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ACM TechNews
November 26, 2007

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Welcome to the November 26, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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SC07 Holds First Cluster Challenge
HPC Wire (11/22/07) Vol. 16, No. 46, Gorda, Brent

The SC Cluster Challenge at ACM's SC07 conference offered an exhibition and competition where teams of undergraduate students could compete in a demonstration of talent, technology, and accessibility of entry-level supercomputing, specifically highlighting advancements in hardware performance, ease of use clusters, and the power and availability of simulations software. Six teams, composed entirely of students still working on their undergraduate degrees, partnered with vendors to build cluster systems capable of running HPC Challenge benchmarks and processing data sets. During the event, the facilities experienced a power interruption, which caused a hard crash for every team, forcing the students to execute a recovery. All of the teams were up and running within a few hours, with some choosing to run with automatic checkpoint restart to protect against further interruptions. At the end of the competition, the team from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, was declared the winner. While that team did not create the fastest system, a combination of good preparation and a little luck during the power outage gave the team the advantage. The competition demonstrated that college and university students are capable of executing successful simulation computing. The competition also served as a marker for undergraduate programs, with several schools choosing to modify their undergraduate curriculums to include more cluster and parallel computing courses.
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Amazon Hopes Kindle Will Spark Interest in E-Books
San Francisco Chronicle (11/23/07) P. D1; Abate, Tom

Amazon.com has released Kindle, an electronic book reader the company hopes will create a market for e-books much like how the iPod created a market for paid music downloads. However, e-books have a troubled past and experts question if the technology is truly ready. UC Berkeley computer scientist and electronic publishing expert Erik Wilde says Kindle has some advantages over similar e-readers, such as wireless download capabilities, but that it also has severe limitations, such as not being able to clip and email passages to friends, which would give it a huge advantage over real books. "The more I see in terms of details, the more disappointed I am," Wilde says. Associated Press technology reporter Peter Svensson says Kindle is underpowered, requiring a recharge after only a day, whereas a competing Sony product can be used for several weeks on a single charge. Kindle uses a new display technology that is more paper-like and readable than backlit screens, but lacks color and creates somewhat blurry pictures. Wilde says Kindle makes it hard to import and display PDF documents, which business travelers could find useful. The Internet Archive's Brewster Kahle says Kindle's only serious flaw is Amazon's effort to control what users can download by blocking access to digitized and copyright-free books.
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Can Computers Understand Us?
Manila Times (11/26/07) Suarez, Ike

The De La Salle University-Manila (DLSU) Advanced Research Institute for Informatics, Computing and Networking recently held a symposium on cutting-edge research in digital signal processing. At the symposium, Georgia Institute of Technology professor of electrical and computer engineering Chui Hui Lee said that initial progress has been made in digital signal processing that uses information technology to enable the intelligent reception, transmission, and processing of audio and video. Lee predicts that advances will continue to be made in conjunction with advances in other fields such as linguistics, neural psychology, and bioinformatics. The Internet will also become more important as it will be used to link computers and other devices for signal processing. DLSU engineer Joel Ilao discussed some of the university's work on digital signal processing and robotics, specifically an industrial robot capable of processing sights and sounds for security and marketing purposes, and another robot to monitor traffic and analyze vehicular movements, including identifying the types and number of vehicles passing through a certain area. University of the Philippines College of Engineering Dean Rowina Cristina Guevarra discussed efforts to develop hardware and software that could be used by call center agents to recognize the emotions of callers.
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Making 'Second Life' More Like Real Life
Associated Press (11/21/07) Tabuchi, Hiroko

Researchers at Tokyo University recently demonstrated a position-tracking system that would allow people to use their own bodies to navigate the virtual reality world "Second Life." With the new technology, which makes use of a mat printed with colorful codes and a regular Web camera to calculate the user's position in three dimensions, people will be able to turn left or crouch down to make their avatar turn left or crouch down. "This technology lets you take the actions you'd use in real life and transpose them to the virtual world," says lead researcher Michitaka Hirose. Meanwhile, researchers at Keio University are considering enabling people to control their avatars by simply thinking commands such as forward, right, or left. Junichi Ushiba makes use of an interface that attaches electrodes to the user's scalp to sense activity in the brain's sensory-motor cortex, and then software to translate the brain activity into signals that control the avatar. However, Ushiba's team is still perfecting the timing of thinking to the delivery of commands to the online characters. "I want to go left, so I think, 'left'--but then the avatar turns too far to the left before I can get rid of the command in my head," says research student Takashi Ono.
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Internet Users Give Up Privacy in Exchange for Trust
Economic & Social Research Council (11/26/07)

New research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council suggests that Internet users are likely to provide more personal information online if they consider the Web site to be trustworthy. "Even people who have previously demonstrated a high level of caution regarding online privacy will accept losses to their privacy if they trust the recipient of their personal information," says Dr. Adam Joinson, head of the Privacy and Self-Disclosure Online project. However, Internet users who have some concerns about a Web site will become more guarded alter their behavior. The way in which questions are worded and response options are designed, such as giving Internet users the opportunity to choose "I prefer not to say" or select their salary from a broad scale, often results in users providing as little information about themselves as possible. "One of the most interesting aspects of our findings is that even people who genuinely have a high level of concern regarding privacy online may act in a way that is contrary to their stated attitudes when they come across a particular set of conditions," Joinson says. The level of trustworthiness may ultimately determine the degree of helpful information that online services obtain from people who visit their Web sites.
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Standards Suggested for Writing Secure Java
Network World (11/20/07) Greene, Tim

The Secure Programming Council has created a series of documents that outline the skills coders need to write Web applications that are more capable of withstanding attacks. The first of these documents was released earlier this month and lists the skills that the council believes are essential to writing Java and JavaEE code that is free of flaws that hackers could exploit. SANS Institute director of researcher Alan Paller says that some schools and groups offer secure coding courses, but the curriculums are developed based on the instructors' knowledge and best efforts, often contain security gaps, and do not adhere to industry standards for what the course should include. Paller says the Secure Programming Council documents are intended to address such shortcomings by drawing from existing texts as well as input from secure-coding trainers and businesses that work to train in-house programmers in secure training. "It's a common body of what people need to know, benchmarks for employers and teachers," Paller says. The Java paper, "Essential Skills for Secure Programmers Using Java/ JavaEE," focuses on data dandling, authentication and session management, access control, Java types and virtual machine management, application faults and logging, encryption services, and secure architecture and coding principles. Future papers will cover C, C++, .Net languages, Perl, and PHP.
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If Man Is From Mars, Computers Are From Outer Space
The Inquirer (UK) (11/21/07) Grossman, Wendy M.

Donald Norman's 1988 book, "The Design of Everyday Things," argued that technology needs to adapt and be easier for humans to use. After working as a "user experience architect" at Apple from 1993 to 1997, Norman has reversed his position. In his new book, "The Design of Future Things," Norman argues that since humans are more adaptable than machines, and going forward people will need to work with more complex cars, appliances, and other technologies, then people are the ones who will have to change. Norman particularly fights the idea that as computers become more advanced they will naturally be easier to use, arguing instead that humans need to be better able at using advanced computers. "I'm thinking that people are from Earth and machines are from outer space," Norman says. Norman also questions the proponents of singularity technology. "I don't go for the singularity arguments," says Norman, "but I do worry about the hybrid, where we're going to add more and more prostheses--electronic, then nano, eventually biological--into ourselves, and so we'll be a different species with perfect memory, better eyesight, better hearing, stronger." Norman wonders what will happen when the latest human technologies are incompatible with earlier versions.
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Student Facebook Use Predicted by Race, Ethnicity, Education
Northwestern University (11/19/07) Leopold, Wendy

A new study from Northwestern University found that college students' choice of social networking sites is often related to their race, ethnicity, and parental education. The study found that white students generally chose Facebook, Hispanic students prefer MySpace, and Asian and Asian-American students are least likely to use MySpace. African American students did not show a statistically significant preference toward a particular social networking site. Asian and Asian-American students were most likely to use Xanga, though a significant amount do use Facebook. The education level of the students' parents also correlates with social networking choices. Students with parents who finished college are significantly more likely to use Facebook, while MySpace users are more likely to have parents that have less than a high school education. Students who live at home with their parents are less likely to use a social networking site than students who live by themselves, with a roommate, or at school. Additionally, women were found more likely to engage in person-to-person online communication than men. The findings of the study contradict the common belief that social networking sites are being used to expand students social and cultural experiences and suggest social networking sites actually create a two-tier social system. "In a two-tier system, some college students cultivate lots of networks and social capital while others benefit considerably less from this important part of the college experience," says author of the study Eszter Hargittai. The study appears in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.
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Researcher Lands Computer Security Grant From Air Force
University of Texas at Dallas (11/18/07)

The U.S. Air Force has awarded a $350,000 grant that will enable University of Texas at Dallas computer science professor Kevin Hamlin apply his computer security technology to larger applications and more computer architectures. Over the next three years, Hamlen will use the grant money to transition older programming languages to today's safer languages. "It's extremely difficult to write a program that does not have vulnerabilities in it, mainly because these languages were designed in the 70s and early 80s when nobody was thinking about computer security," Hamlen says. His technology is designed to automatically rewrite untrusted code before execution, which preserves the functionality of the program and effectively disables any malicious code. He has spent the last several years working on the rewriting technology. The grant money comes from the Air Force's Young Investigator Research Program, which targets talented scientists and engineers who have received Ph.D.s within the last five years.
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The Fruits of a Wireless World
ICT Results (11/21/07)

Prototype user-centered systems that would potentially allow millions to fully exploit third-generation mobile technology have been developed by the Wireless World Initiative. The goal of the EU-funded MobiLife project was to tap innovations in mobile applications and services in support of everyday activities by matching new applications and services with enabling technologies and service components and frameworks. The main results of the project have been documented in a "MobiLife Book" that delineates fundamentals such as definition of service architecture/infrastructure with compatible, user-centered components in mind; context awareness' importance; privacy and trust; personalization; and associated support services. The objective of the SPICE project was to produce prototype systems that would glue together the various existing platforms so that users would have a seamless and consistent experience, and its focus included prototype middleware systems that help facilitate communication and interoperation between different platforms, content management and delivery systems to effect access to content across domains, and intelligent service enablers for managing user profiles, content information, and proactive service adaptation. Realizing the radio ecophere's diversity to the greatest degree possible was the goal of the E2R project, which developed end-to-end reconfigurable systems that users, providers, operators, and regulators could select in the context of heterogeneous systems. Such systems will let users affordably access their chosen service whenever and wherever they prefer. The burgeoning population of mobile subscribers calls for more powerful wireless networks supported by more efficient utilization of available radio bandwidth, and the WINNER project sought to develop more efficient prototype radio access technologies, find mechanisms to facilitate different radio access networks to interoperate, and create efficient and effective spectrum usage techniques.
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Molecular 'Amplifier' Boosts DNA Computing
New Scientist (11/15/07) Ananthaswamy, Anil

A significant advancement in DNA computing was recently made with the discovery of a method for amplifying weak chemical signals that can be tailored to specific molecules. Conventional electronics use electrons to carry information, but DNA-based circuits use high and low concentrations of DNA fragments. Chemical amplification is essential if DNA computing is ever going to have practical applications. A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) can take a small amount of DNA and amplify it, but the process requires enzymes. Erik Winfree, who developed the building blocks for DNA circuits at the California Institute of Technology with David Zhang, has demonstrated how to perform DNA amplification without enzymes, making the process simpler and more usable as it can be applied to any DNA strand. Through a process that binds and separates strands of DNA, the team was able to amplify the DNA up to 900 times. The reaction is also programmable so that exact sequences of various molecules can be chosen to fit the design of a particular DNA-based digital circuit. The process is not as effective as PCR, but it does establish some principles on how to design such systems from scratch without using enzymes.
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Making Communications Technology More Social
Age (Australia) (11/20/07) Head, Beverley

University of Melbourne researchers are exploring how technology can be used to support phatic communications, the chitchat that makes communication personal and establishes human relationships. Melbourne professor Dr. Martin Gibbs, who has been researching domestic communications since 2004, says globalization and increased time pressures places a strain on phatic communication, as even close friends and family often resort to using technology designed for occasional and rapid bursts of information exchange in business for causal and personal communication. Gibbs believes that specially developed phatic technologies could help people re-connect on a more personal level and lead to "socially beneficial applications of technology," which could be used to help people quit smoking or take better care of their health. Some social networking tools support some elements of phatic communications, but Gibbs believes that specially designed phatic communications technologies will become increasingly important, and has designed several concept technologies to demonstrate how phatic technology could evolve. One such technology is Collage, a wall-mounted touch screen device that allows families in different locations to interact with one another by sending pictures and text messages using Collage devices in their homes. As more pictures and messages are added to the screen, older ones get covered and pushed to the background, like a digital fridge with art work. "The notion of phatic technology is that it is designed for social support rather than information exchange," Gibbs says. "It needs a different approach to business technologies, which are all about efficiencies and productivity."
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Your Next Poker Partner May Be Software
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (11/14/07) Moses, Asher

Software capable of defeating even the best human poker players could create a serious problem for the multibillion dollar online poker industry and players, who could someday be scammed by software-aided cheaters. Although such software is still under development, computer programs are already able to beat most humans at checkers, backgammon, scrabble, bridge, and connect four. In July, two of the world's best poker players narrowly defeated a computer program at Texas Hold 'Em during the first Man-Machine Poker Championship. The program, called Polaris, was developed over the course of 16 years by the computer poker research group at the University of Alberta. Polaris contains several fixed strategies, but is also able to adapt based on moves and mistakes made by the opponent. "We won, not by a significant amount, and the bots are closing in," says Phil Laak, one of the competing world champion players. Professor Jonathan Schaeffer, founder of the poker research group, says that despite the rapid progress it could be several years before computer programs seriously challenge the top humans in no-limit games and games with three or more people at the table. Schaeffer also says the university will do everything in its power to prevent people from misusing the poker program in online gaming.
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Europe Researches Millimeter-Scale Swarming Robots
EE Times (11/19/07) Ben-Artzi, Amir

Researchers in Europe are working to develop millimeter-scale robots that will be able to communicate with each other. The project, codenamed I-SWARM, brings together experts in micro-robotics, distributed and adaptive systems, as well as self-organizing biological swarm systems, and is coordinated by Joerg Seyfried at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany. The researchers will use the latest techniques to develop an artificial ant, which could allow for the production of swarms of up to 1,000 microrobots. The robots would use solar power; have limited, pre-rational on-board intelligence; and feature different types of sensors, manipulators, and computational power.
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What Women Want
CIO (11/15/07) Vol. 21, No. 4, P. 28; Orlov, Laurie M.

Women's impulse to avoid IT careers might be better explained by focusing less on what they hate about the field and more on what aspects of the field are attractive to women, and CIOs acknowledge that the marketing effort for IT is seriously lacking and suffers from obsolete, inaccurate characterization, writes consultant Laurie M. Orlov. "This emphasis on programming, robotics, computer science, and engineering won't get women interested in working for your IT organization," she contends. "In fact, it is exactly that tech focus that obscures the true nature of enterprise IT jobs and the background and skills necessary to excel at them." What the field requires is candidates from a wide spectrum of undergraduate and graduate curricula who desire to learn how companies function, who are capable of working with global project teams, and who can perceive business processes rather than electronic connections, Orlov says. The expected outsourcing of traditionally "geeky" IT jobs is creating a hunger for business analysts, program managers, vendor managers, relationship managers, information architects, and other professionals with exceptional communications, negotiation, and management skills, and Orlov says the secret to eliminating the stereotypical image of IT workers is to tap "better information about what business technology really is, how women of a variety of backgrounds can be and are successful, and finally ... the explicit support and engagement of the 86 percent of top IT executives who are men." Strategies Orlov advocates to attract more women to IT include promoting a business technology concentration in the workplace, reaching out to women in undergraduate business schools and liberal art colleges, and marketing business technology careers to young women.
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Q&A: Intel's CTO Sees Computing's Future in Multicore Machines
Computerworld (11/19/07) Vol. 41, No. 47, P. 38; Anthes, Gary

Intel senior fellow Justin R. Rattner believes, after being largely ignored by the market, the time has come for parallel and distributed processing. Rattner says microprocessor speeds will only be capable of modest growth, as power conservation has become such an important issue. The inability to improve microprocessor speed will give rise to multicore and many-core processors, which will require a new generation of programming tools. "Given the rudimentary state of parallel software, the investment across the entire computing industry will be very large," Rattner says. "Retraining existing programmers and educating a new generation of developers coming out of school is another formidable challenge. It will take years, if not decades, to reach the point where virtually all programmers assume the default programming model is parallel rather than serial." Rattner predicts that in five years all new software will be written for multicore processors, though a lot of existing software such as work processors will not need to be rewritten. Rattner says hundreds of universities worldwide are reintroducing parallel programming in their curricula, and Intel and other companies are working on funding programs to restart academic research in parallel programming and architectures.
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Transistors Go Vertical
IEEE Spectrum (11/07) Vol. 44, No. 11, P. 14; Adee, Sarah

Current leakage is a growing problem as transistors shrink with each new generation of microchip, and a transistor redesign is necessary to head off this problem. Three-dimensional rather than planar transistors are gaining credibility, as demonstrated by the proposals that chip manufacturers will present at the International Electronic Device Meeting in December. The FinFET is the most common multigate transistor design, and it requires the channel that links the source and drain to be a thin, finlike wall that protrudes out of the silicon substrate--but etching it out of the silicon is a major challenge. University of California, Berkeley professor Tsu-Jae King Liu, co-inventor of the FinFET, says DRAM manufacturers will be the most likely early adopters of multigate technology. Leo Mathew of Freescale Semiconductor, which will be among those unveiling multigate devices at the December conference, says the manufacturer's new transistor features a finlike channel that resembles an upside-down T. STMicroelectronics has its own concept, a dual-gate planar transistor in which the gates vertically sandwich the channel connecting the source and drain. Key to this breakthrough is finding a way to precisely align the gates. "It has the same electrical advantages as FinFET, but with probably the highest performance ever published," claims STMicroelectronics' Thomas Skotnicki.
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