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ACM TechNews
February 13, 2008

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Welcome to the February 13, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Internet Helps Americans Save More Energy Every Year
Christian Science Monitor (02/13/08) P. 4; Clayton, Mark

The widespread adoption of the Internet and other developments of the communications revolution have helped the United States become increasingly energy-efficient, concludes a new study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). The study found that for every kilowatt-hour of energy used by information and communications technologies, the United States saves at least 10 times the consumed amount. "Acceleration of information and computer technology across the U.S. landscape post 1995 is driving much of the nation's energy-productivity gain," says study co-author John Laitner, who adds that if the nation had continued at the historic rate of prior years, it would consume the energy equivalent of 1 billion barrels of oil more per year than it currently does. The study says companies are using information technology to make significant energy improvements. For example, UPS recently introduced software to develop more efficient routes and help drivers avoid left-hand turns, resulting in 28.5 million fewer miles driven and about 3 million gallons of gas saved each year. Laitner says individuals are also saving a lot of energy by using email, instant messaging, and Internet news to organize and streamline their schedules, and e-commerce to avoid extra trips to the mall. Telecommuting has also helped reduce gas consumption and traffic congestion.
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Remembering the Search for Jim Gray, a Year Later
InformationWeek (02/12/08) Babcock, Charles

Over 12 months have passed since ACM A.M. Turing Award winner and Microsoft researcher Jim Gray was lost at sea, and his disappearance prompted a search for his boat by members of ACM, the IEEE Computing Society, and the University of California at Berkeley. Fellow Microsoft researcher Tom Barclay recalled the suggestion to sweep the ocean for Gray's vessel using satellite data, which was a focus of Microsoft's Virtual Earth project. Together with Gray, Barclay had constructed the Terraserver-USA database, which was based on U.S. Geological Survey area photo data. Barclay acquired satellite imagery for the search with the help of several Virtual Earth team members, and imagery from GeoEye, Digital Globe, and RadarSat was compiled through the Boulder, Colo., Virtual Earth facility. After the Coast Guard decided to call off its search, Barclay and another former co-worker of Gray's helped arrange additional flights through a network of friends and associates. Barclay said he was receiving more than 500 emails a day from people who wanted to aid in the search as well as offer advice and equipment. A tribute to Gray on May 31 is being planned by ACM, UC Berkeley, and IEEE.
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Computing Education and the Infinite Onion
Computing Research Association (02/11/08) Reed, Dan

Computing Research Association chair Dan Reed writes that new approaches to computing education are needed to reverse declining enrolment in computer science. He says that little has changed in computer science curricula in the past 30 years. Its core elements remain centered on formal languages and theory, data structures, programming languages and compilers, operating systems, and computer architecture. Successive layers have been added to the computing curriculum onion, including graphics and human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence, mobile and embedded devices, computational geometry, networks and distributed systems, numerical and scientific algorithms, parallel computing, databases and data mining, among others. Reed says that as the computing curriculum onion grows larger and more complex, the number of students will continue to approach zero as the knowledge and degree expectations nears infinity. He says that most graduates solve problems using computers rather than working in core computing technologies and computing as a problem-solving process needs to be accepted and introduced into education through technically challenging and socially relevant problem domains. "This does not mean we should eviscerate the intellectual core of computing," Reed writes, but that education must emphasize relevance and introduce computing as a means to solve problems.
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Officials Step Up Net-Neutrality Efforts
Wall Street Journal (02/13/08) P. A4; Schatz, Amy; Searcey, Dionne; Kumar, Vishesh

Big broadband companies and federal lawmakers could soon clash over whether consumers have the right to access as much as they want on the Internet, as fast as they want it, without paying extra for the privilege. Complaints that cable giant Comcast is deliberately slowing some Internet traffic are spurring movements in Congress to block efforts by broadband companies to favor some Internet traffic over others. Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) recently introduced a bill that would change federal law to ensure Internet traffic has protections similar to cell phone calls, which companies are required to connect without delay. The Internet Freedom Preservation Act would establish a policy that would "maintain the freedom to use for lawful purposes broadband telecommunications networks, including the Internet, without unreasonable interference from or discrimination by network operators." The bill would give the Federal Communication Commission more authority to police Internet providers and ensure Internet traffic is delivered fairly. The increased efforts to enforce net neutrality come at a time when a massive increase in video downloading and online viewing has forced cable and phone companies to review how they price Internet service, with many considering deploying fee plans that charge based on the extent of Internet usage.
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Where Are the Women in Tech?
MSNBC (02/10/08) Tahmincioglu, Eve

Women hold only 27 percent of computer-related jobs, reveals a study by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). The study also found that from 1983 to 2006, the percentage of computer science bachelor's degrees awarded to women dropped from 36 percent to 21 percent. Renee Davias, president of the Rochester Chapter of the Association of Women in Computing, has been working to encourage women to get into the technology field, including speaking to the Girl Scouts about the profession. She says more women are needed in group development projects because they help the team dynamic. "Women are much more matter-of-fact, more collaborative," she says. NCWIT CEO Lucy Sanders says the declining interest in tech careers among women is due to the way computer science is taught in schools and how society depicts the profession as geeky and nerdy. University of Arkansas professor Bill Hardgrove says it is important to get more women into the field as they are intuitively better at designing interfaces, and one of the biggest complaints about technology is that user interfaces are poorly designed. SAS CIO Suzanne Gordon says that although many women work in computing areas related to payroll, accounts receivable, and the help desk, it is difficult to find women to work in hardware, directly with machinery such as Unix and PC boxes and networks. Gordon says this is a problem because groups work much better when at least one woman is in the group as they bring a different perspective and viewpoint.
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Joint Nokia Research Project Captures Traffic Data Using GPS-Enabled Cell Phones
University of California, Berkeley (02/08/08) Yang, Sarah

Nokia and University of California, Berkeley researchers are developing technology that could change how drivers navigate through congested highways and gather information on road conditions. The Mobile Century project recently conducted a field experiment in which researchers tested the feasibility of using GPS-enabled mobile phones to monitor real-time traffic flow. One hundred vehicles were deployed on a 10-mile stretch of highway. Each car was equipped with a GPS-enabled mobile phone running special software that periodically sent anonymous speed readings to servers that computed traffic conditions. Traffic information was displayed on the Internet, allowing viewers to see traffic in real time. An independent tracking feature allowed a command center to track the position of the cars to coordinate the experiment and ensure the safety of participants. GPS-based systems are capable of pinpointing a car's location within a few meters and calculating traveling speed within 3 miles per hour. The researchers say that using GPS-equipped cell phones to monitor traffic could help provide information on everything from multiple side-street routes in urban areas to hazardous driving conditions or accidents on rural roads. "There are cell phone-based systems out there that can collect data in a variety of ways, such as measuring signal strength from towers and triangulating positions, but this is the first demonstration of this scale using GPS-enabled mobile phones to provide traffic related data such as travel times, and with a deliberate focus on critical deployment factors such as bandwidth costs and personal privacy issues," says UC Berkeley California Center for Innovation Transportation director Thomas West.
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Software Gets Smart Cars Talking
ICT Results (02/11/08)

Technology developed by the European Com3React project could allow a group of vehicles to exchange data automatically with each other and with traffic control centers to make driving safer and more efficient. The system can inform drivers of poor weather or road conditions immediately ahead, and help them choose alternate routes, which could ease congestion and prevent accidents, says Com2React (C2R) project coordinator Chana Gabay. The C2R project's main objective was to develop software that creates a virtual traffic control sub-center, which temporarily forms to manage a moving group of vehicles in close proximity. "A lot of areas are not covered by regional traffic control centers," Gabay says. "By creating virtual sub-centers, the system extends the traffic networks to those areas." The sub-center obtains and processes data collected by vehicles and quickly provides drivers with instructions related to traffic and safety conditions. The software also transmits selective data to a regional control center and receives current traffic information to send to the vehicles, which is processed by each vehicle's software to help drivers make informed decisions. A prototype system was successfully tested in Munich and Paris last summer. The researchers are now working to bring the cost of the system down.
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Professors Awarded $1.1M By Keck Foundation to Pursue Brain Research
The Tartan (02/11/08) Chandna, Marium

Carnegie Mellon neuroscience professor Marcel Just and computer science professor Tom M. Mitchell have been awarded a $1.1 million grant to continue their efforts in brain research and brain imaging. Their study, "Using fMRI Brain Activations to Identify Cognitive States Associated with Perception of Tools and Dwellings," is a collaborative effort between the neuroscience and computer science departments. Just says this is the first time that anyone has been able to track the specific object of a person's thoughts. The researchers used a combination of brain scans and machine-learning algorithms to determine what a person is thinking of at a particular moment. Brain activity was measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging scanning. Computer algorithms were applied to the scanned images to decipher the signals transmitted during brain activity. The first phase of the algorithms involved finding voxels--volumes of elements normally used in the examination of medical data that can represent 3D image data--that express a similar pattern over several trials. The second phase focused on subsets of voxels, with each voxel capable of being virtually anywhere in the numerous possible levels of brain activity. The algorithms helped the scientists map individual items and brain activity level. The team tested algorithms on a group of subjects and discovered that the codes emitted in most human brains are similar. Currently, the technology only applies to concrete objects such as apples, but Just says that more abstract notions such as people or ideas will be explored through this technique and one day may be identifiable.
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Copper Connections Created for High-Speed Computing
Georgia Institute of Technology (02/11/08) Vogel, Abby

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Paul Kohl is working to improve the connections between computer chips and external computer circuitry to increase the amount and speed of information that can be sent throughout a computer. The vertical connections between chips and boards are currently made by melting tin solder between the two pieces and adding glue to hold everything together. Kohl's research shows that replacing the solder connections with copper pillars creates stronger connections, and also allows for more connections to be made. "Circuitry and computer chips are made with copper lines on them, so we thought we should make the connection between the two with copper also," Kohl says. Both copper and solder can tolerate misalignment between two connecting pieces, Kohl says, but copper is more conductive and creates a stronger bond. Kohl and graduate student Tyler Osborn, using funding from the Semiconductor Research Corporation, have developed a new fabrication method for creating all-copper connections between computer chips and external circuitry. Kohl is also developing an improved signal transmission line to preserve signal strength over long distances, such as in servers where inter-chip distances can be significant.
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Can Artificial Intelligence Manage the Supply Chain Better?
AI Magazine (02/11/08) Collins, John; Wellman, Michael

Trading agents have become a popular artificial intelligence application because of their potential benefits in electronic commerce and because of the challenges associated with models of rational decision making. A workshop held in conjunction with the finals of the 2007 Trading Agent Competition involved two game scenarios and two challenge events that attracted 39 entries. A supply chain management scenario placed six agents in the role of a PC manufacturer, with each agent having to procure raw materials and sell finished goods in a competitive market while managing inventor and production facilities. A procurement challenge was a side competition that involved agents balancing risk and cost in the procurement market by providing both long-term and short-term contracts. A prediction challenge was another side competition that tested the price-prediction capabilities of competing agents in both procurement and sales markets. The CAT scenario placed agents in the role of competing exchanges, a competition motivated by the rise of independent, for-profit stock and commodity exchanges. CAT agents competed by defining rules for matching buyers and sellers and by setting commission fees for their services. Profitability was the measure of success for both the supply chain and CAT scenarios. The challenges are important because the complexity and uncertainty in the game scenario make it difficult to understand why one agent outperforms another in general or in specific market conditions. The resulting benchmark data lays the foundation for future empirical research in this area.
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Supercomputer 'Virtual Human' to Help Fight Disease
Telegraph.co.uk (02/08/08) Highfield, Roger

The Virtual Physiological Human project passed its first test when it successfully simulated an AIDS infection in a "virtual human" to test the effectiveness of an AIDS drug. The project, which combines the supercomputing power of British and American computers, is testing whether computers can be used to create tailored, personal drug treatments. The study ran numerous simulations to predict how strongly the drug saquinavir would interact with strains of an AIDS virus that had become resistant. The simulated results matched reality, increasing confidence that computer simulations could become a valuable tool for medicine. The study, by professors Peter Coveney, Dr. Ileana Stocia, and Kashif Sadiq of University College London, involved a sequence of simulation steps performed across half a dozen supercomputers wired on grid in the U.K. and on the United States' TeraGrid. The simulation took two weeks and used the computational power approximately equal to that needed to perform long-range weather forecasting. There are nine drugs that target the same enzyme as the simulated drug, but doctors have no way of matching a drug to the unique profile of the AIDS virus in a particular patient because the drug mutates so quickly. The hope is that the drugs can be tested on a virtual human first so that when the patient receives the drug it will work. Coveney says the study represents the first step toward the ultimate goal of "on-demand" medical computing.
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Reuters Wants the World to Be Tagged
Read/Write Web (02/06/08) Iskold, Alex

Open Calais is an API recently rolled out by Reuters that performs a semantic markup on unstructured HTML documents for the purpose of identifying interesting portions into metadata within documents. Calais represents a next-generation Clear Forest offering that Reuters took possession of in 2007, and much of its work is carried out by a natural language processing engine integrated with a hard coded learning database constructed by Clear Forest. The API is freely available for both commercial and non-commercial employment, and Reuters says it is ready to scale for an immense demand of both types of uses simultaneously. Entities are identified, removed, and annotated for any document submitted into Calais, and ideally an API such as Calais should be capable of accepting URLs, because extracting structure from HTML would be no frivolous matter for developers. Calais can be used to make search engines more intelligent and more sensitive to related content. Automatically identifying entities in a document also gives Calais the ability to identify what should be linked, while structured alerts as well as the incorporation within browsers of on the fly text analysis can be facilitated. Calais has the advantage of an expanding semantic database of people, places, companies, and events whose richness is increased with every new document submitted into the system, as well as the benefits that come with training the system.
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UAHuntsville Researchers Developing Computer Models to Provide Military With Better Intelligence
University of Alabama in Huntsville (02/08/08) Garner, Ray

University of Alabama in Huntsville researchers are working to provide better intelligence on asymmetric military threats by developing computer models that identify trends in the behavior of Iraqi insurgents. UAHuntsville researcher Wes Colley says some of the trends from the Iraqi attacks show important day-to-day correlations that could be used to save lives by heightening awareness of possible events or changing the allocation of security assets to provide more protection. The researchers developed a four-step process by reviewing the behavior signatures of terrorists on 12,000 attacks between 2003 and mid 2007 and calculating the relative probabilities of future attacks on a variety of target types. The goal is not to predict exactly where, when, and what type of attack will take place, but to identify which target types are more likely to be attacked next, Colley says, noting that military commanders could make choices from various options to reduce risk. "Despite many difficulties with the dataset, we did find that our trend analysis very successfully provided enhanced predictive capability when compared to the broader attack rate," Colley says. "Our concept has proven successful in identifying trends and correlations in the attacks."
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NICTA Researcher Co-Chairs W3C Emergency Services Group
Computerworld Australia (02/04/08) Rossi, Sandra

Former World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) group advisory board member Dr. Renato Iannella will co-chair the group's initial effort to develop an interoperability framework for information sharing in the emergency management community. Iannella, a researcher from NICTA, Australia's Information and Communications Technology Research Center of Excellence, will help lead the new Emergency Interoperability Framework (EIIF) Incubator Group. EIIF will review and analyze the latest vocabularies used by local, national, and international emergency groups, and develop definitions and a framework for collaborative information sharing and aggregation of information for emergency functions. The work will serve as the foundation for developing a more comprehensive strategy for ontology management and semantic information interoperability, and for creating a proposal for W3C Working Group activity to pursue the idea further. EIIF will run until December 2008. "It is essential that information gathered by these organizations is stored and communicated in common formats to ensure that information can be easily exchanged and aggregated to support the decision-making process," Iannella says. "A key component of this process is ensuring that consistent definitions [vocabulary] are used to support meaningful sharing of information."
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'Recordable' Proteins as Next-Generation Memory Storage Materials
ScienceDaily (02/12/08)

Researchers in Japan have developed a protein that is capable of recording a specific information pattern on a glass slide. Tetsuro Majima and colleagues made use of a special fluorescent protein to show that the pattern could be read and erased at will. The novel combination of light and chemicals allowed for the storage, playback, and erasure of information. Protein-based memory devices have the potential to process information faster and offer greater storage capacity than conventional magnetic and optical storage systems, which are nearing their memory storage capacities. The researchers also say proteins can lead to better biosensors and diagnostic tests.
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Crashing Software Poses Flight Danger
New Scientist (02/11/08)No. 2642, P. 28; Marks, Paul

The software that controls aircraft is prone to mysterious glitches that can become potentially serious, though to date no accidents caused solely by such failures have been recorded. Still, experts warn that the odds of such accidents happening are rising as aircraft makers prepare to make even more aircraft operations software-dependent. Horrifying problems attributed to software glitches that occurred while planes were in the air are detailed in a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. One problem involved the concurrent loss of power for the pilots' flight and navigation displays, radio, auto-throttle, and autopilot for two minutes in an Airbus 319 in 2005. Ideally, software bugs are supposed to be spotted and remedied in the testing phase, but the complexity of aircraft systems and the sheer number of potential scenarios complicates this process. Most aircraft makers follow the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics and the European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment's DO-178B guidelines to test for bugs, but University of Bielefeld computer scientist Peter Ladkin says that "the criteria currently used to evaluate the dependability of electronic systems for many safety-related uses are way too weak, way insufficient." Ladkin and systems engineering consultant Martyn Thomas would like the writing of safety-critical software to be significantly revised, with Thomas recommending the use of highly specialized computer languages that do not permit the writing of ambiguous software specifications. "Safe programming languages ... are likely to reduce the cost and difficulty of producing dependable software," concludes the NAS report.
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Biological Moon Shot
Science News (02/02/08) Vol. 173, No. 5, P. 72; Milius, Susan

The Encyclopedia of Life project seeks to furnish a portal that will ultimately host easy access to Web pages for every species on the planet, with the goal of revolutionizing scientific inquiry, according to project godfather E.O. Wilson of Harvard University. The project's planners raised $12.5 million in seed money through contributions from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, while the implementation of the encyclopedia is being handled by a consortium of museums and other science institutions, including the Smithsonian. The project's first release will be a portal to basic information about fish, and the initiative's work will be eased by supplying a pathway to trusted databases already developed by specialists rather than creating information resources from scratch. "The scientific community is going to make the Encyclopedia of Life rich, and it's going to make it correct," says Mark Westneat of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Entries will be updated through Google-like aggregation technology. A scanning and digitization group of encyclopedia workers at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History is collaborating with the Biodiversity Heritage Library to place online information from volumes that describe species. The Smithsonian's Thomas Garnett says nearly 4 million pages were scanned in as of Jan. 25. Westneat says the Encyclopedia of Life seeks to attract not just scientists, but middle schoolers in an effort to make science fun and to take advantage of a generation that is skilled at Web surfing.
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