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ACM TechNews
August 13, 2007

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Welcome to the August 13, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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FCC and Vendors are Developing Wireless 'White Space' Devices
InformationWeek (08/10/07) Gardner, W. David

The FCC and a coalition of high-tech companies led by Google and Microsoft are hoping that "white space devices" in smart phones and laptops will be able to take advantage of the TV spectrum switchover from analog to digital in February 2009. The white space devices (WSD) are designed to use unregulated TV frequencies, primarily to deliver inexpensive wireless broadband connections to rural areas. The two organizations vowed to find solutions to interference and other problems that prevented the devices from obtaining approval, and the industry coalition indicated that it would work to develop new WSDs that can pass the FCC's tests. The FCC suggested that the coalition's first attempt at obtaining approval might have been premature. "The devices we have tested represent an initial effort, and do not necessarily represent the full capabilities that might be developed with sufficient time and resources," the FCC says in a report on the WSDs. "Accordingly, we are open to the possibility that future prototype devices may exhibit improved performance." Additional members of the coalition include Dell, EarthLink, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Philips.
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Yahoo Exec Gets ACM SIGKDD Honor
Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal (08/10/07)

ACM's Special Interest Group on Knowlegde Discovery and Data Mining [SIGKDD) presented Yahoo's chief data officer and executive vice president Usama Fayyad with its 2007 Innovation Award. According to the SIGKDD citation, Fayyad "made major contributions to the advancement of the data mining and knowledge discovery field, including machine learning and data mining algorithms that scale to large commercial database systems and the development of fundamental applications in mining massive science data sets that have led to significant new scientific discoveries." Yahoo lauded the ACM award as being the highest honor for individuals involved in data mining and knowledge discovery. To read the citation that accompanies this award, see http://www.acm.org/sigs/sigkdd/awards_innovation.php#2007i.
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'Virtual Sandboxing' Provides Safe Security Testing
Computerworld (08/09/07) Hines, Matt

The number of threats Internet users have to face continues to grow, but security researchers at the Usenix Security Symposium presented a new process for protecting users with execution-based malware detection. University of Washington graduate student Alexander Moshchuk demonstrated a tool that uses a "virtual sandbox" to test Web applications for suspicious behavior before allowing the application to reach the end-user browser. Several other techniques have been developed that can protect end-users from vulnerabilities that have not been identified or patched. Virtualization is being adopted by many researchers to identify unknown vulnerabilities, and Moshchuk pointed out a tool created at the University of Washington called SpyProxy. SpyProxy is injected as a virtual machine that sits between an end-user's browser and a Web site to download and test any application the browser is trying to access to catch any potential attacks before they reach the browser. SpyProxy's virtual machine mirrors the browser being used by someone running the tool and renders any page or application that is accessed to see if the URL contains an attack. Moshchuk says SpyProxy can effectively run and analyze any type of Web page or application in a few seconds to determine if it contains any patterns common in many threats. SpyProxy does have some limitations, as it works more effectively on sites that contain larger volumes of static content, such as text, and sometimes it has difficulty determining when a page has finished loading, which can add to the delay. The University of Washington team says SpyProxy is capable of monitoring multiple users on clusters of workstations, and a single-CPU device can process about 82,000 page requests in one day, which should cover about 800 users per machine. The researchers plan to distribute the SpyProxy program free of charge.
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Wi-Fi in the Sky Coming Next Year
NewsFactor Network (08/09/07) Long, Mark

American Airlines has partnered with communications provider AirCell in a effort to provide an onboard Wi-Fi systems on transcontinental flights starting in early 2008. The broadband service is expected to allow travelers the ability to check email, search the Web, access corporate intranets, and monitor news through any Wi-Fi capable laptop, PDA, or smartphone for about $10 per flight, though no official price has been set. Promises for Internet-connected flights have fallen through in the past, but IDC research director Rena Bhattacharyya says she believes Wi-Fi will succeed because airlines are feeling more pressure from passengers that are used to almost universal Internet availability. Wi-Fi has also become a more affordable option for airlines, according to IDC research manager Godfrey Chua. "With respect to the wireless infrastructure, the pace of technological change has increased, and the cost per bit has gone down substantially from what it was just a few years back," says Chua. "If we take a look at the traditional cellular system, in the last five years the cost of a GSM base station has come down by 50 percent." Wireless frequencies are also able to carry a greater amount of information than ever before. AirCell's air-to-ground network will use a series of cellular towers to communicate with planes, which will have three different antennas.
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National Science Board Approves National Action Plan for 21st Century Stem Education
EurekAlert (08/10/07)

The National Science Board is seeking public comment on its draft of a national action plan for improving the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education system. The board will take feedback from the public into consideration as it settles on a final version of the national action plan, which largely focuses on fleshing out coordination across states as well as grade levels, and building up the ranks of qualified K-12 STEM teachers. The proposal offers strategies for fostering collaboration between local, state, and federal governments and nongovernmental STEM education groups, with hopes of increasing the number of STEM education workers. One recommendation is to use the new congressionally chartered non-federal National Council for STEM Education to coordinate the activities of federal STEM education programs. The board also sees improving STEM education programs at the National Science Foundation as a way of enhancing the competitiveness of the U.S. workforce. The final version of the national action plan is scheduled to be released on Oct. 3, 2007.
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Render Smoke and Fog Without Being a Computation Hog
Jacobs School of Engineering (UCSD) (08/09/07) Kane, Daniel B.

University of California San Diego computer scientists have developed a way to generate smoky, foggy, and smoggy scenes without monopolizing and slowing down processing power, such as previous computer graphic models do when trying to create the same scenes. UCSD computer science Ph.D. candidate Wojciech Jarosz, who led the study, says the new graphics generator creates a huge computational savings and allows users to render explosions, smoke, and architectural lighting in hazy conditions much faster. Currently, rendering computer graphics with participating media, or elements that absorb or reflect part of the light such as smoke, fog, or clouds, generally requires significant computational power and time. To reduce computing time for hazy effects, Jarosz developed a method called "radiance caching." The program divides the hazy effect into numerous small, overlapping, circular sections. As the light travels from the object being viewed to the viewer, the program calculates the effect each of the small sections has on the light. The information created for those sections is saved and used for light traveling from nearby points that intersect the same sections. Radiance caching can also identify and use previous computer lighting values, saving even more time and processing power. "Our approach handles both heterogeneous media and anisotropic phase functions, and it is several orders of magnitude faster than path tracing. Furthermore, it is driven and well suited in large scenes where methods such as photon mapping become costly," the researchers wrote in a paper presented at SIGGRAPH.
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Location, Semifinalists Set for Urban Robot Race
CNet (08/09/07) Olsen, Stefanie

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has selected a military training facility in Victorville, Calif., as the site for the qualifying and final rounds of the 2007 Urban Grand Challenge robot race. The qualifying round is scheduled for Oct. 24 and the finals for Nov. 3 at the George Air Force Base. In the past, DARPA did not announce the location months in advance so as not to give any participants a competitive advantage. The agency announced 36 semifinalists to program cars to race through mock city streets while adhering to the state's traffic laws, including Stanford Racing Team, which won the 2005 Grand Challenge with a modified Volkswagen SUV. Stanford will be challenged by Team Oshkosh Truck, which has a 16-ton Oshkosh Truck; Team Gray, a Grand Challenge finalist; and Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing, which will have a modified Chevy Tahoe. The winner will receive $2 million, second place will take home $1 million, and third place will receive $500,000. "The vehicles must perform as well as someone with a California driver's license," says DARPA director Tony Tether. "The depth and quality of this year's field of competitors is a testimony to how far the technology has advanced."
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Flash Memory Replacement Coming This Year?
CNet (08/09/07) Kanellos, Michael

The general consensus among attendees at the Flash Memory Summit is that Intel and STMicroelectronics, which formed a joint venture to make memory, may soon start producing phase-change memory, a potential replacement for flash memory. Phase-change memory, also known as ovonics, is made from material similar to CD discs and is said to be more dense than flash memory. The material is made into chips; microscopic bits on the chip are then rapidly heated to about 600 degrees Celsius, which changes the bits' crystalline structure into an amorphous structure. Samsung, Phillips, and others have worked on developing phase-change memory, though Intel and STMicroelectronics, under the joint-venture name Numonyx, may be the first to release a product, as industry observers believe that the two may soon outline plans to commercially release phase-change memory chips later this year. Intel has made no official comment on when it expects to release phase-change memory, but Greg Komoto, manager of strategic planning for Intel's flash memory group, says Intel has created samples of 90-nanometer phase-chips, which Intel believes could replace NAND flash. Eli Harari, CEO of SanDisk, one of the primary manufacturers of NAND flash, says NAND flash will start to hit a wall in about seven years.
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New Search Engine Ranks Tables by Title, Document Content, Text Reference
Penn State Live (08/09/07)

Penn State researchers have a search engine that is capable of indexing and ranking tables based on their title, text references to the table, and date of publication. The search engine, known as TableSeer, is also able to identify and extract tables from PDF documents, and is able to identify and consider how frequently a document is cited when ranking search results. "TableSeer makes it easier for scientists and scholars to find and access the important information presented in tables, and as far as we know, is the first search engine for tables," says Prasenjit Mitra, an assistant professor in the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology and one of the lead developers of TableSeer. Being able to quickly identify and rank tables could be an extremely useful tool to scientists and researchers. A search of 10,000 documents from journals and conferences showed that more than 70 percent of papers in chemistry, biology, and computer sciences included tables, and most documents had multiple tables. Some software can identify and extract tables from text, but no other search engine can scan for tables across documents, meaning scientists and scholars need to manually look through documents to find tables. TableSeer can automatically find tables, capture the table's data and footnotes and titles, and allow users to search for a particular column in a table. Mitra says TableSeer correctly identified and retrieved 93.5 percent of tables created in text-based formats during tests with documents from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Continuing research on TableSeer will strive to improve the ranking algorithm and add additional features. The researchers are also working on a search engine that can identify, extract, and rank figures found in documents. The researchers plan to make TableSeer's source code available as the project nears completion.
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Tiny 'GlowBots' Hint at Future of Robotics
Discovery News (08/02/07) Steadter, Tracy

European ECAgents project researchers are examining how robots interact with each other and with their owner. The robots, called GlowBots, are small, round robots about the size of a coffee mug. Each one has eight infrared sensors, 148 light-emitting diodes, a camera, microphones, a computer, and a Bluetooth connection. The GlowBots "express" themselves by displaying intricate patterns of flashing lights. Viktoria Institute Future Applications Lab research assistant Mattias Jacobsson says interacting with a GlowBot would be less like the interaction between a person and a dog or a cat and more like interacting with a pet spider or lizard. The purpose of the project is to see if the interactions the robots have with humans, and each other, could lead to unconventional roles for future devices, like machines that guide a person through an airport or heighten the experience on an amusement park ride.
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The Bytes and the Bees
PC Magazine (08/07/07) Vol. 26, No. 15, P. 18; Groc, Isabelle

Technology is enabling researchers to learn more about nature, with hopes of applying such insights to human problems. "The advent of computer modeling capabilities and the arrival of nanotechnology allow us to interrogate the wisdom that nature displays," says John Pietrzyk, founder of Biomimetic Connections, a provider of information on bio-inspired intellectual properties. With biomimetics, researchers hope to develop computer technology that will be able to learn, adapt to change, and protect and repair itself. Biomimetics' influence already can be seen in developments such as IBM's Airgap Microprocessor, which was inspired by the self-assembly methods of snowflakes. An algorithm that optimizes Internet servers is based on honeybee colonies, and Melanie Mitchell, a computer science professor at Portland State University, is using the theory of natural selection to determine the best search parameters for multimedia searches. However, biomimetics is more than just transferring nature's code to an engineering environment, says Julian Vincent, director of the Center for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath in England. "We should understand the way biology does its engineering and then replace current engineering with the biological version," says Vincent.
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How Green is IT's Future?
eWeek (08/08/07) Preimesberger, Chris

Although industry experts are predicting the rise of self-contained data centers that no longer require cooling, the EPA's Energy Star program recently outlined energy challenges the IT industry will also have to face. The EPA estimates that the IT industry consumed about 61 billion kilowatt-hours in 2006, which is about 1.5 percent of the United States' total electricity consumption and cost about $4.5 billion. An EPA report submitted to Congress predicts that the IT industry's power consumption could nearly double by 2011. Federal servers and data centers accounted for about 10 percent, 6 billion kwh, or some $450 million, of the total 61 billion kwh. The EPA also provided Congress with some suggestions on what the IT industry could do to improve their power consumption, including establishing standardized metrics for data centers, creating an Energy Star performance rating system, and offering financial incentives such as tax credits and utility rebates. The EPA also commended technology companies for their efforts to make data centers more efficient, which includes increasing processor performance without increasing power consumptions and applying combinations of hardware and software to make servers and computing devices more efficient.
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Robofin Could Help Naval Ships Find Mines
InformationWeek (08/06/07) K.C., Jones

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have cited the common bluegill sunfish as the inspiration for a mechanized fin that could be used to propel robotic submarines and other types of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). AUVs equipped with a mechanical fin would not need propellers, and the fin would enhance AUVs' ability to maneuver, making it easier for the craft to perform tasks like sweeping for landmines. The researchers explain that the mechanized fin, which is constructed with a new electricity-conducting polymer, would not create a backward drag. "If we could produce AUVs that can hover and turn and store energy and do all the things a fish does, they'll be much better than the remotely operated vehicles we have now," said MIT researcher James Tangorra. The researchers are constructing multiple prototypes of the fin. They explained that bluegill sunfish move forward constantly, and their fins are capable of changing shape.
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Encrypting the Future
Government Computer News (08/06/07) Hickey, Kathleen

Although the cryptographic security standards used in public-key infrastructures, RSA and Diffie-Hellman, have not been cracked, they were introduced in the 1970s and there is growing concern that the standards may soon be outdated. Consequently, the National Security Agency wants to switch cybersecurity to elliptic-curve cryptography (ECC) by 2010, the same year the National Institute of Standards and Technology plans to recommend all government agencies switch to ECC, according to Dickie George, technology director of the NSA's information assurance directorate. Using current standards requires continually extending the key lengths, which increases processes time and makes it difficult to secure small devices. EEC is a mathematical algorithm that is used to secure data in transit, and because it provides greater security using a smaller key size, it takes less computational time and can be used on smaller devices, like cell phones, wireless devices, and smart cards. Stephen Kent, chief scientist at BBN Technologies, says to make RSA and Diffie-Hellman keys, which currently can extend up to 1,024 bits, secure for the next 10 to 20 years the keys would have to at least double in length, and eventually expand up to 4,096 bits. Switching to EEC, however, will require a massive replacement of hardware and software, and with more than a million different pieces of equipment that need to be changed to EEC, it could take the NSA more than 10 years to complete the process. George says the move to ECC is more than just replacing an encryption system, and is actually upgrading the entire communications structure, which the NSA will use to work more closely with other governments, U.S. agencies and departments, first responders, and the private sector. Interoperability is key to the new communication program and the reason behind the Cryptographic Modernization initiative, which was started in 2001 and promotes ECC. Experts agree that there is no new technology comparable to ECC. "ECC is the only impressive thing out there," Kent said. "People don't get excited every time a new thing comes along. We wait several years and let people try to crack it first. ECC definitely passed the test in this regard."
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Artificial Intelligence Is Lost in the Woods
Technology Review (08/01/07) Vol. 110, No. 4, P. 62; Gelernter, David

Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter thinks the idea of constructing a conscious mind out of software running on a digital computer is an impossibility, but believes an unconscious mind can be simulated. He says simulated emotions rather than genuine emotions will be sufficient for this purpose, although simulating emotions is no easy task, while the representation of memories will also be a formidable challenge. "Consciousness is necessarily subjective: you alone are aware of the sights, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes that flash past 'inside your head,'" writes Gelernter. "This subjectivity of mind has an important consequence: there is no objective way to tell whether some entity is conscious. We can only guess, not test." The author maintains that a conscious mind derived from software would be of little use; it could pass the Turing test for machine intelligence, but its emotional experience would be limited by the lack of a physical body, and thus its communication with human beings would be restricted to a highly superficial level. Gelernter suggests a "cognitive continuum" of mental states between highest and lowest focus levels exists, which plays a key role in one's mode of consciousness at any given moment. Acceptance of the cognitive continuum's existence could facilitate the modeling of thought dynamics in software, and Gelernter reasons that analogy discovery--the mechanism of creativity--could also be explained and modeled in this way.
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Computer Graphics Spills from Milk to Medicine
PhysOrg.com (08/07/07)

Researchers at the University of California San Diego computer graphics department have developed a program that can determine the type of milk - skimmed, 2 percent, or whole- by examining how light interacts with the ratio of fat and protein. The program, which is described in a paper presented at SIGGRAPH, can also be used to generate images of milk, and other liquids, that display the exact properties of the desired liquid, be it whole milk, skim milk, or water mixed with a vitamin or protein. The program eliminates the restrictions of the Lorenz-Mie theory, which has existed for more than a century and was introduced to graphics in 1995. The Lorenz-Mie theory is a complete solution to Maxwell's equation for scattering of electromagnetic waves by a homogenous, spherical particle set in a non-absorbing medium. "We have the first complete, bottom-up theoretical model that addresses the shortcoming of the Lorenz-Mie theory for participating media. It allows us to render computer graphics for absorbing materials and with non-spherical particles based on the contents of the material," says Henrik Wann Jensen, a professor of computer science at UCSD and an Academy Award winning computer graphics researcher. "Computer graphics is no longer just about pretty pictures and realism for the sake of aesthetics. We have harnessed the math and physics necessary to generate realistic images of a wide range of natural materials based on what they are made of. With our approach, computer graphics can contribute to a handful of pressing problems including food safety and climate change," says Jensen. "Putting the model in reverse, grocery stores could identify spoiled meats, contaminants, or other food safety issues - if a particular food problem consistently and detectably changed the light scattering properties of the food."
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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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