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July 6, 2007

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Welcome to the July 6, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Turtles to Test Wireless Network
Associated Press (07/04/07) Gorlick, Adam

Computer engineers at the University of Massachusetts have built a wireless communications network that will enable biologists at the school to map the comings and goings of snapping turtles, which ultimately may help save the species. The biologists believe such tracking and charting of their whereabouts within a 10-mile range of the Deerfield River in western Massachusetts could prevent the snapping turtle from becoming the eighth freshwater turtle species to make it on the state's endangered species list. The computer science researchers have created TurtleNet, a network of postcard-sized waterproof computers that have been attached to the shells of turtles with a combination of orthodontic cement and duct tape. The computers are lightweight and do not weigh down the turtles, and the gadgets will not disturb their mating habits. The devices are designed to periodically note the location and body temperature of the turtles, and when they come within a tenth of a mile of each other they swap information, which helps extend the battery life of the computers. The units also feature solar panels to recharge the batteries. The relay of information between turtles ends when they pass a single base station, where the data is accumulated before it is transmitted back to the UMass-Amherst campus about 15 miles away. "A lot of existing technology works great as long as you're not moving around and have stable networks and people who could recharge batteries," says Jacob Sorber, a doctoral candidate in computer science who designed the network.
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Hackers Hired to Crack Calif. Electronic Voting Machines
KABC-TV (Los Angeles) (07/02/07) Miranda, Nannette

California is conducting a test to see if three types of electronic voting machines approved for use in California elections are vulnerable to hackers. A team of independent hackers from across the country is trying to break into and rig the results on the machines. "The goal is to put to rest any controversy about voting systems or the voting equipment itself," says California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. California is the first state to require a full review of voting machines, as well as the first to require the machine vendors to pay for the review. "Our concern is the voter walking up and doing something strange on the machine," University of California Davis computer scientists Matt Bishop says. "Another thing we're concerned about is someone, for example, somehow manipulating the machines that count the votes so they count the votes incorrectly." California already requires paper trails and public audits, but the hacking program is another effort to ensure voters that their ballots will be counted. "The goal of this review is for us to do that on voting systems where we can be confident that the effect we have on the presidential primary is the effect that California voters intended," Bowen says. The hackers have until July 20th to break the system.
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Award Honors Peh's Research and Outreach
Princeton University (07/02/07)

The Computer Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women in Computing Research has named Princeton University's Li-Shiuan Peh the winner of its 2007 Anita Borg Early Career Award. The association uses the annual prize as an opportunity to recognize a female computer scientist or engineer who has made key contributions in research and "has had a positive and significant impact on advancing women in the computing research community." Peh, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, has focused on the performance and power consumption of interconnection networks in her research. She holds three patents. Peh has served as the faculty co-adviser of the Princeton Graduate Women in Science and Engineering organization since 2003, and has helped to initiate a number of activities to get more females of all ages interested in science and engineering. She has also organized summer workshops for women and underrepresented minorities in computer architecture, and has participated in a distinguished women faculty lecture series at the University of Texas-Austin.
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Engineering a Career at the PC's Creation
CNet (07/05/07) Cooper, Charles

Microsoft researcher Chuck Thacker was awarded the IEEE's distinguished John von Neumann medal for his pioneering work in the development of the PC and network connectivity during his tenure at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). He was also the chief designer of the first PC to be equipped with a mouse and a bit-mapped display; that machine, the Alto, was developed because Thacker saw a need for a time-sharing machine and was unsatisfied with the equipment on hand. The Alto in turn inspired the invention of Ethernet when Thacker and his collaborators realized that the system would be even more powerful in combination with a network. Thacker and many of his fellow inventors eventually left PARC because of Xerox's inability to see the potential of innovations such as the Alto, he recalls in an interview. Thacker was a player in the design of Microsoft's Tablet PC, and though he admits that its market performance as been "disappointing," he is "heartened by the fact that it is still a growing market." Citing the heavy fragmentation of the education market, Thacker says the lower quality of emerging computer scientists can be traced to the very beginnings of a person's education, which is where a concentration on math and science must start. "We need a combination of better education and we need better models for programming," he concludes.
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'Smart' Traffic Boxes Could Help Monitor Roads, Save Money
Ohio State Research News (07/02/07) Gorder, Pam Frost

Ohio State University engineers have developed software that allows traffic control boxes to locate road incidents such as traffic back-ups and accidents and notify transportation authorities. Benjamin Coifman, an Ohio state associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and geodetic studies, says that over the last few decades transportation departments around the country have installed "loop detectors" to monitor traffic at key points in the road network. The car-sized wire loops buried in the road essentially act as metal detectors, sending a signal to a computer in a control box every time a car passes over the loop. The control box containing the computer can either count cars and calculate average speed, or can actively control traffic. Ramp meters, for example, limit the number of cars allowed on a freeway by controlling a traffic signal at the on-ramp. Coifman says the control boxes could do much more. "The basic technology of these devices is very reliable, and such detectors are become more widespread as congestion increases," Coifman says. "But little attention has been paid to how they are used." Coifman says the control boxes frequently send information back to the transportation center, as often as every 20 seconds, but the messages were generally unimportant and created high communication costs. Coifman and former graduate student Ramachandran Mallika wrote software that allows controller boxes to detect traffic incidents and send important messages to the traffic control center, using only a fraction of the bandwidth previously required. Their software achieved better than 90 percent accuracy in reporting traffic conditions at a busy interchange between two interstates in Columbus, Ohio, and used up to 200 times fewer signals than before.
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DePaul Scores Win for Women
Chicago Sun-Times (07/04/07) Guy, Sandra

At DePaul University, Project Her-CTI within the university's School of Computer Science, Telecommunications and Information Systems connects female students with mentors and peers. One of the programs is called Digital Divas, sponsored by ACM's DePaul chapter. The program seeks to enable students to create relationships by accessing professional networks. Project Her-CTI's formal mentoring program involves paring juniors and seniors with freshmen to encourage and sustain new students. CTI students also undertake "externships" in which they shadow a DePaul alumna for one day in the workplace. These programs were recently strengthened by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the 2007-2008 school year; the grant will help fund mentoring efforts and provide scholarships. A $7,000 stipend funded by the grant, for example, will cover one quarter's tuition for student mentors and allow these upperclassmen to attend conferences such as the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
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Coaching Computer Canines in Clambering
USC Viterbi School of Engineering (06/29/07)

University of Southern California roboticist Stefan Schaal has trained four- and six-legged robots to walk on smooth surfaces, and has now turned his attention to a more difficult terrain of broken rocks. The mechanical dogs, about the size of a toy poodle, have an onboard computer chip that is connected to sensors, and they are always aware of the location of their center of gravity. In a paper presented at the 2007 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, Schaal explained how the robots walk, as well as where and how they should proceed, which is based on calculations of current position, velocity, and acceleration of their legs. Schaal trained the dogs over 15 months, which included having them learn from their mistakes and take a different route the next time, and they can now move at 1.6 centimeters a second, which is faster than the pace of the old Mars Sojourner robot. DARPA renewed its $1.5 million contract, and Schaal will now work to triple their speed and have them maneuver along rocky ground, as well as climb a sharp slope. From here, the next step would be to work with larger mechanical dogs.
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Are Top Linux Developers Losing the Will to Code?
Computerworld UK (07/02/07) Marti, Don

Greg Kroah-Hartman, the maintainer of USB and PCI support for Linux and co-author of the online book Linux Device Drivers, says core Linux developers are doing less of the coding and more managing and checking as the number of kernel contributors increases and the contributor network becomes more complex. Kroah-Hartman notes that in the most recent kernel release, the 30 most active developers wrote only 30 percent of the changes, while two years ago the top 20 developers wrote 80 percent of the changes. Kroah-Hartman says he now does more code reviewing than code writing. Theoretically, the kernel development process involves changes going from the original author, through a file driver maintainer, to the maintainer of a major subsystem such as PCI or SCSI, to Andrew Morton for testing, and finally to Linus Tovalds for a kernel release. The actual process, however, is far more complicated. "I tried graphing that, and that's not what happens," says Kroah-Hartman. "It's a mess. There's routing all over the place." The upcoming 2.6.22 release involved 920 developers, compared to 475 developers for the 2.6.11 release in March 2005. The "mess" is largely due to faster incorporation of new features, such as the power-saving tickless functionality, the increasing number of kernel changes, and more rapid changes. Over the past two years, 3,200 developers have contributed at least one patch, with half that number contributing two or more, and one quarter contributing three or more. Every patch has at least one author and one reviewer.
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Data Storage Advances to Enable More Robots in the Home, Says MIT Expert
Computer Weekly (06/29/07) Richards, Justin

Rodney Brooks, the director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, says the demand for household robots is being driven by aging populations in technologically advanced countries. Currently there are 2.5 million robots being used in U.S. homes, but in 2002 there were no ground robots in any U.S. homes or the U.S. military. Brooks says modern home robots rely on supervision through teleoperation or direct human intervention, and if robots are going to become more popular in homes, they will have to become more autonomous. Brooks says the main obstacle to developing more autonomous robots is limited data and information storage capacity. However, he notes that storage capacity growth trends indicate storage capacity will not be a problem in the future. Using the iPod as an example, Brooks says that if 10 gigabytes of memory was available in 2003, then 40,000 gigabytes will be available in 2015, which means that by 2009 a person could store a million books on their iPod and that every robot would be able to store a highly detailed map of the Earth on a solid state disk. Brooks does not believe that robots will ever take over for humans, but that as robots become more similar to humans, humans will become more robotic through medical developments and implants such as artificial tissue.
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Where Has All the Talent Gone?
Electronic Design (06/29/07) Schneiderman, Ron

There are thousands of listings for electrical engineering and other technical positions on popular online job sites, but companies are having a difficult time filling them. Dice is listing nearly 6,000 EE positions, with opportunities ranging from government agencies to toy manufacturers, and IEEE says postings are up about 4 percent in the first quarter, with software programming, design engineering, and research being the most frequent openings. Filling 3,000 technical jobs in the United States has not been easy for Microsoft, Bill Gates told the U.S. Senate committees on labor and education in March. If the U.S. economy is to continue to thrive off of innovation, then the country needs to improve the way math, science, and engineering are taught, he added. "Companies of all sizes continue to have problems recruiting highly qualified and educated individuals to work for them, whether those individuals are foreign or domestic," says AeA President William T. Archey. "This was reflected in the 2.5 percent unemployment rate for computer scientists and the below 2 percent unemployment rate for engineers in 2006." The problem could become even worse in the near future as baby boomers with technical talent leave the workforce, thinning the ranks of skilled IT workers.
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Wooing Interns to Silicon Valley
CNet (07/03/07) Olsen, Stephanie

Hundreds of college students are interning at Google this summer, and will enjoy such perks as free clothes, complementary food, and the freedom to immerse themselves into Google's code. Google and other companies hope such perks will help them attract individuals from a shrinking pool of skilled candidates. "There's a lot of demand for top CS undergrads and grads, both from startups and big companies, because there's growing recognition of the limited supply of the really talented students," says Stephen Hsu, a professor at the University of Oregon. At Microsoft, students also get ample perks, such as flying students in for interviews and offering subsidized housing or a housing stipend. The Computer Research Association (CRA) estimates that overall enrollment in U.S. bachelor's programs in computer science (CS) fell 14 percent from 2005 to 2006, and more than 40 percent since 2002. On a positive note, however, there has been a 10 percent increase in pre-major enrollment in CS. In addition, the number of students graduating with a doctorate in CS was up by more than 25 percent in June 2006, according to the CRA, and nearly 50 percent of doctoral students went to work in industry instead of academia from 2005 to 2005.
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Future Avatars Will Be Adept at Manipulating Human Response
Ars Technica (07/05/07) Timmer, John

Avatars cannot mimic human behavior, yet; but some programmers could help these computerized representations do just that as demand for realistic human behaviors increases among users. Judith Donath of MIT's Media Lab notes that programmers easily can incorporate the complex body language and expressions humans use into a single command for avatars to express a given behavior, such as showing interest in starting a conversation with a stranger. However, these single commands could raise serious ethical concerns, particularly in virtual conversations, because avatars could express honesty, while their users are being dishonest. Research indicates other jarring possibilities, including the use of avatars with similar faces to consumers to advertise brands, products, or political causes to garner greater attention for online users. Although Donath worries about "a world in which you are bombarded with oddly compelling ad campaigns presented by people just like you," she also foresees the use less complex avatars to interact with others in the virtual world to avoid the potential for manipulation.
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How Safe Are Wireless Networks?
Dalhousie University (07/04/07) Morrison, Dawn

Wireless security is the focus of research that is being pursued by a team at Dalhousie University. Over the next five years, Dr. Srini Sampalli and graduate students from Dalhousie's Faculty of Computer Science will receive $32,000 annually from the National Sciences and Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to study security and resource management in heterogeneous wireless networks. The project will complement another collaborative initiative that seeks to improve the security of wireless networks, which is sponsored by Industry Canada. The researchers hope to learn what makes wireless networks susceptible to exploitation, the different ways the networks can be attacked, and the strengths of applying common security measures. Sampalli also wants to establish guidelines for security best practices for detecting and preventing intrusions. They will study vulnerabilities and prototypes for detecting and preventing intrusions using a test bed. The use of wireless data devices continues to grow, and deployment of the devices could reach 226 million next year. "Unfortunately, the tremendous rapid growth has brought with it a large number of security issues and has exposed numerous vulnerabilities in wireless networks," says Sampalli.
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Is Securing Your Network Worth the Money?
Network World (07/03/07) Brown, Bob

Security researchers discussed IT security at a conference hosted by Carnegie Mellon. Two Dartmouth College Center for Digital Strategies researchers studied the involuntary disclosure of data through peer-to-peer sharing networks at a group of major financial institutions, and determined that lazy or badly organized end users are often responsible for the leakage of sensitive information, while P2P networks are aggressively searched by criminals seeking data to exploit. The researchers recommended the introduction of "file naming conventions and policies to reduce the metadata footprint of their documents." Researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Michigan State University Department of Economics presented a paper detailing the interdependent relationship between software vendors' "profit-maximizing behavior" and vulnerability disclosure policy, while USC researchers discussed a technique for quantifying security threats so that organizations can ascertain how much they must budget for commercially available security products to fulfill their security requirements. UC Berkeley, University of Michigan, and HEC Montreal researchers presented a paper focusing on the advantages to vendors of strengthening their software's security and reliability, noting that usually users fail to perceive any difference between a failure's occurrence due to a security or reliability problem and typically consider software bugs to be the source of both kinds of failures. A multi-divisional enterprise's implementation of security countermeasures in the context of variegated information systems controlled by its divisions and in response to various types of damage that the enterprise's information systems and assets can suffer from threats was an issue probed by three Carnegie Mellon researchers. They reached the conclusion that "there are strategic issues in information security decision making and that the distortion due to incomplete knowledge of information systems by the CIO has to be weighed against incentive problems when division managers make decisions."
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Drivers Unwanted: MIT 'Robocar' Passes Key Test Drive
MIT News (06/28/07) Mansur, Karla

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's autonomous robotic car passed a site visit by personnel from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). MIT is one of 11 "Track A," or funded, teams that will be competing at the DARPA Urban Challenge. The objective of the challenge is to create a driverless vehicle that can execute simulated military supply missions in an urban environment, while completing tasks such as merging, passing other vehicles, navigating safely through intersections and traffic circles, and adhering to speed limits and other traffic laws. Vehicles must complete the course within a six-hour time limit. MIT is the only Track A team that has not previously competed in a DARPA challenge, but team leader and MIT associate professor of mechanical and ocean engineering John Leonard believes that his team may have an advantage because they started from scratch. "We have a fresh perspective and novel ways of thinking that could set us apart, and lead us to new ways of attacking the problem," Leonard says. "They have made amazing advances in such a short time. I would be surprised if other teams have individually discovered all the things we have come up with on our own, in the half year or so that we have been focusing on this effort." The MIT car uses multiple laser-range scanners, high-rate video cameras, and automotive radar units. The sensors collect data to create a "local map" of the vehicle's immediate surroundings, including elements such as lane markings, stop lines, potholes, and other vehicles. A cluster of up to 40 central processing units processes the sensor data and performs autonomous planning and motion control.
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Tangible Display Makes 3D Images Touchable
New Scientist (06/29/07) Knight, Will

Japan's NTT has developed a system that allows users to "touch" 3D images using a 3D display and a haptic glove. The display creates life-like images that appear just in front of a flat screen, while inside the glove the user is touched by numerous force-feedback components to create the sensation of touching something solid. The illusion of depth is created by displaying slightly different images to each eye, eliminating the need for special glasses. The system can also create virtual representations of real-world objects. Two cameras create 3D images of items so the items can be displayed on the screen. A computer then processes the 3D image to generate a tactile representation of the object in the haptic glove. The system could be used to enable businesspeople to shake hands, relatives could hold each other from across the country, or museum visitors could experience holding and touching precious exhibits and items that are too valuable to let visitors really touch.
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ICANN Faces Major Transition With Cerf's Departure
IDG News Service (06/29/07) Perez, Juan Carlos

ICANN will face one of the greatest challenges in its history when Chairman Vint Cerf's term expires in October. Cerf has been chairman of ICANN since 2000, and much of the group's success in meeting its chief mandates can be attributed to him. Observers acknowledge that Cerf has his flaws, but overall they say he has done a great job in leading the nascent ICANN through a series of early challenges. Cerf's success can be attributed to his leadership, political skills, and consensus-approach, observers say. One detractor, Syracuse University professor Milton Mueller, criticizes Cerf for taking "a very conservative and limiting approach to ICANN policies" and not advocating enough for the internationalization of ICANN. Internet Mark 2 Project founder Ian Peter finds fault with Cerf's corporate management skills, claiming that Cerf allowed bureaucracy to flourish within ICANN. The general manager of Mexico's Internet NIC, Oscar Robles-Garay, even finds fault with Cerf's chief attribute, strong leadership. "His strong leadership is his best quality, but it has also backfired on him, as some board members have at times felt strongly influenced to vote the same way as Vint, even when he was wrong," Robles-Garay says. Observers say the next ICANN chairman will need to have several skills: Exceptional technical knowledge of Internet architecture issues; a willingness to listen to diverse ideas; and the ability to build consensus.
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The Reinvention of Software
Optimize (06/07)No. 68, P. 48; Chou, Timothy

The consumer Internet is an excellent resource for determining the next wave of business software, because that is where next-generation business applications are coming from, writes author and former Oracle On Demand President Timothy Chou. The ease of use of Google is key to its adoption, and this example provides an object lesson on the tremendous value of simplification. Chou says this trend implies that "we should view the future not as horizontal, fully integrated suites of business software, but as hundreds, if not thousands, of services unique to a particular user or industry." These immense software engines are being driven by massive volumes of information, and this is fueling a desire among organizations to make the construction of data warehouses unnecessary through the use of a Google-like crawler to retrieve desired data. Also of significance is the global economy's rapid transition from agriculture and manufacturing to services, and Chou notes that the majority of service requests are for known information, particularly in the software industry. He cites Amazon for defragmenting information and people and personalizing the service experience. Globe-spanning teamwork and cooperation--a concept that enterprises greatly value--is a core component of massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft, while games such as Second Life are popular enough to encourage real-world businesses such as Toyota and IBM to participate.
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