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ACM TechNews
February 8, 2008

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Welcome to the February 8, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Machines Cleared in 2006 Vote Flap
Herald Tribune (South Fla.) (02/07/08) Sword, Doug

Touch-screen voting machines were not the cause of an 18,000-undervote in the 2006 congressional election in Sarasota County, Fla., according to a forthcoming report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that was released early by Rep. Vern Buchanan, who won the disputed election over Christine Jennings. The GAO is scheduled to present the findings of its report on Feb. 8th before a three-member congressional taskforce investigating the election. Although the GAO report closes Jennings' effort to overturn the election results, the two are expected to compete in a rematch in November. Following the election controversy, the county's $4.5 million touch-screen system was retired in favor of a system that leaves a paper trail. The GAO tested 115 touch-screen machines used in the November 2006 election and said they did not find any problems with the machines. "Although the test results cannot be used to provide absolute assurance, GAO believes that these test results, combined with other reviews that have been conducted, have significantly reduced the possibility that the iVotronic DREs were the cause of the undervote," the report says. Possible other causes include either intentionally not choosing a contestant in the election, or the ballot design, which placed the congressional race directly under the gubernatorial race and could have caused some voters to not see it.
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Spies' Battleground Turns Virtual
Washington Post (02/06/08) P. D1; O'Harrow, Robert Jr.

Intelligence officials are concerned that online role-playing games could give terrorists and criminals another way to transfer money and organize attacks. Economies have grown in games such as "Second Life," which has its own currency, banks, and shopping malls. Millions of people have created "avatars," an anonymous computer-generated person. Many corporations hold virtual meetings, where avatars from all over the world sit in the same online conference room. Security experts say the anonymity and ability to make financial transfers pose security risks related to terrorism and organized crime. Although there is no evidence of terrorist activity, there have been instances of online fraud and harassment. Virtual worlds could be subject of the next big debate over the limits of the government's oversight. Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology says the concerns over virtual worlds mirror the government's reaction to the rise in popularity of cell phones and the Internet. Officials of Linden Lab, which runs the Second Life game, have been meeting with representatives of the intelligence community to discuss security risks. The CIA has also began using the game for internal use, including training and meetings on some private "islands."
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Taming the Data Deluge With the New Open Source iRODS Data Grid System
UCSD News (02/07/08) Tooby, Paul

The Data-Intensive Computing Environments (DICE) group at the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego has released the Integrated Rule-Oriented Data System (iRODS), an open-source approach to handling digital data. "IRODS is an innovative data grid system that incorporates and moves beyond 10 years of experience in developing the widely used Storage Resource Broker (SRB) technology," says DICE director Reagan Moore. "IRODS equips users to handle the full range of distributed data management needs, from extracting descriptive metadata and managing their data to moving it efficiently, sharing data securely with collaborators, publishing it in digital libraries, and finally archiving data for long-term preservation." Moore says the most powerful iRODS feature is an innovative "rule engine" that allows users to handle complex data management tasks. Users can "virtualize" data management policies by applying rules that control the execution of all data access and manipulation operations, instead of having to hard code these actions or workflows into the software. "One reason policy-based data management is important is that it lets communities integrate across different types of collection structures," Moore says. "What this means is that iRODS lets one community talk to any other community independent of what data management system the other community is using."
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NSF Wants $6.85 Billion to Fund Cybersecurity, Other Research
Network World (02/05/08)

The National Science Foundation asked the federal government for a budget of $6.85 billion for fiscal year 2009, a 13 percent increase over its fiscal 2008 budget. The extra money would go to funding more research in cybersecurity and advanced processors, among other areas. NSF director Arden Bement, Jr. says the United States needs to increase its research spending if the country is to stay competitive on a global scale. "More than a dozen major studies have now concluded that a substantial increase in federal funding for basic scientific research is critical to ensure the preeminence of America's scientific and technological enterprise," Bement says. "Increased federal investments in research and education are imperative now to sustain our comparative advantages in a flattening world." The request includes about $117 million for cybersecurity research and education, specifically focusing on usability and privacy, and $100 million for "Cyber-enabled Discovery and Innovations," which would involve research into knowledge management, virtual organizations, and more. NSF also requested funding for "Science and Engineering Beyond Moore's Law," which aims to improve computing systems beyond current limitations, and "Adaptive Systems Technology," for research into human-machine interfaces. NSF also requested funding to support collaboration between U.S. and foreign researchers, and to better enable efforts within U.S. agencies.
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Smart Pillbox Could Be a Lifesaver
MIT News (02/06/08) Chandler, David

MIT doctoral student Manish Bhardwaj and a team of collaborators say they have developed a high-tech, inexpensive, and easy-to-use solution to the problem of making sure people follow the proper regimen for taking medication. The first part of the system is a "smart" pillbox called the uBox. The uBox has 14 chambers that can each be loaded with several pills. A single chamber can be dispensed at a time, on a daily basis, and flashing lights and a buzzer alerts the patient to when it is time to take the medicine. When a compartment is opened, the uBox records the exact time and prevents double dosing by refusing to open until the next treatment is due. After two weeks, the patient brings the uBox back to a health care worker who reloads the box and digitally records and transmits the information the box recorded. Doctors and public health services can get complete data on each patient's compliance in almost real time. The second part is a cell phone called the uPhone. By using special software, health care workers can record a patient's temperature, weight, and answer questions related to symptoms. Doctors can then look at patterns to see which field workers are achieving the best adherence rates with their patients and analyze what they are doing right. "We worked very hard to make something very simple and elegant," Bhardwaj says. "But we'd be delighted if someone beats us to it and builds a uBox cheaper. We hope other people will copy us."
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ISSCC: Jeff Hawkins on Why a Computer Can't Be More Like a Brain
Mercury News (02/04/08) Takahashi, Dean

Numenta founder Jeff Hawkins argues at ISSCC that little progress is being made on the replication of human intelligence by computers, noting that a lack of knowledge for comprehending simple statements rather than speed is the inhibiting factor. He says performing brain-like functions with different algorithms is unnecessary, supporting Vernon Mountcastle's conclusion that only one algorithm is needed to solve all computation problems. In hierarchical memory systems, bottom-level cells represent small things while objects that can be recognized are represented at higher levels, with convergence running up and divergence running down. Bayesian techniques are applied to address ambiguity, Hawkins says. Numenta has developed a platform for hierarchical memory construction and testing, with the overarching objective being an efficient, generalizable computer that can be trained and is capable of self-learning and prediction. "The world is built this way and that's why these kinds of memories work," Hawkins says. He doubts that multicore systems will be the future technology for memory systems, which require vastness and self-processing. "The trick is not understanding neurons but understanding hierarchical systems," Hawkins concludes.
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AMD Sees Future in Accelerated Computing
eWeek (02/06/08) Ferguson, Scott

Advanced Micro Devices is exploring new ways that other pieces of hardware, or accelerators, can be combined with traditional CPUs to increase performance. The problem is that software currently being written does not take advantage of parallel processing, and AMD senior fellow Chuck Moore says software running on multicore chip platforms that cannot run in parallel will see a decrease in performance. "During the past 30 years, we have translated that the more transistors we place on the chip increases performance," Moore says. "What is confused with Moore's Law is that I'm going to double my performance every 18 months." Moore says the solution is to develop smaller pieces of hardware, or subsystems, to help increase performance and allow the client to take advantage of multicore processors. The most obvious example of this approach is adding a graphics processing unit to the processor package to help render video and other multimedia applications. "It is simply that hardware with a specific purpose is much more efficient," Moore says. "You wouldn't want to decode video on a CPU. You want to decode that video on a dedicated piece of hardware that is off to the side ... it achieves the same performance at one-twentieth the power."
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Robots Could Someday Ease Our Loneliness
Medill Reports (02/05/08) Rao, Mallika

A study led by scientists at the University of Chicago and Harvard University found that lonely people are more likely to anthropomorphize animals and inanimate objects, a conclusion that corroborates an assumption held by roboticists and artificial intelligence scientists that humans can see objects as friends. "One of the goals of AI from the early days was the notion of creating artificial presences that would actually be able to be there for people and help them in their lives," says Kristian Hammond, co-director of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University. Study participants were asked to describe animals and gadgets using a pre-chosen list of words. Lonely participants tended to favor adjectives such as "compassionate" or "friendly," instead of objective descriptors. Scientists say the chronically lonely could someday be able to accomplish tasks with robot companions that they could not do alone. Northwestern computer science professor Ian Horswill cautions that a significant amount of work needs to be done before meaningful relationships with robots are plausible. "We're still working on making robots move through a room without bumping into things," Horswill says. "There are a lot of issues that need to get worked out before things like social cognition happen." Horswill doubts that many people will want a robot as a friend. However, he says "they might buy a robot for other reasons and then become attached to it."
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IBM Launches Joint Cloud-Computing Research Project With 13 European Partners
Computer Business Review (02/06/08) Vyas, Sheetal

IBM has announced Reservoir, a joint research project with 13 European partners to develop technologies that will help automate the fluctuating demand for IT resources in a cloud-computing environment. The European Union-funded project will explore the development and management of IT services across different administrative domains, IT platforms, and geographical boundaries. IBM Haifa Research Lab will manage Reservoir (Resources and Services Virtualization without Barriers), which will be built on open standards to create a scalable, flexible, and dependable framework for delivering services in the planned model. Reservoir products will be aimed at helping customers create modern data centers and enhance their productivity, quality, availability, and cost reduction. The project will also focus on developing innovative capabilities through virtualization and grid technologies. IBM says these technologies will enable a network of service providers to host a variety of media, and use cloud-computing technology to partner with each other to tap services such as content distribution, load balancing, and overlay networking across geographical boundaries. "You can think of cloud computing as the Internet operating system for business and Reservoir as pioneering technologies that will enable people to access the cloud of services in an efficient and cost-effective way," says IBM Haifa Research Lab's Yaron Wolfsthal.
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A New Perspective on Search Results
Technology Review (02/06/08) Greene, Kate

Google recently began a public experiment in which users are allowed to make their search results look slightly different from regular users' results. Participants are able to switch between views to see their results mapped, put on a timeline, or narrowed by informational filters. Google's experiment epitomizes the efforts of engineers and designers to improve the Web search experience, since the interface has remained essentially the same for more than a decade. University of California, Berkeley professor Marti Hearst notes that today's Google results and the Infoseek results from 1997 are almost indistinguishable except for the ads. Nevertheless, Hearst says engineers continue to look for alternatives to the traditional approach. For example, Ask.com lets users see a thumbnail view of each Web page before the user clicks on the link, and Clusty.com extracts words that are found on the search-results page, letting users create a more specific search. However, these slight alterations have been slow to catch on. Hearst believes that people tend to use Google and other simple, traditional interfaces because they are familiar with them and are reluctant to try something new. "One thing to remember is that it's still the early days," says Google's Dan Crow. "People think that search is a solved problem. I think we're still in the early days of making search work on a universal global scale."
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New Authentication Scheme Combats Keyloggers, Shoulder-Hacking
Dark Reading (02/05/08) Higgins, Kelly Jackson

Attackers attempting to use a keylogger or spyware to take advantage of a computer user's credentials could be thwarted by a prototype authentication technique that has been built by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University. The Undercover system is designed to hide the authentication challenge, rather than the password or any other information entered by the user during the authentication process. The authentication technique also prevents anyone from "shoulder-surfing" users as they type in their PIN at ATM machines. Undercover requires a PC that works with a trackball controlled by a Lego Mindstorm NXT robot. Challenges are presented on the PC monitor and the trackball, and users enter their answers in a plastic case with numeric buttons, which combines the trackball system and robot. The user sees a set of images and is asked if any belongs to the image portfolio that the user has previously selected, while the trackball sends the user a signal that maps each button on the case to a certain answer. The trackball only operates when the user's hand covers it, which prevents someone from observing any selections or answers. The CMU researchers plan to present a paper on their research at an international human-computer interaction conference in Florence, Italy, in April.
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National Cybersecurity Threats Abound, National Intelligence Director Tells Senate
Network World (02/05/08)

Cyber exploitation activity will only grow more sophisticated, more targeted, and more serious in the coming year, J. Michael McConnell, director of national intelligence, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Feb. 5th. Meanwhile, he warned that the U.S. information infrastructure's vulnerabilities will continue to grow for several reasons, including the continued movement of government, private sector, and personal activities toward networked operations and the increasing prevalence of wireless systems. McConnell is particularly worried about the threat posed by nations such as Russia and China, which he said have the technical capabilities to target and disrupt parts of the nation's information infrastructure and conduct intelligence gathering. McConnell said that nation states and criminals are interested in attacking government and private sector networks in order to gain a competitive advantage in the commercial sector. Another threat comes from terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, Hamas, and Hezbollah, groups. However, McConnell said he believed attacks against the nation's information infrastructure could be deterred by the recent National Security Presidential Directives, which expand the intelligence community's role in monitoring Internet traffic in order to make it more difficult to penetrate government networks.
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Missing Link: Software Connects Researchers Across Networks
ICT Results (02/05/08)

Researchers from America, Europe, and China are working to create software to improve link research networks, laying the foundation for future scientific breakthroughs. Major research networks in Europe are often developed independently from each other, and use different types of software and hardware, which can make it difficult for scientists working on a specific project to access resources outside of what is immediately available to them. The Open Middleware Infrastructure Institute for Europe (OMII-Europe) project aims to break down such barriers by adopting common standards for grid middleware. OMII-Europe was started in May 2006 in the hopes of helping researchers move beyond their individual network grids without having to make additional investments. The project is adopting open standards that are emerging from groups such as the Open grid Forum. By developing software that can work on different middleware platforms, the grids can be linked and research can be collaborative and more easily shared. "Users can then use the same methods for submitting and monitoring jobs to cluster resources, or supercomputers, irrespective of the grid middleware being used," says project manager Alistair Dunlop. "Our vision is that these interoperable components will help break the barriers between grid infrastructures so that users have access to many more resources for their work."
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Grails 1.0 Web Framework Ready
InfoWorld (02/05/08) Krill, Paul

G2One and the Grails development team have released the Grails 1.0 open source Web application development framework. Built on Java and the Groovy language, Grails supports Java APIs including Spring, Hibernate, and SiteMesh. Grails offers Java and Ruby developers a way to employ convention-based rapid development, while leveraging existing knowledge and common Java APIs. "What we’re trying to achieve is really to fundamentally simplify Java EE [Enterprise Edition] development," says Graeme Rocher, creator of the Grails project and CTO at G2One. Grails supports Spring at its core, and Rocher says the role of Spring is similar to being an enterprise application toolkit with ease of use. The dynamic language framework uses Hibernate for object-relational mapping. Grails can be used for desktop applications and Web tiers, has a prototype library that allows it to leverage Asynchronous JavaScript and XML(AJAX), and has plug-ins that enable it to work with technologies such as Adobe Flex, Google Web Toolkit, and the Yahoo UI library.
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Downloadable Program Teaches Teen Drivers How to Anticipate and Avoid Crashes
University of Massachusetts Amherst (01/29/08)

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have developed a training program that teenage drivers can use to prepare themselves to anticipate crashes and ultimately avoid potentially fatal situations. Engineering experts in the Human Performance Laboratory teamed up with Alexander Pollatsek of the Psychology Department to create the Risk Awareness and Perception Training Program (RAPT), which has been made available to the public as a free, downloadable program. The team analyzed police crash reports to create RAPT, and they used the lab's special equipment to create a life-like driving simulator. Users are presented with a view of the front and each side of a car, a realistic winding road and vehicle noises, and an eye-tracking device records their entire field of vision, including objects. "We can bring novice drivers to the point where they are as good at recognizing hazards as experienced drivers by training them in the laboratory on a PC, then evaluating their performance in our simulator," says professor Donald Fisher, director of the lab. "The test results confirm that those novice drivers trained on our training program anticipate hazards on the scenarios that were evaluated as well as veteran drivers."
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State's Supercomputer a Catalyst for Research, Education, Economy
New Mexican (01/28/08) Vorenberg, Sue

The New Mexico Computing Applications Center, featuring a newly installed Intel supercomputer, had its ribbon cutting ceremony, but it still needs to be calibrated and will not be fully operational until the end of June. Governor Bill Richardson says the state plans to use the supercomputer as a catalyst to encourage young people to go into science careers and as a tool for economic development. New Mexico Tech computer science professor Lorie Liebrock says the supercomputer will help researchers work on very complex problems. "One of the big problems in supercomputing is visualization--how do we get that information to a human being?" Liebrock says. "With this, we can do much bigger, much larger problems and also find ways for people to visually understand how those problems work." Richardson says the system will be used to model state-wide water projects, forest fire simulations, and city planning. The supercomputer will be accessible from three gateways, including the state's three research universities. The center is also working to get more funding to add more gateways and fund staff and research projects. Students in New Mexico's high schools and colleges will be able to create research projects and use the supercomputer for free, says state Higher Education Department secretary Reed Dasenbrock.
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Wi-Fi 'Co-Op' Could Provide Internet for All
New Scientist (02/02/08)No. 2641, P. 24; Ananthaswamy, Anil

Computer users who are willing to download free software that turns their home router into a hotspot and logs their username and router address with an online registry will be able to surf the Internet using someone else's wireless connection. The "wireless cooperative," which provides free and secure Wi-Fi coverage, is the work of Jon Crowcroft and Nishanth Sastry at the University of Cambridge. A co-op member who is out and about simply enters their username, which the router checks against the central registry to confirm membership, and the registry also sends the address of their home router to the router the person is borrowing. All of the data packets will be routed by a secure tunnel system via the home router, which is where it will appear to come from to the outside world. "You will be traceable," Crowcroft says. "Liability for anything bad can follow through to you." Also, registration prevents freeloading. The wireless cooperative could potentially be used by cities that want to offer ubiquitous wireless Internet but without having to spend heavily on infrastructure.
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10 New Technologies IBM Is Cooking in Its Innovation Labs
eWeek (02/04/08) Vol. 25, No. 4, P. 34; Boulton, Clint

IBM's Innovation Labs is developing a series of promising technologies, such as Bluegrass, a virtual reality application that allows workers to establish virtual conference rooms. Chat Search is a search application capable of to-the-minute retrieval of instant messages, while Social Discovery is a document return tool that that adds names of people connected to topics from user recommendations, a company's internal Blog Central application, and from any IBM Dogear tags related to the theme. Solidifying trust and collaboration among colleagues unused to virtual meetings is the goal of the Virtual Team-Building Game, while the Beehive application lets users post pictures and videos, exchange event information, and drag and drop text. Tag It gathers tags applied to items to enhance intranet searches, and Cattail Personal File Sharing delivers secure file sharing via the Web browser by emailing users when files are modified while supplying feeds for people, topics, and full-text searches. The provision of automated speech recognition by Project Jumbo could greatly benefit hearing-impaired users of IBM Lotus' Sametime, while Real-Time Translation Service facilitates speech-to-text and speech-to-speech translation. Finally, IBM's SlideRiver enables user collaboration on presentation files.
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