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November 19, 2007

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Welcome to the November 19, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Adding Math to List of Security Threats
New York Times (11/17/07) P. B4; Markoff, John

Weizmann Institute of Science professor Adi Shamir recently warned of a hypothetical incident in which a math error in a commonly used computing chip could endanger the security of the global electronic commerce system. Shamir, one of the designers of the RSA public key algorithm, says the increasing complexity of microprocessor chips will almost certainly lead to undetected errors. Similar errors have already been found in older systems, such as the discovery of an obscure division bug in Intel's Pentium microprocessor in 1994 and a multiplication bug found in Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet. A subtle math error would allow an attacker to break the public key cryptography technique by discovering the error in a widely used chip and sending a "poisoned" encrypted message to the computer, allowing the attacker to compute the value of the secret key used by the targeting system. Shamir says the error would allow millions of PCs to be attacked without having to manipulate the operating environment of each one individually. Shamir notes that laws governing trade secrets that protect the exact workings of microprocessor chips make it almost impossible to verify that the chips have been designed correctly. "Even if we assume that Intel had learned its lesson and meticulously verified the correctness of its multipliers," he says, "there are many smaller manufacturers of microprocessors who may be less careful with their design."
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Best Research in High Performance Computing Honored at SC07
HPC Wire (11/15/07)

Chao Wang of North Carolina State University, Mark Hoemmen of the University of California, Berkeley, and Arpith Chacko Jacob of Washington University of St. Louis are the winners of the ACM/IEEE Computer Society HPC Ph.D. Fellowship Award. Wang, Hoemmen, and Jacob were honored Thursday at ACM's SC07 conference in Reno, Nev. Other awards presented included the Seymour Cray Award, which went to Kenneth Batcher of Kent State University, and the Sidney Fernbach Award, which went to David Keyes of Columbia University. The Gordon Bell Prize went to James Glosli, Kyle Caspersen, David Richards, Robert Rudd, Frederick Streitz (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), and John Gunnels (IBM) for research entitled "Extending Stability Beyond CPU-Millennium: Micron-Scale Atomistic Simulation of Kelvin-Helmholtz Instability." Dennis Abts, Abdulla Bataineh, Steve Scott, Greg Faanes, James Schwarzmeier, Eric Lundberg, Tim Johnson, Mike Bye, and Gerald Schwoerer (Cray) won the Best Paper Award for "The Cray BlackWidow: A Highly Scalable Vector Multiprocessor." The winners of the Best Student Paper Award, Best Poster Award, ACM Student Paper Award, Analytics Challenge, Bandwidth Challenge, Cluster Challenge and Storage Challenge were also announced.
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Simplicity Sought for Complex Computing
Chicago Tribune (11/19/07) Van, Jon

Stephen Wolfram says people building complex computers and writing complicated software may achieve more studying nature. Wolfram says his company is exploring the "computational universe" to find more simple solutions to complex problems that are currently handled by complex software. "Nature has a secret it uses to make this complicated stuff," Wolfram says. "Traditionally, we're not taking advantage of that secret. We create things that go around things nature is doing." Wolfram believes that nature has created a molecule that could be used as a computer if people ever manage to isolate and program the molecule. University of Chicago Department of Computer Science Chairman Stuart Kurtz says a lot of computer scientists are fascinated by finding simple systems capable of producing complex results. For example, a University of Southern California professor has proposed using recombinant DNA for computing. While DNA computers are largely theoretical, computer scientists take them quite seriously, Kurtz says. "People are used to the idea that making computers is hard," Wolfram says. "But we're saying you can make computers out of small numbers of components, with very simple rules."
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Synchronized Shaking Connects Gadgets Securely
New Scientist (11/13/07) Simonite, Tom

Lancaster University researchers have developed software that allows two cell phones to establish a wireless connection by holding the devices together and vigorously shaking them. The shaking movement is measured by built-in accelerometers. By holding the two devices together tightly the accelerometer readings will match, enabling the system to make a secure connection either by transmitting an open stream of accelerometer data and searching for matching data, or by establishing a secure connection automatically and then using accelerometer measurements to confirm it. The researchers say this technique is both easier and more secure than selecting a device from a list or entering a security code, and could make it easier to connect cell phone peripherals such as wireless headsets. Currently, users have to select the device from a list and enter a PIN supplied with the device. However, about 95 percent of headsets have "0000" as their default PIN code, creating a security weakness. Lancaster University's Rene Mayrhofer says some cell phones already include accelerometers and adding the software needed for shake-to-connect should be relatively simple. Eventually, shake-to-connect could be used for more sensitive transactions such as transferring money between credit cards.
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Speaking of Science: Consider Computing With Chemistry
The Daily (University of Washington) (11/16/07) Smoliak, Brian

Realizing the potential contained in DNA, scientists are working on creating a programmable, systematic way of combining computers with chemistry. "Programming chemical systems needs to be thought about," says California Institute of Technology computer science professor Erik Winfree. "The meeting of computer science and chemistry hasn't happened yet, but is right around the corner. There's nothing logically, chemically or physically impossible about computing with molecular systems." Winfree says that programming with DNA is possible but extremely basic. "Programming in a DNA world offers a variety of applications," he says. "We can design a range of structures capable of creating complex patterns, circuits, and motors." Winfree's research has led to a variety of DNA patterns and structures formed in test tubes, including squares, stars, and smiley faces made from programming DNA sequences. The sequences are passed into a strand of DNA that is heated and cooled, which causes it to self assemble in the desired shape. "Imagine a new virus that infects the world's agricultural crops," says University of Washington electrical engineering professor Eric Klavins. "If we understand the language, we could develop a biological response through reprogramming, no different than a remedy pushed out by Norton AntiVirus on a computer." Chemical computing has several hurdles to overcome, as calls and DNA do not behave as predictably as electronic systems, and improving reliability is key to making chemical computing more powerful.
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Bee Strategy Helps Servers Run More Sweetly
Georgia Institute of Technology (11/16/07) McRainey, Megan

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have developed a communications system for Internet servers based on the dance-based communication system bees use to divide limited resources. The new computer system allows servers that would normally be reserved for a single task to move between tasks as needed, reducing the chances that a Web site will be overwhelmed and lock out potential users. The new system helped servers improve service by 4 percent to 25 percent in real Internet traffic tests. Because bees have a limited number of workers to send out to collect pollen, scout bees are sent to find lucrative spots. These scout bees return to the hive and perform a dance to tell other bees where to find the nectar. The forager bees then dance behind the scout until they learn the right steps. Forager bees continue to follow the scout bee's dance until the nectar runs out or they find a more attractive dance. The system allows the bees to seamlessly shift from one source to another without a leader or central command to slow the decision process. Most server systems are theoretically optimized for "normal" conditions, which frequently change due to human nature. If demand for one site surges, servers not assigned to that site may remain idle while users are put into a queue that forces them to wait for the server assigned to the site to become available. When the bee server system receives a request for a site, the system places an internal advertisement, the equivalent of the bee's dance, to attract any available servers. The ad's duration is determined by demand for the site and how much revenue the site's users may generate. The longer an ad remains active, the more power available servers send to serve the Web site request.
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With Robotic Bugs, Larger Ethical Questions
Boston Globe (11/16/07) Nickerson, Colin

Research reported in Science describes how European scientists were able to use tiny robots placed in a colony of laboratory cockroaches to manipulate the actions of the insects. The robots, using behavioral modification methods, were able to convince the real insects to follow them into bright areas, a significant achievement considering cockroaches are known for hiding in dark areas. The significance of the research is that even simple robots can significantly influence group behavior. Some scientists believe that it is inevitable that advances in robotics and technology will ultimately alter the fundamental relationship between humanity and technology, and many analysts say now is the time to seriously consider the ethical implications of technological advances. In many Asian countries with highly advanced robotic research laws are being considered that would regulate how much independence robots should be given by programmers, and even what "rights" should be given to robots. One issue of particular interest is whether robots will be given the ability to make life-or-death decisions involving humans, for example in a hospital or battlefield. Only two months ago, an unmanned aircraft deployed by U.S. forces in Iraq made its first "kill." While the drone was remote controlled, the action highlights the possibility of robotic warriors capable of making their own decisions. "We are embarking on the process of creating the first intelligent species to share the earth with humans since the time of the Neanderthals," says renowned science fiction author Robert Sawyer, who wrote an essay that accompanied the report in Science. "We're racing past the era of robo-vacuum cleaners into someplace quite different and more complex."
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Preserving One Web
Technology Review (11/16/07) Naone, Erica

World Wide Web Consortium director Tim Berners-Lee is concerned that restricting access to Internet content is causing the mobile Internet to separate from the regular Internet, and says the W3C is working to prevent that separation from happening. The W3C recently launched a new tool developers can use to test their Web sites for compatibility on mobile platforms to ensure their site does not cause a mobile device to crash. Berners-Lee says the overarching goal is to keep content available regardless of the device a person chooses to use. "I like being able to choose my hardware separately from choosing my software, and separately from choosing my content," Berners-Lee says. Numerous Web sites are inaccessible from mobile devices as developers choose not to make a mobile version of their site due to the extra technical complications. However, in some parts of the world mobile phones are the primary method people use to access the Internet. W3C's Matt Womer also says that mobile-device users should not be forced to download large images or be redirected to several different pages as mobile Web users pay by the kilobyte. Mobile sites can also be hard to find as there is no standard for creating mobile domain names. Some sites replace "www" with "mobile" or "wap," but Womer says the result can be confusing for users who may not know to enter special prefixes. He says the W3C recommends that Web site developers separate information about how to present content from the actual content. Content can be described through hypertext markup language while the presentation can be handled with separate style sheets.
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Gartner Analyst Predicts 'Virtual Marriages' by 2015
Network World (11/14/07) Brodkin, Jon

Gartner research analyst Adam Sarner predicts that by 2015, 2 percent of U.S. citizens will get married in virtual worlds to people they have never met, and may never meet, even after marriage. The online virtual marriages will have all the same legal implications as real-world marriages, including joint property rights. Sarner also predicts that companies will spend more money marketing and advertising products and services in the virtual world than in the real world by 2020, and that at least one city will elect a "virtual anonymous persona" to be the city's mayor. Although marriages already occur in Second Life, they currently have no legal implications. Sarner believes that people who choose a virtual marriage with someone they have never met will feel connections powerful enough to transcend the physical aspects of matrimony. "I think the online connection is powerful enough to have these legal marriages online," Sarner says. "The point is the emotional connection they have will be strong enough that they want to make it forever." Sarner acknowledges that his theory is a "maverick" prediction but insists that he will be proven correct.
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Google Meets Sherlock Holmes
Newswise (11/13/07)

Most of the information that hinted at possible trouble prior to the 9-11 attacks was buried under massive amounts of data being collected faster than analysts could handle. A single day's collection would fill more than 6 million 160-gigabyte iPods, and some of the data conflicted with other pieces of information. To prevent such pieces of information from being missed again, researchers at the DHS Science and Technology Directorate are developing ways of viewing such data as a 3D picture where important clues are more easily identified. Mathematicians, logicians, and linguists are collaborating to make the massive amounts of data form a meaningful shape, assigning brightness, color, texture, and size to billions of known and apparent facts. For example, a day's worth of video, cell phone calls, photos, bank records, chat rooms, and emails may be displayed as a blue-gray cloud with links to corresponding cities. "Were not looking for 'meaning' per se," says Dr. Joseph Kielman, Basic Research Lead for the Directorate's Command, Control and Interoperability Division, "but for patterns that will let us detect the expected and discover the unexpected." Kielman says it will still be several years before visual analytics can automatically create connections from fuzzy data such as video.
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Researchers Push Transmission Rate of Copper Cable
Penn State Live (11/14/07)

Engineers at Penn State have teamed up with cable manufacturer NEXANS in an effort to determine whether digital data could be sent over 100 meters of Category-7 copper cables at a rate of 100 Gbps. "A rate of 100 gigabit over 70 meters is definitely possible, and we are working on extending that to 100 meters, or about 328 feet," says Ali Enteshari, graduate student in electrical engineering. "However, the design of a 100-gigabit modem might not be physically realizable at this time as it is technology limited." The technology of chip circuitry will need to improve if the modem designs are to be built, and it will likely take two to three generations. Glass fiber-optic cables are very fast and are used as long distance lines for most Internet systems, but copper cable is used for shorter distances. Fiber-optic cabling costs too much for home networks, and Penn State researchers believe their approach would be more affordable and easier to build. Moving 100 gigabits of data per second over 100 meters is the equivalent of moving 12.5 Encyclopedia Britannica sets per second. Enteshari presented his team's research Wednesday at the IEEE High Speed Study Group in Atlanta.
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Is Computer Science Dying?
InformIT (11/09/07) Chisnall, David

A gradual fall-off in the number of people applying to earn degrees in computer science since the implosion of the first dot-com bubble has fostered a perception that the field is expiring, but David Chisnall questions this assertion. The idea that computer science is dying is muddled by the fact that few people know what truly constitutes computer science, with most people viewing it as a vocational course that focuses on programming. "A computer scientist may not fabricate her own ICs, and may not write her own compiler and operating system ... But the computer scientist definitely will understand what's happening in the compiler, operating system, and CPU when a program is compiled and run," Chisnall writes. From his perspective, computer science lies at the convergence of mathematics, engineering, and psychology, and the third discipline is critical to the instruction of computers by humans. Psychology plays a part not only in human/computer interaction, but also in the development and assessment of computer intelligence, according to Chisnall. He maintains that a lot of unhappiness with computer science stems from the mistaken assumption that computer science graduates will also be expert programmers, and notes that a lot of people appear to confuse computer science and software engineering. Chisnall points out that "computer science is first and foremost a branch of applied mathematics, so a computer scientist should be expected to understand the principles of mathematical reasoning" However, he notes that computer science has the added distinction of its concentration on efficiency and concurrent thinking at different levels of abstraction.
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Tracing Terrorists' Social Web
Associated Press (11/18/07) Rotstein, Arthur H.

There are currently tens of thousands of Web sites devoted to delivering the beliefs and methods used by terrorist organizations, and tracking and monitoring these Web sites and chat rooms is a extremely difficult task for government agencies. While the sites may not appear to reveal any information on their creators, programmers and writers leave digital clues such as the words they chose, punctuation, syntax, and how they code multimedia attachments and Web links that can be used to find them. University of Arizona researchers are working on a tool that would use these clues to automate the analysis of online jihadism. The Dark Web project aims to search sites, forums, and chat rooms to find the Internet's most influential jihadists and learn how they attract new recruits. Artificial Intelligence lab director Hsinchun Chen hopes Dark Web will cripple the online terrorist recruitment and education effort, as many potential terrorists learn how to make explosives and plan attacks online. "Our tool will help [U.S. authorities] ID the high-risk, radical opinion leaders in cyberspace," Chen says. Former FBI counterterror chief Dale Watson says the ability to sort through massive amounts of data automatically would be of great value, as terrorist Web sites and communications are currently analyzed manually. "It would greatly enhance the speed and capability to sort through a large amount of data," Watson says. "The issue will be where is the Web site originating and where are the tentacles going?"
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Q&A: Bruce Tognazzini on Human-Computer Interaction
E-Consultancy.com (11/06/07) Maven, Richard

Nielsen Norman Group principal Bruce Tognazzini, who founded Apple's Human Interface team and developed the company's first usability guidelines, notes that there are more user-unfriendly than user-friendly Web sites on the Internet, and the worst single gaffe they make is discarding the user's work. He cites 27-year-old guidelines on human interface design whose validity still holds up, and these guidelines call for an intuitive interface that anticipates user needs as much as possible and is designed with the end user in mind, simple screens that eliminate unneeded verbiage and superfluous graphics, and tolerant and forgiving inputs. Tognazzini says that most companies have still failed to grasp even the most rudimentary concepts of human-computer interaction, and he says that "such ignorance and laziness ensures full employment for HCI designers for the foreseeable future, and also ensures that the original promise of the Web, with its sweeping aside of 'bricks and mortar stores,' will continue unfulfilled." Tognazzini remarks that video ad formats offer a terrible user experience, but this situation will not change as long as users tolerate it. Tognazzini projects that a lot of iPhone knockoffs will come out, but hopefully a gestural interface will take root and promote a new form of power and simplicity across many devices besides phones. In his opinion, phones, faxes, and computers offer the most irritation in terms of use, because "powerful applications have outstripped the capabilities of all three," while the devices' interfaces are uniformly lousy.
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Modern Fortran: A Parallel, Object-Oriented Language
HPC Wire (11/15/07) Vol. 14, No. 4, Rasmussen, Craig E.

Fortran is considered the most popular programming language for high-performance computing applications, and enhancing the language with additional features such as explicitly parallel constructs is the goal of Fortran 2008, a proposed new standard. Craig E. Rasmussen of Los Alamos National Laboratory writes that programmers will soon be allowed to start a line in free format form with a semicolon, a feature added to boost the internal consistency of Fortran. Co-arrays were introduced to handle parallelism by enabling programmers to directly read or write to memory on a remote processor using the square bracket notation. Co-arrays can facilitate barrier synchronization with a subset of program images with the SYNC TEAM or SYNC IMAGES statements or with all of the images through the SYNC ALL statement, and Rasmussen notes that a CRITICAL ... END CRITICAL construct was introduced to restrict the execution of a block of code to one image at a time. The programmer can also explicitly notify the program that individual iterations of a loop body may be performed concurrently in any order with the addition of a DO CONCURRENT ... END DO loop construct. Perhaps Fortran 2008's most convenient enhancement lets the compiler choose and return an IO unit number when a file is opened with the OPEN statement, relieving programmers of the burden of ensuring that the selected unit number does not conflict with a unit number already being used. "In my opinion, in the future Fortran should look at ways to introduce some of the work being done in Chapel and X10," Rasmussen says. "In particular, we should allow for multiple tasks (e.g., Ocean and Atmosphere) to run concurrently and should provide mechanisms for individual threads and data to be placed on particular hardware units, not just the one program SPMD model adopted by co-arrays."
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Robots' Allure: Can It Remedy What Ails Computer Science?
Science (11/16/07) Vol. 318, No. 5853, P. 1086; Lester, Benjamin

A precipitous decline in computer science enrollments in the United States is spurring academicians to turn to robotics to restore the field's allure and engage students' flagging interest. "The classic way to teach computer science is to [give] a really dry assignment like 'Write a program to print the Fibonacci sequence," says Georgia Institute of Technology computer scientist Tucker Balch. "Students don't get turned on by this." Bryn Mawr College professor Douglas Blank says robots have an inherent "sexiness" that his school is using to make computer science more appealing, and for years robots have been employed by science, technology, engineering, and mathematics proponents to interest elementary and high school students, frequently through competitive leagues. One example is the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) Institute for Practical Robotics' Botball tournaments in which teams of secondary school students build and program robots that compete against each other in games. Michelle Medeiros, founder of the STEM community club that won this year's Hawaiian Botball regional tournament, says robots can help remove some of the intimidating or boring aura surrounding science. Even more challenging than Botball is the FIRST Robotics Competition in which remote control machines aggressively compete in a contest that emphasizes engineering. A study by Brandeis University found that FIRST participants were two times as likely to choose college science or engineering majors than non-FIRST participants who took similar math and science courses in high school. The National Science Foundation recently allocated $6 million to overhaul computing education at 25 U.S. schools.
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The Grill: Ray Kurzweil Talks About 'Augmented Reality' and the Singularity
Computerworld (11/11/07) Vol. 41, No. 46, P. 26; Lamont, Ian

Futurist Ray Kurzweil's book, "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology," predicts that advances in computing technologies and biological research over the next 40 years will result in the merger of biological and nonbiologial intelligence. Kurzweil says technology advances exponentially, not linearly, which is often overlooked and one of the reasons long-term forecasts will generally fall short of the eventual reality. Kurzweil also predicts that over the next 10 years computers will look much different than today's desktop and laptop computers. "They're going to be extremely tiny," Kurzweil says. "They're going to be everywhere. There's going to be pervasive computing. It's going to be embedded in the environment, in our clothing. It's going to be self-organizing." Technology will also advance to the point of augmented reality, with computers watching and listening to humans and helping. "The computers will be watching what you watch, listening to what you're saying, and they'll be helping. So if you look at someone, little pop-ups will appear in your field of view, reminding you of who that is, giving you information about them, reminding you that it's their birthday next Tuesday." Such pervasive computers will provide similar information when looking at buildings and other objects. "If it hears you stumbling over some information that you can't quite think of, it will just pop up without you having to ask," Kurzweil says.
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Empirical Studies to Build a Science of Computer Science
Communications of the ACM (11/07) Vol. 50, No. 11, P. 33; Basili, Victor R.; Zelkowitz, Marvin V.

University of Maryland, College Park computer science professors Victor R. Basili and Marvin V. Zelkowitz are investigating the application of an empirical approach toward the understanding of key software development problems. "Computer science involves people solving problems, so computer scientists must perform empirical studies that involve developers and users alike," they write. "They must understand products, processes, and the relationships among them. They must experiment (human-based studies), analyze, and synthesize the resulting knowledge." Subsequently, this knowledge must be modeled or packaged for additional development. Basili and Zelkowitz attest that industrial, government, and academic organizations must interact in order for the experimentation that is so vital for empirical studies to be successful. Experimentation must involve the study of human activities, given the role such activities play in software development; the assessment of quantitative and qualitative data to comprehend and improve the development staff's operations is central to this experimentation. Basili and Zelkowitz say it is imperative that experimental concepts are applied across a diverse array of computer science environments, such as high-end computing. "Understanding, predicting, and improving development time requires empirical methods to properly evaluate programmer, as well as machine, performance," they write. "We need theories, hypotheses, and guidelines that allow us to characterize, evaluate, predict, and improve how an HEC environment--hardware, software, developer--affects development of these high-end computing codes."
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