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ACM TechNews
July 7, 2008

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Welcome to the July 7, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Q&A: E-Voting Activist More Optimistic About This Year's Voting Systems
Computerworld (07/03/08) Weiss, Todd R.

Johns Hopkins University professor Aviel Rubin says in an interview that the kinds of e-voting problems activists are concerned about are the kinds of things "that don't necessarily have a noticeable manifestation." He says what is required is "a system that accommodates the ability to audit to be sure that the machines got the right result." He believes that safe, reliable, and secure e-voting systems can be built by technology companies, and he cites the National Institute of Standards and Technology's recommendation of designing voting systems where a software failure does not have any possible effect on the election's integrity and accuracy. Rubin says the easiest route to software independence is designing a system that uses a paper ballot, while another option, currently in the research phase, is cryptography, which he thinks will ultimately be able to supplant paper. "I think if you take a different psychology, a different philosophy toward building systems, where you say we're going to use software as much as we can but we're not going to rely on it for security, you will actually design a pretty good voting system," Rubin says. He notes that the state of voting is much better than it was in November 2000, pointing out that most states have switched to paper records. Rubin believes most systems that employ paper ballots or optical scanning are likely to be software-independent.
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Spying Has Few Legal Checks
Baltimore Sun (07/07/08) P. 1A; Olson, Bradley

U.S. citizens' communications, travel patterns, and spending habits are being monitored and analyzed for suspicious activity by domestic surveillance programs run by federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and these programs have few legal restrictions. Although protecting Americans' privacy is the goal of provisions contained in pending amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, there is little oversight for surveillance programs that fall outside the bounds of FISA. Critics say the safeguards are not infallible, while Congress has often held back funding for surveillance programs because it is dissatisfied with the information the administration has provided about the programs. Such was the reasoning behind the House Appropriations Committee's recent decision to stall funding for an initiative by the National Applications Office to use American satellites for domestic purposes until August, when the Government Accountability Office will issue a report about how the program will address civil liberties and privacy concerns. Lawmakers say even in instances where Congress has received information about surveillance programs, their questions or concerns are frequently handled by the agency responsible for surveillance, which adds up to self-policing. Partially to address concerns about privacy, the Homeland Security Department has set up a privacy czar to guarantee that the technologies and programs initiated by the agency do not violate civil liberties or chip away at privacy laws, but some believe the position should be expanded to a Cabinet-level post in the executive branch. "We should have what Canada has, which is a minister of privacy, someone looking out for the privacy issues of Americans," says intelligence expert James Bamford. "We have armies of people out there trying to pick into everyone's private life, but we have nobody out there who's an advocate."
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Is the Web Still the Web?
InfoWorld (07/03/08) McAllister, Neil

Static HTML pages are being replaced by rich Internet applications (RIAs), which is challenging old ideas about Web browsing, writes Neil McAllister. Although standards-compliant HTML lets pages be viewed on the broadest possible spectrum of devices, RIA developers find such techniques too restrictive to enable the kinds of rich application user interfaces that users have come to expect. AJAX offers a certain measure of relief, but device neutrality is not common among AJAX applications. Furthermore, content delivered through AJAX applications is fragmented and less organized than traditional Web pages. Products such as Google Web Toolkit cause the concept of the HTML document as the most basic unit of the Web to virtually vanish by making an executable program the sole "document." Content delivered for plug-ins is completely unrecognizable as HTML. These RIAs raise questions such as whether applications that are not really hypertext, do not allow direct navigation to specific content, do not allow content to be indexed and searched, do not allow source code to be viewed, or cannot be viewed on all clients or devices, comprise true Web applications. "Equally important, if today's RIAs no longer resemble what we would call the Web, then is shoehorning those applications into the Web's infrastructure really the right way to go?" McAllister asks.
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A Prosthesis for Speech
Technology Review (07/03/08) Chu, Jennifer

Boston University researchers are developing brain-reading computer software that can translate thoughts into speech. When combined with a speech synthesizer, the program could allow people with speech disorders to produce speech. The technology has enabled Erik Ramsey, who has been unable to speak following a car accident, to vocalize vowels in real time. Boston University professor Frank Guenther and Philip Kennedy of brain-computer interface developer Neural Signals have been decoding activity within Ramsey's brain for the past three years using a permanent electrode implanted beneath the surface of his brain in an area that controls the mouth, lips, and jaw. During a session, the researchers ask Ramsey to mentally "say" a particular sound like "ooh" or "ah." While Ramsey repeats the sound in his head, the electrode detects local nerve signals, which are sent wirelessly to a computer that runs software to analyze the signals for common patterns that most likely denote a particular sound. The software translates neural activities into formant frequencies, the resonant frequencies of the vocal tract. So far, the system can play back sounds within 50 milliseconds from when Ramsey first says a sound in his head. The audio playback allows Ramsey to practice mentally voicing vowels by hearing the initial sound and adjusting his mental sound representation to improve the next playback. Although the process is time consuming and requires a great effort from Ramsey, the vowel sounds can now be said fairly well and the researchers are confident the same can be accomplished with consonants.
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6 American Teams Make It to Finals of Microsoft's Imagine Cup
Chronicle of Higher Education (07/03/08) Vinas, Maria Jose

An American student has won the Interface Design Technology Award at the finals of Microsoft's Imagine Cup. A Ph.D. candidate in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington developed a screen-reading interface that allows blind people to access the Web. For the sixth annual international competition, Microsoft has challenged students to focus on technology that will help sustain the environment. Six projects from American teams have made it to the finals, which are being held in Paris and offer $240,000 in cash awards. Also in the interface-design category, a team from Indiana University designed a Web site that allowed students to compare dorm energy consumption, and a student from Arizona State University created a user interface that teaches people to be sustainable at home. Other projects include an embedded system that adjusts the power consumption of home appliances, from a team from California State University at Long Beach; and software that enables mobile-phone owners to access and control environment data collected from a network of sensors, from a team from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
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U.K. Scientists Demo Graphic Passwords
CNet (07/01/08) Lombardi, Candace

The developers of the Background Draw-a-Secret (BDAS) software are showing off the graphic passcode system this week in London at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. With BDAS, users scribble an image, rather than enter a letter/number combination. Users choose from a selection of base images, which will be visually overlaid with a grid, then "trace" the image on a touch screen. The unique drawing of the image becomes the passcode, and the chosen image will appear each time as the passcode prompt. Users doodle over the chosen image to get in, but their drawings do not have to exactly match the original sketch. "Studies have shown that people find it easier to remember images than words or numbers and our system has proven over 1,000 times more secure than people's normal passwords," says BDAS co-developer Jeff Yan, a computer science lecturer at the School of Computing Science at Newcastle University. He says the subjective nature of drawings makes graphic passcodes more secure, and the system is secure enough to be used for cash machines, computers, and mobile devices.
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Networks Aim to Support Women in IT Fields
Calgary Herald (07/02/08) Sankey, Derek

More women are reaching the upper levels of the IT industry, but progress is slow and there is still much room for improvement, concludes a Catalyst Canada study. "We need to make sure we keep women in the pipeline so that when women are making that choice to stay home or work--all of those choices that come into play when starting to raise a family--that's where we need to focus on providing that flexibility and support," says Telus Corp.'s Andrea Goertz. "It's great to have strong female role models, but I don't think it's the only way women can be successful." Telus has launched an internal women's network that Goertz says has "definitely opened up the lines of communication," and the company is also working with other companies' women's networks to share best practices and bring more attention to the issue. Goertz says building awareness is a big step. The technology industry needs all the talent it can get and Goertz says keeping women in the workforce is a significant part of the equation. TD Bank Financial Group CIO Heather Ross says young women entering college often believe IT is full of "techies" isolated from other workers, but she says the industry needs a diverse group of people who can translate the value of technology into various business areas. Higher education institutions are increasingly creating or joining existing networks for women in technology, and many are promoting high-tech careers for women by showcasing each institution's vast range of career opportunities to young girls.
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UC San Diego Undergraduates Forge New Area of Bioinformatics
University of California, San Diego (07/02/08) Kane, Daniel

University of California, San Diego undergraduate students have created a new area of bioinformatics called comparative proteogenomics that could improve genomic and proteomic annotations. Comparative proteogenomics is a combination of comparative genomic and proteomics, or a study of all of an organism's proteins. UC San Diego computer science professor Pavel Pevzner, who organized the project, says comparative proteogenomics could be a powerful way to improve both genome and proteome annotations, and to address the difficult biological problems that remain outside the reach of previously proposed bioinformatics approaches. The amount of genomic and proteomic data is expected to increase as the genomes of more and more organisms are sequenced, which will continue to make the industry-standard manual genomic annotations less and less feasible. Comparative proteogenomics provides an automated solution to the growing gap between the number of sequenced genomics and researchers' ability to manually annotate. Comparative proteogenomics is a significant step beyond comparative genomics, Pevzner says. "Our bioinformatics undergraduates have shown that you can simultaneously analyze multiple genomes and proteomes, and use this information for scientific discovery," he says.
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Hydra Middleware Runner-Up at Best Demonstrator Award
AlphaGalileo (06/26/08)

Researchers behind the European Hydra project demonstrated a middleware application during the ICT Mobile Summit in Stockholm. The goal of the Hydra project is to make it easier and cost effective for manufacturers and system integrators to build networks of embedded devices. The demonstration involved a sensor-equipped building that sent short messages about an attempted intrusion or a technical problem. The Hydra middleware networked the Lego Mindstorm technology of a model building, a Sony Playstation for management tasks, and an oversized fully-functional model of a mobile phone. A sensor detected water in the house, alerted the inhabitants by sending a message to their mobile phone, placed an order for emergency repair with a service company, and provided a limited-validity electronic key for the building. "The middleware makes it easy for developers to integrate additional devices and sensors into a distributed infrastructure," says Dr. Markus Eisenhauer from Fraunhofer FIT, the coordinator of the project. "And it helps them take care of privacy and security requirements."
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Sensor Network Tests Get Real at Wollongong University
ZDNet Australia (06/25/08) Tindal, Suzanne

The University of Wollongong will use Motorola's system to test its theoretical research on wireless sensor networks. The Australian university has pursued research on wireless sensing networks, but has not been able to conduct testing in the real world, says professor Eryk Dutkiewicz, director of Wollongong's wireless technologies laboratory. Motorola's hardware will give Wollongong a better understanding of the level of performance of current technology. "There's no point solving a problem that doesn't exist," Dutkiewicz says. The university plans to consider solutions, such as addressing communications algorithms and routing mechanisms, if some problems are uncovered. Wollongong also plans to work with an industrial partner so it can determine how the wireless sensing network would perform in a "difficult environment," such as a steel foundry or a mine.
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Whither the Mouse?
eWeek (06/24/08) Ferguson, Scott

Gartner analyst Steve Prentice predicts that technologies such as the multitouch capabilities in the iPhone will bring about the end of the computer mouse. Prentice says he saw multiple technologies at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show that could replace the mouse over the next four years as one of the main ways people interact with computers, including facial recognition technology and multitouch capabilities. He says a combination of different technologies that companies are adding to their products are gradually making the mouse obsolete, including the facial recognition features included in the Lenovo line of consumer PCs, cameras that interact and respond to gestures, and the touch capabilities of the iPhone and Microsoft's upcoming Windows 7. The gaming and home entertainment industry are also moving past the mouse. In his paper "Gestural Computing: The End of the Mouse," Prentice highlights Emotiv Systems, which is developing an interface that uses electroencephalography to measure the electrical activity of the brain to control a gaming console. More importantly, Prentice says, is that the company is looking to sell such devices for about $300. The mouse and the keyboard will still be used for tasks such as data entry, while highly specialized tasks that involve graphics will likely be the first to switch to alternative interfaces. Analyst Roger Kay also believes the time of the mouse is winding down, but questions whether the average consumer or enterprise employee is ready to use new technologies.
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A Tax on Buggy Software
Forbes (06/26/08) Greenberg, Andy

David Rice, an instructor at the SANS Institute and a former cryptographer for the National Security Agency and NASA, has published "Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software," a new book that criticizes the software industry for its careless attitude toward security. Rice says the total economic cost of software security flaws is about $180 billion a year. Rice suggests creating a tax on software based on the number and severity of security bugs, even if the cost gets passed on to consumers, in order to hold software manufacturers accountable. He says hackers simply use tests to discover flaws in the software, which software publishers could do before hackers have access to the programs. The software companies control how much testing they do before programs are released, Rice says, and they do not have the right incentives to do the testing necessary to create secure software. He says the tax model would solve software problems in the same way that taxes help curb pollution from manufacturing. Rather than trying to stop manufacturing or prohibiting pollution, companies are taxed for the amount of pollution they create, motivating them to reduce emissions. Rice says software vulnerabilities, like pollution, are inevitable, so instead of requiring software to be secure, tax insecurities and allow the market to determine the price it is willing to pay for vulnerabilities in software. Software manufacturers who are the most insecure will pay the most. The tax will also create a system, similar to the safety star-rating system used for cars, to help consumers know what software is the most secure.
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The Man Who Inspired a Generation
BBC News (06/30/08) Shiels, Maggie

Microsoft's Chuck Thacker remains virtually unknown to the general public despite the fact that while working at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the 1970s he developed the Xerox Alto, the first computer that operates similarly to the ones used today. During his time at PARC he also helped develop the Ethernet LAN and assisted in the design of the tablet PC and the X box. The Macintosh also may have never come to be if it were not for the Alto, as Apple reportedly was inspired to build it after Steve Jobs visited PARC in 1979. Thacker is currently working on a hardware platform known as BEE3, a cutting-edge architecture project. "I used to say that the first revolution of computers was when scientists had them, the second was when business had them, and the third revolution is when everyone has them," Thacker says. "We haven't quite made that but I am optimistic that we will." He says the most indispensable computer gadget today is the smart phone.
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Using Ontologies and Vocabularies for Dynamic Linking
Internet Computing (06/08) Vol. 12, No. 3, P. 32; Bechhofer, Sean; Yesilada, Yeliz; Stevens, Robert

Certain problems associated with static, restricted, and rigid traditional Web linking can be addressed with ontology-based linking. Conceptual hypermedia supplies navigation between Web resources, buoyed by a conceptual model in which an ontology's definitions and structure, in conjunction with lexical labels, propel the consistency of link provision and the linking's dynamic characteristics. "Ontology-driven linking would let us use an agreed-on, common collection of significant concepts, expressed as an agreed vocabulary in a given natural language, modeled together with agreed interrelationships," the authors write. "In fact, the objective is to reuse a model that has already been constructed for other knowledge-management purposes--in other words, to get improved linking functionality 'for free.'" With lightweight standard representations it is possible to support Web navigation and browsing by using existing vocabularies. This approach enables consistent management of the navigation and linking of diverse resources founded on a community understanding of the domain. The authors propose that the Universities of Manchester and Southampton's Conceptual Open Hypermedia Service (COHSE) should be modified to consume Simple Knowledge Organization vocabularies so that resources can be reused. Issues that need to be resolved in building a system such as COHSE include link source recognition, link target identification, and the support for navigation of browsing around a conceptual space.
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