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ACM TechNews
January 11, 2008

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Welcome to the January 11, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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ACM Opens Branch Office in China
AScribe Newswire (01/10/08)

ACM has opened a branch office in China as part of a partnership with Tsinghua University in Beijing to meet the growing needs of its professional and student members there. The new office strengthens ACM's legacy of providing valuable resources to the global computing community, and offers added convenience to ACM members in China by granting access to ACM's broad array of products and services. ACM CEO John R. White says China's information technology profile in the global economy is growing. "China's investment in science and technology is focused on creating an innovative nation that is driven by both basic and applied research as well as commercialization of science and technology," White says. "ACM has the educational and career resources to help Chinese-based researchers, practitioners, and students achieve their professional goals in this emerging environment." ACM offers a variety of resources to help computing and IT professionals and students, including the ACM Digital Library, hundreds of online books and courses available to ACM members for no charge, individualized mentoring programs, Special Interest Groups on critical aspects and applications of computing, global networking opportunities, and recognition awards.
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Digital Tools Help Users Save Energy, Study Finds
New York Times (01/10/08) P. C1; Lohr, Steve

Giving people the ability to closely monitor and adjust their electricity use lowers their monthly bill and could significantly reduce the need to build new power plants, concludes a new Pacific Northwest National Laboratory study. The study found that if households have digital tools to set temperature and cost preferences, peak loads on utility grids could be reduced by up to 15 percent a year, which over a 20-year period could save $70 billion in spending for power plants and infrastructure and prevent the need to build the equivalent of 30 large coal-fired plants. For the study researchers outfitted 112 homes with digital thermostats and computer controllers on water heaters and clothes dryers, which were connected to the Internet. Homeowners could then visit a Web site where they could set their ideal temperature, how far above and below that ideal the temperature could vary, and their level of tolerance for fluctuating electricity prices. The live marketplace for the project used software and analytics designed by IBM Research. Every five minutes, households and local utilities were buying and selling electricity, with prices constantly fluctuating by minute amounts every time demand on the grid changed. IBM Watson Research Center senior researcher Ron Ambrosio says the transaction that took place was essentially the house's thermostat and water heater acting as day-traders for electricity, waiting for the right price. The households saved an average of 10 percent on their monthly utilities. IDC analyst Rick Nicholson says the project was a great proof of concept, but it is unlike consumers will see such technology in their homes anytime soon.
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Google Fellows Reveal Parallel Processing Model
InfoWorld (01/09/08) Snyder, Jason

Google Fellows Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat published a paper in the January issue of Communications of the ACM that details the programming model Google leverages to process more than 20 petabytes of data every day on commodity-based clusters. The method, known as MapReduce, lets users break computations into a map and a reduce function, which the runtime system automatically parallelizes across large clusters while navigating machine failures and honing the efficiency of network and disk use in the process. The methodology abstracts parallelization, fault tolerance, data distribution, and load balancing into a library. Over 10 thousand programs have been implemented at Google using MapReduce, which can also parallelize computations for multicore processing on a single machine. MapReduce has been used for large-scale graph processing, text processing, data mining, machine learner, statistical machine translation, and other algorithms. Computations are submitted to a scheduler that maps tasks to available machines. Dean and Ghemawat write that the most significant use of MapReduce has been rewriting the indexing system used in Google search. The paper, "MapReduce: Simplified Data Processing on Large Clusters," is available at http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1327492">portal.acm.org/citation.c fm?id=1327492.
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SIGGRAPH Animation Fest Grows
Animation Magazine (01/09/08) Ball, Ryan

SIGGRAPH's 2008 Computer Animation Festival will look more like a full-scale film festival and will be more accessible to the general public than in past events. The festival will offer a number of discussion panels with filmmakers, artists, and producers. Curated content from around the globe is being sought for the first time, and screenings will also include full-length animated works. The awards program is being expanded to include an interactive audience voting mechanism, and major awards will be announced throughout the week of the conference. "These enhancements are a direct reflection of the importance of computer graphics in many aspects of everyday life--from entertainment to science," says SIGGRAPH conference entertainment director Jill Smolin. "Plus, from cell phones to laptops, the general public has never had as much access to really great animated content as they do today." The deadline for online entries is Jan. 31 and Feb. 27 for materials. Submission details are available at http://www.siggraph.org/s2008/submissions. ACM SIGGRAPH is sponsoring the 35th annual SIGGRAPH conference and exhibition, which is scheduled for Aug. 11-15 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
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Young IT Workers Disillusioned, Hard to Hold, Survey Says
Network World (01/10/08) Dubie, Denise

IT managers say employees between the ages of 18 and 31 hold employers to unrealistic expectations and make unreasonable demands for their services, concludes an IT staffing survey by Atlantic Associates. More than 100 Massachusetts executives were surveyed on the challenges they face, and more than 50 percent responded that teens and 20-something employees are the "toughest generation to manage." Employees between the ages of 32 and 42 years old were considered the second most difficult to manage, with 17 percent saying they pose a management challenge. "The issue managers are facing is with retention, not hiring," says Atlantic Associates' Jack Harrington. "That means the work environment is not living up to the employee's expectation." Many younger workers expect to be given an office and a high salary at an entry-level position, for example. Harrington says that younger workers have to change there expectations, but that the work environment also has to change to keep high-demand, skilled, IT employees. The survey also found that 23 percent of executives say retaining existing staff is the top concern and 22 percent say they struggle to find new qualified candidates. "There is a shrinking talent pool of qualified IT professionals and some managers are talking about the graying of their current staff," Harrington says. "They want to get young workers in here before those older staff members retire so they can retain that knowledge."
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As Primary Season Ramps Up, an E-Voting Snapshot
Computerworld (01/08/09) Weiss, Todd R.

There is not enough confidence in electronic touch-screen voting machines to warrant their use by the 450,000 to 500,000 voters that are expected to participate in the country's first presidential primary this year, according to New Hampshire deputy secretary of state David Scanlan. Such devices face major trust issues from voters and election officials, in view of security problems and other woes that have plagued the machines. An EVEREST study on Ohio's e-voting systems was so critical of the devices' security that Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner instructed all state election officials to supply paper ballots to every voter who requests one as an alternative to touch-screen machines. Optical-scanning machines that read and count votes from paper ballots will collect votes from approximately three-quarters of New Hampshire's voters, while another quarter of the voters will use paper ballots that are counted by hand. "We like to go with something simple and reliable that maintains the confidence of the voters," says Scanlan. Concerns about the security, accuracy, and reliability of touch-screen machines led to the decertification of an array of devices from various vendors for use in California, although some were later recertified under new rules. The new regulations dictate that just one touch-screen machine will be allowed for use in each polling place, specifically for disabled voters.
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Core Economics
HPC Wire (01/11/08) Vol. 17, No. 2, Feldman, Michael

A unique marketing model for manycore processors is proposed by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers Joseph Sloan and Rakesh Kumar. The current economic model has customers purchasing systems containing processors that meet the average or worst-case computation needs of their applications, and the researchers contend that the increasing number of cores complicates the matching of performance needs and applications and makes the cost of buying idle computing power increasingly prohibitive. Sloan and Kumar speculate that the customer will typically require fewer cores than are physically on the chip, but may want to use more of them in certain instances, and they suggest that chips be developed in a manner that allows users to pay only for the computing power they need rather than the peak computing power that is physically present. By incorporating small pieces of logic into the processor, the vendor can enable and disable individual cores, and Sloan and Kumar offer four models that allow dynamic adjustment of the chip's available processing power. In the UpgradesOnly model, users initially buy enough cores to meet their current processing requirements, while extra cores can be enabled at any point during the processor lifetime, making a system upgrade unnecessary until the user requires more processing power than is physically available on the chip. Via the Limited Up/Downgrade model, the user can scale up and down as dictated by computational needs, while in the CoresOnRent model the user contacts the vendor to access a specific number of cores for a specific lease period. The least restrictive model is the PayPerUse model, in which the user is billed for actual core usage over a specified lease period. The connection the memory system has with the processor's peak performance is an issue, and Sloan and Kumar suggest that system balance should be supported by making the memory architecture composable.
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Scientist Uses High Tech to Recover Low-Tech Data
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (01/11/08) Pitz, Marylynne

Carnegie Mellon senior computer scientist Yang Cai is using high-resolution, three-dimensional scans to discover names, ages, dates, epitaphs, and other valuable information on historic gravestones that have been erased by harsh weather, acid rain, and pollution. In addition to recovering lost information, Cai is using the digital scans to create a virtual tour of the cemetery at Old St. Luke's Church in Scott, Pa., where he is studying the gravestones. The potential for discovering lost information with new technology is exciting to many historians and genealogists. "I think that this is going to interest a lot of people," says Marilyn Cocchiola Holt, the program chair for the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society. "The fact that we can take a completely illegible gravestone and utilize this cutting edge technology to make it readable again and to give that information back to people, I think, is amazing." Cai uses digital lighting and filtering that delineates the curved and linear features on a tombstone's surface. Computer software then strips the image of any color, which improves the clarity and quality of the image. "The software is good at filtering and rendering the massive data, but human experts are good at reasoning, finding the errors, and connecting the dots," Cai says. Cai believes the technology could be available for amateur use in about two years, and that the software he developed has potential uses in medicine, geography, and security checkpoints.
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Reality TV: When the Tube Talks Back
Globe and Mail (CAN) (01/11/08) Hartley, Matt

At the International Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas, consumer electronics manufacturers displayed wall-sized TVs that recognize who is in front of them, car stereo systems that are controlled by voice, and portable devices that can tell a user what movies are playing at a theater by pointing the device at the marquee. "We'll see things that are different, and novel interfaces that use computer vision to basically allow computers to see the environment like we humans can," says University of Toronto engineering professor Parham Aarabi. While most of these technologies are still in development and years away from the consumer market, revolutionary products on the market now, such as the iPhone and Nintendo Wii, show that technology is rapidly changing and consumers are ready for new, innovative products. Some of the technology, like speech recognition, is relatively old technology but is only now being refined to the point where it can be useful in consumer electronics. During his keynote address, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates demonstrated software that can recognize people or places, and predicted that it will eventually be available on Windows Mobile devices. "We're not too far away from that right now, there are a variety of technologies where cameras on the street can recognize people," Aarabi says. "The technology is there now; for better or worse that's something we might see within one or two decades."
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Design Patterns Hold Key to Better Software, Says Expert
Computer Weekly (01/07/08) Richards, Justin

IBM fellow Grady Booch believes the opportunity to study design patterns will be beneficial in the development of complex software systems. Booch considers the observation of design patterns to be one of the key advances in software design over the past decade. He has been cataloging several thousand design patterns as a founding member of the Hillside Group. The ability to describe significant or architectural patterns would help improve the efficiency of delivering complex software systems, Booch says. Software engineers do not have the same luxury as civil engineers, who can study the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, Christopher Wren, or Frank Gehry. What is more, programmers often work with other stakeholders, who can be geographically and temporally dispersed, and the code is not all the truth. "There is entropy, a loss of information, from vision to construction, so even though I may stare at some code, I do not have access to the rationale or the patterns that sweep across the individual lines of code," Booch says. Collaborative developing environments would offer a way to weave together a number of things from social networking sites to improve the developer experience, he adds.
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Researchers Are Partnering the Development of a Computer System to Prevent the Depletion of World Fishery Resources
Innovations Report (01/09/08) Martinez, Eduardo

A world fishery stock depletion assessment and early warning system is being devised by researchers from the Ontology Engineering Group at the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid's School of Computing for the purpose of preventing stock depletion and overfishing. The system would rely on the application of ontology networks for the expedient and effective extraction of information from amongst a massive amount of fishery resources data. The project was financed by the European Community under the Sixth Framework Program, and the research has been developed within the Lifecycle Support for Networked Ontologies (NeOn) integrated partnership in collaboration with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The research was detailed in a paper presented at the Conference of the Spanish Association for Artificial Intelligence, explaining how ontology networks can aid in the collection, analysis, interpretation, and dissemination of nutrition and fishery information. The management of world fisheries requires obtaining the best and fullest information, and correlating all the myriad variables that can impact fisheries. It is the goal of the NeOn project partners to generate a new open infrastructure designed to support the creation of scalable semantic applications at geographically dispersed institutions, while the FAO will make its world fisheries databases accessible. Through the implementation of the system, the FAO could employ ontologies and semantic technologies to help nations keep an eye on fisheries and the level of critical reserves, and deploy strategies to augment information about the status and trends of capture fisheries.
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Intelligent Software to Help Build Perfect Robotic Hand
MTB Europe (01/08/08)

University of Portsmouth senior lecturer Honghai Liu and Jiao Tong University Robotics Institute professor Xiangyang Zhu are developing intelligent software that could help build the perfect robotic hand. The researchers will record how the human hand moves and use artificial intelligence to copy the movements and replicate them in a robotic device. "A robotic hand which can perform tasks with the dexterity of a human hand is one of the holy grails of science," Liu says. "We are talking about having super high level control of a robotic device." Liu used a cyberglove with tiny sensors to record data on how the human hand moved, capturing motion with eight high-resolution CCD cameras with infrared illumination and measurement accuracy within a few millimeters. Zhu says the research partnership will strengthen the interface between artificial intelligence techniques and robotics and create a new chapter in robotics technology.
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Crash Warning for Connected Cars?
ICT Results (01/04/08)

European researchers have developed a laboratory demonstration of a collision warning system for cars that could alert the driver several seconds before an accident takes place. The Collision Warning System, developed by the Reposit project, allows a vehicle to know its own location and to communicate with other cars to predict possible accidents. The prototype uses GPS to find its position, and can find the position, speed, and trajectory of neighboring and oncoming traffic using an emerging car communication protocol called Vehicle2Vehicle (V2V). The system uses that information to calculate the relative position of other cars and to extrapolate where the cars will be in a few seconds' time. "So far, we've got predictions about one to three seconds ahead of a collision," says project coordinator Jose Ignacio Herrero Zarzosa. "But anything from two seconds up gives drivers time to react." While creating a third-party technology for the automotive industry is difficult, as there is no standard for integrating new functions into existing car systems, the popularity of GPS and the emergence of V2V as a standard are expected to make the system more attractive over time.
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Virtual Worlds Will Soon Be as Important as Web Companies
Computerworld (01/09/08) Havernstein, Heather

A Forrester Research report argues that within five years the 3D Internet will become as important to companies as the Web is today. The report, "Getting Work Done in Virtual Worlds," concludes that executives should begin investigating and experimenting with virtual worlds because of their promise for remote collaboration, training, and building and sharing 3D models. The report says that modern collaboration tools are far less beneficial to companies. For example, the inability to see gestures during teleconferences causes problems for some attendees. It would be easy to tell who was speaking during a virtual world meeting, and avatars can even be directed to express gestures and emotions. "In a virtual meeting room, you can see who is present, and more importantly, who is multi-tasking, who has raised a hand or who has been away from their keyboard so long that their avatar has fallen asleep," the report says. Virtual meetings could be particularly important for professionals such as surgeons, architects, engineers, and product designers, who use CAD or visualization systems to create projects, which could be imported to the virtual meeting and viewed first hand by everyone involved. Princeton University has a project to manage distributed teams working on a large-scale astrophysics project, the University of Maryland worked with the I-95 Corridor Coalition to build a virtual world simulation of highway emergencies, and Duke University and Virtual Heroes are collaborating to create a high-fidelity 3D virtual environment to help train health care professionals in teamwork and communication skills.
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Collaboration: The $588 Billion Problem
CIO Insight (01/03/08) Boulton, Clint

While emails, instant messaging, blogs, and other computer-based forms of communication have revolutionized how workers collaborate, interruptions and duplications caused by digital communication are overwhelming workers to the point of distraction and may cost the U.S. economy as much as $588 billion a year, according to a new Basex report. The report, "Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us," written by Basex analysts Jonathan B. Spira and David M. Goldes, calls information overload the "Problem of the Year" for 2008 and claims that interruptions from emails, phone calls, and instant messages consume 28 percent of a knowledge worker's work day, resulting in 28 billion hours of lost productivity a year. For example, a worker who relies on instant messaging may miss important emails, and while wikis may improve communication between coworkers, they also distract employees from their individual tasks. The increasing number of collaboration methods also create more and more locations where users may store information, making it harder for other users to find that information and often leading to employees repeating work. The report proposes several steps to alleviate information overload, such as not phoning recipients to confirm that they received an email and avoiding combining multiple subjects, messages, or request into a single email. The report also recommends that workers be as explicit as possible in all forms of communication so readers can quickly and thoroughly understand the purpose of a piece of communication.
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Intelligent Foam Could Keep Shop Shelves Stacked
New Scientist (01/09/08) Inman, Mason

Researchers at Johannes Kepler University, in Linz, Austria, have developed a sensing foam that can be used to monitor store stock and automatically alert employees when an item is sold out. The foam is made of layers of polyolefin, each a quarter of a millimeter thick, with air gaps to make the material light and flexible. The sensing is done by applying strips of silver-containing paint to either side of the sheet. The strips act as capacitors, storing a small amount of electricity. When an item is on top of the foam, the foam is compressed slightly, changing the capacitors' ability to store a charge. The sensors can detect differences of at least 10 grams or more per square inch, which is not extremely sensitive, but is enough to detect consumer goods. By making criss-crossing grids of silver strips, the foam could detect cereal or a can of soup by weight, and replacing the silver with copper would reduce the cost to about one dollar per meter. The foam could also be built into floors to monitor people's movements, or make a portable keyboard for computers or cell phones that could be rolled up for travel.
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Open Source Code Contains Security Holes
InformationWeek (01/08/08) Babcock, Charles

Numerous security exposures have been discovered in Samba, the PHP, Perl, and other popular open source projects, according to a review by the Department of Homeland Security. Like its commercial equivalent, open source code typically includes one security hole for every 1,000 lines of code. Some projects, such as Samba, have fixed the majority of the vulnerabilities identified by the Homeland Security review. Other projects, such as FreeBSD and Firebird, have been slow to respond to the scans' findings. Overall, roughly 116 of the 180 projects being examined are utilizing the scans and are correcting their security defects. Samba and Linux, along with some other projects, were found to have a substantially lower rate of defects than average, according to David Maxwell of Coverity, manufacturer of the source code checking system used in the review. Since the review was launched in 2006, a total of 7,826 open source project vulnerabilities have been resolved.
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Visualizing Electronic Health Records With 'Google-Earth for the Body'
IEEE Spectrum (01/08) Charette, Robert N.

A prototype 3D visualization tool for electronic health records (eHRs) that maps the information in the records to an image of the human body has been developed by IBM researchers. By clicking a mouse on a specific area of the image, a doctor calls up information corresponding to that segment. "The 3D coordinates in the model are mapped to anatomical concepts, which serve as an index onto the electronic health record," notes IBM researcher Andre Elisseeff. The displayed images link not only to a patient's eHR, but also to the 300,000 medical terms defined by the Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine international standard. The mapper engine project was inspired by discussions the IBM research team had with physicians working at IBM about the problems with using eHR systems, and one doctor said that when presented with the graphical representation of medical data, many doctors seem to recognize what is happening with a patient and uncover the underlying proof faster. Further investigation convinced the researchers "that we needed ... an unstructured, flexible representation of human anatomy, browsing-style navigation with shortcuts, bookmarks, et cetera," Elisseeff recalls. He says the project's chief goal is to shift eHR systems away from an administrative work mode toward a clinician's natural work style, enabling both the physician and the patient to engage as easily as possible with the eHR system. Elisseeff insists that the mapper engine was not created to support diagnosis, which makes practical sense, as studies have demonstrated that doctors are less accepting of IT than other professionals, even when the advantages have been clearly presented.
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