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ACM TechNews
March 31, 2008

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Welcome to the March 31, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Skilled-Worker Visa Applicants Expected to Soar
Wall Street Journal (03/31/08) P. A2; Jordan, Miriam

Applications for H-1B visas for fiscal year 2009 are expected to greatly outnumber supply. Last year, the U.S. government received 124,000 applications for H-1B visas, nearly double the cap of 65,000. For years, U.S. tech companies have urged Congress to increase the cap on visas for educated foreign workers, and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates recently warned lawmakers that the United States risks losing its competitive edge in technology if it is unable to secure qualified workers. "Other nations are benefiting from our misguided policies," Gates says. "They are revising their immigration policies to attract highly talented students and professionals who would otherwise study, live, and work in the United States for at least part of their careers." The immigration shortage has caused some companies to expand operations in other countries. Microsoft, for example, recently opened its first software development center in Canada. A study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that on average every foreign national on a H-1B visa generates another five to 7.5 jobs, depending on the size of the company. Critics of H-1B visa reform say the program takes jobs from U.S. citizens, lowers wages, and is exploited by foreign companies.
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UW Team Researches a Future Filled With RFID Chips
Seattle Times (03/31/08) Heim, Kristi

Many experts believe that RFID tags will soon be ubiquitous, and will be used to monitor objects and people remotely. Leaders of the University of Washington's RFID Ecosystem project want to understand the implications of that shift before it takes place, and are conducting one of the largest experiments using wireless tags in a social setting. For more than a year, a dozen researchers have carried RFID tags around the computer science building, which is equipped with about 200 antennas that pick up any tag near them every second. The RFID tags are less intrusive than a camera, but more precise, and subjects frequently forget they are carrying them. The researchers have developed applications that allow people to use data from RFID tags to inform their social network where they are and what they are doing, and the project's Personal Digital Diary application detects and logs a person's activities each day and uploads them to a personal calendar so people can see what they did that day. "What we want to understand," says computer science professor Gaetano Borriello, "is what makes it useful, what makes it threatening, and how to balance the two." However, there are some disadvantages to being tracked. Borriello says some systems, including U.S. passports and driver's licenses, have been designed to divulge more information than necessary, which could lead to significant security and privacy issues.
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Pixar Animation Studios Co-Founder Chosen as a SIGGRAPH 2008 Featured Speaker
Business Wire (03/27/08)

Entertainment and film industry pioneer Ed Catmull will be a featured speaker at ACM's SIGGRAPH 2008, the 35th International Conference and Exhibition on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. Catmull, a co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, helped build the RenderMan rendering software system, which has been used to create animated films such as "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo," and has received 44 of the last 47 Visual Effects nominations to the Academy Awards. "A great deal of what is done today with animation and computer graphics in motion pictures would not be possible without his inventions and contributions," says Jacquelyn Martino, SIGGRAPH 2008 Conference Chair from the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center. "Given that SIGGRAPH is celebrating its 35th conference, we could think of no one individual that could represent the evolution of the industry better than Dr. Catmull." SIGGRAPH 2008 is scheduled for Aug. 11-15 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
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Now Blooming: Digital Models
Washington Post (03/29/08) P. B1; Ruane, Michael E.

Virginia Tech master's students Vidhya Dass and Elizabeth Brennan are using artificial neural networks, evolutionary computations, the Arrhenius equation, linear regression, and fuzzy logic to predict when Washington, D.C.'s cherry trees will bloom. Dass and Brennan wanted to see if a computer model could do as well or better than the National Park Service's seasoned horticulturalist, who analyzes such factors as early flowering elms, maples, and cornelian cherry dogwoods, as well as the weather and other recurring clues. An accurate computer model could make it easier for officials to plan the National Cherry Blossom Festival and for tourists to plan visits. "We hoped to create a model that would allow the best prediction with the minimum amount of input," Brennan says. Dass and Brennan say they focused most of their efforts on computational intelligence and essentially tried to mimic a human brain. The students point out that computer modeling is widely used in to predict soybean flowering, corn yields, and aspects of tomato and lettuce farming. They used past peak dates and previously recorded data to see which computer models were the most accurate. The most accurate models matched past peak dates to within a few days, and some models were as much as three days closer to the peak bloom date than the park service's prediction for that year.
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Mashup Security
Technology Review (03/31/08) Naone, Erica

As a growing number of tools are developed to help people create their own online mashups, experts are examining how to eliminate mashup security risks. OpenAjax Alliance cofounder David Boloker says that as mashups become more complex they start incorporating computer code from multiple sources, which may include insecure code that could jeopardize a company's or user's systems. Web browsers were not designed with mashups in mind, Boloker says. Browsers contain a security feature called the same-origin policy that is intended to keep malicious code hosted on one site from obtaining information from another site. However, same-origin security forces Web applications to either sacrifice security or functionality, says Microsoft Research's Helen Wang. Wang says that when a Web site creator embeds code written by a third party the same-origin policy no longer offers any protection. She has been working on solutions that provide a way for browsers to recognize code that comes from a third party and to treat that code differently. One solution is to enclose third-party code in a "sandbox" tag, which would allow the Web site to use the code but treat it as unauthorized content, with no authority outside the sandbox. IBM recently released a security tool called SMash that allows content from multiple sources to be displayed on a single page, and allows them to communicate safely. A secure communication channel monitors information sent between tools while maintaining their separate identities and sets of permissions.
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IBM Project Seeks Privacy Controls for Users
IDG News Service (03/28/08) Fontana, John

The European Union is funding PrimeLife, a three-year IBM research project to develop technology that will ensure users can protect their privacy online throughout their lifetimes. IBM's Zurich Research Lab is working with 14 other partners from various countries, including Brown University on PrimeLife, which is short for Privacy and Identity Management in Europe for Life. IBM says it wants to create a toolbox that will act as an electronic data manager that gives users an overview of what personal data is used, when, and for what purposes. Users would be able to create privacy settings and preferences for applications, and would receive prompts when an application tries to obtain or use data for other purposes. "PrimeLife will interact with the open-source community, standardization bodies, as well as other projects so that they can pick up our technology," says Jan Camenisch, PrimeLife project leader and research staff member for cryptography at IBM's Zurich Labs. Camenisch says that current standards and protocols have very limited or nonexistent privacy settings, and the goal of PrimeLife will be to integrate the project's privacy-enhancing technology with existing standards and protocols such as the Security Assertion Markup Language. The first goal of the project is to provide scalable and configurable privacy and identity management that integrates with emerging Internet services and applications.
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'World Wide Web of Cancer Research' Exploits Human Genome Map
Computerworld (03/26/08) Havenstein, Heather

The National Cancer Institute says the Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (caBIG), launched in 2003, is the largest IT project in the history of biomedical research. Essentially a World Wide Web for cancer research, caBIG is designed to help researchers, physicians, and patients across the country share detailed information on diseases, which will help accelerate the development of new drugs and treatments. So far, 42 of NCI's 63 national cancer centers are either linked to caBIG or are in the process of installing the necessary infrastructure to be linked. Many institutions are already developing applications that will be shared by members of the grid. Early in the project, researchers decided to focus on improving interoperability instead of forcing research organizations to standardize with new IT systems and software. To achieve interoperability, the developers used the Globus Toolkit, a set of open-source tools for building grid systems and applications that run on top of Web services. Developers also created a collection of tools that provide semantic descriptions of vocabulary and data, enabling both humans and machines to interpret data from different systems. National cancer centers in the U.K. are also building an infrastructure that will be "caBIG-enabled."
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Would You Like a Large Shake With That Little Mac
University of California, San Diego (03/26/08) Zverina, Jan

Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation Cyberinfrastructure Center (NEESit) researchers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center have developed dedicated open source software programs that combine the tri-axis accelerometer, or sudden motion sensor built into every recent Apple laptop, with the iSight video camera used in newer Intel-based laptops. The SDSC's iSeismograph project provides researchers with a cost-efficient and compact platform for data acquisition and acceleration measurement. "The combination of commercially available technology and open source software creates an ideal environment for worldwide collaboration and access at the university and post-graduate levels," says NEESit assistant director Lelli Van Den Einde. The SDSC researchers created a link between the existing accelerometer and video sensor found in all newer Macintosh laptops to the NEESit Real-time Data Viewer, which provides a graphical display of movement. The researchers also linked the project to the Open Source Data Turbine, a National Science Foundation-funded streaming middleware system used for sensor-based observations of environmental events. Once recorded data is sent to the Data Turbine server's archive, it is automatically transferred using the laptop's wireless network interface to the NEEScentral database repository, where students and researchers can collaborate on analyzing, processing, and sharing information.
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The Future of Computing--Carbon Nanotubes and Superconductors to Replace the Silicon Chip
Institute of Physics (03/28/08)

The Institute of Physics Condensed Matter and Materials Physics conference at the University of London's Royal Holloway College will highlight the need to one day replace the silicon chip with new technologies in order to support ever-faster and more powerful computing. Among potential replacement technologies to be discussed at the conference are carbon nanotubes, whose conductive properties have led to their proposal as molecular-scale circuitry wires. Leeds University researchers led by Bryan Hickey have developed a method to expose a nanotube's structure and electrical characteristics so that it can accurately be positioned on a surface. "With this technique we can make carbon nanotube devices of a complexity that is not achievable by most other means," says Leeds team member Chris Allen. Also speaking at the conference will be Delft University of Technology's Hans Mooij, who will talk about progress in the use of superconductors to greatly increase computer power by tapping the unique properties of quantum physics. He will detail work to make practical quantum computers using an approach to induce communication between three quantum bits (qubits), a milestone that would enormously help achieve scalability. Meanwhile, Raymond Simmons of the National Institute of Standards and Technology will present his own work with superconductor loops, which can function as qubits when placed in quantum superposition states. He will describe the first demonstration of data transmitted between two superconducting qubits, which proves that such elements can serve as a quantum-computing memory and a "bus" for qubits to communicate with one another.
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NASA Builds World's Largest Display
Government Computer News (03/27/08) Jackson, Joab

NASA's Ames Research Center is expanding the first Hyperwall, the world's largest high-resolution display, to a display made of 128 LCD monitors arranged in an 8-by-16 matrix, which will be capable of generating 245 million pixels. Hyperwall-II will be the largest display for unclassified material. Ames will use Hyperwall-II to visualize enormous amounts of data generated from satellites and simulations from Columbia, its 10,240-processor supercomputer. "It can look at it while you are doing your calculations," says Rupak Biswas, chief of advanced supercomputing at Ames, speaking at the High Performance Computer and Communications Conference. One gigantic image can be displayed on Hyperwall-II, or more than one on multiple screens. The display will be powered by a 128-node computational cluster that is capable of 74 trillion floating-point operations per second. Hyperwall-II will also make use of 1,024 Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices, and have 128 graphical display units and 450 terabytes of storage.
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UT Dallas Researchers to Play Key Role in $7.5 Million Department of Defense MURI Project
University of Texas at Dallas (03/25/08) Moore, David

University of Texas at Dallas researchers are contributing to the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI), a $7.5 million, five-year project designed to improve communication between government agencies by enhancing information security. "Assured information sharing has been a problem for decades, but only after 9/11 has so much emphasis been placed on it," says professor Bhavani Thuraisingham, director of UT Dallas' Cyber Security Research Center. "We are developing improved approaches for managing, sharing, and analyzing data, including geospatial data such as maps and images." UT Dallas researchers will work with researchers from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Purdue University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan, and UT San Antonio. Thuraisingham will focus on issues surrounding the enforcement of electronic communications policies and the expansion of the semantic Web, while a UT Dallas interdisciplinary team will explore the technical, economic, and behavioral aspects of incentive-based information sharing. Computer science professor Latifur Khan will work with Illinois researchers on developing methodologies for extracting useful knowledge from data.
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CU Robot Close to Walking History
Ithaca Journal (NY) (03/31/08) Ashmore, Tim

Cornell University engineers have developed Ranger, a four-legged robot that may have set a world record for the longest distance walked by a robot. Ranger, which uses about half the electricity of an average computer screen, was able to walk 1.2 kilometers on an indoor track before a loose inertia sensor stopped the test. Mechanical engineering graduate student Rohit Hippalgaonkar says the group believes energy efficiency is extremely important. "We use a good 1,000 times less energy than [Honda's] Asimo," Hippalgaonkar says. "We believe that our robot walks closer to a human walking than Honda's robot does. That's part of the reason why it takes so little energy." Cornell professor Andy Ruina, head of the bio-robotics and locomotion lab, says studying human movement is key to robotics research. He says because humans are designed to use less energy, a robot that uses less energy would walk more like a human. Ruina estimates that Ranger could walk up to five kilometers, or about 3.1 miles, on a single battery pack.
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University Takes Visual Approach to Research and Teaching
Tufts University (03/21/08)

Tufts University's Center for Scientific Visualization has developed technology that enables researchers to turn complex scientific concepts into 3D images that can be projected onto a 14-foot by 8-foot display. Tufts says the display, funded by a $350,000 National Science Foundation grant, will help advance research and educational programs in a variety of disciplines, including mathematics, physics, engineering, and even drama and dance. "Users will be able to manipulate, simulate, touch, and literally immerse themselves in data in a way they never have been able to before," says Amelia Tynan, co-principal investigator on the grant. Computer science professor Robert Jacob says the human brain absorbs much more information when it is presented visually rather than as stacks of data. The visualization technology features a high-resolution display system that uses rear projection to enhance the amount of detail. The display uses a single screen with close to 9-megapixel resolution and two projectors with overlapping fields of projection to create high-resolution images and animations. The system can create seamless 3D images, and haptic devices enable users to combine the sense of touch with sight when interacting with graphical objects on the display wall.
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Computers Show How Bats Classify Plants According to Their Echoes
ScienceDaily (03/24/08)

A team of machine learning scientists and experts on bats have developed an algorithm that is capable of demonstrating how bats use echoes to classify food sources. Bats emit ultrasonic pulses and are able to determine different plants according to the various echoes they pick up in return. Matthias Franz from the Max Planck Institute of Biological Cybernetics, and Yossi Yovel, Peter Stilz, and Hans Ulrich-Schnitzler from the University of Tubingen in Germany were among the researchers who used a sonar system to emit bat-like, frequency-modulated ultrasonic pulses, and then recorded thousands of echoes from live plants. Their algorithm used the time-frequency information of these echoes to classify plants. The algorithm was very accurate, and suggested why bats may be able to understand certain echoes better than others.
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Researchers Secure the Browser
eWeek (03/24/08) Vol. 25, No. 10, P. 16; Naraine, Ryan

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are constructing Opus Palladianum (OP), a new Web browser designed to prevent hacker attacks by partitioning the browser into smaller subsystems and using simple and explicit communication between subsystems. "[The Web] has become a platform for hosting all kinds of important data and businesses, but unfortunately, [existing] browsers haven't evolved to deal with this change and that's why we have a big malware problem," says University of Illinois professor Samuel King, who conceived of OP. King says three unique security features will be employed to demonstrate the browser architecture design's utility. Those components include flexible security policies that accommodate the use of external plug-ins without making third-party developers responsible for security; formal techniques to show that the address bar displayed within the browser user interface always displays the proper address for the current Web page; and a browser-level information-flow tracking system that allows browser-based attacks to be dissected postmortem. OP is currently comprised of five main subsystems--the Web page subsystem, a network component, a storage component, a user-interface component, and a browser kernel--which all run within separate OS-level processes, King says. Communication between each subsystem and between processes, and interactions with the underlying operating system, are handled by the browser kernel. "The browser kernel implements message passing using OS-level pipes, and it maintains a mapping between subsystems and pipes," King says. He says the long-term goal is to devise a cross-platform Webkit version that will be distributed to the open-source community.
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Back to Basics: Algorithms
Computerworld (03/24/08) Vol. 42, No. 13, P. 30; Anthes, Gary

Superior algorithms are distinguished by speed, reliability, easy understanding and modifiability, efficient resource usage, and above all, elegance. As computers penetrated the business sector in the 1960s, the computing world was hit by the double blow of bugs--computer errors stemming from programmer errors--and sorting, which was required of virtually every major application. These challenges brought new recognition to the importance of algorithms among IT people, who realized that simple algorithms could be easily coded, debugged, and modified. But in many cases simple algorithms did not boast the most efficiency, so programmers devised algorithmic methods for evaluating the efficiency and overall superiority of algorithms. Bubblesort was an easily understandable but inefficient algorithm that read through the file to be sorted and looked successively at pairs of adjacent records to see if they needed to be swapped to be put in correct order, the idea being that in-sequence records would "bubble up" to the top until eventually the entire file was in sequence. A much more elegant improvement over Bubblesort was the Quicksort algorithm, which can take far less time to sort a file by selecting any element or "pivot" from the list, comparing every other element to the pivot in order to put things in correct order, and then repeating this process on successfully smaller groups until the entire list is in sequence.
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From Palmtops to Brain Cells
Economist Technology Quarterly (03/08) Vol. 386, No. 8570, P. 31

Palm Pilot creator and Numenta founder Jeff Hawkins aspires to make computers work in a manner that more closely resembles the human brain through his theory of hierarchical temporary memory, which posits that the brain processes information using hierarchically organized pattern-recognition "nodes." Frequently-observed patterns are identified and learned over time by nodes at each hierarchical level, and when an established pattern triggers a node, it sends a signal to the next level up in the hierarchy. As multiple signals ascend the hierarchy, nodes at higher levels learn to recognize and anticipate more sophisticated patterns, and predictions are passed down the hierarchy so that disparities between predicted and observed patterns can be identified. The Numenta Platform for Intelligent Computing is an expression of Hawkins' model in software, and Hawkins hopes the free toolkit will be applied toward the development of software that functions more like the human brain. Such software could find use in a diverse array of fields that includes robotics, video games, data analysis, and computer vision. New York University computer scientist Yann LeCun says enthusiasm for the creation of intelligent machines has waned among the machine-learning community over the past decade, and Hawkins' work is rekindling interest in the concept among younger researchers. Although he admires Hawkins' intuition, University of Toronto professor Geoffrey Hinton thinks Hawkins is underestimating the inherent difficulty of creating algorithms capable of mimicking intelligence.
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