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ACM TechNews
October 31, 2007

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Welcome to the October 31, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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New U.S. Tack to Defend Power Grid
Christian Science Monitor (10/30/07) P. 1; Clayton, Mark

Despite the U.S. government's efforts to secure the nation's critical infrastructure from cyber attack, hackers as well as attack simulations continue to be more successful, prompting lawmakers to call for a massive overhaul of cybersecurity defenses. "Times are changing very quickly here, and cybersecurity that was good enough even a couple of years ago--the strategy and approach--is obsolete," says U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit director Scott Borg. While the greatest concern was once losing control over an infrastructure system such as the power grid, now the biggest threat is that cyber attacks could be used to cause serious physical damage to infrastructure system. Losing control of a system may lead to a loss of power for a few hours or even days, but physical destruction of, for example, an electrical turbine through a cyber attack would be even more devastating. A recently released video by the Idaho National Laboratory demonstrates how a cyber attack could be used to physically destroy a large electrical generator, a technique that could be replicated and adapted to destroy larger and more valuable equipment. "There's a great danger right now that government will spend a lot of money trying to provide better perimeter defenses around the email systems of government, when they should be thinking a lot more about critical infrastructure like the grid," Borg says. To safeguard against such threats U.S. lawmakers are pushing for a new approach. Instead of focusing on building ever-stronger firewalls to keep hackers out, lawmakers want a system that focuses on building infrastructure that can quickly bounce back following an attack. The House Homeland Security subcommittee is expected to unveil a blue-ribbon commission tasked with developing a national cybersecurity strategy to be ready for the next president.
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New Computer Architecture Aids Emergency Response
Indo-Asian News Service (10/31/07)

Princeton University professor Ruby Lee presented a paper on a new computer architecture for securing the transmission of information during the recent ACM Computer and Communications Security conference in Alexandria, Va. Developed with disaster management in mind, the Secret Protection architecture works on a "transient trust" basis to prevent people other than first responders from gaining access to crucial rescue information. For example, terrorists or anyone else who does not need to know the floor plans of a building or have access to satellite maps of an area would not be able to intercept such information. The Secret Protection architecture makes use of a "device root key" and "storage root hash" embedded in the hardware of an electronic device to initialize it, and then ends the access to the sensitive information when there is no longer a legitimate need to know the essential data, or when the emergency is over. "Computers were not originally designed with security as a goal," Lee says. "I'm trying to rethink the design of computers so they can be trustworthy while at the same time retain all their original design goals, such as high performance, low cost and energy efficiency."
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World's Most Complex Silicon Phased-Array Chip Developed
University of California, San Diego (10/30/07)

University of California, San Diego electrical engineers, with backing from DARPA, have developed a phased array radio frequency integrated circuit that is expected to be used in U.S. defense satellite communications and radar systems and eventually for high-speed wireless data transfers. "This is the first 16 element phased array chip that can send at 30-50 GHz," says UCSD professor of electrical engineering Gabriel Rebeiz. "The uniformity and low coupling between the elements, the low current consumption and the small size ... are all unprecedented. As a whole system, there are many many firsts." The chip can only transmit data, but Rebeiz says the researchers are working on a chip that can transmit and receive data, which can be done by building the receiver chip based on the designs in the transmitter chip. The chip also contains all the CMOS digital circuits needed for complete digital control of the phased array. Rebeiz is also the lead on another project aimed at developing silicon CMOS phased array chips that could be built into laptops for high speed data transfers. "If you wanted to download a large movie file, a base station could find you, zoom onto you, and direct a beam to your receiver chip," Rebeiz says. "This could enable data transfer of hundreds of gigabytes of information very quickly, and without connecting a cable or adhering to the alignment requirements of wireless optical data transfer." He believes such technology could be available within three years.
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AT&T Invents Programming Language for Mass Surveillance
Wired News (10/29/07) Singel, Ryan

AT&T researchers have developed Hancock, a C language-based programming language designed to mine the company's telephone and internet records for surveillance data. A recently discovered AT&T research paper published in 2001 shows how the phone company uses Hancock-based software to process tens of millions of long distance phone records to create "communities of interest," or calling circles that show who people are talking to. Hancock was developed in the late 1990s to develop marketing leads and as a security tool to see if new customers called the same numbers as previously disconnected fraudsters, which the research paper called "guilt by association." Hancock-based programs work by analyzing data as it enters a data warehouse, a significant difference from traditional data-mining tools that tend to look for patterns in static databases. A 2004 paper published in ACM Transactions on Programming Languages and Systems demonstrates how Hancock can sort through calling card records, long distance calls, IP addresses and Internet traffic dumps, and even track the movement of a cell phone as it switches between signal towers.
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'Nature-Made' Computers
University of Maryland (10/30/07)

University of Maryland professor Ray Phaneuf has developed a technique that uses a man-made template that nature follows to create usable parts for modern technology. The template causes atoms to structure themselves in a defined pattern that can be used for a variety of purposes, such as a semiconductor in a laptop, a cell phone component, or a sensor in a wearable device. The template is built using photolithography, in which the template is chemically developed by exposure to light, and by nanoscraping, which uses an atomic force microscope to scrape a pattern into a template. Phaneuf says the template process can be used to mass produce tiny components very rapidly and effectively while reducing costs, shrinking device sizes, and improving functionality in ways previously impossible. He says the template technique is a step toward "cocktail" computer manufacturing in which a computer could be mixed like mixing a drink. He says that when you apply the idea of cocktail computing "to manufacturing nanoscale computer components, collections of atoms become ordered, accessible, controllable and reproducible--characteristics crucial to their use in high-tech devices." Phaneuf says the cocktail computer and template process could be used in quantum computing to form qubits.
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Students Mostly Not Ready for Math, Science College Courses
San Antonio Express-News (TX) (10/31/07) Ludwig, Melissa

The United States is falling behind other countries in educating students in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. One problem is that many high school students continue to elect not to take upper level math and science courses in high school, which can put them several years behind other students who take advanced placement courses. Some states are taking action to improve high school graduates' chances of succeeding in college-level science and math. For example, in Texas, all freshmen in high school this year will be required to take four years of math and science. High school, however, is not the only problem as once students get to college not many are choosing STEM-related majors. Many science and math departments are designed to weed out students who are not immediately successful, even though, with a little time and effort from teachers, they could become successful science and math students. The big lecture format is also part of the problem. "Unfortunately, this lecture and sitting quietly approach is just not effective with many students," says University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski. Hrabowski says switching from lectures to group work in large, introductory chemistry classes raised passing rates from 70 percent to about 87 percent. Mentoring can also help keep students in STEM fields, particularly with underrepresented minorities and women. "You have to have a role model, and you don't get a role model in a class of 500," says Lorne Davis, head of the physics department at Texas Lutheran University.
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Terabyte Storage for Cell Phones
Technology Review (10/31/07) Bullis, Kevin

The first incarnation of a memory technology that could supplant the flash memory currently used in portable devices and lead to terabyte storage for cell phones could be rolled out commercially within 18 months. Nano-ionic memory offers substantially higher speeds than flash memory, while certain experimental memory cells have rivaled DRAM in speed. A University of Arizona research group working on the technology demonstrated that the device could be fabricated from materials conventionally employed in computer memory chips and microprocessors, which could expedite integration with existing technologies and require less retooling at manufacturing facilities. Coaxing manufacturers to switch to the new materials could be a challenge. Ionic memory also uses very little power and could theoretically achieve higher storage densities than current technology. The memory facilitates information storage by reconfiguring atoms to form stable and potentially very tiny cells, each of which could potentially store multiple information bits and be stacked to boost storage density. These two characteristics would enable a thumb drive to store a terabyte of data, for example. Devices based on the University of Arizona's nano-ionic memory technology could be available in the next year and a half, says University of Arizona professor Michael Kozicki.
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European Expert Platform to Address Measurement of Human Emotions
Innovations Report (10/30/07)

European researchers expressed concern that the emotional distinction between man and robot one day could become blurred, during the launch workshop for the platform FEEL EUROPE. A new project funded by the European Union, FEEL EUROPE will bring together more than 30 scientists, engineers, and other experts throughout the continent to discuss strategies for measuring human feeling and emotions. Klaus-Peter Hoffmann from the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering in Germany and Eduardo Fernandez of the University of Miguel Hernandez in Spain are the coordinators of the project, which will publish a white paper in 2008 that provides an overview and suggests some future technical applications. The discussion could lead to new research involving cognitive technical systems such as human computer interfaces, systems for emotional learning, or robots that are capable of expressing emotions. "We thought of children and teenagers: imagine them growing up surrounded by robots that keep smiling while they get a hack on the shin," said Hoffmann. "This could severely inhibit the development of their social competence." According to the vision paper, the project will have to make use of the various assessment techniques and new signal algorithms to measure emotions.
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More Than Just a Game
Saginaw Valley State University (10/29/07) Oakley, Mary

The students of the Saginaw Valley State University chapter of ACM are developing a video game from scratch involving students from a variety of disciplines. ACM chapter president Michael Klamerus says the idea was developed largely through word of mouth and by an unofficial survey about video games. Mark White, a project producer and engine architect on the project, says the group is planning a more formal survey to develop the best setting and storyline for the game's target audience. The project is open to more than just computer students, and the group is looking for a diverse group of students to help. "Our project is geared for somewhere between a total of 15 to 60 students, over half of that being somewhere in the arts between music, graphic design, and English," says White, who believes that working on a demanding, multi-disciplinary project such as a video game provides valuable experience to students in any field. "It's because they end up spending more time learning more deeply the portions of the field they are interested in," White says. "Also, they learn all the soft skills that we don't have time to teach in classes of how does somebody with a strong science background talk to somebody with a liberal arts background and actually get something done."
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INRIA Researchers Scoop 2007 Excellencia Prize
HPC Wire (10/24/07)

The Excellencia Prize 2007 was awarded to five young women engineers who have made significant achievements in both their professional and personal lives. INRIA Rennes Bretagne-Atlantique research director Christine Morin is the winner in the fundamental research category. Morin works on designing operating systems for high-performance computing in computer clusters. Since June 2006, Morin has been the coordinator for XtreemOS, a project funded by the European Union that focuses on grids and operating systems for supercomputing applications. Morin believes that young girls need fuller and more concrete information to develop an interest in the sciences. "There's nothing motivating in the information given to high school girls," Morin says. "They're just given a list of professions instead of concrete examples of careers, testimonials, and an idea of what the real prospects are." Christine Azevedo-Coste won in the applied research category. Azevedo-Coste is a research scientist at the Sophia Antipolis-Mediterranee research center of INRIA where she works on applied robotics for use in rehabilitations programs for people with motor disabilities. Jacqueline Lambert from Philae Technologies won for her "passion in software," and Alexadra Pauty-Assie from the Health Insurance branch of French Social Security won for her work in the use of technology. Finally, Telecom INT engineer Sandra Carrie won in the promising engineer category for her work in space telecommunications.
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Holiday Snapshots Used to Model the World in 3D
New Scientist (10/29/07) Knight, Will

Michael Goesele of TU Darmstadt in Germany and colleagues at the University of Washington and Microsoft Research have developed a new method of creating realistic 3D models using hundreds of public images. "The system provides an opportunity to use the billions of user-contributed images available online to 'reconstruct the world' without relying on specialized equipment," Goesele says. Goesele says photo-sharing sites such as Flickr contain enormous possibilities for remote stereo imaging provided that the photos can be analyzed correctly. "We were curious and wanted to try how far we could push a reconstruction system by running it on these very general, real-world datasets," he says. Goesele and his team developed software that could sort through a collection of photos and eliminate ones that are too dissimilar, such as those from drastically varying angles, contrasting lighting, or with a person standing directly in front of the object. The system then uses a combination of different computer vision techniques to create a 3D model of the structure. A process called "structure from motion" is used to identify 3D points on the surface using images taken from different angles. The rest of the surface is then built on top of those points using more images. "The quality of the reconstructions we can achieve from mere Internet data is comparable to models acquired with traditional methods such as very expensive laser scanning systems," Goesele says.
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Europe Tips $8.5 Billion Research Program to Replace Medea+
EE Times (10/29/07) Clarke, Peter

The European collaborative research program Medea+, which focuses on microelectronics, announced that the Cluster for Application and Technology Research in Europe on NanoElectronics (Catrene) will be the follow-up project that focuses on nanoscale electronics. Catrene is a four-year project, with the option of a four-year extension, that will begin operation under the Eureka program starting on Jan. 1, 2008. Catrene is expected to use 4,000 person-years of effort, with about a $8.5 billion budget for the four years. A new feature of the Catrene project is Lighthouse Projects, which will focus research and development programs on major socioeconomic issues such as transportation, health care, security, energy, and entertainment. Catrene's primary technology goals include maintaining and increasing Europe's strength in intellectual property in the electronics industry and developing leadership in lithography, silicon-on-insulator materials, and component packaging, and to strengthen European expertise in applying semiconductor processes and technology to new, efficient electronics designs and applications.
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Japan's Answer for an Aging Society: Robots
International Herald Tribune (10/30/07) Fujioka, Toru

The Japanese government is promoting robotic technology as a way to boost productivity by 50 percent over the next five years as well as complement an aging and dwindling workforce. "Japan faces a stark choice: raise productivity or see living standards fall," says Morgan Stanley's Robert Feldman. "Robots could be a part of the solution." Japan established a robot competition in 2006 that attracted 152 entries. The first winner of the Robot of the Year award is a yellow, cylinder-like robot known as the RFS-1, developed by Fuji Heavy Industries, that can vacuum floors in office and apartment buildings autonomously, including using elevators by itself. Such robots could provide a productivity boost to Japanese service workers, who produce 30 percent less per hour than service workers in the United States. Deploying an RFS-1, which is expected to last 10 years, in an office or apartment building will cost about 5 million yen less than paying a human to do the same job. "These robots are great," says Yuhachi Izawa, a manager at Sumisho Building Management, the first to deploy an RSF-1 in a Tokyo office building. "They save electricity, air conditioning, and the cost of employing workers--and we can make them work during the night."
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Internet Pioneer Leaves Oversight Group
Associated Press (10/29/07) Jesdanun, Anick

Vint Cerf will step down from his position as chairman of ICANN at Friday' annual board meeting, leaving the organization after eight years of service. Cerf, who assisted in the development of the technical foundation of the Internet during the 1970s, was the key figure in the organization's formative years. In the years immediately following ICANN's birth, many developing countries attempted to create a rival organization that would give world governments more control over the Internet, however Cerf helped U.S. diplomats resist the pressure and secure ICANN's role in the global Internet community. While ICANN's survival is ensured, Cerf leaves an organization that still faces many critics who complain about the speed and openness of the domain registration process. While experts acknowledge that ICANN will not be able to find another leader as charismatic and well respected as Cerf, they hope that the organization will benefit from the change by improving its transparency and efficiency. "This is a very important test ICANN both must pass and will pass, that it can withstand a change of its senior management," says Cerf, who must leave the unpaid position of chairman due to term limits. "I have no hesitation at all turning this over to a new team." Two potential successors to Cerf are telecommunications expert Roberto Gaetano and lawyer Peter Dengate Thrush, neither of which has the influence that Cerf did. Fellow Internet pioneer Steve Crocker acknowledges that "we're not going to find another Vint," and says now the managing of ICANN will be left to "ordinary mortals."
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IMEC Research Explores the Chip/Cell Interface
EDN (10/26/07) Wilson, Ron

Direct electrical, mechanical, and chemical interfaces between organic cells and operating integrated circuits are the focus of a continuing research program at Belgium's Interuniversity Microelectronics Center. Among the projects detailed at the recent annual IMEC research review meeting was one to develop an artificial synapse consisting of a direct interface between the interconnect points on a living neuron cell and sensors and receptors on the surface of an IC, with IMEC research group leader Carmen Bartic noting that the effort starts with developing the biochemistry to build a surface coating for a circuit that will help the cell live in prolonged contact with the chip. The next phase involves the development of cell-chip interfaces, and IMEC's exploration in this area considers directing the growth of a cell onto the surface of a chip so that the cell is immobilized and its synapses aligned with transducer sites. The researchers are also working on electrical and chemical sensors capable of accurately measuring synaptic changes when neural activity occurs, as well as nanomachine chemical dispensers that could produce tiny emissions of chemical ions to imitate the action of a synapse in stimulating another synapse. The ultimate goal is to incorporate such an interface into a nerve bundle to function as a diagnostic tool, a therapeutic tool, or a computer-controlled prosthetic interface. Another effort aims to implant an electrical interface directly within a cell, and it involves the fabrication of gold/platinum pillars on the surface of a chip, with electrical links through to the underlying circuitry. The idea is that a passing cell would absorb the chip via endocytosis. Still another IMEC project is focusing on affixing custom-tailored nanoparticles to cells and manipulating them--and thus molecules and cells--with nanomachines fabricated on the surface of ICs.
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The Air Force's Cyber-Corps
National Journal (10/27/07) Vol. 39, No. 43, P. 56; Munro, Neil

U.S. officials say that in recent months foreign government-backed hackers have stepped up their attempts to infiltrate or hurt American and other allied information networks. Responses to the many intrusions against some of the 650,000 computers involved in U.S. Air Force operations are handled by the Network Warfare and Ops Squadron, which uses an arsenal of software to counter each attack, no matter how seemingly trivial. Most of the members of this squadron are private contractors, and a new corps of cyber-warriors must be trained to take up the slack. This is the objective of the Air Force Cyberspace Command, which will be organized under the leadership of Maj. Gen. William Lord. He says the new command must also be prepared to take the cyber-battle to the enemy by infiltrating or crippling enemy networks, should it receive a presidential directive to do so. The command headquarters will likely be comprised of several hundred personnel managing perhaps 20,000 Air Force staffers, which will include lawyers, software specialists, behavioral scientists, and electronic-warfare and satellite experts, Lord says. The unit will provide prowess to the Pentagon's combat commands rather than guide combat operations. The command will also benefit the Air Force by enabling it to better compete with the other armed services for funding and prominent roles in future cyber-warfare commands, says FTI managing director Mark Rasch.
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What Puts the Creepy Into Robot Crawlies?
New Scientist (10/27/07)No. 2627, P. 32; Giles, Jim

Humans rarely find robots that are clearly robots, with metal limbs and features, to be disturbing, but often become uneasy once the robot is given human-like features such as artificial skin, eyes, hair, a face, or a voice. The response is usually more severe when one characteristic is particularly more human than the rest. University College London researchers Thierry Chaminade and Ayse Saygin investigated the phenomenon by have subjects wear brain scanners while watching videos of a life-like robot, a robotic robot, and a person picking up a cup. Chaminade says there is a network of neurons in the parietal cortex that is especially active when watching the life-like robot. The parietal cortex is known to contain "mirror neurons" that are active when someone imagines performing an action they are observing. During all three videos subjects tend to imagine themselves performing the same actions, but the extra neuron activity when viewing the life-like robot could be due to the conflict between how it moves and how it looks, creating a "breach of expectation" that creates extra brain activity and a sense of uneasiness. Indiana University researcher Karl McDorman continued the study by having 140 subjects view moving robots with various likenesses to humans. The results showed that the unsettling robots also created feelings of fear, shock, disgust, and nervousness.
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Hacker Curriculum: How Hackers Learn Networking
IEEE Distributed Systems Online (10/07) Bratus, Sergey

The hacker community has devised effective methods for the analysis, reverse engineering, testing, and modification of software and hardware, and it behooves leaders in industry and academia to understand this culture and be cognizant of its values, unique strengths, and weaknesses, writes Dartmouth College's Sergey Bratus. He observes that many quirks of the hacker culture are rooted in frustration with certain industry and academic trends (pressure to follow standard solutions, a limited perspective of the API, a dearth of tools for studying the state of a system, etc.), which he believes contribute to the current abundance of software vulnerabilities. This in turn fuels the hacker culture's impetus to fully comprehend underlying standards and systems, which largely formalize hackers' learning and work ethic. Among the sources hackers tap to acquire skills are classic textbooks highly rated by fellow hackers, electronic magazines, online forums dedicated to specific technical areas, source code from released tools, talks and private communications at hacker conventions, and IRC communities. Hackers have a tendency to adopt a cross-layer approach that tracks data through multiple tiers of interfaces, in accordance with three guiding principles. Bratus lists these principles as inspecting the system state or network on all levels down to the bit level; injecting arbitrary data into the system or network; and identifying and second-guessing deployment peculiarities. The author concludes that in many respects, hacker culture "produces impressive results that enrich other computing cultures, and its influence and exchange of ideas with these other cultures are growing. So, understanding the hacker learning experience and approaches is becoming more important day by day."
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