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September 10, 2007

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


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House Puts Off Voting Bill, Most Other Business Next Week
CQPolitics.com (09/07/07) Hunter, Kathleen; Ota, Alan K.

Debate on a House bill that would require all electronic voting machines to provide a paper record of every vote cast was postponed until September 17th at the earliest due to a short work week for Congress. House leadership had planned to bring H.R. 811 to the floor for debate on Monday, but a planned Rules Committee meeting for Friday that was to discuss amendments to the bill and a debate schedule was canceled. Local election officials opposed to the bill say the delay is a temporary victory that could lead to the bill's demise. However, supporters of the bill say the delay was made to accommodate the House calendar. "There's been concern about this bill for four years," says an aide to Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), the bill's chief sponsor. "But I think it's clear at this point that the momentum is moving in the right direction." Still, aids say that a recent Congressional Budget Office review of the bill, which found that it would cost $8.4 billion over 10 years to implement, will force lawmakers to rework the bill to cover its costs. Meanwhile, House Rules Chairwoman Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said an amendment for the bill was needed to provide an exception for New York, which the federal government sued for failing to meet a 2006 deadline to replace lever voting machines. If the amendment passes, New York would have until 2010 to add a paper ballot backup system. And Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.) may try to add an amendment that would postpone deadlines if funds are not appropriated to states to help pay for new requirements.
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F.B.I. Data Mining Reached Beyond Initial Targets
New York Times (09/09/07) P. 1; Lichtblau, Eric

Newly obtained FBI documents show that the bureau's data mining efforts to find data on terrorism activities was more widespread than originally thought. The FBI relied on telecommunications companies to analyze phone-call patterns of the associates of Americans who had come under suspicion, creating a "community of interest" that could implicate innocent Americans in investigations. The bureau stopped using this practice early this year, partially because of broader questions on its aggressive use of the records demands, known as national security letters. The community of interest data is important to a data-mining technique known as link analysis, which uses communications patterns and other data to identify suspects who may not have any other known links to extremists. Supporters of the system say it is a vital tool in predicting and preventing attacks, but privacy advocates, civil rights leaders, and even some counterterrorism officials say link analysis can be misused to establish links to people who have no real connection with terrorism. The FBI declined to say exactly what data was examined, but a government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says the data was limited to people and phone numbers "once removed" from the central target. The FBI's Mike Kortan says that community of interest data is "no longer being used pending the development of an appropriate oversight and approval policy," and that the technique was used infrequently and was never used for email communications.
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House Approves Comprehensive Patent Overhaul
Washington Post (09/08/07) P. D1; Rampell, Catherine

The House of Representatives on Friday passed the most comprehensive patent reform legislation in 50 years. The bill is intended to reduce the number of patent infringement cases by changing how patents are awarded and challenged. Much of the bill is favorable to defendants in patent-infringement suits, leading to strong support from technology companies, which tend to be defendants, and heavy opposition from drug companies and small inventors, which tend to be the plaintiffs. "This patent reform will help speed up patent decisions, clear up disputes, and clarify the jurisprudence behind these lawsuits," says Jonathan Yarowsky, policy council for the Coalition for Patent Fairness. "This will streamline innovation." Opponents of the bill say there is room for compromise as the bill moves forward in the Senate. Labor unions and universities agreed not to oppose the bill in the House provided their concerns received consideration before the Senate vote, and drug manufacturer representatives met with Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the House bill, and reached an agreement to address their concerns when the bill is reconciled with the Senate version. Under secretary of Commerce for intellectual property Jon Dudas says the Bush administration will also oppose the bill until changes are made. A controversial aspect of the bill is a major change in how damages are awarded. Currently, damages can be awarded based on the entire value of a product even if the patent infringement is over a small component, such as a chip in a computer. The bill would allow judges to instruct juries to award damages based on the value of the individual component. The bill also creates stricter standards for determining if a patent has willfully been infringed upon, expands the process for challenging patents after they have been granted, and awards patents to the first to file instead of the first who claims to have invented the product.
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Techies Ponder Computers Smarter Than Us
Associated Press (09/09/07) Wohlsen, Marcus

The Singularity Summit: AI and the Future of Humanity, organized by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, brought together hundreds of techies, scientists, and futurists to discuss the possibility of reaching a point where artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, a technological singularity. Artificial intelligence researchers at the summit warned that now is the time to develop ethical guidelines to ensure that such technological advances, such as computers that program themselves and brain implants that allow humans to thing at speeds similar to modern microprocessors, are used to benefit humanity. "We and our world won't be us anymore," says MIT robotics professor Rodney Brooks, "Who is us and who is them is going to become a different sort of question." Eliezer Yudkowsky, co-founder of the Singularity Institute, says his greatest fear is that a brilliant inventor will create a self-improving artificial intelligence that lacks a sense of morality and turns hostile. Critics of singularity have mocked these futurists for their obsession with "techno-salvation" or "techno-holocaust," and argue that these predictions are based on science fiction as much as they are on actual science. However, singularity advocates say such a future is likely inevitable. "The mere fact that you cannot predict exactly when it will happen down to the day is no excuse for closing your eyes and refusing to think about it," Yudkowsky says.
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Tapping the Promise of New RPI Supercomputer
Albany Times Union (NY) (09/08/07) Anderson, Eric

Discussing the uses that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's new $100 million IBM Blue Gene supercomputer could be put to was a theme of a Sept. 7 conference at RPI's Darrin Communications Center. Conferees included RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson, National Science Foundation director Arden L. Bement Jr., National Academy of Engineering President Charles M. Vest, IBM research director John E. Kelly III, and presidential science adviser John H. Marburger III. Blue Gene is the seventh fastest computer in the world, capable of processing upwards of 100 trillion arithmetic operations per second. The machine is currently engaged in simulating the human body's blood flow so that different blockage treatment approaches can be explored, to name one project. Blue Gene is also slated to work on biological process simulation, and possibly the development of a device to replace the transistor. Vest stated that one area of research where supercomputers will play an important role is the development of strategies to sustain environmental health and sustainability over the long term so that Third World peoples could get a chance at living lives of decent quality. Bement stressed the importance of smart sensors for sifting out vital information, while Vest said, "What we think is the noise today could very well be somebody's gold tomorrow." Jackson debated whether regulatory structures can keep up with people's broadband expectations. A running theme of the colloquy was the importance of continued cooperation between government, business, and universities, which everyone concurred was vital.
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Google's Director of Research Talks AI
CNet (09/09/07) Olsen, Stefanie

Google director of research Peter Norvig compares Google's influence on the Web to game theory. Norvig says originally Google was believed to be an observer of the Web, but it now plays a more active role. "Now we understand that we're co-evolving," he says. "When we make a change, it changes, search engine optimizers watch us, and when we make a move, then they make a move." Norvig's opening keynote address on the second day of the Singularity conference in San Francisco generally discredited the concept of being in a stage of rapid advancement for computer hardware and software that will lead to self-improving machines smarter than humans. Norvig argues that current data does not show that the world is in a time of accelerated change brought about by technology, highlighting the fact that the U.S. GDP has shown constant progress over the last 100 or so years and shows no great spikes because of space flight or the introduction of the personal computer. "From any point in time, it can look like things are happening more rapidly," Norvig says Norvig. He also argues that he has not seen any significant indication that artificial general intelligence is about to see a breakthrough. Norvig says that work on "probabilistic first-order logic," software that can quantify data over multiple states, is encouraging and will be key to developing artificial general intelligence, as will software that can create hierarchical representations and machines that can learn from multiple sources of data in an efficient way.
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Science Fiction Becoming Science Fact
University at Buffalo Reporter (09/06/07) Vol. 39, No. 2, Fryling, Kevin

University of Buffalo's founding director of the Center for Unified Biometrics and Sensors (CUBS) Venu Govindaraju says it is entirely possible to live in a future where cameras automatically recognize passengers in an airport, touchless sensors scan fingerprints and detect chemicals, smart cards verify customer signatures at the point of sale, and search engines find ancient texts just a easily as a new Web page. "A lot of it feels like it's out of science fiction," Govindaraju says, "but 10 years ago, didn't you think it would be science fiction if you could watch a TV show on a cell phone? Today, you can just do it." Govindaraju's interest in biometrics started as an undergrad working on facial recognition, an area once considered primarily relevant to artificial intelligence that has since become a high-demand field due to increased interest in personal and national security. Now, Govindaraju and CUBS researchers explore different areas of biometrics, including facial recognition, voice recognition, fingerprint recognition, iris recognition, gait recognition, odor detection, hand geometry, and different combinations of these methods. Govindaraju says traditional safeguards such as keycards, passwords, and badges can be lost, stolen, or forgotten. "You can lose your keys or forget your PINs," says Govindaraju, "but you can't forget yourself." One of Govindaraju's projects is working to train computers to detect lies by recognizing micro-expressions in the face. Govindaraju is also working on developing algorithms that can comprehend handwritten Arabic, English, and Sanskrit, a project that has received funding from both private and federal sources, including the National Science Foundation.
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SDSC Launches User-Settable Supercomputer Reservations
University of California, San Diego (09/05/07) Tooby, Paul

The San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego has released the first version of User Portal, a user-settable reservation system for the center's DataStar and TeraGrid Cluster supercomputers that allows researchers to have greater control over when their jobs will be processed. "We've had a lot of feedback in user surveys asking for faster turnaround time," says SDSC's director of user services Anke Kamrath. "While we couldn't eliminate the queue, especially on popular machines like DataStar, we realized that a service that lets users themselves schedule 'windows' of reserved time would let them complete jobs more reliably and get more done." The reservation system lets researchers reserve blocks of time and makes computing more efficient for multiple situations. For example, if a researcher running a large job that will require a full machine for a whole day encounters a minor problem that forces the calculations to stop, instead of having to go to the end of the queue and wait hours or days for the job to run again, the problem can be fixed and the program restarted immediately. The reservation system also works well for research groups trying to debug new code that need to run multiple short jobs in succession and work as a team to troubleshoot and retest the results. Although it was always possible to make reservations manually, the process was often slow and cumbersome.
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Social Networking Software Tracks Zebras and Consumers
University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) (09/06/07) Francuch, Paul

Computer scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of New Mexico have developed computational tools that will allow ecologists to closely monitor the social interactions of zebras. The computational tools, which make use of research into social network analysis, Internet computing, data mining, and machine learning, were funded by a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Working with Daniel Rubenstein, an ecologist at Princeton University, Tanya Berger-Wolf and Jared Saia have developed GPS tracking collars for zebras living in the Mpala conservancy in Kenya, which will enable researchers to learn much more about life in the herd, including how zebras interact and evade predators. The project will provide a more realistic and dynamic look into the social habits of zebras, as data collected every eight to 15 minutes will be forwarded by cell phone to the researchers' computers. The data will then be mapped and analyzed by new computational and analytical software that was also developed by Berger-Wolf and Saia. Such computational tools are needed because of how quickly zebras form groups and then break up, says Berger-Wolf. The researcher's approach to social networking also could be used to study consumers, disease, or the formation of covert groups.
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Storm Worm Botnet More Powerful Than Top Supercomputers
InformationWeek (09/06/07) Gaudin, Sharon

The Storm worm botnet that has been pummeling the Internet continuously for the last three months has grown so extensive that it could easily overwhelm the world's top supercomputers, according to security researchers. Estimates of the botnet's size vary, but most researchers concur that it is one of the biggest zombie grids ever observed. MessageLabs researchers spot roughly 2 million discrete computers in the botnet dispatching spam on a daily basis and, after witnessing large spikes in activity, researchers believe the botnet typically runs at roughly 10 percent of capacity. Matt Sergeant of MessageLabs thinks the botnet could involve as many as 50 million computers, but Adam Swidler of Postini thinks the botnet is much smaller, though he agrees that it is capable of inflicting great damage. This means that cyber criminals in control of the botnet possess much destructive power and could hurt companies, government agencies, financial centers, or utilities through a denial-of-service (DoS) attack similar to what struck Estonia earlier in 2007. Moreover, the Storm worm botnet has been programmed to launch a distributed DoS attack against computers scanning for malware or vulnerabilities, anti-spam organizations, and even individual researchers attempting to study the botnet. The botnet authors are making money through pump-and-dump scams and are expanding the botnet with fake news and e-cards spam. Lawrence Baldwin of MyNetWatchman.com calls the situation "scary," noting that the botnet cumulatively sends out billions of messages daily.
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Perfect Projections on Surfaces of Any Shape
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (08/07) Kaplow, Mirjam

Fraunhofer research scientists have developed Showplayer, a new software system that automatically calibrates projectors to project sharp images onto curved surfaces, once considered an elaborate and expensive process. The software system, developed by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Architecture and Software Technology (FIRST), automatically calibrates the projectors and superimposes the images with pixel-precise accuracy, creating perfectly synchronized projections on any surface shape. "The calibration software is firstly provided with data on the geometry of the screen and the number, position and approximate alignment of the projectors," says FIRST researcher Ivo Haulsen. Digital cameras record the position of the images on the screen while image recognition algorithms calculate the proper amount of distortion needed to create a high-resolution, seamless picture on a curved screen. Showplayer can be used to control any type of projector and makes it possible to combine different types of media such as movies, stills, banners, and live action to create a unique experience, and can even integrate devices such as fog machines.
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Debate Rages Over German Government Spyware Plan
IDG News Service (09/05/07) Blau, John

After passing anti-hacking legislation earlier this year, members of the German government want to permit the development and use of spyware to monitor suspected terrorists. German interior minister Wolfgang Schauble has been seeking support for a new security law that would permit federal authorities to secretly investigate suspects' Internet use and stored data by allowing authorities to install Trojans carrying remote forensic software on suspects' hard drives. In February, the German Federal Court of Justice ruled that hacking of computers by police is not permitted under Germany's strict phone-tapping laws and that special legislations would be needed. Schauble says the new security law would only be used in a handful of exceptional cases and on those suspected of planning a terrorist attack, but the proposal has still generated heated debate. Kaspersky Lab virus specialist Magnus Kalkuhl says the plan undermines the very purpose of security software and that the idea of allowing officials in a country to spy is disturbing. "What's going to prevent police in Germany from breaking into computers in Italy?" Kalkuhl asks. The use of spyware by law enforcement in not new. In the United States, the FBI uses a tool called CIPAV that can record IP addresses and send the information to government computers. Meanwhile, Switzerland and Austria are both reportedly considering enacting laws that would allow police to monitor computers online, though neither country has released any official information on their spyware plans.
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Zeno Could Be Next Robot Boy Wonder
PC Magazine (09/05/07) Ulanoff, Lance

David Hanson, the developer of a robotic Albert Einstein head, recently introduced a prototype of a "conversational robot" known as Zeno. Zeno, which is 17 inches tall and weighs 4.5 pounds, will be unveiled at the Wired Nextfest in California in September. Despite the fact that it is at least two years away from commercial availability, analysts say it could become the next must-have personal robot. Zeno can walk, talk, end express emotions. While Hanson's robotic Einstein head was realistic, Zeno is more cartoonish and toy-like with a smooth skin texture. Twelve motors control facial expressions while another 18 motors control body movements. Behind one of Zeno's eyes is a camera that is used to recognize faces, which Zeno does better than people do, according to Hanson. Zeno differs from most other robots in that the majority of its intelligence resides outside its body. The Zeno prototype is connected to two PCs. One computer controls its movements while the other holds Zeno's character engine. The final version will connect wirelessly to a network-attached Windows PC. Hanson says Zeno's software acts as a physical brain and gives it the ability to control body motion and reflexes with a special awareness, including the ability to track a person's position in a room and turn and make eye contact when Zeno wants to address them. "We're combining the best artificial intelligence with this theater for fiction so that the way that it's crafted the artistry makes the robot seem like it's more intelligent. It turns robotics into an art medium," says Hanson.
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Personal Data: Up Close and Impersonal
Federal Computer Week (08/27/07) Joch, Alan

Debate persists between the United States and the European Union regarding how much data to divulge when comparing terrorist watch lists and trans-Atlantic flight manifests. The underlying issue involves balancing the protection of privacy rights with the fight against terrorism, which requires the retrieval of key information. Some computer science experts say that an improved balance might be achieved through data anonymization, a method by which software combs through scrambled data and marks any suspicious patterns. At that point, a government could request a subpoena for records in compliance with the Fourth Amendment. IBM's Anonymous Resolution Technology is used by the United States, though not as widely as some experts had anticipated, considering the technology's promise. One key element of IBM's software is one-way encryption, a method for scrambling data without decrypting it, thereby guarding the information from human eyes. However, some security experts caution that anonymization is not a full solution, but rather a first step that must be complemented by a complete security system. As well, some anonymization methods keep encrypted indexes of sensitive data in a central repository, which is a vulnerability, according to computer science professor Latanya Sweeney, director of the Laboratory for International Data Privacy at Carnegie Mellon University. Sweeney's lab has developed PrivaMix, anonymization algorithms and techniques that have been used for compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act as well as by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to protect identities. The software assigns numeric codes to client data and those codes are used when sharing data between networks and over secure Internet connections.
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Virtual Reality Will Enhance Real-World Experiences
New Scientist (09/08/07)No. 2620, P. 30; Newitz, Annalee

Scientists such as UCLA's Amy Jo Kim envision a future in which virtual reality technology augments real-life experiences, an example being special networked eyewear that can digitally map objects, instructions, or data onto the wearer's field of view. "You can do all of this with technology that's available now," notes Kim. U.K. programmer Mikel Maron is working to increase the portability of map data through the geoRSS project, and he conceives of a time when people can tap into sensor readings of pollution levels, crowding, and many other things to enhance their reality experience. "You could overlay weather data onto the virtual world to plan your route home," Maron says. People who like interacting in virtual environments such as Second Life will also be able to avail themselves of software that allows them to build their own virtual worlds, where the level of security can be customized. Security is also a priority for potential users of MPK320, a virtual office being developed by Nicole Yankelovich of Sun Microsystems Laboratories that is designed to permit scattered employees to convene and collaborate without worrying that intruders from a rival company will penetrate their meeting and make off with their ideas.
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The Trouble With Computers
Economist Technology Quarterly (09/07) Vol. 384, No. 8545, P. 21

One area where computers could undergo significant improvement is ease of use, and some companies are hoping to realize such enhancements through innovative interface design. Easier-to-use computer interfaces comprise an area where technology companies can gain a competitive edge, while Microsoft's Andrew Herbert said at the HCI 2020 conference that interface simplification is critical if new consumers such as children, the elderly, and people with little computer experience are to be brought into the computing fold. One example of an advanced interface is New York University researcher Jeff Han's multi-touch interface, which is based on a large touch screen capable of sensing more than one touch at a time; this can enable two-handed gesture commands. The Microsoft Surface is a keyboard- and mouse-free touch-screen computer that can not only be directed by gestures, but can also recognize and automatically download data from other devices placed on top of it. The promise of easier-to-use computers cannot be delivered without smarter software, and a lot of work is being devoted to "context aware" systems that conceal unneeded clutter and offer options that have the most likely relevance to the user's current activity. University Paris VI researcher Patrick Brezillon says computers must be taught the trick of gauging users' moods in order to present the most relevant functions, and this can be done via analysis of keystroke and typo frequency, work-break duration, Internet-search terms, background noise, and other factors. MIT scientist Henry Holtzman says a considerable amount of trust is vital to the acceptance of context-aware computers, especially in environments such as automobiles. Many computer experts believe computing will fade into the background as a result of the emergence and convergence of these various technologies.
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Career Watch: Back-to-School Edition
Computerworld (09/03/07) Vol. 41, No. 36, P. 48; Hoffman, Thomas

Computer Science Teachers Association executive director Chris Stephenson says students and parents have numerous misconceptions about the IT field and she says it is important to inform them that there are good, interesting, and important jobs available that relate to what they care about in the real world. A major problem is that the high school curriculum does not reflect the true richness of computing and there is a critical shortage of qualified teachers. High school courses tend to focus on how to use a specific program or how to program. A comprehensive computing curriculum is needed, including age-appropriate courses that teach the underlying scientific concepts of computing while helping students understand there are many areas of computing, including artificial intelligence, bioinformatics, and robotics. The teacher shortage is largely due to the fact that teacher certification requirements in most states are a complete disaster. Usually states require computer science teachers to be certified in a different area, and because computing is not a core course, even the best computer science teachers are not considered "highly qualified" by No Child Left Behind. Additionally, there are very few programs available to train potential computer science teachers. The CSTA works in partnership with colleges and universities to create professional development opportunities to help teachers develop their technical and teaching skills. However, Stephenson says perhaps the most important role the CSTA plays is to teach administrators and policymakers that there is a direct link between supporting computer science education at the K-12 level and maintaining a innovative and competitive edge in the global market. For more information about CSTA activities, visit http://www.acm.org/education/panel?pageIndex=4
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