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ACM TechNews
June 30, 2008

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


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Flaws in Medical Coding Can Kill
Baltimore Sun (06/30/08) P. 1A; Rockoff, Jonathan D.

Microprocessors are increasingly being used in a variety of medical devices, and potential software errors in those devices are becoming a growing concern. Poor design and manufacturing, the traditional causes for device malfunction, are being replaced by erroneous computer code, and the impact of faulty code is becoming increasingly dangerous as automation technology enables doctors and nurses to spend less time monitoring machines. "The world of technology is allowing us to do things we never thought possible, and it's largely a great advance," says Larry G. Kessler, director of the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Office of Science and Engineering Laboratories. "Where it gets to be scary is, we used to have more human intervention. With software doing more now, we need to have a lower tolerance for mistakes." Manufacturers test and inspect their products' software before putting the devices on the market, but they have been slow to follow the FDA's example of adopting new forensic technology because it is costly and still evolving. Consequently, the FDA is gathering evidence to show software companies the value of forensic testing. Finding a deadly flaw in medical software source code is an extremely complicated process, and computer scientists say traditional software checks are not good enough to find every mistake. The FDA's forensic software unit was launched in 2004, and now includes about 10 mathematicians, computer scientists, and a physicist. In 2006, after talking with computer scientists at North Carolina State University, the unit began using static analysis to uncover code errors. Static analyzers are also being used automakers, Microsoft, and other federal agencies.
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Group Suggests an Exchange to Trade Internet Capacity
New York Times (06/30/08) P. C5; Pfanner, Eric

International Telecommunication Union secretary general Hamadoun Toure wants to create a digital exchange in which telephone networks, mobile operators, satellite providers, and other telecommunications companies would trade capacity on their systems. Network operators struggling with bottlenecks could buy extra capacity to ensure the phone networks, wireless networks, the Internet, and other communications run smoothly. Companies with excess capacity could sell bandwidth, limiting unprofitable downtime. Toure says applying a marketplace solution to the allocation of bandwidth could improve efficiency and reduce prices, and could even help expand telecommunication networks to less connected areas such as Africa. Such a telecommunications marketplace was previously proposed by Enron, which may be why Toure and his aides quickly cautioned that the idea is nothing more than a dream for now and may never be realized. Instead, Toure says he is focusing on a more modest plan, which still may be a step toward the marketplace, that would create a real-time database detailing the flow of traffic on the world's major communication networks. Toure says the database could play an essential role in helping networks manage capacity and plan new investments, and help experts prepare for the possibility of "brownouts," which some experts predict could start occurring in the next three to five years unless telecommunications operators significantly improve their infrastructure investments.
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UW-Stout Student Makes Music Through Art and Technology
Dunn County News (Wis.) (06/27/08)

ACM's SIGGRAPH 2008 will display the work of Derek Olson, an art student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout who has created a multi-touch screen that enables users to interact with simple elements on the screen and make music. Olson's project, "Transient MultiTouch Interface," won second place in the physical installation category of SIGGRAPH's Space Time Interactive Competition. Olson created the unusual touch screen for a capstone course in multimedia design. He researched interface technologies, such as the technologies found in the Apple iPhone and Microsoft Surface, for a project that combined his knowledge and interest in musical performance and theory, computer programming, and electronics. "I wanted to create something that anyone could use and interact with to create and learn about music," Olson says. SIGGRAPH takes place Aug. 11-15, 2008, in Los Angeles.
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The Greening of HPC
HPC Wire (06/26/08) Feldman, Michael

Mounting IT power consumption and pressure on data centers to accommodate bigger systems is driving increased emphasis on "green" supercomputing, which was the topic of one of the final panel sessions at the recent International Supercomputing Conference. High performance computing veteran John Gustafson said that a modern HPC system's computational components consume only a very small portion of the total power, and that industry should concentrate on the energy efficiency of data communication and measure power consumption based on bytes per second per watt instead of floating point calculations. He argued that the goal of green computing is to squeeze more performance out of a fixed operating budget rather than lowering energy consumption or reducing the carbon footprint. In Japan, green computing is essentially required by law due to the country's adoption of the Kyoto Treaty, and Satoshi Matsuoka at the Tokyo Institute of Technology said the upgrade path of the TSUBAME supercomputer calls for a 10-fold gain in performance over the next two years without increasing power consumption. Matsuoka also said the government of Japan is initiating a five-year project in ultra-low-power HPC that will investigate multicore processors, accelerators, next-generation memory technology, advanced networks, improved cooling technology, facility enhancement, zero emission power sources, and low-power algorithms in an effort to devise basic technologies that will facilitate a 1,000-fold boost in energy efficiency over the next 10 years. Dr. Franz-Josef Pfreundt at Fraunhofer-ITWM said the entire computing infrastructure's efficiency must be considered in order to achieve optimization of power use, and suggested that power consumption would draw more attention from buyers if the system's energy budget and its acquisition cost were integrated within the system procurement. Berkeley Lab's John Shalf said minimizing the power consumed for the amount of work executed is the objective of green computing, and this goal is the driver of embedded computing.
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More Effective Code Generation in Sight for Industry
University of Southampton (ECS) (06/26/08) Lewis, Joyce

A researcher at the University of Southampton backed by a grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will spend the next three years developing a domain-specific code generator that will improve software code generation. Software developers use code generation to translate more sophisticated models into code, but they often need to modify the code generator or the generated code. The output code tends to differ from the exact requirements of the user and needs customization as a result. The project would make automatically generating code customization more reliable. "It's about making the code generator more flexible without having to go into the inner guts of the machine," says Bernd Fischer of the School of Electronics and Computer Science. "Users in safety-critical application domains such as automotive and avionics systems will particularly benefit from the assurance support we can provide for customizations," Fischer says.
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Coming Soon: A Laptop in Your Pocket
Computerworld (06/25/08) Machlis, Sharon

Modern laptops may soon be replaced by smaller, more useful devices such as the smart phone. Current trends for low-power chips, such as those used in devices such as cell phones and iPods, indicate that we will likely see eight times the CPU power in handheld devices by 2010, says former Sun Microsystems distinguished engineer Adrian Cockcroft. Cockcroft envisions an always-on device that wirelessly and seamlessly connects to a car when driving, a desktop monitor and keyboard when working, and to projection systems and portable displays when giving a presentation. Such powerful and capable handheld devices could lead to what Cockcroft calls computer-assisted telepathy, or a permanent connection to alternate worlds such as Second Life, as well as "lifesharing," which would create a network of permanently connected friends and family. Cockcroft says lifesharing is the next logical step from the behaviors of today's youth. Older users less interested in frictionless communication would be able to used the constantly connected device to remind themselves of forgotten names at social gatherings and other tasks. Cockcroft says the underlying technology driving such advancements is the increasing robustness of low-power chips and devices, which is allowing handhelds to advance faster than laptops. For example, laptop memory doubles every two years, while pocket devices double in memory annually. Cockcroft predicts that by the end of the year smart phones will have double the CPU power and RAM of current state-of-the-art handheld devices such as the iPhone.
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Smart Camera Keeps an Eye on Rare Penguins
New Scientist (06/28/08) Barras, Colin

University of Bristol researchers Tilo Burghardt and Peter Barham have developed an automated remote-camera solution for studying African penguins in the wild. The camera identifies individual penguins by analyzing the unique black markings on their chests. The system is currently being tested on the 20,000 African penguins on Robben Island, South Africa. The camera is hidden at ground level on a path the penguins use everyday to reach the sea. Footage is sent to a computer that identifies individual penguins by analyzing the back spots on their chests. If a penguin is not completely visible, the system abandons the identification efforts, but when the chest is in full view the software creates a 2D map of the black plumage spots and compares it with images in its database. If a match is found the penguin can be identified, and if no match is found a new map is added to the database. The software can compensate for the way the spots change as a bird breathes and moves. Burghardt says the identification rate is now 98 percent accurate with very few false positives. He says the camera system could be used to track the overall population by recording every penguin that uses the path at least once over the course of a month, as well as the behavior of individual penguins.
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Software to Students: 'I Feel Your Pain'
eSchool News (06/26/08) Carter, Dennis

University of Massachusetts researchers are working on a program that can determine whether students are bored, frustrated, or interested and motivated during computer-based exercises. The researchers recently received a $890,419 grant from the National Center for Education Research to advance technology that uses sensors to detect student emotions. University of Massachusetts at Amherst research scientist Ivon M. Arroyo says the new system enables teachers to see how their students are doing and what their weakest areas are. Computer-based tutors developed by UMass researchers and colleagues at Arizona State University help teach algebra and geometry to high school students, but eventually the tutors will be available for every subject. The tutor uses sensors in a student's seat, the computer mouse, and on the student's wrist to detect arousal through skin conductance, a common stress response measurement. Conductance gives researchers a clear picture of the subject's nervous-system activity, and cameras are used to detect facial expressions. Beverly Woolf, a computer science researcher who has been developing tutoring programs for more than 20 years, says the ability to monitor students' emotional reactions to class work could be invaluable for teachers, as a frustrated student is less likely to understand a day's lesson. "Emotion and cognitive functions are strongly correlated," Woolf says. "Sensors allow the computer to identify students who pay attention and those too tired or bored to learn."
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Managing Fisheries With Semantic Technologies
ICT Results (06/25/08)

A semantic software development toolkit designed by the European Union-funded Networked Ontologies (NeOn) project could help the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation improve its management of the world's fisheries. The NeOn project is creating an industrial-strength development toolkit for semantic applications. Semantic technology enable computers to understand information through advanced descriptions, or ontologies. Ontologies define the concepts and relationships used to describe and represent a domain of knowledge and specifies standard conceptual vocabularies used to exchange data among network systems. The NeOn project is creating a development environment that other efforts can use to quickly and easily create their own semantic applications. The FAO fisheries are being used to test the NeOn platform technology by using the development environment tools to create over-fishing alert systems to improve the management of the world's fisheries. Data from FAO fisheries is stored in hundreds of databases, distributed across the world, that use different formats and software platforms. "The databases are currently a bit like silos, isolated from each other," says FAO's Johannes Keizer. "NeOn will help to develop a system where the analyst enters a query, and the computer finds relevant information from all the databases." The NeOn team is creating a toolkit and an overall semantic application methodology to allow users to link ontologies together across a network.
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Software's Dirty Little Secret
Scientific American (06/17/08) Greenemeier, Larry

The writing of software is critical to the operation of today's gadgetry, but no one manual guiding how software should be written currently exists. IBM fellow Grady Booch says there needs to be a codified approach to writing software, warning that "if I don't have a sense of the architecture, and I keep piling on code, it becomes a fetid mess." Booch says the Web sports some design "flaws" such as poor separation between its presentation and its semantic layers, which must be allowed to change independently. Another flaw he cites is the Web's underlying TCP/IP protocol, which was never created to support streaming video. Booch calls for the provision of a consistent software writing methodology that runs on different systems and under different circumstances that considers various factors, such as whether the software is running on a single machine with multiple processors or on a cluster of single-processor machines; whether all of the software source code goes into a single file on the computer or is broken down and executed as multiple scripts; and the manner in which the software will define and employ the different data it encounters. Booch notes that academia has lagged behind business in terms of software innovation, and he suggests that young programmers should be trained through a tutorial such as "Alice," a 3D software writing program designed to make it easy to create an animation for relating a narrative, playing an interactive game, or producing a video to share on the Web.
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Eye Movements Could Replace Tactile Electronics Controls
Associated Press (06/26/08) Kageyama, Yuri

NTT DoCoMo's cell phone of the future will be based on inconspicuous wearable technology, says executive research engineer Masaaki Fukumoto. For NTT DoCoMo, he says that means designing a cell phone that is shaped like a ring about the size of a ping-pong ball, and produces sound when the wearer sticks her finger in her ear. The cell phone would be adapted to download music, play video games, shop online, receive email, and read bar codes to get product information. The company has a wristwatch that will enable the wearer to control consumer electronics such as a DVD player remotely by tapping their thumb and forefinger together. NTT DoCoMo has also designed headphones that enable the wearer to turn up the volume on a portable music player by rolling their eyes.
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Computer Games to Be Played by Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere
Goldsmiths University (06/26/2008)

Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, are studying video gaming as a leisure activity, and how people play online computer games. The research is part of a larger effort to make video games available to anyone, anywhere, anytime, and on any device. The goal is to make gaming more convenient for players, even if that means enabling set-top boxes, mobile phones, and other consumer electronics devices to serve as easy-to-use gaming platforms. People would be able to play video games without having to sit in front of a computer or buy a console. Expanding video game entertainment delivery is expected to encourage more people to embrace gaming. The Goldsmiths researchers are looking to improve the design of new media products and services as part of the European Union-funded project Games@Large.
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First-of-Its-Kind Study at the University of Minnesota Uncovers the Educational Benefits of Social Networking Sites
University of Minnesota News (06/19/08) Badaracco, Luisa

University of Minnesota researchers have determined the educational benefits of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook and also found that low-income students are in many ways just as technologically proficient as their more advantaged counterparts. The researchers found that 94 percent of students in the study used the Internet, 82 percent used the Internet at home, and 77 percent have a profile on a social networking site. Students said social networking sites taught them technology skills, creativity, being open to new or diverse views, and communication skills. Data was collected over six months from students in 13 urban high schools in the Midwest. In addition to the initial surveyed students, a follow-up, randomly selected subset were asked questions on their Internet activity while they used MySpace. University of Minnesota learning technologies researcher Christine Greenhow says students that use social networking sites learn and practice the kinds of 21st century skills that educators say are needed to be successful. "Students are developing a positive attitude towards using technology systems, editing and customizing content, and thinking about online design and layout," Greenhow says. The results show that social networking sites provide more than just social fulfillment or professional networking and have implications for educators, who have an opportunity to support what students are learning on the Web, Greenhow says. The study contradicts a 2005 study from Pew that suggests a digital divide is forming in which low-income students are technologically impoverished.
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Nothing to Lose But Their Chains
Economist (06/19/08) Vol. 387, No. 8585, P. 90

Robot technology is advancing to the point where robots are starting to move from offices and factories to households, and the penetration of versatile humanoid robots into the real world is thought to be an inevitability. Trends hastening this migration, as highlighted at the Automatica trade fair, include greater responsiveness, affordability, safety, and programmability of robots. Innovations in machine vision, touch, and awareness are making industrial robots more multi-functional while also increasing their applicability to other industries, and this flexibility is necessary as production managers must contend with increasingly varied product lines in their plants. Charlotte Brogren of Sweden's ABB Robotics says imbuing robots with these abilities makes practical sense as computing power becomes less and less expensive, while KUKA's Jurgen Schulze-Ferebee notes that easing robot programming is critical to increasing the sale of robots. Robots' cooperative abilities and their capacity for understanding direct instructions are also improving, while the wide use of robots in homes and offices requires ensuring that the machines cannot injure human beings either through action or inaction, in keeping with Isaac Asimov's first law of robotics. Robots must be given a greater sense of their surroundings in order to enhance their safety, and this is advancing thanks to improving machine vision and touch systems. Also vital to robots' continued movement into the real world as multi-task service machines is programming them to obey the second and third laws of robotics, in which they must obey human instructions as long as they do not conflict with the first law, and protect themselves unless it conflicts with the first or second law.
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Jennifer Chayes
Technology Review (06/08) Vol. 111, No. 3, P. 40; Naone, Erica

Jennifer Chayes, director of the new Microsoft Research New England lab in Cambridge, Mass., believes that computer scientists will be able to produce more efficient and effective online tools by solving mathematical problems that comprise the trails left by countless online social and business interactions. In an interview, Chayes describes self-organized networks as a common theme in her research, and she notes that researchers are beginning to study game theory on networks and modeling the interactions between numerous selfish agents. "Understanding the possible outcomes and behaviors of these networks is one of the next big mathematical challenges," Chayes says. She is convinced that recommendation systems will be equal in importance to search algorithms, and says that a recent research focus determined mathematically that there is no possible recommendation system that has all desired system properties. "So I would have to choose which properties I am willing to give up and design recommendation systems that preserve the properties I want most," Chayes says. Among the issues researchers are looking into is whether recommendation systems can maintain user privacy, she says. Chayes predicts that eventually much more personalized search engines will emerge.
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