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ACM TechNews
November 28, 2007

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Welcome to the November 28, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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America Already Is in a Cyber War, Analyst Says
National Journal's Technology Daily (11/27/07) Posner, Michael

The U.S. government has started to implement its plan for securing government and private networks against cyberattacks, former CIA official Andrew Palowitch said Tuesday during a talk at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies. However, Palowitch said that specific details of the program are likely to remain secret. The Defense and Homeland Security departments are responsible for the national cyber-security initiative, which is tied to the establishment of a U.S. Air Force cyber command in September and the reallocation of $115 million to Homeland Security's cyber division in November. Palowitch said that he agrees with the assessment of Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the country is already at war in cyberspace, considering there have been about 13,000 direct attacks on federal agencies and 80,000 attempts on Defense systems. Some of the attacks "reduced the U.S. military operational capabilities," Palowitch said.
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Team Led by Argonne National Laboratory, Virginia Tech Wins Storage Challenge Competition
Virginia Tech News (11/27/07) Trulove, Susan

At ACM's SC07, researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina State University were awarded a top prize in the storage challenge competition for their ParaMEDIC software framework. The framework was used to search the sequences of all completed microbial genomes against each other in an effort to discover missing genes and accelerate future searches by generating a complete genome similarity tree. With its semantics-based approach, the ParaMEDIC software created a metadata representation that was four times smaller than the actual output data. "Using ParaMEDIC, the entire genome similarity tree, corresponding to a petabyte of data, can fit into a four-gigabyte iPod nano," says Pavan Balaji of Argonne National Laboratory. The team used eight supercomputers to access more than 12,000 processors for the task, which took millions of CPU-hours of computational capability and produced a petabyte of uncompressed output. "The ParaMEDIC framework then improved compute utilization from 10 percent to nearly 100 percent for the compute resources and storage bandwidth utilization from 0.04 percent to 90 percent for the storage resources," says Virginia Tech's Wu Feng.
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Future of the Web Coming Fast and Furious
CNet (11/27/07) Ogg, Erica

Tim Berners-Lee says the Internet will look drastically different five years from now and that it should be scientifically studied to track that evolution and development. Along with colleagues from the Web Science Research Initiative, Berners-Lee has been touring universities to encourage the adoption of Web science courses, emphasizing the challenges that the increasingly social Web presents. The growing amount of personal information on the Web creates several issues regarding where it comes from, who is allowed to access it, and who owns it. These questions are even more important when examining the possibility of online medical records and how to allow doctors to access the information while keeping it protected and hidden from employers and identity thieves. "It's about building systems and understanding where data is coming from," Berners-Lee says. He says that in the future people will no longer be entering personal information into individual social networks, but everyone will have a single profile that compiles all of the information related to them in one social network. "You will have something which is an application which is consistent for looking at different aspects of people," he says. "It [will use] your role as their friend for putting together a very powerful, all-encompassing view of them" online.
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Your Robotic Personal Assistant
Technology Review (11/28/07) Greene, Kate

Stanford University researchers have developed software that teaches a robot how to pick up an object it has never encountered before. Stanford computer science professor Andrew Ng says the robotic hardware needed to create a robot that can perform complex tasks are available, but that insufficient software prevents robots from doing these things autonomously. A dexterous robot with sufficient software to pick up new objects without specific programming could be used for complex tasks such as feeding pets or washing dishes. Instead of using preprogrammed models to help robots pick up objects, Ng and other roboticists are building perception systems that robots can use to detect certain features on objects that are good for grabbing. The Stanford project used previously developed technologies, including computer vision, machine learning, speech recognition, and grasping hardware, to create the STAIR robot. STAIR's hardware includes a mobile robotic arm with a microphone, speaker, sensors, and cameras to help the robot pick up objects. The robot's software is built on machine-learning algorithms that can be taught to execute certain tasks. The researchers trained the software using 2,500 pictures of objects with identified graspable areas. STAIR uses the cameras to build a 3D model of an object and an algorithm identifies the midpoint of a graspable area, such as a handle, by calculating the edges of an object and comparing it to the edges of statistically similar objects in the database. Still, it could be years before robots are capable of performing household tasks because even STAIR is only designed to pick up an object, not perform more complex tasks such as pouring from a pitcher or detecting if an object is solid or soft.
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Online Library Gives Readers Access to 1.5 Million Books
Carnegie Mellon News (11/27/07) Spice, Byron; Watzman, Anne

The Million Book Project, an international effort led by Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, Zhejiang University in China, the Indian Institute of Science in India, and the Library at Alexandria in Egypt has recently completed the digitization of more than 1.5 million books. "Anyone who can get on the Internet now has access to a collection of books the size of a large university library," says Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Raj Reddy. "This project brings us closer to the ideal of the Universal Library: making all published works available to anyone, anytime, in any language." While Google, Microsoft, and the Internet Archive have all launched major book digitization projects, the Million Book Project is the world's largest, university-based, free-access digital library. At least half of the digital books are out of copyright, or were digitized with the permission of the copyright holders, so the complete text are available for free or soon will be. Many of the books, particularly those in Chinese and English, have had their text converted by optical character recognition methods into computer readable text, meaning the books can be searched and eventually reformatted for access by PDAs and other devices. "Digital libraries constitute an essential part of the future of the developing world," says Bibliotheca Alexandrina director Ismail Serageldin. "This requires that we approach conditions governing copyright, digital archiving, and scientific databases with a view to creating two-tier systems of access to information that would allow access to such data from developing countries for a nominal fee or for free." About half of the current collection is still under copyright, and only 10 percent or less of those books can be accessed for free until the copyright holders give permission or copyright laws are amended.
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Scientist Reveals Research Side of Microsoft
College of New Jersey Signal (11/28/07) Prince, Cameron

Microsoft Research computer scientist Yan Xu, speaking at the College of New Jersey, described Microsoft Research as an environment for research and collaboration between some of the best minds both in and out of the industry, and emphasized that interns are particularly important in the formation of ideas. Xu specifically works in the External Research Programs department, where the development process operates much like a pyramid scheme similar to the food pyramid, Xu says. All projects start at the base in workshops before receiving permission for further development. The second stage is the project stage where ideas are fleshed out. The final stage involves the addition of higher institutions that work to guarantee the project's success. Xu says she is especially proud of the Phoenix Academic Program, a software optimization and analysis framework that can be used by professors and students to write code and build programs. "There is a missing link between research and the teaching of students," Xu says. Another project designed to bridge that gap is the Computational Education for Scientists program, which is intended to make computational thinking a natural skill for scientists and teach students how to efficiently and successfully blend scientific research with computational science.
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The Future of Communications
InfoWorld (11/27/07) Schwartz, Ephraim

The future of communications will include some far-out ideas such as telepresence and hyperconnectivity, predicts Andy Lippman, co-director of MIT's Communications Futures Program and associate director of the MIT Media Lab from 1983 to 2001. Lippman says one day there will be real-world mashups between people, between people and machines, and machines communicating with machines, all in an environment in which everything will be connected and people will feel as if they are present for things that actually happen remotely. With hyperconnectivity, we will be able to control things on another planet and perform surgery 3,000 miles away, he says. His Media Lab students are working on hyperconnectivity technology in the form of a phone system that acts as a big party line and allows users to listen in on other people in a group. For example, firefighters would be able to push a button to tune into a police emergency or tune out an ambulance driver. Lippman is also a big believer in viral communications, in which a system expands as the number of users increase.
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Design of Patient Tracking Tools May Have Unintended Consequences
University at Buffalo News (11/26/07) Goldbaum, Ellen

A new field study by researchers at the University at Buffalo, the University of Rochester, and the University of Florida, Jacksonville found that properly designing computational tools is critical for the successful use of such tools in patient-care applications, particularly in hospital emergency rooms. The study examined the use and efficiency of new electronic patient-status boards in the emergency departments of two busy, university-affiliated hospitals. Overall, the researchers found that computational tracking systems affect how health care providers communicate information and track activities regarding patient care, which can change how providers work. The results provide an important example of what can happen when new technologies are not developed by designers with a sufficient understanding of how the technology will be used, says UB professor Ann Bisantz. "Research in human factors, the study of the interactions between humans and technology, has shown that in complex workplaces where safety is critical, such mismatches between the way practitioners work and the technologies that are supposed to support them can have unintended consequences, including inefficiencies and workarounds, where the technology demands that people change their work method," Bisantz says. During observations, focus groups, and interviews with nurses, physicians, secretaries, IT specialists, and administrators, the researchers found that the computerized systems are unable to match the functionality of the manual, erasable whiteboards traditionally used in emergency departments. "If you don't understand the underlying structure of the work that is being done in a particular setting, then you cannot design the technology that will best support it," Bisantz says.
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Cheap Sensors Could Capture Your Every Move
New Scientist (11/26/07) Inman, Mason

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology researcher Rolf Adelsberger along with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Mitsubishi Electronic Research Laboratories have developed a cheaper, more versatile motion capture system that can be used outside of a lab or studio. For example, the system can be used when someone is driving or skiing, to make computer animation or movie effects more life-like, and possibly even to help doctors analyze patients undergoing physical therapy. The sensors, about 2.5 centimeters in size, attach to a person's legs and arms and use accelerometers, gyroscopes, and ultrasonic beeps to detect movement. Tiny microphones on the user's torso detect the beeps, which allows a laptop computer in a backpack to calculate the distance to the sensor. In tests, the system was able to calculate the body's joints and movements almost exactly, but did create some "drift" when the system mistakenly thought the body shifted its orientation as a whole. The system does not work for sudden movements because the sensors are not accurate enough, but Adelsberger says they are quickly improving. "I think the biggest impact of this system is in easier data collection in everyday situations," says New York University motion capture expert Christopher Bregler. Details of the system were presented at ACM's recent SIGGRAPH conference.
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Organic Transistors: Researchers Produce High Performance Field-Effect Transistors With Thin Films of Carbon 60
Georgia Institute of Technology (11/26/07) Toon, John

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have demonstrated the ability to fabricate high-performance field effect transistors with thin films of Carbon 60, or fullerene, using room-temperature processing techniques. The researchers say that the ability to produce devices using an organic semiconductor is another step toward practical applications for large-area, low-cost electronic circuits on flexible organic substrates. The new transistors have higher electron-mobility values than amorphous silicon, low threshold voltages, large on-off ratios, and high operational stability, all of which could encourage more designers to use the circuitry for displays, active electronic billboards, RFID tags, and other applications that require flexible substrates. "If you open a textbook and look at what a thin-film transistor should do, we are pretty close now," says Georgia Tech professor Bernard Kippelen. "Now that we have shown very nice single transistors, we want to demonstrate functional devices that are combinations of multiple components." The transistors can be produced at room temperature and can work on numerous substrates, including flexible plastic, an essential aspect for low-cost, large-area electronics. The lower processing speeds are not expected to become a problem because Kippelen intends for the transistors to be used in applications that do not require high performance. "There are a lot of applications where you don't necessarily need millions of fast transistors," Kippelen says. "There is no point in trying to use organic materials for high-speed processing because silicon is already very advanced and has much higher carrier mobility."
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Hacker Threat to U.S. Rising
Sacramento Bee (CA) (11/26/07) Montgomery, Dave

In response to the hundreds of assaults against government computer systems' firewalls on a daily basis, the U.S. military is weaving computer technology into its standard warfare arsenal. Computer-security operations are underway in all branches of the military, and the Air Force is establishing a full-blown cybercommand. The military's blueprint is the "2006 National Military Strategy for Cyberspace Operations," which includes offensive and defensive strategies. The document is classified, but could include offensive techniques such as immobilizing an enemy's command-and-control networks. The U.S. military and the U.S. government rely on computers to a great extent, which makes both agencies susceptible to everything from network-crippling viruses to illegal intrusions that aim to steal sensitive data. In the 2007 fiscal year, the Department of Homeland Security recorded 37,000 reports of attempted breaches on private and federal systems. Moreover, computer control systems that direct public infrastructure elements confront "increasing risks," according to the Government Accountability Office. Thanks to its advanced firewalls and multilayered systems, the United States has prevented attacks that could cause extensive disruption to federal and private institutions. However, many countries have advanced computer operations, and foreign hackers affiliated with hostile governments are often believed to be behind attacks on U.S. systems, according to experts.
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Wearing Technology on Your Sleeve
ICT Results (11/21/07)

Researchers are working on mobile computing technology that builds computers directly into clothes. The wearIT(at)work project, for example, is exploring a range of applications where wearable technology could improve productivity and even save lives. WearIT(at)work technical manager Michael Lawo says traditional computer hardware such as screens, keyboards, and computing units may soon be replaced by wearable interfaces. "You can have speech control in one instance, gesture control in another, though the application should always be the same," Lawo says. WearIT(at)work is developing the Open Wearable Computing Framework, a system that features a central, easily wearable and hardware-independent computing unit that provides access to an ICT environment and also contains wireless communication, positions systems, speech recognition, interface devices, and low-level software platforms and toolboxes to allow all of these features to work together. "Wearable computing is a completely new working paradigm," Lawo says. "Instead of working at the computer, you are directly supported by the technology, a bit like when you are driving a car and you get information from the navigation system supporting you in your primary tasks." The wearable system is currently being tested in four different fields, including aircraft maintenance, emergency response, car production, and health care. Pilot programs have also recently been launched in bush-fire prevention, e-inclusion, and cultural heritage.
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Colleges Collaborate on Software to Help Capture and Archive Recordings of Lectures
Chronicle of Higher Education (11/20/07) Young, Jeffrey R.

The University of California, Berkeley is leading a project called OpenCast that aims to develop free, open source software that would make it easier for professors to podcast their lectures. Officials from more than 30 colleges and other institutions have joined an email list to discuss possible paths for the project. OpenCast aims to streamline the process of recording lectures and allow course audio and PowerPoint slides to be recorded and unloaded automatically. "I want them to focus on teaching and not the technical details," says Cole W. Camplese, director of Education Technology Services at Pennsylvania State University, who has participated in initial OpenCast discussions. OpenCast will be designed to work with iTunes U, a free service from Apple that many colleges already use to post course material, and Sakai, an open source course-management system, and potentially several other services. There are already several companies that sell products with features similar to OpenCast's objectives, but UC Berkeley Learning Systems Group product manager Adam Hochman believes it will be cheaper in the long run to build a system rather than to pay for enough copies of existing software to cover the number of lecturers the school plans to eventually record.
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Hitachi's Robot Closer to Becoming Real-Life Assistant
Associated Press (11/23/07) Kageyama, Yuri

Hitachi recently demonstrated the EMIEW 2, a small robot designed to be an office assistant. EMIEW 2 is capable of maneuvering on two wheeled legs or on four legs for better mobility, can recognize speech, and is small and light enough to be carried around by a person. The original EMIEW contained all the computer functions internally but was considered too heavy to safely coexist with humans in an office situation. EMIEW 2 wirelessly communicates with a computing unit to make the robot lighter, which caused some problems during a recent demonstration. A surge of wireless communications during the demonstration caused EMIEW 2 to lose contact with its computing unit and smash into a desk. Later, the robot was able to successfully complete the task it was attempting, but there was also another moment when the robot stood motionless for several moments. Developers of the robot acknowledge that kinks need to be worked out, particularly so it can receive wireless communications without interruption. "We are studying what hurdles need to be overcome to make robots practical," says Hitachi researcher Takashi Teramoto. Several Japanese companies have developed similar robots, including human-like robots developed by Honda and Toyota that are used to give tours at the automakers' facilities and the Aibo robotic dog developed by Sony.
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Digital Project to Boost Irish Studies With 'Virtual Ireland' Website
UC Berkeley News (11/15/07) Maclay, Kathleen

The University of California, Berkeley and the Queen's University of Belfast have teamed up to better connect Irish studies materials and to make them easily available around the clock from anywhere via a digital collaboration project primarily supported by an approximately $350,000 joint National Endowment for the Humanities/Institute of Museum and Library Services grant. UC Berkeley will be tasked with developing open source search and retrieval tools and interfaces for investigating contexts and relationships through names, places, and other words in maps, atlases, bibliographies, dictionaries, primary texts, and secondary works. "In the past, one could use reference works in the library's reference collection to find explanations," says UC Berkeley Information School professor Michael Buckland. "We intend to show how that valuable service can be made available online." The effectiveness of the new tools and the cultural, historical, and linguistic complexities of content will be rated by faculty and students in UC Berkeley's Celtic Studies Program, while advanced search tools for exploring content according to eras, geographic regions, and across various genres and fields will be developed with the assistance of faculty and students at the Information School. The British government and JSTOR have financed Queen's University of Belfast's effort to scan, digitize, and preserve an archive of 100 leading journals designed to "create a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary digital library of e-resources relating to Ireland," according to Center for Digitization and Analysis director Paul Ell. He and others admit their concern that the use of digital resources by humanities scholars lags significantly behind usage by scholars in other disciplines.
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Is Computer Language Popularity Important?
CIO (11/25/07) Schindler, Esther

Esther Schindler asks the question of whether the popularity of a computer language is a key factor in a company's choice of a language to support, and whether such a variable should matter. "A corporate standard language (or at least a set of languages) ensures that the entire staff can read any in-house code, if not adequately maintain it," she notes. "Predictability is a good thing, even if it's boring." Considerations that can determine programming language choice include the preferred development environment's built-in support for one language suite, or affordable hiring of developers through the option of a popular language, writes Schindler. C, Java, and Python are currently the most popular languages, according to general Web searches. However, the Web site posting the results of these searches acknowledges that "popular languages are used more in industry, and consequently, people post job listings that seek individuals with experience in those languages. This is probably something of a lagging indicator, because a language is likely to gain popularity prior to companies utilizing it and consequently seeking more people with experience in it." Schindler argues that popularity is not the only criterion that should be considered when selecting a language, and concludes that there is still an unanswered question as to what must happen before support of a popular language becomes a corporate requirement.
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Making Machines that Make Others of Their Kind
Science (11/16/07) Vol. 318, No. 5853, P. 1084; Cho, Adrian

Several researchers are attempting to realize self-replicating robots, and are hopeful that their research will at least yield new insights on the challenges inherent in such a goal. There is currently no practical use for self-replicating robots, so funding for projects has been light; however, setting up bases on other worlds is one theoretical application for such machines. The basic rules of synthetic self-replication were laid down by mathematician John von Neumann, who figured that a collection of cell-like automata would each need to possess a set of instructions for building a device, a unit that reads the instructions, and a unit that copies the instructions. However, von Neumann's theory avoids the complex practical difficulties of facilitating such tasks, which modern-day researchers have been struggling to master. Johns Hopkins University engineer Gregory Chirikjian has developed robots that can assemble machines by following a colored stripe to locate components, and he says he is working to eliminate the track and make the machines more self-sufficient. Some researchers are designing robots that, rather than foraging for components, collide randomly to get parts in an effort to emulate biomolecular commixture in cells. University of Washington, Seattle engineer Eric Klavins says this stochastic strategy should be an easier, more efficient approach than step-by-step assembly, particularly in instances where billions of components are involved. Some believe researchers will unavoidably be pushed toward biomolecular systems as a matter of practicality, while others say a rethinking of self-replication is in order.
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