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ACM TechNews
May 12, 2008

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Welcome to the May 12, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Information Tags Along Everywhere You Go
Baltimore Sun (05/11/08) P. 1A; Kay, Liz F.

Consumers concerned about privacy have been turning to the Internet to find ways to remove or disable the radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that are now built into many products and consumer items, including passports and credit cards. As RFID technology becomes more prevalent in society, critics say the tags and signals could be used for nefarious purposes by anyone who would spy on an individual in an effort to steal their identity or target them in a specific attack. Authorities are starting to listen to these warnings. The U.S. State Department recently incorporated metal shielding into the covers of new passports after critics demonstrated how information from the RFID tag in a passport could be read from a distance. Meanwhile, California enacted a law prohibiting employers from forcing employees to implant RFID tags in their bodies. The law, along with similar efforts in Wisconsin and other states, was spurred by an Ohio company that implanted a tag in employees who worked with confidential documents, as long as the employee volunteered. Critics say the real problem is that RFID tracking is virtually invisible and undetectable by the subject being targeted. However, even critics say the problem has not yet reached a crisis level. Some say that RFID tags are not practical targets, as hackers and criminals would rather target richer sources, such as corporate databanks that store consumer information. In the case of RFID passports, all information contained in the chip is already printed on the front page of the passport, so losing a passport with a chip is no more dangerous than losing an ordinary passport.
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IETF Kicks Off Routing Effort for Sensor Nets
EE Times (05/07/08) Merritt, Rick

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has launched Routing Over Low-power and Lossy Networks (ROLL), a new initiative designed to create an Internet Protocol standard for wireless sensor networks as early as next summer. The new standard would link wireless sensor networks with the broader Internet, supporting all linking techniques such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and 802.15.4. ROLL co-chair Jean-Philippe Vasseur says there has been an explosion of proprietary protocols for sensor networks in recent years, and if each one aims to be an ad hoc standard there will be multiple translations gateways, leading to a complex and expansive architecture. So far, about 250 people have signed up for the group's email reflector to work on the standard, and more than 100 people attended the first meeting in March. "There are thousands and thousands of sensor networks in place in cars and buildings today but most do not use IP," Vasseur says. "What we are trying to do is create a way these sensors can talk to each other without needing a proprietary translation gateway." The group could choose or extend an existing protocol before it finishes its efforts in June 2009.
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The Healing Power of Computers
BBC News (05/12/08)

Cambridge University professor Andy Hopper is leading a team of researchers at the Cambridge Computer Lab that will focus on ways computing technology can help maintain our current way of life and give more people access to the comfort, safety, and pleasures of technology while approaching the problem of building a sustainable and supportable economy with a focus on its environmental impact. The research effort, dubbed "Computing for the Future of the Planet," is examining whether digital alternatives to physical activities such as shopping really make a difference, and if the environmental cost of creating an iTunes economy is actually greater than the CD-based economy that preceded it. During a speech about such issues at the Royal Society, Hopper suggested that we should start placing server farms near renewable sources of energy, as it is a lot cheaper to transmit data than to transmit energy and the data networks are often already in place. Doing so would require making cloud computing an effective tool so processing tasks can be distributed over the network from desktop computers, laptops, and even mobile phones. Society also needs data centers that can cope with varying power supplies so server farms only use electricity that is locally generated. The Cambridge research could be seen as overly optimistic, writes Bill Thompson, but he says such research efforts, combined with small changes in our wasteful lifestyles, offer hope.
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Young Girls Not Interested in IT Careers Due to Lack of Female Role Models, RIM Study Finds
CIO (05/09/08) Sacco, Al

Just 28 percent of British girls say they are interested in pursuing a career in the technology industry when they become adults, according to a survey commissioned by Research in Motion. Meanwhile, 53 percent of British boys said they are considering careers in the technology industry. The survey found that the percentage of girls who want to pursue careers in the technology industry is small because there are relatively few "smart female role models" in the industry. Many respondents--both male and female--also had negative perceptions of technology jobs. Forty-three percent of all respondents said they have never considered a career in the technology industry because it was not exciting, while nearly 30 percent said IT jobs were "too geeky." "Never underestimate the power of role models," says Maggie Philbin, former host of the British science and technology TV show "Tomorrow's World." "If young women can see a career path which has been enjoyable and rewarding for another, they are more likely to follow it themselves."
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Researcher Discusses iPod Supercomputer
IT News Australia (05/09/08) Tay, Liz

National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center computer scientist John Shalf and a research team from the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are designing a supercomputer based on low-power embedded microprocessors. Shalf says the microprocessors used in portable electronics could provide low-power, low-cost supercomputers designed for specific scientific applications. He says we have reached the point where the cost of running a supercomputer is very close to the cost of buying them. "When you move from the old [approach to] supercomputing, which is performance-limited, to supercomputing where the limiting concerns are power and cost, then all the lessons that we need to learn are already well understood by people who manufacture microprocessors for cell phones," Shalf says. He says much of today's microprocessor research is aimed at portable devices such as the iPod. "We're leveraging that trend, and we're kind of like the early adopters of that idea," he says. Shalf's supercomputer will use less power than existing designs by removing unnecessary functions from the processor and by reducing clock frequency. He says even minor reductions in performance can have huge power savings, because voltage squared is related to clock frequency. For example, a high-end server chip running at 2 GHz consumes 120W, but reducing the clock frequency to 600 MHz lowers the wattage to 0.09W. Shalf acknowledges that his approach works well for scientific applications that run in parallel, but there's still a need for general-purpose supercomputing systems.
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NSA Attacks West Point! Relax, It's a Cyberwar Game
Wired News (05/10/08) Axe, David

For four days in April, the National Security Agency (NSA) conducted attacks against custom-built networks at seven of the nation's military academies as part of the seventh annual Cyber Defense Exercise, a training event for future military IT specialists. One of the strategies deployed was a structured query language insert that was launched to lull the military students into a false sense of security, only to then unleash a stealthy kernel-level rootkit that broke into workstations and started deleting data and communicating with the home computer. The West Point cadets caught the rootkit by manually searching the workstation. For a second year in a row, the Army team beat teams from the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard academies. The teams had to design their systems to meet certain specifications set by NSA. All networks had to be capable of email, chat, and other services, and had to be up and running at all times despite any attacks or defensive measures. The West Point team used a fairly standard Linux and FreeBSD-based network with advanced routing techniques for steering incoming traffic in directions of the IT team's choosing. The network took three weeks to build. NSA says it tailored its attacks to be just slightly too hard for the best undergraduate teams to handle.
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For Dartmouth Students: Unplug--or the Bear Drowns!
Union Leader (N.H.) (05/11/08) Wickham, Shawne K.

Dartmouth College computer science professor Lorie Loeb has developed a way to show students how their behavior affects energy consumption. In the hallways of four floors of Dartmouth's newest dorm cluster, Loeb installed monitors that display an animated polar bear. When electricity usage is low, the polar bear is shown sleeping happily on the ice. When energy use spikes, the ice begins to crack. If electricity use remains high, the ice disappears and the polar bear drowns. Loeb says she chose to use a polar bear because it has become a symbol of the effects of climate change. She hopes the image of the drowning bear will persuade students to curb their energy use. The eventual goal of the project is to compute what would happen if the entire Dartmouth campus began to adopt energy-saving behaviors such as unplugging electronic devices that are not in use, Loeb says.
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Ruby Is on the Rise
eWeek (05/07/08) Taft, Darryl K.

The number of Ruby developers will quadruple over the next five years, predicts Gartner analyst Mark Driver. He says there are currently under one million professional Ruby developers, but he predicts there will be four million or more by 2013. Driver says Gartner's research shows there is "strong interest" in Ruby and that the percentage of developers that will be creating commercial systems in comparison to the number of hobbyists will be even greater for Ruby than for other programming languages. Nevertheless, Driver says Ruby needs more corporate sponsorship from large organizations. "Ruby is the classic pattern of how technology gets adopted--it's not one big company telling you what technology to use," says Sun Microsystems engineer Chris Nutter. "The people using Ruby now are hackers--it's kind of an organic system." One disadvantage Ruby has in comparison to Java and other more mature languages is it has no official steward or standards body supporting it, but Nutter says there are two projects supporting Ruby's growth. The first is an initiative from the Rubinius project to create a set of specification tests for Ruby to define what the language is. The Rubinius project also is dedicated to creating a next-generation virtual machine for Ruby. The other project is a collaborative effort between all the various Ruby implementers to discuss where Ruby is going.
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Computer Science Students Launch Humanitarian Software
Bowdoin College (05/09/08)

Four computer science students from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, have been recognized by Portland's Ronald McDonald House for their work in developing volunteer management software for the non-profit organization. The software was developed as part of the Humanitarian Free Open Source Software Project (HFOSS), a collaborative, community-building project started by supporters of open source software and members of the computing faculty at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and Connecticut College in New London. The software developed by the students will be used to replace the handwritten volunteer calendars and paperwork that were previously used to manage, track, and schedule the more than 300 people who volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House in Portland. According to HFOSS directors, the software could eventually be used at Ronald McDonald Houses across the country. HFOSS is funded by the Directorate for Computing & Information Science & Engineering of the National Science Foundation under its Pathways to Revitalized Undergraduate Computing Education program.
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Microsoft Grows DAISY for Blind Computer Users While Adobe Wilts
Computerworld (05/09/08) Lai, Eric

Microsoft recently announced the availability of a plug-in that allows Word 2007, 2003, and XP users to easily save documents in the Digital Accessible Information SYstem (DAISY) XML format, which is the latest version of a standard developed by the nonprofit DAISY Consortium to be the most accessible format for visually impaired computer users. DAISY offers a considerably less frustrating experience for users than screen readers and text-to-speech tools, which miss invisible structural metadata embedded in the document (paragraph marks, table structures, headings, etc.) that represent the most important parts of a Web page because they are key to navigation, browsing, and searching. "From DAISY, you can easily move to other accessible formats, such as Braille or large print, in addition to audio, with little to no extra work," says Sam Ogami with the California State University system's chancellor's office. The DAISY Consortium also aims to help make documents and books accessible to the illiterate, dyslexic, or developmentally disabled, for which the plug-in could also prove helpful. President of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science Curtis Chong has high praise for the plug-in, but points to a gulf between its theoretical and its practical applications. Meanwhile, Jutta Treviranus with the University of Toronto's Adaptive Technology Resource Center noted in a 2008 paper that she harbors "grave concerns" with the DAISY XML that will be generated from a Word 2007 document because its native document format, Office Open XML (OOXML), breaks basic axioms such as not conflating stylistic metadata with structural metadata. Microsoft's Reed Shaffner says DAISY XML eventually may be ported to versions of OpenOffice.org that support OOXML. The DAISY plug-in is currently being hosted on SourceForge as an open-source project.
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Public Transportation in Evolution--Using Advanced Technology for Safer Roads
Innovations Report (05/08/08)

The integration of people, roads, and automobiles with a wireless network to improve safety is the goal of the national Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) project, and currently available ITS services include the Vehicle Information and Communication System and Electronic Toll Collection System. Human-machine-interface technology, wireless communication technology, and GPS technology are just some of the technologies employed in these services, while the human engineering research group also employs cognitive engineering and applied psychology to analyze fundamental engineering and assessment techniques in adopting ITS. Numerous experiments are executed to collect and study behavior and biological responses of motorists to further investigate the provision of various kinds of information via on-board equipment of car navigation systems, development of on-road equipment, and general planning of next-generation traffic information systems. Experimentation involves the use of a driving simulator that can help determine, for instance, how car navigation systems can be modified to enable understanding among all kinds of drivers, including senior citizens, women, and the hearing-impaired. One researcher says that in the future a "car-to-car communication" system that uses a wireless network rather than flashing lights may be accessible, while a "probe car" may show up on the streets to employ each vehicle as a mobile sensor to gather traffic information or road surface data on a snowy day. Another researcher has conceived of mounting a camera above an intersection to provide visual information of the blind spot to the driver's car navigation system, and thus reduce the likelihood of accidents caused when drivers make right turns.
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Is Quantum Internet Search on the Way?
PhysOrg.com (05/06/08) Marquit, Miranda

MIT researcher Seth Lloyd believes that a new architecture for quantum random access memory (QRAM) could be used to reduce the energy wasted by random access memory (RAM) as well as for completely anonymous Internet searchers. Classical computing requires the use of RAM to retrieve information, but RAM design is wasteful and subject to interference, Lloyd says. Lloyd worked with Vittorio Giovannetti at the NEST-CNR-INFM in Pisa, Italy, and Lorenzo Maccone at the University of Pavia, Italy, to create a system that works as QRAM. Lloyd says their QRAM architecture was discovered when his colleagues and him were researching how to make QRAM work on classical RAM design. He says QRAM is a "sneakier" way of accessing RAM. In traditional RAM, the first bit of an address throws two switches, the second throws four, and so on, Lloyd says. With QRAM, "all the bits of the address only interact with two switches," Lloyd says. The energy saved using QRAM is not enough to offset the larger energy problems associated with classical computing, and Lloyd says QRAM is slower than RAM. However, he says QRAM's benefits can be applied to quantum Internet searches. "If you had a quantum Internet, then this would be useful," he says. "This offers a huge decrease in energy used and an increase in robustness." For this to work, Lloyd says "dark fiber" is needed, and although it is already being used for some classical communications, a quantum Internet would need more.
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Powering Up IT for Professional Learning
ICT Results (05/09/08)

The goal of the EU-funded PROLEARN project is to cross the gulf between research and education at universities and similar organizations, and training and continuing education that is supplied for and within companies. The resulting links provide network members with the ability to create a new class of educational tools and technologies that could be advantageous to learners in their professional fields and workplaces. PROLEARN project manager Dr. Eelco Herder says the initiative gathers key research groups, other organizations, and industrial collaborators into a "network of excellence" in professional learning and training. "Because academic institutions are where [technology-enhanced learning] is being researched, they become the first adopters of new technologies, but there are also implications for the corporate world," Herder says. To guarantee that TEL is more widely embraced, systems from different institutions must exchange data and communicate with one another, and the PROLEARN researchers encourage system compatibility through the use of an educationally focused Simple Query Interface that contains programming instructions and assumes the responsibility of sending and responding to user queries. PROLEARN researchers have established a new European Association for Technology Enhanced Learning, and the project is supporting companies with the setup of a Virtual Competence Center. The transference of research results into education and training programs, international conferences, and scientific journals is the goal of another PROLEARN-initiated network, the PROLEARN Academy.
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OLPC Tries to Bridge Gap With Developer Community
IDG News Service (05/07/08) Shah, Agam

Developers have begun raising doubts about One Laptop Per Child's (OLPC) commitment to open-source software in the wake of Chairman Nicholas Negroponte's criticism of Sugar, a user interface that currently works with Linux-based XO laptops. Negroponte has said that he would like to see Sugar's development extended to Windows in order to make XO laptops more appealing to consumers, and has asked developers to help make that a reality. Developers are upset because they see the XO laptop as being a watershed open-source project. OLPC, meanwhile, wants to extend Sugar to Windows because it wants to sell more cheap PCs, said OLPC observer Wayan Vota. The controversy among developers about Negroponte's remarks has forced Kim Quirk, the director of the technical team at OLPC, to reassure developers that her organization is not abandoning open source. "I'd like to reiterate that we at OLPC are committed to create Sugar as an open-source project, as it provides a great opportunity for both learners and for contributors," she wrote in a recent email. Quirk added that the community needs to address its communication problem so the project can get back on track.
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Q&A With: IARPA Director Lisa Porter
IEEE Spectrum (05/08) Adee, Sally

Lisa Porter is the inaugural director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), whose mission is the development of high-risk, high-payoff technologies for U.S. intelligence agencies. IARPA is due to announce its division into three program offices--Smart Collection, Incisive Analysis, and Safe and Secure Operations--that Porter says will collectively cover the whole of the intelligence challenge, and that will respectively focus on improving the value of collected data, maximizing the insight drawn from collections in a timely manner, and countering foes' ability to adversely affect U.S. intelligence's effective networking operations. Porter says the decision to site IARPA at the University of Maryland, College Park, partly came from a desire to send a message that the organization is academic friendly and engaged in the community. She says she is applying an insight she picked up at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to her IARPA tenure: The recognition that the justification for starting programs must be based on a solid concept as well as with capable program managers. "I anticipate that since the problems we'll be addressing are very hard, we'll be advancing technology capabilities, and that will spill over into commercial or private-sector applications," Porter says. She notes that IARPA is on the lookout for program managers, and that part of the strategy involves spreading the word through community engagement, while the IARPA.gov Web site will post application information once it is up by the end of May. "We're looking for very smart people who understand what it takes not just to technically comprehend a problem but how to bring an idea to reality programmatically," Porter says.
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