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ACM TechNews
December 28, 2007

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

Due to the holidays, the next edition of ACM TechNews will be Wednesday, 1/2/08.


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FBI Prepares Vast Database of Biometrics
Washington Post (12/22/07) P. A1; Nakashima, Ellen; Drezen, Richard

The FBI has a target to build the world's biggest biometric computer database at a cost of $1 billion that would enable the government to identify individuals in the United States and overseas on an unprecedented scale. This system, known as Next Generation Identification, will compile diverse biometric data in one place for identification and forensic purposes, and supporters say integrating information from assorted sources and making it accessible to multiple agencies will boost the likelihood of apprehending wrongdoers. The FBI's Kimberly Del Greco says the database will "fuse" face, iris, fingerprint, and palm matching capabilities within six years, adding that privacy is protected by keeping audit trails on everyone with access to a record in the fingerprint database. For the past few years, the Defense Department has been electronically archiving images of fingerprints, irises, and faces of over 1.5 million Iraqi and Afghan detainees, Iraqi citizens, and foreigners who require access to American military bases, while the Homeland Security Department has been employing iris scans at certain airports to confirm the identity of travelers who have passed background checks and who wish to quickly move through lines. The growing utilization of biometrics as identifiers is bringing questions about the ability of Americans to avoid undesired surveillance to the fore, and critics argue that such projects should not go forward without clear evidence that criminals really can be spotted within crowds via biometrics technology. The German government carried out a scientific study on the effectiveness of face recognition in crowds this year and learned that the technology was still too ineffective for use by law enforcement authorities. The ACLU's Barry Steinhardt warns that biometrics technology is "enabling the Always On Surveillance Society."
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Computer Security Expert Martin Abadi Garners Outstanding Innovation Award
UC Santa Cruz (12/21/2007) Schmidt, Karen

ACM's Special Interest Group on Security, Audit, and Control (SIGSAC) has honored UC Santa Cruz computer science professor Martin Abadi with its Outstanding Innovations Award. Abadi received the award for the significant contributions he has made in applying logic and provability to information security. "Dr. Abadi made key contributions to authentication in distributed computer systems, and to the design and analysis of security protocols for authentication," ACM said when it announced the award. "His published research has initiated entirely new productive directions that have attracted the contributions of researchers all over the world." A principal researcher at Microsoft Research, Abadi holds patents in the areas of distributed systems, programming language analysis, and computer security. He is also an editorial board member of the Journal of the ACM. Abadi received the award at the SIGSAC Computer and Communications Security Conference in Alexandria, Va., in November.
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Java Is Becoming the New Cobol
InfoWorld (12/28/07) Snyder, Bill

Java is becoming less popular with developers as many are switching to Ruby on Rails, PHP, AJAX, and Microsoft's .Net to develop rich Internet applications. Many developers feel that Java slows them down. Peter Thoneny, CEO of Twiki.net, which produces a certified version of the open source Twiki wiki-platform software, says Java promised to solve incompatibility problems across platforms, but the different versions and different downloads of Java are creating complications. Ofer Ronen, CEO of Sendori, which routes domain traffic to online advertisers and ad networks, says languages such as Ruby offer pre-built structures such as shopping carts that would have to be built from scratch with Java. Zephyr CEO Samir Shah says Java's user-interface capabilities and memory footprint simply do not measure up and put it at a serious disadvantage in regards to mobile application development. Nevertheless, developers and analysts agree that Java is still going strong in internally developed enterprise apps. "On the back end, there is still a substantial amount of infrastructure available that makes Java a very strong contender," Shah says.
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Robot's Dancing Speaks Louder Than Words
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (12/27/07) Templeton, David

Marek Michalowski, a graduate student at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, has developed Keepon, a small, yellow, snowman-like robot that despite being mute is a great communicator. Keepon dances to music and can identify visual and sensory rhythms, helping to prove how rhythm and synchronization in body language are paramount in human interaction. Keepon has shown strong potential for encouraging social behavior in children with developmental disorders. "Keepon's simple appearance makes children comfortable, and its life-like movements makes it attractive to them," Michalowski says. "This combination creates an environment in which social interaction is encouraged." Michalowski says moving like a human is more important than looking like a human to make people comfortable with a robot. Videos show Keepon under human control maintaining eye contact with a child, but also looking around like a living being would. Children eventually become comfortable with the robot, treat it as a friend, and participate in social activities that they might otherwise not be comfortable with. "Robots of the future should not be stiff," Michalowski says. "For us to be comfortable interacting with them, they'll need to be attuned to environmental and social rhythms."
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Paper Ballots Go High Tech
St. Petersburg Times (FL) (12/26/07) Varian, Bill

Following an electronic voting scandal, Florida now requires all counties to use optical scanners, a decades-old technology that satisfies the need for a paper trail, but the state is also using new technologies that could create several significant problems. As many as 27 counties in Florida plan on using ballot-on-demand machines to print ballots during early voting and for absentee ballots. The machines allow poll workers to print ballots customized to voters' precincts and party affiliations. Unfortunately, the machines could jam and be unable to print ballots, which would create a long line of voters. Ballot-on-demand machines enable poll workers to print out a person's district ballot type wherever he or she arrives to vote. Ballot-on-demand voting will also help save money, as counties no longer have to print out extra ballots to avoid shortages since they can be printed as needed. The ballot printers look very similar to office printers and copiers, which supports fears that the machines may jam or break down, which is why some supervisors are not rushing to deploy the technology. Orange County supervisor of elections Bill Cowles plans on testing the equipment and examining several scenarios, such as if someone makes a mistake on the ballot and needs a new one and possible difficulties in printing multilingual ballots. "It works okay if it's just one person coming in at a time," Cowles says. "But when you start looking at early voting sites in a presidential year, you have to consider what's going to be the best way and most accurate way and fastest way to process a large number of voters."
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Researchers Set to Do Teraflops Over UT's Most Powerful Supercomputer Yet
Austin American-Statesman (TX) (12/28/07) Ladendorf, Kirk

The Texas Advanced Computer Center recently started operating Ranger, its newest supercomputer, in "friendly mode," which limits access to about 15 academic researchers. In January, the supercomputer will go into full operation, which includes linking to the TeraGrid national research network, which supports more than 4,000 researchers across the country. Ranger is based on hardware from Sun Microsystems and 15,000 processor chips from Advanced Micro Devices, and is expected to be able to run at up to 504 trillion operations per second, making it one of the most powerful computers in the world. "Ranger will enable computations science research that has been heretofore impossible, and it will provide opportunities in computer science and technology that are groundbreaking," says University of Texas vice president of research Juan Sanchez. Ranger is one of the first computers to use AMD's next generation processor known as Barcelona, which has four processing cores and is designed to be linked to other processors to build powerful computers. TeraGrid projects will occupy 90 percent of the new computer's resources, while 5 percent will go to other Texas universities and 5 percent will be used by industrial research and development projects.
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Wi-Fi Routers Are Vulnerable to Viruses
New Scientist (12/22/07) Merali, Zeeya

Indiana University in Bloomington researcher Steven Myers has been investigating how a virus could be spread between wireless routers. "We forget that routers are mini-computers," Myers says. "They have memory, they are networked, and they are programmable." However, routers are not usually scanned for viruses or protected by firewalls, and while Myers says there are no known viruses that target routers, they are still easy targets. Routers within about 100 meters would be able to spread viruses to one another and create a vast network for viruses. While routers normally do not communicate with each other, it would be easy for hackers to create a virus that enables routers to communicate. Myers used records on the location of Wi-Fi routers around Chicago, Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston, and parts of Indianapolis to create a simulation of how a router attack might spread. In each simulated city, viruses were able to jump between routers lacking high-security encryption within 45 meters of each other. The virus spread surprisingly fast, with most of the tens of thousands of routers becoming infected within 48 hours. The geography of the cities affected how the virus spread, with rivers and bays acting as "natural firewalls." Routers can be protected by changing the password from the default setting and enabling high-security WPA encryption. University of Cambridge computer scientist Ross Anderson says the study exposes a more significant problem in that all electronics, including phones, routers, and even microwaves, are being built with software that could potentially become infected.
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First Perl Revamp in Five Years Released
CNet (12/26/07) Shankland, Stephen

Perl 5.10 is now available, and it includes some new features that promise to make programming easier. The first major upgrade to the programming language in five years offers a "say" command that simplifies some text-output tasks, a "switch" operator for sending a program in different directions depending on the circumstances, and improvements to "regular expression" approaches to handling text. Moreover, the Perl interpreter, which runs the Perl program, is faster and does not need as much memory. Perl programmers continue to work on the 5.12 and 6.0 versions of the programming language. Perl founder Larry Wall announced in 2000 the 6.0 version, which will be designed to address some of the informality issues of Perl 5. The "say" command and the regular-expression features were retrofitted for version 5.10. Parrot and Pugs are related projects that focus on running Perl 6 programs. "I suspect that one implementation will win out as 'the' implementation," says Andy Lester with the Perl Foundation.
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IBM Dishes Five Predictions for the Future
IDG News Service (12/25/07) Kanaracus, Chris

IBM recently issued its second annual series of five-year technology predictions, one of which projects that "intelligent traffic systems" and cars that communicate with other vehicles and roadside sensors will create a "wave of connectivity" between vehicles and roadways that will help maintain a smooth traffic flow, lower pollution levels, and reduce driver aggravation. Consumers will also have a much better knowledge of what they are eating, with IBM predicting that "You will know everything from the climate and soil the food was grown in, to the pesticides and pollution it was exposed to, to the energy consumed to create the product, to the temperature and air quality of the shipping containers it traveled through on the way to your dinner table." Also forecasted by IBM is the increased power and functionality of cell phones, while doctors' ability to heal will receive a boost thanks to advances in X-ray and audio technologies. Diagnosis and treatment will be augmented when computers become capable of comparing a patient's records with a vast database of other records. Wide proliferation of "smart energy" devices is expected as well, with IBM stating that "dishwashers, air conditioners, house lights, and more will be connected directly to a 'smart' electric grid, making it possible to turn them on and off using your cell phone or any Web browser." The Futurist editor Edward Cornish considers IBM's forecasts to be "quite reasonable," noting that they are "based on technologies that have been around for a number of years and are simply extrapolations."
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Researchers: Nanowires Could Boost Battery Life 10X
Computerworld (12/20/07) Gaudin, Sharon

Stanford University researchers are using silicon nanowires that allow lithium-ion batteries to hold 10 times the charge they could before. Assistant professor of materials science and engineering Yi Cui says the technology could lead to laptops that currently hold a four-hour charge holding a 40-hour charge. Cui says the batteries could also be used in iPods, cell phones, and even electronic vehicles, as well as in homes and commercial buildings to store energy from solar panels. Currently, the capacity of a lithium-ion battery is limited to how much lithium the battery's anode can hold. Anodes are generally made from carbon, but silicon has a much higher storage capacity. Cui says the nanowires act as an active battery material to store the lithium-ion, with silicon nanowires replacing the carbon in the battery. When the nanowires touch the lithium-ion, a new material is formed, lithium silicide, in which the energy is stored. When the energy is consumed, the lithium silicide material reverts back to silicon, making the batteries rechargeable. The researchers are currently working on ways of mass producing the batteries. "Given the mature infrastructure behind silicon, this new technology can be pushed to real life quickly," says Cui.
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Researchers Rub, Vibrate Way to New Ergonomics
Network World (12/23/07)

Ergonomics expert Alan Hedge and his Cornell Human Factors and Ergonomics Research Group are developing new ergonomic products such as a vibrating mouse and office chairs that massage the back. The group has designed a vibrating mouse to signal when computer users should take their hand off the device to avoid overuse, with hopes of preventing upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders. Tests showed that people took their hand off the mouse but held it just above the device, which could potentially be a more dangerous position for computer users, so researchers want people to rest their hand on a flat surface when they feel the vibration. Findings on whether undulating chairs would help alleviate back pain were mixed, but researchers believe the concept is promising, especially for people with back problems. The group also suspended a flat panel computer monitor on a movable arm and studied its effects on people's comfort, posture, and preference. "We saw fewer complaints about neck problems and about the workstation because people had more space," Hedge says.
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IU Informatics Dean Leading National Initiative on Importance of Computing Education
Indiana University (12/19/07)

Indiana University School of Informatics dean Bobby Schnabel will chair a high-level committee of acclaimed computer scientists and educators dedicated to informing state and federal officials that if the United States is to stay competitive in the global economy, computer science must be a crucial part of U.S. education policy. Convened by ACM, the new Education Policy Committee has been tasked with developing initiatives that will shape national education policies that impact the computing field. The ACM announcement coincided with the most recent report on how students around the world perform in key subject areas. The 2006 Program for International Students Assessment study reports that students can benefit greatly by expanding opportunities for quality computer science education. "The industries that comprise the computing field are global, and the implications for national investment in computer science education on a country's competitive edge are significant," says Schnabel. "In the long run, national education policy that leads to a first-rate computing and information technology workforce may be the most significant factor in defining a country's ability to compete in a knowledge economy underpinned by IT." The Education Policy Committee will work to improve the quality of computing education in the United States by reviewing issues that impact science, math, and computer science education in K-12 and higher education systems, determining if current policies adequately serve the computing field, recommend improvements and comment on proposals in Congress that impact computing issues, educate policymakers on the role and importance of computing education, and provide expertise on key computing education issues. A primary goal of the committee is to ensure that computing and computer science are a priority in education initiatives at all levels of the U.S. educational system.
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Colour Sudoku Puzzle Demonstrates New Vision for Computing
University of Warwick (12/18/07)

University of Warwick Department of Computer Science researchers have developed a color-based Sudoku Puzzle that helps Sudoku players solve Sudoku puzzles, but also demonstrates the possibilities contained in a radical new computing technique. The color in the puzzle helps players determine what numbers they can fit in each slot, but for doctoral researcher Antony Harfield, the technique is his way of exploring how logic and perception interact using a radical approach to computing called empirical modeling. Empirical modeling can be used to solve other creative problems, and Harfield is exploring how it can be used in educational technology and learning. The relationship between logic and perception, particularly in regards to interactions between computers and humans, is considered key to developing better software, especially in artificial intelligence, computer graphics, and education technology. "Traditional computer programs are best-suited for tasks that are so well-understood they can, without much loss, be expressed in a closed, mechanical form in which all interactions or changes are 'pre-planned,'" says Dr. Steve Russ of the empirical modeling group at the University of Warwick. "Even in something so simple as a Sudoku puzzle humans use a mixture of perception, expectation, experience and logic that is just incompatible with the way a computer program would typically solve the puzzle. For safety-critical systems [such as railway management] it is literally a matter of life and death that we learn to use computers in ways that integrate smoothly with human perception, communication and action. This is our goal with empirical modeling."
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'Hybrid' Semiconductors Show Zero Thermal Expansion
Argonne National Laboratories (12/19/07) Jacque, Dave

Without cooling systems, heating would cause component materials in microprocessor chips to expand and create cracks that would interrupt the flow of electricity and ruin the chip. Thermal expansions can also separate semiconducting materials from the substrate, which reduces performance by changing the electronic structure of the material or warping delicate structures that emit laser light. However, recently published research by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory, and academic instructions cite a semiconducting material with zero thermal expansion (ZTE) that could be used to design electronics and optoelectronics capable of withstanding a wide range of temperatures. ZTE materials are generally used in optics, heat engine components, and kitchenware, and applications in non-conventional areas such as electronics and optoelectronics are unusual, and in most cases are glasses, which do not work well in electronics. The research investigated a hybrid inorganic-organic semiconductor that has previously been shown to possess superior electronic and optical properties. The hybrid materials, which form a fully coherent, three-dimensional ordered crystal, could be used for high-efficiency semiconductor lasers, ultra-thin and flexible solar cells, and light-emitting and detecting devices. It is also possible to "dope" the materials, or add small amounts of other compounds, to form transparent conducting materials. The hybrid nanostructures examined in this research are also exceptionally stable in air, even under the illumination of ultraviolet lasers.
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The New Face of the Top 500
HPC Wire (12/21/07) Vol. 16, No. 50, Shainer, Gilad

The purpose of the TOP500 is to rank the world's 500 highest performing supercomputers, but consolidation has spurred a shift in the list's emphasis from exclusively high-performance computing (HPC) systems to systems employed for other applications as well, specifically enterprise datacenter (EDC) applications. Clusters comprised of standard elements have become commonly used for a wide variety of systems, ranging from large-scale server node systems with thousands of nodes to small-scale systems consisting of tens of servers to single workstations. The last two kinds of systems can be linked into a supercomputer-for-a-day and qualify for the TOP500 list, which has encouraged many original equipment manufacturing vendors to submit non-high-performance computing systems to the list. So that the critical information in the recent TOP500 list can be analyzed to better comprehend the technology and market trends, the list should to be split into HPC-centric and general cluster categories, which represent the top 100 supercomputers and the other 400 systems, respectively. Though HPC and EDC systems boast a differing usage model and applications, most of the technology trends are consistent, and the use of a high throughput and low latency I/O solution is mandated by the need for complex simulations and research in the HPC segment and virtualization in the EDC segment, along with the domination of multi-core CPUs and faster storage requirements. The only industry-standard interconnect that delivers the necessary bandwidth, latency, power, and utilization characteristics is InfiniBand, which has become the favored interconnect for high-performance applications and has also begun to make inroads into the enterprise datacenter. InfiniBand is expected to further those trends in the foreseeable future thanks to its unmatchable price/performance and power/performance.
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Corporate Labs Disappear. Academia Steps In.
New York Times (12/16/07) Zachary, G. Pascal

Internal corporate labs have all but disappeared because of cost-cutting and corporate leaders' revelation that commercial breakthroughs are optimally borne from a narrow focus on business problems by researchers and engineers. A group of universities is broadening corporations' access to their labs, for a price. Stanford has entered into a 10-year, $100 million deal with Exxon Mobil, while Intel has opened collaborative labs with Carnegie Mellon, the University of Washington, and the University of California, Berkeley in the hopes of learning more about scientific and technical developments that might shape its business. "Their researchers work on frontiers, in unexplored territory," says Intel research director Andrew A. Chien. "We want explorers." Technology is in a rapid state of change, which will fuel growth in academic-corporate partnerships, according to GlaxoSmithKline's Jean Stephenne. There is skepticism that real benefits can result from such alliances, but corporations are hopeful that universities can help them accelerate the rollout of commercial innovations in terms of speed and efficiency. Another point of worry among critics is that academic freedom could be constrained, or that companies might censor results that are in opposition to their interests. A greater reliance on government funding is an alternative to corporate funding, but some academics are wary of this model for similar reasons.
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Reality, Only Better
Economist Technology Quarterly (12/07)

Projects for superimposing computer graphics on the real world, a method known as augmented reality (AR), are gaining research funding in both the public and private sectors with the emergence of promising applications in fields that include warfare, entertainment, medicine, and manufacturing. Luminetx sells an AR machine that projects maps of a person's venous system, outlined via near-infrared scan, directly onto the patient's skin in real time. AR technology is employed in military training, and has proved particularly helpful in live-fire training. The U.S. Marine Corps uses a training system in which forward observers wear a head-mounted display equipped with a see-through visor, and in battlefield situations AR could be a significant tool in the dissemination of tactical intelligence. Head AR researcher at the Naval Research Laboratory Mark Livingston says his team is working on "3D ink" writing techniques that will enable soldiers to paint virtual symbols or text onto the real world that can be viewed by future visiting soldiers. YDreams of Portugal offers a more whimsical application of AR technology for sightseeing purposes. Its VSS product presents views of local sights enhanced with superimposed text, place names, and animated graphics. Meanwhile, a French amusement park is building a virtual safari in which visitors will use AR binoculars with 3D animals superimposed over the field of view. AR discrepancy-checking software for industrial plants has been prototyped through a collaboration between Siemens and the Technical University of Munich, in which computer-assisted design models are superimposed by engineers over actual buildings to ascertain which sections of the model require updating or which parts of the building require reconstruction.
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Are Your Citations Clean?
Communications of the ACM (12/07) Vol. 50, No. 12, P. 33; Lee, Dongwon; Kang, Jaewoo; Mitra, Prasenjit

The consistency of citations, which comprise the bibliographic information relevant to a specific article, is critical to the efficient use of digital libraries (DLs), because users frequently use citations to retrieve information of interest in DLs, while citations function as unique identifiers of related documents when DLs are integrated. Many of the citations' inconsistencies can be addressed via global IDs such as digital object identifiers and ISBNs, since citations with the same ID are categorized as the same citation; however, global ID adoption has been scant, while different global IDs have interoperation issues and the cost of tagging existing documents with IDs is another consideration. The maintenance of clean citations requires DLs to perform routine searches of their collections, removing duplicate citations or fixing incorrect ones. Because different users use different citation formats, DLs may contain a diversity of citations that all refer to the same document, making the automatic determination and elimination of duplicates virtually impossible. To practically ascertain whether or not two citations are referring to the same real-world document, people employ distance metrics along with a predefined similarity threshold. The maintenance of a large-scale DL depends on efficient management of insertion, which is the nearly daily addition of new articles and associated citations, and new-generation DLs will rely greatly on the handling of insertion and the merging of scenarios. Authors of articles collected in DLs will continue to employ nonstandard citation formats despite initiatives to standardize such formats. In addition, there is a need to develop and roll out a publicly accessible citation matching system.
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