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ACM TechNews
September 5, 2007

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Welcome to the September 5, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Computer Scientists Take the 'Why' Out of WiFi
University of California, San Diego (09/04/07) Kane, Daniel B.

University of California, San Diego computer scientists have developed an automated, enterprise-scale WiFi troubleshooting system. UCSD computer science professor Stefan Savage says that people expect WiFi to work, but have a general understanding that WiFi systems can be inconsistent. "If you have a wireless problem in our building, our system automatically analyzes the behavior of your connection--each wireless protocol, each wired network service and the many interactions between them," says Savage. Manually diagnosing wireless access networks requires a massive amount of data, expertise, and time, and wireless networks contain complexities that wired networks avoid, such as problems in the shared spectrum, user mobility, and authentication management. Additionally, the interaction between wired and wireless networks can also be the source of problems. UCSD computer science Ph.D. student Yu-Chung Cheng says, "Many problems are transient--they're gone before you can even get an admin to look at them--and the number of possible reasons is huge." In a paper on the system presented at ACM's SIGCOMM 2007 conference, the researchers outlined a set of modeling techniques for automatically characterizing the source of WiFi problems, with a specific emphasis on data transfer delays unique to 802.11 networks. The system is used in the UCSD Computer Science building and all wireless help desk issues are directed to the automated system, which has been running for about nine months. "In the future, I think that enterprise wireless networks will have sophisticated diagnostics and repair capabilities built in," Savage says.
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Japan to Challenge Google in Search Technology
Financial Times (09/05/07) P. 1; Sanchanta, Mariko; Waters, Richard

Japan is encouraging the nation's technology companies to focus more on providing services to fend off challenges in innovation from abroad, including tech companies in the United States and consumer electronics firms in South Korea and Taiwan. "The key to Japan's competitiveness has been our core technology but we need to create a new value-added service that is personalized," says Toshihide Yahiro, director of the information service industry division at the ministry of trade. Tokyo wants local companies to use their expertise in developing mobile phones, car navigation systems, and other devices to build proprietary search and information retrieval functions. Japanese officials want to challenge Google and other foreign Internet services by developing new search technologies for electronic devices. Japan has embarked on 10 state-led partnerships involving next-generation search functions. A car navigation system is the focus of a project involving NTT Data, the Toyota Info-Technology Center, and Toyota Mapmaster. The ministry of trade has set aside the equivalent of about $121 million to $129 million for the project.
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Direct Brain-to-Game Interface Worries Scientists
Wired News (09/05/07) Cole, Emmet

Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are being tested as virtual controllers for video games, but scientists are concerned that the games may end up controlling the user. For example, sometimes the devices force users to slow down their brain waves, often leaving the user unable to focus. "Imagine that somebody uses a game with slow brain-wave activity and then drives a car while still in that state," says Niels Birbaumer, a leading independent research in medical applications of BCIs. "You could have an accident. I think it's a rare possibility, but it should be tested before people do this." Although the technology has been successfully tested with quadriplegics, scientists worry that its use for casual entertainment could cause gamers to experience the effects of neurofeedback, a technique that heightens awareness and control of brain waves by providing real-time graphic representation of the user's brain wave activity similar to how physiological information can be used to control a patient's blood pressure, skin temperature, and heart rate in a process known as biofeedback. For example, Smart BrainGames has developed a racing game that requires users to be calm to reach optimum speed, but the game is intended only for medical purposes and the FDA has approved the device only for relaxation and "muscle re-education." "From a clinical perspective, we are super concerned about any use of this technology that's being touted as a toy or as entertainment," says Smart BrainGames co-founder Lindsay Greco. Michelle Hinn, chair of the International Game Developers Association's Game Accessibility Special Interest Group, says BCI games are great for people with disabilities, but they may not be appropriate for the general public.
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Digital Dandelions: The Flowering of Network Research
University of California, San Diego (08/31/07) Kane, Daniel B.

At ACM SIGCOMM 2007 in Kyoto, Japan, University of California, San Diego computer scientists presented techniques for creating annotated, Internet router graphs based on observations of Internet characteristics. The UCSD researchers previously created a map of the Internet using new algorithms. The map, which looks like the head of a digital dandelion, includes Internet nodes and linkages. The map is mostly a randomly generated graph that retains the essential characteristics of a small corner of the Internet, but doubles the number of nodes. The graph annotations used to create the map include information on relevant peer-to-peer business relationships that help determine how packets of information move across the Internet. "Our work allows computer scientists to experiment with a range of random graphs that match Internet characteristics," says paper co-author Priya Mahadevan. "This work is also useful for determining the sensitivity of particular techniques--like routing protocols and congestion controls--to network topology and to variations in network topology." The source code for the topology generator will be made publicly available to help a variety of studies that may benefit from the technology. "The techniques we have developed for characterizing and recreating Internet characteristics are generally applicable to a broad range of disciplines that consider networks, including physics, biology, chemistry, neuroscience and sociology," says UCSD professor Amin Vahdat, senior author on the paper and director of UCSD's Center for Networked Systems.
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Princeton Engineers Develop Low-Cost Recipe for Patterning Microchips
Princeton University (09/02/07) Parker, Hilary

Researchers at Princeton University have devised a simple strategy for making nanopatterns on microchips. A self-formation process, the technique involves painting a thin polymer film onto a rigid plate such as a silicon wafer, and then placing a second plate on top to create a polymer sandwich that is heated to support adhesion. Afterwards, the plates are pried apart, which results in fractures into two complementary sets of nanoscale gratings on each plate, with the distance between the lines being four times the thickness. The fracture-induced structuring process is the work of Stephen Chou, the Joseph C. Elgin Professor of Engineering and his graduate students Paru Deshpande and Ying Wang; and William Russell, dean of the Graduate School, and his graduate student Leonard Pease III. "It's remarkable--and counterintuitive--that fracturing creates these regular patterns," says Russell. They have applied for a patent for the fracture-induced structuring process, which they believe will be cost-effective for large-scale use in industry. The team published their research Sept. 2, 2007, in the online version of Nature Nanotechnology.
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HPC Challenge Awards at SC07
HPC Wire (08/31/07)

The awards session for the annual HPC Challenge Award Competition is scheduled for Tuesday, November 13, 2007, during the SC07 conference. The HPC Challenge is designed to encourage the development of HPC hardware and software capabilities that will help make the use of HPC systems more productive. The competition will be based on the HPC Challenge benchmark suite that was developed at the University of Tennessee under the DARPA High Productivity Computing Systems program. Global HPL, Global RandomAccess, EP STREAM (Triad) per system, and Global FFT are the most challenging benchmarks, and they will be the focus of the competition. There will be four awards, at $750 each, for best performance on a base or optimized run in each category. A second class of awards will focus on most productivity. For this $2,000 award, which may be split among the top entries, implementation will be weighed on performance as well as on code elegance, clarity, and size. The HPC community has until Oct. 27 to submit entries. For more information about SC07, or to register, visit http://sc07.supercomputing.org/
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Faster Wireless in Works to Transfer Movies, Other Large Files From Gadget to Gadget
Associated Press (09/05/07) Bluestein, Greg

Georgia Tech professor Joy Laskar and other scientists at the Georgia Electronic Design Center have been testing the use of extremely high radio frequencies to transfer large data files over short distances. Researchers say the high frequencies, in the unlicensed 60 gigahertz band, are an underutilized resource and could one day become the conventional way to wirelessly and quickly transfer high-definition video, large audio collections, and other large files over short distances. A similar short-range system, known as ultra-wideband (UWB), is now available on the market following several years of negotiations between different companies and engineering organizations. UWB is already being used for wireless communication with a docking station and could also be used for high-definition video transmission, but the maximum speed for UWB is about 480 megabits per second, about the speed of a high-speed computer cable. The 60 GHz band offers far greater speeds. "There will be a constant pressure for speed and it will never cease," says Philips' M. Kursat Kimyacioglu. "We need much faster wireless data networking technologies to make much faster downloads and back-ups and higher resolution HD video streaming." Laskar says the research is far from over, but that hopefully the major challenges can be solved in about a year. If that happens, the hardware for transferring files could be available by 2009, and new TV sets could include the high-frequency chips the following year.
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Sensor Rise Powers Life Recorders
BBC News (08/29/07) Seward, Liz

Hewlett-Packard's Trusted Systems Lab director Martin Sadler predicts that by 2057 there could be at least 1 million devices for every resident in the United Kingdom, and that a person's entire life could be recorded on a network of intelligent sensors. However, Sadler warns that such massive amounts of collectable personal data could lead to some difficult ethical dilemmas. There already are an abundance of sensors and recording devices in our everyday world, Sadler notes, including closed-circuit TVs, wildlife monitoring devices, mobile phone cameras, and GPS devices. A 2002 study calculated that there were about 4.2 million CCTV cameras in the United Kingdom, or about one camera for every 14 people. Researchers at Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, and MIT have already developed devices that record a person's every move. Sadler says most of the applications will be "innocent and harmless." He says, "We imagine by 2057 our motorways, rivers and costal defenses, farms, businesses, homes and neighborhoods and bodies will all be highly instrumented." Sadler's predictions are echoed by Oliver Sparrow, a scenario planner who has advised the U.K. government and international organizations. Sparrow says advances in technology and a better understanding of physics would lead to a new breed of devices that are too small to see and capable of permeating the space around us and even our bodies to record everything. Sadler and Sparrow both believe that there needs to be more public debate about such sensor technologies and how they are used.
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Q&A: Researcher Says Skilled Foreign Nationals Need Green Cards, Not H-1B Visas
Computerworld (08/30/07) Thibodeau, Patrick

Although one out of every four international patent applications filed under the Patent Cooperation Treaty are submitted by foreign nationals living in the United States, unless the federal government does something to make it easier for foreigners to obtain green cards or permanent residency, many of those inventors may leave the United States, causing a "reverse brain drain," concludes a new study. The study, "America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs," written by researchers at Duke, Harvard, and New York universities, was led by Duke adjunct professor Vivek Wadhwa. Wadhwa says the United States is experiencing a brain drain similar to what countries such as India experienced when so many highly educated foreigners came to the U.S., except now they are leaving the country and returning to tech centers in their native countries. Wadhwa says some venture capitalists estimate that 100,000 skilled workers have returned to China and 50,000 have returned to India over the last few years. There are over a million skilled workers and their families waiting for permanent resident visas, but immigration policy mandates that only 8,400 green cards can be issued to China and 8,400 to India every year. Wadhwa suggests increasing the total number of permanent resident visas from 120,000 per year to either 250,000 or 300,000 and removing all per-country limitations until the backlog is cleared. Wadhwa says the H-1B visa creates more problems than it solves by distorting market forces and allowing companies to bring in workers who will work for lower salaries than American workers. He says it should be eliminated in favor of permanent resident visas. Although he also believes the country's priority should be to encourage American children to study math and science and participate in technical fields, until the nation accomplishes this he says we must rely on foreign nationals to keep the United States competitive.
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IT Workers Second-Guess Career Choice
eWeek (08/31/07) Perelman, Deborah

A surprising number of IT professionals say that although they love what they do, they are not sure the IT industry is the best place to be doing it, and many say they are steering their computing-inclined children away from the IT industry. However, this is not a universal opinion, and the IT job market and the overall health of the IT sector has improved greatly recently, with more students about to enter the talent pool and earn high salaries in some sectors. Still, issues such as offshoring remain a sore point for many workers. A 2007 CEO Survey by Deloitte shows that technology company CEOs believe their use of offshoring will increase over the next few years, with 45 percent of respondents saying they currently use offshoring and 55 percent saying they plan to in the near future. Nearly one-third of respondents said they expect to have 10 percent of their work force offshore in the next five years. As for the often talked about shortage of IT professionals, the reality is that only workers with the most highly sought-after skills are in high demand, and everyone else is having difficulty finding work, IT workers say. In general, the combination of outsourcing, H-1B visas, and the commoditization of the IT workforce makes other career paths seem safer and more secure.
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EU Project Builds Artificial Brain for Robots
Cordis News Service (08/27/07)

Scientists in Spain have designed microchips that make use of a full neuronal system to serve as an artificial brain for a robot that would interact with humans. The development of the man-made cerebellum by researchers at the University of Granada is part of Sensopac (SENSOrimotor structuring of perception and action for emerging cognition), a four-year project of the EU to build a robot with more human-like movements and interactions. Within the next two years, the project will work to integrate the artificial brain into a robot designed by the German Aerospace Center. Physicists, neuroscientists, and electronic engineers from Europe's top universities are involved in the project. "Although robots are increasingly more important to our society and have more advanced technology, they can not yet do certain tasks like those carried out by mammals," says Eduardo Ros Vidal, a professor at Granada who coordinates its contribution to the project. Sensopac also has plans to develop an artificial skin, make the robot look more like a human, and make it information-sensitive.
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Software Via the Internet: Microsoft in 'Cloud' Computing
New York Times (09/03/07) P. C1; Markoff, John

Microsoft recently announced plans to provide free software that connects its Windows operating system to software services hosted on the Internet, a technique known as "cloud" computing. Microsoft hopes its new online applications will be competitive against similar online services offered by Google and other online software providers that already offer software applications online and have a significant head start. The Microsoft Windows Live software suite will include an updated electronic mail program, photo-sharing applications, and a writing tool designed for bloggers. Microsoft wants the Windows Live package to make the company the digital curator of all of a user's information, whether it's on a PC, mobile device, or the Internet. Millions of Internet users already use Web applications either to create or store data. For example, Google offers several cloud computing applications, including email, photo sharing, and a word document and spreadsheet application. Microsoft is counting on its large user base to make Windows Live a success, and plans to provide some applications for free, such as photo-sharing and disk storage, while charging for others, including computer security and a variety of business-oriented services for small and medium businesses. Microsoft's competitors are upset because four years ago Microsoft argued against adding compression features that would allow Web applications to perform better, but now Microsoft has developed its own compression standards that could make Windows Live perform better than its competitors.
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A High-Tech Helping Hand for Soldiers
Philadelphia Inquirer (09/04/07) Holcomb, Henry J.

The Wearable Intelligent Reporting Environment (WIRE), developed by Lockheed Martin, is designed to help soldiers in the field by recording their activity and turning speech it records into documents so soldiers do not have to write reports after a hard day on patrol. If approved, soldiers would wear a headset with an earphone and microphone designed to separate voices from gunfire and other noise. The headset is connected to a rugged but lightweight computer tucked into the soldier's combat vest. The system allows soldiers to dictate a report while in the field, all without taking their hands off their weapons or their eyes off of the action. The computer asks for responses that fill out forms designed for different situations and asks about words or situations it does not understand. The computer automatically creates a report and sends it to commanders, along with data from the soldier's GPS receiver. Data from multiple patrols can be analyzed immediately to fine-tune strategy and tactics. WIRE is designed to work with headsets and batteries already used by the military, and because the device does not have a video screen a single charge lasts as long as most patrols. WIRE also has significant potential for law enforcement applications. Crime analysis expert Robert Cheetham says fresh digital reports from the field would be extremely valuable to police commanders and could allow them to detect patterns and prevent future crimes.
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ICANN's Whois Privacy Reforms Stalled Again
Computerworld (08/28/07) Vijayan, Jaikumar

ICANN's workgroup dedicated to solving differences over proposed privacy changes to the Whois database has failed to develop a proposal for reforming the way Whois data is handled. The failure to reach an agreement perpetuates a long-standing holding pattern on proposed reforms to how Whois data is managed. GoDaddy's Tim Ruiz says the Whois debate has been ongoing for years and it is time for ICANN to bring it to a conclusion. "It's been clear for some time that unanimity, or even consensus, on any changes is not possible," says Ruiz. Ruiz was part of the 60-person working group, which included service provider representatives, registrars, and law enforcement authorities. Companies, intellectual property holders, and law enforcement officials support open access to the Whois database as it helps find phishers, trademark and copyright violators, and other online criminals. Privacy advocates believe unrestricted access could expose individual domain registrants to spam and unwanted surveillance and argue that Whois should be shielded from public access. The Whois task force has been working for more than four years to address the concerns of all sides involved and recently came up with the Operational Point of Contact (OPoC) proposal, which would allow domain name registrars to continue to collect contact information but would require them to prevent public access to the database, except in cases where law enforcement authorities and other parties could demonstrate a valid need for access. The OPoC proposal failed to gain support, partially because of how access proposals would be handled and concerns over who should be able to access protected Whois data and under what conditions.
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UTEP Awarded $5 Million to Create Cyberinfrastructure Center
University of Texas at El Paso (08/21/2007)

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $5 million grant to the University of Texas at El Paso to establish a cyberinfrastructure center. Experts in computer science, mathematics, and earth and environmental sciences will use the Cyber-ShARE Center of Excellence to develop software applications, services, and other digital tools that will help improve the nation's cyberinfrastructure. Scientists will be able to use the applications developed by researchers at Cyber-ShARE to gather and compute data over the Internet for projects. "Traditionally, research is done at large institutions throughout the world and it's difficult to share information others are working on," says Ann Q. Gates, chair of UTEP's Department of Computer Science. "But the whole promise of cyberinfrastructure is that it breaks down those boundaries and allows scientists and educators to do state-of-the-art research." Cyber-ShARE will also make its information and applications available to the public, provide opportunities in Web-based research to college students, and offer outreach programs to middle and high school students and teachers.
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Software Relies on Many Chefs
Baltimore Sun (08/31/07) P. 1E; Bishop, Tricia

Technology companies are warming to open-source software development, in which a product's source code is made publicly accessible and programming enthusiasts are encouraged to assess and modify the code to create improved or derivative products. A decade earlier, such a practice went against the corporate business model, and was vehemently opposed. Gartner forecasts that the software domain will be "restructured" by open source, while IDC analysts describe open source as "the most significant all-encompassing and long-term trend that the software industry has seen since the early 1980s." Advocates say open-source development encourages the creation of cheaper, better, and more secure technology because it is often reviewed by numerous programmers around the world. Open-source security software is used by the Defense Department and the National Security Agency to safeguard their networks. Open-source firms subscribe to one of three primary business models. Software is free in all three models, but one model sells support services, another sells upgrades, and the third sells hardware that is bundled with open-source software. Critics of open-source development complain that the practice leads to cumbersome, overwritten software that devalues programmers' contributions because they are unpaid. They also claim that the free nature of a lot of open-source software wrecks revenue models.
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Robots Surf the Web to Learn About the World
New Scientist (08/18/07) Vol. 195, No. 2617, P. 22; Reilly, Michael

Robots and computer programs are learning to associate words with objects by going online and Googling the words, using the retrieved images to make the connection. "If you give a robot visual capabilities, it could pretty much do anything," argues the University of Maryland in College Park's Alap Karapurkar. Carnegie Mellon University researcher Paul Rybski goes a step further. He says, "You could tell a robot, 'car,' and it could learn what a car looks like, that they're used for driving, then it could download a driver's manual, hop in the car and drive away." Rybski and colleague Alexei Efros put together the first Semantic Robot Vision Challenge at the annual American Association for Artificial Intelligence conference to test the theory. The competition involved instructing robots to search the Internet for images relevant to 20 object words, and then look for the objects in a 6-meter-square area. Robots were entered in the contest by five teams. The first step for the robots was converting the hundreds of images resulting from queries into descriptions that could be used to identify objects in the real world, and this was achieved through the use of software that analyzes the shading patterns in all of the resulting images to outline telltale characteristics and organize them into a sort of fingerprint. Several robots were equipped with stereo cameras to search for objects, which took snapshots for comparison to the fingerprint index. The robot that scored the highest--seven out of 20 found objects--was built by a team of University of British Columbia researchers. The software the robots run on could be applied to the significant improvement of Web image searches.
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Toward a PeopleWeb
Computer (08/07) Vol. 40, No. 8, P. 63; Ramakrishnan, Raghu; Tomkins, Andrew

Key characteristics of users and objects will stop their reliance on individual Web sites and move toward global availability, write Yahoo Research's Raghu Ramakrishnan and Andrew Tomkins. A global object model will combine with portable user context into a "PeopleWeb" that will engender richer content architecture and facilitate substantial changes in online communities and information discovery. There are typically four primary manifestations of online metadata: Anchor text (the underscored text in a hyperlink that can open up to another page), tags (single words or brief phrases placed on a resource to assist in the retrieval or sharing of that resource), page views, and reviews/comments. Yahoo produces roughly 8 percent of global clicks, encompassing about 110 billion clicks a month; approximately 10 million new pieces of valuable anchor text are generated daily, reviews come to 6 million, and eBay reports an average of 7 million new structured listings daily for 2006. The generation of meaningful object descriptions through social interaction can be significantly enhanced via a global name scheme, although a Web search cannot adequately produce all references to an underlying object. A global object model can effect the tagging of all objects with certain metadata types. Stars, tags, attention, and text (STAT) are the most broad examples of such types, and Ramakrishnan and Tomkins expect STAT metadata to be integrated with user reputation measures to yield overall rankings of object quality in numerous contexts. Additional type-specific metadata will undoubtedly enhance these rankings, the authors write.
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