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ACM TechNews
May 16, 2008

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Welcome to the May 16, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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David Patterson Recognized for Inventing New Technologies That Improve Computer Performance and Dependability
AScribe Newswire (05/15/08)

ACM and the IEEE Computer Society have named former ACM President David A. Patterson the winner of the 2008 Eckert-Mauchly Award, the prestigious computer architecture award. Patterson played a key role in the development of the Reduced Instruction-Set Computing (RISC) microprocessor design, first introduced in 1980. The SPARC architecture is based on RISC, and Fujitsu and Sun Microsystems are among the companies that currently use it. Patterson's effort in designing and implementing a computer data storage system with multiple small disks, to improve reliability and performance, has also led to smaller and more affordable computers. Patterson, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is an ACM fellow, and served as president from 2004 to 2006. He will be honored with the award and its $5,000 prize at the International Symposium on Computer Architecture, which is scheduled for June 21-25, 2008, in Beijing, China.
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Microsoft Joins Effort for Laptops for Children
New York Times (05/16/08) P. C1; Lohr, Steve

Microsoft and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project have reached an agreement that will allow the nonprofit to distribute laptops that run Windows. OLPC's laptops have been praised for their innovative design, but sales have been slow. "The people who buy the machines are not the children who use them, but government officials in most cases," says OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte. "And those people are much more comfortable with Windows." Adding Windows to the machines will add about $3 to the cost of each laptop, the same licensing fee that Microsoft charges under its Unlimited Potential program for developing nations. OLPC will still provide Linux laptops for anyone who wants them, as well as laptops that run both systems, but the extra hardware required to do so will add about $7 to each laptop's price. The laptops now cost about $200 each. The project wants to eventually lower the price to $100 per laptop.
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With H-1B in Limbo, Congressional Backers Push Green Card Fix
Computerworld (05/14/08) Thibodeau, Patrick

Efforts to increase the H-1B visa cap have stalled, so U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has introduced three bills that could help foreign nationals already working in the United States obtain permanent residency. Employers say that getting permanent residency for their employees is as much a problem as getting H-1B visas. One Lofgren bill would exempt graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math from the annual 140,000 limit on permanent residency visas. Lofgren says more than 50 percent of graduates with advanced degrees in science and engineering are foreign born. "If we want our economy to continue competing in the global market, we have to retain these foreign students so they compete with us instead of against us in other countries," Lofgren says. Another bill introduced by Lofgren seeks to eliminate the per-country caps on employment-based visas. Currently, the U.S. caps the number of employment-based visas issued to potential foreign workers at 7 percent per country. Lofgren also introduced a bill that would take unused employment-based green cards and make them available for reuse in a subsequent year.
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CFP 08 Computer Security Experts Debate Political, Economic, Social Impacts of Technology Policy
AScribe Newswire (05/15/08)

ACM's 2008 Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference (CFP 2008), which unites renowned technology policy experts who will help shape public debate on technology issues, takes place May 20-23 at the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale University. CFP 2008 will feature representatives from both the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns, who will answer questions posed by panelists on the technology policy. On May 21, CFP 2008 attendees will launch a collaborative effort to write a letter to the next president of the United States asking about their priorities for technology policy during the next administration. Proposals will be posted on a wiki for review, and a draft letter will be circulated for signatures on a consensus document. The final letter will be sent to both presidential campaigns for their response. The project is intended to generate broad discussion on technology policy priorities among grassroots groups, and to highlight those viewpoints for future policy makers. CFP 2008 will also present panels, discussions, workshops, technical demonstrations, and speeches on key topics, including voting technology, online campaigning, social networks, network neutrality, electronic medical records, media concentration, cybercrime, and cyberterrorism.
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Mapping Tool Open Sourced
Government Computer News (05/14/08) Jackson, Joab

The Java Mission-planning and Analysis for Remote Sensing (JMars) program, software used by NASA to display data from and help plan missions, has been made available as an open source program by Arizona State University's Mars Space Flight Facility. NASA uses JMars for the Mars Odyssey, Global Surveyor, and Reconnaissance Orbital spaceflights. The university released the source code for JMars under version 3 of the GNU General Public License in April. JMars application manager Eric Engle says the development team hopes to get more feedback from wider use of the program. JMars maps any ellipsoidal-shaped bodies and is designed to provide a geographic information system-style interface for image data NASA collects about Mars. JMars users can scan multiple datasets and look for particular geographically-aware data gathered on a location. The Java-based tool also can use contour data to render maps in 3D. JMars provides mission-planning or targeting capabilities, so researchers interested in obtaining an image of a certain area on Mars can determine if an orbiting craft will pass over that location and instruct a satellite to capture data the next time it crosses over that area.
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The New Science of Visual Analytics
HPC Wire (05/15/08) West, John E.

Visual analytics is the current focus of Jim Thomas, director of the U.S. Homeland Security Department-sponsored National Visualization and Analytics Center (NVAC), who describes the field as "the science of analytical reasoning facilitated by interactive visual interfaces." A 2006 paper posits that visual analytics integrates visualization with human factors, geospatial, scientific analytics, and information so that people can extract individual fragments of a whole from a vast volume of unstructured data, and then piece the whole together. NVAC's mission is fivefold: To understand the vulnerabilities of and risk to critical U.S. infrastructure, reduce the terrorism threat, devise a visual communication infrastructure for response teams, cultivate an enduring talent base, and produce effective communications metaphors that can encompass the conclusions of risk evaluations as well as the evidence and chain of logic. Among the users of NVAC's products are intelligence analysts who must sift through the Web information streams and first responders managing a crisis as it occurs. Thomas says the presentation of information in a context that is apropos to individual users is vital, while discovery, comprehension, and confirmation requires interaction. He says the visual analytics field has expanded to more than 1,000 researchers up from 40 researchers just a few years ago. Thomas says about 50 percent of NVAC's funding is committed to basic research via a quintet of university-led research centers, each of which has a regional partner to help focus its research.
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Parallel Processing Calls for a Fortress Mentality
InfoWorld (05/15/08) McAllister, Neil

Sun Microsystems' new Fortress programming language is designed to tackle the problems of applications development for high-performance computing. The problem with most programming languages is that they were designed for an earlier generation of machines, when processing resources were limited and desktop computers generally had only a single CPU. The amount of available processing power continues to increase, but the popular programming languages used today were not designed for the parallel-processing model. Fortress allows for language constructs such as for-next loops to be parallelizable by default. Fortress supports the concept of parallel transactions within the language itself, meaning that complex calculations can be computed as atomic units, independent of any other program threads that might be running. Fortress' syntax is also based on mathematical notation to assist developers in conceptualizing complex parallel-processing applications. So far, Fortress exists mostly on paper, though a reference interpreter that implements most of the core language features is available on the Fortress project community site.
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Women Still Trail in Tech Jobs
USA Today (05/16/08) Schepp, David

Men continue to hold an overwhelming number of technology jobs, and Susan Merritt, dean of the computer science program at Pace University in New York City, believes the small presence of women in the industry is a problem that is worsening. Merritt says women account for just 10 percent of computing majors. Trying to get young girls interested in computing via gaming might not work because they are not as interested in computer games as boys. Meanwhile, IBM's Florence D. Hudson says girls as early as middle school often play down their intelligence around boys and eventually lose confidence in their abilities. She adds that many girls do not know anyone who has pursued studies for a technology career, and might hear their mothers say how difficult math was for them. Enrollment in computing programs is down 70 percent for all students since 2000, largely due to the belief that there are few job opportunities in information technology as a result of outsourcing, Merritt notes. "Of course, that's not true," she says.
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Commencement 2008: Rensselaer Student Invents Alternative to Silicon Chip
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (05/13/08) DeMarco, Gabrielle

Recent Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute doctoral graduate Weixiao Huang has invented a new gallium nitride (GaN) transistor that could reduce power consumption and improve the efficiency of power electronics systems. "Silicon has been the workhorse in the semiconductor industry for last two decades," Huang says. "But as power electronics get more sophisticated and require higher performing transistors, engineers have been seeking an alternative like gallium nitride-based transistors that can perform better than silicon and in extreme conditions." Engineers have known that GaN and other gallium-based materials have electrical properties that are superior to silicon, but no useful GaN metal/oxide semiconductor (MOS) transistors had been developed. Huang's transistor, the world's first GaN MOS field-effect transistor (MOSFET), has already demonstrated world-record performance, Huang says. "If these new GaN transistors replaced many existing silicon MOSFETs in power electronics systems, there would be global reduction in fossil fuel consumption and pollution," Huang says.
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Engineering Creativity 'Swarms' the Heart of Sensors Confab
EE Times (05/12/08) Mokhoff, Nicolas

James McLurkin's research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory focuses on modeling aspects from nature to research algorithms and techniques for constructing and programming large swarms of autonomous robots. McLurkin is the keynote speaker at this year's Sensors Expo, where he will discuss the logistics of creativity and how one can structure the environment around them to enhance creative thought. McLurkin's current project is to create swarm robots capable of working together on a single objective while performing different tasks. McLurkin is developing software and programming techniques capable of handling large swarms of robots. A possible application for swarm robots could be earthquake-response search and rescue. On his Web site, McLurkin describes one scenario in which thousands of cockroach-sized scout robots are sent into piles of debris to locate survivors. A few dozen rat-sized structural engineering robots would then be sent to get near the scene and solve how to remove debris without causing the rubble to collapse. Finally, brontosaurus-sized heavy-lifting robots would arrive to execute the rescue plan. McLurkin will use his keynote speech to generate buzz about his work and encourage more creative ideas to resolve the software problem.
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Robot that Gives Birth Helps Medics Learn
New Scientist (05/13/08) Barras, Colin

Researchers at the Institut National des Sciences Appliquees in Lyon, France, have improved a robot capable of simulating the birth of a child by adding a pneumatic arm that mimics the movements of childbirth. BirthSIM provides a life-size model of a mother's pelvis, and the baby's head is now hidden inside mounted on the pneumatic arm. The childbirth simulator was created to serve as a safe testbed that junior obstetricians could use to improve their forceps skills. Electromagnetic sensors track the motion of the forceps and the baby's head in 3D, and the data is used to project a 3D model onto a screen, which enables trainees to see what is happening inside the pelvis. Patrick Mohide, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at McMaster University believes further improvements are needed. "The ideal simulator would also measure the forces, pressures, and directions of traction from using the forceps, and would simulate the effects on the fetus," he says. "That might lead to the development of more standardized techniques and provide an objective approach to measuring and maintaining skills, just as aircraft simulators do."
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Next Generation of Business Software Could Get More Fun
Associated Press (05/12/08) Bergstein, Brian

Researchers are incorporating elements from video games and social-networking Web sites into business software to make it more engaging as an antidote to the disconnection that physically scattered workers often feel. IBM's Beehive portal for its employees is designed to encourage participation and comradeship through a brighter color scheme, and the ability to share lists and post pictures, video, and one-statement updates. Beehive developer Morris DiMicco thinks such information helps nurture understanding and empathy between far-flung workers. IBM's Bluegrass portal seeks to set up a virtual environment through which software programmers spread out across different locations can organize their work. Meanwhile, Intel is investigating the potential of virtual-world software, which will make collaboration between groups more natural through its rich 3D models of conference rooms, factory floors, and other areas. Game-like virtual interactions could be incorporated into more aspects of everyday working life in the coming years as the sophistication of technology improves, leading to such innovations as virtual meetings using avatars that mimic the participants' gestures and facial expressions in real time through the use of Web cameras. Intel engineer Cindy Pickering says the advancement of socially-oriented workplace software will chiefly depend on younger workers who are already familiar with online social engagement, although she cautions that the element of face-to-face interaction will not be completely supplanted.
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Finding the Right Soliton for Future Networks
ICT Results (05/14/08)

A new generation of computers and optical telecommunications networks could be borne from a study of self-sustaining solitary light wave packets carried out by European researchers engaged in the FUNFACS project. FUNFACS focuses on solitary waves, or solitons, formed in an optical cavity capable of capturing light, and researchers believe that these cavity solitons possess novel properties that could lead to applications more sophisticated than what is possible using current technology. For example, cavity solitons can be formed and destroyed at the micrometer level, and such characteristics are thought to be especially relevant in photonics and optoelectronics, where light can be used as a medium for the storage, manipulation, and transmission of data. The FUNFACS researchers demonstrated that the energy input required to maintain cavity solitons is small thanks to the solitons' self-sustaining properties, while cavity soliton lasers can be switched on and off using light pulses. Such lasers could thus play a key role in an all-optical telecommunications system, says FUNFACS project coordinator Robert Kuszelewicz. It also was proved in other tests that solitons could be moved across the plane of the semiconductor material with a controlled speed and direction of drift, while multiple solitons can coexist in close proximity to each other without interacting. Other documented properties of cavity solitons include their tendency to bind together when brought in very close proximity, and the phenomenon of one soliton vanishing when two solitons are superimposed. These discoveries could perhaps form the basis of an evolution from the current use of chip-based semiconductors for data processing to a more flexible type of optical processing.
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Wireless Mesh Standard Gets Boost From OLPC, Open Source
Network World (05/09/08) Cox, John

The One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC) and a recently launched open source project are experimenting with IEEE's wireless LAN mesh specification, which is still under development. The hands-on experiences by OLPC and the open source project have already led to several changes in the IEEE 802.11s Task Group draft standard, and other changes are being considered. When deployed, 802.11s will allow different types of wireless devices to find each other, interconnect securely, and send traffic on behalf of other mesh nodes, creating new routes automatically if nodes move or wireless links fail. Advocates say the standard will make WLAN deployments easier and less expensive. OLPC started studying the benefits of mesh networks in 2006 as a way of creating its own wireless networks and communications, without the need for access points or intermediate servers, and to share any wide-area connections that might be available in areas where the laptops will be used. OLPC chief connectivity officer Michail Bletsas says the 802.11s mesh was a natural choice because it works at Layer 2, so no changes were necessary to the TCP/IP network stack or other higher-layer applications. Another benefit of 802.11s mesh is that the code can run on the 802.11 network adapter module, with a system-on-a-chip having its own memory and small CPU, enabling the OLPC laptop to suspend or shut down its main CPU to save power but continue to use some power to keep the network alive, sending traffic to other mesh participants.
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Study: 'Hyperconnected' Users Growing
InfoWorld (05/13/08) Krill, Paul

Enterprises are increasingly dealing with a growing "culture of connectivity" as information workers worldwide use more and more Internet applications and wireless devices, concludes a new IDC study. The study uncovered a large number of what it called "hyperconnected" users, or people who use at least seven devices and nine applications. Hyperconnected users represented 16 percent of the population in the study and used such devices as cell phones, laptops, PDAs, and car-based systems, as well as Web 2.0 applications such as Twitter, Second Life, text messaging, wikis, and Web conferencing. The study identified another group dubbed the "increasingly connected" who use at least four devices and six applications and comprised 36 percent of the population. IDC's Vito Mabrucco says the new usage trends will cause IT and telecommunications to converge. He says future networks will need to incorporate telephony, data, identity, presence, and location. He also warns that broadband, telecommunications, wireless, and high-speed networks will become strained as demand rises for connectivity and applications.
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Pinta the Robot Sailing Boat Takes on Atlantic Challenge
The Times (London) (05/10/08) Smith, Lewis

Several robotic sailboats are undergoing final preparations before setting sail in an effort to become the first robot to cross an ocean using only wind power. Eight robotic sailboats will participate in a race that is intended to test the endurance and reliability of robots. The Pinta, designed by scientists at Aberystwyth University, uses solar panels to provide power to a robotic arm on the tiller and a pulley system to change the angle of the sail, which requires far less power than a motor. "This is the first time anybody has attempted to sail across any ocean with an automated boat," says Aberystwyth University's Mark Neal. "The big issue in robotics at the moment is longevity and flexibility in a complicated environment." A robotic sailboat able to navigate by itself could participate in sampling expeditions and collect data for scientists studying climate change, weather, chemistry, and other subjects. Sensors could measure the carbon dioxide content of the water, chlorophyll content, pollution, air pressure, air and sea temperatures, and wind speed, and the robots could monitor events such as plankton blooms or oil spills.
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Academic Argues Software Needs to Learn Manners
Computerworld New Zealand (05/14/08) Hedquist, Ulrika

Massey University senior lecturer Brain Whitworth says much of today's software is rude, constantly forcing users to remove things they did not want added, reset changes they did not want made, close windows they did not want opened, and block emails they did not want to receive. Whitworth says software must be both usable and polite, with software functioning as an assistant to the user instead of the other way around. Impolite programs use the computer's hard drive to store information cookies, change the user's computer settings such as the browser home page, email preferences, or file associations, or spy on the user to record online activities. Whitworth says polite software can make human-computer interactions more pleasant by following certain guidelines. First, polite software should respect the user and not preempt user choices or act on or copy information without the user's direct permission. Second, software should openly declare itself, who it represents, and how that organization can be contacted. Third, polite software should help users make informed choices and provide useful, understandable information when asked. Finally, polite software should remember past user choices during interactions. Whitworth says impolite software examples include Windows Update, which simply notifies the user when it starts, as it progresses, and when it finishes updating instead of asking for the user's permission. Google is an example of polite software because it allows users to look at sponsored links only if they want to. Another example is eBay's customer reputation feedback function, which gives users optional access to information related to their purchase choice.
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Singapore-MIT Game Lets Visually Impaired Share the Fun
MIT News (05/13/08) Chandler, David

MIT students have developed AudiOdyssey, a computer game for visually impaired users. AudiOdyssey simulates a DJ trying to create a catchy tune and get people to dance. The player uses the Nintendo Wii's remote-control device to create a rhythm and lay down a series of musical tracks, gradually building a song. Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab graduate student Eitan Gilnert says that although the Wii gaming system has attracted a lot of people who never previously played video games, people with disabilities are being left behind. Gilnert started to research available video games that were designed for the visually impaired, and found that the games were so specifically adapted for sound and tactile play that they gave visually-impaired players too much of an advantage. Gilnert set out to create a game that could be played equally well by both visually impaired and sighted players. The game also is designed to be played on a regular keyboard for those without Wiis. Gilnert says the game is an early prototype and limited in its capabilities. MIT Comparative Media Studies program graduate Alicia Verlager, who is blind, helped develop the game. "The element I probably most envy about gamers is just the way they hang out together and share doing something fun," Verlager says. "Hanging out with other gamers playing AudiOdyssey was really fun."
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