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ACM TechNews
May 7, 2008

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Welcome to the May 7, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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USACM Urges Congress to Build in Safeguards for Automated Employment Checks
AScribe Newswire (05/06/08)

ACM U.S. Public Policy Committee Chairman Eugene H. Spafford's testimony at a Congressional hearing on employment verification systems and their impact on the Social Security Administration on Tuesday highlighted several potential problems in a pilot system operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security intended to allow employers to electronically check employee work eligibility. Spafford urged Congress to include sufficient safeguards to ensure that employers and employees are adequately protected from technical failure and system abuse. Congress is considering several proposals to expand the DHS E-Verify automated employment verification system, including requiring employers to verify all new hires and existing employees using an expanded version. Verification is now optional for employers. "As technologists, we are acutely aware of the limitations and failure modes of current information technology," Spafford said. "Any system must take the extreme failure modes into account and provide appropriate safeguards to avoid injury to the blameless seeking gainful employment to better themselves." Spafford said the three biggest concerns are the accuracy and timeliness of system results, the security and privacy protection afforded to information kept in the system, and the technical feasibility of multiple approaches to creating such a system. He said those same concerns apply to the REAL ID Act, US-VISIT, and a U.S. immigration and border management system.
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Delaying Data Could Cut Net's Carbon Footprint
New Scientist (05/05/08) Inman, Mason

Unlike most PCs, which adjust their energy consumption based on their workload and shut down when idle, network hardware consumes about the same amount of power whether active or inactive, and U.S. academics and Microsoft and Intel researchers are working on techniques to reduce this consumption by subtly modifying the flow of network traffic to ease the labor of routers and servers. Energy consumption of Internet servers is the focus of research being conducted by Microsoft Research scientists, who have learned that activities such as instant messaging or online gaming require long periods in which connections must remain open, which keeps the servers active and power-consumptive. Study leader Jie Liu says the approach of first sending new connections to servers that are already busy automatically generates servers that bear a light workload, and which "are the candidates for shutting down when the total load is low." Carnegie Mellon University's Diana Marculescu says Liu and colleagues successfully demonstrated that power can be reduced substantially using this technique without affecting the user experience in any perceptible way. Meanwhile, delaying data flowing into a network by only a few milliseconds can yield energy savings of about 50 percent, according to the University of California at Berkeley's Sergiu Nedevschi and colleagues at Intel Research labs. Information can also be clustered into fewer, larger bursts so that the hardware can rest between chunks, and the researchers' simulations indicate that between 40 percent and 80 percent of the energy consumed by network hardware can be saved with either strategy using current hardware.
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Pentagon Wants Cyberwar Range to 'Replicate Human Behavior and Frailties'
Wired News (05/05/08) Shachtman, Noah

Congress has told the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to create a National Cyber Range as part of a $30 billion governmentwide effort to prepare for digital warfare. To make the facility as realistic as possible, DARPA has released a request for proposals that requires contractors to provide robust technologies that emulate human behavior on all nodes for testing all aspects of behavior. The range should produce realistic chains of events between multiple users without scripting behavior, implement multiple user roles similar to roles found on operational networks, and change replicant behavior as the network environment changes. Replicants also must simulate physical interactions with peripherals such as keyboards and mice, drive all common applications on a desktop environment, and interact with authenticate systems, including Defense Department authentication systems. The digital people have to demonstrate human behavior 80 percent of the time. The facility should also include realistic offensive and defensive opposition forces capable of fighting military cyberwarriors in simulated combat. Contractors must create 10,000-node tests using government-provided configuration files and network diagrams in under two hours, and the nodes must be more than computers connected to a faux Internet.
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IBM Launches Program to Attract More Hispanics Into Technology Jobs
InformationWeek (05/06/08) McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

Currently, about 5 percent of the U.S. population works in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related jobs, but only 2 percent of Hispanics work in those areas, says IBM's Adalio Sanchez. IBM has launched an initiative to attract more Hispanics to STEM jobs. Schools, government, corporations, and nonprofits can play a role in preparing more Hispanics for STEM careers, but Sanchez says that many corporations are trying to reinvent the wheel individually when a greater collaborative effort is needed. IBM's efforts include programs to spark and nurture an interest in STEM subjects among school-age Hispanics, including helping Hispanics overcome the language barrier and providing two-way English-Spanish email translation software to all U.S. schools. IBM is also targeting problems faced by older students, such as the fact that calculus is not taught at many community colleges Hispanics attend and that 70 percent of science teachers are not certified in math and science in the United States, by expanding its MentorPlace program so more IBM employees provide online mentoring to students in U.S. school districts with large Hispanic populations.
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Discovery May Lead to Faster, More Powerful Processors
Computerworld (05/06/08) Gaudin, Sharon

Princeton University researchers developed a way to automatically erase tiny defects in computer chips, which would allow manufacturers to create even smaller and more powerful processors. Princeton professor Stephen Chow says the process, called Self-Purification by Liquefaction, melts the structures on the chip in a fraction of a millionth of a second, only long enough for the resulting flow of liquid to be guided so it reforms into the proper shapes. A pulse from a laser, similar to the one used in laser eye surgery, is used because it heats only a thin top layer of the flawed structures without causing any damage to interior structures. The pulse is designed so it only melts semiconductor and metal materials and leaves other parts of the chip untouched. In one experiment, the technique made the edges of 70 nanometer-wide chromium lines more than five times smoother, Chou says. The next step for Chou and his researchers is to try the technique on 8-inch wafers.
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Berkeley Lab Researchers Propose a New Breed of Supercomputers for Improving Global Climate Predictions
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (05/05/08) Wang, Ucilia

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have proposed a new way to improve global climate change predictions through the use of a supercomputer with low-power embedded microprocessors. Michael Wehner and Lenny Oliker of the Berkeley Lab's Computational Research Division, and John Shalf of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, say a new class of supercomputers that uses embedded processor technology could create a cost-effective machine for modeling climate conditions to better understand climate change. In their paper, "Towards Ultra-High Resolution Models of Climate and Weather," the researchers conclude that a supercomputer using about 20 million embedded microprocessors would cost $75 million to construct, but would consume less than 4 megawatts of power and have a peak performance of 200 petaflops. Wehner, Oliker, and Shalf, along with researchers from University of California, Berkeley and Colorado State University, are now working to build a prototype system capable of running a new global atmospheric model developed at Colorado State. "What we have demonstrated is that in the exascale computing regime, it makes more sense to target machine design for specific applications," Wehner says. "It will be impractical from a cost and power perspective to build general-purpose machines like today's supercomputers."
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Better Reading on the Small Screen
Technology Review (05/06/08) Greene, Kate

Researchers at the Fuji Xerox Palo Alto Laboratory (FXPAL) recently demonstrated the Seamless Documents project, mobile phone technology that can store a scanned document in a database and analyze its structure and content. The analysis is used to identify sections and paragraphs to automatically extract key phrases that summarize sections, enabling users to jump to a section labeled with a key word, or skip to the last paragraph on a page, when reading the document on a mobile phone. The software also automatically resizes images, section headers, and plain text when a user is scrolling through the document. The first part of the Seamless Documents project focuses on converting analog documents into digital information that can be stored in a database and accessed using the Internet and cell-phone networks. FXPAL software analyzes the document's structure to find paragraph breaks, pictures, and section titles. The software then automatically summarizes text and chooses key words and concepts from each section to highlight for the user. The second part of the project involves software that runs on mobile phones. The software opens the document and displays extracted information. The user can see a view of the document with key phrases in a large font, overlaid on top of paragraphs and segments.
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There's a Hole in My Bucket--and in the Data as Well!
UCSD News (05/05/08) Zverina, Jan

University of California, San Diego researchers at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) are working with four other universities on the Hydrologic Information System (HIS), an initiative to create a universally accepted cyberinfrastructure for studying the nation's water resources. HIS, backed by a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, is being developed with the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, a joint effort involving more than 100 universities funded by NSF to advance research in hydrology. SDSC Spatial Information Systems Laboratory director Ilya Zaslavsky, a key architect of HIS, says there is a flood of data on water quality and quantity that is collected every day from thousands of sensor stations through a variety of government agencies. However, he says that despite the wealth of data, most of the databases are incompatible with each other. HIS is currently in the first phases of creating a Web-based cyberinfrastructure that will provide broad and uniform access to comprehensive distributed collections of water data from federal, state, and local repositories, and enable users to publish new observation datasets. HIS will also enable better cross-scale analysis of hydrologic cycles and processes on either a regional or continental scale by combining a variety of climate models and integrating data from neighboring disciplines.
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Extracting the Structure of Networks
ZDNet (05/03/08) Piquepaille, Roland

Santa Fe Institute researchers Aaron Clauset, Cris Moore, and Mark Newman have developed an algorithmic method that enables the automatic extraction of the hierarchical structure of networks, and they say the results "suggest that hierarchy is a central organizing principle of complex networks, capable of offering insight into many network phenomena." The researchers suggest a direct yet flexible hierarchical structure paradigm that is applied to networks via machine learning and statistical physics tools. Analysis of networks from three distinct disciplines shows that hierarchical structures can predict missing network links with up to 80 percent precision, even in scenarios where only 50 percent of connections are exposed to the algorithm. The May 1 issue of Nature details Clauset, Moore, and Newman's work, and notes in the editor's summary that the data describing complex networks is frequently biased or incomplete. An accompanying article by Boston University's Sid Redner says that "focusing on the hierarchical structure inherent in social and biological networks might provide a smart way to find missing connections that are not revealed in the raw data--which could be useful in a range of contexts." The SFI researchers think that their algorithms are applicable to nearly all network categories, ranging from biochemical networks to social network communities.
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Are We Closer to a 'Matrix'-Style World?
MSNBC (05/05/08) Nelson, Bryn

Virtual reality technology is progressing rapidly thanks to advances in computing power and graphics, and some researchers believe a "Matrix"-style world where it is difficult to distinguish the real from the virtual is right around the corner. "We've reached a level now where we can make very realistic images: Five to 10 hours to make images more or less perfect, where people say, 'Wow, that's a photograph!'" boasts University of California at San Diego professor Henrik Wann Jensen. He says achieving the same level of photorealism in real-time animation is upcoming thanks to new graphics processors. Jensen is tackling the challenge of power efficiency by slashing the computational costs of photon mapping and ray-tracing algorithms. Whereas previous techniques sampled photons randomly across a light source, Jensen's method maps the relevant photons along the light's entire route, allowing a graphics interface to follow the light around a scene and measure the degree of light absorbed, reflected, or scattered by other objects. A notable achievement in touch-based interface technology has been facilitated by a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute using magnetic levitation, in which a device hovers about its base using magnetic fields, while the position and orientation of a virtual object on a computer display can be manipulated by a handle. The object's interaction with obstacles is simulated tactilely by haptic feedback generated by electrical coils. To advance technology that could lead to empathetic virtual characters, researchers have developed the Sensitive Artificial Listener, which can maintain a human-computer dialogue for prolonged periods by employing its sensitivity to non-linguistic signals as well as a repertoire of verbal and non-verbal cues and statements.
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RFID Testbed Rapidly Assesses New Antenna Designs
Georgia Institute of Technology (05/05/08)

Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT) researchers have designed a RFID data collection system that can read hundreds of RFID tags simultaneously. GIT professor Gregory Durgin says the researchers have designed a simple anti-collision system that transmits multiple, unique signals simultaneously, eliminating the back-and-forth process of existing RFID systems. The system includes a transmitter, receiver, and emulator. The emulator stimulates the activity of an integrated circuit, and the transmitter sends a signal to the antenna. Attaching the emulator to the antenna allows the system to send a unique spread spectrum signal to the receivers. Each antenna signal can be separated from the others, allowing multiple tags to be read at once. Experiments found that the system can measure the power strength and phase of up to 256 tags in the field of view, which is an area in front of the reader of approximately 20 feet by 20 feet. The system's design enables the researchers to test new signaling schemes and frequencies without having to design new chips. Durgin says the system also can evaluate multiple custom antennas in a variety of configurations in realistic tag environments more quickly and at less cost than previous methods.
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Bringing Down the Language Barrier... Automatically
ICT Results (05/02/08)

The European Union funded TC-STAR project is developing automatic speech-to-speech translation technology. "For humans, translation is difficult. We have to master both the source language and the target language, and machine translation is significantly more difficult than that," says FBK-irst researcher Marcello Federico. "To our knowledge, TC-STAR has been the first project in the world addressing unrestricted speech-to-speech translation." The TC-STAR project included the development of three technologies. Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) is used to transcribe the spoken word, Spoken Language Translation (SLT) translates the source language to the target language, and Text to Speech (TTS) generates the spoken output. All of these technologies still need to be perfected. A key innovation of the project was to combine the output of several ASR and SLT systems to make the transcription and translations phases more accurate. Based on the Bilingual Evaluation Understudy method used to compare machine and human translations, the quality of the translations improved by between 40 percent and 60 percent over the course of the project, and 70 percent of the words were translated correctly, though they were sometimes misplaced in the sentence. Components developed by the TC-STAR project have been made available under an open source license.
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Internet in Danger of Losing Innovation
Network World (04/29/08)

Technologist and Oxford Internet Institute professor Jonathan Zittrain is worried that the open technologies of the Internet and PC will encourage malicious exploitation, and unless action is taken the abuse will provoke a market response "that puts us that much more into the iPhone zone," by which he means a migration toward isolationist closed-systems devices that will choke off the Internet's innovation. "If [the iPhone and things like it, including Web 2.0 app platforms] start substituting for the PC instead of complementing it, we're in trouble," he warns. Zittrain says the general challenge is finding a way to function successfully in an open environment. He notes that standards are necessary, but the Net's experimentalist architecture must be preserved for everyone. "I'd like to make sure we maintain a hardware infrastructure that allows nerds to come up with new stuff on their own and deploy it to the rest of us--a safety valve against the more formalized/proprietary systems that will naturally be competing too," Zittrain says. He distinguishes between the use of appliances and a migration to appliances, pointing out that he is for the former and against the latter. Though Zittrain acknowledges that innovators will keep innovating even if everyone else opts for appliances, he says the key issue is whether the innovators can make their innovations readily available to the masses. Zittrain says he would like "a critical mass of generative PCs" to still be present.
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Quickies: Intelligent Sticky Notes
The Future of Things (04/30/08) Gingichashvili, Sarah

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ambient Intelligence Group scientists have developed Quickies, intelligent Post-it notes that combine artificial intelligence, RFID, and ink-recognition technologies. Quickies can communicate with PCs to relay any information written on them to a computer for display on a variety of electronic devices. The Quickie writer uses digital-pen hardware that translates the movement of the pen on the surface of the paper note into digital information. The information can be viewed at any time using Quickie software, which stores the notes as images and converts the handwritten notes into computer text using handwriting recognition algorithms. The Quickie software allows users to browse through their notes and search for specific information or keywords. Using a commonsense knowledge engine and computational AI techniques, the software analyzes the notes and categorizes them to provide users with reminders, alerts, messages, and relevant information. Each Quickie note has a unique RFID tag so it can be placed around a house or office, preventing users from losing a book or other object marked with a Quickie. Users can tell the software to remind them of important notes at specific times, and the software can synchronize Quickie to-do lists with task lists on mobile phones and laptops.
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Eye-Tracking Interface Means Gamers' Looks Can Kill
New Scientist (05/05/08) Perkins, Ceri

The European Union-funded Communication by Gaze Interaction (COGAIN) project is developing eye-gaze software that will enable people with severe motor disabilities to play 3D computer games at the same level as regular gamers. The eye-gaze software helps disabled users protect their privacy online by enabling them to function normally in virtual worlds, says lead researcher Stephen Vickers of De Montfort University in Leicester, United Kingdom. Eye-gaze systems bounce infrared light from LEDs at the bottom of a computer monitor to track a person's eye movements using infrared cameras. The systems are able to determine where a person is looking with an accuracy of about 5 mm. COGAIN software includes a traditional point-and-click interface as well as extra functions to speed up certain commands. For example, glancing off screen in a particular direction switches functions, such as a mode that rotates the avatar or viewpoint, or selecting transparent icons that can be dragged onto game objects to perform actions. A "gaze gesture" has also been added to temporarily turn off the eye-gaze functions to prevent unintentionally selecting an item while looking around the screen. "The eyes are perceptual organs, not designed for pointing and selecting," Vickers says. "You can't turn them off, like you can lift your hand off the mouse."
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Purdue Supercomputer Unboxed and Built by Lunchtime
Purdue University News (05/05/08) Tally, Steve

Purdue University employees came together on May 5 to help build the largest supercomputer on a Big Ten campus with the goal of building the computer in just one day, but it only took them until lunch. "The assembly was finished much faster than we expected, and by noon we were doing science," says Purdue chief information officer Gerry McCartney. By 1 p.m., more than 500 of the supercomputer's 812 quad-core nodes were running 1,400 research jobs from around the campus. The supercomputer consists of 812 servers and is capable of performing 60 trillion operations per second, which ranks it in the top 40 of the current ranking of the world's most powerful supercomputers. McCartney says the computer leverages the commodity nature of cluster computing by using standard computing parts. "By using commodity computer servers to build our supercomputer, we didn't have to fly in engineers or hire specialized technicians," he says. "We were able to do it with our own IT staff in about four hours." The supercomputer was funded by Purdue faculty members who contributed research funds to the effort instead of purchasing equipment for their own labs.
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Huge Databases Offer a Research Gold Mine--and Privacy Worries
Chronicle of Higher Education (05/09/08) Vol. 54, No. 35, P. A10; Glenn, David

Congress's rejection of the notion of a national "unit-record tracking" system for student data has provoked speculation that states will bolster their own education-data centers, which many researchers say would be valuable resources for evaluating schools and colleges and helping them to improve. However, there is a darker aspect to this possibility in the form of potential privacy violations, and this is one reason why many states' efforts to build such data clearinghouses have been sluggish. The development of additional state data centers was advocated by a group of scholars attending a recent conference organized by the National Academies and the American Educational Research Association, who nevertheless acknowledged that the trustworthiness of the systems would be undone by a single serious breach of anonymity. Pending changes in Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) regulations incorporate several clarifications about how states, school districts, and colleges should safeguard student confidentiality when working with databases, such as requiring educational agencies to sign written agreements when they provide data to outside researchers and mandating that the researchers return or destroy the data when they are finished using it. The commentary accompanying the draft regulations notes that privacy issues can remain even with the total removal of names, Social Security numbers, and birth dates from the data, so the regulations instruct each state to identify a number below which data may not be disclosed for a specific "cell" of students. "Even if FERPA did not exist, many of these challenges would still be with us," says Thomas R. Bailey with Columbia University Teachers College's Community College Research Center. "Colleges' IT systems aren't set up to analyze this stuff. The data generally aren't stored in a way that's ideal for research, because that's not the purpose for which the system was designed."
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