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ACM TechNews
October 29, 2007

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Welcome to the October 29, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Unmanned Cars Off to a Slow Start
Ventura County Star (CA) (10/28/07) Bruce, Allison

The preliminary round of DARPA's Urban Challenge took place at the former George Air Force Base in southern California on Oct. 27, the first day of test courses for the teams. The unmanned vehicles were put to the test on three courses, including a simulated mall parking lot with human occupied vehicles to act as obstacles, and a residential neighborhood that included two-lane roads, a traffic circle, and a parking challenge. "This is really amazing," says Scott Anderson, who teaches computer science at Fairmont Preparatory Academy in Anaheim. "This event is really the bleeding edge of large-scale field robotics." Some of the unmanned cars had difficulty exiting the starting area, while others were more successful in navigating the course. "It's very impressive to see which progress and techniques you can see here," says Hans Ludwig Wolf, who was sent to watch the competition by his company in Germany. "It's very impressive also how much money DARPA will invest in this event. In Europe, we cannot imagine investing so much for such a thing." The finalists for next week's competition are expected to be announced on Nov. 1.
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Coalition to Diversify Computing Hosts Academic Workshop
HPC Wire (10/26/07)

Assistant- and associate-level faculty and senior doctoral students from groups underrepresented in the field of computing have until Friday, Nov. 9, 2007, to submit applications to the Coalition to Diversify Computing (CDC) to participate in the first annual Academic Workshop for Underrepresented Participants. Scheduled for Friday, Nov. 30, through Sunday, Dec. 2, at the Hilton Hotel in College Station, Texas, the workshop seeks to mentor faculty members and students from underrepresented groups on the tenure and promotion processes in an attempt to improve their numbers. There will be panels featuring a diverse senior faculty discussing launching a research program, professionalism, and proposal writing. ACM teamed up with the IEEE Computer Society and the Computer Research Association to create the CDC to organize the workshop, which received an NSF Broadening Participation in Computing grant. The money will be used to fund participant travel, lodging, and meeting logistics. A one-page document that provides a name, contact information, and two to three paragraphs describing how the workshop would be helpful should be sent to Valerie Taylor (Texas A&M University) at vet3@cs.tamu.edu. The CDC will notify participants by Nov. 12.
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UD Researchers Race Ahead With Latest Spintronics Achievement
University of Delaware (10/26/07) Bryant, Tracey

Shortly after demonstrating how an electron's spin can be electrically injected, controlled, and detected in silicon, electrical engineers from the University of Delaware and Cambridge NanoTech have shown that an electron's spin can be transported through silicon wafers, proving silicon can be used for spintronics applications. "Electron spin has a direction, like 'up' or 'down,'" says University of Delaware assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering Ian Appelbaum. "The goal of spintronics is to use currents with most of the electron spins oriented, or polarized, in the same direction." The researchers created a device that injects high-energy, or "hot" electrons from a ferromagnet into a silicon wafer. Another hot-electron structure, made from two bonded silicon wafers and a thin ferromagnet, were able to detect the injected electrons from the other side. "One hundred percent polarization means that all injected electrons are either spin-up or spin-down," says University of Delaware doctoral student Biqin Huang. "High polarization will be necessary for practical applications." Appelbaum says the research points the way to spintronics' future. "There's a lot of fundamental work to be done, which we hope will bring us closer to a new age of electronics," Appelbaum says.
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CMU Gets Intel Tech Demonstration
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (10/25/07) Heinrichs, Allison M.

Intel Research in Pittsburgh, Pa., recently present some of its newest and most innovative technologies in development at an open house at Carnegie Mellon University. One of the presentations focused on shape-changing objects, known as the "Claytronics Project," made of thousands of tiny computers the size of a grain of sand. Another presentation described independently thinking robots capable of making decisions in uncertain situations, while a third presentation looked at software capable of searching tens of thousands of medical scans for similarities. Carnegie Mellon associate professor of computer science Seth Goldstein says that although the Claytronics Project technology exists only in concept and animated videos, he believes such morphing tiny computers could be a reality within five or six years. Meanwhile, Intel Research scientist Sidd Srinivasa was able to program a robotic arm to decide how to place mugs into a dishwasher rack. "Lots of things that people do very easily, robots find very hard to do," says Srinivasa. "You can tell a robot what to do, but getting it to analyze a situation and decide on the best course of action is a challenge." The Interactive Search Assisted Decision Support (ISADS) software allows doctors to take scans of mammograms or skin cancer images and search a database for images that match. The system then can give the doctor treatment methods other doctors have used in the past and the results of that treatment. ISADS needs to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before it can be used on patients, but Intel is working with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to start a program for approval.
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Supercomputing Challenge at Historic Conference
O'Reilly Radar (10/25/07) Oram, Andy

SC07, an international conference on high performance computing sponsored by ACM and IEEE, will host supercomputing challenges for students for the first time this year. In the challenge, six teams of student programmers will work to build cluster computers using whatever combination of hardware and software that can run off of a 30-amp circuit. During the 48-hour, round-the-clock competition students are unable to receive outside help. The computers will then run a series of calculations, including the High Performance Computing Challenge cluster developer benchmark, the General Atomic and Molecular Electronic Structure System used for predicting the properties of polymers and complex chemical substances, the Parallel Ocean Program for determining the effects of the climate, and the Persistence of Vision Raytracer, a program that creates realistic lighting effects in three-dimensional scenes. Any operating system can be used, and the team that processes the most data with accurate results will win the competition. Brent Gorda, high performance computing architect at Livermore Labs, is coordinating the cluster challenge.
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FIU, FAU Partner on Research Project With $2.3 Million Grant
Boca Raton News (FL) (10/26/07) King, Dale M.

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2.3 million grant to Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University to oversee an initiative in which researchers and students around the world will use a cyber-infrastructure powered by thousands of machines to work together and solve problems. Over the course of five years the grant will support the collaborative research of computer science faculty and students traveling abroad for opportunities at universities in Europe, Asia, and South America, as well as at IBM International Research Labs and the supercomputing center in Barcelona. The Global Living Laboratory for Cyber-Infrastructure Application Enablement will be based at FIU. As part of the NSF's Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE) Program, FIU and FAU faculty and students will use the cyber-infrastructure to address societal issues in the areas of disaster mitigation, health care, and life sciences. "This partnership, with the support from NSF, will not only help to advance the state-of-the-art in computing research, but also make a major impact in further enhancing the quality and competitiveness of our students, particularly Hispanic students, in computer science," says FIU Computer Science Dean Yi Deng, principal investigator for the project. Borko Furht, chair of Computer Science and Engineering at FAU, says the "award will allow our students to have a great experience abroad and bridge the cultural gap in the United States and other countries."
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TopCoder Finds Tech Top Guns
Investor's Business Daily (10/29/07) P. A7; Bonasia, J.

The TopCoder Collegiate Challenge will draw 120 student software programmers to Walt Disney World on Oct. 30th for a three-day competition for prize money, bragging rights, and possible employment opportunities. The majority of the contests take place over the Internet, with programmers submitting ideas and programs that have been requested by TopCoder's clients. The best programs win money for the programmers, while the program becomes the client's software, developed at a much lower price than if the company had to hire a team of developers. Additionally, because each project is divided into different pieces, no single programmer can jeopardize the security of the complete project, and programmers can chose to work only on projects that interest them. "This is a business model about how great programmers can do their best work," says Bill Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine. "Obviously the economics of it are brilliant, as you only pay for the best ideas." TopCoder also hosts live events for companies, where the best programmers are flown in to compete. The competitions may lead to job offers. "I can make much more money at this than I did as a regular software contractor," says Michael Paweska, one of TopCoder's best programmers.
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Workforce Issues Complicate Planning for Cyberattacks
GovExec.com (10/25/07) Nagesh, Gautham

The Homeland Security Department is struggling to recruit and retain expert cybersecurity officials, which is impairing the department's ability to carry out certain tasks. More specifically, the workforce dilemma has slowed the department's development of a far-reaching cyberattack recovery plan, according to Gregory Wilshusen, director of information technology at the Government Accountability Office. In 2006, DHS outlined a strategy for how corporations and the government could recuperate from an Internet-disrupting cyberattack. DHS delegated response coordination to the National Communications System, as well as protection of security infrastructure and hardware. The National Cyber Security Division would be in charge of securing the integrity of the data under attack and software applications. However, to date, "there is no public-private plan for recovery and there is no date by which such a plan must exist," says Wilshusen. Multiple factors have hampered DHS from preparing a complete strategy, including the agency's organizational and leadership disarray. Wilshusen attributes DHS' struggle to retain the best talent to "the nature of cybersecurity work," which typically involves long hours of fast-paced and rigorous work. Other reasons for the plan's delay include cyberattacks' constantly evolving nature as well as the Internet's extensive interconnectivity.
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Meet Your Future Employee
Computerworld (10/23/07) Stackpole, Beth

Experts say members of Generation Y are entering the workforce with relatively low prospects of IT careers for several reasons, including a perception of the profession as cloistered, tedious, and obsessively technical; dwindling job opportunities stemming from the IT outsourcing boom; and a lack of business communication skills highly desired by employers. Another turnoff is the long hours such jobs demand, particularly for people striving for a healthy work/life balance. "To another generation, IT was cool because no one else knew much about it," says Marquette University IT professor Kate Kaiser. "This generation is so familiar with technology, they see it as an expected part of life" and do not consider it a basis for a whole career. Kaiser is working with her peers and members of the Society for Information Management to revise the national IT curriculum to emphasize strong business, communication, and project management skills, and also collaborates with other schools, technology companies, and IT professionals to improve young people's view of tech careers. A Challenger, Gray & Christmas poll of 100 human resource professionals found that writing skills were deficient for over 50 percent of entry-level workers while critical thinking was less than adequate for 27 percent. Some industry observers think Generation Y's preference to interact virtually via digital technology such as instant messaging and cellular telephony is obstructing their development of live communication skills. Members of Generation Y also feel a sense of entitlement in terms of employment, expecting to have access to cutting-edge technology and flexible scheduling. Some observers say certain entitlements demanded by Generation Y are unreasonable, and the best way to strike a balance between what IT workers want and what employers want is to reach a compromise.
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Video Search Makes Phone a 'Second Pair of Eyes'
New Scientist (10/25/07) Knight, Will

Accenture Technology Labs researchers have developed the Pocket Supercomputer, a system that enables ordinary 3G cell phones with video cameras to search for information on objects captured by the camera. The technology could be used, for example, to record a video of a book and receive an online price comparison or a review. To use the system a user sends live video footage from the cell phone to a central server, which quickly matches on-screen objects to images previously entered into a database. The server then sends any relevant information back to the user. The server uses an algorithm called the Scale-Invariant Feature Transform (SIFT) that processes hundreds or thousands of reference points that correspond to physical features such as edges, corners, or lettering. SIFT works with any object orientation, but objects must first be carefully photographed and entered into the database. Microsoft has developed a similar system, called Lincoln, that uses still photographs to match objects, and Evolution Robotics has developed a video system called ViPR that is currently available in Japan. SIFT algorithm developer David Lowe says, "It will take some time for consumers to learn about such systems and start to incorporate them in their daily life."
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Peacebots Picket Robotic Violence
Bryn Mawr College (10/25/07)

A group of robotic students from Bryn Mawr College programmed robots to protest the "Robot Conflict," the robot fights that were taking place as part of Robot Day, sponsored by the Northeast Robotics Club. The protesting robots, which were programmed by four students in an introductory computer science course, carried signs such as "Make Code Not War," and "Extendable Arms Are for Hugging." The protest was done partially in fun, but also to raise awareness for some important issues. The robot fights were intended to get young attendees interest in robotics, but Bryn Mawr associate professor of computer science Doug Blank, who taught the class that programmed the protestor robots, says the fights do little to attract young women to the field. "This kind of event appeals to a specific demographic," Blank says. "I think that using this as a community-outreach activity just tends to perpetuate the current situation in science and technology fields." Rebecca Rebhuhn-Glanz, a first-year student who programmed a robot for the protest, says the fights were interesting, but probably not the best way to attract young people to the field. "If I were designing a robot, that's not what it would be doing," she says. "We had one of our robots drawing, and I think we reached more of the little kids with that." Blank says that violence also does not make a very good pedagogical tool. "I think there are better ways to get kids involved in engineering, and to get more kids involved in technology," he says.
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Can a Robot Find a Rock?
Astrobiology (10/25/07)

It is a surprisingly difficult proposition for a robot to distinguish a rock from soil, says Carnegie Mellon University Field Robotics Center research professor David Wettergreen in an interview. "The simple answer is that soil is made of busted up rocks, and in the difficult cases you have a rock of the same composition as the soil it's sitting on," he notes, adding that distinguishing between rocks and soil involves a combination of numerous features--color, texture, 3D structure, and edges--at multiple scales. Wettergreen details an upcoming experiment in which a robot will attempt to perform basic geologic mapping through the use of planning software, finding and measuring rocks and mapping boundaries between different mineral distributions. The system will apply an information-optimal strategy whereby it will study where it has the least data about the geologic boundary and try to acquire more information. Wettergreen feels that in the area of exploration, robots have a crucial role to play as scouts. "For reasons of risk and cost and efficiency and the value of human life, it makes sense to send robotic systems most places first before you send people," he says. This is a particularly pressing issue with the development of plans to revisit the moon and send a manned mission to Mars.
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eScience: It's Really About People
HPC Wire (10/26/07) Vol. 16, No. 43,

People are the magic ingredient in the eScience initiative through the ability of the infrastructure's creators to comprehend users' requirements and work cultures, and e-Science Institute research theme leader Alex Voss says these builders "need to talk about fostering, rather than building infrastructure." He was on a panel that discussed breaking down the barriers that currently impede scientists from becoming e-scientists as part of the 2007 Microsoft eScience Workshop in North Carolina on Oct. 21-23. The panelists all concurred that scientific communities require easy access to stored data and simple-to-use interfaces and applications in order to utilize eScience grids. Director of the University of Chicago's Computation Institute Ian Foster says that "probably the single thing we can do that will make the biggest difference [is] go out and tell the story about successes when applications work, and also tell them when applications don't work, so they can avoid the pitfalls." The San Diego Supercomputer Center's Phil Papadopoulus says the eScience community must tackle the challenge of accessing data stored in different areas, including behind firewalls, offline, and remotely. Infrastructure builders must also create repeatable systems, he says. May Wang of the Emory-Georgia Tech Nanotechnology Center for Personalized and Predictive Oncology attributes the biomedical community's relatively slow adoption of eScience practices to a lack of intuitiveness in eScience tools, and the non-inclusion of general computer science in the educational curriculum of medical scientists. "Teaching the basics of computer science, learning some of the computer science languages and how to use computer tools to solve problems would help to overcome some of the barriers," she says.
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New Technology Watches Granny's Step
ICT Results (10/24/07)

European Union researchers have developed Attentianet, a system that will allow seniors to stay in their homes longer before moving to retirement homes and assisted living centers. Attentianet uses a phone line to communicate to a tele-assistance center and provides users with an alarm trigger for emergencies. "It is quite a simple application that can be enhanced with new technologies, like ADSL, which gives bigger bandwidth to provide additional applications like videoconferencing and mobile features," says Attentianet developer Jose Luis Jorge Marrase. The service includes enhanced video assistance through broadband communications and video telephony, and a mobile system with location tracking for when users leave their homes. The easy-to-use mobile phone has only two buttons and can trigger a call to the tele-assistance center, where an operator can pinpoint the user's location. Some of the mobile systems can even detect if the user has fallen down. The location tracking system uses AGPS, which is faster than GPS, requires less battery power to run on a mobile device, and is very precise. However, AGPS does not work in indoor environments, and Attentianet researchers are exploring indoor systems to compensate. Researchers also plan to add video chat services and content exchange systems such as IPTV in the next few months.
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The Grill: Linus Torvalds in the Hot Seat
Computerworld (10/22/07) Vol. 41, No. 43, P. 20; Moon, Peter

When asked why he thinks a lot of companies have concerns about free software, Linus Torvalds, Linux Foundation fellow and creator of Linux, responded that he believes adoption is going at a fairly high rate, but that switching operating systems it a big change and widespread adoption could take a decade or two. "We've come a long way. Is there a long way to go? Sure," he says. "There are technical issues, support infrastructure, and just people's perceptions that just take a long time to sort out." As for Microsoft's claims that free software and some email programs violate some of Microsoft's patents, Torvalds says the claims are Microsoft's attempts to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt because Microsoft cannot compete on technical merit or on price, so Microsoft continues to feed off the inertia of the market by creating doubt about open source software. Torvalds says that he does not have any anti-Microsoft issues, but that he works on open source because he thinks it is interesting and a better model for how to do things. Asked about the Microsoft and Novell partnership and the interoperability of Windows and SUSE Linux, Torvalds responded, "I don’t actually think the Novell-Microsoft agreement matters all that much in the end, but I think it would be healthier for everybody if there wasn't the kind of rabid hatred on both sides. I'd rather just worry about the technology. The market will take care of itself."
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Space Station: Internal NASA Reports Explain Origins of June Computer Crisis
IEEE Spectrum (10/07) Oberg, James

On June 13, the International Space Station's functions were crippled by the faulty design, construction, and operation of the station's critical computer systems, according to an internal NASA technical report. It was first assumed that the failure was a result of external interference, which dictated a remedy in which a power-monitoring device was circumvented on two of the three downed computers with jumper cables. This tactic appeared to work, and analysis teams brainstormed to find the cause of the failure and to determine whether the jumper cable solution was only a temporary fix. The connection pins from the bypassed power-monitoring device were discovered to be wet and corroded, which triggered a "power off" command leading to all three of the allegedly redundant processing units that was designed to shield the units from power glitches beyond the protective capabilities of normal power filters. Water condensation was identified as the source of the corrosion, and the NASA report presumes that the damage was "the result of repeated emissions of condensate from the air separation lines" of a malfunctioning dehumidifier. The Russian engineers' knee-jerk impulse to blame their American partners when the failure occurred is also disheartening. If such a failure occurred on a mission to Mars, the results would probably be lethal to the crew, because they would be out of range of support and resupply missions.
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Cerf on the Net
Government Technology (10/07) Towns, Steve; Jones, Jessica

Vint Cerf, outgoing chairman of ICANN and Google chief Internet evangelist, discusses, among other things, the future shape the Internet may take. Looking five or six years ahead, Cerf anticipates the increased availability of applications on mobile devices, faster Net access speeds in both the wired and wireless domains, higher numbers of Internet-enabled and network-manageable devices, and the growing incorporation of sensor-type systems into the Internet. Further out, he projects the emergence of a networking platform for deep-space communication--an initiative he is developing with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA. Cerf says the IPv4 address space will be depleted by about 2011, which will necessitate preparations to move to IPv6 by that time. Another necessary development will be enabling the domain name system to express identifiers using scripts other than Roman characters, and the enhancement of the Domain Name Security System (DNSSEC) with digital signature technology. On the issue of Net neutrality, Cerf comments that from Google's perspective, "our interest is keeping the network as open as possible. Once the consumer gets access to the network, they should be free to go anywhere in the world to get any application." Cerf says security has become a major factor in the continued growth of the Internet because so many people have become network-reliant, and governments should not abdicate their responsibility in ensuring security. He says DNSSEC and IPsec can mitigate some of the security threats, but governments must take an interest in protecting Web users from fraud, harassment, and abuse through legislation.
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