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ACM TechNews
August 31, 2007

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Welcome to the August 31, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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I.B.M. Researchers Advancing Computer Processing Ability
New York Times (08/31/07) P. C5; Markoff, John

IBM researchers yesterday announced two nanotechnology breakthroughs that could lead to the development of much smaller computers and other electronics. Two IBM papers appearing in the journal of Science focus on a new understanding of the behavior of magnetism at the atomic level. One paper describes a technique for reading and writing digital 1s and 0s on a small group of atoms, and even on single atoms. The other paper describes the ability to use a single molecule as a switch to replicate the behavior of transistors. The researchers used a scanning tunneling microscope to observe the magnetic orientation of iron and manganese atoms at low temperatures. The atomic scale magnetic structures could potentially be used for data storage and could possibly be harnessed for quantum computing. Another group of IBM scientists in Zurich were able to place two hydrogen atoms in an ultra-thin insulating film and cause the atoms to alternate between two states, the equivalent of 1s and 0s used on standard chips. The same process also allowed the researchers to inject an electric charge into one of the molecules and link the effect to a neighboring molecule, suggesting that it could be possible to extend the effect into a fabric of trillions of atom-sized switches. The advances are far from any commercial applications but could be an important step toward quantum computing.
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Student, Prof Build Budget Supercomputer
Calvin College (08/30/07) Graff, Allison

Former Calvin College student Tim Brom, who graduated this year, and Calvin College computer science professor Joel Adams have built Microwulf, a Beowulf-based computer cluster that may be the smallest and least expensive supercomputer in the world. Microwulf was built for just $2,470, giving it a price/performance ratio of less than $100 per Gflop. Microwulf is small enough to fit next to a desk and is more than twice as fast as Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer that beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. Microwulf uses four dual-core motherboards connected by an 8-port Gigabyte Ethernet switch and can process 26.25 gigaflops. Although the National Weather Service and similar organizations use supercomputers more than 100 times faster than Microwulf, the budget supercomputer can be used to solve problems that are too complicated for ordinary desktop computers. In addition to considering the price/performance ratio, Adams designed Microwulf with power consumption in mind as well. "This is becoming increasingly important, as excess power consumption is inefficient and generates waste heat, which can in turn decrease reliability," Adams says. Instead of using Microwulf in a supercomputing lab, Adams is going to take Microwulf to middle school and high school classrooms to try to get teenagers interested in computer science. SC07, the international conference on high performance computing, networking, storage, and analysis, sponsored by ACM and IEEE, will be held November 10-16, 2007, in Reno, NV. More information is available at http://sc07.supercomputing.org/
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Special Military Group Looks Ahead to Fight America's Future Wars
San Francisco Chronicle (08/26/07) P. E1; Abate, Tom

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking to cutting-edge technology produced in Silicon Valley to fight future battles, and futurist Paul Saffo noted at DARPA's recent 50th anniversary conference that "almost every great digital oak has a DARPA acorn at the bottom." Marine Lt. Gen. James Amos said the U.S. military will have to contend with a new era of guerrilla warfare in which an "arc of instability" encircles the globe equatorially. DARPA is hoping to develop weapons that would enable high-altitude patrolling of such regions by the United States. For example, DARPA leader Thomas Bussing envisions "an aircraft carrier in the sky" that can neutralize threats through countermeasures launched from anywhere in the continental United States that keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Amos expects missions by ground forces to consist of squads patrolling populous towns where distinction between friends and enemies is close to nonexistent, aided by situational awareness delivered via aerial platforms. Retired political scientist and author Chalmers Johnson is critical of DARPA's ambitious high-tech warfare visions, arguing that it is making the country less secure and driving it toward bankruptcy. "We spend billions of dollars to develop and procure innovative solutions ... but at the end of the day, it's still not possible for us to completely defeat these very basic technologies and approaches our adversaries are choosing," noted Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England at the DARPA conference. "And of course there's a huge cost disadvantage, probably a million to one between our outlays and what an IED builder spends on readily available parts." DARPA and Pentagon officials said at the conference that the United States will need to spend $1 million for every dollar spent by enemy guerrillas. "We are like a lion up against bees that are very effective whenever they swarm," said DARPA's Daniel Newman.
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Creating a Computer Currency
Harvard University Gazette (08/29/07) Powell, Alvin

Scientists at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) helped develop the newest version of Tribler, a peer-to-peer video sharing program that allows researchers to explore next-generation electronic commerce and the possibility of using bandwidth as a global currency. Originally developed by scientists at Delft University of Technology and Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, Tribler allows users to create a peer-to-peer video sharing network. The peer-to-peer software uses the resources of members' machines to help the network run more smoothly. For example, when a member places a call using a peer-to-peer telephone system, that member's computer is used for more than just that call and may be used to help the network function more effectively overall, or it may be used to help route another call that may not be able to make a direct connection because of firewalls. Essentially, members of peer-to-peer networks participate in transactions, where members exchange each other's network resources in an economic system similar to bartering, replacing money with bandwidth, says SEAS professor David Parkes. Parkes such systems ensure that every bit of a network's resources are used. Parks and Tribler technical director Johan Pouwelse have been working to expand peer-to-peer's developing economy. Establishing an accounting system that tallies the amount of the network's resources a member used and contributed would allow the resources to be saved and spent, creating a new form of currency. Tribler uses a video sharing network because of the high demand exchanging video files places on the network.
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Saving Power in Handhelds
Technology Review (08/30/07) Hardesty, Larry

Extending battery life in handheld devices is becoming increasingly important, particularly as handheld devices are being used more frequently to play videos, an activity that consumers power much faster than playing MP3s. In the most recent issue of ACM's Transactions of Embedded Computing Systems, University of Maryland researchers outlined a technique that in simulations cut power consumption by about 66 percent. Gang Qu, one of the developers, says the premise of the technique is that users can tolerate some execution failure in multimedia applications without noticing the difference. A fair amount of digital video plays at a rate of 30 frames per second, whereas older movies in theaters played at 24 frames per second. "That's about 80 percent," Qu says. "If you can get 80 percent of the frames consistently correct, human beings will not be able to tell you've made mistakes." Digital video decoding time can vary from frame to frame, so digital media systems are designed to rapidly decode even the most difficult frames so they can be displayed on time and without delay. Qu and his colleagues wrote an algorithm that establishes a series of time limits on the decoding process. If the time limits are exceeded, the decoding of that frame is aborted and the system starts on the next frame. Using statistics on the length of specific tasks, the researchers can adjust the algorithm to guarantee a certain frame completion rate. Qu notes the simulations used signals similar but not completely identical to video signals, and real video decoding might not produce such dramatic results.
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Controlling Bandwidth in the Clouds
Jacobs School of Engineering (UCSD) (08/28/07) Kane, Daniel B.; Raghavan, Barath; Snoeren, Alex C.

University of California, San Diego, computer scientists have developed a new bandwidth management system for cloud-based applications that will allow mirrored sites with little activity to transfer bandwidth to sites that are receiving heavy traffic. The algorithm allows distributed rate limiters to collaborate and enforce global bandwidth rate limits, and to dynamically shift bandwidth allocations across multiple sites or networks, according to current network demand. The "flow proportional share" algorithm developed enables coordinated policing of a cloud-based service's network traffic. The Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) design is scalable to hundreds of nodes, runs with very little overhead, and can withstand both loss and communication delay. "With our system, an organization with mirrored Web sites or other services across the globe, could dynamically shift its bandwidth allocations between sites based on demand," says Barath Raghavan, a Ph.D. candidate and lead author on a new paper describing the work. "You can't do that now, and this lack of control is a significant drawback to today's cloud-based computing approaches." The paper, "Cloud Control with Distributed Rate Limiting," won the 2007 SIGCOMM best student paper award and was presented at ACM SIGCOMM in Kyoto, Japan. "Our primary insight is that we can use TCP itself to estimate bandwidth demand," says Alex Snoeren, senior author on the paper. "Relying on TCP, we can provide the fairness that you would see with one central rate limiter."
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Freedom Key to Web Evolution, Says Guru
Financial Times (08/31/07) P. 11; Edgecliffe-Johnson, Andrew

Vint Cerf, Google's vice president and chief internet evangelist, says any threat to open access to the Internet would be "a hazard to innovation," and that the Internet's ability to handle a continually expanding number of users and amount of content on the network is less important than security, stability, reliability, and privacy. "The most important thing is to make sure we have a secure and stable network," Cerf says. "There are ways to attack the system which we need to defend against." As for "net neutrality," Cerf hopes that the Internet will remain open and that broadband providers will not discriminate between content providers or move to block applications that use large amounts of bandwidth. "If we ever move into a regime where the providers of basic Internet services have control over what users or entrepreneurs can put on the network then I see a potential hazard to innovation," Cerf says. Cerf urges regulators around the world to recognize the importance of an open network with general neutrality, and that if the Internet is ever controlled by "monopoly broadband providers" the investments in data centers and other infrastructure necessary to expand its reach could not be accomplished. Cerf also believes that more consumers will be willing to pay for online content as broadband expands. "I do think that as time goes on, the consumer will understand the value of the content and be willing to pay," Cerf says. Vint Cerf is a co-winner, with Bob Kahn, of the 2004 ACM A.M. Turing Award. For more information, click on http://awards.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=8047952&srt=alpha&alpha=C&aw=140&ao=AM TURING
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'Touching' Research at Queen's
Queen's University Belfast (08/30/07) Mitchell, Lisa

Queen's University Belfast researchers are studying haptic technology that could add a sense of touch to virtual worlds, a project that may eventually lead to technology that allows online shoppers to feel products, online gamers to feel the force of an impact, or blind and visually impaired people to access the Internet in ways that are currently impossible. Queen's University professor Alan Marshall and his colleagues in the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science will spend the next three years developing new network architectures that would allow online networks to carry haptic information. Haptic technology allows users to "touch" virtual objects by applying forces to the user, normally vibrations or motions. Currently, almost all haptic devices are only capable of being connected to a standalone system. Marshall wants to develop networks that increase the user's immersion in a virtual world by allowing them to see, hear, and touch the environment around them, with the ability to share those sensations with users in other locations. "If we are to enter the 'second age' of the Internet, then it must be able to support multimodal communication, including additional senses," Marshall says.
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Molecules Line Up to Make the Tiniest of Wires
ExpressNews (University of Alberta) (08/27/07) Poon, Ileiren

Researchers at Canada's National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT) have developed a new technique for producing miniscule components that would be used to wire the tiniest computer chips. Jillian Buriak, a chemistry professor at the University of Alberta who is a senior research officer at NINT, says her team has relied on molecules to do most of the work involved in manufacturing conductive nano-wires on silicon chips. "We've figured out a way to use molecules that will self-assemble to form the lines that can be used as wires," Buriak says. "Then we use those molecules as templates and fill them up with metal, and then we have the wires that we want." The team used the method to produce 25 parallel platinum nano-wires, with each measuring 10 nanometers in width but 50,000 in length--about as long as a human hair is wide. The researchers say the self-assembly strategy could be used to produce wires that are 5,000 times longer than their width and would connect to the smallest electronic components. The approach could make electronics faster, cheaper, and improve their storage capacity.
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Digital Detectives Discern Photoshop Fakery
Christian Science Monitor (08/29/07) P. 13; Gaylord, Chris

Image-manipulation software has become increasingly easy to use and exponentially more difficult to detect, but Hany Farid, a computer science professor at Dartmouth and head of the college's Image Science Group, has developed computer algorithms that can test photos to see if they are fakes by finding the tiny hidden flaws. "There's no way to push a button and tell if it's real, but there are tests we can run that allow us to be pretty sure if it's a fake," Farid says. Some of the techniques teach a computer to identify subtle imperfections that untrained humans have difficulty spotting, such as inconsistencies in the physics and geometry of the image. For example, the vanishing points may not match, or the shadows cast from two or more objects may contradict each other. While some of the tests seem simple, others are quite complicated. One of the tests checks the reflection of light in people's eyes to triangulate the location of the flash camera that took the picture. If the analysis shows that the camera was in multiple places, the photo is a fake. While a significant amount of image manipulation is done by tabloid media, fake photos are problematic for the legal system, and this is where Farid's software will be put to good use. Farid has already testified in more than two dozen court cases as to whether photographs were altered. He says that so far most accusations of fraud turn out to be unfounded.
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UT Arlington Computer Science Researchers Awarded $450,000 NSF Grant
University of Texas at Arlington (08/23/07)

Researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington will use a $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the use of asynchronous communication architecture for wireless sensor networks. Assistant professor Yonghe Liu and colleagues Sajal K. Das and Mohan Kumar believe asynchronous communication architecture will make wireless sensor networks much more energy efficient and lead to a longer lifetime for networks. Wireless sensor networks have low data rates and their underlying communications techniques, especially at the physical and link layers, germinate along the Internet root and their wireless extensions, which makes for operation that is not energy efficient and ad-hoc friendly. With asynchronous communication architecture, a sensor node directly writes data into a special, reactive module (RFID-tag based) that sits on the receiving node while the main platform sleeps. Individual sensors will be able to schedule their transmission, and no network-wide or local synchronization will be needed.
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NSF Awards SDSU With Hefty Research Grant
Daily Aztec (San Diego State University) (08/27/07) Obert, Tamara

San Diego State University has received a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation that will fund research into the development of new wireless radio networks. As the number of wireless devices continues to mount, space in the radio spectrum dwindles, according to a description of the project in the proposal. The grant also will enable San Diego State to purchase new equipment for its Wireless Multimedia Communications and Networks Laboratory that will be used to test algorithms related to wireless radio networks. Sunil Kumar, Santosh Nagaraj and Mahasweta Sarkar, professors in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, will head the research project. "We already have testbeds for wireless sensor networks ZigBee and wireless LAN in this laboratory," says Kumar. Computer science students also will participate in the project, which is expected to last three to five years.
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Ad-Hoc Network Probes Links for Smoother Calls
New Scientist (08/29/07) Reilly, Michael

Researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada have simulated mobile ad-hoc networks that are able to connect cell phone users more smoothly between networks for calls. The computer model is designed to probe potential connections for their viability, and seek out a stronger path if the connection is too severely weakened. The relay of data over an ad-hoc network can be disrupted as it reconfigures itself, but the transmission of voice calls is often more of a problem than other data, such as email or Web browsing. The Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) approach demands a reliable network, but audio signals do not maintain their strength as the user moves around and the distance between each node is not the same. Hai Jiang and his team of researchers are optimistic that their approach can help extend wireless coverage to the point in which an entire city is blanketed with compatible wireless networks and communication devices share signals. "Within a city, with enough nodes, this could provide a secondary network for people to make calls," says Rajit Gadh of the University of California, Los Angeles, who believes it also could pave the way for free mobile telephony.
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Statistics Professor Says Databases Must Balance Privacy, Utility
Carnegie Mellon News (08/30/07) Potts, Jonathan

Carnegie Mellon University statistics professor George Duncan says that organizations with large databases such as the U.S. Census Bureau, which collects tremendous amounts of personal information, need to find ways to protect individuals' privacy while making the data available to researchers. Duncan believes that traditional methods of "de-identifying" records such as removing Social Security numbers and birth dates do not adequately protect sensitive information because if someone knows enough about the data they could use other characteristics to identify individuals. Unfortunately, the information that can be used to re-identify records is often the information that is most useful to the researchers. "The question is, 'How can data be made useful for research purposes without compromising the confidentiality of those who provided the data?'" Duncan asks. Possible solutions include establishing administrative procedures that restrict data access to approved personnel, implementing restrictions on the use of information, and developing statistical methods that de-identify records so that users cannot readily reconstruct personal identities but researchers can still view the required information. "Achieving 'adequate' privacy will require engineering innovation, managerial commitment, information cooperation of data subjects, and social controls," Duncan wrote in a commentary published in the journal Science. ACM's Public Policy Committee (USACM) provided testimony on protecting Social Security numbers at a recent Congressional hearing. For more information, go to http://www.acm.org/public-policy/public-policy-1?pageIndex=1
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Louisiana Tech Researchers Work on Cyber-Attack Defense
Associated Press (08/26/07)

Louisiana Tech University's new Center for Secure Cyberspace (CSC) is developing new technologies for use by the military and the private sector to protect electronic networks and wireless communications. CSC director Vir Phoha says the center has eight computer science researchers, four from Louisiana Tech and four from Louisiana State University. Tech vice president of research and development Les Guice says Air Force researchers at Barksdale Air Force Base will also contribute to the research efforts. Recently, the Air Force started setting up a cyberspace command at Barksdale, which could lead to a variety of cyberspace-related research projects. The CSC has been operating since June, and Phoha says that previous research by CSC computer scientists has lead to published cyber protection research on topics including advanced grid computing, how to find malicious code online, and how to detect clogged computers before access is denied. Phoha says a major area of research will involve sensor networks that could aid the military on the battlefield, including more advanced computer grids that could detect a terrorist suspect in Iraq, for example. The research is made possible by the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative, a fiber-optics network that connects supercomputers at the state's major research universities.
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Green-Card Red Tape Sends Valuable Engineers Packing
EE Times (08/27/07)No. 1490, P. 1; Riley, Sheila

Foreign engineers and other tech professionals are becoming fed up with the bureaucratic hassles they must endure to secure employment-based green cards that allow them to remain in the United States, and are returning to their home countries. The result is "a massive reverse brain drain" with dire economic repercussions, according to Harvard Law School's Vivek Wadhwa, who led a study on the phenomenon. The report estimated that 500,000 foreign nationals living in the United States were awaiting green cards by the end of fiscal 2006, while more than a quarter of international patent applications filed from the United States last year listed foreign nationals as inventors or co-inventors. Wadhwa explained that skilled foreigners are brought into the country on temporary visas by U.S. companies, which train them in American business strategy and then send them back home. "How can this country be so dumb as to bring people in on temporary visas, train them in our way of doing business and then send them back to compete with us?" he asked. Indian programmer Praveen Arumbakkan, who is going home after a prolonged period with no progress on his green card application, said Indian nationals frequently place too much trust in employers and are largely unaware of the resources that exist to help them understand their immigration choices. Boston attorney Russell Swapp said the debate on illegal immigration is being used by politicians to hold up the passage of comprehensive legislation, thus drawing focus away from the issue of legal immigration to the detriment of the economy. Many engineers have complained that American tech employers are exploiting the work visa system to import foreigners who are willing to work for less money than their American counterparts.
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Horizon Awards 2007: Bitty Bytes
Computerworld (08/20/07) Vol. 41, No. 34, P. 44; Anthes, Gary

Hewlett-Packard has developed the Memory Spot, a tiny wireless device that can be attached to almost anything and acts like a super strong and highly effective radio frequency identification tag. The Memory Spot ranges in size from 2mm square to 4mm square and can store half a megabyte of information. It uses a built-in antenna to read and write at 10Mbit per second, and includes a digital microprocessor and analog circuits for receiving RF signals. Instead of using a battery, the Memory Spot receives power through a process called inductive coupling, where electronic devices transfer power through a shared electromagnetic field. HP Labs associate director Howard Taub says applications for the Memory Spot could include animated postcards, ultra-secure passports and identity cards, and medical records that could stored in a patient's wristband. Hewlett-Packard is working with the Near Field Communication Forum to see if Memory Spot readers could be put in cell phones to receive information and interactive media, such as a movie preview stored in a movie poster with a Memory Spot. "It can bring intelligence to inanimate objects," says analyst Tim Bajarin. "It could be used in all kinds of things, not just RFID-type applications like inventory."
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Squashing Worms
Science News (08/25/07) Vol. 172, No. 8, Rehmeyer, Julie J.

The treatment prescribed for computer worms is for system administrators to patch systems that will most likely limit an outbreak because they usually cannot fix all system vulnerabilities at the same time, while mutating worms are designed to exploit multiple vulnerabilities and continuously change infection tactics. Determining which computers should be initially patched in a mutating worm attack scenario is a problem that has been studied mathematically by Microsoft Research theoretical computer scientist Jennifer Tour Chayes. She suggests that the most highly connected systems should be patched first, irrespective of their proximity to other compromised systems. Chayes' research followed the assumption that even patched systems remain vulnerable to new attacks by the same worm. Through experimentation, she concluded that distributing patches to the most highly connected nodes in her network model, regardless of whether the nodes connecting them were also infected, brings the epidemic under control with far fewer patches than were required in an earlier strategy based on system administrators' typical response methodology. Chayes' findings are sobering, not just with respect to network security, but also to public health. For example, failure to adopt intelligent vaccine distribution could lead to situations in which outbreaks of new human viruses reach epidemic proportions.
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