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ACM TechNews
April 16, 2008

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Welcome to the April 16, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Computer Scientists to Congress: Don't Tell Colleges to Install Filters on Networks
Chronicle of Higher Education (04/15/08) Foster, Andrea L.

ACM has sent a letter to the chairman and ranking minority members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and of the House Committee on Education and Labor, expressing its opposition to having colleges install network filters in order to prevent illegal sharing of music and video files. Filters are costly, ineffective, and have a negative impact on network security and the rights of researchers, ACM's letter said. "There are known counters to filtering technology," the letter said. "Motivated content thieves can encrypt their Internet traffic or use other obfuscation methods to bypass filters that are looking for some specific known signature of the copyrighted work." House and Senate negotiators are working to renew the Higher Education Act, which includes provisions on file sharing. For more information about ACM's correspondence to the Senate Committee, see http://usacm.acm.org/usacm/
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Researchers: Microsoft's CAPTCHAs Easy to Solve
InfoWorld (04/15/08) Kirk, Jeremy

Newcastle University School of Computing researchers Jeff Yan and Salah El Ahmad say they have developed a low-cost way of breaking Microsoft's CAPTCHA system for thwarting automatic registrations of email accounts that works about 60 percent of the time. CAPTCHAs have recently become increasingly ineffective, but details are scarce on how hackers are solving the CAPTCHAs so efficiently. Some suspect that low-wage CATPCHA solvers are being employed to provide a steady stream of new email accounts. In February, it was discovered that hackers were using a method that appeared to be successful about 30 percent to 35 percent of the time when trying to solve the CAPTCHA used for Windows live Hotmail. Yan's and El Ahmad's seven-step method is capable of removing the "arcs" or squiggly lines that link letters and make them difficult for computers to isolate and recognize. The program was able to isolate each character used in the CAPTCHA 90 percent of the time. Those isolated letters were then run through character recognition techniques, which could solve the CAPTCHA 61 percent of the time. The method also works against the latest CAPTCHA deployed by Yahoo last month, though it is not as successful. Google's CAPTCHA is harder to beat, primarily because automated programs have more difficulty isolating the characters.
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Despite Silicon Valley Optimism, A Disease Resists Cure
New York Times (04/14/08) Fost, Dan

Many in Silicon Valley believe that the right combination of money, brains, and computing power can solve any problem, but researchers are learning that technology does have some limits. Medical researchers at the University of California, San Francisco are using the school's powerful computers to try and solve some of medicine's most difficult mysteries. Mike Homer, an executive at Netscape Communications in the 1990s, and his friends have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars and powerful computers to the school to aid in the medical research. Last May, Homer learned he has Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare disorder with no known cure. Similar lessons on the limits of technology were learned last year when search-and-rescue efforts using advanced computing technologies failed to find Microsoft researcher James Gray, who was lost at sea, and adventurer Steve Fossett, whose plane went missing in the desert. However, instead of discouraging those involved, these efforts have nourished an even stronger belief that developing and refining the technology further could help others. "You cannot be an innovator or an entrepreneur unless you're an optimist," says futurist Paul Saffo. "You have to be an optimist in the face of logic and experience." Ron Conway, one of the leaders of the "Fight for Mike" campaign at UC San Francisco, admits that a cure is unlikely to be found to save Homer, but doctors say the campaign, which has raised more than $7 million, could help discover cures for other neurological diseases. The computerized searches Gray and Fossett also could benefit others. "It's not that futile," says Joseph M. Hellerstein, a UC Berkeley computer science professor who helped lead the search for Gray. "In science and medicine, you try a second, third, and fourth time, and progress is made," Hellerstein says. "You need doggedness and insight."
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Computer Science Fog Machine Improves Computer Graphics
UCSD News (04/15/08) Kane, Daniel

University of California, San Diego computer scientists have developed a method for gathering light for computer graphics through "photon-mapping" algorithms that yield smoother, more realistic, and less computationally heavy foggy and smoky 3D images. Their work, which is aiding the penetration of such methods into movies, video games, animation, and other venues, will be detailed at the Eurographics 2008 conference. "Instead of computing the light at thousands of discrete points along the ray between the camera and the object, which is the conventional approach, we compute the lighting along the whole length of the ray all at once," says Wojciech Jarosz of UCSD's Jacobs School of Engineering. The approach improves on a method first developed by UCSD professor Henrik Wann Jensen during his doctoral studies, which earned an Academy Award. The use of ray-tracing algorithms has been limited in video games and other areas where speed and lightweight computation are essential, because of computational restrictions. Precise accounting for the amount of light in a setting and the location of that light is critical to the richness of images generated via photon-mapping algorithms, which offer a way to follow the light around the setting as well as determine how light will interact with "participating media" that absorb, reflect, and scatter some portion of the light. "Most natural materials behave like really dense fog because light penetrates them to a limited extent, so this work has a lot of potential future applications," Jensen says.
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Peer-to-Peer Virtual Worlds
Technology Review (04/16/08) Naone, Erica

The National ICT Australia (NICTA) research institute has developed technology that uses peer-to-peer networks to reduce the load of sudden crowds in virtual worlds by accessing bandwidth and processing resources from each new user who makes a demand on the network. NICTA's Santosh Kulkarni says peer-to-peer networks also reduce the cost of infrastructure for companies that use it in their virtual worlds as it allows more users to sign up for each world without requiring more servers. Kulkarni says the typical network architecture for virtual worlds involves central servers that control all the information flowing to and from the clients installed on users' computers. Some virtual-world architectures stream all the information about the world from those central servers, including information on 3D content and the position of the user's avatar. Other architectures separate information about the look of the world from how avatars are interacting. Display information is sent with client software and stored on users' computers, reducing the amount of information that needs to be sent through the central server. Kulkarni says the NICTA system reduces the infrastructure required by the hosting company because the peer-to-peer networks can handle information on avatar positions and character interactions. Kulkarni says that once you determine a few nearby peers, "then you can learn more and more and find out about all the other objects, and this way, you can scale to an unlimited number of users."
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Needed: A 'Turing Machine' for Security
Government Computer News (04/11/08) Jackson, William

The spread of wireless access, mobile computing, peer-to-peer communications, and Web-based applications has made the shortcomings of informational security all the more pronounced, while information management and security is being impeded by the massive amount of data IT systems are being flooded with. RSA CEO Art Coviello suggested at this year's RSA Security conference that the problem of informational security might be approached from the perspective of famed British mathematician Alan Turing, and he offered the concept of a Turing machine for security. The notion involves embedding within the enterprise infrastructure functionality that could assume the responsibility of intelligent risk management, which would give security managers more freedom to focus on promoting innovation. Though an intelligent security system would still depend on high-level policy produced by people, the system would be capable of comprehending and anticipating human behavior, and understanding what content is valuable to which people and achieving a familiarity with how it is accessed and employed. This knowledge could be utilized to identify patterns and anomalies that could constitute risks. Coviello said that security managers need to encourage more innovation based on a mindset that seeks ways to permit activities rather than deny them because they may be risky, comprehensive knowledge of an organization's mission and requirements so risk can be assessed, the construction of repeatable processes, and the establishment of relationships with other teams within the organization so needs can be predicted, among other things. Coviello also wants Congress to support greater investment in education to nurture a larger and better talent pool of security professionals and place a higher priority on research and development for cutting-edge security methods and technologies.
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Making the World a Billion Times Better
Washington Post (04/13/08) P. B4; Kurzweil, Ray

Computation capability is 1 billion times what it was in 1965, and computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil forecasts that another billion-fold increase will transpire over the next quarter century due to the exponential growth of computer speed and power. "Thanks to its exponential power, only technology possesses the scale to address the major challenges--such as energy and the environment, disease and poverty--confronting society," he writes, adding that he participated in a panel organized by the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Engineering that made that very conclusion. Information technologies such as nanotechnology are facilitating upgrades in solar power technology, which will be able to generate enough energy to fulfill everyone's requirements within two decades because IT is subject to what Kurzweil has termed the "law of accelerating returns," in which capability doubles every 12 months or so. He says the law of accelerating returns will become applicable to biology now that it can be modeled, simulated, and reprogrammed through IT advancements. "We are now adding three months every year to human life expectancy, but given the exponential growth of our ability to reprogram biology, this will soon go into high gear," he writes. Kurzweil also argues that economic prosperity is being driven by the exponential growth of IT, noting that poverty in Asia has been reduced by 50 percent in the last 10 years thanks to information technologies.
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Getting Wired for Terahertz
University of Utah (04/15/08) Siegel, Lee J.

University of Utah engineers say they have made a significant advancement toward building computers that run on far-infrared light instead of electricity. The engineers have developed the equivalent of wires capable of carrying and bending far-infrared light, also known as terahertz radiation. Terahertz radiation, or T-rays, are located on the spectrum between mid-infrared and microwaves. Professor Ajay Nahata says they have taken a first step toward making circuits capable of harnessing and guiding terahertz radiation, an achievement he says could lead to the development of super-fast circuits, computers, and communications, but not for at least 10 years. Nahata and colleagues designed stainless steel foil sheets with patterns of perforations that successfully served as wire-like waveguides to transmit, bend, split, or combine terahertz radiation. Nahata says for terahertz radiation to be used in computing and communication it needs to be transmitted from one device to another and processed as well. "This is where terahertz circuits are important," Nahata says. "The long-term goal is to develop capabilities to create circuits that run faster than modern-day electronic circuits so we can have faster computers and faster data transfer via the Internet."
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New Tool Aims to Revolutionise Scheduling Meetings
University of Leicester (04/10/08)

University of Leicester researchers are developing inContext, a European Union-funded initiative designed to create new work-based communications systems for international collaborators. The goal is to develop technology that goes beyond current Internet-based collaboration techniques to meet the demands of dynamic, multiform teamwork environments. "The inContext project is developing a platform and techniques that make use of service-oriented computing to integrate existing tools [such as email systems, calendars, and project schedulers] into a coherent system that can be used on any device, anywhere in the world, to make collaborative work more productive," says InContext site leader and University of Leicester lecturer Stephan Reiff-Marganiec. The project has primarily focused on a Pervasive Collaboration Service Architecture that allows users to connect from anywhere using any device to receive services based on the context of the requesting user and other workers involved in the activity. Leicester computer scientists are working with other universities, businesses, and corporate research centers from six countries on the project.
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'Big Brother' Buildings Offer Less Invasive Security
New Scientist (04/09/08) Iman, Mason

Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories researchers say buildings filled with motion sensors capable of tracking people's movements are more effective and less invasive to privacy than closed-circuit TV systems. MERL researchers Yuri Ivanov and Christopher Wren say in addition to privacy concerns, CCTV footage is difficult to search through or interpret quickly. To test their system, the researchers fitted their 3,000-square-metre office building with 215 detectors placed along hallways at 2-metre intervals. The detectors record when someone walks by but do not record specific actions. The system includes software capable of detecting unusual or interesting patterns in the data collected by the sensors and displaying the movements of people around the building on a map in real time. The system does includes a handful of cameras positions at specific spots in the building, and that footage can be used to identify people detected by the motion sensors. Certain paths on the map can be selected to call up the motion and video data from that path at a particular moment to reveal who used the route. The system can also improve safety procedures. For example, it discovered a traffic pattern during a fire drill that showed almost everyone in the building left through one exit while two other doors nearby were largely unused. The system could also lead to energy savings by monitoring how late people stay at work, helping management decide when to turn off heating or air conditioning.
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Seven "Grand Challenges" Face IT in Next Quarter-Century, Gartner Says
Network World (04/09/08) Brodkin, Jon

Gartner has identified seven technologies that will "completely transform" the business world over the next 25 years. The technologies include parallel programming, wireless power sources for mobile devices, automated speech translation, and computing interfaces that detect human gestures. "Many of the emerging technologies that will be entering the market in 2033 are already known in some form in 2008," Gartner says. Gartner predicts more natural computing interfaces that can detect gestures and compare those gestures in real time against a gesture "dictionary" that tells the computer what action to take. Mobile devices will no longer have to be charged as power will be transferred by a remote source, eliminating the need for batteries. Researchers will develop persistent and reliable long-term storage that will store the world's digital information on digital media permanently. To create reliable storage that can last 20 to 100 years, researchers need to overcome challenges related to data format, hardware, software, metadata, and information retrieval. Programmer productivity will increase 100-fold, with the output of each programmer increasing to meet future demands fueled by an increasing reliance on software development products. The reuse of code will help, but optimizing the reuse of code is a challenge in itself. Gartner also predicts that IT workers will be able to provide exact financial outcomes for IT investments.
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Programmers, DIY Types Embrace Soft, Hackable Chumby
Wired News (04/15/08) Gardiner, Bryan

The Chumby is a small, inexpensive, leather-clad Wi-Fi Internet appliance with a hackable operating system that has become a popular device with software and hardware hackers. "The key part of the Chumby's appeal is that it's an embedded-hardware device that's open," says Linux programmer Andrew Walton, a Chumby software hacker who moderates his own Chumby-hacking forum. "Everyone's used to open source software, but with open source hardware it's a whole new game. When you combine them both, Chumby hackers can literally do anything they want." The Chumby can deliver whatever channels of Internet-based content a user wants, and also comes with Adobe's Flash, enabling developers to construct their own widgets. So far more than 600 developers have built Flash widgets for the Chumby, and about 200 developers have shared those widgets on the Chumby Network. The physical device is designed in such a way that its core electronics can be easily separated from its outer shell, allowing owners to make the device look anyway they want. Chumby Industries founder Duane Maxwell says the whole business model for the Chumby was developed around a device that was made to be hacked. "We found that if you open up your device, people will be in the business of enhancing it," Maxwell says.
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Web Site Lets Users Test Out New Looks
San Diego Union-Tribune (04/13/08) LaFee, Scott

University of California San Diego professor Daniel Kriegman and recent Ph.D. recipient Satya Mallick have developed an algorithm that separates gloss from nongloss in digital images. The researchers have created a free Web site called Taaz.com that allows users to realistically refashion their faces, digitally apply thousands of cosmetic products, and change everything, including mascara, blush, hairstyle, and eye color. Kriegman's interest in computer vision and imaging lies in developing and improving how computers understand and interact with real-world imagery. Mallick and Kriegman were inspired to develop the algorithm while they were studying endoscopic video of a human sinus, when they noticed that nasal membranes are excessively shiny. Light reflecting off moist tissues was obscuring valuable information in the pictures, so Kriegman, Mallick, and colleagues from Harvard and Columbia universities worked to find a way to enhance digital photos by removing unwanted superficial gloss. After developing the algorithm, the researchers realized that it was similar to powdering a nose, and the reverse of the algorithm would be to put on lip gloss. Kriegman says the algorithm works by giving different colors mathematical values. The algorithm separates the actual color of an object from the color of the light striking it, which can produce a different color combination or gloss. The researchers eventually found out that their algorithm was not applicable to medical pictures, but that it could be used for cosmetics.
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Tourist Information Wherever You Are
European Space Agency (04/11/08)

The regional winner in the European Satellite Navigation Competition, sponsored by the European Space Agency's Technology Transfer Programme, was eye-Phone, a mobile phone program that can provide instant access to information on the buildings and scenery surrounding the user. Created by Ernst Pechtl and Hans Geiger, the system combines satellite navigation localization services, advanced object recognition, and relevant Internet retrieved information. The eye-Phone works when a user takes a photograph with their mobile phone. The user then chooses an item of interest with the cursor, which allows the system to send information on the selected object to the phone. "It could be a building, a mountain, a tree, plant or a special event such as a local festival," Pechtl says. "The amount of information you receive depends on you, if you want to know more you just click the 'more' button and you trigger a more detailed search responding to your profile of interest. Frank Salzgeber, head of the ESA's Technology Transfer Programme Office, says the eye-Phone is a good example of the potential satellite navigation systems have when combined with other communication and information technology.
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One Virtual Step for Man, One Real Leap for Mankind
ICT Results (04/11/08)

The CyberWalk project at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Europe has developed an omni-directional treadmill that will enable users to walk through virtual worlds. "In the virtual environment you have flight simulators, car simulators, but the most natural way of locomotion for humans is walking and this was practically impossible," says CyberWalk coordinator Marc Ernst. Previous attempts to make omni-directional treadmills have generally not allowed for a truly natural walking and immersion experience. "A key feature is that you need a relatively large treadmill to simulate natural walking," Ernst says. The project has developed the CyberCarpet, a treadmill that is 6 meters by 6 meters, with an active walking area of 4.5 meters by 4.5 meters, which Ernst says is the minimum size for natural walking. The CyberCarpet features a platform with a big chain drive, while the chain elements are made of conventional treadmills. The chain moves in one direction while the movement direction of the belts is orthogonal to the movement of the chain. The two directions of the chain and the belts provide the omni-directional actuation so the treadmill motion is in opposition to the motion of the walker no matter what direction the walker moves. The treadmill uses cameras to track the position and posture of the walker, which helps control the velocity of the treadmill and interactions with the virtual environment.
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Has a Robot Revolution Started, or Is It Still 20 Years Off?
Computerworld (04/10/08) Gaudin, Sharon

A robotic revolution is three to five years off with robotic aides and companions expected to penetrate households as prices fall and technology advances, says Microsoft's Tandy Trower. Trower says the absence of a standard software platform is the reason why the growth of robotics has been so slow in recent years, and his group is currently updating its Robotics Studio software, which features a tool set and a series of programming libraries that sit on top of Windows. James Kuffner of Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute says the revolution Trower is predicting is more likely to come in about 20 years' time, which is when he expects multi-functional humanoid robots that do not require special programming to be common household appliances. Meanwhile, The Envisioneering Group's Richard Doherty says people who are afraid of losing employment to robots could act as an impediment to progress in the robotics industry. "We need to see robots in a different light," he says. "We need people to understand that this machine could help care for their grandmother." British artificial intelligence researcher David Levy has gone so far as to predict that marriages between humans and robots will be taking place by 2050 thanks to dramatic technological advances. "In the last 20 years, we've been moving toward robots that have relationships with humans, and it will keep growing toward a more emotional relationship," he said in an interview.
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Roberta Goes Europe
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (04/10/08)

The Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems in Sankt Augustin, Germany, launched the Roberta-Girls Discover Robots project, and its 22 regional centers in Germany and 12 regional centers in England, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy are a sign of its success. Roberta organizers say the project dispels the widely held belief that girls do not like science and technology. "Our experience with children in robot courses has shown that girls are not interested in programming armored vehicles, combat, or football robots," says project manager Gabriele Thiedig, who adds that they are more likely to program their robots to dance or to organize a rescue operation. Roberta offers teaching and learning materials that educators can use to spark an interest in robots among young girls. Organizers also have designed a "Smart Girls" course in an effort to get high school girls interested in technical trades and university programs. The Hannover Messe trade fair, scheduled for April 21-25, will offer a "Girl's Day," and Roberta's female instructors will participate in its TectoYou youth initiative.
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Libraries in the Converging Worlds of Open Data, E-Research, and Web 2.0
Online (04/08) Vol. 32, No. 2, P. 36; Uribe, Luis Martinez; McDonald, Stuart

New research methodologies facilitated by the latest technologies effect collaboration between researchers who may be scattered across different locations, institutions, and even fields, and the primary features of these new collaborations are the tremendous utilization and generation of data. This approach to research shows up in concepts that include e-science, cyberinfrastructure, or e-research, and over the last 10 years there has been considerable debate about the virtues of open standards, open source software, open access to scholarly publications, and most open data. Data management appears likely to assume a more prominent part in the research cycle, and researchers, librarians, publishers, technologists, and policymakers will need to adjust their practices to accommodate this trend. However, awareness of or interest in data management-related issues seems to be paltry among many researchers, and institutions of higher education must accept certain roles in the deployment of effective data management systems for research data outputs. A spectrum of authoritative blogs focus on the open movement, including the DCC's Digital Curation Blog, Peter Suber's Open Access News, and Open Knowledge Foundation Weblog. Web 2.0 technologies and interactive mapping products have cleared a path for research organizations to investigate and disclose their findings in a novel and interesting manner. The data used and generated in e-research activities can boast a very high degree of complexity, and can manifest itself in different forms in accordance with the discipline. How libraries can engage with e-research is a common topic of discussion among many groups, and often these discussions reach the conclusion that libraries could facilitate data curation.
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