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ACM TechNews
January 7, 2008

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Welcome to the January 7, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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A Paper Trail for Voting Machines
New York Times (01/07/08) P. A25; Poundstone, William

A general mistrust of voting systems seems to be a common theme with American voters, as a wave of electronic voting machine de-certifications and negative reports cast doubt over new era voting machines, writes author William Poundstone. However, paper ballots are also problematic; ballot boxes can be lost or stuffed and it was the paper-ballot / hanging chad fiasco in the 2000 election in Florida that led to the rapid adoption of electronic voting machines. MIT computer scientist Ronald L. Rivest and mathematician and voting reform advocate Warren D. Smith have proposed a solution that combines paper ballots and a Web site to create better ballot security than is possible with paper or e-voting alone. The concept is to allow each voter to take home a photocopy of a randomly selected ballot cast by someone else. Paper ballots would be tallied by optical scanners, or even by hand, and results would be posted on a Web site. Using a serial number assigned to each ballot, voters could check the site to make sure that the random ballot they brought home was posted on the site and that it was not altered or misread. Rivest and Smith believe the system creates public accountability as any voter can check to make sure the ballots are being counted correctly, and that only a small number of participant would be needed to catch any fraud. The system also protects voter privacy because the ballots distributed for authentication would be randomized and would not contain voter information.
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Demographic Crisis, Robotic Cure?
Washington Post (01/07/08) P. A12; Harden, Blaine

Japan, which has the world's largest population of residents over 65 and the smallest proportion of children under 15, is currently on course for a population crisis unlike any in history, and while immigration and an increased birth rate would prevent the problem, many young women in Japan do not want children and the country is unwilling to accept large numbers of immigrants. The Japanese government is counting on advancements in robotics to supplement the dwindling work force. While humanoid robots such as Toyota's violin playing robot and Honda's ASIMO, which can dance and serve tea, are the most popular with crowds, service robots are the most likely to help Japan maintain its position in the global economy. Toyota recently announced that service robots will become one of its core businesses, and the government is heavily subsidizing the development of service machines. One of Toyota's objectives is designing robots to help care for the elderly. Toyota predicts that in the next 10 to 20 years the most useful robots will be smart, highly mobile, wheelchair-like devices that bear little resemblance to the humanoid robots from the movies. However, many see robots as a quick fix and a politically expedient palliative that allows politicians and corporations to avoid discussing the difficult issues, such as Japan's strong aversion to immigration and Japanese women's increasing rejection of motherhood. "Robots can be useful, but they cannot come close to overcoming the problem of population decline," says Hidenori Sakanaka, the former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau and current director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute.
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Gates Hails Age of Digital Senses
BBC News (01/07/08)

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates predicts that they way people interact with computers will change dramatically over the next five years, with mice and keyboards giving way to touch, vision, and speech interfaces. "This whole idea of what I call natural user interface is really redefining the experience," Gates says. "We're adding the ability to touch and directly manipulate, we're adding vision so the computer can see what you're doing, we're adding the pen, we're adding speech." As examples of the future of user interfaces, Gates pointed to the Microsoft Surface computer, a large table-like machine with a multi-touch interface on the surface, as well as the iPhone and the Nintendo Wii game console. "I'll be brave, in five years we'll have many tens of million of people sitting browsing their photos, browsing their music, organizing their lives using this type of touch interface," Gates says. He says that although his company has made some mistakes over the years, he says Microsoft will surprise people with what it plans to do in the search area. Gates also supports Vista, noting Microsoft has sold 100 million licenses for the operating system.
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Illinois Advanced Computing Institute Funds First Three Projects
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (01/03/08)

The new Institute for Advanced Computing Applications and Technologies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will launch three inaugural projects this month. The first project, "Synergistic Research on Parallel Programming for Petascale Applications," will combine potentially petascale applications with needed computer science research, focusing on applications that could show sustain petascale performance given the right computer science tools. The second project, "Next-Generation Acceleration Systems for Advanced Science and Engineering Applications," will develop application algorithms, programming tools, and software artifacts for the deployment of next-generation accelerators, including graphics processing units and field-programmable gate arrays, in science and engineering applications. The third project, "Cultural Informatics," will apply information science and technology to the creation and understanding of the human experience, the expression of the human condition, and the revelation and communication of human values and meaning. This project may include the creation of new aesthetic works, public engagement, the performing arts, museum and other exhibition venues, and design strategies that impact society. "These projects will bring the development and deployment competencies of NCSA to bear on challenges in diverse disciplines and will forge unique collaborations between Illinois faculty and NCSA staff," says Institute and NCSA director Thom Dunning. "It's very exciting to be able to foster such innovative work."
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Pondering a Computer With a Conscience
Buffalo News (01/07/08) Continelli, Louise

Brandeis University neuroscience researcher Eliezer J. Sternberg's new book, "Are You a Machine? The Brain, The Mind And What It Means to Be Human," explores the possibility that computers could attain consciousness and meld with humans. Sternberg says some experts believe that we are close to designing super-intelligent machines capable of thinking millions of times faster than we do, and that by the middle of the century $1,000 will buy a computer with processing power equal to the brain power of the entire human population. Computers will also be able to create virtual worlds that allow us to alter and escape the real world. "Instead of calling a friend on the phone, you will be able to meet him or her at a virtual Parisian cafe or at the top of a virtual mountain with a scenic view," Sternberg says. "This virtual life will be as detailed as real life in every way." In his book, Sternberg note that inventor and computer expert Ray Kurzweil and MIT scientist Marvin Minsky believe that evolution will ultimately combine man and machine, leading to a world where the line between man and machine is so vague that people will not make any distinction.
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EU Project MERSA: New Processors to Make Cars More Economical and Planes Safer
Innovations Report (01/04/08)

The European Union's "Multi-Core Execution of Hard Real-Time Applications Supporting Analysability" (MERASA) project is working toward making cars and planes more energy efficient, economical, and safe. Possible improvements include ABS systems with a better performing electronic control unit and control units that allow for optimized fuel consumption, but such improvements require the execution of tasks within a very short interval of time, which is known as "hard real-time constraints." Currently, very few processors exist that can guarantee the necessary execution deadlines. The processors used in high-performing PCs are too expensive and are not suitable for applications in embedded systems such as ABS or engine regulation, and processors currently used in embedded systems have limited performance capabilities and are not able to meet the higher standards of safety and cost-effectiveness that the future will bring. The MERASA project is working to develop embedded processors that use multi-core technology to satisfy hard real-time constraints. "To this end, we at the University of Augsburg will develop new real-time-capable processor structures in collaboration with our colleagues at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center," says University of Augsburg computer scientist Theo Ungerer. "We will implement them prototypically, and at the same time design the corresponding real-time-capable operating system software here in Augsburg." Researchers at Paul Sabatier University and at Rapita Systems in the U.K. will deliver software tools that can calculate the worst-case execution time required to guarantee real-time capability.
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NSF Launches Mentoring Program for Minority Students
HPC Wire (12/31/07)

The "Empowering Leadership: Computing Scholars of Tomorrow" Alliance (EL Alliance) is targeting underrepresented minority computing students with an Internet-based mentorship program. The new initiative will give participants, who are often one of few minority students in their classes, an opportunity to find needed role models in the computing fields. Minority students often lack the support networks that are critical for entrance into the computing industry, advancement in their field, and overall career success. EL Alliance will find mentors based on the preferences of students, in addition to the experience and qualities of computing professionals. The national network is encouraging minority students and national leaders in the computing industry to sign up for the online mentoring program at www.empoweringleadership.org. Rice University leads the EL Alliance, which has ties to dozens of universities, professional societies, laboratories, research centers, and corporations. The National Science Foundation also supports the EL Alliance.
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Fuzzy Logic Tech Project to Help the Elderly
silicon.com (01/03/08) Ferguson, Tim

Researchers in the United Kingdom and the United States are developing prototype systems that incorporate fuzzy logic techniques into sensor technology for monitoring the movements, capturing the sleep patterns, or measuring the pulse and respiration of seniors. Fuzzy logic would enable such systems to reach better conclusions about the vague information that is picked up by sensors. For example, the system would be capable of determining that a sound is actually a door slamming and not someone falling, as a result of the computational mathematics of fuzzy logic, and would ultimately generate fewer false alarms. The project begins in January, and Dr. Simon Coupland, research fellow at the De Montfort University Center for Computational Intelligence in Leicester, will spend the next four months working in the United States with Jim Keller, a fuzzy logic expert at the University of Missouri's Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology. Such a system could still be five years away, due to the extensive trials it must undergo and the approval that will be needed.
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The Long Nose of Innovation
Business Week (01/02/08) Buxton, Bill

Microsoft principal scientist and author Bill Buxton offers his "Long Nose of Innovation" theory that most innovation underlying the latest "wow" moment is low-amplitude and proceeds over a long interval, long before the "new" idea has become general knowledge. "The low-frequency component of the Long Nose may well outweigh the later high-frequency and (more likely) high-visibility section in terms of dollars, time, energy, and imagination," he writes. Buxton cites the 30-year-long gestation period of the computer mouse, from first demonstration to mainstream penetration, as a typical example of his theory's validity. He points to a 2003 study presented to the National Research Council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board by Microsoft's Butler Lampson focusing on the progress of key IT and telecom technologies. The report concluded that the average gestation period was two decades, and three decades was not out of the ordinary, leading to Buxton's contention that any technology that will have substantial impact over the next decade has already been in existence for at least 10 years. The author maintains that the refinement of existing ideas is the core of the innovation process, and argues that "our collective glorification of and fascination with so-called invention--coupled with a lack of focus on the processes of prospecting, mining, refining, and adding value to ideas--says to me that the message is simply not having an effect on how we approach things in our academies, governments, or businesses." Buxton believes innovation might take a more balanced strategy where the amount of investment and prestige awarded to those who refine and augment innovations is at least equal to that awarded to the initial inventors.
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Google Tool Could Search Out Hospital Superbugs
New Scientist (01/04/08) Simonite, Tom

Researchers at Bradford University, studying the prevention and control of hospital-acquired infections, believe that the method Google uses to rank search results could be used to help hospitals reduce the number of "superbug" infections. Processing data from hospitals using Google's PageRank algorithm could help focus preventative efforts more accurately by identifying key routes of infection and transmission. "The question is, how do bugs get from A to B?," says Clive Beggs, head of the research group. "We don't really know that much about the epidemiology of these infections." Beggs' colleague, mathematician Simon Shepherd, believes the PageRank algorithm can rank routes of infection in the same way it is used to rank search results. "Our new model is based very much on the way Google has achieved number one status among search engines," Shepherd says. Shepherd plans on building a similar matrix that describes all interactions between people and objects in a hospital, based on observing normal activity. "Obviously nurses move among patients and that can spread infection, but they also touch light switches and lots of other surfaces too," Shepherd says. "If you observe a network of all those interactions you can build a matrix of with nodes in the network are in contact with which other nodes." He says the goal is to create software that enables hospital managers to analyze patterns and disrupt the spread of infection by themselves.
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GM Envisions Driverless Cars on Horizon
Associated Press (01/07/08) Krisher, Tom; Thomas, Ken

General Motors predicts that consumers will be able to buy vehicles that drive and park themselves within a decade. The necessary technology, such as radar-based cruise control, motion sensors, lane-change warning devices, electronic stability control, and satellite-based digital mapping already exists. Stanford University computer science professor Sebastian Thrun agrees that the driverless car is a technically attainable goal, but he is unsure if the automaker will have any vehicles in its showrooms in a decade. "There's some very fundamental, basic regulations in the way of that vision in many countries," Thrun says. He notes that the technology has a long way to go, considering one vehicle in the recent Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Urban Challenge nearly charged a building and another pulled into a house carport and parked itself. The contest initially drew 35 teams, but only six completed the 60-mile course, and Thrun's team took second place.
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Virtual Factory on the Tabletop
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (12/07)

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research IGD in Darmstadt have teamed up with colleagues at the Steinbeis Institute Design and Systems to develop a tabletop touchscreen that enables users to see the hidden sequences of industrial processes. The Multi-Touch Table is an intuitive tool that users can control with their fingers and swiping movements. For example, the large, industrial-scale display table would illuminate on its surface the image of a journey through pipes and machines in a factory. Users can touch with a finger the image of individual components, and swipe a finger over the objects to rotate, observe, and watch the process in slow motion. And by drawing apart their two index fingers, users can zoom in on details or enlarge the image. The Coperion Group of companies is already using the technology. "It allows customers to observe the entire process chain of plastics manufacturing and processing," says IGD project manager Michael Zollner. "They can watch in real time as the granulate flows through the pipes and regulate the speed by swiping a finger over the image."
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Coding (and Consulting) Kid-Style With Scratch
T.H.E. Journal (12/07) Schaffhauser, Dian

MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten research group has developed Scratch, a programming language designed to help kids learn mathematical and computational concepts along with the process of design. A paper about Scratch explains that the language can nurture skills in the areas of information and communication, thinking and problem-solving, and interpersonal and self-direction. The Scratch Web site freely offers the program for download, examples, tutorials, and discussion forums, and approximately 45,000 people have registered on the site thus far. Programming via Scratch allows kids to blend together sounds, music, graphics, and photos by dragging and dropping graphical command blocks onto a Scripts work area. The program begins with a "sprite" character that users can manipulate with command blocks, and starting and stopping scripts involves the user clicking a green flag and a red stop sign button, respectively. Students in Expo Elementary School teacher Karen Randall's elective program classes have used Scratch to deliver consulting and programming services for students at another school. Randall says the language helped her team experience the process of design in a deeper and more meaningful way. "They made products that are real pieces of software, adapted to the needs of real clients," she says.
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Software's 'Go-To Guy'
Software Development Times (12/01/07)No. 187, P. 27; Koch, Geoff

Specialist software developers are less in demand than versatile generalists as applications become more sophisticated and complex. "In the old days, applications were often standalone," notes Corticon Technology executive David Straus. "Today we are trying to develop applications into component services which are orchestrated by some [software] layer. We want these components to be reusable and well orchestrated." Trends are unfolding in the three biggest integrated development environments--NetBeans, Eclipse, and Visual Studio--that are easing the accommodation of different data types, the establishment of connections with an assortment of SQL databases, and the masking of the complexity of esoteric SQL syntax so that working visually with tables and rows, or even with higher-level entities, is possible. "While broader database and middle-tier skills are a big plus for a developer, in addition to expertise in the presentation layer, the [database administrator] as a specialty is still a necessary ingredient for architecturally complex projects," says RTTS division manager Jeff Bocarsly. "It might be good to have players who can cover either shortstop or left field on the team, but your closer is still going to be your closer."
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Conquering Complexity
Computer (12/07) Vol. 40, No. 12, P. 111; Holzmann, Gerard J.

Minor software bugs can conspire to facilitate major system failures when combined, writes Gerard J. Holzmann of the NASA/JPL Laboratory for Reliable Software. "The probability of any one specific combination of failures will be extremely low, but as experience shows, this is precisely what leads to major accidents," he notes. Holzmann points out that the addition of fault protection and redundancy, while reducing the severity of failures, also makes a system bigger and more complex, which can unintentionally broaden failure modes by introducing unplanned linkages between otherwise separate system elements. Reduction of minor software defects can be achieved in a number of ways, including adherence to stricter coding standards, such as the required usage of strong static source code analyzers on every software build. Another strategy is to boost the amount of decoupling between software components, thus separating independent system functionality to the maximum degree possible. Executing independent functions on physically distinct processors supplying only restricted interfaces between them is one of the most powerful decoupling tactics. Holzmann also suggests that defects can be contained through the use of memory protection to ensure that multiple threads of execution in a computer cannot corrupt each other's address space, while supplying more margin than is required for system operation is still another approach to defect containment. Redundancy in safety-critical code can be delivered through the use of multiple functionality layers, while the most commonly utilized strategy is defect detection that commences at the very beginning of the software development process.
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Can We Stop the Internet Destroying Our Planet?
New Scientist (01/03/07)No. 2637, P. 20; Mckenna, Phil

Since the February 2007 report by Berkeley National Laboratory staff scientist Jonathan Koomey, which showed that worldwide power consumption by servers had doubled between 2000 and 2005, numerous studies have highlighted the increasing energy demand created by computers. A week after Koomey's report, Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Dell, and Sun Microsystems forged the Green Grid, a coalition dedicated to solving hardware and software inefficiencies and reducing power consumption. Some data centers, including Google's, use renewable energy, and there is talk of systems that convert alternating current into direct current only once in a data center, instead of multiple times at different servers, but such efforts are unlikely to be enough. Every single electronic transaction, every credit card purchase, email, download, and record retrieval, goes through a data center, and the power cost is enormous. "Three years ago, YouTube didn't exist," says Green Grid director Lawrence Lamers, of software company Vmware. "Now there are hundreds of millions of videos being downloaded by millions of users." Other efforts to improve energy conservation include virtualizations software, which now can run on servers due to their increased processing power. The improved power of modern servers means that a server running only one program is generally using less than 15 percent of its capacity. Improving the efficiency of software is also helping save power. Google, for example, uses Linux on their data centers, which can be checked and adjusted to prevent the system from running small, meaningless tasks. Eventually, computers will be able to adjust their energy consumption in proportion to their workload.
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