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ACM TechNews
May 9, 2008

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Welcome to the May 9, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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NASA Supercomputer Looks to Blast Off
eWeek (05/08/08) Ferguson, Scott

Intel and SGI are working to upgrade NASA's supercomputer at Ames Research Center to enable it to break the 1 petaflop mark by 2009. The project, called Pleiades, ultimately plans to increase the supercomputer's performance to 10 petaflops by 2012. Sun Microsystems, IBM, and Cray also are working toward achieving petaflop computing. It is possible that the first petaflop computers could appear on the Top 500 supercomputer list in June when the list is updated for the first time since November. Currently, NASA's Columbia supercomputer at Ames ranks 20th on the list with a performance of 51.9 teraflops. The new system should be 16 times more powerful than the current Columbia system. Columbia originally ranked second on the Top 500 list when the supercomputer debuted in 2004. The Columbia system uses more than 10,000 processors and is built on Intel's Itanium architecture.
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Women in IT Thank Moms for Encouragement
Network World (05/08/08) Dubie, Denise

Many women in IT credit their mothers for making them believe they could succeed in any career. IT and service manager Priscilla Milam says when she got into computer science there were no other women in the program, and it was her mother who told her to learn to live in a man's world, encouraging her to read the headlines in the financial pages, sports pages, and general news, and not to get emotional. "Still, IT in general is a man's world, and by keeping up with the news and sports, when the pre/post meetings end up in discussions around whether the Astros won or lost or who the Texans drafted, I can participate; and suddenly they see me as part of the group and not an outsider," Milam says. Catalyst says the percentage of women holding computer and mathematics positions has declined since 2000, from 30 percent to 27 percent in 2006. Milam and other women in high-tech positions say a passion for technology begins early in life and a few encouraging words from their mothers helped them realize they could overcome the challenges that exist when entering an industry dominated by men. CSC lead solution architect Debbie Joy says the key to succeeding in IT is to put gender aside at work and learn to regard colleagues as peers, and soon they will do the same.
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SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival Award Nominees Announced
Business Wire (05/08/08)

ACM SIGGRAPH has announced the award nominees for the SIGGRAPH 2008 Computer Animation Festival. Over 900 submissions from around the world were received, from both professional studios and students. "With nearly 30 jurors from all corners of the globe, and two separate jury meetings, this year's Computer Animation Festival jury was one of the most comprehensive in the festival's history," says Computer Animation Festival Juried co-chair Samuel Lord Black. The SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival has been an official qualifying festival for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science "Best Animated Short Film" award since 1999. A new feature in 2008 will be the Computer Animation Festival award presentations, where winners will be revealed during the event. The expanded festival also offers a variety of activities over the five-day period, including competitions and showcase screenings. Attendees interested in all aspects of animations can participate in a variety of lectures, discussions, and presentations, including a two-day focus on the world of 3D stereo cinematography. SIGGRAPH takes place August 11-15, 2008, in Los Angeles.
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Computer Game's High Score Could Earn the Nobel Prize in Medicine
University of Washington News and Information (05/08/08) Hickey, Hannah

University of Washington (UW) researchers are trying to harness the skills developed by video gamers to make medical discoveries by playing a game. The game, called Foldit, turns protein folding into a competitive event. Introductory levels teach the rules, which are the same laws of physics that define which protein strands curl and twist into 3D shapes. While the program is designed as a game, it is actually important medical research that could lead to vaccines and a better understanding of diseases such as Alzheimer's and HIV. The game was developed by computer science doctoral student Seth Cooper and postdoctoral researcher Adrien Treuille, working with UW professors Zoran Popovic, David Salesin, and David Baker. There are more than 100,000 different kinds of proteins in the human body, and the genetic sequence of many proteins are known, but it is unknown how they fold up into complex shapes whose structures have biological functions. Computer simulators can calculate all possible protein shapes, but the size of the mathematical problem would take all of the computers in the world centuries to solve. Baker says that people using their natural intuition may be able to find the right answer far more quickly than computers. The intuitive skills that make someone good at playing Foldit are different from the ones that make top biologists or computer scientists, and Baker says his 13-year-old son is better at folding proteins than he is, and others may be even faster. Eventually the researchers hope to present players with a disease and challenge them to devise a protein with the right shape to lock onto the virus and deactivate it.
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HP Labs Calls for University Proposals
EE Times (05/07/08) Merritt, Rick

Hewlett-Packard has issued a request for proposals from university researchers with strong ideas that need funding as part of a new restructuring of HP's research and development division. "We had a much more ad hoc process of working with universities in the past that was more philanthropic," says HP Labs' Rick Friedrich. Friedrich says HP now wants to focus more on strategic collaborations that build relationships. HP is requesting proposals for projects that fit into one of about 50 specific topics in five broad areas that range from quantum computing to digital media and green data centers. HP will fund the work of professors or graduate students as part of renewable one-year grants, with proposals due by June 18 and grant winners expected to be announced this fall. A committee of HP Labs managers, researchers, and executives from HP's business unit will decide which proposals to fund. Friedrich says his goal is to help develop four or five university collaborations within each of HP's 23 labs.
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Fortress Does the Math
Government Computer News (05/06/08) Jackson, Joab

Fortress is a Sun-developed programming language for writing math-heavy programs that is designed to run in multicore and multiprocessor environments and eliminate the need to write in Fortran code. One of Fortress' most compelling features is its ability to enable users to program directly in mathematical notation, which has the potential to dramatically streamline programming. Mathematical symbols can be employed to write a program in Fortress because the language incorporates a mathematical syntax. Sun's Christine Flood says the Fortress development team is focusing on addressing the problem that keyboards lack mathematical symbols. By representing units of measurements as types, Fortress can facilitate functional programming and guard against certain kinds of errors. Fortress also boasts generators and reducers: The former allow the range of an array to be specified, and the numbers to be filled in; the latter enable the reduction of the numbers in an array. Flood says some of the design improvements embedded in Fortress include contracts, which guarantee that a function will not execute unless all the required inputs are ready, and in the correct form. Multiple inheritance, meanwhile, allows traits from multiple parent classes to be passed down to their offspring. Flood says Fortress also boasts explicit and implicit parallelism, and assumes that the functions the programmer writes run in parallel unless specified otherwise.
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Scientists Demonstrate Method for Integrating Nanowire Devices Directly Onto Silicon
Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (05/08/08) Rutter, Michael Patrick

Harvard University scientists, working with researchers from the German universities of Jena, Gottingen, and Bremen, have developed a technique for fabricating nanowire photonic and electronic integrated circuits that may be suitable for high-volume commercial production. By incorporating spin-on glass technology, used in the manufacturing of silicon-based integrated circuits, and photolithography, the researchers say they created a reproducible, high-volume, low-cost technique for integrating nanowire devices directly onto silicon. The fabrication technique is independent of the geometrical arrangement of the nanowires on the substrate, allowing the process to be combined with one of the several methods already used to control the placement and alignment of nanowires over large areas, says Harvard graduate student Federico Capasso. The researchers believe that combining these processes will soon provide the level of control needed to enable integrating nanowire photonic circuits in a standard manufacturing setting. To demonstrate the scalability of the technique, the team fabricated hundreds of nanoscale ultraviolet light-emitting diodes using zinc-oxide nanowires on a silicon wafer. "Such an advance could lead to the development of a completely new class of integrated circuits, such as large arrays of ultra-small nanoscale lasers that could be designed as high-density optical interconnects or be used for on-chip chemical sensing," says University of Jena professor Carsten Ronning.
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Professor Studies What Cars Can Learn From Drivers' Words
Stanford University (05/07/08) Stober, Dan

Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass has long been interested in why some people treat their computers as humans, exhibiting behaviors such as talking to the machines. Nass is now researching people's interaction with the artificial voice in their cars. As cars become increasingly technological, Nass wonders what cars will be able to learn about their drivers, and how that information could be used. Nass says that a car could learn where someone goes, what their preferences are in music, news, sports, and food, and where they stop to buy something or relax. He notes that many companies would pay for that information. For example, insurance companies could monitor where the driver parks and how much they travel and adjust their rates accordingly. Nass also says an intelligent car equipped with a caring voice could persuade humans to drive more safely. As a car's intelligence gets to know the driver's voice and facial expressions, using an onboard camera, the car could adapt its conversation to the driver's mood and interests. Nass says a car's voice is particularly interesting to humans because we are wired for speech and are particularly drawn to it. The key is to tailor the voice's approach and attitude to the driver's preferences and mood, he says.
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Piecing Together the Next Generation of Cognitive Robots
ICT Results (05/05/08)

European researchers in the Cognitive Systems for Cognitive Assistants (CoSy) project are creating robots that are more aware of their environment and better able to interact with humans. The CoSy project has used a collaborative effort to develop advances in artificial cognitive systems (ACSs). "We have brought together one of the broadest and most varied teams of researchers in this field," says Geert-Jan Kruijff, the CoSy project manager at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence. "This has resulted in an ACS architecture that integrates multiple cognitive functions to create robots that are more self-aware, understand their environment, and can better interact with humans." Kruijff says the integration of different ACS components is one of the greatest challenges in robotics, and getting robots to understand their environment from visual inputs, getting them to interact with humans through spoken commands, and making them relate to their environment is an enormously complex task. The CoSy project has developed a robot called Explorer that has a more human-like understanding of its environment, to the point that it can talk about its surroundings with a human. Instead of using geometric data to map its surroundings, Explorer incorporates qualitative and topographical information, and is capable of learning to recognize objects, space, and their uses through interactions with humans. Another CoSy robot called PlayMate uses applied machine vision and spatial recognition to manipulate objects in response to human instructions.
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Google: Unicode Conquers ASCII on the Web
CNet (05/05/08) Shankland, Stephen

Google senior international software architect Mark Davis claims that Unicode has overtaken ASCII as the most popular character encoding scheme on the Web. Davis says Unicode overtook ASCII, as well as Western European encoding, within 10 days in December. Google prefers Unicode-based Web sites, and when the company processes data from Web sites it converts the data into Unicode if it is not already in that standard. "The continued rise in use of Unicode makes it even easier to do the processing for the many languages that we cover," Davis says. One advantage that ASCII has over Unicode is that it takes at least twice as much memory to store a Roman alphabet character in Unicode because it uses more bytes to enumerate its larger range of alphabetic symbols.
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Spy Software Can Measure a Politician's Spin
CanWest News Service (05/05/08) Akin, David

Queen's University professor David Skillicorn has developed software that can analyze political text for signs of spin, and could eventually be used by intelligence experts to find hidden meanings in intercepted communications. "We have a great deal of trouble being unnatural in a natural way," Skillicorn says. "When people are trying to hide, that creates signals that may be detectable." Skillicorn's research focuses on designing tools that can find the linguistic cues associated with deception. Skillicorn tested the software using email messages tabled in the Enron trial, the testimony from the Gomery inquiry, and some political campaign speeches, including those from Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain. A preliminary analysis indicates that Obama scored highest on the spin definition used by the software, while McCain scored the lowest. To detect spin, the software looks at the syntax and vocabulary used in a text, such as how often the first-person singular is used, the frequency of simple declarative sentences, and the use of phrases that tend to qualify those declarative sentences. Obama scored higher on the spin scale because his speeches tend to stress visions of the future. Clinton's speeches tend to focus on more concrete policy proposals, and McCain scored the lowest because he tends to talk about himself. The software also gives higher spin scores to politicians who frequently use "we" sentences.
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Botnet Beaten, But Now What?
eWeek (05/05/08) Vol. 25, No. 14, P. 13; Naraine, Ryan

TippingPoint Digital Vaccine Laboratories software security researchers Cody Pierce and Pedram Amini have devised a way to crack into the Kraken botnet by reverse-engineering the encryption routines and working out the communication structure between the botnet owner and the commandeered computers. "We basically have the ability to create a fake Kraken server capable of overtaking a redirected zombie," Pierce says. However, this breakthrough places TippingPoint in the middle of an ethical dilemma concerning whether compromised computers employed in denial-of-service attacks and spam runs should be purged without the permission of the systems' owners. Amini advocates this practice as a tool for impeding the botnet epidemic, arguing that "we never hear from the infected system again and neither can the actual botnet owner's command-and-control servers." Pierce agrees with Amini's argument, and supports an industry-wide dialogue on more proactive, vigilante-style anti-botnet tactics. Opposed is TippingPoint director of security research David Endler, who entertains the possibility that system cleansing without consent could endanger the operations of end-user systems with critical functions, such as life support. He notes that the issue of liability is one reason why TippingPoint decided not to modify an infected computer within the botnet.
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Careful With That Call
Government Computer News (05/05/08) Vol. 27, No. 10, Jackson, William

With more attention being focused on stopping hackers from using email and security vulnerabilities in Web applications as an avenue for breaching IT systems and stealing data, hackers could begin to see Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) systems as the path of least resistance, security experts say. The experts add that now is the time to begin defending VoIP systems before hackers begin exploiting the vulnerabilities in those systems. Those vulnerabilities are similar to the vulnerabilities that exist in other types of applications. For example, the vulnerabilities in VoIP systems can allow arbitrary code to be executed on an endpoint, such as a telephone handset or a laptop PC running a soft phone client. In addition, hackers can use vulnerabilities in VoIP systems to access an organization's data if its voice services and data are carried on the same network. As a result, researchers are beginning to heed security experts' call to begin developing defenses for VoIP systems. For example, Georgia Tech researchers are working on so-called soft credentials that assign a level of trust to voice calls based on social-networking techniques and circles of trust. With this system, levels of trust are assigned by studying who talks to whom, under what circumstances, and for how long. Although such a solution would require a learning period in which the system studies the user's calls, it would be a very effective defense mechanism once the learning period was over, says professor Mustaque Ahamad, director of Georgia Tech's Information Security Center.
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Emergency 2.0 Is Coming to a Website Near You
New Scientist (05/02/08)No. 2564, P. 24; Palmer, Jason

Online social media tools are very useful in responding to crises such as the October 2007 wildfire outbreak in California, concludes a study led by University of Colorado at Boulder researcher Leysia Palen. For example, the Twitter "micro-blog" was used by residents to coordinate rescue operations and other efforts, while others used Google Maps to create community maps that displayed the progress of the fire or regions where schools and businesses were shuttered. Anyone with an Internet link can access and contribute to these sites, which allowed the collection of up-to-the-minute information from areas that were outside the reach of the media and emergency services. Another emergency response situation that made use of social media tools was the April 2007 shooting spree at Virginia Tech, which featured such things as a Facebook group that allowed VT residents to confirm that they were out of danger and a Facebook discussion thread used to compile information on the victims' identities, which emphasized the importance of keeping data accurate, Palen says. The International Conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management will discuss how the use of social media tools can be maximized and how both emergency services and local residents can employ them. One area of speculation is whether the Web community should be sifted for information not just by members of the public, but by emergency management agencies as well. New Jersey Institute of Technology researchers are working on a software program that lets officials post specific questions and then invites officials and the public to vote on possible answers, after which the votes are weighed depending on the degree of each voter's authority.
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Digital Diet
Scientific American (04/08) Vol. 298, No. 4, P. 25; Biello, David

The rising use of computers and the Internet is consuming an increasingly larger slice of the world's energy. Last year, Internet use in the United States consumed as much as 61 billion kilowatt-hours, and in 2005 computers worldwide consumed 123 billion kilowatt-hours of energy, an amount that could double by 2010 if present trends continue, says Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory staff scientist Jonathan Koomey. The costs of increased energy consumption could mean that it will become more expensive to run a computer over its lifetime than to buy one. One of the biggest energy costs is from the air-conditioning needed to keep computers from overheating. For every kilowatt-hour of energy used for computing, another kilowatt-hour is needed to cool down the servers. Efforts to cut power consumption in the industry include minimizing the number of transformations the electricity must go through before being in the correct operating voltage, rearranging stacks of servers and the mechanics of their cooling, and using software to create multiple virtual computers, instead of having to deploy several real ones. Virtualization has allowed computer maker Hewlett-Packard to consolidate 86 data centers throughout the world down to three, with three backups, says HP's Pat Tiernan. Chipmakers are also working to save energy by shifting to multicore technology, which requires significantly less energy than traditional chips. Sleep modes and other power management tools can also conserve power, but about 90 percent of computer do not have such settings enabled, says Intel's Allyson Klein.
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