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ACM TechNews
July 2, 2008

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Welcome to the July 2, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

ACM will be closed on Friday, July 4th in observance of Independence Day. The next edition of TechNews will publish Monday, July 7th.


HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Serial Computing Is Dead; the Future Is Parallelism
SearchDataCenter.com (06/30/08) Botelho, Bridget

Serial computing is extinct and the future belongs to parallel computing, argued Dave Patterson, head of the University of California, Berkeley's Parallel Computing Laboratory, during his keynote speech at the Usenix conference. Parallel processing can now be executed on a single chip across multiple cores, thanks to the emergence of multicore chips, while Patterson contended that serial computing has reached its limits in terms of memory and power. He maintained that programmers who require greater performance must write programs capable of leveraging multiple cores via parallelism, and researchers at his lab have concentrated on applications that ought to be parallelized. The proper writing and implementation of parallel programs can address power issues and performance bottlenecks. But computer scientist Andrew S. Tanenbaum, a recipient of the Usenix Lifetime Achievement Award, said that writing parallel applications can give rise to more problematic software rather than less. "Sequential programming is really hard, and parallel programming is a step beyond that," he said. "I have a great fear that we will have all of these cores, and our software programs will be even worse." Patterson noted that the success of parallel computing depends on its ability to improve efficiency, accuracy, and productivity, but he cautioned that the majority of programmers are not ready to write suitable parallel programs.
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Study Refutes Niche Theory Spawned By the Web
Wall Street Journal (07/02/08) P. B5; Gomes, Lee

In his 2006 book "The Long Tail," Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson outlined a theory that society is "increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of 'hits' [mainstream products and markets] at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail" as a result of the vast number of choices facilitated by the Web, but a new study published in the Harvard Business Review counters that assumption, writes Lee Gomes. An analysis of data for online video rentals and song purchases has led Harvard marketing professor Anita Elberse to conclude that online and offline shopping patterns are essentially the same. She says the importance online shoppers ascribe to hits and blockbusters is growing rather than shrinking thanks to the Web. Elberse also cites qualitative social research implying that Anderson's theory may have incorrectly characterized consumers as being eager to escape the limitations of physical inventories so that they can enjoy a wider variety of niche products. She notes that there is a major element of social conformity in cultural consumption, in that consumers tend to want to experience the same things others are experiencing. Gomes acknowledges that patterns of cultural consumption are definitely being reshaped by the Web, but says these changes do not appear to be having the kind of dramatic leveling effect on demand curves as forecast by the Long Tail. "While whole new cultural categories--YouTube videos, for example--are indeed emerging, they seem to quickly settle into the same winner-take-all dynamic experienced in the pre-Google age," Gomes concludes.
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45th Design Automation Conference (DAC) Awards Best Papers to Authors From Texas A&M University and Stanford University
Business Wire (06/30/08)

Researchers from Texas A&M University and Stanford University received Best Paper awards during the 45th Design Automation Conference. Texas A&M's Wei Dong, Peng Li, and Xiaoji Ye were honored for the technical paper "WavePipe: Parallel Transient Simulation of Analog and Digital Circuits on Multi-core Shared-memory Machines." The researchers offer a new method for parallel transient simulation that promises to make computer-aided design tools much faster. Stanford's Sung-Boem Park and Subhasish Mitra discuss a new debugging approach for application-specific instruction-set processors in the paper "IFRA: Instruction Footprint Recording and Analysis for Post-silicon Bug Localization in Processors." The strategy offers high-speed information scanning. The researchers will receive a $1,500 prize as part of the award. "Both of these papers highlight topics of high importance in the EDA industry," says DAC's Patrick Groeneveld. "We are proud of DAC's continuing role as a focal point for the latest research and development in our industry."
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Milepost Project: Speed Mobile Web App Development
Dr. Dobb's Journal (06/30/08)

IBM and its European Union partners will move forward with the MachIne Learning for Embedded PrOgramS opTimization (Milepost) project, an initiative that could make it easier for developers to respond to the customization and personalization demands of consumers for new mobile applications. Milepost will include artificial intelligence technology that automatically learns how to best optimize new programs for embedded processors in mobile devices. "The Milepost solution uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to understand what kind of compiler optimizations are optimal for use with each new hardware design," says Mike O'Boyle, professor of computer science at the University of Edinburgh and project coordinator for Milepost. "This will help completely automate compiler construction and enable more rapid code design of hardware and software--dramatically reducing time to market in these systems." Milepost unveiled a prototype version of the software at the GCC Summit, and it was able to improve the performance of a state-of-the-art compiler by 10 percent within one month, rather than several years. The partners plan to release a full version of the compiler optimization software into the GCC main product at the end of the three-year project, and the Milepost GCC version will be made available to the open source community when it is released in June 2009.
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Adobe Teams With Google, Yahoo for Flash Search
eWeek (07/01/08) Taft, Darryl K.

Adobe, Google, and Yahoo are working together to make Flash content searchable on search engines. Adobe's Eric Wittman says Adobe is providing optimized Adobe Flash Player technology to Google and Yahoo to enhance search engine indexing of the Flash file format so search engines can read information that is currently unavailable. The collaborative effort will provide more relevant automatic search rankings for the millions of rich Internet applications (RIA) and other dynamic content that runs in Adobe Flash Player. The effort means that RIA developers and rich Web content producers will no longer need to amend existing and future content to make it searchable, says Adobe's Justin-Everett Church. "There are millions of things built in Flash and there have been concerns because of search engine compatibility," Church says. "We have a piece of technology to remedy this and we're working with Google and Yahoo. Adobe evangelist Ryan Stewart says the Yahoo and Google Flash Player will programmatically move through the stages of a Flash application to obtain data from the server, capturing text and data inside the Flash-based application. Consultant Bill Hunt says the agreement is a particularly important breakthrough for companies with large, interactive sites that are built with Flash and RIAs because they can now be found, crawled, indexed, and ranked.
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Robot Learns to Use Tools
Technology Review (07/01/08) Grifantini, Kristina

University of Massachusetts Amherst roboticists are developing the UMass Mobile Manipulator (UMan), a robot that can learn to use objects it has never encountered before. UMan pushes objects around a table to observe how they move. Once the robot identifies an object's moving parts, it starts experimenting with the object and attempts to use it for different tasks. UMan uses a Web cam to find objects, and has software that analyzes differences between adjacent pixels to guess where objects are located. The robot then prods the object and revises its estimate of the object's shape based on how the object moves. UMan will continue to push and prod the object until it is satisfied that it understands how the object moves. Wherever movement is restricted the robot concludes that there is a joint. UMan then uses that information to determine how to manipulate the object and how different elements, such as multiple joints, interact. UMan is currently not equipped to pick up objects, instead it just manipulates them on the surface of the table. The robot has successfully learned how to manipulate scissors, shears, and several types of wooden toys. UMan has a single arm about a meter long that has seven degrees of freedom, which makes the arm very similar to a human arm in flexibility. The researchers expect UMan will soon be able to use past experiences as a guide to handling new objects.
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Tongue Drive System Lets Persons With Disabilities Operate Powered Wheelchairs, Computers
Georgia Institute of Technology (06/30/08) Vogel, Abby

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Maysam Ghovanloo and graduate student Xueliang Huo have developed the Tongue Drive system, a new assistive technology that enables individuals with disabilities to operate various devices by moving their tongues. "This device could revolutionize the field of assistive technologies by helping individuals with severe disabilities, such as those with high-level spinal cord injuries, return to rich, active, independent and productive lives," Ghovanloo says. The Tongue Drive system uses a tiny magnet attached to an individual's tongue. The user moves their tongue to direct a cursor across a computer screen or to move a wheelchair. Ghovanloo says the tongue was chosen as the control point because it connects to the brain by a cranial nerve that generally avoids damage in severe spinal cord injuries or neuromuscular disease. Tongue movements are also fast, accurate, and do not require a significant amount of concentration or effort. An array of magnetic field sensors mounted on a headset outside the mouth, or on an orthodontic brace inside the moth, track the magnet's movement. Sensor output signals are wirelessly transmitted to a portable computer, which can be carried on the user's clothing or wheelchair, where they are processed to determine the relative motion of the magnet in respect to the array sensors in real time. The system can recognize a large number of tongue movements, each of which can represent a different command, and a unique set of movements can be tailored for each individual.
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Mobile Users Make Same Mistakes as Disabled PC Users
University of Manchester (07/01/08)

Able-bodied people who use mobile phones make the same errors at a similar frequency as physically impaired users of desktop computers, according to new research from the University of Manchester. Researchers in Manchester's School of Computer Science reviewed an earlier study on physically disabled users from scientists at the University of Edinburgh, and put mobile users through the same experiments. They found that mobile users also press the wrong key and press the same key repeatedly by mistake, often click the wrong area of the screen and click the screen multiple times in error, and make mistakes when trying to drag and drop information. The researchers suggest that small assistive computer programs could also be used by mobile users. "In recent years solutions have been built to help disabled users and it is hoped these solutions ... can now be applied for the benefit of mobile phone users," says researcher Tianyi Chen. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funded the two-year Reciprocal Interoperability between Accessible and Mobile Webs (RIAM) project.
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As Intel Nears 40, Technologist Offers His Look Into Future
Wall Street Journal (07/01/08) P. B6; Clark, Don

Intel's Patrick Gelsinger, one of the company's top technologists, expects the number of computing engines packed on each chip to increase significantly in the future. He says Intel is building a foundation for the "many core" era, in which products will feature tens to hundreds of electronic brains. Although the extra processing power will not affect common computing jobs, Gelsinger says programmers will take advantage of it to enable many new applications. For example, he says medical images that take hours to process will become instantly available and interactive, improving and quickening diagnoses. Accurate speech recognition will replace typing, and the basic interface software that controls how computers look and feel will evolve to better represent what users want. Gelsinger says future computers will become immersive, intuitive, and interactive. He also predicts that computing and Internet capability will eventually be available to every person on the planet, 24 hours a day. Such ubiquitous connectivity will use combinations of microprocessors, sensors, and other devices to improve and further enhance the capabilities of products such as ATMs, cars, and door locks, creating a world where humans interact with computers without even realizing it.
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Cisco, IBM, Intel, Juniper and Microsoft Fight Cyber Terror Together
Network World (06/27/08) Greene, Tim

Cisco, IBM, Intel, Juniper, and Microsoft have formed the Industry Consortium for Advancement of Security on the Internet (ICASI) in an effort to respond faster to "global, multivendor cyber threats." Such attacks have a wider impact because they target multiple products or protocols in products, and they pose problems for both end users and vendors. The forum will serve as a platform that encourages members to share critical data about specific attacks more readily. ICASI plans to improve practices for addressing multi-product security threats, and set security response standards that it can share with the rest of the industry. "To date there has not been a trusted vendor environment that allows companies to identify, assess, and mitigate multi-product, global security challenges together on the customers' behalf," the group said in a statement. "ICASI aims to fill this void."
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'Gordon Gekko' Trading Bot Profits From Mood Swings
New Scientist (07/01/08) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

Trading software is increasingly supplanting flesh-and-blood traders in foreign exchange and similar markets because of programs' faster reaction time to market events. University of Southampton researcher Krishnen Vytelingum has co-developed a new trading program that can adjust how aggressively it trades to changing market conditions. The program can change its trading behavior based on how aggressively other traders are behaving, or based on a projection of future market conditions culled from past market trends. Vytelingum says trading algorithms could become more profitable if they could recognize market dynamics. He developed the program using simulated markets, which offer a more comprehensive test than real markets. When benchmarked against the best agents, the program could generate 5 percent more profit on average than more conventional agents, and boost market efficiency when utilized by all traders, Vytelingum says.
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To Sing Like Shakira, Press 'One' Now
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (06/30/08)

A computer has been successfully trained to assess the quality of vibrato--the pulsating change of pitch in a singer's voice--by a Tel Aviv University research group, which has also developed a biofeedback-based application designed to coach singers. The application can train singers to emulate the vibrato qualities that are most appealing to the human ear, and it recently earned first prize at the International Cultural and Academic Meeting of Engineering Students in Istanbul. TAU researcher Noam Amir and his team fed a computer numerous recordings by students singing vibrato who had their vibrato rated by human teachers, and employed mathematical measurements to correlate vibrato styles to their quality as judged by the teachers. The computer was then able to evaluate the vibrato quality of new voices by itself, and generate ratings similar to those given by the experts. The researchers gave singers the ability to visualize and enhance their vibrato in real time through the addition of a biofeedback loop and a monitor. Amir thinks this research could also be applied to automated call centers, and he hopes to be able to train computers to recognize a spectrum of emotions so that a live receptionist can intercede when a caller gets upset.
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Swarm Robotics: Debugged Naturally for 120 Million Years
Control Engineering (06/20/08)

At the recent Sensors Expo, keynote speaker MIT roboticist James McLurkin noted that software for swam robotics has been debugged naturally for 120 million years and outlined three objectives engineers should strive to accomplish. McLurkin told attendees that they should work to help young people understand that engineering is cool by describing what they do and by getting involved in engineering-related activities for young people. McLurkin also said the United States is not creating enough engineers. Engineers and companies should donate time, hardware, or software to educational institutions. For example, he said the Eclipse open-source programming toolkit has been very useful at universities. Finally, McLurkin said that engineers can help find a way out of global warming by working on it themselves and inspiring the next generation of engineers to solve the problem. McLurkin said he is working with MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory professor Leslie Kaelbling on distributed algorithms for swarms of mobile robots in an effort to understand how to use local interactions among nearby robots to produce large-scale group behaviors from the entire swarm. Small, swarm robots could search through rubble after an earthquake or other disasters to find survivors, relaying information back to medium-sized robots that analyze the data and direct larger robots to remove the rubble.
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Speak Up: Devices and Programs Are Getting Better at Translating Languages
Economist (06/25/08)

The shortage of translators in Iraq has created a demand for machines that can translate between Arabic and English. Several two-way translating devices have been developed as part of the Spoken Language Communication and Translation System for Tactical Use (TRANSTAC) program, run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. IBM, BBN Technologies, and SRI are the three main TRANSTAC participants. Although IBM and SRI have developed systems that can reliably translate tens of thousands of words between Iraqi Arabic and American English, TRANSTAC manager Mari Maeda says translation devices still need improvement. Hardware needs to become more reliable and error rates need to be reduced to one word in six from the current one in 10, and names of people and places are still a significant hurdle for the machines. Despite these shortcomings, significant progress has been made that is helping expand the use of translation devices and systems. One reason is that special hardware is not always necessary to run translation programs. SRI's Iraqcomm program runs on Windows XP and can work on the rugged notebook computers carried by soldiers and foreign civilians. Like many language systems, Iraqcomm uses statistical models to recognize speech patterns and sounds, to filter out sounds that are not speech, and to predict the next word in a sentence.
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PCs Getting Smarter, But Brains Too Hot
Nikkei Weekly (06/23/08) Vol. 46, No. 2342, P. 16; Kawai, Tomoyuki

As data processing speed and capacity increase, so does the heat generated by CPUs, and heat dispersion has become a pressing issue for PC makers. If current trends continue, computer chips will be running at speeds above 10 GHz and producing enough heat to melt themselves by 2010. Chipmakers are working on ways to reduce the chips' power consumption to lower heat output, with one strategy being to design multicore CPUs that can more efficiently process commands. Accelerated processing and power consumption reduction can be implemented simultaneously via a multicore architecture, and IBM is developing a system that uses a multicore CPU to rapidly generate 3D images of the brain from sets of cross-sections captured by a magnetic resonance imaging device. The power consumption of IT equipment is expected to increase by a factor of five by 2025 and by a factor of 12 by 2050, according to Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. Cooling down CPUs is likely to help alleviate the problem of global warming, when one considers not just the IT equipment, but all the consumer electronics that are in use, along with their chips' growing power consumption.
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Smart HCCI Cars: They'll Talk to Themselves, and to the Pump
CITRIS Newsletter (06/08) Slack, Gordy

CITRIS researchers are developing engines that are more fuel efficient and release fewer emissions than current engines, and one area of research is the Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignited (HCCI) engine, which blends the cleanliness of spark-ignition engines with the efficiency and adaptability of diesel engines. HCCI engines are designed to premix fuel like a spark engine, but then compression-ignite the fuel the way a diesel engine does. However, the compression ignition creates a problem in which the engine's advantages are undercut by temperature variations across the cylinders. University of California at Berkeley engineer Robert Dibble says each HCCI cylinder needs to be subjected to constant monitoring and adjustment so that the engines' practicability can be maintained, and he and his collaborators are developing sensors and controllers that will keep temperatures constant throughout the engine or compensate for temperature differentials by modifying pressure ratios within the cylinders. Wireless sensors that will report on interior cylinder conditions many times a second are being developed by UC Berkeley professor Albert Pisano, while Dibble and UC Berkeley engineering professor Van Carey have been discussing with oil companies the possibility of using wireless communication connections between the vehicle and the fuel pump. "The car can pull up to the station and tell the pump that its efficiency is low, for instance," Carey says. "And the pump responds, perhaps by determining that the engine is having incomplete combustion and needs a higher octane fuel." Carey says the sensors could also provide data to the station on the vehicle's oil, fan belts, coolant, tire pressure, and brakes to help the car continue operating at its highest levels of safety and efficiency.
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Who's Got the Time?
Government Computer News (06/23/08) Vol. 27, No. 15, Jackson, Joab

The discontinuity between computerized and human timekeeping complicates the continued operation of the Internet and computer networks, which depend on accuracy and precision. "Time is a perfect example of something that needs to be taken out of the realm of human interaction because we don't do it well, and machines do it well," says former Homeland Security Department metadata program manager Michael Daconta. Machines' interaction with time typically takes one of two forms, says Sita architect Stephen Colebourne: Marking a period of time or gauging an interval between events. Demand for more granular levels of accuracy is rising as networks and computers increasingly depend on time, and Internet Engineering Task Force engineers are working to divide time measurements in the Network Time Protocol into even finer chunks. Whereas atomic clocks that the U.S. Naval Observatory uses to set the official U.S. time count the number of atomic vibrations, National Institute of Standards and Technology physicist Till Rosenband is developing an even more precise atomic clock that counts ion vibrations. Human or sidereal time must be adjusted every few years because the solar system's precision lags behind that of atomic clocks due to the fact that that the human day is slowly lengthening. Observers say a problem could crop up from computer systems' growing dependency on accurate time measurement, and some researchers have proposed the elimination of the leap second and strict adherence to atomic time as a solution. The use of time-zone offsets employed by all operating systems is suggested by Steve Allen, a researcher at the University of California's Lick Observatory.
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