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January 28, 2008

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Welcome to the January 28, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Bush Looks to Beef Up Protection Against Cyberattacks
Wall Street Journal (01/28/08) P. A8; Gorman, Siobhan

The Bush administration plans to include a $6 billion cybersecurity spending bill in February's budget proposal designed to protect U.S. communications systems from cyberattacks, but without knowing the details many lawmakers are unsupportive and skeptical the bill will pass. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says cyberterrorists make more aggressive attacks on government and private networks now than in previous years, and in one recent case hackers even shut down power equipment in several regions in an attempt to extort money. The proposal would cost an estimated $30 billion over seven years with $6 billion in startup costs in 2009. National Intelligence director Mike McConnell says the proposal can be cut back to cover only government networks, though more than 90 percent of attacks occur in the private sector. Lawmakers, however, are more concerned with the details of the proposal, and how network security and monitoring would be implemented without compromising civil liberties. One of the key sticking points will be how much access intelligence agencies have to private networks, since those agencies, particularly the National Security Agency, are expected to have big roles in any protection scheme. "We don't want to unconstitutionally infringe on the rights of private business under the guise of this new program," says House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.).
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At Florida Polls, Touch Screens and Crossed Fingers
Washington Post (01/27/08) P. A8; Whoriskey, Peter

While the troublesome voting machines that created the "hanging chad" debacle in the 2000 presidential election are gone, some in Florida are preparing for more ballot trouble from touch-screen machines during the upcoming presidential primaries. Following a machine failure in a 2006 congressional election, the Florida legislature voted to ban touch-screen machines, but replacement machines will not be ready until the general election in November. In one 2006 congressional contest, there were 18,000 people who checked into the polls and chose candidates in other contests but not in the congressional race. Some believe the undervotes were the result of a confusing ballot page or a conscious choice to skip that contest due to the negative tone of the race. Others suspect the machines dropped the votes, and numerous voters claimed the machines did not function properly. The cause of the undervotes has not been determined, and an official investigation did not find a bug in the machines that would have caused the votes to be dropped. The touch-screen machine failures prompted state lawmakers to require voting machines to leave a paper trail, forcing most counties to buy new machines. With the exception of Sarasota County, every county that has had to replace their machines will not be ready by the state's primary election. "Floridians have said they want to be able to cast a ballot on a piece of paper," says state elections officials spokesman Sterling E. Ivey. "We're moving to a paper system to help restore confidence."
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An Alternative Approach to NSF Funding of HPC
HPC Wire (01/25/08) Vol. 17, No. 4, Agarwala, Vijay K.

Vijay K. Agarwala, director of Research Computing and Cyberinfrastructure Information Technology Services at Penn State University, has sent a letter to all members of the Coalition for Academic Scientific Computing (CASC) proposing an alternative strategy for National Science Foundation funding in which a portion of the funding for large-scale computing at a single center be redistributed to several smaller high-performance computing systems in as many as 25 Tier 3 centers. "The science community and industry will be well served if a portion of the federal funding for large-scale computing systems is more evenly allocated rather than most of it being concentrated in a few centers," Agarwala writes. "While the national centers (Tier I and II) with their ultra-large systems will continue to have an important role in meeting the capacity and capability computing needs of U.S. scientists and engineers, support for a number of university-based research computation centers will help fill existing funding gaps and address many important policy objectives and goals such as development of skilled HPC personnel, deeper university-industry partnerships, increased adoption of HPC systems as a discovery tool by larger number of academic researchers as well as by industry, improved industrial competitiveness, and economic revitalization." Agarwala argues that by extending the same benefits and support that larger centers receive from NSF to smaller centers it will make the two-way migration between campuses and national resources far more common, increase the number of participants and providers, and make grid computing more of a reality.
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Engineer Unlocks Wii's Hidden Potential
CNet (01/28/08) Shankland, Stephen

Johnny Chung Lee, a Ph.D. graduate student from Carnegie Mellon University's Human-Computer Interaction Institute, used the infrared remote control of Nintendo's Wii to develop a virtual-reality head-tracker; a virtual whiteboard on a wall, tabletop, and laptop screen; and a Minority Report-style arm-waving and finger-pointing multitouch user interface. Lee used a computer to process data from the "Wiimote" system, which emits infrared light and has a bar-shaped detector that can track movements of up to four infrared sources with a 45-degree field of view. He attached Wiimote to a TV and the sensor bar to his head to create the virtual-reality head-tracker, which also feeds the information into an algorithm that adjusts the perspective of an image on a monitor. Video games could take advantage of the 3D feel that it produces. Lee used a pen with an infrared LED in its tip to create the whiteboard application, which only needed a quick calibration to enable a computer to track what he was "drawing" on a wall, tabletop, and laptop screen. He built the Wiimote-based user interface by attaching small reflectors to his fingertips, which the sensor bar can track, and ultimately respond to gestures such as pinching and swiping.
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Thinking About Tomorrow
Wall Street Journal (01/28/08) P. R1; Vascellaro, Jessica E.

Looking ahead 10 years, it is almost certain that we will not be taking jetpacks to work or have robot maids that cook and clean for us, but there will be some significant advancements during that time that drastically change how we live our lives. Mobile devices will continue to get smaller and become more powerful, connecting to the Internet through high-speed links and eventually giving people the power and functionality of a full desktop in a cellphone-sized device. Communication will become increasingly Internet based, with social networks often replacing traditional communication and become the main form for communications such as birthday greetings and wedding announcements. The lines between online and real-world shopping will become increasingly blurred, as online activity is tracked and relayed to stores that identify users and make suggestions based on that user's online activities. Electronic entertainment will be radically different as well. New video-game systems will likely use cameras to track player motions, replacing any and all forms of handheld controllers, and many Hollywood studios will start to produce low-budget films that are released directly to the Internet. How we access the Internet will also change, with mobile devices being more user and Internet friendly. Search engines will also do a better job of anticipating what users are looking for by more closely tracking Internet use. Google software engineer Matt Cutts says search engines might even analyze data from people's real-world movement, if they agree to it, by tapping into GPS devices in someone's car or phone. GPS technology will also allow people to interact more easily with resources such as Google Earth and Microsoft's Live Search Maps, which can provide information of buildings and the environment in detailed aerial maps.
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TV for the Visually Impaired
Technology Review (01/28/08) Sauser, Brittany

Schepens Eye Research Institute researchers have developed software that enables users to manipulate the contrast on their televisions to create specially-enhanced images for TV viewers with macular degeneration, a disease that can make the images on a screen appear blurred and distorted. "Our approach was to implement an image-processing algorithm to the receiving television's decoder," says project leader and Harvard Medical School ophthalmology professor Eli Peli. "The algorithm makes it possible to increase the contrast of specific-size details." Peli and his researchers discovered that patients with macular degeneration cannot perceive high-frequency waves in the visible spectrum, making fine details difficult or impossible to see. To make it easier to view an image, the researcher designed an algorithm that increases the contrast over the range of spatial frequencies that the visually impaired can see, specifically the middle and low-frequency waves. The researchers conducted a study using 24 patients with visual impairments, and six normal-sighted people, to determine the amount of image enhancement people prefer. The subjects sat in front of a television to watch four-minute videos, adjusting contrast with a remote control. All subjects, even people with normal sight, preferred some level of enhancement. Eventually, the system could make watching television a more "rewarding experience" by making it easier for people to pick out objects of interest, and Peli hopes the system will be incorporated into the options menu on all televisions.
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Smile! You've Been Averaged
ScienceNOW (01/24/08) Bhattacharjee, Yudhijit

Researchers from the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom say the "average" image of an individual can be used to improve the accuracy of face-recognition technology. The work of psychologists Rob Jenkins and A. Mike Burton is based on the way in which the brain becomes more familiar with a face upon repeat encounters. Jenkins and Burton developed a model of how the brain constructs an image of a face by distilling the underlying features into a reliable mental representation, and then applied it to a face-recognition system. The baseline performance of the system in probing 20 different pictures of 25 famous celebrities was 54 percent, but when a computer program was used to create a composite image of each celebrity, faces were recognized with 100 percent accuracy. Moreover, they also constructed the average of the celebrity images the system failed to recognize during the baseline performance test, and this image was correctly recognized 80 percent of the time. An airport would be able to use average images to improve the accuracy of matching passenger photos taken by its camera, according to the researchers. Anil Jain, a face-recognition expert and computer science professor at Michigan State University, says the technique needs to be tested on larger data sets.
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Haptics: Just Reach Out and Touch, Virtually
ICT Results (01/25/08)

European researchers have developed a haptic interface that allows users to feel virtual textiles. The system combines a specially-designed glove, a sophisticated computer model, and the visual representation of cloth to reproduce a realistic sensation. "It is a multi-modal approach that has never been tried before," says professor Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann, coordinator of the HAPTEX (haptic sensing of virtual textiles) project. Creating the sensation of deformable textiles requires a lot of modeling, the project's first significant challenge, says Magnenat-Thalmann, which included taking precise measurements of the tensile, bending, and stretching properties of the material. "You also need very high resolution," she says. "The visual system will give a realistic impression of movement with just 20 frames a second, but touch is much more sensitive. You need a thousand samples a second to recreate touch." The team developed two models to create virtual textiles, one global model to track the overall properties of the material, and a second, fine-resolution model that maps the actual sensation on the skin. This information is then combined with a detailed visual representation of the textile, which needs to be in perfect synchronization to create a realistic sensation. To combine a force-feedback device with a tactile device, the project developed a powered exoskeleton with a pair of pin arrays that provide tactile sensation to two fingers. The glove gives the sensation of bending and stretching fabric, while the pin arrays convey texture.
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Bubble-Busting Sounds Could Keep Chips Cool
New Scientist (01/24/08) Palmer, Jason

Sound waves can be used to improve the performance of liquid cooling as a solution for keeping computer chips from overheating, according to Ari Glezer and his colleagues at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Glezer's latest experiments involve placing an acoustic driver--which acts as a speaker--opposite the heated surface, with cooling fluid in-between. When the team projected a small amount of sound energy, at frequencies near 1 kilohertz, across the fluid, the gathering bubbles were dislodged. The amount of heat they were able to dissipate increased by as much as 147 percent. Sound-enhanced liquid cooling delivered its best results when the acoustic driver and the heated surface were just a few millimeters apart, which means the approach could work in applications that have little space. "The underwater jets solution is effective, but this way is more compact, requires less power, and is, well, more elegant," Glezer says.
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'Biometrics' Used to Identify Terrorists
Advertiser (AU) (01/22/08) Riches, Sam

Computer scientists and engineers, investigators, and lawyers gathered in Adelaide, Australia, this week for the first international "e-Forensics" conference, which addressed Internet and electronic-crime and crime prevention. "We're talking about the Internet, telephony, mobile phones, mobile phone cameras, digital cameras--all of these are being used not only to commit crimes but also to solve crimes," says conference chairman Dr. Matthew Sorrell from the University of Adelaide. The United States is currently working with Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and China on a collaborative database that would use biometrics to identify and trace terrorists and other persons of interest. Airports and corporations have used such artificial intelligence tools for years to capture facial features and match them to existing images or data. "There have been some very minor achievements, but people still expect to spend more money and time and to achieve a solution that cannot afford any more mistakes--aiming for 100 percent accuracy," says Northeastern University professor Patrick Wang.
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Battlefields Will Be Big Test for 'Seeing' Robot
Christian Science Monitor (01/25/08) P. 3; Peter, Tom A.

The U.S. military could begin deploying "seeing" robots in Afghanistan and Iraq within 12-18 months to test their ability to maneuver through unknown terrain autonomously to perform such missions as removing bombs and searching for casualties in contaminated sites. Until now, giving robots the ability to see required computer-vision systems that were hard to mount on anything much smaller than a SUV. Furthermore, systems designed for factory robots in controlled environments did not work well outdoors in conditions such as direct sunlight, fog, or dust. Also, the sensor systems had a number of moving parts, making it hard for robots to guide themselves. But new 3D flash laser radar (LADAR) technology eliminates all these barriers, allowing sophisticated vision for small machines. "It's one of the holy grails of robotics to be able to do that," says William Thomasmeyer, president of the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Defense Robotics. "It's like the smaller robots have been trying to navigate with one arm tied behind their back when compared to larger robots... [Now] that hand becomes untied for smaller robots, and they've got the same advantages in terms of sensors and sensing as larger robots do."
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Mouse of the Future? N.C. Students Navigate PCs With Glove
LocalTechWire.com (01/24/08) Anselm, Amy

Students at North Carolina State University's College of Engineering have developed the Manus Glove, a device that they believe will be the next major innovation in controlling computers. "Basically, it is the mouse of the future," says Ameir Al-Zoubi, a senior in computer science at N.C. State and a member of the four-student team that developed the glove. The Manus Glove uses motion-sensing technology that interprets small motions into acceleration, tracking movement not position. The device takes about 30 minutes to learn, says team member Matthew Crenshaw. During a demonstration, Crenshaw flicked through application windows and browsed Web pages. Cursor speed is controlled by the angle of the user's hand, while movements such as flicking a finger backward or pinching fingers together can send a browser window back a page or open documents and links. The glove has sensors attached to the end of each digit so touching the thumb to another digit can act as a click or activate hotkeys. One of the main purposes of the glove, which can operate any Bluetooth device, is to unify the control of cell phones, MP3 players, headsets, keyboards, and other devices. "We're thinking we could make this like a leather driving glove," Al-Al-Zoubi says. The researchers say the glove could also be used during presentations since it is more natural, easier to use, and less distracting than having to hold a mouse, remote, or a clicker.
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Net Body Issues Plea for Liberty
BBC News (01/24/08)

In a lengthy report sent to the U.S. Department of Commerce, ICANN asked to be freed from U.S. government control. In its report, ICANN said that it has achieved the objectives the government said it must accomplish before it can be released from official oversight. ICANN also noted that now is the time to begin discussing its transition from an organization overseen by the U.S. government to an independent organization. In remarks to BBC News, ICANN President Paul Twomey said the government will still have a role in the organization, even after it becomes independent. Twomey said the U.S. government would keep the organization informed about public policy developments, but would not dictate its agenda or development. ICANN's report will be discussed with officials from the Department of Commerce at a meeting in March.
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Common Computers Gain Superpowers Through Student Network
Michigan State University Newsroom (01/21/08)

More than one million people have joined the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BIONC), a computing network that allows anyone with a computer to help search for extraterrestrial intelligence, fight AIDS and other diseases, assist cancer research, or support a variety of other research efforts. BOINC is an open-source computer program created at the University of California, Berkeley designed to generate the power of a supercomputer with the unused processing power of personal computers. The system breaks extremely large computing processes, such as proving Einstein's theories or modeling climate change, and breaks them down into small pieces, which are downloaded to personal computers that process the pieces while idle. Running BOINC does not slow down other applications because BOINC is given the lowest processing priority, allowing other programs to be processed before BOINC starts. Jonathan Brier, a Michigan State University junior and founder of the Michigan State BOINC Researchers, says the total computing power of BOINC is surpassing the fastest supercomputer in the world, and that it is only using a small fraction of the computers in the world so it has the potential to be much faster.
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Decertification Dilemma
Government Technology (12/07) Vol. 20, No. 12, Douglas, Merrill

Following an expert review of California's electronic voting systems, Secretary of State Debra Bowen implemented the decertification of all the machines and then recertified them for use under specific circumstances. She says ongoing, unresolved debates about the security and reliability of various e-voting techniques, as well as documented security bugs, spurred her concerns. Bowen's office now requires the deployment by election officials of tougher security and post-election auditing procedures for all machines, while Hart InterCivic direct recording electronic systems may continue to be employed by counties, provided that they are in compliance with the stronger standards. Counties cannot use DRE systems from Sequoia Voting Systems and Diebold Election Systems except to perform early voting, and must supply one machine for disability access at each polling place. California Association of Clerks and Election Officials President Stephen Weir says this ruling will be especially significant for 21 counties where Sequoia or Diebold DRE systems have been used for all Election Day voting, adding that counties will probably be forced to use paper ballots for most in-person voting in February. Votes can then be counted either by running all ballots through the centrally located optical scanning systems that are currently used to tally absentee ballots, or by purchasing new scanning systems to count votes at the precinct level. Weir says the tallying process will be slowed down with the addition of paper ballots to the absentee ballots that counties already feed into the central scanners, while installing new precinct-based scanners and associated training costs could come to about $66 million. Bowen says the effects of the voting system decertifications should be eased by the state's vote-by-mail policies.
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Web 3.0: Chicken Farms on the Semantic Web
Computer (01/08) Vol. 41, No. 1, P. 106; Hendler, Jim

A new class of semantic technologies is being explored by both new and well-entrenched companies seeking to harness their power for new "Web 3.0" applications, driving anticipation of commercialization, writes Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor Jim Hendler. The World Wide Web Consortium produced the first Resource Description Framework specification in 1999, but semantic technologies did not begin to take off until the following year when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency invested in RDF to tackle interoperability issues the U.S. Defense Department was saddled with. The W3C refocused on the development of Semantic Web tools in 2001 under the Semantic Web Activity umbrella, and within several years the improvement of the RDF standard, the completion of RDF Schema standardization, and the commencement of work on the Web ontology language (OWL) were being stressed by new working groups. In 2004 new versions of RDF and RDFS, along with the first version of OWL, earned recommendation by the consortium as Web standards. Various chicken-and-egg problems plague the Semantic Web, including Web 3.0 applications' requirement for data that is available for sharing either inside or across an enterprise; the need for machine-readable vocabularies for describing these data sets or documents; and the need for extensions to browsers or other Web tools augmented by Semantic Web data. The creation of three-tiered Semantic Web applications that bear a similarity to standard Web applications--and thus the presentation of Semantic Web data in a usable form to end users or to other applications--has been made possible by the emergence of RDF query languages such as SPARQL. The challenge lies in persuading companies or governments to release data, ontology designers to construct and share domain descriptions, and Web application developers to probe Semantic-Web-based applications.
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