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ACM TechNews
July 30, 2007

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Welcome to the July 30, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

Correction: The headline for the first item in Friday's TechNews (7/27/07) misspelled ACM's Turing Award. We apologize for the error.


HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Scientists' Tests Hack Into Electronic Voting Machines in California and Elsewhere
New York Times (07/28/07) P. A11; Drew, Christopher

A test of electronic voting machines used in California and other states has shown that the machines are easily hacked and there are several ways to alter the vote totals. The tests, conducted by computer scientists from several universities in California, focused on three of the four largest electronic voting machine vendors: Diebold Election Systems, Hart InterCivic, and Sequoia Voting Systems. A report issued by the state of California said that each of the systems had weaknesses that could be exploited to affect the correct recording and tallying of votes. University of California, Davis, computer science professor Matthew A. Bishop, who led one of the testing teams, says his team was surprised how easy it was to pick the physical lock and to bypass the software defenses. Bishop says that every machine had problems, particularly because security features seemed to be added after the basic design of the system was finished. Bishop says the best way to build a secure system is to build security into the system at the start of the design process. The drastic failure of the voting machines' security could cause California's secretary of state Debra Bowen to ban the use of some machines in the 2008 election unless extra security precautions are established and election results are closely monitored. Electronic voting machine industry executives argue that the tests were not conducted in a realistic environment and that no machine has ever been known to have been hacked during an election. The report was released on the same day members of Congress reached an agreement on measures to add paper records to every voting machine so voters can verify that their ballots were correctly cast and to be used in case of a recount. For information about ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Q&A: Security Top Concern for New IETF Chair
Network World (07/26/07) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy

Russ Housley, the new head of Internet standards body IETF, says he will maintain the objective he had when he was director of the IETF security area--to work for continuous, incremental improvement of the IETF standards process and the Internet as a whole. Housley, who runs consulting firm Vigil Security, says he took the volunteer position because he cares about the community and he believes that it is important to have a security expert in charge of the IETF because security is the biggest problem for the Internet right now. Housley says the deployment of IPv6 and DNS security are high priorities, while he also hopes the Secure Inter-Domain Routing working group will add new security improvements to Internet routing. Many of the problems the IETF must eventually fix, such as the lack of security in HTTP, are made more complex because there is little to no agreement on what is the most important security feature to add. Housley says more people think about security, but it is not the primary reason they look to the IETF. Housley says IPv6 will be deployed sooner rather than later, and suggests that people start working on IPv6 adoption now. The biggest challenge for the IETF, according to Housley, is establishing better working relationships through liaisons to other standards development organizations, particularly the International Telecommunication Union Telecommunications Standards Sector and the Third Generation Partnership Project.
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Lightspeed Animation
Technology Review (07/30/07) Gibson, Michael

A team of computer scientists from MIT, Tippett Studios, and Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) have created Lightspeed, an animated lighting system that can drastically reduce the amount of time needed to calculate changes to the animation. Previously, generating a preview image could take up to an hour, but Lightspeed can render an image in a few seconds, which will allow directors to fine-tune the lighting in a shot immediately. ILM tested Lightspeed during the production of the movie Transformers, and plans on deploying Lightspeed throughout the whole company over the next couple of weeks. Lighting effects are adjusted at the end of the production process when the majority of the information in the image has been set. Lightspeed reduces rendering time by identifying and compressing the data that is not being changed to avoid redundantly rendering unchanging information. Lightspeed also uses high-performance graphic processors (GPUs) instead of CPUs to process light effects. Traditionally, light effects are processed entirely on CPU. Lightspeed, however, manages the redundant data on a CPU while the information being altered is processed on a GPU, creating a significantly faster rendering time. "The first big step is eliminating work that doesn't have to be recomputed every frame," says MIT computer scientist and Lightspeed team member Jonathan Ragan-Kelley. "The next big acceleration comes from taking that data lighting designers are editing, and then mapping it onto a processor that can execute it much more efficiently."
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A Tech Future at Their Fingertips
Detroit Free Press (07/29/07) Scott, Melanie D.

For four years, Lawrence Technological University has hosted Camp Infinity, a four-day camp geared toward teaching girls about creating Web sites, programming robots, and general computer technology. Camp Infinity, sponsored by the Michigan Council of Women In Technology Foundation, is an all-girls program for fourth through seventh grade girls. Rosemary Bayer, president of the technology foundation, says the camp has two objectives. The first is to show the girls they are capable of working with technology and that it can be fun, and the second is to increase the number of women working in the technology industry. "The Michigan Council of Women in Technology started because there are very few women in the field," Bayer says. "I work for Sun Microsystems, and I looked around one day and realized I was the only woman there. We realized we needed to get more girls motivated and inspired about math and computer science." Bayer says Camp Infinity targets fourth through seventh grade girls because once they get to high school it is too late to convince them that math and science can be cool. This year, 44 girls participated in the program. The fourth and fifth grade girls spent their time thinking about fun activities that use math and computer science and created video games. The older girls worked on expanding their knowledge of computer science by programming robots and building Web sites. "The girls tend to watch for a while, and then they jump right in," Bayer says. "We want them to be free to be creative and try their own things. We want them to know they can do it." The girls are also given time to interact with professionals during lunch each day, giving the girls an opportunity to ask questions and learn about possible career paths.
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Study Predicts Upswing in Dynamic Language Use
SD Times (07/25/07) Handy, Alex

The use of dynamic programming languages such as Ruby, PHP, and Python have several similarities to the Visual Basic boom of the 1990s, say Forrester Research analysts in a new study, but they also have some unique differences. "These dynamic languages are creating very strange bedfellows," says Forrester's Jeffrey Hammond. "With these languages, some are open source, and in some cases you have multiple commercial vendors pushing on a single language." Forrester's Michael Goulde says that dynamic language use is not currently widespread in the corporate world, so he and Hammond decided to investigate why corporations have avoided dynamic languages despite their Web popularity. The researchers found that dynamic languages are not being ignored by corporations, but are instead being used by nonprogrammers and sneaking in the backdoor. For example, Python offers a number of powerful frameworks and libraries for scientific and engineering uses while PHP is being used for database applications that require continual updates and modifications. The analysts say the gradual adoption of dynamic languages will have a significant impact on development teams, including more initiative when choosing how to complete a task. Goulde and Hammond see three dynamic languages as the most important for enterprises. JavaScript is the most important for Web developers because it is the only language that does not require extra stack components. Ruby is showing the fastest growth in overall uptake, and PHP is probably the most popular dynamic languages amongst current corporate development environments.
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Technology Adopts a Human Face
Engineering News (South Africa) (07/27/07) Smrcka, Karel

Finland's Tampere University of Technology's Institute of Human Centered Technology wants to make psychology a greater factor in the design of technology. Human-centered design has become more of a focus for the institute, and it will be offering its first course on the subject in the fall for all technology students. Although the design work of engineers is supposed to be practical, their training gives them a better understanding of technology than human beings. Companies realize a focus on human-centered design can improve safety and user satisfaction, but engineers still have not embraced the idea of applying it to the practical product-development stage, according to Sari Kujala, a professor of psychology at the institute. The United States and the United Kingdom are leaders in user-centered design, but Finland is making significant contributions in mobile technology and the use of psychology. "The advent of computers brought the human-computer interaction [HCI] field, which attempts to understand the interaction between humans and machinery," says Kujala. The course will cover human needs, modeling human activity, human emotion and motivation, group behavior, interaction, consumer psychology, the psychology of aesthetics and creativity, and multicultural design.
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Hitachi's Visual Search Finds Similar Images From Millions of Targets in 1 Second
Tech-On! (07/25/07) Matsuda, Chiho; Monozukuri, Nikkei

Technology that will enable users to search for an image out of millions of images and video data in one second has been developed by Hitachi. The image characteristics, such as color distribution and shape, that the visual search technology analyzes is rendered as high-dimensional numeric information. The visual search technology makes use of clustering technology that separates images and stores them in groups based on the similarity of their characteristics. Image characteristics about each cluster are also written to memory. The visual search technology first selects several clusters that have images that most closely resemble the entered image, then searches for a similar image in those clusters. Hitachi's technology also makes use of optimized data allocation on an HDD to speed up the visual similarity searching capability. Recording image characteristics by cluster units enabled Hitachi to place the data in the same cluster in succession on the storage medium. Image search technology that allows searches based on color distribution, sense of touch, and composition has already been commercialized.
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Discovery of 'Hidden' Quantum Order Improves Prospects for Quantum Super Computers
Johns Hopkins University News Releases (07/26/07)

Johns Hopkins University scientists are among an international team of researchers that has uncovered a hidden magnetic "quantum order" that spans over chains of almost 100 atoms in a material that is otherwise in a state of magnetic disarray, and their discovery could play a significant role in the design of large-scale quantum computers and similar devices and materials for quantum information processing. Their findings show that the magnetic moments of a large atomic volume can cohere into quantum states that resemble those of a very big molecule. The researchers have also outlined the factors that affect the radius over which the quantum order can be sustained, which could be vital in the determination of the material's practical uses. The team learned that the introduction of defects into the material through heating or chemical impurities could result in the limitation or elimination of decoherence. "Apart from the sheer beauty and mystique of quantum order beyond the atomic scale, there are very exciting prospects for applications in quantum computing to dramatically speed a wide range of computing that our society relies upon," says Johns Hopkins professor and team member Collin Broholm. The researchers' findings are published online in the journal Science, and the research was underwritten by the National Science Foundation, the Basic Technologies program of the U.K. Research Councils, the Office of Basic Energy Sciences within the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science, and England's Wolfson-Royal Society.
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U. of Delaware Researchers Edge Closer to Spintronics
EE Times (07/26/07) Johnson, Colin

University of Delaware researchers led by professor Ian Appelbaum have demonstrated the electronic injection and detection of spin-polarized electrons, the first step toward encoding information on the spin of electronics, or spintronics. The prototype chip layered aluminum on top of a spin polarization filter made of a ferromagnetic film of cobalt iron, through which electrons are injected into a silicon transport layer. Beneath that is a second ferromagnetic film of nickel iron that performs the electronic detection of the spin-polarized electrons. "We use hot electron transport through a ferromagnetic thin film in order to do the spin filtering," says Appelbaum. "As unpolarized electrons pass through the thin film of cobalt iron, one orientation of spins is scattered away so that there are more of the orthogonal polarization that couple with the conduction states of the silicon transport layer." The second nickel-iron ferromagnetic layer beneath the silicon uses an external magnetic field to create a variable spin orientation, which allows for the detection of the spin-polarized electrons by modulating them with the magnetic field, much like how two polaroid filters can be rotated to modulate the light passing through them, Appelbaum says. Appelbaum says that his prototype chip has demonstrated spin polarization into silicon of nearly 40 percent, and that his group will now work toward real spintronics circuitry. "Injection, transport, and detection are the barest essentials for any semiconductor spintronics device," says Appelbaum. "Now we want to build upon our demonstration so we can do something useful in a real spintronics circuit."
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Breakthrough Approach Matches Tumor Profiles to Best Possible Anticancer Treatments
UVA Today (University of Virginia) (07/24/07) Gore, Mary Jane

University of Virginia researchers Dan Theodorescu, an oncologist and cancer biologist, and Jae Lee, a computational biologist and bioinformatics statistician, have developed an algorithm that could help rapidly sort through molecular information on a patient's tumor to help find the right drug treatment as quickly as possible. The researchers used a panel of 60 diverse, human cancer cell lines from the National Cancer Institute (NCI-60) to devise and test an algorithm that finds the best potential treatment for each patient. Previously, the NCI-60 cell lines were used to screen more than 100,000 chemical compounds for anticancer activity during drug testing, but these drug responses did not necessarily result in clinical effectiveness in patients. Additionally, NCI-60 drug testing did not include all cancer types. Specifically, certain bladder cancers, lymphomas, and small cell lung cancers were not among the 60 lines studied. The researchers explored if the drug sensitivity data on the 60 cancer cell lines could provide useful information on other tumors or cancer cell lines. The researchers found that their "coexpression extrapolation (COXEN) system" could accurately predict drug sensitivity in bladder cancer cell lines with two common chemotherapies. The researchers say the most exciting aspect of the research, in addition to being able to predict a patient's response, is that the algorithm can be used to discover effective drug compounds for any type of cancer, and can predict if newly discovered drugs might be effective in patients, greatly lowering the failure rate of clinical trials testing new compounds and lowering the cost of drugs.
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Visual Learning for the 21st Century
University of Nottingham (07/24/07)

The University of Nottingham's Visual Learning Lab (VLL) has received a grant of 1.8 million pounds from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to facilitate learning and teaching through visual imagery via state-of-the-art technologies that include "virtual" environments, stereo 3D projection equipment, and interactive video links. "Modern technologies now allow lecturers and students to access fantastic visual images at the touch of a button," explains VLL co-director and professor Roger Murphy. "The Visual Learning Lab is working to make the very best of these new opportunities to transform student learning from something that can seem dry and unappealing to something that is captivating, highly stimulating, and enjoyable." University of Nottingham institutions that are employing visual learning technologies include the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, which is installing a "Ceiling Visualizer" in its main dissection lab to enable the viewing of live surgical demonstrations for large student groups; the School of Nursing, which has set up interactive video links into hospitals and other health care facilities so students can be exposed to daily nursing work and patient care; the School of Biosciences, which will use an electronic microscope that captures images in real time; and the School of American and Canadian Studies, which has a virtual filmmaking lab that lets students meld theoretical and historical research with practical experimentation through the use of film industry-standard video and film editing gear. The VLL team collaborates closely with other University of Nottingham Centers for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, including the Center for Integrative Learning, Reusable Learning Objects, and Spatial Literacy in Teaching.
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A New Technique May Speed the Development of Molecular Electronics
Weizmann Institute of Science (07/26/2007)

Researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science and in the United States have announced a breakthrough in the development of molecular electronics. The researchers are the first to use doping in molecular electronics, which involves electronic components made of single layers of organic (carbon-based) molecules. With molecular electronics, organic materials have to reach a certain level of purity before the relatively delicate systems can be "contaminated" with impurities that will allow electricity to move through the semiconductor and enable designers to control the electronic properties of materials. After purifying the molecular layer, the researchers introduced small amounts of impurities by irradiating the surface with UV light or weak electron beams, which altered the chemical bonds between the carbon atoms that influence electronic transport through the molecules. The new technique could have a significant impact on the use of organic monolayers in nanoelectronics. "If I am permitted to dream a little, it could be that this method will allow us to create types of electronics that are different, and maybe even more environmentally friendly, than the standard ones that are available today," says Dr. Oliver Seitz of Weizmann Institute's Material and Interfaces Department.
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Embedded Computers Research by Sandeep Shukla Attracts National Attention
Virginia Tech News (07/23/07) Crumbley, Liz

Virginia Tech's Sandeep Shukla, an associate professor in the College of Engineering's Bradley Department of Electrical ad Computer Engineering, has receive praise from the National Academies, the National Science Foundation, and the White House for his work on designing, analyzing, and predicting the performance of electronic systems, particularly embedded computers. A specific aspect of Shukla's research focuses on the development of embedded software code generation for space and aviation applications. "The makers of the Airbus 380 claim to have all software automatically generated," Shukla says. "We should develop similar technology to increase productivity and safety of embedded software-based space and air-borne systems." Shukla is also interested in nanoscale computer chips. "Because nanoscale devices are so small and the manufacturing process is affected by so much variation and inaccuracy, a significant percentage of computer chip devices manufactured at the nanoscale are defective," Shukla says. Shukla is attempting to develop tools and techniques that will help such problems. Additionally, Shukla and University of Utah researchers received NSF funding to research globally asynchronous and locally synchronous (GALS) computer chip design.
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Worried About Getting Old? Get a Robot to Help
Globe and Mail (CAN) (07/20/07) Anderssen, Erin

Roboticists such as Stanford University's Sebastian Thrun believe rapidly-evolving robots could be the key to preserving the quality of life for Canada's elderly population, which faces the inevitability of receding independence as age wears down their faculties. Thrun uses the example of his father, who underwent a quick decline after he was deemed unfit to drive, as a case that robotic companions, caregivers, and other mechanical assistants could help prevent. The Stanford scientist is concentrating on the development of a self-guiding robot vehicle to be field-tested in experiments such as DARPA's Grand Challenge competition. Meanwhile, Alex Mihailidis of the University of Toronto is testing artificially intelligent caregivers designed to help people with cognitive dysfunction, such as a computer system linked to a camera-equipped bathroom that reminds Alzheimer's patients to wash their hands. Major steps have been taken in robot vision systems; scientists at the University of British Columbia have devised a machine that can map out the contours of its surroundings instead of blindly measuring distances from objects via sensors and infrared. An increase in sensor intelligence and computer speed has helped enable the relatively inexpensive and fast processing of massive data sets by robots. Humanoid machines are thus far restricted by their high cost and limited practicality. Many researchers say the challenge of releasing such robots into the world is focused on ethical and legal ramifications, such as who should be held accountable when a machine makes a mistake.
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Q&A: Jim Zemlin Touts the 'Second Phase' of Linux
Computerworld (07/24/07) Weiss, Todd R.

In an interview with Computerworld during the Ubuntu Live Conference, Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin said the merger of the Open Source Development Lab and the Free Standards Group has been a success. He said the two Linux and open-source advocacy groups decided to join forces because they have similar goals on issues such as providing development tools and testing. Zemlin said the introduction of better software and functions is the focus of the next phase for the community. Organizations now understand the importance of having an open architecture and the value of speed to market, he said. The Linux Foundation will continue to work with other open-source groups such as the Mozilla Foundation, the Apache Foundation, and the Eclipse Foundation to address the legal issues involving Linux and open source, to collaborate across projects, to synchronize release schedules for Linux projects, and improve testing, according to Zemlin. When talking to the IT community, the head of the San Francisco-based group stressed that open source offers no more of a risk than a proprietary license. The free software movement ultimately benefits from its corporate success, Zemlin added.
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Interview: The Shape of Android Robots to Come
New Scientist (07/25/07)No. 2614, P. 46; Anderson, Alun

Roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro has designed androids--including a robotic twin of himself--in order to better comprehend the principles of human-robot interaction, and he hopes this understanding will help facilitate a deeper integration of robots into human society. The degree to which robots must physically resemble people in order to interact with them depends on several factors, including culture, the situation, and the machine's purpose, according to Ishiguro. The scientist explains that projects to develop artificially intelligent computer vision systems have a long way to go before robots can be imbued with human-level perception capabilities, so he is working on a distributed-cognition project involving a network of widely distributed sensors to give the robot a picture of its surroundings. "The role of the robot is representation, to interact effectively with humans," Ishiguro notes. He says the Japanese government has become very supportive of this network robot concept, and contends that the incorporation of sensor networks into public areas should not constitute a major problem. "Sensor networks will allow robots to move easily among crowds without running into people, which is a hard problem to solve with just local sensors on the robot," Ishiguro says.
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Talent Search: The Myths and Facts Driving the H-1B Debate
InformationWeek (07/23/07)No. 1147, P. 38; LaPlante, Alice; McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

Insights into the H-1B debate can be gained by understanding the underlying facts and falsehoods. The drive to reform the H-1B program stems from assumptions of rampant abuse, when in actuality the most probable form of abuse is employers not paying the "prevailing wage" for skills in a specific geographic region. Another myth is that the defeat of a comprehensive immigration reform bill has effectively killed the hopes of amending the H-1B law; in fact, the cap on H-1B visas has repeatedly fluctuated in the past 10 years in the absence of comprehensive reform. Employers are required to run ads checking for available domestic employees before applying for automatic green-card approval, but most employers, with few exceptions, are not required to prove they were unable to fill a job with a U.S. worker before applying for H-1Bs. The U.S. tech job market and wage levels remain healthy, despite warnings that offshoring and foreign visas such as H-1Bs are having a depressive effect. What is true is that fewer Americans are enrolling in university-level tech programs, while increasing numbers of graduates are foreign-born. The myth that just 65,000 H-1Bs are issued annually ignores that fact that 20,000 additional visas are allocated yearly to foreign holders of advanced degrees educated at U.S. institutions, but it is true that it has become more difficult to acquire H-1Bs. U.S.-based companies and universities remain the biggest users of H-1Bs, but at the same time dependence on H-1Bs has grown dramatically for major offshore outsourcing companies as well as American companies that hire Indian-based outsourcers.
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