosted applications while offline. Analysts say the enthusiastic response to Gears shows the high demand for Web-hosted applications that do not require a constant Internet connection. Gears contains three components--a local server for storing and delivering "application resources" such as HTML and JavaScript without a server connection, a database that allows information to be stored and accessed within the browser, and a component that Google calls a "worker thread pool" that boosts Web applications' responsiveness by running operations in the background. Developer Dustin Hand is considering Gears for a Web application he is developing for an American Red Cross chapter in Florida. The application needs an offline component so that it can be used even if a disaster knocks out the Internet connection. Originally, Hand was considering hosting the database at the Red Cross office for offline access, but the chapter does not have the infrastructure to host a database on site. "Google Gears would allow us to use our existing infrastructure--our off-site database--in the event of Internet connectivity failure, allowing us to continue to provide expedited service to the victims," Hand says. Although anyone can download Gears for free, it is currently intended for developers who can give Google feedback to improve the system. Google has acknowledged that Gears still needs significant improvement, but hopes that it will become an industry standard for offline access to Web-hosted applications.
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Dalhousie Researchers Awarded Top Prizes
Dalhousie University (06/12/07) Smulders, Marilyn

Canada's Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has awarded Dalhousie University graduate student Connie Adsett an Andre Hamer Postgraduate Prize for her research into improving rules-based text-to-speech computer programs. With exceptions being somewhat the rule for the English language, Adsett is working to move beyond rules-based systems and develop new tools for automatically breaking words into their proper syllables, and ultimately to improve the way text-to-speech computer systems talk. "There are a lot of good reasons for figuring out how to make the computer pronounce words better," says Adsett. The technology could be used for reading electronic documents to blind people and for communicating verbally for people who are unable to speak. What is more, handheld computers may one day read email messages to their users via the text-to-speech technology. NSERC awarded the other prize to Erin Johnson, a Queens University Ph.D. student who performs chemical experiments on computers instead of in the lab. A computational chemist, Johnson is improving and developing new modeling methods used to predict the behavior of chemicals.
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Conference Keynote: People Matter Most
HPC Wire (06/15/07) Schneider, Michael

Former director of Defense Research and Engineering for the Department of Defense Anita Jones was the keynote speaker at the recent TeraGrid '07 conference, and she discussed the evolution of cyberinfrastructure since the 1970s. She explained that today there is a renewed awareness about a more broad extension of access via the TeraGrid and the National Science Foundation cyberinfrastructure program, while the measures of computational research investment have likewise matured from the number of machines to the computational performance on benchmarks. The next set of measures, Jones said, should go beyond cycles delivered into the computation and should consider other variables, such as the effective use of memory and visualization's usability. She said the most important factor is people expertise, followed by software. "When lead scientists have funds to hire the next post-doc, in almost every case they hire a discipline scientist," Jones explained. "This is often a mistake, because you have less than first-class knowledge about how to do the computation." She noted that it is the NSF's responsibility to strike a balance between the broad access and the high-end, which means centers will still be a necessity, as "it's important to keep high-end computing at educational sites." Jones pointed out that high-end computing offers the "unfair advantage" that one looks for in competition. She said TeraGrid incarnates the concept that interdependence is critical to decisions in cyberinfrastructure.
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Watching Virus Behavior Could Keep PCs Healthy
New Scientist (06/15/07) Simonite, Tom

A prototype anti-virus system developed at the University of Michigan uses the "fingerprint" of virus activity to more effectively identify viruses. The system obtains such fingerprints by intentionally infecting a quarantined computer with viruses. Conventional anti-virus software monitors systems for suspicious activity and then tries to determine the source by checking for virus signatures, which makes it difficult to spot new pieces of malware and track different variations. The University of Michigan team studied the files and processes malware created and modified on an infected computer, and developed software that uses the information gathered to identify malware. The prototype is capable of defining clusters of malware that operate in similar ways, and can create a kind of family tree that illustrates how superficially different programs have similar methods of operation. In tests on the same software, the prototype was able to identify at least 10 percent more of the sample than five leading anti-virus programs. The prototype also always correctly connected different pieces of malware that operate similarly, while the best anti-virus program was only able to identify 68 percent of such links.
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Today's Tutorial Will Take Place on the Virtual Beach
Times Online (UK) (06/18/07) Frean, Alexander

British educational institutions are trying to gain a better understanding of the potential of Second Life to serve as a tool for teaching and research. Edinburgh University and Oxford University are among the educational institutions that are already experimenting with the Internet-based virtual world, where residents create avatars to interact with each other. For example, Austin Tate, a professor at the virtual University of Edinburgh (VUE) who specializes in using artificial intelligence for search and rescue work, delivers lectures via an avatar that wears a skydiving suit, and he plans to create a virtual diorama for students to extract survivors from burning buildings or blocked tunnels. Andy Powell, of the research foundation Eduserv, believes things that are too dangerous, expensive, or impossible in the real world could be done in a virtual classroom, but says the educational establishment is just scratching the surface with regards to what can be done in the virtual world. "It is a bit like the early days of the Internet--everybody knows that it has huge potential, but they are still figuring out what the best uses will be," says Powell. London Knowledge Lab researcher Martin Oliver believes the big challenge will be to devise entirely new ways to use the virtual world as an educational tool.
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Army, Air Force Seek to Go on Offensive in Cyber War
GovExec.com (06/13/07) Brewin, Bob

The Air Force held its industry day for its Network Warfare Operations Capabilities solicitation in San Antonio on June 14, 2007, after announcing in April that it wants tech firms to provide technology that will enable the service to go on the offensive against those who launch cyberattacks. In May, the Army released a similar announcement, and the service expects to receive responses from the computer industry by the end of June. The cyberattacks that the Army and Air Force plan to launch are referred to as offensive information operations (OIOs), and the services are also interested in technology that will prevent enemy computer systems from detecting and countering OIOs. According to the request for information from the Air Force's 950th Electronic Systems Group, the technologies would help to "disrupt, deny, degrade or deceive an adversary's information system." The solicitations are consistent with the offensive cyberattack capabilities that Marine Gen. James Cartwright, commander of the Strategic Command, discussed during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee in March. If "we apply the principle of warfare to the cyber domain, as we do to sea, air and land, we realize the defense of the nation is better served by capabilities enabling us to take the fight to our adversaries, when necessary, to deter actions detrimental to our interests," Cartwright said.
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Future Shock
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (06/14/07) Byrne, Seamus

A variety of technologies with potentially revolutionary applications are on the horizon. Robots are poised to make a splash, but rather than the versatile humanoid machines popularized in science fiction, they will likely be utilitarian, free-roaming, task-specific devices embedded in the home. Molecular nanotechnology promises to engineer molecule-sized machines and systems, whose potential applications include the fabrication of any object or substance out of ambient particles, implantable medical devices that travel in the bloodstream to fight disease or maintain a healthy metabolism, and a "utility fog" in which networked nanobots hang in the air, performing tasks. The exchange of data through skin contact or wireless transmission is also a future technology drawing interest, one that dovetails with the emergence of "personal networks" that can share such information with the user's mobile devices. Mind-controlled interfaces that enable movement of virtual avatars by thought could revolutionize the gaming industry, while buildings could be embedded with smart systems for environmental control and power supply, among other things. Smart clothing that can keep itself dry, can be outfitted with electronic devices for navigation and other functions, and can diagnose the wearer's health and treat injuries is under development. Gene therapy promises to make hereditary medical conditions a thing of the past, while advanced prosthetics could give people enhanced strength and endurance. Ethical questions over the use of genetic research will undoubtedly influence future applications.
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Indian-American First Female Recipient of Robotics Tech Award
Hindu (06/18/07)

Aeolean CEO Bala Krishnamurthy is a 2007 winner of the Engelberger Robotics Award for Technology Development. Krishnamurthy is the first female to receive the award. The growth of robotics is the result of some of the programming languages, networked systems, and related technologies she designed and developed over the past 25 years. A pioneer in electric and hydraulic industrial robots in the early stages of her career at Unimation, Krishnamurthy applied the VAL language to the hydraulic Unimate robot and headed the firm's software design and development effort involving the third generation UNIVAL controller. An Indian-American, Krishnamurthy later developed software that allowed autonomous robots to navigate hospitals, a mobile research base, and a 3D range sensor at HelpMate Robotics. She has also helped develop algorithms for the Tennessee Valley Authority's 21-axis Robotic Transmission Line Rover and next-generation robots for a European manufacturer, and served as a member of NASA's Office of Exploration Systems (OExS) research proposal review panel for Human and Robotic Technology in 2004. Krishnamurthy and the other 2007 winners have helped popularize robotics today, says Joseph F. Engelberger. "Their innovations and perseverance have led to the use of robots in new ways, in educational curriculum, and have made it possible for companies to gain a foothold and prosper in the global economy they compete in," he says.
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FBI: Operation Bot Roast Finds Over 1 Million Botnet Victims
Network World (06/13/07) Cooney, Michael

The FBI and the Department of Justice announced that their ongoing cyber-crime investigations have so far detected over 1 million victims of botnet crime. Operation Bot Roast aims to interrupt and dismantle botherders and has caught three major botnet operators so far, including "Spam King" Robert Alan Soloway. Bots are considered to be one of the top industry scourges. Their destructiveness is illustrated by a report from Mi5 describing how Mi5 installed a Web security beta product at a company with 12,000 nodes and identified 22 active bots, 123 inactive bots, and 313 suspected bots within one month. The discovered bots had caused 136 million bot-related episodes. In addition, after examining over 4.5 million Web pages, Google researchers reported that 10 percent of Web pages were booby-trapped with malware, and 16 percent seemed to contain dangerous code. By accidentally permitting access to their computers, unknowing computer owners permit their computers to be employed as vehicles for crimes such as denial-of-service attacks and phishing. Botnets are also increasingly threatening to national security, due to their ability to be widely distributed. Operation Bot Roast plans to inform the unwitting owners of hijacked computers. Meanwhile, citizens can guard against botnets by adhering to strong computer security practices.
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It's Lean, But is it Agile?
SD Times (06/15/07) deJong, Jennifer

Kent Beck, the inventor of extreme programming (XP), says lean software development and agile software development, which includes XP, are similar approaches to developing software and are closely aligned in some respects. Lean software development follows the methodology of lean manufacturing, developed by Toyota in Japan as early as the 1940s. While the process of building cars is rather different from software development, the basic principles can be applied to both fields. For example, a key theme in lean manufacturing is eliminating waste. In software development, waste is considered anything that does not directly support the customer, such as creating requirements that will need to be changed later. Another principle in key manufacturing is to stop production when a flaw is noticed and to fix it immediately, which in software amounts to fixing bugs as soon as they are discovered. Agile program Crystal creator Alistair Cockburn said that he and colleagues knew little about lean manufacturing when they authored the Agile Manifesto in February 2001, which coined the term "agile." "But since then I have been doing a lot of reading about lean, and I can't see that we in the agile community have added much of anything to what Toyota was already doing," Cockburn said. However, Ward Cunningham, a key contributor to the Agile Manifesto, believes that ideas from manufacturing cannot be successfully applied to software development. "Software development is a knowledge activity, not a material processing activity," Cunningham said. "Manufacturing has been improved by insights associated with lean, but software has never been improved by modeling its processes on manufacturing." Agile or not, lean is being adopted by business executives because it is based on a concept the business world is familiar with, Beck said, whereas agile development has mostly been marketed to IT executives.
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Denial-of-Service Attacks: Street Crime on the Web
New Scientist (06/06/07) Vol. 194, No. 2607, P. 30; Giles, Jim

Malefactors are increasingly using denial-of-service (DoS) attacks--the practice of crippling Web connections with a flood of traffic--to steal money from unaware Web site owners, and the method's persistence is aided by the fact that individual users and small companies generally cannot afford anti-DoS safeguards. "There are more players, better players, in the market than just a year ago," notes Arbor Networks computer security specialist Jose Nazario. One of the most common techniques to launch DoS attacks is to contaminate computers with bot software that lies dormant on the compromised PC until it is instructed to link with the target Web site, and the simultaneous accessing of the site by massive numbers of bot-infected PCs can often cause the server to crash. University of California, San Diego researchers determined that over half of the more than 68,000 DoS attacks perpetrated between 2001 and 2004 targeted home users or small businesses, and among the more serious kinds of attacks are those used to hold sites for ransom. University of Washington computer networks expert Tom Anderson thinks Web sites must be more selective in who they communicate with if DoS attacks are to be countered, and he and his colleagues have developed a protocol for online information exchange in which sites insert a token in the code they share with visiting computers, which would be interpreted by software installed at the site's ISP as proof of legitimate communication. The distribution of these tokens would be halted if the site is attacked, spurring the ISP to impede incoming connections upstream to prevent the site from seizing up.
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REAL Nightmare
Governing (06/07) Vol. 20, No. 9, P. 24; Perlman, Ellen

Although states are not bound to follow the 2005 REAL ID Act, a federal law that aims to fight terrorism by improving security for state driver's licenses, some have nonetheless been very vocal about what they say are problems with the legislation. One of the biggest complaints among the states is the high cost of following the REAL ID Act's recommendations, which include verifying drivers' original identity documents--such as birth certificates and Social Security cards--when they show up at DMV offices to get a new license or renew their old one. According to the National Governors Association, states are likely to spend at least $11 billion of their own money over the next five years to get REAL ID up and running. The biggest factor contributing to this expense is the more than 2.1 million hours of computer programming states will need to adapt their systems for new requirements for things such as eligibility verification and database design. Another concern is that REAL ID needs to be supported by a variety of databases containing citizens' personal information if the program is to work nationwide, a big worry for some states and civil liberties groups. Though states can always opt out of REAL ID, as Montana and Washington have already done, doing so could create major inconveniences to their residents because they would not be able to use their driver's licenses to board airplanes or enter secure federal facilities. Although the legislation may be burdensome to states, it is nonetheless important that states implement its recommendations because they address the known vulnerability with state-issued drivers licenses: The ability of criminals, such as terrorists, to use identity documents to obtain a fraudulent drivers license, said the Department of Homeland Security's Russ Knocke. "Shame on us if we don't take steps to fix it," he said.
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Saving the Internet
Harvard Business Review (06/07) Zittrain, Jonathan

Berkman Center for Internet & Society co-founder Jonathan Zittrain comments that the openness of the Internet and PCs is responsible for both their incredible success and their vulnerability to abuse, and he warns that one solution to this vulnerability--"tethered appliances" that can be instantly modified by vendors or service providers, but not users--could rob the Internet of its creative connectivity, and endanger companies whose business models rely on drawing and communicating easily with clients online. Zittrain writes that the advantages and disadvantages of the combined Internet/PC reside in its generativity, which he describes as "a system's capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences." Generativity is defined by four core elements: The strength of a system or technology's leverage on a series of possible tasks; adaptability to a spectrum of tasks; ease of mastery; and accessibility. The two chief benefits of generativity are innovative output (new things that enhance people's lives) and participatory input (the opportunity to link and collaborate with others, and creatively express one's individuality). The dark side of generative technologies is their potential for use in malevolent endeavors, which include fraud, vandalism, malware, spam, pornography, and assaults against Web sites and the Internet's integrity. "The fundamental tension is that the point of a PC is to be easy for users to reconfigure to run new software, but when users make poor decisions about what new software to run, the results can be devastating to their machines and, if they are connected to the Internet, to countless others," Zittrain explains. Reducing or eliminating the role of the PC as the hub of the IT environment by opting for tethered appliances will stymie technical innovation and remove the "safety valve" that maintains the honesty of information appliances, the author warns. Without such innovation, new social networks, communities of interest, and experiments in collective intelligence will be hindered, stunting the growth of new forms of culture, political activism, and participation.
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Jaron's World
Discover (06/07) P. 59; Lanier, Jaron

Jaron Lanier attributes the poor quality of most software to the onerous way programmers are forced to think about software, and he supports a more human-friendly approach to software and complexity called phenotropics. "The core idea of phenotropics is that it might be possible to apply statistical techniques not just to robot navigation or machine vision but also to computer architecture and general programming," Lanier writes. He explains that the phenotropic approach takes a cue from biological evolution, whereby a small revision in DNA results in a small revision in an organism that is often sufficient to enable gradual evolution; in contrast, changes to computer code usually result in "shockingly random" consequences. Lanier conceives of software composed of modules that can identify each other with pattern recognition, which could possibly lead to a large software system with no susceptibility to perpetual random logic errors. One configuration the modules could take is of a user interface similar to the contents of a window on a Vista or Mac desktop. "Now that machine vision and other pattern-based techniques are becoming reliable, it is finally conceivable for Web pages to use each other at the user-interface level, the same way that humans use them," Lanier notes, adding that this could result in adaptable mashup constructions free of random logic errors. The author says it is probable that pattern recognition will play an increasingly vital role in digital architecture.
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