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ACM TechNews
May 14, 2008

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Welcome to the May 14, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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ACM Honors Innovator of Automated Tools for Mathematics
AScribe Newswire (05/13/08)

ACM will award the 2007 Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award to Bruno Buchberger for his efforts in developing the theory of Groebner Bases. The theory, which is named after his adviser Wolfgang Groebner, helped lay the foundation for computer algebra. The industry relies heavily on the theory of Groebner Bases, and Buchberger's efforts has led to the development of automated tools that help solve problems involving robotics, computer-aided design, systems design, and modeling biological systems. Buchberger, a professor at Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, also developed an algorithm for finding these bases, and major computer algebra software systems such as Mathematica, Macsyma, Magma, Maple, and Reduce use it to solve mathematical problems. The Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award was established to honor theoretical accomplishments that have an enormous impact on computing. Buchberger will be honored at ACM's annual Awards Banquet on June 21, 2008, in San Francisco, Calif.
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Two New Ways to Explore the Universe, in Vivid 3-D
New York Times (05/13/08) P. D3; Lohr, Steve

Microsoft researchers have devoted years of work to the WorldWide Telescope, a project that will allow users to explore highly detailed and animated 3D astronomical images via a Web site and free downloadable software that became available on May 13. Meanwhile, the Google Sky project is Google's attempt to apply its searchable map service to space images, and both companies have suspended their traditional antagonistic attitudes in the service of these efforts, which are seen as a benefit to scientific discovery and public education. The WorldWide Telescope boasts richer graphics and has generated special software to reduce polar distortion in the rendering of images of spherical space objects. The architects of the WorldWide Telescope and Google Sky share a fascination with astronomy. Computer scientist Jim Gray's interest in tackling the computing challenges of making the vast corpus of astronomical data accessible and usable for researchers served as the inspiration for the WorldWide Telescope. Educators hope that such projects, with their visual splendor and interactivity, will cultivate an interest in astronomy among the Net generation. "It's really encouraging that both Microsoft and Google are there, pushing these powerful tools for science education forward," says Daniel Atkins, who heads the National Science Foundation's Office of Cyberinfrastructure.
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Google Begins Blurring Faces in Street View
CNet (05/13/08) Shankland, Stephen

Responding to privacy concerns, Google has started testing face-blurring technology that it will use on its Street View application. The technology uses a computer algorithm to find faces in Google's image database, and then blurs out the faces, says Google's John Hanke. Google has started testing the technology on images from Manhattan, but Hanke says he expects the company to deploy the technology more broadly. He says dealing with privacy issues is a difficult but necessary challenge, and compares the issues some have with Street View to issues that occurred when Google introduced its aerial views on Google Maps. Hanke says the face-blurring technology, which took a year to develop, is based on prior research that took several years. Face detection is a decades-old computer science problem that is starting to be used in real-world applications, including digital cameras that track and properly expose subjects or take a picture only when subjects are smiling. Computers still struggle to recognize faces, and with Street View Google must often deal with faces that are obscured by hair, telephone poles, or oblique views.
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45th Design Automation Conference Panels Cover Industry's Varied Interests, Challenges, Direction, Future
Business Wire (05/13/08)

The 45th Design Automation Conference (DAC) will offer 29 Technical Program and Pavilion panels on the latest trends in the design of chips and embedded software. Nine panels in the Technical Program will address multicore architectures, electronic system level design, and wireless, the theme of this year's conference, in addition to verification, thermal, design for manufacturability, and custom design and synthesis. One panel will focus on the needs of the industry during the next White House administration, and how it should approach the upcoming election. There will be 20 Pavilion Panels over the course of the four-day program. "Gary Smith on EDA: Trends" and "What's Hot at DAC" will kick of the Pavilion Panels Program, which will conclude with "Your Functional Verification Roadmap: OVM, VMM or Roll Your Own?" "The Panel Committee worked exceptionally hard this year to bring attendees the experts on the latest trends, the new technologies, and the latest industry debates," says Panel Chair Sachin Sapatnekar of the University of Minnesota. DAC is scheduled for June 8-13, 2008, at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif.
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'We Don't Know What We Should Be Teaching'
Software Development Times (05/01/08)No. 197, P. 27; Mullins, Robert

Optimizing the capabilities of multicore processors in all sorts of products requires bridging the chasm between processors' and software's capability, and industry sources say the long-term focus should be on figuring out a way to write code for parallel computing. "We don't even know for sure what we should be teaching, but we know we should be changing what we're teaching," says University of California, Berkeley professor David Patterson, a former president of ACM. UC Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will split $20 million from Intel and Microsoft to underwrite Universal Parallel Computing Research Centers over the next five years, with Berkeley's share going toward the enhancement of research already done by the school's Parallel Computing Laboratory and the hiring of 50 researchers to focus on the problem of writing software for parallelism. Patterson says Berkeley has started introducing freshmen to parallel computing through classes focusing on the "map-reduce" method, while upperclassmen are being given a grounding in "sticky" parallelism issues such as load balancing and synchronization. Patterson acknowledges that an entirely new programming language may need to be invented in order to tackle the challenge of parallel computing. Brown University professor Maurice Herlihy says a more likely possibility is the evolution of parallel programming features by existing languages--a view endorsed by AMD's Margaret Lewis, who cites the necessity of interim solutions to amend legacy software written for unicore processors along with software under development. Lewis says AMD is trying to infuse parallel coding methods via compilers and code analyzers, noting that with these interim solutions "programmers aren't getting the full benefits of parallelism ... but it runs better in a multicore environment."
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New Games Are Designed to Make Computers Smarter
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (05/14/08) Smith, Pohla

Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn and his team have developed GWAPS (games with a purpose), free online games designed to improve Internet image and audio searches, enhance artificial intelligence, and teach computers to see. One GWAP game called Squigl is intended to teach image recognition by having players trace objects in photographs. Another image recognition game called Matchn has players judge which of two images is more appealing. The game Tag a Tune asks players to describe songs, using descriptions such as happy or sad, so computers can search for music using more than just the words in the title. The fourth game, called Verbosity, is intended to help computers collect facts. The GWAP Web site also has a game previously developed by von Ahn called ESP, in which two players each try to guess the words the other player uses to describe an image. Von Ahn says more games will be added to the site, including a game about language translation and one about classifying words. Von Ahn says the knowledge collected by the GWAP games will be put on the Web for anyone to access and learn from.
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What Is It About Girls and IT?
Financial Times Digital Business (05/14/08) P. 1; Twentyman, Jessica

Despite being heavy users of technology, women widely avoid studying IT even though there is great demand for female skills in the field. "I'm always urging my human resources department to get me more resumes from women and encouraging my managers to bring their daughters into work," says Managed Objects CEO Siki Giunta. "We need to make young women understand the scope of this business and the excellent pay and promotion opportunities it has to offer, regardless of gender." Only one in five members of the IT workforce worldwide is a woman, and research suggests that statistic has declined in recent years. Research in Motion (RIM) vice president Charmaine Eggberry says news of the declining participation of women is troubling because of the increasing influence technology has on our lives and the fact that women make up half of the working population. "There's a growing disconnect between who's using technology and who's delivering it and that needs to be addressed," says Eggberry, who adds that the situation could get worse before it gets better. A recent RIM survey found that 90 percent of young people of both sexes between the ages of 11 and 16 say they think using technology is cool, with respondents saying they regularly chat with friends about technology, but only 28 percent of girls have considered a career in technology, compared to 52 percent of boys. In addition to providing role models, experts say people in the industry need to show that not everyone in the technology industry is an engineer, and that companies need people from a variety of backgrounds that can lead projects and analyze how businesses run.
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Electronic Voting System Tested at University
Newcastle University (05/14/08)

A new electronic vote capture and counting system developed at Newcastle University was recently given its first major test. The Pret a Voter system, created by Newcastle University professor Peter Ryan, is designed to overcome the problems that have plagued computerized voting systems worldwide. Ryan says Pret a Voter is far less susceptible to error, hacking, and corruption than either manual counting or other electronic-voting systems. The test was conducted with the support of the Electoral Reform Services and Newcastle University's Center for Software Reliability and School of Computing Science. The test was an election between three charities, each trying to secure student votes. Student voters were given a paper ballot and asked to draw a cross by a candidate, but the positions of the candidates on each ballot were selected at random. After the cross had been drawn, the student tore off the list of candidates so it was impossible to tell which charity had been chosen. The strip of paper with the mark was scanned into a computer, along with the ballot's serial number, which allowed the computer to allocate the vote to the correct candidate. After the election, voters could check to see that their vote was correctly cast by logging on to a Web site and entering their ballot's serial number.
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IBM Close to Breaking Petaflops Barrier
EE Times (05/12/08) Merritt, Rick

The administrators of the Top 500 list of the most powerful supercomputers in the world have given IBM and Los Alamos National Laboratory more time to test the performance of the Road Runner system for the June rankings. The Los Alamos team hopes to break the petaflops barrier. "We have made a major exception for them until May 15 and can provide a few more days beyond that," says University of Tennessee professor Jack Dongarra, who helps manage the Top 500 list. "It's a big deal if they can do it, so we want to give them every possibility." The Road Runner makes use of AMD dual-core Opteron processors and an IBM version of the Cell processor. A supercomputer at the University of Texas in Austin, an Intel Xeon system at NASA, and a Cray XP4 system at Oak Ridge National Lab are also close to surpassing a quadrillion floating point operations per second, but they are more likely to be tested in time for the November rankings. The BlueGene/L system at Lawrence Berkeley Lab has been the most powerful supercomputer in the world since November 2004, and it can now reach about 478 TFlops.
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Developers' Role Shifting From Apps to Platforms
InfoWorld (05/12/08) Krill, Paul

Sun engineer Todd Fast told developers at the recent JavaOne conference that their jobs are being taken over by untrained neophytes. Fast said that applications have shorter lifespans and more non-professionals are getting into the application development space, so career software developers will increasingly work as platform builders instead of application builders. During his speech, Fast made three predictions. First, that software engineers will become an endangered species. Second, high school and college students will take over the jobs of software engineers. Third, professional engineers will not mind because there will be plenty of work in other areas. Fast said it has become common for casual developers, who do not identify themselves as engineers, to use templates in PHP and create applications for social networking sites, blogs, and RSS feeds. Applications are even being built out of existing applications, and there are not enough professional software developers to keep up with the increasing demand. Web applications are being built to fill short-term needs, and there has been a wave of non-traditional Web applications, such as widgets, social applications, mashups, and situational applications. Attendees at Fast's presentation tended to agree that the role of the professional is shifting, though some say not as quickly as Fast believes. "I don't think it's coming as fast as he is pointing out, but it's probably coming," says software engineer Ceco Ivanov, who says the shift will happen in the next 10 to 15 years, not over the next two as Fast predicts.
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MIT Students Show Power of Open Cell Phone Systems
Associated Press (05/12/08) Bergstein, Brian

Mobile software projects designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students using Google's Android open source operating system indicate that cell phones could soon challenge the Internet as a source of innovation. Most of the projects produced by MIT professor Hal Abelson's seven teams of students involved programs that let phones monitor and track the user's physical location, or the locations of their friends, to help them meet up and participate in activities. One project named GeoLife notifies users of tasks they have on their to-do lists when they are near something related to one of the tasks, such as the grocery store, while another named Flare was designed to help small businesses track their drivers. The assignment was particularly challenging for the students because Android-based phones are not expected to be available until the second half of the year, so they had to develop their programs using software that simulates a phone's operation. The idea that cell phones should be open to new programs in the same way PCs are to Web sites has recently taken hold, and more companies are starting to open up their phones. In addition to Android, the LiMo Foundation is backing open source phones, and Apple has recently taken steps to allow third-party developers to create new applications for its iPhone.
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Dim Outlook For H-1B Changes in This Congress?
CNet (05/12/08) Broache, Anne

George Fishman, chief counsel to the Republican side of a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee panel on immigration, says the U.S. Congress likely will not increase the number of H-1B visas anytime soon. Fishman says that proposals to raise the annual H-1B cap would sail through Congress if called to a floor vote, but political considerations mean it will probably not happen in the near future. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Fishman's boss and the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, has proposed an emergency H-1B increase to 195,000 in 2008 and 2009, which would be the highest level since its peak between 2001 and 2003. Smith's bill does not propose new checks on the system, but Fishman says Smith is aware of concerns over H-1B abuse and wants to create a balance. Opponents of increasing the H-1B limit say abuse of the system has displaced American workers and depressed wages, and Fishman acknowledges that the Labor Department is not as well-equipped to fight suspected H-1B fraud as it could be. Part of the reason, Fishman says, is that the system is based on "attestations" from employers that they are hiring employees with the proper qualifications at the requisite wage levels, and Labor cannot open an investigation until someone files a complaint. An aide to Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) says Democrats will continue to hold hearings to move H-1B visa reform forward.
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Designing Bug Perception Into Robots
ICT Results (05/12/08)

European researchers aim to enhance the functionality of robots and robotic tools by instilling them with perceptive abilities modeled after those of insects. The SPARK project team has devised a new software architecture for artificial cognitive systems designed to substantially augment the ability of robots to respond to changing environmental conditions and to learn behavior in response to external stimuli. The robot's perceptive capabilities are improved within the spatial-temporal array computer-based structure architecture by its ability to utilize data culled from visual, audio, and tactile sensors to organize a dynamically evolving pattern, which is subsequently employed to determine the robot's movements. A core research goal was developing a machine able to build knowledge independent of human control, and the basic building blocks of the insect brain were used as the basis for the proposed artificial cognitive system architecture. The device can autonomously learn via the cognitive system based on a blend of fundamental reflexive behaviors and feedback from external environmental data, and thus far the demonstrations have incorporated such basic behaviors as the ability of a robot to guide itself toward a specific sound source. The SPARK project's innovations have fueled software and hardware advancements for machine perception enhancement, and products produced by some of the project's partners have already incorporated the researchers' cognitive visual algorithms. The follow-up SPARK II project will further investigate insect brain neurobiology to improve, evaluate, and generalize the SPARK cognitive architecture.
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Commencement 2008: Gaining Independence Through Video Games
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (05/13/08) Cleveland, Amber

Three Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students have developed Capable Shopper, a computer game designed to encourage independence among disabled individuals. Graduating seniors Jennifer Ash, Zach Barth, and Peter Mueller led an interdisciplinary team of students that included programmers, game designers, character and level artists, electrical engineers, and music composers to create interactive simulations to help individuals with disabilities develop life skills and improve independence. The CapAbility Games Research Project was done in collaboration with the Adult Services Division of the Center for Disability Services in Albany, N.Y., with the goal of creating a game that specifically addresses the needs of the center's users. Capable Shopper simulates a trip to a local grocery store. Players must maneuver through the virtual grocery store, which is based on the blueprints from a nearby grocery store where the center's users frequently shop. The players use a specially designed joystick or head mouse depending on their mobility level. A monitor in front of the user shows the layout of the store and a second monitor displays a shopping list. Players select a meal they would like to make and must then find all of the items needed for that meal. "Games like Capable Shopper illustrate the potential for new gaming genres such as serious games that combine the strengths of interactivity with multimedia to provide engaging simulations in communication, education, and artistic expression," says RPI professor Kathleen Ruiz, faculty leader of the CapAbility Research Project.
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Who Killed My Hard Drive?
Dark Reading (05/06/08) Wilson, Tim

Crashed hard drives can cost a company thousands of dollars in repairs, lost productivity, and lost revenue, according to a recent study by the University of Pepperdine. The study looked at the most frequent causes of drive error and the extent to which a "fatal" error could harm a computer. Hard drive failure was the factor behind 38 percent of data loss incidents--second only to physical theft--and in about 30 percent of these cases, data was lost as a result of drive problems that corrupted the disk and made it unintelligible. Attacks by hackers and human error accounted for about 13 percent and 12 percent of data loss cases, respectively. When the IT cost of a failed drive--approximately $1,150--is coupled with the cost of lost productivity--around $1,750--the total cost of each failed drive comes to roughly $2,900, according to the study. If faced with a failed drive, a company should leave recovery to a professional, since around 15 percent of all non-recoverable data loss incidents in the study were caused by improper recovery attempts. "Non-professional tools and system software often fix errors by overwriting the file system on the drive," the authors say. "Though this may repair the file system, it permanently destroys the data."
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Linkoping University Researchers Break 'Unbreakable' Crypto
Linkoping University (04/21/08) Falklof, Lennart

Researchers at Linkoping University in Sweden have discovered that quantum computing is not 100 percent secure. Quantum computing was considered unbreakable because quantum-mechanical objects cannot be measured or manipulated without being disturbed, and an attempt to copy a quantum-cryptographic key in transit would lead to extra noise that is noticeable and would not yield any usable information. However, Jan-Ake Larsson, associate professor of applied mathematics, and his student Jorgen Cederlof have found that it is theoretically possible for an unauthorized person to extract the key and hide their activities by simultaneously manipulating the quantum-mechanical and regular communication needed for quantum cryptography. "The concern involves authentication, intended to secure that the message arriving is the same as the one that was sent," Larsson says. In an article in the journal IEEE Transactions on Information Theory, Larsson and Cederlof also describe a solution that would secure quantum cryptography.
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Swarming Spy Bots That Share Information Being Built for Military
Computerworld (05/09/08) Gaudin, Sharon

BAE Systems is creating microbots inspired by birds and insects for the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. The robots could eventually be used by soldiers to locate nearby enemies, determine their positions and weaponry, and listen in on their conversations. BAE's Aaron Penkacik says the robots will operate as a distributed system, or swarm, to gather information and send it back in a unified stream. For example, a swarm of robots the size of large insects could contain one robot that captures video, another that records sound, and another that detects chemical agents. The robots will share the information and send it back to a command center or soldier in a unified message. BAE scientists recently started designing the system, which is expected to be a five-year project, but Penkacik says soldiers may be able to use basic models of the spy robots earlier than that while engineers continue to refine the machines. Penkacik says the biggest challenge is to make the robots work collaboratively. "We need to work on collaborative behavior with multiple robots so they can do distributed data fusion in an ad hoc network that's moving in real time," he says. "All the information you get from these different sensors is what we're looking at to create knowledge that helps the war fighter stay alive."
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