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ACM TechNews
March 21, 2008

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Welcome to the March 21, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Plan to Use Paper Ballots in November Is Reversed in Colorado
New York Times (03/21/08) P. A14; Johnson, Kirk

Colorado lawmakers have scrapped a plan to use only paper ballots in Colorado's November election, which was announced in January as part of a bipartisan effort to replace the state's troubled electronic-voting machines. Opponents of the plan say it was no longer needed because the e-voting machines have been repaired. Supporters of the effort say that questions remain regarding the reliability and security of e-voting and vote-counting machines, and could become a problem again before November. The debate over e-voting in Colorado began in December, when Colorado secretary of state Mike Coffman announced that the voting machines used throughout the state failed tests conducted by his office. The idea of using paper ballots faced strong opposition immediately, particularly from county clerks who said the logistics of doing a one-year transformation were insurmountable. Lawmakers recently said the need for a change had been negated by passing a system for expedited retesting and recertification of the voting and vote-counting machinery. A spokesman for Coffman says the new system resulted in all of the machines being recertified in recent weeks. Still, some lawmakers say the recertification process does not address the fundamental problems that e-voting machines are prone to.
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SIGGRAPH's International Animation Competition Opens to Public
Business Wire (03/17/08)

Animation teams can upload animation reels to the ACM SIGGRAPH Web site for FJORG!, its International Animation Contest, until May 7, 2008. Sixteen teams of 3D and 2D animators will be chosen to compete over 32 hours before a live audience to create a 15-second, character-driven animation that adheres to specific themes, and they will be judged by an expert panel of representatives from leading graphics, feature film, animation, and gaming companies. FJORG! was a success a year ago, but the organizers of the contest have decided to make some changes. Solo animators will be able to qualify and will be organized into additional teams for a "Pot Luck" submissions category. And a "Vikings vs. Pirates" division has been created to give students an opportunity to compete with professionals. "Our goal is to build on the resounding success of the competition's first year that resulted in new friendships and prizes for many of our participants," says Patricia Beckmann-Wells, SIGGRAPH 2008 FJORG! Chair from Walt Disney Animation Studios. FJORG!, which will take place during the SIGGRAGH conference in Los Angeles on Aug. 11-15, could be a tremendous benefit for participants, says DreamWorks animator W. Jacob Gardner, who was a member of last year's winning team. "Professionally, I know that I wouldn't be where I am today without the experience and connections my team and I gained through the FJORG! competition," he says.
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Outsider to Run Cyber-Security Initiative
Wall Street Journal (03/20/08) P. A8; Gorman, Siobhan

Silicon Valley businessman Rod Beckstrom was picked to oversee the National Cyber Security Center, a new agency created by a classified presidential order in January that is part of a covert government initiative to protect government and private computer networks. The center will be based at the Homeland Security Department and Beckstrom will report directly to Secretary Michael Chertoff. Officials say the agency will look for ways to protect government networks from terrorists and spies and then use that approach for the private industry. Beckstrom's main task will be coordinating government-wide cybersecurity efforts and generating momentum for an estimated seven-year, $30 billion plan that Bush administration members want to continue into the next presidential administration. National Intelligence director Mike McConnell is pushing the initiative to protect networks holding military secrets and due to increasing fears that the U.S.'s Internet infrastructure is ripe for attack. Former White House cybersecurity official Roger Cressey says Beckstrom will provide a fresh approach to the problem. "Rod's greatest asset is that he's not one of the usual suspects," Cressey says. However, others say Beckstrom's outsider status could be problematic.
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Employers Prohibited From Filing Multiple H-1B Visa Petitions for Same Worker
InformationWeek (03/19/08) McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

A new interim U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rule prohibits employers from filing multiple H-1B petitions for the same candidate. The rule takes effect immediately, and any employer violating it will have their duplicate petitions thrown out, their petition application fees forfeited, and visas withheld. A loophole in the rule that will benefit some employers does not prevent "related employers," such as a parent company and its subsidiary, from filing petitions on behalf of the same worker for different positions, based on a legitimate business need. USCIS says the rule is intended to ensure a fair and orderly distribution of H-1B visas, and is meant to even the playing field for all employers looking to hire foreign workers. Last year, USCIS confirmed 500 "incidents" where employers filed multiple H-1B visa petitions for a single worker. The Programmers Guild recently sent a letter to USCIS urging the agency to abandon its lottery method for issuing H-1B visas and instead evaluate applications based on the skills of the visa candidates. The guild also asked USCIS to give first preference to U.S.-based employers seeking visas. USCIS will begin accepting H-1B visa petitions for foreign workers for fiscal 2009 on April 1.
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Microsoft-Intel Investment in University Research Motivated by DARPA's Lack of Support
Computing Research Association (03/19/08) Harsha, Peter

The research efforts at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which will be funded by Microsoft and Intel, is necessary because the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has left a substantial funding void in the academic world, writes Peter Harsha. Under the Bush administration, DARPA has increasingly focused on military and other classified projects, while pure research funding for computing at universities has drastically declined, he says. "The academic community has never really recovered from DARPA's withdrawal," says Microsoft's Daniel A. Reed, who will help oversee the new research labs. Shorter research horizons and DARPA's increased use of classification have significantly reduced the amount of DARPA-supported research at U.S. universities, Harsha writes. Between fiscal-year 2001 and fiscal-year 2004, the amount of funding from DARPA to U.S. universities fell by half, and he says funding is even lower today. However, Harsha notes that DARPA has taken some measures to try to bring university research back to DARPA projects. For example, he says DARPA's new Information Processing Techniques Office is expected to have a technology focus, which could lead to increase opportunities for academic researchers to participate in DARPA-sponsored projects.
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After Threats, NJ Clerks Call for E-Voting Investigation
IDG News Service (03/20/08) McMillan, Robert

The Constitutional Officers Association of New Jersey (COANJ), representing the state's county clerks, has asked the state's attorney general to investigate voting discrepancies observed in e-voting machines used during February's presidential primary elections. "We want to know what the problems were and how do we fix them," says COANJ President Michael Dressler. Clerks from six New Jersey counties reported discrepancies in the voting tallies generated by about 60 of the state's Sequoia Voting Systems AVC Advantage e-voting machines during the election. In most cases, the discrepancy involved a one- to two-vote difference between the paper tape logged by the machine and the number of votes stored in the computer's memory cartridges. Sequoia blamed the discrepancy on poll worker error and says the problem can be fixed with a software update, but state clerks have asked for a third-party investigation. COANJ recently asked Princeton professor Edward Felten to examine the Sequoia machines, but the plan was abandoned after Sequoia threatened legal action against Felten and the county that offered to provide the systems. Sequoia has since commissioned two independent analyses of the AVC Advantage machines, and the results are expected to be delivered within the next few weeks to Sequoia and to the New Jersey attorney general's office.
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Making 'Parallel Programming' Synonymous With 'Programming'
HPC Wire (03/21/08) Vol. 17, No. 12, West, John E.

Academic experts are engaged in efforts to transform mainstream programming by forcing multiple processing units to cooperate on the performance of a single task, which is being funded by Intel and Microsoft. The companies will commit $10 million to each of a pair of research centers over five years; one facility will reside at the University of California at Berkeley under the leadership of David Patterson, while the other will be overseen by Marc Snir and Wen-mei W. Hwu at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Leading academic teams will focus on developing an effective methodology for multicore processor programming, with research emphasizing applications, architecture, and operating systems software along with the software support infrastructure that is necessary for expressing parallel work. The UC center's software work concentrates on two different layers, described by UC research team member Katherine Yelick as the productivity and efficiency layers. The productivity layer will employ abstractions to conceal much of the complexity of parallel programming, while the efficiency layer will allow experts to retrieve the details for maximum performance. Microsoft and Intel say the results of the research will be open-sourced, so a lot of the work should be available to the high performance technical computing community. The $20 million dollar investment in this project seems small, writes John E. West, when one weighs the scale of the problem against the scale of the potential market windfall such a milestone could lead to. However, he notes that the information technology industry "has a history of making big advancements from small projects."
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Stanford Researchers Developing 3-D Camera With 12,616 Lenses
Stanford University (03/19/08) Stober, Dan

Stanford University researchers are developing a camera that uses thousands of tiny lenses to create an electronic 3D "depth map" that contains the distance from the camera to every object in the picture. The camera is based on a multi-aperture image sensor. Pixels on the sensor have been shrunk to a size of 0.7 micros, several times smaller than pixels used in standard digital cameras. The pixels are grouped into arrays of 256 pixels each, and researchers are preparing to place a tiny lens on top of each array. Keith Fife, a graduate student working on the project, says it is like having a lot of cameras on a single chip, and if the prototype 3-megapixel chip had all of its micro lenses in place, there would be up to 12,616 "cameras." A camera capable of creating an electronic depth map could be used for facial recognition, biological imaging, 3D printing, the creation of 3D objects or people in virtual worlds, or 3D modeling of buildings. The multi-aperture camera works by focusing its image about 40 microns above the image sensor arrays. As a result, every point in the photo is captured by at least four of the chip's mini-cameras, producing overlapping views, each from a slightly different perspective. The technology is expected to produce a photo with every object in perfect focus. The researchers say the technology could improve robot's spatial vision and enable them to perform delicate tasks currently beyond their abilities.
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Indian Researchers Propose Hybrid Approach to Embedded Software Evaluation
EE Times (03/18/08) Krishnadas, K.C.

A research team from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, has proposed a new method for assessing the performance of software on embedded processors, contending that the technique offers substantial speed advantages over existing methods and boasts more than 95 percent accuracy. The approach combines a one-time initial simulation run and examination of intermediate-level application code by an evaluation engine to project the execution time statistics on any given instruction-set-customized processor. "Instruction-set-customized processors are evolving as a viable solution addressing the needs of flexibility and performance in the domain of embedded systems," the IIT researchers note. "These customized cores try to deliver the performance close to ASICs while at the same time retaining the flexibility of a general purpose processor." The researchers indicate that the hybrid method can greatly aid in the prediction of task-level execution times, as well as the automatic enhancement of application tasks with the custom instructions (CIs) available in the processor hardware and the generation of scheduled code. They conclude that future research could emphasize enhancing the evaluation engine with cache performance estimation stemming from CIs and other micro-architectural parameters.
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Ten Times More Energy-Efficient Microchip Recharges Itself
iTWire (03/17/08) Beer, Stan

MIT and Texas Instruments researchers have designed a chip that they say could be up to 10 times more energy efficient than current technology. The chip's power consumption is so low that devices with the chip may even be able to be recharged using the owner's body heat. MIT researchers claim that implantable medical devices such as pacemakers using the chip could be powered indefinitely by a person's body heat or motion without the need for a battery. MIT professor Anatha Chandrakasan says the key to improving energy efficiency was finding ways of making the circuits on the chip work at a lower voltage level. Most chips operate at about 1.0 volt, but the new chip works at just 0.3 volts. The researchers were able to build a high-efficiency DC-to-DC converter that could reduce the voltage to a lower level on the chip, reducing the number of separate components. The chip is still in a proof of concept stage, though Chandrakasan says that commercial applications could be possible within five years.
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Better Graphene Transistors
Technology Review (03/17/08) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

IBM researchers have developed a way to significantly improve the performance of transistors made with graphene. The researchers found that they can reduce the electrical noise of a transistor by stacking two layers of graphene on top of each other. The discovery could lead to graphene-based chips that run faster, are more compact, and are more energy efficient than modern silicon chips, says IBM scientist Yu-Ming Lin. Graphene has several properties that make it attractive for electronics, particularly for transistors that produce radio-frequency signals. However, graphene-based transistors have been hindered by noise, making the signals they produce less effective for communications. IBM's recent discovery could help make graphene transistors practical. Lin says graphene is a prime candidate to replace silicon because it can carry a much higher current, and because electrons move faster in graphene than in silicon. The enhanced electron mobility, typically between 50 to 500 times faster than silicon, makes it possible to process more information with less power, enabling extremely fast switching speeds.
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Meet the European Driver
ICT Results (03/19/08)

Europe's largest-ever road safety research program, known as PReVENT, seeks to identify European drivers and ways to boost their safety in order to meet the challenge of designing effective road safety systems, according to project coordinator Matthias Schulze. Drivers' reactions to the human-machine interface (HMI) in their vehicles vary across the continent, with PReVENT manager Dr. Maxime Flament noting that "these systems are useless, or worse, even dangerous, if they confuse or irritate the driver." An important research area is measuring the effects of potential technologies, with the goal being to prevent costly mistakes as well as identify cost-effective technologies with maximum possible impact. PReVENT is comprised of more than 12 initiatives concentrating on specific road safety issues, and the goal of one sub-project, PReVAL, was the development of a pre-production evaluation platform for Advance Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) involving analysis of driver behavior and preferences, study of HMI impact, and assessment of potential real-world repercussions. Flament says one of PReVAL's key findings is the importance of eliminating false alarms, and PReVAL is tasked with helping create an independent, international standard for ADAS. PReVAL has offered a prototype new technology validation system and has tested the projects within the PReVENT work program.
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NIST Team Proves Bridge From Conventional to Molecular Electronics Possible
NIST Tech Beat (03/18/08) Newman, Michael E.

National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers recently demonstrated that a single layer of organic molecules can be assembled on the same type of substrate used in conventional microchips, providing an "evolutionary link" between today's microelectronics and future devices made primarily from complex organic molecules. The ability to use a silicon crystal substrate that is compatible with the industry-standard CMOS manufacturing technology lays the groundwork for hybrid CMOS-molecular device circuitry. The NIST team first demonstrated that a high-quality monolayer of organic molecules could be built on the silicon orientation commonly used in CMOS fabrication. Then the researchers built a working molecular electronic device, a resistor, using the same techniques. The team fabricated two molecular devices, each with a different length of carbon chain populating the monolayer. Both devices successfully resisted electrical flow, with the longer chain having a greater resistance as expected. The next step is to fabricate a CMOS-molecular hybrid circuit to show that molecular electronic components can work in harmony with microelectronics technologies.
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Q&A: Google's Alan Noble on the Future Web
ZDNet Australia (03/11/08) Serpo, Alex

Google Australia engineering and site director Alan Noble says there are a couple of "pretty amazing" trends developing, including a move toward gadgets, mini-applications, and widgets. He says applications are being improved by gadgets by democratizing them and making it possible for developers to disaggregate applications in a completely new way. He says another major trend is a shift toward cloud computing, which he believes will have profound implications. He says Google has "taken a whole range of applications that users traditionally thought of as client-side applications and moved them online ... It basically means you have access to your applications anytime, anywhere." Noble says there are still a lot more applications that need to be moved to the cloud, but the trend towards cloud computing is clear. As for the future of Web content and rich content Web searchers, Noble admits that video and image searching techniques are rudimentary, but the technology is improving. Noble cites research at the University of Queensland in Australia that has been able to classify videos and detect similarities with other videos. He says the Internet is becoming richer and being able to search through rich content will be crucial.
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Cowardly 'Phobot' Steals Show at Amsterdam Robot Conference
Associated Press (03/17/08)

A team of students from the University of Amsterdam won the top prize at the International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction in Amsterdam on March 15. The public voted "Phobot," which mimicked human phobia, as its favorite robot at the competition of seven teams from technical universities from around the world. During the demonstration, a menacing larger robot inspired fear in Phobot, which retreated and then spun in circles to display a sense of panic. To overcome this fear, the team exposed Phobot to small robots and then to larger ones. "This robot is there as a sort of buddy to help a child having any kind of actual fear, doing it step by step," says team member Ork de Rooij. A team from Carnegie Mellon University and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology took second place and the jury's prize for developing "Pot Bot," which was designed to monitor potted plants and determine when they need more water or sunlight. The contestants used Lego robotics and software from National Instruments to build their robots.
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HP Labs Braces for Impact
EE Times (03/14/08)No. 1518, P. 1; Merritt, Rick

The reorganization of Hewlett-Packard Labs into 23 labs concentrating on high-impact projects, the implementation of a review structure to tie HP's business units to the research division, and the establishment of new programs to link HP Labs to universities and the venture capital community has earned HP Labs director Prith Banerjee considerable industry praise and countered perceptions that HP is too insular, but this is only the beginning as HP struggles to become an innovation leader in an increasingly narrow space. So that HP could become more competitive, Banerjee urged his labs to push major projects that combine basic research and advanced development, and the first wave of proposals will be reviewed by a panel that includes lab researchers, HP business unit managers, and technologists. "The proposal process is a new thing, and we will have to make bigger bets," says Rob Schreiber of HP's Exascale Computing Lab. "If you don't make bigger bets, big things don't happen." Aiding the commercialization of the lab's work will be a new technology transfer office, while some of the group work will be publicly shared through a new Web site. Banerjee intends to boost the amount of fundamental research done at the lab from less than 10 percent of the facility's work to 33 percent. At the March 6 event where the HP Labs restructuring was announced, HP's Shane Robison implied that tomorrow's innovations will be oriented around software and services. Numerous lab projects HP promoted were software advancements, but hardware remains an important research area.
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Software That Makes Software Better
Economist Technology Quarterly (03/08) Vol. 386, No. 8570, P. 19

Programmers are increasingly utilizing anti-bug tools at various points in the software development process, and these tools can improve programmer cooperation, analyze the software or its source code for defects, or help project managers quantify code quality, programmer productivity, and the cost-effectiveness of correcting specific bugs to assign priority to fixes. Programmers generally collaborate in an integrated development environment that keeps tabs on different pieces of code and configures them when necessary into a complete program, but many firms' coders and testers are geographically scattered, necessitating the enhancement of programmer tools to effect communication, design change requests, problem reportage, and other applications to enable collaborative development. Though software quality can be improved by high-level improvements in project management and the distribution and testing of new versions of a particular software component, low-level tools that examine the code itself for bugs and other potential problems are equally valuable. These tools can be categorized as dynamic-analysis tools that scrutinize software in operation to deduce failure points or static-analysis tools that study code while it is not running to spot fundamental errors. Strategies for encouraging programmers to adopt such tools include offering code testing as an online service or integrating testing tools more closely with existing programming tools. So that coders can determine which bugs ought to be tackled and which can be ignored, initiatives to develop code quality and programmer productivity metrics are underway; one such effort is a project by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology to create a system for quantifying how much code will be improved through the adoption of specific tools and programming languages.
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