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ACM TechNews
May 28, 2008

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Welcome to the May 28, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Senators: No Need for Paper E-Voting Trails, 'Electronic' Ones Are OK
CNet (05/23/08) Broache, Anne

Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who lead a Senate committee that oversees election law, say they will introduce a bill that requires precincts using touch-screen or direct-recording electronic voting machines to equip them with independent paper, electronic, audio, video, or pictorial records that would allow voters to verify their selections. ACM advisory committee member and Princeton University professor Edward Felten said that he could not comment on the new bill without seeing more details first. The bill indicates that the senators at least partially acknowledge the argument that paper trails are not the only option for independently verifying a voter's selections and that other innovative technologies could emerge in the future. The bill may also be intended to appease state and local election officials who frequently complain about the costs associated with outfitting their machines with paper trails. In addition to a verification system, the bill would require states to provide public audits of their election results, would establish certain security requirements for the voting machines and their software, and would establish a research grant program designed to encourage the development and testing of new technologies for verifying votes. The bill would take effect on January 1, 2012, but states could request a waver that would extend the deadline to the beginning of 2014.
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Conference Takes on Tech's Future
Mercury News (05/24/08) Ackerman, Elise

Conference participants at this year's Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference focused on composing an open letter to the next president of the United States, calling for more thoughtful attention to technology. "It has been over 30 years since the advent of the Internet, yet we are still in the early stages of the digitized and networked world," an early draft of the letter states. Some of the core issues that continually resurfaced at ACM's four-day conference were government data collection, network neutrality, intellectual property, and patents. Jon Pincus, a consultant who organized the letter-writing effort, says many people are not being heard and they have no way to participate in the process, and that the letter, which is being edited and adjusted as a public wiki, gives a voice to those people. Other areas of interest at the conference included discussions on the more than 50 new Fusion Centers the Homeland Security Department has launched to share information such as financial, criminal, education, and medical records, and the challenges of dealing with spyware. Content filtering by Internet service providers also was an area of concern. University of Colorado Law School professor Paul Ohm said that ISPs may be violating a federal wire-tapping statute when they intercept customers' traffic in an attempt to stop copyright violations, manage their broadband networks, or target ads.
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SC08 Offers Mentoring and Travel Assistance Grants
HPC Wire (05/22/08)

Computing undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented groups, as well as faculty and young professionals, have until Aug. 15 to apply for travel assistance grants for SC08, the international conference for high performance computing, networking, storage and analysis. The SC08 Broader Engagement (BE) initiative targets African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, women, and physically challenged people who are enrolled full time for at least one semester during the 2007-2008 academic year and are at least 18 years of age. Faculty with students receiving grants will have a good opportunity to receive travel assistance. The grants will reimburse recipients for SC08 lodging and transportation expenses up to a predetermined amount, and will offer complimentary conference registration. "Successful applicants for our travel assistance grants will have access to unprecedented opportunities through the SC08 Broader Engagement initiative," says Tony Baylis of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, SC08's BE Chair. "Our mentorship program plans to provide hands-on learning, while connecting students with leaders in high performance computing and related fields." SC08 takes place Nov. 15-21, in Austin, Texas, and is sponsored by ACM and the IEEE Computer Society.
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Yale Computer Scientists Devise a 'P4P' System for Efficient Internet Usage
Yale University (05/27/08) Emanuel, Janet Rettig

Yale University researchers have developed a system that could make the Internet more efficient by enabling Internet service providers (ISPs) and peer-to-peer (P2P) software providers to work cooperatively to deliver data. Yale professors Avi Silberschatz and Y. Richard Yang, and PhD candidate Haiyong Xie are part of a research team proposing an architecture called provider portal for P2P applications (P4P), which allow for explicit and seamless communications between ISPs and P2P applications. P4P will reduce the cost to ISPs and improve the performance of P2P applications, according to a paper on the architecture that will be presented at ACM SIGCOMM 2008. Silberschatz says current P2P information exchange schemes are "network oblivious," and they use intricate protocols for tapping the bandwidth of participating users to transmit data, which is both inefficient and costly. The P4P architecture extends the Internet architecture by providing each ISP with servers called iTrackers, which provide portals to the operation of ISP networks. P4P can operate in multiple modes. In simple mode, the ISPs will reveal their network status so P2P applications can avoid hot spots. In another mode, P4P operates much like a commodities exchange, allowing providers to interact freely to create the most efficient information and cost flow, lowering the cost of operation and making access to individual sites less likely to overload. In a field test conducted using the P2P software, P4P was able to reduce inter-ISP traffic by an average of 34 percent, and increased delivery speeds to end users by up to 235 percent across U.S. networks and up to 898 percent across international networks.
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The Line Between Reality and Reality Shows Blurs
Buffalo News (05/27/08) Watson, Stephen T.

University of Buffalo researchers say that people who watch a lot of reality TV mimic the behavior they see on the shows and try to become celebrities themselves, using outlets such as Facebook and other social-networking sites. "Across the board, consistently, it was only reality TV that predicted this set of behaviors online," says University of Buffalo professor Michael Stefanone. The researchers studied college students in Buffalo and Hawaii and found that media consumers will model their own behavior after the behavior of celebrities they follow closely. The study, "We're All Stars Now: Reality Television, Web 2.0 and Mediated Identities," found that the biggest reality TV fans share the greatest amount of personal information with the widest network of acquaintances on social-networking sites, with some users collecting hundreds of online "friends," many of whom they have never met in real life. Regular viewers of reality shows tend to want to act like reality TV celebrities, and online celebrity hopefuls also are more likely to befriend people they do not know online, a behavior known as "promiscuous friending." Much of the behavior on Facebook and MySpace is considered "fame-seeking" as people try to create new identities and get attention, the researchers say. The study will be published next month in the proceedings of the 2008 ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia.
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Mars Lander Communications Successfully Linked
NextGov.com (05/27/08) Aitoro, Jill R.

NASA's Phoenix lander includes special software that will help NASA discover if life can exist on Mars. After landing, Phoenix started sending back photos of the planet's northern plains, and the lander will soon scoop soil and ice from the Mars surface as well as examine the atmosphere using laser beams capable of measuring the height and thickness of clouds, wind speed, and elevation temperatures. The analysis could reveal the movement of water from air to soil, enabling scientists to use the information to determine if the planet is habitable. NASA's ability to communicate with Phoenix directly from Earth is key to the mission, which required Lockheed Martin to compile more than 100,000 lines of code, with a second, identical program providing redundancy. All data from the lander is downlinked through the Mars Odyssey or Mars Reconnaissance orbiters, which NASA launched in 2001 and 2005, respectively. Data is then retransmitted to one of three ground-based antennas, known as the NASA Deep Space Network, strategically located worldwide to guarantee that one antenna is facing towards Mars at all times. The data is sent to ground control computers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Arizona. Researchers then decide what action Phoenix should take and send commands and sequences back to the lander through the same communications channel.
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Women Execs Fight the Silicon Ceiling
Seattle Times (05/26/08) Cassidy, Mike

The panel discussion on women in technology at the recent Red Herring North America conference in San Jose had a small turnout that reflects the difficult situation that women in technology face. Part of the problem is that discussions on women in technology usually cite the same issues--lower female enrollment in technology degree programs, few female tech CEOs, and a male-dominated technology culture. Panelist Penny Herscher, CEO of FirstRain, said she has been working in or running technology companies for more than 25 years so she knows what it is like to be a woman in a man's world. Herscher recalled a time when she and her male chief operating officer sat down with a team of journalists. Herscher answered the first two questions, but then a reporter stopped her and said they were only interested in talking with the executives. Infobright CEO Miriam Tuerk once hired a man to round out her all-female executive team because she feared that an all-female team would never get funding. Nevertheless, Herscher said she sees reasons for optimism and noted that the atmosphere and attitudes in Silicon Valley are drastically different from when she started. She said women are more readily accepted as equals, more quickly seen as executive material, and female CEOs do not have to come from a company's tech ranks. Herscher is on the board of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, which encourages women to pursue technology careers. Herscher said organizations and individuals need to reach out to middle-school and high-school girls to fight the stereotype that math is nerdy and boys are better suited for tech careers. "I think we change things by getting involved," she said. "By leading by example."
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MIT Researchers: Morphing Web Sites Could Bring Riches
Network World (05/22/08) Greene, Tim

MIT researchers say that Web sites capable of customizing themselves for each visitor so that they are more appealing, or less annoying, could significantly boost sales. Sites capable of displaying information that is best suited to each individual visitor and their preferred style of absorbing information would tailor themselves based on the decisions visitors make as they browse through pages on the site. A site might play an audio file and present graphics to one visitor, but present that same information as text to another depending on the user's cognitive style. MIT's John Hauser says it takes between five to 10 clicks to get a good idea of a user's viewing preferences, and that statistics have evolved over the past decade that allow people to make broader conclusions from less data. By using a sample set of users navigating a test Web site, a business could set the baseline for how click choices determine what type of site a user sees. As real potential customers visit a live site, the morphing engine fine-tunes itself to create sites that fit a user's preferences even better, increasing the likelihood of a sale. The open source morphing engine is available on MIT's Web site. The researchers say auto-customized sites are less intrusive than sites that visitors can manually customize, which is a time-consuming process that many users will not even bother with, and auto-customized sites generate more sales faster than other sites. The researchers found that if a site had perfect information about each person's cognitive style, it could increase sales by 21 percent, and even if the program had only partially known cognitive styles, the site could improve sales by nearly 20 percent.
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The Future of the Web: An Old-Fashioned Debate With a Social Media Twist
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (05/20/08) DeMarco, Gabrielle

On June 11, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will host a debate between leading authorities on the World Wide Web, with questions for the debate being shaped and selected by Web users from around the world. Following his keynote address, Tim Berners-Lee will join a panel of experts from academia and industry to discuss the Web's future, with the content of the debate being collaboratively guided by Web users submitting and promoting questions through a user-based ranking system, similar to the community-based news site Digg. The most popular questions will be asked during the event. Topics may include sustaining the usefulness of the current Web, creating a next-generation Semantic Web, and the role of politics, education, and sociological factors in the Web's continued evolution. The debate, which will be streamed live via an interactive Webcast, is part of a day-long event celebrating the launch of Rensselaer's Tetherless World Constellation, a new academic center dedicated to studying Web science. In addition to Berners-Lee, panel members will include ACM vice president Wendy Hall, former British Computer Society President Nigel Shadbolt, Radar Networks founder Nova Spivack, and Rensselaer professor Deborah McGuinness. Rensselaer professor James Hendler will moderate.
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Profits for Publishers in Making Books Accessible to All
ICT Results (05/23/08)

Facilitating on-demand accessibility to books for the visually impaired through the adaptation of new technologies is the goal of European researchers who have brought together the European publishing industry and accessibility organizations to pool their knowledge and give birth to a new type of publishing. "It's no longer a question of publishers being told 'you must give us this,' but of everybody sitting around a table and talking about markets and how to best serve them while ensuring a profit for the publishers," says EUAIN project coordinator David Crombie. He says the EUAIN project is unique in that it involves permitting access to documents in any digital format. Crombie stresses the importance of including different sets of formatting instructions from the beginning of the publishing process. An entirely new mainstream market could be supported with synthesized print and audio titles, which deliver a wholly new experience for users through the employment of a speech synthesizer on the computer reading instructions from the electronic book file. In the wake of the now-completed EUAIN project is a new association and spinoff initiatives focusing on the establishment of standards and industry guidelines and the production of training materials and courses. The EUAIN project partners are also attempting to create a new entity that will use the Open Document Format to make it possible for publishers to electronically link to the system and automatically format their books for accessibility.
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Strokable Robot Rabbit Talks With Touch
New Scientist (05/22/08) Barras, Colin

Haptic Creature, a pet robot rabbit that responds to human touch, is being used to explore how touch strengthens emotional relationships. The study could be used to make relationships between humans and robots more emotionally rewarding. University of British Columbia computer science PhD candidate Steve Yohanan says robotics researchers often neglect haptics as a form of communication, instead focusing on sounds and vision. Haptic Creature is designed to recreate the touch-based communication many pet owners experience to add an element of emotion to human-robot interactions. The rabbit-looking robot is covered with fur and uses pressure sensors to detect when it is touched or stroked. It responds with breathing movements, inaudible purring vibrations, or by moving its ears. Yohanan says even those simple responses can elicit a variety of human emotions. United States Naval Academy applied mathematician Sommer Gentry says the importance of haptic interaction on how people use technology has long been neglected. "I am not sure whether it is the technical challenges of human-robot haptic interaction, or under-appreciation of the potential for these technologies that make this a relatively immature area," Gentry says.
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Designers Draft Multicore Programming Guide
EE Times (05/22/08) Merritt, Rick

A guide on how to write code for embedded multicore processors could be available within a year. The Multicore Association has created a new working group to define the pressing issues involving parallel computing and to create a guide on the best programming practices. "I see this as the 'Read Me' document for anyone doing multicore programming," says David Stewart, co-chair of the working group. "We'll try to get a consensus from a significant cross section of the industry on what are the top 10 or 20 issues and the best ways to handle them." An open meeting will be held at the Design Automation Conference in Anaheim, California, on June 10 in an effort to drawing other opinions. Issues using C and C++ will be an initial focus of the group, but it is also expects to address code dependencies, inter-process communications, and race conditions.
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A Robotic Brain-Computer Interface
ZDNet (05/21/08) Piquepaille, Roland

California Institute of Technology engineers have developed a robotic device that can act as a brain-computer interface. They say their device is the first robotic approach to establishing an interface between the brain and computers by positioning electrodes in brain tissue. The device could enhance the performance and longevity of emerging neural prosthetics, which allow paralyzed and disabled people to operate computers and robots with their mind. The research, led by Michael Wolf, Joel Burdick, Jorge Cham and Edward Branchaud, consisted of implanting a small robotic device and the accompanying control algorithm with many individually motorized electrodes that each autonomously locate, isolate and track a neuron for extended periods of time. The goal is to find signals only from neurons dedicated to a particular task, such as controlling an arm's movement. The Caltech team made the procedure more predictable by attaching a tiny MEMS-based motor to each electrode on a multichannel electrode array, and by using an algorithm to direct the electrodes to individual neurons. The algorithm makes neural connections by moving the electrode to different positions, taking sample recordings to detect spikes of electrical activity at the electrode tip and moving the electrode around until it finds the best signal. The researchers say they designed their neuron-tracking algorithm by examining software used by the U.S. military to track planes.
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Brazilian Beetles Hold Key to Faster Computers
Wired News (05/23/08) Keim, Brandon

Optical computer researchers hope to be able to use the scales of the inch-long Brazilian beetle Lamprocyphus augustus as a semiconductor mold to build the perfect photonic crystal. The beetle's iridescent green scales were discovered by Brigham Young University student Lauren Richey. Richey asked BYU doctoral chemistry student Jeremy Galusha to examine the beetle with an electron microscope. While looking at the scales under the microscope, they noticed that no matter what angle the scales were viewed at they always appeared the same shade of green, an unusual trait for iridescent surfaces. Further study showed that the trait comes from the scales' molecular arrangement, which has the same pattern as the atoms of carbon in a diamond. Diamonds have the perfect configuration, but are too dense to serve as photonic crystals, and laboratory attempts at mimicking diamonds have been largely unsuccessful. Researchers say the beetle's scales could possibly be used as a mold for optical chips, with the scale's chitin being replaced with a semiconductor material.
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Graphene-Based Gadgets May Only Be Few Years Away
Asian News International (05/26/08)

Researchers at the University of Manchester have demonstrated the first liquid crystal devices with graphene electrodes. Dr. Kostya Novoselov has shown that dissolving chunks of graphite into graphene and then spraying the suspension onto a glass surface is a cost-effective way to produce highly transparent and very conductive ultra-thin films. "Graphene is only one atom thick, optically transparent, chemically inert, and an excellent conductor," Novoselov says. Gadgets such as common liquid crystal displays for computers, TVs, and mobile phones make use of transparent conducting films, but the underlying technology relies on thin metal-oxide films based on indium, which is expensive and is likely to be exhausted in a decade, says professor Andre Geim. "Scientists have an urgent task on their hands to find new types of conductive transparent films," he says. Novoselov believes graphene-based computers and TV displays could be mass produced in a few years.
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Are Commercial Computing Clouds Ready for High-Energy Physics?
Symmetry Magazine (05/23/08) Chui, Glennda

Amazon's Simple Storage Service (S3) and Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) are not yet ready to handle the weighty computation requirements of high-energy physics research, according to a new study from the University of South Florida's Mayur Palankar and Adriana Iamnitchi, the University of British Columbia's Matei Ripeanu, and Harvard University's Simson Garfinkel. High-energy physics experiments generate an incredible volume of data that is rapidly swelling, and Fermilab's Gabriele Garzoglio says that a business-provided external system capable of accommodating so much data has yet to be seen. Iamnitchi notes that the S3 system's advertised reliability appears to hold true, but she says the Amazon services would carry a significantly higher cost than the system currently in place for the DZero experiment at Fermilab's Tevatron accelerator. Handling the volume of data produced by DZero through Amazon would cost $691,000 annually for storage and $335,000 for transfer, amounting to approximately $1 million per year at U.S. rates. Strategies for lowering this cost outlined by the study include archiving infrequently accessed data files in some cheaper form of storage, or the separation of Amazon's three offered performance traits so that users are only charged for the ones they want. Although the S3 service agreement promises to remunerate users for system failures, Iamnitchi points out that "there is no way you can prove to a court, for example, that they lost your data." Also problematic is the absence of any way for Amazon users to search across all their data buckets.
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Computers With Attitude
Cairns Post (05/22/08)

A group of scientists and entrepreneurs in Melbourne and Singapore recently launched Human Mind Innovations (HMI), a consortium of businesses and academic institutions that is developing emotionally intelligent computers. HMI is creating and commercializing a patent for a method and system for monitoring emotional state changes. The consortium wants to challenge the perception that computers may be fast and smart but they will never be able to compensate for a lack of consciousness. HMI claims that computers with data compression systems, business savvy, and highly-refined emotional intelligence will be able to change the way we live and how we do business. The technology in HMI's computers merges a variety of cross-disciplinary techniques from psychology, management, soft computing, video and image processing, and other fields to capture and analyze the subtle changes the human face presents in various behavioral situations. The computers will give users direct feedback on changing emotional states by reading the user's body language and facial expressions. "What we're trying to do is humanize the technology," says La Trobe University professor Rajiv Khosla. "We want to develop emotionally intelligent ICTs (information and communication technologies) that interact in a human-like manner with people."
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Aiming for a Petaflop
eWeek (05/19/08) Vol. 25, No. 16, P. 20; Ferguson, Scott

IBM's $100 million Roadrunner supercomputer will likely offer a sustained performance of 1 petaflop through a combination of new and commodity technology, says IBM engineer Donald Grice. Roadrunner will employ Cell processors developed by IBM, Sony, and Toshiba as accelerators for the parts of applications that carry a heavy computing load, while standard x86 Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices will handle the standard computing. In addition, the Roadrunner will operate exclusively on the Fedora Linux operating system from Red Hat. This hybrid architecture lets IBM build a system that consumes less power while boosting its ability to scale to a petaflop and higher. Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff says the project reflects a trend within high performance computing to migrate to a heterogeneous framework that combines chips to accelerate different tasks. "The really hard part here is the software, because we don't have very good programming models to handle heterogeneous processing, but the supercomputers, high-performance computing folks, particularly at the extreme high end, are much more tolerant of programming difficulty given the type of performance they need," he says. Roadrunner will be installed at the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory.
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