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ACM TechNews
February 11, 2008

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


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Auditor's Report Inconclusive on Florida Undervote Mishap
Network World (02/08/08) Gross, Grant

The U.S. Government Accountability Office still does not know what caused or contributed to 18,000 unmarked ballots in a Florida congressional race in 2006, the GAO said in a report released Friday. However, the report says that GAO's tests, along with others done by the state of Florida, "have significantly reduced the possibility that the iVotronic [machines] were the cause of the undervote." The GAO says that other factors, including intentional undervotes or ballot interaction problems, may have caused the undervote. The Verified Voting Foundation says the GAO report "leaves most of the major questions unanswered," and does not address potential problems with touch-screen sensitivity and low batteries, nor does it address reports of undervotes in other races. "The nature of the complex voting system in question, and the difficulty in auditing such a system, may mean such questions will remain indefinitely, but it is clear that more can and should be done to resolve the outstanding issues," a Verified Voting Foundation report says. The foundation suggests that auditors conduct more tests, including testing touch-screen sensitivity and checking for software bugs beyond the GAO's confirmation that the software matched Florida certification standards. "As someone who's interested in what happened in this election, my questions aren't answered," says foundation founder David Dill. "I don't think we're going to get any idea about what happened in that election without a lot more investigation."
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Computing Women Meet to Network and Learn
Computerworld New Zealand (02/11/08) Hedquist, Ulrika

The Computing Women Congress (CWC), a summer university for women in computer science, is being held at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, the week of February 11. The CWC is a meeting place for female IT students, academics, and professionals, says Annika Hinze, an organizer of the event and University of Waikato computing science lecturer. The three-day event includes daily keynote speeches, social events, and two three-hour blocks of courses, which include Web technologies, software development, research skills, career skills, and gender and IT. Hinze, New Zealand ambassador for ACM's women's chapter, says the congress is an opportunity to learn new concepts and skills, and a chance to network and form bonds with other women in the industry. The goal of the congress is to encourage more women to start a career in IT and to retain the women who are already invested in their careers. Hinze says she decided to start the congress after having attended a similar one in Europe. "Most of the women in computer science I know, I met there," Hinze says.
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Computer Interaction Gets Some Humanity
ICT Results (02/07/08)

SIMILAR, a European taskforce focused on human-computer interaction (HCI) hopes to drastically advance how humans interact with computers by creating new interfaces that utilize speech, gestures, vision, haptics, and even direct brain connections. The taskforce wants to make using a computer less like a human-to-computer interaction and more like a human-to-human experience. SIMILAR project manager Benoit Michel says the main goal is to create a viable and sustainable community for HCI research. "That covers a broad range of areas," Michel says, including such research areas as interface theory, signal processing, and interface prototyping. Michel says SIMILAR will bring all of these research domains together "into one pan-European network." The 32 direct partners, and eight associated partners, involved in the SIMILAR project were responsible for almost 1,000 article publications over the four-year lifespan of the network. The network also developed OpenInterface, open-source, rapid-prototyping software for interface design that regroups a core program and plug-in technology. OpenInterface provides researchers with a standard, open-source programming tool for various interface functions such as speech recognition, haptics, video, and others.
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Optical Scientists Add New, Practical Dimension to Holography
University of Arizona (02/06/08) Stiles, Lori

University of Arizona optical researchers have developed a three-dimensional holographic display that can be erased and rewritten in a few minutes. The researchers say their displays are the first updatable 3D displays with memory, making them ideal for medical, industrial, and military applications that require situational awareness. Dynamic holographic displays could be used to help surgeons track their progress during long and complex surgeries, show airline or fighter pilots nearby hazards, or give emergency response teams nearly real-time views of fast-changing situations. Such technology could also have advertising and entertainment applications. The displays consist of a special plastic film, called a phtorefractive polymer, that sits between two pieces of glass, each piece coated with a transparent electrode. The images are "written" into the light-sensitive plastic using lasers and an externally applied electric field. The researchers say the materials are highly efficient, inexpensive, and can be used to make large displays. Complete scenes of objects can be created within three minutes and stored for three hours. The researchers are also working to write images even faster by using pulsed lasers.
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Israeli Universities Part of 'Rodent Whiskers' Robotic Project
Jerusalem Post (02/10/08) Siegel-Itzkovich, Judy

A multinational team is developing touch technologies based on how mice and rats use their whiskers to find their way in the dark. One of the technologies is a robot that will be able to quickly locate, identify, and capture moving objects in space. The BIOTACT nature-imitation project includes participation from universities, research institutes, and high-tech companies in Israel, Britain, Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany, and the United States. Using the principles of active sensing used by whiskered animals, the researchers plan to develop a "whiskered" robotic rat. "The use of touch in the design of artificial intelligence systems has been largely overlooked until now," says Rehovot's Weizmann Institute of Science neurobiology professor Ehud Ahissar. "If we succeed in understanding what makes an animal's sense of touch so efficient, we will be able to develop robots imitating this feature and put them to effective use." The researchers have found that animals have closed-feedback loops that constantly monitor the signals they receive from their whiskers. "We suggest that it is the multiple closed-feedback loops that are the key features giving biological systems an advantage over robotic systems," Ahissar says. "Therefore, implementing this biological knowledge will, we hope, allow robotics researchers to build machines that are more efficient."
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Honda Demos Robot That Can Run 4 Mph and May One Day Take Care of You
Computerworld (02/07/08) Gaudin, Sharon

Honda is demonstrating its humanoid Asimo robot at the Japan Culture and Hyperculture festival in Washington, D.C. "The idea behind Asimo is that it would someday be a helper to people inside their homes, maybe the disabled or the elderly," says Honda's Alicia Jones. Asimo, under development since 1986, made its public debut when it rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Feb. 14, 2002. Now, the robot can walk forward and backward, climb up and down stairs, and run at nearly 4 mph. Jones says making the robot able to run is important so it can react and move quickly, like if a family dog runs into the robot's path or the robot needs to run to help someone in distress. Jones expects Asimo to initially cost about the same as a luxury automobile, and that people will personalize Asimo and think of it as part of their family. Eventually, people will be able to hold conversations with the robot, though not for some time. "The artificial intelligence part of it is going to be a challenge," Jones says. "It has facial recognition and voice recognition, so you can program in a set of voice commands, and it would respond to you."
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Researchers, NVIDIA Collaborate on GPU Petascale Computing
Louisiana State University (02/01/08)

The Institute for Advanced Computing Applications and Technologies (IACAT) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has launched a project designed to empower science and engineering researchers by allowing their applications to run 100 times faster at a significantly lower cost than using traditional parallel processing techniques. Joining this effort are researchers at Louisiana State University's Center for Computation and Technology (CCT) and NVIDIA Corp., who will develop models, tools, and applications communities that will leverage the use of GPUs for petascale computing. "This partnership not only allows us to develop the tools and technologies our researchers will need to access these future systems, but will give us the opportunity to make breakthroughs that will benefit the global and scientific computing community," says CCT director Ed Seidel. The research project is led by Wen-mei Hwu, a research professor in Illinois' Coordinated Science Laboratory. "Each member of the partnership brings unique, critical ingredients to the table," Hwu says. "Through this collaboration, we will be able to attack the problem in a way that will benefit the entire science and engineering community." The project will focus on four key areas: Developing parallel programming models and frameworks; creating new performance-tuning tools for automating GPU applications; implementing laboratory testbeds at IACAT and CCT for evaluating petascale computer tools and their deployment; and creating application communities in key areas such as computational biophysics, astrophysics, and computational fluid dynamics.
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Wireless Whiz Weighs in on Pervasive Computing, Muni Wi-Fi, RFID and 802.11n
Network World (02/04/08) Brown, Bob

Dipankar Raychaudhuri, who heads Rutgers University's Wireless Information Network Laboratory, stresses the growing heterogeneity of wireless technology as evidenced by the coexistence of numerous standards, and predicts that multi-radios will soon be the benchmark. "Broadly, our thinking is that we need to deal with a much more complex wireless world where you have different, physical-layer wireless-radio standards and a variety of networking modes including multi-hop and ad hoc types of intelligence that aren't used very much today," he says. Raychaudhuri observes a rapid maturation of pervasive computing in supply chain management and RFID, with the latter technology making significant progress in the areas of automobile safety and car-to-car convenience. He says municipal Wi-Fi still lacks a business case in the United States, with speed issues being one of the principal impediments. Raychaudhuri says wireless security issues remain unresolved, and WINLAB is concentrating on problems in which intrusions can be blocked or attackers spotted by applying knowledge of radio-level properties. He admits that the funding apportioned to basic wireless research in the United States is not large in comparison to Europe, but adds that it is doing well. "In terms of growth areas, there are initiatives called GENI [Global Environment for Network Innovations] and FIND [Future Internet Design] at the NSF right now on the future Internet, and there's been some money put into this area, and wireless is a big part of the future Internet," Raychaudhuri points out. He describes the work being done on cognitive radios as very exciting, and cites the hyping of specific wireless standards as confusing.
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Coleman: The Cyber Arms Race Has Begun
CSO Online (02/05/08) Coleman, Kevin

The wave of international online attacks that took place between Estonia and Russia in April and May of 2007 can easily be seen as the first cyber war, writes Kevin Coleman of Technolytics Institute. At the peak of the attacks, over 4 million malicious attacks were launched and found their targets. The race to be able to protect the nation's infrastructure from cyberattack has been ongoing, and technology experts, military strategists, and city and urban planners are collaborating on cyber-warfare strategies designed to disrupt and defend against critical offensive and defensive operations. The Naval Postgraduate School has defined three levels of offensive cyber capabilities. The first is simple-unstructured, which includes the capability to conduct basic hacks against individual systems using tools created by another party. The second is advanced-structured, which involves basic hacks against multiple systems and possibly the ability to modify or create basic tools. The final level is complex-coordinated, which includes the ability to launch coordinated attacks capable of causing mass-disruption against multiple defense systems. Cyberattacks occur far more frequently than the public is aware, Coleman says. On average, there are over 6,500 serious computer attacks reported per minute, and in July 2007 there were nearly three times the number of cyber breaches than in any other month. A June 2007 report to the U.S. Congress warned that China is developing cyber network attacks that could cause "disruption and chaos" with the "magnitude of a weapon of mass destruction." The nation's reliance on networks, technology, and computers makes the country vulnerable to cyberattacks, Coleman says, and the 13 agencies and offices of the U.S. intelligence community have not reached a consensus on how severe a cyberattack could be.
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Love Tech Goes Long Distance
Forbes (02/06/08)

Robert Metcalfe says the Internet is a perfect example of the "networking effect," when numerous devices are added to a network, making each one more useful than they would be separately. Cornell University computer science graduate student Joseph Kaye took a simpler approach and stopped with just two endpoints. In a 2004 experiment, Kaye developed software called virtual intimate object (VIO) that was distributed to 10 couples involved in long-distance relationships. VIO displayed only a single red dot that gradually faded out over time, and would strengthen when one person in the couple clicked on the dot. Some couples reported that clicking the dot filled an emotional need and made them feel closer, and some clicked on the dot more than 800 times a day. "There was something very intimate about the fact that this connected only you and your partner," Kaye says. "They still used email and cell phones, but this seemed to provide a whole different channel of communication." Experts say that Kaye's experiment highlights the juxtaposition of the digital world. As the world gets smaller and more tightly connected, couples seem to be apart more frequently. Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships director Gregory Guldner says that one reason there are more long distance relationships is that people feel that technology reduces the emotional separation of distance. "Information technology has definitely led people to believe that long-distance relationships will work more than in the past," Guldner says. "Whether that's true is the big question we're dealing with right now."
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Digital Photos Linked to Mementoes and Example of Making Computers Easier to Use
Canadian Press (02/06/08)

University of Calgary researchers have developed a system for calling up digital photographs on a computer based on their relationship to objects and an associated electronic tag. University of Calgary graduate student Michael Nunes says that people take lots of pictures and store them, but it can be difficult to share them with people face to face. In his study, small RFID tags were attached to mementos that corresponded to different sets of photographs in the computer. Nunes says the advantage of the system is that it works in a setting where someone would want to show photos to a guest naturally. The study is part of a trend in computer science to make technology and computers easier to use. "And as long as we just keep thinking about computers as screens and mice and keyboards, that's not going to happen--because that kind of technology essentially says there is a digital world, and it's totally separate from the day-to-day, everyday world of people," says Calgary computer science professor Paul Greenberg, who worked on the research with Nunes. "Currently, I'm quite concerned that people either do stuff in the digital world or the physical world, but there's very little crossover."
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Tags Lead the Way for Blind in EU-Funded Pilot
RFID Journal (02/04/08) Wessel, Rhea

Secure and Safe Mobility Network is an EU-funded research project to make visually-impaired citizens more independent through efforts such as the deployment of RFID tags along three walkways in Italy so blind people can navigate in unfamiliar surroundings. The system is being tested by both blind and sighted participants with PDAs and custom-designed canes that link to tags buried in the paths, while a text-to-speech program produces directions or audio signals that the user hears through an earpiece. The three paths were equipped with a total of 2,500 tags, while the system was constructed for less than $148,280, according to head of the European Commission's Joint Research Center Marco Sironi. "We had to adjust the antenna in such a way so that it could read the transponder but ignore whatever else was in the ground, such as steel and cables," he says. The first 10 cane readers were developed at a cost of about $37,060 by project partners in collaboration with a French company, while the second set of 10 cost roughly $890 each. Eventually, Sironi expects the cost of each cane to plummet to just a few hundred euros, while the PDAs and earpieces each cost between $297 and $593. Finally, the development of the database that maps the path and stores other location-based information cost $29,650 for the first kilometer and around $2,965 for each additional kilometer.
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UT Arlington Project Aims to Make American Sign Language Learning Easier
Pegasus News Wire (02/04/08)

Computer science researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington and Boston University are working to make it easier for people to learn American Sign Language (ASL). Users of ASL can complete sentences quickly because the language does not require a literal representation for each word, but this also makes picking up the rapidly changing hand positions and gestures difficult. UT Arlington's Vassilis Athitsos and BU's Drs. Stan Sclaroff and Carol Neidle are developing new technology that will bring sign-based searching to sign/meaning dictionaries. Current dictionaries list signs in alphabetical order. The researchers will use computer-vision, data-mining, and machine-learning applications to enable non-ALA users to look up some 4,000 commonly-used signs, and the tool will make it easier for them to match gestures with meanings and study visual patterns. The researchers hope to deploy the dictionary within three years. They also plan to create a visual equivalent of Google that would allow users to search databases for occurrences of thousands of signs. The research is funded by a three-year, $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
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MIT Researchers Fight Gridlock With Linux
LinuxDevices.com (02/02/08) Brown, Eric

MIT's CarTel project is a Linux-based automotive telematics system designed to lower traffic congestion through the development of route-selection algorithms. CarTel consists of a distributed, GPS-enabled mobile sensor network that employs Wi-Fi "opportunistically" to leverage intermittent coverage to update a central traffic analysis program. Creating a flexible and affordable platform for various automotive-related research initiatives is the objective of CarTel, according to MIT professor Sam Madden, who is overseeing the project with professor Hari Balakrishnan. To exploit intermittent encounters with Wi-Fi access points, the MIT team devised the EasyWiFi communications protocol that establishes mobile wireless links very fast, while variable and sporadic connectivity is addressed with other protocols. A portal application constructed around the ICEDB stream-processing query application handles the processing of distributed sensor data, and the ICEDB database is the modification of a TinyDB database that Madden created for the TinyOS operating system. "We made a conscious decision to move to Linux because TinyOS was not as easy to work with," Madden says. "With Linux, there are also a huge number of people developing device drivers, and our graduate students already know how to develop with it." The CarTel portal offers a Google Maps-based geospatial data visualization system capable of storing and tagging sensor data using GPS coordinates. The project is currently focused on the development of algorithms that run atop the portal application to help motorists work the optimal route at a given time.
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Creating Preservation-Ready Web Resources
D-Lib Magazine (02/08) Vol. 14, No. 2, Smith, Joan A.; Nelson, Michael L.

Many Web sites--personal, community, and departmental--are worth preserving, but there are not enough digital archivists to prepare and process these sites, write Joan A. Smith and Michael L. Nelson of Old Dominion University. They suggest a simple model for preparing the resources of everyday sites for preservation by exploiting the Web server, through analysis at the time of dissemination by metadata utilities. In response to the archiving repository crawler, the Web server relays the resource as well as the just-in-time produced metadata as a straightforward response formatted in XML. This strategy is supported by mod_oai, an Apache Web server module Smith and Nelson developed. The information generated via this approach is unverified, undifferentiated, and extemporaneous. "From the archiving crawler's perspective, it is clearly more efficient to have the servers at 100 sites each pre-analyze its own resources than it is for the archiving server to analyze the resources of 100 sites," Smith and Nelson write. They add that they are collating metrics on the approach's effects on the server, specifically the impact of metadata utility performance on server responsiveness to regular clients. "However, sites can make an agreement with an archiving site to (a) arrange a specific crawling timeframe and/or (b) only allow selected crawlers to perform this kind of enhanced crawl, either by user/password agreement between the parties or by other common access restrictions (crawler's host IP, for example)," the authors note.
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Is Semantic Web Technology Taking the Wrong Turn?
Internet Computing (02/08) Vol. 12, No. 1, P. 75; Bussler, Christoph

Author Christoph Bussler sees a disaster in the making for Semantic Web technology (SWT) unless a change of course is implemented. "SWT doesn't propose a different application architecture," he writes. "Instead, it proposes languages and technologies that are intended to make the application development process and integration efforts a lot simpler, faster, and more reliable, especially in the areas of data and process mediation to achieve uniform semantic interpretation." But Bussler notes that the impact of SWT requires a certain degree of integration with current core computing technologies. He points out that the deployment of SWT as a wrapping technology to facilitate semantic interfaces for layers causes the number of data models requiring additional mediation to sharply increase due to problems with heterogeneity. SWT would like to tackle the heterogeneity challenge, but researchers generally attempt to bypass it by making assumptions or establishing restrictions to produce homogeneous environments, Bussler says. He considers the research community and industry's decision to split up the SWT space along classical lines of distinction between layers and components in software architectures, and along classical academic research fields, to be one possible reason for the derailment of the original SWT vision. "One possible turn would be to start addressing the problem of data and process heterogeneity, not only among systems but also along the layers within them to reduce or eliminate the number of mediations necessary," Bussler writes.
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