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October 1, 2007

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Welcome to the October 1, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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USC Student's Computer Program Enlisted in Security Efforts at LAX
Los Angeles Times (10/01/07) Gordon, Larry

The doctoral thesis of USC computer science student Praveen Paruchuri has led to a computer program that police at Los Angeles International Airport are piloting to bolster security. The idea is that the software would keep potential terrorists and criminals continuously unsure about where, when, and how frequently vehicles will be inspected at airport entrances. Paruchuri's work focuses on game-theory research on the random timing of police patrols and its impact on crimes such as home burglaries, and Los Angeles World Airports official James Butts says the program affects police deployment and the regularity of vehicle searches in a way that "makes it virtually impossible to predict where resources might be deployed." The initiative stems from a federally sponsored USC think tank that utilized scholars in engineering, economics, political science, psychology, and computer science to assess and minimize the risks of terrorism. Paruchuri's thesis advisor, professor Milind Tambe, says LAX's use of Paruchuri's research is "something that we, as researchers, dream of: creating research that is not only academically wonderful but something that is also very useful."
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GPL Defenders Say: See You in Court
CNet (10/01/07) Shankland, Stephen

The Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Monsoon Multimedia for its alleged failure to comply with the terms of the General Public License (GPL), and experts expect the case to call more attention to similar violations in court. At the center of the dispute is the BusyBox software, which is governed by version 2 of the GPL, which allows anyone to view, tweak, and distribute the software, provided modifications are also issued under the license. In addition, anyone distributing GPL software in an executable form that a computer can run is required to release the complete source code. "Simply coming into compliance now is not sufficient to settle the matter, because that would mean anyone can violate the license until caught, because the only punishment would be to come into compliance," says SFLC attorney Dan Ravicher. He says the center is refusing to back down because "If you start getting a reputation for being a pansy, then people are going to conclude they don't have to do anything." Ravicher says that in most instances both parties make a good faith effort to resolve disputes with discretion, expediency, and little fuss. Although he says the Monsoon suit is not part of an overarching effort to build GPL case law, Hunton & Williams lawyer James Harvey predicts that more GPL-related lawsuits will be launched.
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Artificial Brain Falls for Optical Illusions
New Scientist (09/28/07) Robson, David

A computer program that mimics the human brain is prey to the same susceptibility to optical illusions as people, which suggests that future robots imbued with human-like visual perceptive capability will inherit this shortcoming. One theory suggests that a category of optical illusions results from the way the brain attempts to disentangle the color of an object and the way it is illuminated, and the brain learns to address this problem through trial and error during infancy. Sometimes the brain perceives an object as lighter or darker than it actually is, which generates an illusion. University College London researchers David Corney and Beau Lotto believe they have proven this theory with a program that emulates a baby's brain by learning to predict an image's lightness based on past experience--and that can be fooled by optical illusions. The software was trained on 10,000 grayscale images of fallen leaves, and then tested on lightness illusions that might trick people by first being shown images of a light object on a dark background, and then the reverse. The software predicted that the objects would be respectively lighter and darker than they actually were, and also overestimated lighter shades more than darker shades. Lotto says these experiments indicate that our ability to perceive illusions directly stems from learning to filter useful information from our surroundings. The ramifications for machine vision would be that attempts to duplicate human vision systems would lead to the same vulnerability to optical illusions in robots as in humans. "If you build machine vision systems that perform similarly to humans, you should expect them to be subject to the same illusions," says Indiana University's Olaf Sporns.
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Software 'Chipper' Speeds Debugging
UC Davis News and Information (09/28/07)

UC Davis computer science professor Ron Olsson has teamed up with graduate student Chad Sterling to develop a new tool that automatically "chips" software into smaller pieces for debugging programs. The Chipper program promises to speed up debugging because it makes it easier to isolate a bug in the code. "It's really tedious to go through thousands of lines of code," says Olsson. Chipper is designed to automate the process of breaking software into smaller pieces while keeping the structure of the program intact. "The pieces have to work after they are cut down," Olsson says. Chipper is based on Java is able to scale large programs down to 20 percent to 35 percent of their size in less than an hour.
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Embedded Software Stuck at C
EE Times (09/27/07) Merritt, Rick

Embedded developers migrating to multicore architectures are unlikely to get much aid from parallel programming languages, and a panel of embedded software experts at a recent Power.org conference reported that a dearth of standards is also a major obstacle. Green Hills Software CTO David Kleidermacher said 85 percent of all embedded developers employ C or C++, and was highly skeptical that "a new parallel language will get a foothold." "The inability of C/C++ code to parallelize coupled with its ubiquity throughout the embedded market is a major issue for multicore going forward," said panel moderator and Venture Development project director Eric Heikkila in an email. "Any alternative parallel programming languages certainly won't materialize in the embedded market, but instead will more likely gain momentum in a more mainstream computing market before making its way into embedded applications." Virtutech's Michel Gerard explained that embedded software developers will skip the burden of migrating to parallel languages by simply running at a high level independent programs or modules in parallel on multicore CPUs, where synchronization will not be a major requirement. Wind River Systems CTO Tomas Evensen noted that embedded software developers will be especially challenged in working out a way to partition applications.
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Virtual Lessons Stimulate Students
BBC News (09/27/07) Sutherland, Ben

Primary school students in Singapore have taken a liking to a virtual reality system that is able to display graphics as three-dimensional images in the classroom. The Mixed Reality Lab developed the system, which is designed to combine the physical world with the virtual world. Wearing a small headset, a student is able to see an entire world of interactive images of the Solar system or planets as if they were in the class with the other students, rather than as images inside a large helmet. The technology works through boards laid out on a desk, and displays objects when the user looks through the head-mounted display and registers the board. For example, students are able to see planets and move them into the correct order in the solar system, and look beneath the surface of the Earth. "The mixed reality classroom is a combination of our mixed reality technology with educational theory," says Wei Liu of the Mixed Reality Lab. In testing, students who used mixed reality performed better than those who were only exposed to traditional learning methods.
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From PARC, the Mobile Phone as Tour Guide
CNet (09/28/07) Mills, Elinor

A mobile phone application that offers information useful to someone roaming an unfamiliar city--such as event and establishment listings based on the user's current location--has been developed by the Palo Alto Research Center. The software, code-named Magitti, "predicts the likely activity," according to project co-leader Bo Begole. The more a user interacts with the application the more familiar it becomes with the user's personal preferences, which is reflected in its suggestions. The software employs collaborative filtering to recommend things that others with kindred preferences like, and also lets people input their own reviews and ratings. Japan's Dai Nippon Printing will commercialize this leisure city guide system in Japan. Clues to the user's activities imparted in emails and text messages can also be tapped by the system, and Begole says this analysis takes place on the handset rather than on servers at the company. The system boasts an easily comprehensible interface with big touch-screen "buttons," and one-handed operation is also facilitated.
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Brown Bat Flight Team Wins NSF/Science Visualization Award
Brown University (09/27/2007)

A multidisciplinary team from Brown University that modeled the flight of bats has won a first place award in the fifth annual International Science and Technology Visualization Challenge. The researchers conducted experiments and computer simulations on how the wings of flying bats impact airflow, and captured the top prize in the informational graphics category. Kenny Breuer, an engineer, and Sharon Swartz, an evolutionary biologist, led the effort to construct images from the first recorded fine details of bats' wing and body movement in flight. The team filmed bats flying through wind tunnels using motion-capture technology. David Laidlaw, associate professor of computer science, Daniel Riskin, postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Jaime Peraire, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, were key members of the team that conducted the original research and produced the graphics. The journal Science and the National Science Foundation sponsored the competition. NSF has awarded the team a $580,000 grant to combine direct measurement of bat flight mechanics and aerodynamics with computer simulations and neurophysiological measurements. The research could impact the design of micro air vehicles that are being developed by the military.
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Carnegie Mellon's Yang Cai Uses New Scanning System to Plot Digital Graveyard
Carnegie Mellon News (09/27/07)

New 3D reconstruction technology is being used to determine who is buried at Old St. Luke's Church in Carnegie, Pa. Developed by Yang Cai of Carnegie Mellon University, the new software is designed to scan gravestones that are difficult to read and then store the images on laptops. "Essentially, we reconstruct the tombstone surfaces by applying filtering and detection algorithms for revealing the words on the archaic surfaces," says Cai, director of the Ambient Intelligence Lab at Carnegie Mellon CyLab. Old St. Luke's Church was built in 1765 to serve as a stockade church for British soldiers. The software could potentially have a huge impact on the field of archaeology. "Our goal is to take the guess work out of archaeology and make this reconstruction technology available for a variety of other industry sectors, such as security and medical fields," Cai adds. Cai is also building a digital cemetery for the church.
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Intelligent Playgrounds
CNN (09/26/07) Chan, Michelle Jana

New playgrounds outfitted with artificial intelligence and robotics technology will be able to recognize a child's behavior and respond accordingly, enabling children of different skill levels to play and challenge each other. Known as augmented cognition, or "aug cog," such technology is currently under development by the armed services to reduce mental overload in the battlefield. For example, fighter pilot helmets can be equipped with sensors that can tell when the pilot is being overburdened and adjust the level of stimuli by dimming the interface and lowering headset volume. Other aug cog applications include video games that are capable of determining a player's skill level and adjusting accordingly. University of Southern Denmark at Odense researchers have built four special playgrounds, two at kindergartens and two at youth clubs. The playgrounds have pressure-sensitive floor tiles and each tile has a small computer inside that measures the force of the child's foot and responds with colored lights and sounds. One of the games, called "Bug smasher," encourages children to chase after a light in the tiles, rewarding them with a comical smashing sound when they step on the "bug." The playground is able to adjust the difficulty of the game based on the child's skill level and can even tell when a child is tiring. University of Southern Denmark professor of robotics Henrik Hautop Lund says the technology aims to operate at 10 percent above the participant's capabilities, and that he is working on more applications for aug cog, including sports training, physical therapy, and diagnosing children with autism.
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ICANN After Vint Cerf
Domaines.info (09/27/07) Van Gelder, Stephane

Vint Cerf, who has served as chairman of the ICANN board since 1999, will step down from that position at ICANN's next annual meeting, which will be held from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2 in Los Angeles. There are three current ICANN board members who are being considered as possible replacements for Cerf. One of those candidates is Roberto Gaetano, the current vice-chair of the board. Gaetano is an Italian who has a great deal of experience with both ICANN and the domain name industry. If he is selected as the next chairman, it could be ICANN's way of sending a message that it has become a truly global agency and one that is completely separate from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Another candidate being considered is Peter Dengate Thrush, a New Zealand lawyer who also has a great deal of ICANN experience and is a respected member of the national registry community. The third candidate under consideration is Steve Crocker, who helped develop protocols for the precursor to the Internet, Arpanet. However, Crocker is only a liaison to ICANN's Security and Stability Advisory Committee and is not a voting member of the board. Although Gaetano, Dengate Thrush, and Crocker each have a lot to offer in specific areas, some say that none of these men has as many strengths as Cerf does. As a result, there is some speculation that ICANN could split the chairman's responsibilities between the three candidates, in order to take advantage of each man's strengths and give itself more time to find another candidate.
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Researcher Gives Update on Mars Rovers
EE Times (09/27/07) Merritt, Rick

A two-month dust storm on Mars is clearing, allowing Opportunity, one of the two solar-powered Mars Rover vehicles, to continue its exploration of the Victoria Crater, where it has been stationary since the storm began in July. Rover team members were worried that the lengthy storm could have prevented Opportunity from recharging its batteries, which were nearly depleted by the on-board heaters needed to keep the electronics above 50 degrees Celsius. As of Sep. 27, Opportunity had completed 1,325 days, well beyond the mission's originally scheduled 90 days. The other rover, the Spirit Rover, has traveled about 7.2 kilometers, far beyond its expected reach of 500 meters. Engineers are already designing the next-generation Rovers, including additional storage and greater bandwidth between the Rover and the satellite orbiter to which the Rover relays signals to, which on current models operates at about the equivalent of a 56K modem. The two Rovers were launched in separate rockets in the summer of 2003 and landed on Mars in January 2004.
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Scientists Warn of 'Vocal Terror'
BBC News (09/14/07) Seward, Liz

Scientists at the recent British Association Festival of Science in York expressed concern that improving human speech technology could give rise to "vocal terrorism" in the next 10 to 15 years. Researchers said an inability to verify who was speaking could prove to be particularly problematic if the technology were to fall into the hands of terrorists. Scientists today are developing computerized speech based on models of a vocal tract, which helps produce a more realistic sound than the current method of copying sounds. "If we get to the point where we are synthesizing the actual shape of somebody's [vocal tract] based on analysis of their speech, then the speech we are producing should sound and look like the actual person," says Dr. David Howard of the University of York. The researchers fear that someone could use the technology to impersonate the voice of a bank manager and place calls requesting confirmation of account information. People could use the technology to make prank calls or even to flawlessly render the voice of a country's leader in an act of vocal terror. "It's not scare mongering; it's tying to say to people, 'we have to think about these things,'" adds Howard.
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Connecting the Dots
National Journal (09/29/07) Vol. 39, No. 39, P. 61; Perelman, Marc

The Automated Targeting System (ATS) has been cited by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for enabling his department's Custom and Border Protection agency to link a chain of information that can thwart terrorist plots, and decried by privacy and civil-liberties groups for being the tool of a clandestine federal data-mining program that is collecting and storing highly personal information on travelers. The system has been employed by federal officials to perform risk assessments on people entering the country since 2002. "All the key characteristics of the Automated Targeting System--including the assessment, the basis for the assessment, the rules that apply, and the 'targeting activities'--remain shrouded in mystery," says the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is opposing the ATS along with 40 other groups and individuals in the privacy and technology sectors. Homeland Security officials claim the system does not capture any racial, ethnic, or religious data and that the goal is to analyze behavior, relationships, and contacts among individuals and groups. Complaints prompted Homeland Security to announce a proposal to retain information in the ATS database for 15 years instead of 40, and to limit the purposes for which the government could use passenger data, provide individuals with access to data, and add a redress procedure not included in the original privacy proposal. Civil-liberties groups say the ATS bears an uncomfortable similarity to the Total Information Awareness data-mining program that the government terminated four years ago in response to public resentment. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) warned at one point that the ATS database "could be used as a warrantless well of evidence from which any law enforcement, regulatory, or intelligence agency could dip at will--without any probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or judicial oversight." Although Democratic leaders in Congress have voted to continue ATS funding, sources say they are carefully scrutinizing the privacy rule-making process.
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You Can Put Your Trust in Wikipedia 2.0
New Scientist (09/22/07) Vol. 195, No. 2622, P. 28; Giles, Jim

Wikipedia entries can be edited by anyone at anytime, which engenders heavy skepticism about the accuracy of the online encyclopedia's information. But the past several years have witnessed the development of projects whose goal is to increase public trust in Wikipedia and make vandalism less of a danger. One such project is WikiScanner, which reveals the identity of contributing individuals or organizations so that the motivations behind certain entries can be ascertained. In the meantime, the Wikimedia Foundation claims that it is about to test a bunch of new trust-based capabilities. Whereas edits to a Wikipedia entry can currently be made by any user and appear immediately to all readers, a planned upgrade will entail the instant implementation of edits made by "trusted" users whose eligibility is based on their level of commitment to Wikipedia. However, this measure could discourage the participation of new users, who would no longer be able to enjoy the pleasure of seeing the instant application of their edits. Also included in the upgrade will be the installation of a system that automatically awards trust ratings to text chunks within a certain article. The software underlying this function uses Wikipedia's edit log to designate a color-coded trust rating to each contributor, with contributors whose edits tend to remain unchanged awarded high ratings, while those whose edits are quickly revised receive low ratings; the idea is that rapidly altered edits are a signal that the information is inaccurate or malicious. One of the system's drawbacks is the risk it runs of punishing editors who correct malicious changes, because the corrections are frequently changed back to the malicious version by the malcontents. The system is therefore designed to determine the decline in an editor's rating that transpired when the edit is modified based on the rating of the other editor involved.
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The Trouble With Enterprise Software
MIT Sloan Management Review (Quarter 3, 2007) Rettig, Cynthia

Maintaining the operation of existing systems consumes 70 percent to 80 percent of IT departments' budgets, while a multiyear study of approximately 400 companies by MIT researchers indicates that IT departments practice more conservatism than innovation and are perceived by business executives as liabilities. At the heart of this trend is the increased application of data to analysis and fact-based decision making, concurrent with the growing specialization and complexity of work, which dovetailed with the advent of digital technology. Although enterprise systems use general programming software that can manage a certain level of complexity, it has no tolerance for ambiguity, discrepancies, or illogical conclusions, and the complexity of software and that of the problems it is designed to resolve have grown in tandem; because of this, many companies failed to realize their vision of seamlessly connecting distinct and far-flung locations via private networks with a single monolithic system. Compounding this is the lack of statistical proof that the benefits of enterprise resource planning system deployments compensate for the costs and risks, while the probability that unpredicted bugs will crop up is also raised as complexity grows. The vagaries of the data processed and generated by software, particularly when multiple data sources are integrated, are an additional headache. Service-oriented architecture is proposed as the solution to these myriad problems through its ability to construct modular cross-system business processes. However, this cannot be achieved until many technical problems are ironed out. A tighter alignment between an organization's IT and business units is seen as a critical factor in the success of such an approach.
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'Not With a Bang': Civilization's Accelerating Challenge
Futurist (10/07) Vol. 41, No. 5, P. 35; Brown, Arnold

As technology and society grow ever more complex and bureaucracy proliferates without restriction, incompetence and information overload become increasingly serious threats, and Weiner, Edrich, Brown Chairman Arnold Brown writes that prevailing organizations will need to be more adaptable and proficient at tapping teams and expert systems. He cites research arguing that learning can be inhibited by too much mental concentration on simple actions; that brain activity can be improved by how one thinks as opposed to what one thinks about; that flexible thinking and complex problem-solving can be impeded by the stress of taking exams; and that impressions and instincts of other people's choices in decision making are critical. Brown notes the unevenness of the team experience in business, pointing out that "one apparent problem is the innate competitiveness of those who are both capable and ambitious. They not only want to win, but they also want to get recognition, reward, and advancement for winning." This is a desire that is not always fulfilled by the team strategy, so it behooves companies that want to take the team approach to find a way to integrate the star and team systems. Business is learning that performance improvements raise the effort it must put out to maintain pace with consumer expectations, while Brown says people's expectations about government, business, and institutions' ability to avoid or correct errors are increasingly unrealistic. He points out that identity theft and other new kinds of criminal activity have been nurtured by IT and biotechnology advances concurrent with growing globalization and political shifts, and the increased opportunities for crime are also playing a role in the dearth of management talent. Brown foresees a world in which products and services people use will be directed by non-human entities (robots, networks, etc.), but with increased complexity and proficiency comes increased fallibility, which is why the author sees an overwhelming need for adaptability that emphasizes effectiveness over efficiency.
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