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ACM TechNews
May 30, 2008

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Welcome to the May 30, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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ACM Group Honors Research Team for Helping Computers Solve Practical Problems
AScribe Newswire (05/28/08)

ACM's Special Interest Group on Algorithms and Computing Theory (SIGACT) has named Yale University professor Daniel A. Spielman and Boston University professor Shang-Hua Teng the winners of the 2008 Godel Prize. Their paper, "Smoothed Analysis of Algorithms: Why the Simplex Algorithm Usually Takes Polynomial Time," helped explain the effectiveness of algorithms on real data and real computers for solving business and other practical problems. Spielman and Teng introduced the Smoothed Analysis in 2001, and the technique has served a key role in research efforts since then. Their findings were published in the Journal of the ACM in 2004. SIGACT and the European Association for Theoretical Computer Science (EATCS) will present Spielman and Teng with the award for outstanding papers in theoretical computer science at the International Colloquium on Automata, Languages, and Programming (ICALP), which takes place July 6-13, in Reykjavik, Iceland. The prize comes with a $5,000 award.
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Pumping Up the Comp Sci Pipeline
ZDNet (05/28/08) Dawson, Christopher

ACM's Computer Science Teachers Associations (CSTA) is working with Google, using a grant from the National Science Foundation, on a two-day conference to improve connections between university computer science programs, K-12 educators, and private industry. The conference will focus on outreach programs that college students and faculty can hold for primary and secondary schools as part of a larger effort to promote computer science careers. CSTA executive director Chris Stephenson says computer science-related fields are one of the few areas in the weakening economy that are expected to experience strong growth over the next few years. She notes that an increasing number of computer science workers run health care systems, banking, and other "backbone" industries. Stephenson says the conference will bring together stakeholders in university computer science education, computer science graduate "consumers," and K-12 educators in an effort to create lasting partnerships between these groups. The effort is extremely important as K-12 educators often have a poor understanding of the nature of computer science while universities and industrial groups have a poor understanding of the demands on primary and secondary schools.
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Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm as Own
New York Times (05/29/08) P. A1; Carey, Benedict

University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University brain-machine researchers have successfully implanted tiny sensors in two monkeys that enable them to control a mechanical arm using only their thoughts. The monkeys have been able to reach for and grab food and adjust for the size and stickiness of the food when necessary. The research suggests that brain-controlled prosthetics, while still impractical, are within reach. In previous studies, researchers demonstrated that paralyzed humans could learn to control a cursor on a computer screen with their brain waves, and that nonhuman primates could use their thoughts to move a mechanical arm, robot hand, or a robot on a treadmill. The new research takes the technology even further. The monkeys' brains seem to have adopted the mechanical appendage as part of the body, refining its movement as it interacted with objects in real time. Experts say the findings are likely to accelerate interest in human testing, particularly because of the need to treat head and spinal injuries in veterans. In the experiment, the monkeys first used a joystick to get a feel for the arm, which has a shoulder joint, an elbow, and a two-fingered grasping claw. Then a grid about the size of a freckle was implanted just beneath the monkeys' skulls on the motor cortex, over a patch of cells known to signal arm and hand movements. The grid contains 100 tiny electrodes, each one connecting to a single neuron. The grid was connected to a computer programmed to analyze the firing of the motor neurons and translate them into arm movements. The scientists helped the monkeys learn to use the arm using biofeedback, but after several days the monkeys needed no help.
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DAC Targets 45-nm Design
EE Times (05/28/08) Mokhoff, Nicolas

Key chip design issues involving 45-nm process technology will be addressed during the Design Automation Conference's special Management Day session. DAC is scheduled for June 8-13, 2008, at the Anaheim Convention Center, and the all-day Management Day session will take place on June 10. Seven executives from fabless companies and independent device manufacturers will share their tradeoff analysis and decision criteria for moving to new process technology nodes, optimizing for high-volume production, overcoming power constraints, and other issues. Intel's Elinora Yoeli will discuss critical design challenges for the company's 45-nm Atom low-power processor. Philippe Magarshack of ST Microelectronics' central R&D lab will address 45- and 40-nm low-power designs with regard to wireless multimedia SOCs. Charles Matar of Qualcomm will focus on the design challenges for new wireless SOCs using 45-nm process technology in low-power cell phones. Other speakers include MediaTek's Andrew Chang, Bob Pitts of Texas Instruments, Microsoft's Srinivas Nori, and SanDisk's Manuel D'Abreu.
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Web Vote Offered to Military Abroad
Miami Herald (05/26/08) Fineout, Gary

Florida's Okaloosa County plans to use the Internet to make it easier for U.S. soldiers stationed overseas to vote. Okaloosa elections supervisor Pat Hollarn's plan would allow those living on or near three military bases in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan to cast ballots online in the November election. During a 10-day period before Election Day, overseas voters will use a computer kiosk to vote on an encrypted electronic ballot, which will be sent to Florida via the Internet and counted. Poll workers on site will verify that the voter is registered in Okaloosa County. Hollarn says her "distance balloting project" is just like other absentee ballots, except it uses the Internet instead of the mail. However, critics and voting activists say the project is unsafe and goes against a new law that requires the state to use paper ballots. Although voting-rights activists agree that absentee ballots for voters living overseas have been plagued by significant problems, they say the idea of using the Internet to transmit ballots is problematic due to security concerns. Hollarn says the voting mechanism will be safe, emphasizing that the machines and software being used will be reviewed by an independent team of computer analysts.
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A Low-Cost Multitouch Screen
Technology Review (05/29/08) Greene, Kate

Microsoft recently demonstrated LaserTouch, a new multitouch platform that includes hardware that is inexpensive enough to retrofit any display into a touch screen. Microsoft believes that providing inexpensive hardware will make researchers more inclined to experiment with different form factors and develop multitouch software. LaserTouch uses a camera mounted on top of a computer display, with two infrared lasers with widespread beams at the corners of the display, essentially creating sheets of invisible light. When a finger touches the screen, it breaks the plane of light, which is detected by the camera. LaserTouch can be used on high-resolution displays designed for graphics applications such as photo and video editing, and because LaserTouch can be fitted to any type of display it could also be used for office applications such as presentations. In addition to Microsoft, Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories has developed a touch table for business collaborations, and Perceptive Pixel has a wall-sized touch screen that supports multiple inputs. Meanwhile, an open source touch-screen table is available to the public that allows individuals to assemble their own touch-screen tables.
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The A-Z of Programming Languages: AWK
Computerworld Australia (05/27/08) Hamilton, Naomi

Columbia University professor Alfred V. Aho co-developed the AWK pattern matching language, which was founded on the principle of pattern-action processing for the purpose of handling simple data-processing tasks. Aho describes AWK as "a language for processing files of text," and attributes its popularity to the fact that it was a standard program embedded in every UNIX system. "In AWK we have taken expressive notations and efficient algorithms founded in computer science and engineered them to run well in practice," he says. Aho notes that AWK was used by other language developers as a model for creating more powerful languages such as PERL, and he thinks AWK's initial popularity resided in its simplicity and the types of tasks it was made to perform, adding that the concept of pattern-action programming comes very naturally to people. Aho cites AWK's consistency since the mid-1980s as another advantage, and observes that useful programming languages are oftentimes spinoffs of computer scientists' main focus of research. Aho points out that the initial deployment of AWK did not have an element of rigorous quality control, which the language's developers have since redressed with the institution of a regression test for all AWK features.
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Q&A: Google's Open-Source Balancing Act
CNet (05/28/08) Shankland, Stephen

There must be a significant measure of give and take to Google's open-source initiatives, and Google open-source programs manager Chris DiBona says Google repays the open-source community by offering its modifications back to open-source projects, espousing the open-source doctrine, and cultivating next-generation open-source programmers. "We came up with these goals for our group: To support open-source development in general, which means to support open-source infrastructure; support the release of open-source code, from Google and in general; and to create more open-source developers, because especially when I started, there was a perception that Google took a lot of people from the open-source world and then went away," he says. DiBona lists the Linux kernel, compilers, and languages as the three key open-source projects at Google, followed by libraries such as OpenSSL, PCRE, and zlib. He points to a negative perception that Google's contributions to the open-source community are not equal to its usage, which he says is largely inaccurate in view of the fact that there will always be critics. DiBona notes that Google is releasing a new project every two or three weeks, or patching scores of projects each month. He conservatively estimates that about 1 million lines of code are being released annually by Google. DiBona says Google's projects are generally released under the Apache 2 license because it boasts the "fairest language," and he says Google vets or reviews open source for intellectual property issues before using it.
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Carbon Nanoribbons Hold Out Possibility of Smaller, Speedier Computer Chips
Stanford Report (05/28/08) Ballon, Massie Santos

Stanford University chemists have developed field-effect transistors using carbon nanoribbons that could eventually be integrated into high-performance computer chips to increase their speed and reduce heat output. Researchers led by professor Hongjie Dai made the Graphene-based transistors with nanoribbons that require significantly lower temperatures than silicon-based chips. Dai says previous demonstrations of field-effect graphene transistors were done at very cold temperatures. Dai's research group succeeded in making graphene nanoribbons less than 10 nanometers wide, which allows the devices to operate at room temperature. The researchers used a chemical process they developed to make nanoribbons, or strips of carbon 50,000 times thinner than a human hair, that are smoother and narrower than nanoribbons made with other techniques. While graphene could either supplement or even replace silicon, part of the problem is that some nanotubes are made semiconducting and others are made metallic, which cannot be switched off and would actually act as an electrical short in a device. All of the narrow graphene nanoribbons made by Dai's team using their novel chemical technique are semiconductors, but Dai believes that graphene will not replace silicon anytime soon.
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Crash-Predicting Car Can Brace Itself for Impact
New Scientist (05/27/08) Simonite, Tom

European engineers have run trials on an automobile that safeguards occupants by strengthening its frame just before a side-on collision using a crash-prediction system that incorporates software, radar, and cameras. The frame is strengthened by a metal reinforcing bar, whose deployment before a collision depends on the safety system anticipating a crash about 230 milliseconds before it occurs. Such brace-for-impact systems are being facilitated by enhancements to sensors and computing, and car manufacturers will most likely adopt the sensors and software used in these systems initially. "We can give conventional in-crash devices like airbags more time to react," says Continental engineer Joachim Tandler. Roger Hardy of Britain's Cranfield Impact Center says the decision to incorporate such safety technologies into motor vehicles is ultimately a matter of economics. "It comes down to the manufacturers deciding if the extra weight and cost of installing the system on new cars is worth it."
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Transforming Buses Into Mobile Sensing Platforms
ICT Results (05/26/08)

European researchers' work could lead to public buses being used as mobile sensing platforms to help gather data to assist with traffic management, road safety, and hazard alerts. The researchers' test put environmental sensors and cameras on city buses, enabling buses to serve as transmitters of measurements, warnings, and videos to authorized people. MORYNE project researchers perfected a variety of mobile sensing, data acquisition, analysis, and telecommunications technologies that could be used in public buses. Among the sensors in use during the test were humidity and temperature sensors, with some sensors checking on the road surface with another pair analyzing the air, aiming for resistance to pollution. Bus-mounted road cameras can also be used to spot cars violating bus-lane rules and inform police. Looking forward, the MORYNE researchers could help boost security for bus drivers and passengers. "All the public transport authorities we spoke to over the project showed a great and increasing interest for on-board security applications, but it was beyond the scope of the project," says MORYNE coordinator Patrice Simon. "Still, we have made significant progress in realizing this type of system, and the image and sound analysis software to detect aggression is the only major element currently missing."
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Revisiting Semantic Web's Pros and Cons
InternetNews.com (05/26/08) Adhikari, Richard

Computer scientists see the Semantic Web as a way to connect data from different sources to create a holistic view of the world, but others believe the Semantic Web would result in a massive invasion of privacy. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor James Hendler is one of the scientists looking to promote the Semantic Web. "My work is trying to integrate heterogeneous data using appropriate amounts of metadata and doing things with metadata that you can't do with language or specific data," Hendler says. For example, he says searching for a video on YouTube would be difficult unless the user knew the name of the artists they wanted to see, adding that the brief descriptions of videos online are sometimes helpful, but often they are not descriptive enough or the video is missing one altogether. However, if the files included a small amount of metadata, people would be able to find what they are looking for without even knowing the name of the file they want. However, critics warn that to create a Semantic Web full of metadata, computers would have to know as much as possible about everyone and everything online to deal effectively with simple day-to-day tasks.
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Boston University Researchers Developing Sign Language Video Dictionary
Canadian Press (05/25/08)

Boston University doctoral student Joan Nash, who has used American Sign Language (ASL) for most of her life, is part of a team working on an interactive video project that would create a virtual sign language dictionary, allowing someone to demonstrate a sign in front of a camera and have a computer program interpret and explain its meaning. The researchers are working with a three-year, $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, and are currently in the early stages of the project, which involves capturing thousands of ASL signs on video. As Nash goes through the hundreds of words in English, Elizabeth Cassidy, a native ASL speaker, signs them in front of four different cameras, three in front of her and one to her right. Two of the cameras in front of her capture close-ups from different angles and one is a wider shot. The goal is to develop a database of more than 3,000 signs, with the meaning of each sign being determined by the shape of the hands, the movement of the hands and arms, and even facial expressions. Eventually, the researchers hope the technology will be used to develop a multimedia ASL dictionary to help hearing parents better communicate with deaf children and to help sign language students.
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Managing Computer Fraud
EurekAlert (05/23/08)

Information security researchers are starting to look at computer fraud from a social angle. Southern Utah University computer scientist Shalini Kesar writes in the International Journal of Business Information Systems that companies should educate management on the impact of organizational structure on security measures, and then let other employees know that management is well informed on security issues. Computer fraud often occurs in organizations that do not facilitate widescale communication. Reported cases of computer fraud are only part of the problem, considering employees pose a threat from the inside, Kesar says. "Lack of awareness of social and technical issues among managers largely manifest themselves in a failure to implement even the most basic safeguards and controls," Kesar writes. "Concomitantly, if management ignores wider organizational structural issues then this too increases the likelihood of a potential offender committing computer fraud."
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Software Designers Strut Their Talent at Cost of Profit, Says Management Insights Study
INFORMS Online (05/19/08)

The current issue of Management Science includes a Management Insights feature that suggests the personal goals of software designers might be behind the increasing complexity of product design projects. In "The Hidden Perils of Career Concerns in R&D Organizations," Enno Siemsen of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign argues that many software designers are making products more difficult because they want to show off their talent for a future career move. Even designers with average skills pursue more difficult designs in an attempt to cover up some of their limitations, Siemsen argues. Companies can address this problem by tying bonuses directly to the success or failure of projects. Siemsen also believes that companies should collect better data on the outcome of their design projects, and have managers who understand the technology and have a stake in its outcome evaluate product designers.
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How the Free Software Movement Is Winning the War in Brazil
Brazzil.com (05/20/08) Bagueros, Ryan; Bagueros, Isabela

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's support for migration to open-source software for government and state-owned industry has drawn free-software supporters' attention to Brazil. Numerous impressive initiatives underscore the country's free-software commitment, both in terms of code and in terms of real-world deployment of free software for large and complex organizations. Marcos Mazoni, president of the state-owned data-processing company SERPRO and head of the Technical Committee for the Implementation of Free Software, recently described the progress of free software in Brazil. His prior experience with free software was mixed. He says SERPRO "has a lot of ties to the free software world but also to traditional software." Mazoni says software development and the introduction of the free-software paradigm into the management culture have made up much of the contribution in state-owned IT firms. "We have public companies in the IT area, on the state and federal level, with a lot of technical capacity, we have top professionals who, when they are exposed to free software technology, get very excited about the possibility of doing real computing," he says. "This is a steadily growing example that evolved in Brazil in the past 10 years."
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TU Delft Robot Flame Walks Like a Human
Delft University of Technology (05/22/08)

Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) researchers have developed Flame, a robot capable of walking like a human. TU Delft Ph.D. student Daan Hobbelen demonstrated for the first time that a walking robot can be both energy efficient and highly stable. Hobbelen says the breakthrough is the result of inventing a suitable method for measuring the stability of how people walk, followed by building a robot capable of improved performance. Flame contains seven motors, an organ of balance and various algorithms that ensure its high level of stability. For example, the robot can use information provided by the organ of balance to place its feet slightly farther apart to prevent a fall. Hobbelen says Flame is the most advanced human-like walking robot in the world. TU Delft plans to continue its research into walking robots in order to develop walking robots that can learn, see, and run.
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