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ACM TechNews
September 12, 2007

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Welcome to the September 12, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Who Needs Hackers?
New York Times (09/12/07) P. H1; Schwartz, John

Though conceding that computer hackers are a clear threat, experts maintain that some of the most serious and disruptive network problems can be traced to non-malevolent sources, most notably a network's complexity. "We don't need hackers to break the systems because they're falling apart by themselves," says SRI International principal scientist Peter G. Neumann. Nemertes Research's Andreas M. Antonopoulos says the transition from relatively simple computing architectures to massively distributed and connected networks has increased the difficulty of predicting, detecting, and correcting flaws. A problem as simple as a defective network card can have a cascading effect that leads to a network failure, such as the one that shut down computers for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency and delayed flights at Los Angeles International Airport for hours last month. "Most of the problems we have day to day have nothing to do with malice," says Columbia University computer science professor Steven M. Bellovin. "Things break. Complex systems break in complex ways." He notes that it was a cascading series of failures that shut down the electrical grid in the Eastern United States and Canada in the summer of 2003. The integration and interdependence of multiple computer networks only makes system-wide vulnerability to a single weak link more likely, according to Veracode CEO Matt Moynahan. Johns Hopkins University professor Aviel D. Rubin says high-tech voting machines could be extremely susceptible to glitches, and he entertains the possibility that the emphasis on the hacker threat has eclipsed the threat of unintentional problems. One way to minimize non-malicious disruptions is to strengthen systems' capacity for recovery through backup protocols, while Neumann believes the best strategy is to design security and stability into computers from the very beginning. Peter G. Neumann moderates the ACM Risks Forum; http://www.risks.org/
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China's Eye on the Internet
University of California, Davis (09/11/07) Fell, Andy

Researchers at the University of California, Davis and the University of New Mexico are developing ConceptDoppler, an automated tool that monitors changes in Internet censorship in China. The tool uses mathematical techniques to group words by meaning and identify words that are likely to be blacklisted by the Chinese government. Many countries have some form of Internet censorship, primarily using systems that block specific Web sites or Web addresses, but China's system is unique in that it filters for Web content or specific keywords to selectively block pages, according to UC Davis graduate student Earl Barr. The researchers sent messages to Internet addresses in China containing a variety of different words that might be censored. Barr says if China's system was truly a firewall most of the blocking would take place at the border with the rest of the Internet, but some messages passed through several routers before being blocked. A firewall would also block all occurrences of a banned word or phrase, but banned words were able to reach their destination about 28 percent of the time. By filtering ideas instead of specific Web sites, the system prevents people from using proxy servers or "mirror" Web sites to avoid censorship, but because it is not completely effective the system probably acts more as an unseen watchman, encouraging self-censorship, Barr says. When users in China see a word or phrase that is normally blocked, they might choose to avoid that page, assuming someone is monitoring that site. Work on ConceptDoppler will be presented at the ACM Computer and Communications Security Conference in Alexandria, Va., on Oct. 29-Nov. 2.
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NASA Building Silicon Chips That Can Handle Massively High-Heat and Then Some
Network World (09/11/07)

NASA has developed a new circuit chip capable of withstanding significantly higher temperatures for longer periods of time than any other chip has previously achieved. Normally, silicon-based electronics begin to fail at about 350 degrees Celsius and integrated circuit chips cannot withstand more than a few hours of high temperatures before degrading or failing. The silicon carbide (SiC) chip developed by NASA can operate at a temperature of 600 degrees Celsius, 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit, and can exceed 1,700 hours of continuous operation at 500 degrees Celsius, a 100-fold increase over previous technology. NASA says SiC chips could be used for energy storage, renewable energy, nuclear power, and electrical drives. The temperature resistant chips will also lead to increases in power density, smaller heat sink requirements, small sizes and mass overall, and higher frequency operation for filters and transformers. "This new capability can eliminate the additional plumbing, wires, weight, and other performance penalties required to liquid-cool traditional sensors and electronics near the hot combustion chamber, or the need to remotely locate them elsewhere where they aren't as effective," says Phil Neudeck, an electronics engineer and lead researcher for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate at NASA's Glenn Research Center.
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U.S. Patent Bill Still Faces Obstacles
IDG News Service (09/10/07) Gross, Grant

Patent reform legislation that recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives still faces significant opposition as it enters the Senate, particularly from small inventors, pharmaceutical companies, several small technology vendors, and labor unions. The bill would change how courts assess patent infringement damages, considering the value of the infringed patent and not the value of the entire product. It would also add new ways to challenge patents after they have been granted. Opponents of the bill say the changes will allow large companies to steal patented inventions from small companies without fear of repercussions. Symantec CEO John W. Thompson says passing the bill in the House was a major victory for innovation and competitiveness in the United States. However, attorney Bobbie Wilson says the House bill ignores the largest problem with the patent system, the fact that the Patent and Trademark Office is drastically under-funded, lacks examiners, and often loses experienced people because of poor salaries. Ronald Riley, president of the Professional Inventors Alliance, a trade group opposed to the bill, says opponents will focus hard on the debate in the Senate, and will target lawmakers who support the legislation during the 2008 elections. Meanwhile, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a leading sponsor of the patent reform bill, has introduced another bill calling for increased funding at the PTO.
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Redefining the Architecture of Memory
New York Times (09/11/07) P. C1; Markoff, John

IBM research fellow Stuart S.P. Parkin may be on the brink of a breakthrough that could increase data chip storage capacity anywhere from 10 to 100 times. Parkin's work could begin to replace flash memory in three to five years, and would allow every consumer to carry data equivalent to a college library on small portable devices and could allow engineers to develop totally new entertainment, communication, and information products. Parkin's previous research resulted in the ability to manipulate the alignment of electronics to alter the magnetic state of tiny areas of a magnetic storage device, allowing for devices such as iPods and Google-style data centers. His new technique, known as "racetrack memory," uses billions of ultra-fine wire loops around the edge of a silicon chip. Electric current is used to slide infinitesimally small magnets up and down each of the wires to read and write digital ones and zeros. The magnets are capable of moving at speeds greater than 100 meters per second, making it possible to read and write magnetic regions in a single nanosecond. "Finally, after all these years, we're reaching fundamental physics limits," Parkin says. "Racetrack says we're going to break those scaling rules by going into the third dimension." IBM Research vice president for systems Mark Dean says racetrack memory will not only change our ideas of storage, but how we view processing information, blurring the line between storage and computing. "We moving into a world that is more data-centric than computing centric," Dean says.
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Primate Behavior Explained By Computer 'Agents'
University of Bath (09/11/07) McLaughlin, Andrew

University of Bath researchers used artificial intelligence-based computer agents to simulate the complex behavior of primates. The simulation provided insight into why some primate groups are despotic while others are egalitarian, and also provided support for a theory on how dominant macaques manage to stay in a safer position at the center of a group without being completely occupied with doing so. The computer agents were given two rules--to stay in a group for safety and to pester subordinates until they move away--and found that the dominant agents naturally congregated at the center, indicating harassing subordinates could be an evolutionary mechanism to help protect the more dominant and successful members of a group. "This kind of agent-based modeling is really a new way of doing science," says Dr. Joanna Bryson, leader of the study from the University of Bath's Computer Science Department. "Agent-based modeling techniques let us invent and remove behaviors to test the explanations of what we see in nature." Bryson says modeling makes it possible to change the variables for various types of behavior and see their effect over generations in just a few hours.
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A New Way to Read Hard Disks
Technology Review (09/11/07) Patel-Predd, Prachi

As the data density on disks approaches one terabit per square inch, the necessity for smaller sensors pushes sensor size toward its physical limits. Researchers at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, U.K., may have found a solution in a novel sensor design based on a magnetic effect that current read heads do not use. The new sensor would use slightly less power than existing read heads and could improve speeds by three or four times, according to lead researcher Marian Vopsaroiu. Currently, laptops and computers use the magneto-resistance effect to read hard-disk data, which, as the read head flies over the disk, the magnetic fields of the bits cause a resistance change in the head's sensor. The resistance cannot be directly measured, so it is first converted into a voltage using a direct current, which must continuously be run through the sensor. The new sensor does not require a constant current because it uses the magneto-electric effect. Materials with a magneto-electric effect have coupled electric and magnetic fields, which change in response to one another. In the new sensor, a data bit's magnetic field directly generates voltage instead of resistance. The sensor is also only seven layers thick, compared to current sensors which are 15 layers thick. Vopsaroiu believes the new sensing technique could lead to sensors thinner than 10 nanometers capable of reading disks with a density of one terabit per square inch. Vopsaroiu says that these numbers are only theoretical and that any practical design would be challenging, but notes that current read heads are just as complicated and manufacturers have found ways to produce them easily.
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EAC to Release Draft Voting-System Guidelines
Government Computer News (09/10/07) Jackson, William

The Election Assistance Commission plans to publish a new draft of guidelines for certifying voting systems in the Federal Register by Sept. 20. Described as a complete rewrite of the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines adopted in 2005, the new revision bars wireless connections for electronic voting systems, addresses software independence, and updates requirements for a voter-verifiable paper audit trail. The standards are voluntary, but most states use them to certify their e-voting systems. A new set of standards is unlikely to be available in time for the 2008 primary and general elections because the approval process consists of comment periods after two and four months, and the guidelines could be rewritten two times. The National Institute of Standards and Technology assisted the EAC in developing the draft. The commission was created in the wake of the e-voting machine problems of the 2000 presidential election, and was charged with overseeing certification standards.
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Governors Throw Support Behind H-1B Increase
CNet (09/11/07) Broache, Anne

The U.S. Congress should not let the fate of the immigration bill keep it from addressing the skilled visa issue, according to a letter 13 governors sent Tuesday to Senate and House leaders. The governors urged Congress to take up the issue soon because there is "a critical shortage of highly skilled professionals in math and science to fill current needs." Governors from tech-heavy states, including Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, Rick Perry of Texas, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Chris Gregoire of Washington, and Eliot Spitzer of New York, were among those calling for an increase in the limit of 65,000 visas annually for the H-1B program. Silicon Valley companies say allowing more foreign students and workers to stay in the country and find jobs is needed to end the technology industry's skills shortage. However, advocates for U.S. tech workers have criticized an increase in the cap, and some politicians believe tech companies are using the H-1B program to drive down wages.
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Helping Computers to Search With Nuance, Like Us
New York Times (09/12/07) P. H5; Wayner, Peter

Private businesses, university researchers, and public search engines are among the organizations trying to solve the problem of how to make richer, more structured collections of data that can be searched and analyzed more efficiently. Some efforts focus on ontologies, while other focus on creating new technologies. Semantic Web technology allows everyone to connect databases so customers and partners can integrate information. David Beckett is a principal software engineer at Yahoo who is working on adding structure to Yahoo's collected databases by using semantic Web tools to make it easier for various silos to work together. "If you have a recipe that mentions a chef, you can link to an article about the chef," says Beckett. "If you have a news article that mentions a record producer, you can link across to the music site and see the records he's produced." Other efforts focus on solving problems computers regularly have trouble with, like nicknames, such a "Bob" for "Robert," or suffixes like "Jr." or "III," which can be mistaken for last names. Creating a unified structure for names helps in many different databases, such as those for banks and insurance companies, but the problem is that the lists are constantly changing and being updated. "We still haven�t found a good way to make structured or semistructured data work perfectly, and the database community has been working on it for 50 years," says University of Maryland colleague in computer science Tim Finn. However, he says researchers eventually will find ways of making machines understand these relationships on their own.
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Researchers Investigate Tracking, Sensors to Assist Air Force
Louisiana Tech University (09/07/07) Roberts, Judith

Louisiana Tech assistant professor of computer science Sumeet Dua has been developing fast and accurate computer algorithms to help the Air Force create sensors that are better at automatically recognizing, identifying, classifying, and tracking targets of interest. "Algorithms can be applied to national defense in a variety of ways, including missions involving air-to-ground, ground-to-ground, surface-to-surface, and air-to-air scenarios," Dua says. "The algorithm is unique in its ability to use a system-level approach to define both a target's signatures and movement. It uses sophisticated data-mining techniques, a class of computer science algorithms used to discover embedded, hidden patterns and anomalies in data which are previously unknown but very useful." Remote sensors such as cameras and radars are used to locate targets. Software then determines the positions and features of the target using rotational and transnational variations. The algorithm uses patterns to obtain signature information on unique targets. "The algorithm is novel in its ability to take a system-level approach to achieve reinforced concurrent learning of both the target's signatures and movement in a single run on the software program," says Dua, who notes that the algorithm can be used in metropolitan areas to identify humans in irregular terrains or to identify and log the suspicious movement of vehicles. Meanwhile, Louisiana Tech assistant professor of electrical engineering Rastko Selmic has been researching the deployment and control of wireless sensor networks, focusing on how to perfectly position and deploy a large number of sensors to cover an area while still providing extensive coverage on a specific target.
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Coming Soon: A Supercomputer for the Rest of Us
Computerworld (09/09/07) Ames, Ben

University of Maryland researchers have built a prototype of a desktop supercomputer, and now plan to shrink the license-plate-size board running at 75 MHz to a version that is about the size of a fingernail and runs between 1 GHz and 2 GHz. The Explicit Multi-Threading (XMT) computer makes use of parallel computing algorithms and the large number of transistors in modern processors to run 100 times faster than a PC. The three-programmable gate array chips from Xilinx represent a network of 64 ARM processors controlling dozens of threads of simultaneous calculations, says Uzi Vishkin, a professor in the university's school of engineering who built XMT with the help of his graduate students. IBM is now manufacturing a CMOS silicon application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) with an on-chip data interconnect network for Maryland. Vishkin maintains that XMT, which is at least three years away, would be easy for the average person to program because the operating systems sees the XMT algorithm as a single thread.
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'Smart Homes' Could Track Your Electrical Noise
New Scientist (09/10/07) Kleiner, Kurt

Instead of a house embedded with sensors, smart homes of the future may track a homeowner's movements by monitoring the electrical noise made by different devices throughout the house as they are turned on and off. "The problem I see with a lot of ubiquitous computing research is that it requires the creation of new infrastructure and technology," says Georgia Institute of Technology computer scientist Gregory D. Abowd. "A lot of what we have been focusing on is how you can achieve some of these things without requiring Joe Blow to buy new stuff." Abowd and colleagues have developed a device connected to a laptop that plugs into a standard wall socket and monitors noise in the electrical supply caused by turning devices on or off. Software analyses the frequencies of noise created in the power line and is trained to recognize noise from specific appliances. The system was tested on 19 different electrical devices in six different homes with 85 percent to 90 percent accuracy. The system could be used to automatically adjust temperature controls and sound systems as people move about the house, or monitor the activity levels of older people living alone. The only downside to the system is that it takes about four hours to calibrate a typical house, but installing networks of cameras and sensors takes a long time as well, Abowd says. The researchers also need to prove that the device can distinguish between multiple devices running at once. Abowd will present his research at next week week's International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing in Innsbrook, Austria.
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Rogue Nodes Turn Tor Anonymizer Into Eavesdropper's Paradise
Wired News (09/10/07) Zetter, Kim

Swedish computer security consultant Dan Egerstad collected thousands of private email messages from embassies and human rights groups worldwide by simply hosting five Tor exit nodes as a research project. Civil liberties groups, law enforcement, and government agencies use Tor, which is a privacy tool created to thwart tracking of where a Web user goes on the Internet and with whom a user converses. However, many Tor users incorrectly think Tor is an end-to-end encryption device, when in reality Tor has an acknowledged weakness. Tor works by having volunteer-donated servers bounce traffic around as it journeys to its destination, and traffic is encrypted for all but the last leg of the route. When traffic passes through the Tor network's final node, the communication must be decrypted before it can be delivered to its final destination, which means Web activity, instant messages, and email content are potentially disclosed to any Tor server owner who is eavesdropping. The pool of potential eavesdroppers is large, as the Tor network contains some 1,600 nodes, as well as hundreds of thousands of users worldwide. Though the Tor Web site cautions users about the last segment of unencrypted traffic, most users seem to have ignored or missed this warning and have failed to take necessary precautions to safeguard their Web activity, says Egerstad. When Egerstad starting monitoring the traffic through his Tor nodes, he was surprised to find that 95 percent was unencrypted, and that many embassies and government agencies were using Tor incorrectly. Egerstad also believes this oversight is currently being exploited. Shava Nerad, development director for the nonprofit organization that supports Tor, asserts that embassies and other high-risk organizations should be encrypting their data independently.
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Spelman College Receives $2.5 Million National Science Foundation Grant to Create 'Next-Level' STEM Disciplines
Spelman College (08/31/07)

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2.5 million grant to Spelman College that will enable the historically black women's college in Atlanta to offer cross discipline opportunities and expertise in informatics knowledge to its science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students and faculty. The college will introduce the Advancing Spelman's Participation in Informatics Research and Education (ASPIRE) project in the 2007-2008 academic year, and will develop new interdisciplinary informatics curricula to improve the computational analytical skills of its students. "If you see what is happening with companies such as Google or research in genomic medicine, there's a need for students to be able to adequately analyze, organize, and extract knowledge from data to work in interdisciplinary teams," says Andrew Williams, an associate professor of computer and information sciences who serves as a co-investigator for ASPIRE. For the project, Spelman partnered with several research institutions and companies involved in informatics, including the Georgia Institute of Technology, Indiana University, University of Tennessee/Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Coca-Cola. "Our long-range goal is to increase the quality and quantity of African-American women who pursue STEM-related advanced degrees and fields, particularly in interdisciplinary areas," adds Tasha Inniss, an assistant professor of mathematics and co-investigator.
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Ready, Set, Go
Washington Technology (09/03/07) Vol. 22, No. 15, P. 36; Jackson, Jacob

Instead of using the Linpack test, the benchmark test used to judge the speed of the world's fastest supercomputers, as a part of a procurement process, the Department of Defense uses its Higher Performance Computing Modernization Program (HPCMP) to judge which supercomputers to buy. The HPCMP program issues a set of metrics that carefully codifies its workloads. "We don't specify how big the machine is," says HPCMP head Cray Henry. "We will run a sample problem of a fixed size and call the result our target time. We then put a bid on the street and say, 'We want you to build a machine that will run this twice as fast.'" The HPCMP allows individual services in the DOD to buy a variety of machines that are better able to handle a wide variety of tasks. HPCMP is unique because it defines its users' workloads rather than a set of generic performance goals. Henry says most workloads fit into one of about 10 categories, including computational fluid dynamics, structural mechanics, chemistry and materials science, climate modeling and simulation, and eletromagnetics. To quantify a computer's performance on these jobs, HPCMP created a program, known as the linear optimizer, that calculates the overall system performance for handling each job and compares the performance to how often that job is performed, factoring in the price of each system and any existing systems that can already execute the jobs. Usability, though hard to quantify, is also considered, using factors such as third-party software available for the platform and what compilers, debuggers, and other development tools are available.
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The Promise of Parallel Universes
Science (09/07/07) Vol. 317, No. 5842, P. 1341; Miller, Greg

Artificial worlds created in the computer are emerging as useful petri dishes for investigating the formation of social networks and human behavior in the absence of real-world physical and social limitations. One advantage is that virtual worlds allow social researchers to carry out experiments that are ethically or practically unworkable in the real world, while Dmitri Williams of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, observes that computer-generated representations of users, or avatars, are emerging as a significant tool for future human interactions. Research has shown that real-world behavior is also reflected in virtual worlds. For example, scientists reported in CyberPsychology and Behavior their finding that pairs of female avatars tend to stand closer together and make more eye contact than pairs of male avatars. There is also evidence suggesting that the freedom of virtual worlds is helping participants deviate from their normal behavior, with the same scientists reporting in Human Communication Research that undergrad volunteers assigned a visually appealing avatar more readily interacted with an avatar of the opposite sex than those given a less attractive avatar. Northwestern University researcher Noshir Contractor points out that social studies research can be conducted in virtual worlds for a fraction of the cost and time of real-world research. He notes that the conclusions of a three-year project on the formation of social connections were nearly identical to those of a similar study carried out in the World of Warcraft online game environment that was completed in only a few months. Contractor is one of a number of researchers who hope their work will eventually yield practical applications, such as improved disaster management and enhanced organizational creativity and collaboration.
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Toward Recommendation Based on Ontology-Powered Web-Usage Mining
Internet Computing (08/07) Vol. 11, No. 4, P. 45; Adda, Mehdi; Valtchev, Petko; Missaoui, Rokia

Content adaptation on the Web shrinks available information to a subset that aligns with a user's anticipated requirements, and recommender systems depend on relevance scores for individual content items. Pattern-based recommendation taps co-occurrences of items in user sessions to form a basis for any conjectures concerning relevancy. The authors propose the use of metadata about the content they speculate resides in a domain ontology to augment the quality of the discovered patterns. Their methodology is composed of a dedicated pattern space constructed atop the ontology, navigation primitives, and mining and recommendation techniques. "To achieve a better trade-off between recommendation flexibility and precision, our approach feeds the mining process with knowledge about semantic links between objects," the authors explain. "Our basic assumption is that co-occurrences between objects often reflect the existence of a link between them. Hence, manipulating links explicitly can increase the focus of concept-based recommendation while preserving its flexibility." The authors have developed an effective mining process for the new pattern space, and their next objective is the optimization of the mining procedure's performance by investigating alternative approaches. It is also their intention to study reduced representations of the frequent pattern family.
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