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ACM TechNews
August 10, 2007

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Welcome to the August 10, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Slicing Sensitive Corporate Data for Secure, Dispersed Storage
Computerworld (08/09/07) Weiss, Todd R.

S. Christopher Gladwin, who founded the MusicNow online music retrieval and sales service about 10 years ago, believes that he has developed a better way to secure and store sensitive information. Gladwin has developed software that divides critical data into anywhere from four to 128 "slices" that can be stored in either single or multiple data centers. Complex algorithms are used to cut up the data, and a certain number of slices are necessary to make the information readable again. "The data in one location is useless, which makes the transport and storage secure," says Gladwin. The process is similar to packet switching over the Internet, which transmits data in small pieces and reconstructs the information at the other end; but instead of sending the data, it is cut up and stored. Gladwin has made the security process available under an open-source license through a start-up company called Cleversafe. Cleversafe has not yet launched any products, and the release of the beta and finished product have not been scheduled; but the company is working to build test networks to prove the technology works. Gladwin says test grids using as many as 300 servers have already been built and used to successfully test the concept. The technology also could be used by banks to ensure secure transactions or by corporate users to grant remote users access through a secure network instead of having them store sensitive information on laptops and portable devices.
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Bush Signs Law Giving More Than $30 Billion to Science and Tech Fields
Digital Journal (08/09/07)

Technology companies welcomed the signing of the America Competes Act into law Thursday by President Bush. The new law sets aside $33.6 billion in government funding for research in science, technology, and engineering that industry observers believe will enable the country to maintain a competitive advantage in these fields. The money will also be used on education programs at universities and research institutes, and to train teachers in math, science, technology, and foreign languages. The law also creates the Advanced Research Projects Administration for Energy (ARPA-E) to focus on reducing greenhouse gas and other emissions, improving energy efficiency, and "translating scientific discoveries and cutting-edge inventions into technological innovations." While the tech industry has been waiting for the bill for some time, President Bush was not overly thrilled with the legislation. "The bill creates over 30 new programs that are mostly duplicative or counterproductive--including a new Department of Energy agency to fund late-stage technology development more appropriately left to the private sector--and also provides excessive authorization for existing programs," according to a statement from the White House after Bush signed the act.
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Computers Master the Game Board
Christian Science Monitor (08/08/07) Gaylord, Chris

Board games, such as checkers and chess, are already being dominated by computer programmers, so artificial intelligence researchers are exploring new challenges to solve. A poker playing computer program, Polaris, designed by the same computer scientist who found the solution to checkers, recently faced off against two professional poker players and, after 4,000 hands of poker over two days, lost by only about 30 bets. Some games are still too complicated for computers to handle: The Japanese game Go, for example, has a 19 by 19 grid, which presents such an enormous amount of possible positions that computers are unable to focus. Hunter College computer science professor Susan Epstein says studies on the best Go players, including eye tracking, show that while there are hundreds of possible good moves, the best human players focus on only three of four--a difficult skill for a computer to master. Michael Genesereth, director of the Logic Group at Stanford University, suggests that it may be possible to teach computers to see games such as Go as humans do by no longer relying on programs that simply map out a single game. He researches general gaming that teaches computers to identify and study patterns and principles used in a variety of puzzles. At the same conference Polaris played the humans, Genesereth held a machine-on-machine championship that had general gaming programs face off against one another in several boar game mash-ups; the Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., is researching similar computing models by having two computers play asynchronous chess, which is where the two players do not have to wait turns but can move any piece at any time. Genesereth says these code-against-code matches are harder to program but are significantly easier to translate to real-life situations.
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Cognitive Science and Technology Program Becomes Sandia Initiative
Sandia National Laboratories (08/08/07) Burroughs, Chris

Sandia National Laboratories has launched its Cognitive Science and Technology Program (CS&T), which may lead to advancements such as virtual representations of people that are modeled after how they actually think and their level of knowledge, or computers in cars that appreciate good driving skills and that know and are able to compensate for the driver's limitations. Chris Forsythe, a member of the lab's cognition research team, says the lab's research will not lead to better guns or tools for national security but will create a revolution of the mind that effects how people think and how machines can help people work better. A major focus of Sandia's research is studying how individuals interact with others and with machines, including using machines to help humans perform more efficiently and installing cognitive methods into machines so humans and machines can capitalize on each other's strengths while compensating for each others weaknesses. Russ Skocypec, senior manager of Sandia's Human, Systems, and Simulation Technologies Department, says cognitive systems technologies could have numerous positive impacts on national security. Skocypec believes that major influences effect the outcomes of every war and that the world is engaged in a human war that is influenced by individual people instead of technology or bureaucracy, which makes it important for Sandia, a national security laboratory, to develop a better understanding of the mind and to use machines to recognize patterns, deal with massive amounts of data, solve difficult problems, and perform complicated activities.
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Data Center Energy Efficiency Focus of Technology Road Map
InformationWeek (08/08/07) McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

The Green Grid has unveiled a road map for reducing power consumption in data centers that includes an agenda for "deliverables" on identifying and setting standards, metrics, and best practices for improving energy efficiency. According to John Tuccillo, a vice president at American Power Conversion and a board member of the Green Grid, the kind of system in data centers, such as high-performance, enterprise, or Web 2.0 applications, could determine the standards, metrics, and best practices. Mark Monroe, director of sustainable computing at Sun Microsystems and another board member, says the group wants to offer tools and guidelines that will allow organizations to measure and compare energy efficiency to standards and baselines, as well as best practices for improving data centers. A week ago, a report from the EPA revealed that power consumption in data centers more than doubled from 2000 to 2005, and will do so again by 2011. Energy efficiency programs will be needed or power consumption could cost the private and government sectors $7.4 billion annually, according to the EPA, which adds that current technologies and design strategies could rein it in by 25 percent a year. Uptime Institute executive director Ken Brill says energy could be saved by moving data from tens of thousands of "comatose" servers to "less power-intensive storage."
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U.S. Panel Approves Supercomputer Funding
IDG News Service (08/08/07) Gross, Grant

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will be the home of the world's fastest supercomputer in the next few years. The National Science Foundation has approved funding to purchase the Blue Waters system, which would be capable of performing arithmetic calculations at a petaflop per second, or 1,000 trillion operations per second. Blue Waters, which is slated to be up and running in 2011, would be about 500 times faster than most supercomputers today. "Working at the frontiers of knowledge is increasing the demand for powerful cyberinfrastructures," said NSF deputy director Kathy Olsen in a statement. Blue Waters would provide U.S. scientists and engineers "access to unprecedented petascale computing resources that will allow them to ask and answer complex questions we haven't even dreamed of," she explained. NSF would not disclose whether IBM has been chosen to build the petascale computer, which would cost $208 million over four and a half years. A smaller supercomputer will be located at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville Joint Institute for Computational Science. The NSF has approved $65 million over five years for the system, which will top off just under 1 petaflop and have nearly four times the capacity of the Teragrid.
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The Ultimate Search Engine
InformationWeek (08/04/07) Hoover, J. Nicholas

Major search engines like Google and Yahoo, as well as small search specialists like those that cater to business customers, are racing to develop next-generation technologies that will be better and more precise at providing search results that more closely match the information for which the user was searching. Microsoft says people currently spend an average of 11 minutes before finding what they are looking for--which also leads to half of all potential online sales being lost, according to Gartner. With next-generation search engines, Web users will no longer have to simplify their queries; rather, they will be able to ask full-length questions and receive precise and relevant results. Linguistics, the science of language, is widely being deployed to help search engines understand the question, rather than simply matching keywords. These semantic search engines examine language much like an English student, using dictionaries and thesauri to understand meaning, syntax, and sentence structure. Currently, humans are needed to help apply language rules and define categories to narrow searches. Another search engine tool being developed is a queryless search, which runs a search based on previous queries or using the context in a Word document or Excel spreadsheet. Apple's iTunes program currently runs a similar feature by displaying related music at the iTunes store when a listener plays a track. The queryless search, also known as serendipity, is the hardest feature for a search, being computationally intensive and having a difficult-to-design interface, according to IDC analyst Susan Feldman; but companies are making progress. Search engine companies are also working on developing search engines that are better at tracking a user's habits to provide more personalized results, as well as creating a more social aspect to search engines with features like social bookmarking, tagging, and shared searchers that provide better results as more people use them. The next generation of search engines will also provide a universal search and search all media, images, audio, video, and text without relying on metadata to find non-text results.
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'No Cooling Necessary' Data Centers Coming?
eWeek (08/03/07) Preimesberger, Chris

Researchers at IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, and undoubtedly other companies are exploring technologies that might lead to data centers that require no cooling equipment, which would lower power usage dramatically. Some companies are already developing components that require no cooling, with Sun Microsystems possibly being the closest to creating a self-sustained data center that requires no outside cooling. "We've already got a version of this self-contained data center in our Blackbox," says Sun vice president and engineer Subodh Bapat. "All you need is a concrete floor, a chilled water source and a power draw, and you have a portable data center that can be dropped in just about anywhere." Sun's Project Blackbox combines storage, computing, network infrastructure hardware and software with high-efficiency power and liquid cooling, all contained in modular units based on standard 20-by-8-by-8-foot shipping containers. Each Blackbox contains 250 Sun Fire blade servers, provides up to 1.5 petabytes of disk storage. features 2 petabytes of tape storage and 7 TB of RAM, and requires no air cooling. Bapat says significant progress on no-cooling-needed data centers will be made over the next few years. "We're already on that track now, and we're only going to continue to discover more ways to improve systems--through lower-power processors, better design, and other components," according to Bapat. HP senior vice president for technology services Mike Rigodanzo emphasizes that HP is a leader in designing better-tuned data centers, which are designed to optimize airflow and air conditioning-unit locations. Rigodanzo explains that large data centers are not homogeneous and that each one has airflow and design challenges, so they need to be designed correctly by special services. Bapat says software that monitors power draw across a data center and calibrates it with the workload on a dynamic basis will soon be available and will be a major power saver. "It's not hard to imagine that we'll eventually get to full data centers that won't need cooling equipment. These will be hundreds of times more efficient. And what a savings in power draw that will be," says IBM vice president of global sites and facilities Steve Sams. "Some day we'll look back and see that we could have improved a lot of things far earlier than we actually did."
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DARPA Seeks Innovation in Network Monitoring
FCW.com (08/03/07) Sprenger, Sebastian

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) officials in the agency's Strategic Technology Office have established the Scalable Network Monitoring program to develop sustainable network defenses and monitoring strategies. A statement from DARPA says the agency is looking to develop new ways to monitor and safeguard the military's growing computer networks. The planned size of the Global Information Grid and the use of the new Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) on Department of Defense networks create "new challenges" to information assurance, according to DARPA. As military networks continue to expand, the shrinking size and "signature" of threats makes them harder to detect. "As a result, many conventional approaches to defending our networks will not be sustainable," the statement says. The Scalable Network Monitoring program will develop network monitoring approaches that can be applied to any network, regardless of size. The approaches will be particularly useful in the near future as the Department of Defense plans to start using IPv6 for unclassified parts of its networks in the summer of 2008. Kris Strance, a senior information technology analyst in the office of the DOD's chief information officer, says some aspects of IPv6 present new types of security risks, such as vulnerabilities in the formation of ad-hoc networks on the battlefield and the use of IPv6 networks for mobile communications.
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Screen Swivels Its Crystals for a Better View
New Scientist (08/06/07) Simonite, Tom

Researchers in Taiwan have developed a computer screen that automatically adjusts to the location of the user so the clearest possible image is always viewed. The prototype liquid crystal display makes use of software that can calculate the amount of light needed to pass through liquid crystals to prevent images from appearing blurred or distorted when the user looks at the screen from an angle. A miniature camera has been connected to the prototype display to track the position of the user. The color and clarity of images often suffer for people who use handheld devices, including digital cameras, considering users do not always look at their screens from straight on. "In some applications, the degraded image caused by viewing angle may compromise the judgment made by the viewer," says Wayne Cheng, who teamed up with colleague Chih-Nan Wu at the Photonics and Display Institute at the National Chiao Tung University, to develop the screen. Trial results have been promising, and Cheng and Wu now plan to use an infrared sensor as the tracking application, which would be more feasible for handheld devices.
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The Next Wave of Defense
Government Computer News (08/06/07) Dizard, Wilson P. III

DARPA's 13 Future Icon projects are the types of projects that could have impacts beyond their original plan and drive the development of technologies used elsewhere in the government and in industry. "They are tremendously difficult technical challenges that will be hard to solve without fundamentally new approaches - ones which may require bringing multiple disciplines to bear and perhaps even entirely new disciplines," says DARPA director Tony Tether. The Programmable Matter project focuses on developing software that would allow physical objects to change their size, shape, color, and other attributes as needed to fulfill unique functions in, for example, a military communications system. This project could lead to inventions like a malleable antenna that could change its shape depending on the radio or radar it is connected to, says Tether. "The challenge is to build a solid object out of intelligent parts that could be programmed so that it can transform itself into other physical objects in three dimensions," explains Tether. The Counter-Underground Facilities program is striving to develop sensors, software, and related technology that could pinpoint power, water, and airflow from cave installations, evaluate the condition of underground facilities before and after attacks, and monitor activities within cave structures during attacks. Another project is the Chip Scale Atomic Clocks (CSAC) project, which would provide solutions to immediate concerns in defense networks and in helping soldiers detect enemy vehicles and facilities. The CSAC project would also provide continual synchronization of systems linked to the Global Information Grid, and deploy tiny clocks in hundreds of systems, such as radios, radars, sensors, and location units using GPS.
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Vote-Swapping Over the Internet Is Legal, Court Finds
Computerworld (08/07/07) Rosencrance, Linda

The Web sites used in the 2000 election to swap votes so voters in swing states who wanted to support the third-party candidate could swap votes with a voter in a safe state who wanted to vote for a major-party candidate have been deemed legal and protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by a federal appeals court in California. The purpose of the swap sites, VoteSwap2000.com and VoteExchange2000.com, was to improve Gore's chances of winning the Electoral College without reducing Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's share of the national popular vote, but the site's creators shut down the sites after then-California Secretary of State Bill Jones threatened to criminally prosecute VoteSwap2000.com's owner, Alan Porter, for allegedly violating various provisions of the California election and penal codes, including selling votes for money. Porter and VoteExchange2000.com's owner, William Cody, shut down the Web sites and filled a lawsuit in federal court claiming that Jones' action of threatening prosecution violated the First Amendment and exceeded his authority under California's election code. The court found that Secretary Jones did exceed his authority and that attempting to stop vote trading, which the court also ruled is not the same as bribing people to vote a certain way, is protected by the First Amendment.
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Teaching Technology Growing in Importance
Cincinnati Enquirer (08/06/07) Fischer, Ben

Technology has never been more prevalent in children's lives, but formal education in how to create, develop, and use the tools of technology is incredibly insufficient, according to Glennetta Krause, lead teacher at the Hughes Center Teach & Technology program. A growing effort to get children excited and interested in technology includes programs like summer camps at universities for potential engineers and scientists, and open-access computer labs and weekend workshops hosted by nonprofits. The Hughes Center has incorporated computer technology training as a critical aspect of preparing the next generation of classroom teachers. Krause said the Hughes Center is one of the only programs in which students have a technology class every day. Julie Burdick, the director of pre-admissions for the College of Engineering at the University of Cincinnati, says college campuses are generally the best place to find programs for children interested in computer science and engineering, and that post-secondary education options are also a good option during the school year. Non-profit organizations like Media Bridges can provide on opportunity to learn practical computer applications as well. Media Bridges teaches free classes for eight to 12 year olds and 13-to-18 year olds during the summer and on Saturdays, teaching children how to use a camera, write a script, digitally edit video, burn video onto a DVD, upload video to the Web, and to design a Web site. Media Bridges education director Sara Mahle says that their program is basically the only way for a lot of the participating kids to learn and experience such technology.
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URI Identity Management for Semantic Web Data Integration and Linkage
University of Southampton (ECS) (07/30/07) Jaffri, Afraz; Glaser, Hugh; Millard, Ian

Initiatives to encourage Semantic Web technology adoption seek to supply a connected data backbone, which has led to an explosion of RDF information sources that has in turn given rise to massive numbers of URIs for non-information resources. This feeds into the problem of coreference, whereby the same entity is described by different URIs. The Consistent Reference Service (CRS) is a tool for managing coreference between the millions of URIs building up on the Semantic Web, and the service has been deployed as an RDF knowledge base as well as a relational database with RDF export. The CRS defines a "bundle" as a group of resources that refer to the same concept within a given context, and different bundles may be employed to cluster URIs of the same resource in different contexts. The authors offer the Resilience Knowledge Base Explorer as a Semantic Web application capable of presenting a unified view of a substantial volume of heterogeneous data sources in reference to a given domain, and they have devised an underlying information infrastructure that uses the CRS architecture. "Our future plan is to distribute all our knowledge bases such that the ownership is delegated to a third party, together with an accompanying CRS or several CRSs," the authors conclude. "The next stage of research will then highlight exactly what issues need to be resolved when linking and reasoning about such a highly distributed system."
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The Blade Runner Generation
Times (UK) (07/22/07) Hunt-Grubbe, Charlotte

A convergence of biomechanics, computer science, neuroscience, mathematics, nanotechnology, materials science, tissue engineering, and robotics is expected to yield technologies that will enhance our bodies far beyond more efficient and natural prosthetics for the disabled. For instance, North Carolina pain-relief surgeon Dr. Stuart Meloy discovered quite by accident that orgasms could be triggered by stimulating nerves via electrodes placed parallel to the spine. Other notable innovations include new prosthetic legs that offer more natural movement; "bionic" limbs that operate through the relocation of nerve endings; cochlear implants that directly interface with nerves in the brain to restore hearing; and deep brain stimulation (DBS) implants that blot out defective neural signals that inhibit and distort normal bodily functions by continually sending electrical current into specific regions of the brain. A next-generation DBS device is under development that promises to send current into the brain only when needed. Also making waves is the BrainGate, a brain-machine interface that allows users to control a computer by thought via a microchip implanted in the motor cortex. Even more ambitious goals include direct brain-to-brain transmission of thoughts and impulses, Internet-linked implants, and the augmentation of our senses through technology within the body. There are many ethical concerns revolving around smart robotic prostheses, and Georgia Institute of Technology professor Henrik Christensen says the solution is to split accountability between the user and the technology producer. A similar issue surrounds the eligibility of athletes with prosthetics in sporting events, based on concerns that they may have an unfair advantage.
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The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds
Science (07/27/07) Vol. 317, No. 5837, P. 472; Bainbridge, William Sims

Online virtual worlds can be useful research tools for behavioral, social, and economic science, along with human-oriented computer science, writes William Sims Bainbridge of the National Science Foundation's Division of Information and Intelligent Systems. Popular worlds such as Second Life (SL) and World of Warcraft (WoW) are accessed through personal computers running special software that links to one or more servers that pass data back and forth between users over the Net, and these simulations involve three-dimensional spaces inhabited by manipulable objects, currency, and sometimes interactive artificial intelligence characters. SL is particularly amenable to formal experiments in social psychology or cognitive science because it can support a virtual facility and enlist research subjects like an actual laboratory, while WoW may be more suitable to nonintrusive statistical research into social networks and economic systems by virtue of its ability to produce a huge volume of information on social and economic transactions. Virtual worlds are a prime environment for creating online laboratories that can automatically recruit vast numbers of research subjects inexpensively, an important factor in experiments designed to explore the dynamics of complex causal systems. Online game makers might welcome such experimentation as an opportunity to make game play more interesting for subscribers. There is an ethical angle to consider in such research, given that it involves human subjects. "It is especially important to study virtual worlds now, because the current period of transformation may not last much longer, and because it may be impossible to reconstruct its key processes and phenomena entirely from historical records that are naturally preserved," says Bainbridge.
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