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ACM TechNews
September 7, 2007

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Welcome to the September 7, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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House to Consider E-Voting Reform Bill
Computerworld (09/05/07) Gross, Grant

The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act, introduced by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) could be taken up by the House this week. Holt's bill would require a voter-verified paper ballot for the November 2008 election as a way to audit voting results. There would be random audits of e-voting machines in 3 percent of precincts, and e-voting machines would not be able to have wireless or Internet connections. Although the bill has 216 cosponsors, its passage is not assured because some groups oppose the move away from existing e-voting machines. Even if it passes the House, there is no guarantee a similar bill in the Senate will pass, says the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Matt Zimmerman. "Like it or not, with election officials arguing that they're running out of time to implement wholesale changes, this likely amounts to Congress' only attempt to make any serious improvements to the nation's election procedures ahead of the 2008 presidential election," Zimmerman writes in his blog.
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Coming to Grips With Intelligent Machines
CNet (09/07/07) Olsen, Stefanie

The Singularity Summit taking place this weekend in San Francisco will bring together accomplished technologists and investors to discuss the benefits and risks involved with advancing artificial intelligence, technical issues involved in accelerating technology in a variety of fields, and what to do if machine intelligence ever surpasses human intelligence. Foresight Nanotech Institute vice president Christine Peterson says singularity refers to "a period of accelerating technology change that our species has never faced before. So the question is how do we address the issue of change so rapid that it becomes difficult to project how it will affect us?" Futurists, scientists, and science fiction writers continue to predict futures where humans and robots become more similar thanks to bioengineering and brain-computer interfaces. "The summit is about how we may be developing technology that could expand beyond intelligence as we know it," says Tyler Emerson, executive director of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and summit chair. "And that could be shaped in either a favorable way or it could swing the other way. It will depend on the choices we make." Other speakers at the conference include Stanford University's Paul Saffo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Rodney Brooks, and Yale University's Wendell Wallach. Singularity Institute director Ray Kurzweil will provide a 30-minute talk via videoconference.
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DHS Ends Criticized Data-Mining Program
Associated Press (09/05/07) Sniffen, Michael J.

The Department of Homeland Security announced that it will cancel the Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement (ADVISE) data-mining tool in response to reports that tests were conducted using information on real people without establishing the proper privacy safeguards. The DHS has spent $42 million since 2003 on the ADVISE project, which was intended for use by DHS organizations, including immigration, customs, border protection, biological defense, and the department's intelligence office to help make connections between suspicious people using small bits of information that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. In 2004, a DHS research official said every hour ADVISE would be able to process 1 billion pieces of structured information, such as databases of cargo shippers, and 1 million pieces of unstructured text, such as government intelligence reports. In March, pilot tests of the program were suspended after the Government Accountability Office reported that the ADVISE tool could mistakenly identify or associate an individual with activities such as fraud, crime, or terrorism. Since then, the Homeland Security inspector general and the DHS privacy office discovered that tests were using data on real people instead of made-up data for one or two years without meeting privacy requirements. The inspector general also said ADVISE was poorly planned, too time-consuming for analysts to use, and was not adequately justified. DHS spokesman Russ Knocke recently announced that the ADVISE project was being cancelled and that it is not expected to be restarted. The DHS Science and Technology directorate determined that commercial products are currently available that offer similar functionality at a significantly lower cost.
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Programming Grads Meet a Skills Gap in the Real World
eWeek (09/03/07) Taft, Darryl K.

Although colleges and universities have stepped up their efforts to produce graduates ready to work, there is still a significant skills gap between what computer science graduates learn as an undergrad and what skills they need to excel in a work environment. Teachers and professionals say not enough is being done to ensure the educational system keeps up with the constantly changing needs of IT. Frequently, entering the work force is just as educational as attending college, particularly for programmers. Terracotta CTO Ari Zilka says he thoroughly understands the skills gap because he worked in the high-tech industry while attending the University of California, Berkeley. "I found that UC Berkeley had an excellent curriculum but not only was my schooling lagging behind work, it became very hard to even go to school because work had me learning the concepts and their applicability and nuances that teachers didn't even seem to know," says Zilka. Some of the skills that schools could spend more time teaching include design patterns, coding style and practices, scalability and performance tuning, and the entire software development lifecycle in general, according to Zilka. Additionally, subjects such as quality assurance, unit testing, and stage and release are usually not taught. Texas A&M computer science professor and creator of the C++ language Bjarne Stroustrup says the skills gap is difficult to characterize because there are so many different types of jobs, and that it is important to remember that universities should educate for a lifetime of future learning, not train student for specific tasks. However, Stroustrup acknowledges that many students have no clue about software development and are completely unable to program, which puts them at a disadvantage even if their job does not directly involve programming.
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Animation for the Masses
Technology Review (09/06/07) Greene, Kate

Adobe Systems is developing ray tracing software that would allow home computer users to create high-quality graphics and animations on ordinary PCs. Adobe's ray tracing rendering technique considers the behavior of light as it bounces off objects and passes through different substances such as glass and water. Ray tracing tends to take a significant amount of time to render and consequently is generally only used for precomputed effects in movies and video games, according to Adobe senior principal scientist Gavin Miller. Miller explains that because multicore computing is becoming more prevalent, more consumers now have machines capable of computing ray-tracing algorithms. The main challenge is to find ways of dividing the graphics processes within general microprocessors. Another type of rendering process, known as rasterization, is faster but does not allow for much realism. Instead of calculating the light off of every object in the scene, rasterization only calculates the effect of light on objects that are seen. In ray tracing, the brightness of any given point on a surface could be effected by multiple bounces of light, data that is calculated and stored in a database. Miller says that he and his team are exploring different approaches to make querying the database more efficient. "Adobe's research goal is to discover the algorithms that enhance ray-tracing performance and make it accessible to consumers in near real-time form," Miller says. The system is currently just a research project, but Miller predicts that consumers may see real-time ray tracing products within five years.
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U. Illinois to Build Computer Faster Than IU's Big Red
Indiana Daily Student (09/06/07) Haemker, Heather

The University of Illinois is planning on building what will be one of the world's fastest supercomputers at the university's National Center for Supercomputing Applications with the help of $208 million in funding from the National Science Foundation. The computer, known as Blue Waters, will be capable of performing one quadrillion calculations per second, according to NCSA's Trish Barker. "The goal in building a bigger supercomputer is to give scientists more power that they can apply to their research," Barker says. Researchers across the country will be able to use Blue Waters for research in a variety of fields, including chemistry, biology, cosmology, and high-energy physics. Despite the fact that current supercomputers are capable of trillions of calculations per second, scientists need even more powerful computers to examine more variables and to view phenomena at a finer resolution. "The goal is to develop this system over the next several years," says Barker. "We plan for it to be operational and available for research in 2011."
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Congress Pushes Back on H1-B Visas
eWeek (09/05/07) Mark, Roy

The death of the immigration reform bill in May was possibly the tech industry's last chance in a while to increase limits on the H1-B visa, which were filled in only one day for 2008, as current pieces of legislation in Congress would put even more restrictions on H1-B visas without raising the cap. "What many of us have come to understand is that these H-1B visas are not being used to supplement the American work force where we have shortages but, rather, H1-B visas are being used to replace American workers with lower-cost foreign workers," says Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-V.T.), who introduced a bill that would raise H1-B fees by $1,500 per application to fund a scholarship for Americans seeking degrees in math, technology, and health-related fields. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that if the issue of the H-1B cap is brought up again, they are unlikely to support an increase without serious program reform. Grassley and Durbin introduced a bill that strengthens the penalties for employers who misuse H1-B visas and would ensure priority is given to American workers. Employers would be required to show that the H1-B worker did not replace an American worker. The legislation would also require employers to advertise job openings on a Department of Labor Web site before submitting a H-1B application, and would require the Labor Department to randomly audit companies that use the H-1B program as well as annual audits of companies with more than 100 employees with 15 percent or more of the workers on H-1B visas.
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UTEP Works to Bridge Language Gap Between U.S. Soldiers, Iraqis
El Paso Times (TX) (09/06/07) Gilot, Louie

Researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso led by computer science professor Nigel Ward say they have developed software that would improve the cultural sensitivity training of U.S. troops in Iraq. They believe the software could be incorporated into the Arabic language training video game that University of Southern California researchers developed for the U.S. government. U.S. soldiers use the Tactical Language Training Program to learn basic Arabic and culturally sensitive gestures that will prepare them for interacting with Iraqi civilians, obtaining information, and forming alliances. The software is designed to have U.S. soldiers listen to an Arabic speech, and say "uh-huh" into a microphone during short spots where the pitch goes down. Users would receive a score of hits in real time. The software delves into back-channeling research. Although Arabic speakers back-channel as much as English speakers (they say "uh-huh" about four times a minute), their pause for feedback is shorter, according to studies. Former UTEP graduate student Yaffa Al Bayyari studied members of the Iraqi community and found that they prefer to talk with someone who appears to be a good listener, even if they have poor language skills.
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Justice Opinion Opposes Idea of Net Neutrality
Associated Press (09/07/07)

The Justice Department on Thursday issued an opinion to the Federal Communications Commission that Internet service providers should be allowed to charge a fee for priority Web traffic. Some of the largest phone and cable companies have previously argued that they should be able to charge some users more money for loading certain content or Web sites faster than others. Web companies, however, support Net neutrality, the principle that all Internet sites should be equally accessible to any Web user, and argue that without Net neutrality regulations phone and cable companies could discriminate against certain Web sites and services. The Justice Department says imposing Net neutrality regulations could hinder the development of the Internet, prevent service providers from upgrading or expanding the network, and could shift the cost of expanding and improving the network to consumers. Less than two months ago Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras cautioned policy makers to support Net neutrality. The Justice Department says supporting Net neutrality would prevent Internet innovation and investment, and that it will monitor and enforce any anticompetitive conduct on the Internet to ensure a competitive broadband marketplace.
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Venture Capitalist: We Need to Prepare for Artificial Intelligence
Mercury News (09/07/07) Ackerman, Elise

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is hosting the Singularity Summit, where he will discuss some of his concerns and why singularity, the possibility that artificial intelligence could surpass human intelligence, should be taken seriously. In an interview before the summit, Thiel said that artificial intelligence has been considered a fringe area in technology because it has not lived up to the unrealistic hype created in the past 30 years. However, he believes the technology has the power to change the world and said people are unaware of how radically different the world could be in 30 to 40 years. He said there are choices that need to be made now to shape that future. Thiel thinks that some of the disaster scenarios, such as a computer intelligence that enslaves mankind, are over-exaggerated, but noted that 100 years ago the idea of a bomb that could destroy an entire city seemed unrealistic, and that some scenarios might be possible. "Could you have a government that uses computers to control everything? That's within the scope of what I could imagine," he said. "There is certainly the danger that information technology is not liberating but becomes totalitarian. If you monitor everything that everyone's doing on the Internet, if you get to the point where things are perfectly tracked, that obviously has potential for tremendous abuse." Thiel said there are not enough people working on artificial intelligence and if more people took a greater interest in the technology and the concept of singularity they would understand that science and technology is at the very core of what our civilization is fundamentally about.
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DHS Head: Cybersecurity Remains a Concern
IDG News Service (09/05/07) Gross, Grant

Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, spoke before the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee and testified that DHS will continue to give the "very big issue" of cybersecurity high priority. Because the department's cybersecurity endeavors are confidential, Chertoff simply made a short statement to assure committee members that DHS is collaborating with other parts of the government to develop an improved strategy for cybersecurity. Chertoff also acknowledged that threats to cybersecurity have great potential to harm the United States in the future. Though cybersecurity problems continue to plague the federal government, the legislators primarily focused on other issues during the meeting, urging DHS to improve in other ways, such as by filling open positions at DHS.
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Lecture to Explore Future Uses of Synthetic Voices
University at Buffalo News (09/04/07) Donovan, Patricia

University at Buffalo associate professor of media studies Marc Bohlen is developing ways to make electronic voices such as those found at customer help numbers more useful and interesting. The effort, known as "Make Language," is part of Bohlen's ongoing attempt to diversify machine culture and find new uses for what he describes as "the infinitely patient synthetic characters who make our plane reservations, guide us through the options offered by telephone answering systems, offer computer support, give us stock quotes, and take our fast food orders." Bohlen says the synthetic language system used in these situations are often better at reproducing human speech than people are, and they could be used to perform tasks far more useful than their current applications. As a demonstration, Bohlen created synthetic-voice characters who spoke English, one without an accent, one with a German accent, and one with a Spanish accent, and assigned them language tasks. The characters displayed a range of emotions and intellectual comments. Bohlen says such characters may one day be used to help people sleep or prevent exotic human dialects from being lost forever. "Maybe they will archive endangered phonemes in elaborate databases or invent new figures of speech particular to being machines," Bohlen says.
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Cyber Crime Tool Kits Go on Sale
BBC News (09/04/07)

Novice cyber criminals can now develop their own cyber attacks with the help of automated, easy-to-use tools and kits developed by malicious hackers. There are at least 68,000 downloadable hacking aids currently circulating, says Secure Computing's Paul Henry. Although most are free and targeted toward those with expertise, a growing number are for sale and aimed at unskilled individuals. Some hacking groups offer virus-writing services that generate individual malicious programs, while others have created expensive kits that even come with technical support to keep the software updated with the latest vulnerabilities. One such product, Mpack, was used in June to subvert over 10,000 Web sites in one attack. The tools are effective because it takes a substantial amount of time for security professionals to patch the increasing number of vulnerabilities being discovered. Hacking groups are drawn to selling such products because doing so confers little risk upon them, as each tool comes with a disclaimer stating that the user assumes responsibility for any abuse.
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CSI Could Benefit From Computer Sidekick
New Scientist (08/31/07) Simonite, Tom

A team from Birmingham University in the United Kingdom has developed a new computerized sidekick that will enable crime scene investigators to produce faster and more detailed reports. The prototype system makes use of a thin computer about the size of a small book, GPS, a digital camera, and a RFID tag reader. The CSI wears the computer and uses a headset to provide voice commands to the system, such as to snap a picture or record a verbal description of evidence. The GPS is used to mark location, a RFID tag is used to label (time, location, and type) evidence, and images can also be annotated to focus on a particular feature. In tests, the system cut the amount of time in half that it takes to put together a standard CSI report. "Writing is both time-consuming and interruptive," says Chris Baber, a computer scientist at Birmingham. "We've attempted to remove the need to explicitly report what you are doing." The team is now working on a version that would make it easier for different teams of investigators at the scene of a crime to share data.
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Prof Receives NSF Grant for Supercomputer
Calvin College (08/30/07) Anderson, Myrna

Calvin College computer science professor Joel Adams has received a $205,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to build a new supercomputer. Adams notes that although desktop computers continue to get faster, the school's supercomputer, which was built six years ago with funding from the NSF, stays the same, and while it is useful for teaching, it becomes less and less useful for research. Adams says the new supercomputer could be anywhere between 40 to 80 times faster than the old computer, but that they will not know until they build the machine. Students will participate in building the machine, a valuable learning experience according to Adams, and will also learn to work with parallel processing, a crucial approach to programming as computers continue to have more and more processors. Adams says the school will be able to use the new supercomputer for several years, and that any such piece of technology needs to be built for the future.
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Internet Pipes Can't Keep Up in YouTube Age
Network World (08/30/07) Mullins, Robert

The Internet needs a significant investment to handle the strains put on it by video uploads and downloads, billions of emails, and wireless access, concludes a new University of California, San Diego study. In the report, "Point of Disconnect," UCSD professor Michael Kleeman says that even with a massive expansion of network capacity by network operators, there still may not be enough bandwidth to match demand. The report also says compression technology should become a more common practice, particularly for large video files. Kleeman points out that the number of new videos uploaded daily to YouTube more than tripled from 20,000 at the beginning of 2006 to 65,000 at the beginning of 2007, a significant strain on the network considering one minute of video requires 10 times as much bandwidth as a voice phone call. The report suggests "triaging" network traffic and assigning priority to certain types of traffic. For example, a VoIP connection would receive priority over email packets because a phone call cannot be interrupted without delays while an email can arrive a few seconds later with little or no difference. "Unless we ensure an adequate supply of quality bandwidth at reasonable prices, many current and future business models will be stranded, which will have serious implications for economic growth and national competitiveness in the Internet sector," Kleeman says.
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Future Looks Bright for Supercomputers
Washington Technology (09/03/07) Vol. 22, No. 15, P. 42; Wakeman, Nick

Executive director of the Ohio Supercomputer Center and co-chairman of the Ohio Broadband Council Stan Ahalt believes that the gap between supercomputing and mainstream computing will continue to narrow, giving everyday users a better idea of how to build and use advanced systems. Ahalt says that people are becoming more aware that they can use computers as if they were a laboratory, to run experiments, and help guide their thinking. Additionally, desktops and laptops continue to become more like supercomputers as multiple cores become a more common feature, bringing parallel computing closer to the personal computer. Demand for more advanced computing comes from the fact that everyone, in all sectors, are actively thinking about innovation. Ahalt says one of the reasons the U.S. economy has flourished is that the United States deployed desktop computing very rapidly, giving the nation an advantage. Now, however, everyone has that advantage, so if the U.S. can deploy supercomputing for such tasks as supply chain, service delivery, and manufacture, it could put the United States ahead of the rest of the world. Widespread use of supercomputers will require employees to learn new skills, but the same was true when the Internet and email first made its way into public use, and now people are more used to the idea of changing technology and have the foundation for more advanced computer skills. Supercomputing also needs to be made easier to use. Ohio has set aside some money to make computer languages simpler and is trying to establish a curriculum for advanced computing and simulation that can be taught in high schools, two-year colleges, and certificate programs to retrain the workforce.
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Is It Live or Is It AR?
IEEE Spectrum (08/07) Vol. 44, No. 8, Bolter, Jay David; Macintyre, Blair

Education and entertainment could be transformed with the implementation of augmented reality (AR), the merging of digital sights and sounds with physical reality, according to Georgia Institute of Technology professors Jay David Bolter and Blair Macintyre. "A decade from now--if the technical problems can be solved--we will be able to use marked objects in our physical environment to guide us through rich, vivid, and gripping worlds of historical information and experience," the authors contend. Bolter and Macintyre have been holding classes in AR design to support a project to enhance Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery with a tour to famous graves, using actors and sound effects to portray the deceased and their historical background; the plan is to add visual effects later on. Important AR elements include a display system for viewing digital objects laid over the physical worlds, and a means for determining the user's viewpoint. Rapid 3D modeling of graphics objects is improving because of the enormous demand for such capabilities in the consumer gaming arena, while making sure the graphics are correctly merged with images of the real world is a challenge being explored through devices such as the virtual retina display, in which a laser draws images on the user's retina. Tracking position and orientation remains the most formidable technical challenge. Bolter and Macintyre also write that AR tools must boast ease of use as a way to encourage designers to enter the field. Concurrent with the advancement of AR technology will be the emergence of historic tours, games, and AR social experiences of increasing sophistication.
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