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ACM TechNews
April 28, 2008

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Welcome to the April 28, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Prize Wining Scientist Wins Another Prize
Wall Street Journal (04/28/08) Clark, Don

Stanford University computer scientist Daphne Koller has won the first-ever ACM-Infosys Foundation Award for her ground-breaking research in artificial intelligence. Koller's work unites two disciplines to help solve difficult computing problems. The first field, sometimes identified with databases and relational logic, traditionally focused on representing complex relationships between groups of objects. The second field uses theories about probabilities to project outcomes of situations that involve significant uncertainty. "The two communities each had valid points," Koller says. "They were almost in conflict with each other." Combining the two approaches makes it possible to sort through massive amounts of data to find new insights. Koller has been particularly focused on developing ways of analyzing significant amounts of genetic data to find explanations for how genes function, as well as working on large sets of data from sensors and cameras with the goal of improving machine vision to help robots navigate. Koller won a MacArthur fellowship "genius grant" in 2004.
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ACM and Infosys Foundation Announce Winner of New Award Honoring Contemporary Contributions in Computer Science
Reuters (04/28/08)

ACM has awarded the first-ever ACM-Infosys Foundation Award in Computing Science to Stanford University professor Daphne Koller. Koller is being awarded for her innovative approach to artificial intelligence that allows computers to reason and learn about the world using real-world data. The new ACM-Infosys Foundation Award recognizes personal contributions by young scientists and system developers to a contemporary innovation that exemplified the greatest recent achievements in the computing field. The award includes $150,000 provided by an endowment from the Infosys Foundation. ACM says Koller combined the previously incompatible tools of logic and probability, the basic principles of intelligent reasoning, to create a new field of learning that has revolutionized how computers process vast amounts of diverse, uncertain, and often conflicting data to solve complex, real-world problems. "Professor Koller's advances have been productive not only for computer science, but in a wide variety of applications that use computing to advance society in numerous ways," says ACM President Stuart I. Feldman. "Her research has been used as a framework to solve problems in such diverse fields as computational biology and epidemiology; language processing systems; robotics; and computer perception in understanding images. By using her models and algorithms to integrate small bits and pieces of data in systematic ways that produce stronger conclusions, her work offers a powerful way to think about the world." Koller is head of Stanford's undergraduate research program in computer science, which she founded in 2001.
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A Google Prototype for a Precision Image Search
New York Times (04/28/08) P. C5; Markoff, John

At the International World Wide Web Conference in Beijing, two Google researchers unveiled VisualRank, software they say will advance digital image searching on the Web the same way Google's PageRank software advanced Web page searches. VisualRank is an algorithm that blends image-recognition software methods with techniques that weigh and rank images that look the most similar. Most image searches are based on cues from the text associated with each image, and not on the actual content of the image itself. Image analysis is a largely unsolved problem in computer science, the Google researchers say. "We wanted to incorporate all of the stuff that is happening in computer vision and put it in a Web framework," says Google's Shumeet Baluja, who made the presentation along with Google researcher Yushi Jing. Their paper, "PageRank for Product Image Search," focuses on a subset of the images that Google has cataloged. The researchers concentrated on the 2,000 most popular product queries on Google's product search, and sorted the top 10 images from both its ranking system and the standard Google Image Search results. The research effort then used a team of 150 Google employees to create a scoring system for image "relevance." The researchers say VisualRank returned 83 percent less irrelevant images.
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FBI's Net Surveillance Proposal Raises Privacy, Legal Concerns
CNet (04/25/08) McCullagh, Declan

During a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing, the FBI's Robert Mueller and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) discussed a two-step approach for enabling warrantless surveillance of the Internet. The first step would involve asking Internet service providers to open their networks to the FBI voluntarily. The second step would involve creating a federal law that would require ISPs to do so. As part of the first step, Issa suggested that ISPs could get consent from all of their subscribers to allow federal police to monitor network traffic for attempts to steal personal information and national secrets. Mueller said legislation is needed for "some omnibus search capability utilizing filters that would identify the illegal activity as it comes through" and allow the government to preempt any illegal activity. The Center for Democracy and Technology's Greg Nojeim says the effort is very troubling, and it could, through unknowing consent, cause Internet users to give permission to monitor communications in ways that would otherwise be illegal. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act says that providers may share the contents of customers' communications but only with the "lawful consent" of the user, but what constitutes lawful consent is still under debate. Even if ISPs agree to allow federal authorities to monitor their traffic, many states have far more stringent regulations that would make such activities illegal. How such laws would intersect with International users is also problematic. The problems created by wide-scale Internet surveillance under existing state laws may make creating a federal law a necessity, which would include rewriting U.S. surveillance law. ACM hosts 2008 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference May 20-23, 2008 at the Omni New Haven Hotel, Yale University. For more on Technology Policy in the Information Age: Computer Security Experts Debate Political, Social, and Economic Impacts, go to http://www.cfp2008.org/
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Broadband 2.0 Poised to Reshape Web, TV
Wired News (04/28/08) Gardiner, Bryan

Two of the United States' largest ISPs are looking to create a broadband revolution with Broadband 2.0, which promises home connections of 50 to 100 Mbps, and would allow for more high-definition content, better-quality video-sharing sites, and 3D video. Experts say that when this increased bandwidth becomes available, everything from our social interactions on the Web to how we consume media will be profoundly affected. The increased bandwidth may even lead to the development of extra features such as stereoscopic 3D video and high-fidelity audio. "The YouTube philosophy is really the primary motivator here," says University of California, Berkeley professor Connie Chang-Hasnain. "But, right now, the resolution is terrible and there are some very predefined limits due to bandwidth." Comcast and Verizon have both started offering ultra-high-bandwidth services to select customers, with speeds as great as 25 times faster than today's average broadband speed of 4.8 Mbps, according to the Information technology and Innovation Foundation. Internet researcher Rudolf van der Berg says the new bandwidth will be absorbed quickly by users. "Every new advance ... has enabled new services over the available bandwidth," he says.
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Few States Take Email Votes From Troops
Associated Press (04/27/08) Baldor, Lolita C.

Troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have few options for casting their ballots in the upcoming presidential election. Communities in 13 states will send overseas troops presidential election ballots by email, and districts in at least seven states will allow troops to return the ballots over the Internet, according to the Associated Press and the Overseas Vote Foundation. However, tens of thousands of service members in foreign military bases still have no choice but to rely on regular mail to receive and cast ballots, which is often done at the last minute because of delays in ballot preparations in some states. Making the process more electronic would solve some of these problems, but doing so would also raise security and privacy concerns. Pentagon officials have encouraged more states to switch to electronic voting before November, which could help reverse recent trends in which thousands of military members have asked for ballots but either did not vote or had their ballots rejected because of flaws. "The personnel that fight our wars, the people who are most affected by the decisions on the use of the military, are being systematically denied the right to vote," says the Overseas Vote Foundation's Bob Carey. Carey says that ballots are often not prepared and ready to be mailed until 30 to 45 days before an election, and it can sometimes take more than two weeks for troops to receive mail, meaning the ballots will arrive too late for their votes to count. Although the use of email voting is a controversial matter among the National Association of Secretaries of State, Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita says Indiana has had no problems using email to deliver and receive ballots from overseas voters.
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Florida Alters Its Voting Laws, But New Disputes May Emerge
New York Times (04/28/08) P. A1; Cave, Damien

Florida state lawmakers have passed several laws since the 2000 presidential recount in an effort to bring order to their election system, but many believe the laws may only create more chaos. Three laws in particular are at the center of a heated debate. The first law is a "no match, no vote" provision that rejects potential voters if their Social Security number or driver's license number does not match the number in the state database. By 2006, at least 11 states had created "no match, no vote" provisions, but a judge in Washington state struck down a "no match, no vote" law in 2006, and at least six other states have abandoned similar provisions. The second law creates deadlines and fines of up to $1,000 for third-party groups that lose voter registration forms or turn them in late. The law has forced many organizations to stop voter registration efforts to protect themselves from liability. The third law prohibits voters from correcting mistakes or omissions on voter registration forms in the final month before an election, even if those mistakes or omissions might bar them from having their vote count. Such oversights can be as simple as missing a check box. Voters are now allowed to amend registration forms after the deadline in 33 states. Many believe the Florida laws are biased against poor, black, and Hispanic voters, and attempt to block new voters. "It's really about politicians trying to game the system," says Project Vote deputy director Michael Slater. "They've done that by adding all these bureaucratic obstacles to voting, and then when people can't jump over them, they blame the voter."
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Users of Yahoo Answers Seek Advice, Opinion, Expertise
University of Michigan News Service (04/21/08) Moore, Nicole Casal

People who register with Yahoo Answers are using the site to share advice, opinions, and technical expertise, according to a study from researchers at the University of Michigan. "Just as one may turn to a colleague for an answer to a question rather than search through a book, millions of individuals are flocking to online question/answer forums to seek answers directly from others," says study co-author Lada Adamic, a professor at the university's School of Information. "Part of the reason is the social aspect of online question/answer forums." Over the course of one month, Yahoo Answers generated 1.2 million questions from 495,414 people, 8.5 million answers from 433,402 people, and 211,372 people asked and answered questions, with most asking a question or two and some involved in hundreds. Queries that sought factual answers generated few replies because others were not necessary once the right answer was provided, but questions seeking advice or opinions generated long answer threads. Long answers from participants who displayed some expertise for queries on other topics were often tagged as the best. The study, "Knowledge Sharing and Yahoo Answers: Everybody Knows Something," was presented at this month's WWW2008 conference in Beijing.
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Creating Faster Integrated Circuits by Slowing Light
PhysOrg.com (04/24/08)

Computer performance could theoretically be augmented and future computer systems' power consumption reduced by transporting information optically, and scientists are increasingly exploring the slowing of light as a method to enable such a breakthrough. A paper by University of California, San Diego researchers demonstrates that structures being considered as core components for nanophotonic integrated circuits are highly prone to the effects of disorder, including Anderson localization. "We have already shown by analytical and numerical modeling that disorder is a serious limiting factor in the anticipated performance of optical devices such as buffers, which try to use slow light," says UCSD professor Shayan Mookherjea. "But localization of light--an interesting physical phenomenon with potential applications in the context of lasers and optical interconnects [as yet unexplored]--was only recently predicted, and has just now been observed in these structures." Anderson localization in similar chip-scale structures has also been investigated by researchers from Harvard University and Israel's Weizmann Institute, Mookherjea says. A slow-wave optical waveguide was fabricated in a silicon-on-insulator chip by a graduate student in Mookherjea's Micro/Nano-Photonics research group, and the UCSD researchers' work could bring the development of optical buffering a step closer to realization. "To be able to squeeze all this interesting science onto a compatible silicon chip platform will really enhance the impact of photonics in an interdisciplinary way," said Mookherjea. "In our work, we're opening a window between optical localization research--traditionally the domain of physicists--and research in optical interconnects and novel waveguides, where electrical engineers are leading the way."
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CSIRO Astronomers to Join 'Private Data Highway' Across USA
CSIRO (04/23/08)

A 10 Gbps link across the United States has been awarded to CSIRO's Australia Telescope National Facility by the Internet2 consortium and Level 3 Communications, and this "private data highway" will enable the ATNF and collaborating institutions to demonstrate the real-time transfer of large data to and from Australia and around the world. The link will initially be used by CSIRO astronomers to collaborate with peers at MIT's Haystack Observatory. "By providing this circuit for this innovative application, we hope to support greater global collaboration and investments in radio astronomy research, and encourage innovative thinking about how new optical networking technology enables science and engineering," says Jack Suess, CIO of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Through the electronic very long baseline interferometry (e-VLBI) method, telescopes separated by a distance of hundreds or thousands of kilometers concurrently monitor the same region of sky, and high-speed networks are used to sample data and send it to a supercomputer that decodes and couples that data and produces high-resolution images of the objects under observation. The time it takes to record data and route it to collaborators has been vastly reduced thanks to e-VLBI, and astronomers can get instantaneous feedback as they observe. "We've made enormous progress since our first e-VLBI tests in 2006, but we're not yet able to just set up these experiments and press the 'go' button," says the ATNF's Dr. Shaun Amy. "This dedicated circuit will let us work out how to make these systems operate routinely." The award is the consortium's first Internet2 Driving Exemplary Applications Wave of the Future Award.
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Humanoid Robot to Conduct Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Computerworld (04/24/08) Gaudin, Sharon

Honda Motor is preparing its Asimo robot to conduct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for one song during a sold-out concert on May 13, 2008. Asimo will lead the orchestra when it plays "Impossible Dream" from the musical "Man of La Mancha." "The musicians will have to follow him and do what he says," says Jill Woodward with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. "It will be interesting to see if he has, shall we say, a different take on the piece." Asimo also will present a lifetime achievement award to cellist Yo-Yo Ma during the concert, and will show off its conducting abilities to local music students the following day. Honda has been developing Asimo since 1986, and envisions the robot as a helper that will be able to assist the elderly and the disabled in their homes in the future. Asimo is capable of walking forward and backward, climbing up and down stairs, and even running at speeds of about four miles per hour.
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Patches Pose Significant Risk, Researchers Say
SecurityFocus (04/23/08) Lemos, Robert

A team of computer scientists has developed a technique that exploits patches and updates by automatically comparing the vulnerable and repaired versions of a program and creating attack code. The technique, which the researchers call automatic patch-based exploit generation (APEG), can generate attack code for most major vulnerabilities in minutes by automatically analyzing a patch design to fix a flaw. If Microsoft does not change how it distributes patches to customers, attackers could create a system that attacks the flaws in unpatched systems minutes after an update is sent out, says Carnegie Mellon computer science PhD candidate David Brumley. The technique is built on methods used by many security researchers, who reverse engineer patches to find vulnerabilities fixed by the update. Normally the process can take a few days, or even hours, but Brumley and his colleagues were able to use APEG to create exploits in five recent Microsoft patches in under six seconds each time. The system does not create fully weaponized exploits and may not work on all types of vulnerabilities, but it shows that developing exploits from patches can be done in minutes. The researchers suggest that Microsoft could increase the likelihood that customers receive patches before attackers can reverse engineer them by obfuscating the code, encrypting the patches and waiting to distribute the key simultaneously, and using peer-to-peer networks to increase the distribution of patches.
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Mind-Blowing Blue Gene/P Revs Up at Argonne
Pioneer Press (04/23/08) Jaworski, Jim

About 100 local legislators, Argonne scientists, and federal representatives gathered in a warehouse at Argonne National Laboratory for the dedication of the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility. At the dedication ceremony, the crowd was able to watch a simulation of a supernova, a complex simulation made possible by the facility's Blue Gene/P, one of the fastest supercomputers in the world. The Blue Gene/P, built by IBM and Argonne, runs at 445 teraflops, and is housed in the same location as its predecessor, the Blue Gene/L, which runs at 5.7 teraflops. The new supercomputer was built in part as a response to Japan's Earth Simulator, which was seven times faster than any other computer in the world when it was unveiled in 2002. "It's always helpful to have a competitor," says U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.). "Just look at what Sputnik did for space." The Argonne Leadership Computing Facility will house 20 scientific projects and award 111 million computing hours to research projects from around the world. The simulation of the supernova was one of the computer's first challenges. Other research efforts at ALCF will include projects such as testing new airline components to reduce the need for physical tests, and medical research that provides scientists a more detailed understanding of how diseases and illnesses develop in the body.
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Shibboleth Authentication Tool Upgraded
Government Computer News (04/22/08) Jackson, William

Internet2 has released an upgraded version of Shibboleth, an open source identity management tool that is widely used in the academic research community to provide users with a secure, single-sign-on mechanism for accessing protected online resources from their campuses and external service provider partners. Among the additions Internet2 made to Shibboleth is an implementation of the OASIS Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) 2.0 standard, which includes security features such as encryption technology. Also included in SAML 2.0 is a better method for usage logging at the home institution. This will allow for better tracking of abuse or inappropriate use of the system. The new version of Shibboleth also includes improved anonymous identifiers, which were used in the previous version of the software to protect user privacy. With the new version of Shibboleth, identity providers can assign a persistent unique identifier to a specific user, which in turn will allow service providers to better meet the needs of that user without knowing his specific identity. Students researching articles in an online medical journal, for example, will be able to use the anonymous identifier to save their searches and add to their research over time.
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Finding the Right Picture
Economist (04/22/08)

Researchers at Queen Mary, University of London, and the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence in Saarbrucken are trying to close the semantic gap between how people and computers understand images. Queen Mary professor Ebroul Izquierdo says the research effort has made huge gains over the past five years. Teaching computers to identify pictures is a two-step process. First, the machine is fed dozens of images so that it learns to recognize the range of colors and shapes that picture subjects frequently contain. The more videos and images a computer is fed, the more accurate it becomes in identifying new pictures. The method is imprecise, but a technique developed at Queen Mary uses the same data to identify objects more accurately. The new technique divides an image into small, regular-sized blocks, groups similar-looking blocks together, and discards the plainest and least interesting ones. After identifying the colors, textures, color distributions, and horizontal lines in the groups with the most blocks, those blocks are put through a mathematical algorithm called the Pareto Archived Evolution Strategy to categorize pictures. A second layer of analysis uses ontologies to describe the relationships that exist between objects in images, such as the relationship between water, a person, and the sky to suggest a beach. Although a person has to write every ontology, it is still a faster process than writing descriptions for every image and video.
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A Brainy Approach to Image Sorting
IEEE Spectrum (04/08) Peck, Morgen E.

Teams of scientists at Honeywell, Teledyne Scientific and Imaging, and Columbia University are accelerating data sorting significantly by recording the neural activity of professional image analysts as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Neurotechnology for Intelligence Analysts program. The average duration of consciously recognizing specific information in an image is about 300 milliseconds, while another 200 ms passes before a physical reaction takes place, according to Oregon Health & Science University professor Deniz Erdogmus. The electrical activity in the brain's visual cortex, also known as an event related potential (ERP), has peaked even before the person is aware of what he or she is seeing. The experiments Erdogmus oversaw involved the recording of image analysts' brain activity as they searched a series of aerial images for targets, after which the recordings were run through a program that identified any images whose appearance corresponded to an ERP. The program rarely failed to identify real targets, but analysis and recording will have to occur simultaneously for the system to comply with DARPA standards. "This [system] could be used for searching for desired images in a large database of images," Erdogmus says. "It would be faster than a manual search." Among the challenges to this project is the problem of matching neural signals with the images that triggered them because the brain continues to respond electrically even after the image has disappeared, so Erdogmus has been working on an approach to tweak the system for each new user.
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