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February 29, 2008

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Welcome to the February 29, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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ACM Honors Pioneers of Software Engineering Tool That Speeds Development of Complex Computer Systems
AScribe Newswire (02/28/08)

ACM has given the 2007 ACM Software System Award to the developers of Statemate, a software engineering tool that supports visual, graphical specifications that represent the intended functions and behaviors of a system. The system was developed by a team at AdCad, which became part of I-Logix and later Telelogic, and includes David Harel, Hagi Lachover, Amnon Naamad, Amir Pnueli, Michal Politi, Rivi Sherman, Aron Trauring, and Mark Trakhtenbrot. Statemate enables designers to specify, test, and execute the required interactions among system elements, helping detect costly errors early in the design process. Statemate was conceived and built between 1984 and 1986, and was the first commercial computer-aided software engineering tool to successfully overcome the challenges of complex interactive, real-time computer systems, known as reactive systems. The concepts used in Statemate can be seen in many of today's most powerful and widely used tools in software and systems engineering. The Software System Award will be presented at ACM's annual Awards Banquet on June 21, 2008, in San Francisco.
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House Lawmakers Question Privacy in Cyber-Security Plan
Washington Post (02/29/08) P. D3; Krebs, Brian

The Bush administration's "cyber initiative" was the subject of a hearing Thursday before the House Homeland Security Committee. The initiative is largely classified, but unclassified portions of the project reveal that the federal government is focusing on limiting the number of connections between federal agency networks and the Internet, and closely monitoring networks for potential attacks by hackers and foreign adversaries. However, there are questions about the degree of monitoring and whether it would include networks operated by state and local governments, or the private sector, including government defense contractors. Some Democrats on the oversight panel expressed concern about privacy. "It looks a little like the fox is guarding the hen house," said Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.). Department of Homeland Security undersecretary Robert Jamison said his agency is drafting a privacy impact assessment, and will make it available to the public for review when it is completed. "There's a big difference between intercepting and reading email and reacting to suspicious traffic going across your network," said Jim Lewis, director of the technology arm of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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Ohio 'Paper' Vote System to Debut With Flaws
University of Maryland (02/27/08) Tickner, Neil

A new paper/optical scan voting system that Cleveland and its suburbs will employ in the March 4 primary is burdened by major flaws that could increase the risk of voter error, say members of a research team from the universities of Maryland, Rochester, and Michigan. The system boasts centralized ballot counting, and the researchers say one potential problem is that voters will not have an opportunity to run their ballots through a scanner before submission. The researchers discovered that the computer could disqualify legitimate ballots as overvotes if there are erasures or stray marks on the ballots. "[Voters] should be very careful to avoid stray marks and to review their ballots closely," advises University of Maryland political scientist and team leader Paul Herrnson. "If they want to make changes, they should ask for a new form instead of erasing." Herrnson also finds fault with the central count approach, noting its potential for insecurity. Herrnson's team compared the usability of several electronic voting and verification systems over a five-year period, and the results and recommendations are detailed in the book "Voting Technology: The Not-So-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot."
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Sir Tim Berners-Lee: Semantic Web Is Open for Business
ZDNet (02/26/08) Miller, Paul

World Wide Web Consortium director Sir Tim Berners-Lee says the release of the SPARQL specifications ensures that the core pieces are in place for developers to start building robust Semantic Web applications. Berners-Lee says that "we should be able to get huge benefits from interoperability using what we've got. So, people are realizing it's time to just go do it." He also says it's not true that taking advantage of the Semantic Web requires extensive recoding, since much of the necessary data is already available in databases. The W3C supported Linked Data project is an example of a community effort to make data more visible to the rest of the Semantic Web, and projects such as DBpedia, MusicBrainz, and Revyu.com are enriching existing content and providing tools to create new content. "Some is scraped from HTML pages, some is pulled out of databases, some of it comes from projects which have been in XML," Berners-Lee says. "And once they're exported, as you browse around the RDF graph, as you write mash-ups to reuse that data, you really don't have to be aware of how it was produced." Still, he says greater clarity with respect to the proper use of data is needed if there is going to be similar growth in the availability of data from less philanthropic sources. Berners-Lee says two upcoming events will be of particular interest to those looking to make data available to the Semantic Web. The first is the Linked Open Data Workshop at this year's World Wide Web conference in Beijing in April, and the second is the Linked Data Planet in New York in June.
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Get Out Your Pencils: Paper Ballots Make a Return
USA Today (02/29/08) P. 2A; Wolf, Richard

Ohio's Cuyahoga County may have had more election troubles than any other area in the nation. The switch from the punch cards used in 2004 to touch screens in 2006 led to crashed servers, printer jams, vanishing memory cards, and overwhelmed poll workers. This year, Ohio expects to simplify and solidify its system by switching back to paper ballots. Voters will fill in ovals the same way students do when taking standardized tests. Although the new voting system may be simple, switching back to it is not. Cuyahoga County had just 74 days to make the switch after Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner decided to ban touch-screen machines. Since then, the county has retrofitted 6,300 old punch-card voting stations, installed 15 high-speed scanners, and rewired the warehouse. The county has also printed 4,317 different ballots for use in different precincts, with appropriate choices for the 668 candidates and 47 issues that will be voted on. A total of 1,043,930 ballots were printed, 95,470 absentee ballots were mailed, and 7,000 poll workers have been hired. Although the system is low-tech, it could still be problematic. Running out of ballots is a possibility, and because the ballots will be scanned in a centralized location instead of where the votes are cast, voters will not get the chance to correct any errors on their ballot, such as partially filled circles. In the general election in November, ballots will be scanned in the precincts, enabling voters to correct any mistakes on their ballot.
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Vanderbilt Engineers Part of $2.8 Million Grant to Link War Fighters to Global Information Grid
Vanderbilt University (02/27/08) Johnston, Jennifer

Vanderbilt University professor Doug Schmidt is leading a group effort to develop a system that can seamlessly link war fighters to the Global Information Grid. The project, backed by a $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Air Force Research Effort, also includes BBN Technologies, Boeing, and the Institute for Human Machine Cognition. The Air Force is seeking technological improvements that, for example, could allow a convoy traveling through a hostile city to immediately access information such as historical data or up-to-the-minute traffic. The prototype system being developed is called the Quality of Service Enabled Dissemination (QED), which is designed to improve the quality of complex systems and increase tolerance for disruptions to ensure that troops in tactical situations get the information they need on time. Schmidt says the system will allow pilots, fighters, and commanders to communicate with each other seamlessly by harnessing the powers of the Global Information Grid, which includes all communications networks, including the Internet, cell phones, satellite communications, and land lines. "One of the great things about complexity is that we can now build things that are so big, we can't test them using conventional techniques and tools," Schmidt says. "But the more we become reliant on these systems, the more we need to become more certain they're going to work."
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Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Academy Develops Programming Language for Robots
Carnegie Mellon News (02/27/08) Spice, Byron; Watzman, Anne

Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Academy educators have developed ROBOTC, a cross-platform programming environment designed for use with educational robots at the high school and college levels. ROBOTC works with LEGO Mindstorms RCX & NXT, and with the Innovation First VEX and FRC controllers. "Students interested in robotics migrate to a new robot platform every year or two as they progress from middle school through college," says Robotics Academy director Robin Shoop. "Prior to ROBOTC, each time the robot 'brain' changed, the student needed to learn a completely different programming solution." Shoop says ROBOTC makes that unnecessary. ROBOTC includes a full-featured debugger that enables programmers to find and eliminate programming errors. Shoop says the integrated debugger can significantly reduce correction time, and works with the robot in wireless mode without slowing the execution of the program being debugged. Unlike other programming platforms for educational robots, ROBOTC is a full-featured implementation of the industry-standard C programming language and not a "reduced" feature or proprietary platform-specific solution. ROBOTC has a "power user" mode for gifted or experienced students, as well as a "novice" mode that hides advanced features and concepts from beginning students.
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Stock Exchange for 'Grid' Computing?
ICT Results (02/25/08)

The EU-funded CATNETS project has devised a free-market approach to grid computing, and project coordinator Torsten Eymann of the University of Bayreuth says such a strategy may be the best tactic for large-scale trading of computing resources. He says the use of a centralized system for existing grids to match "sellers" to "buyers" works well for small grids but lacks scalability, and adds that quick and inexpensive administration is a necessity because each transaction takes up only a short interval of computer time. The core challenge of the three-year CATNETS project, which involves the participation of researchers in Germany, Britain, Spain, and Italy, was to build models that can accommodate thousands of transactions simultaneously without suffering an unreasonable downgrade in speed. The first step was the creation of a simulator for modeling complex grids, and the second was the construction of a prototype network to confirm the simulator's output. The decentralization of administration dovetailed with the finding that more messages have to be transmitted in a free-market system to arrange the same number of transactions as in more traditional systems. CATNETS demonstrated that a free-market network can boast a bigger scale than a centrally-administered network so that administrative overheads do not affect performance. A follow-up project will consider other factors that will probably play a prominent role in real-world grid computing, including the impact of trust and reputation, service-level agreements, and different pricing levels for different services.
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New Digital Projects Teach English in India, Monitor Air Pollution
University of California, Berkeley (02/25/08) Maclay, Kathleen

University of California, Berkeley computer science professor John Canny will lead a project that uses cell phones to teach English to children in India, while UC Berkeley professor Greg Niemeyer has designed a project involving an online mystery game in which student sleuths monitor air pollution in Los Angeles and in Cairo, Egypt. The two projects are among 17 projects recently chosen by the Digital Media and Learning Competition to receive funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Each project is expected to produce innovations in the use of digital media for learning. Niemeyer says his "Black Cloud" game originated from a discussion he had in Cairo about climate change, in which he learned about the "Black Cloud" of pollution that hits Cairo during the fall rice harvest. Students will search their neighborhoods for hidden wireless air quality sensors that send out real-time information about local pollution, helping students learn to read graphs, associate air quality data with human activities, and understand the local pollution landscape. Canny's project, called Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies, will use an educational game to improve literacy among children in rural India. Canny says the project's goal is to develop digital learning games that are culturally appropriate and inspired by traditional games played in rural villages.
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First Humanoid Robot That Will Develop Language
University of Hertfordshire (02/28/08)

An international consortium led by the University of Plymouth is launching ITALK (Integration and Transfer of Action and Language Knowledge in Robots), a project to teach a humanoid robot how to talk. ITALK researchers plan to take the same approach used by a parent to teach a child how to speak. They will make use of a number of activities such as inserting objects of various shapes into the correct holes in a box, serializing nested cups and stacking wooden blocks, and asking the robot to name objects and actions so that it can pick up basic phrases. ITALK will use the one-meter high robot iCub during its experiments. "ICub will take us a stage forward in developing robots as social companions," says Kerstin Dautenhahn, a specialist in artificial intelligence and human robot interaction at the University of Hertfordshire's School of Computer Science. "We have studied issues such as how robots should look and how close people will want them to approach and now, within a year, we will have the first humanoid robot capable to developing language skills."
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Robots Set to Overhaul Service Industry, Jobs
Christian Science Monitor (02/25/08) P. 1; Peter, Tom A.

As robotics continues to advance, robots are expected to increasingly replace humans in performing low-level service industry jobs. "The service sector, which is a gigantic part of the employment landscape in the United States, is inevitably going to a place where you can replace millions of people with robots that work 24/7 for less money," says futurist Marshall Brain. The first robots to make a serious impact on the service industry will probably carry out low-level tasks, though experts say it will take a decade or more for such robots to become pervasive in everyday life. "Dealing with humans is a very complex task. It takes us as humans many years to grow up and learn all the social etiquette and cues," says California Institute of Technology professor and robotics specialist Joel Burdick, adding that it will take time to perfect robots capable of understanding human emotions well enough to serve people effectively. Service industry robots could evolve similarly to the way personal computers were adopted by businesses, gradually eliminating the need for many basic bookkeeping and accounting jobs, says Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Center for Automation Technologies and Systems director John Wren. Although Burdick expects robots will have a significant impact of the service industry, he says there will be cases where humans will always want to interact with other humans.
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How Women Can Pick Up the Skills Shortage Slack
Computerworld Canada (02/27/08) Smith, Briony

Women could fill a critical gap in the IT skills shortage, but schools and teachers are not attracting them to the field. Many women do not take math and science-related courses during their junior high, high school, and college years, so even if they are attracted to the field later on they are often considered ineligible for positions. Stephanie McKendrick, the executive director of Canadian Women in Communications, says employers should not punish women for choices they made in middle school. IBM Canada talent manager Nadine Nichols says this is especially true as IT employers struggle to fill positions, adding that the networking, communications, critical thinking, and business skills that women have from other disciplines can apply to IT quite well, so recruiters should look beyond computer science graduates. "You should be able to move into IT from any field," says Microsoft Canada's Ruth Morton. "Recruiters look for very specific keywords on resumes, but they need to expand what they will look for when hiring." Presenters at the recent Information and Communications Technology Council's "Women in ICT National Forum" said that women might be more attracted to IT by tech jobs that improve the world and society in some way, such as catching child predators online, disease control software, and fighting identity theft. Retention of female employees was also a major focus at the forum, with family-friendliness and a flexible work schedule offered as some of the most common retention strategies.
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Security Skills of IT Workforce Lacking, Survey Finds
Network World (02/27/08) Dubie, Denise

Many IT employees are not proficient in the skills that the organizations they work for feel are important, reveals a Computing Technology Industry Association survey. The survey found that while 73 percent of IT managers placed a great deal of importance on security, firewall, and data privacy skills, only 57 percent said that their IT employees were proficient in these skills. The report noted that security skills, which IT managers said was the most important skill, had the largest gap between importance and proficiency. When asked why they believed IT employees were not proficient in the skill areas that they believed were important, more than half of IT managers said the rapidly changing IT security landscape was making it difficult for employees to keep up with technological advances. The IT managers who participated in the survey offered a number of solutions for helping employees become proficient in the skills they believe are most important, including offering employees external professional training and developmental career programs and providing them with financial incentives such as bonuses. Many IT managers also complained of a lack of qualified candidates.
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Microsoft Gets Another Shot at XML Standard
Reuters (02/26/08) MacInnis, Laura

Delegates from 37 countries recently met in Geneva at a meeting hosted by the International Organization for Standardisation and the International Electrotechnical Commission to consider whether to make Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) document format an international standard. A preliminary vote on the standard failed six months ago when OOXML received only 53 percent approval. The 86 national standards bodies that previously voted on the proposal will have until March 29 to reconsider their positions. Standardization of OOXML would allow other companies to build products using the file format to simplify file exchanges between different programs. Opponents of Microsoft's proposal argue that there is no need for a rival to the Open Document Format, which is already an international standard. United Nationals University in Maastricht senior researcher Rishab Ghosh says Microsoft could easily provide full support for ODF and that Microsoft's drive for a competing standard is part of a broader strategy to encourage consumers to use only Microsoft products. Microsoft says that multiple standards are normal in software and other industries, the competition makes for better products, and that its format is more useful than ODF.
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'Scolding' Software to Speed Planet Hunt
New Scientist (02/23/08)No. 2644, P. 26; Merali, Zeeya

A new software control system could improve the network of robotic telescopes that recently helped astronomers discover the first multiplanet system orbiting another star. Astronomers still have concerns about automated telescope networks because they can make errors that humans would not, and because they overestimate their capabilities. The automated telescopes are designed to alert the network when it spots something, and then they bid to perform further observation based on assessments of their equipment, position, and availability. Alasdair Allan at Exeter University in the United Kingdom and colleagues have developed software that ranks the telescopes on their data. Telescopes that do not deliver on their bid are instructed to determine their problem and also to rein in their assessment of their capabilities. "If the telescope repeatedly doesn't listen and continues to enter bids that promise too much, the software will punish it by ignoring it," says Allan, who wants to install the software on the eSTAR network that connects telescopes in Australia, Hawaii, and La Palma. "The new software can make sophisticated decisions," says the California Institute of Technology's George Djorgovski.
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Open Minds, Open Books, Open Source
Inside Higher Ed (02/19/08) Guess, Andy

Dissatisfaction with commercial integrated library system software has prompted some libraries to build their own open-source solutions that interoperate with existing systems and are fully customizable, and the numerous projects in this field could collectively function as a fully integrated, end-to-end open-source solution for academic libraries. In the meantime, the growing availability of open-source software is spurring some libraries to rethink the role of their in-house tech experts and consider whether hiring of additional developers makes more financial sense in the long run than continuing to pay for products that they cannot influence. The University of Rochester's eXtensible Catalog (XC) project is a Web 2.0-oriented library catalog interface that the initiative's Web site claims will "provide more intuitive access to resources, a customizable interface to include Web 2.0 functionality, and seamless connections to other Web applications, such as learning management systems, that a library may already be using." The project is being partly funded by a $750,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, while Villanova University's VuFind project is developing a customizable library catalog. The project's open-source nature enables Villanova to collaborate with developers at other institutions and test the software on diverse platforms. VuFind and ultimately XC places Web 2.0 functionality atop the traditional interface so that users can transmit search results via email and save results to their favorites. Oregon State University's LibraryFind tool allows users to sort search results according to relevance, save items, modify queries, and see electronic documents through the combination of a simple interface and federated search.
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The Erasable Holographic Display
IEEE Spectrum (02/19/08) Savage, Neil

University of Arizona researchers have developed a method to write, erase, and rewrite holographic images. Professor Nasser Peyhambarian and his colleagues have found a way to create holograms that can last for hours but can also be erased and rewritten. Conventional holograms are written using a laser beam divided into two out-of-phase beams. One beam bounces off of the object being imaged before recombining with the other beam to create an interference pattern. When the pattern strikes a holographic medium, the material goes through chemical changes that alter its index of refraction. Shinning a light on the finished hologram creates a 3D image of the original object, but the chemical change causes the effect to be permanent. The researchers created a new type of holographic material, called a photorefractive polymer composite, that absorbs light at a particular wavelength. The interference pattern from the writing laser creates positive and negative charge carriers--electrons and holes. The positive holes have a higher mobility than the electrons, so they move away from the light areas of the image and get trapped in dark areas. The image can last for up to three hours and can be erased by flooding the material with green light, allowing it to be rewritten. The researchers say that although writing speed is slow, it can be improved by developing more photosensitive materials and increasing the power of the laser.
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Sun SPOTs Promise Pervasive Java
SD Times (02/15/08)No. 192, P. 1; Handy, Alex

Sun Microsystems engineers foresee mobile applications linked to real-world sensors and programmable devices, and they demonstrated their commitment to this vision at the recent Java Mobile and Embedded Developer Days event with Sun Small Programmable Object Technology (SPOT) gadgets. Sun SPOTs, which are composed of hardware and software that are available as open-source code and specifications, monitor real-world activity with Java. SPOTs can be connected in loose networks. Since the devices' introduction, users have carried out numerous experiments, one of which involved the use of SPOT technology to control a treat dispenser. The experimenter wished to monitor his dog through a Web camera, and the SPOT was set up to open the treat door at his command so that the dog would enter the room with the dispenser within the camera's range. Sun developer Arshan Poursohi says SPOTs would be employed to help monitor wetlands restoration in the San Francisco Bay area, noting that researchers currently use sensors that must be removed for data download on a weekly basis. SPOTs would allow data to be read wirelessly and facilitate communication between sensors. Countries where Sun has made SPOTs available include the United States, most of the European Union, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.
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Monitoring Particulates Against the Range of Light
CITRIS Newsletter (02/08) Slack, Gordy

The stunning Sierra Nevada Mountains are today hazed by smog composed of particulates churned out by highway traffic and industry in California's Great Central Valley, and UC Merced professor Shawn Newsam is using a CITRIS grant to develop a network of cameras to monitor and perhaps analyze air particulates in the region in the hope of one day facilitating fast and easily accessible local air quality assessment in real time. The project will involve the development of various particulate light dispersal effect models. "We may then be able to automate the application of such analyses to the images for lots of real-time data about both the concentration of particulates in the air and the size of the particles themselves," says Newsam, who adds that data mining may be an effective shortcut for drawing correlations between the camera record and the particles' size and concentration. Among the data-mining methods the professor is planning to apply is Bayesian classifiers, decision-tree classifiers, neural-network classifiers, and support-vector machines. Modeling the relationship between the features of the images Newsam compiles and the particulate data he receives from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District will involve the employment of linear and nonlinear regression, while the level of detail visible on distant objects will be examined and the spectral signatures of the light dispersed by the particles will be analyzed with quantifiable image-texture features. Newsam believes the project will furnish "a far more complete track record of whether visibility is getting worse or better and by how much," and the value of this record will grow as the valley's population expands and air quality deteriorates. In addition, Newsam's images could supply accurate, short-term projections of solar irradiance over large geographic regions and therefore yield affordable conjectures of the potential output of photovoltaic systems in the area.
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