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ACM TechNews
July 18, 2008

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Welcome to the July 18, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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For Your Eyes Only: Custom Interfaces Make Computer Clicking Faster, Easier
University of Washington News and Information (07/15/08) Hickey, Hannah

University of Washington researchers are developing Supple, a new approach to user interfaces that puts each person through a brief skills test and generates a mathematically-based version of the interface that is optimized for the user's vision and motor abilities. Tests showed that Supple narrowed the performance gap between disabled and able-bodied users by 62 percent, and disabled users strongly preferred the automatically-generated interfaces. The Supple calibration starts with a one-time assessment of a person's mouse pointing, dragging, and clicking skills. The test takes about 20 minutes for an able-bodied person, and up to 90 minutes for a person with motor disabilities. An optimization program then determines how long it would take the user to complete various tasks, and creates the interface that maximizes that person's accuracy and speed when using a program. For example, for a user with cerebral palsy, using a trackball on his or her chin to control the cursor, the program created an interface with larger targets and expanded lists to minimize scrolling. Meanwhile, for a user with muscular dystrophy, who used both hands to move a mouse, making very precise movements but moving slowly and with great effort because of weak muscles, Supple automatically generated an interface with small buttons and a compressed layout to minimize movement.
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Europe's High-Performance Computing (HPC) Training and Education Needs Revealed in Comprehensive Survey
Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (07/15/08)

A poll of high-performance computing (HPC) training and education requirements was recently carried out among the top-tier computational users across all partner sites within the Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe (PRACE) consortium, with the goal of assessing the current educational needs of PRACE HPC users through the evaluation of existing proficiency and satisfaction in traditional HPC methods and solicitation of users' training needs for next-generation petascale systems. The results of the survey indicate a critical need for centralized HPC training repositories and channels for the circulation of HPC technology. The poll uncovered a substantial segment of the HPC user community that lacks understanding in basic precepts of HPC programming and practice on both existing and unique architectures; a significant dearth of expertise with mixed-mode programming; an unfamiliarity with Partitioned Global Address Space languages shared by 93 percent of users; merely basic or nonexistent proficiency in multicore programming techniques in 80 percent of respondents; a belief shared by more than 90 percent of survey participants that training in performance optimization, debugging tools and techniques, code testing, and compiler optimizations would work to their advantage; and the recognition of a critical need for better HPC training programs by the majority of respondents. Most of the survey participants were excited at the prospect of benefiting from training provided by a PRACE HPC Training and Education Infrastructure, and 95 percent of respondents concurred that a pan-European centralized repository of high-quality training material that is updated on a regular basis would be advantageous.
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Consortium Outlines Goals for Advanced, User-Friendly Internet2 Infrastructure
Government Computer News (07/11/08) Jackson, William

A five-year strategic plan has been embraced by the Internet2 consortium to ensure that the research and education network remains at the forefront of performance without shutting out non-expert users. The Internet2 community also wants to stimulate a national telecommunications policy to support an infrastructure for new communications requirements. The plan details a central goal to supply scholars and researchers with the means to facilitate next-generation collaboration and innovation, which will require an expansion beyond the high-speed services currently available on commercial networks. "There is an opportunity to tie the computing infrastructure more closely to the application," says University of California, Davis CIO Peter Siegel, who also chairs the Internet2 Steering Committee's Research Advisory Council. "We have not yet built from the network into the application layer." Once this is achieved, advanced applications will be able to more effectively use the network and harness information already in the network to help identify and integrate applications' traits and requirements. The network's intelligence will need to be boosted while new middleware will be required to act as an application mediator. Siegel also points to the challenge of developing a policy with government support for research and implementation without suppressing the creativity of the Internet2 community. The activities of Internet2 have been broadened to include advanced network applications, middleware, tools, and services.
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Goodbye to Faulty Software?
ICT Results (07/15/08)

A team of European researchers believes that it will be possible to create software that is guaranteed to be free from bugs. "The software industry is still very immature compared to other branches of engineering," says Chalmers University computer scientist Bengt Nordstrom. Nordstrom believes the entire approach to software design needs to be rethought, replacing the usual approach of validating a program through a lengthy testing process with a design philosophy that guarantees from first principles that a program will act as it should. The key is a reformation of mathematics called type theory based on the notion of computation, in which the specification for a computational task is stated as a mathematical theorem. The program that performs the computation is essentially the proof of the theorem, and by proving the theorem the program is guaranteed to be correct. The European Union has funded a series of projects to develop type theory since 1989. Nordstrom was coordinator of the TYPES project, which supported cooperation on type theory between researchers at 15 European universities and research institutes and 19 associated academic and industrial organizations. TYPES has released several open source programs, including proof editors that, in type theory, are the key to guaranteeing bug-free programs. "This is a very slow process, it takes many years to get ideas from the universities into industry, but I think it's slowly taking place," Nordstrom says.
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This Is Robot Country
Christian Science Monitor (07/17/08) P. 13; Peter, Tom A.

Pittsburgh is emerging as the robotic answer to Silicon Valley, with next-generation robot technology being developed there thanks to the convergence of Carnegie Mellon University's (CMU) robotics program and remnants from the metropolis' industrial heyday. Pittsburgh's first foray into robotics took place in 1927 with Westinghouse Electric's development of a machine that could pick up a phone and adjust the water level of a dam. "It's really just been in the last few years that we've seen real product-driven, market-focused [robots] emerge," says William Thomasmeyer of the National Center for Defense Robotics. More than 30 robotic companies are currently based in Pittsburgh, and Thomasmeyer says robotics could become a leading industry for the city in the next five to 10 years with the continuance of present trends. Old mills and plants left vacant by the decline of Pittsburgh's steel industry are perfect places for robotics companies to take up residence, as their unoccupied open spaces can be used to test inventions. The growth of the robotics industry could also help restore the market value of neighborhoods eroded by urban blight. "The dream is that you're giving people a relationship to technology that's long term, changing their viewpoint as a consumer, and thinking of themselves as somebody who can be an inventor or producer," says CMU professor Illah Nourbakhsh.
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Artificial Life Conference Celebrates Its 21st Birthday in Winchester
University of Southampton (ECS) (07/16/08)

The newly formed Science and Engineering Natural Systems group in the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) will host this year's International Conference on Artificial Life (ALIFE). The event, which takes place from August 5-8, will include 150 participants. Conference chairman Seth Bullock from ECS says the field is on the verge of synthesizing living cells, a feat the artificial life community could only dream of when it was created in the late 1980s. This year's conference has attracted hundreds of biologists, computer scientists, physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, social scientists, and technologists from around the world, who will gather to hear some of the latest research findings in areas such as artificial cells and the simulation of massive biological networks. One of the presentations will describe a new program for automatically identifying spam emails that was inspired by the human immune system, and another presentation will describe using the techniques of artificial life to model the development of consciousness. "ALIFE is continuing to put new ideas into the common consciousness of scientists," Bullock says. "This type of interdisciplinary exchange is critical to the development of scientists equipped for current challenges in understanding and managing complex adaptive systems such as ecologies, climate, the economy, and the Web."
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Quantum Leap
Technology Review (07/17/08) Rugani, Lauren

An international research team has taken a step toward the creation of a working quantum computer through a demonstration that the quantum state of a single electron can be controlled in a silicon transistor through the alteration of the voltage applied to the transistor. "This represents a nice step towards future devices where performance is determined by manipulation of quantum states of single atoms," says Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researcher Thomas Schenkel. Prefabricated transistors constructed for nanotech research were employed by the researchers, and each transistor was comprised of a pair of crossed nanowires. Electrodes containing arsenic were linked to the bottom nanowire, which when charged would sometimes attract arsenic atoms into the transistor. When the researchers applied voltage across 100 transistors, they discovered a half-dozen transistors that seemed to have individual arsenic atoms embedded in the nanowire, and that the quantum state of one of the atom's electrons could be controlled by varying the voltage across the top nanowire. The researchers were able to draw distinctions between three atomic states in all six devices through the use of scanning tunneling spectroscopy, and one of those states corresponded with the electron being in two places simultaneously, which is essential for quantum computing. The key to a practical quantum computer is the entanglement of its quantum bits (qubits), and Schenkel thinks that adjacent qubits could be coupled by drawing an electron away from its atom. "While this result is an important one, the real challenge to making future single-dopant devices is in figuring out how to position the [arsenic atoms] into the silicon host with the required precision," notes University of Maryland scientist Bruce Kane.
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UPM School of Computing Researchers Open Up a New Road for the Computational Representation of Languages
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (07/16/08)

An intelligent computational model of the descriptive grammar of the Spanish language has been created by researchers at the Validation and Business Applications Group (VAI) of the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid's School of Computing (FIUPM). Carolina Gallardo and Jesus Cardenosa sought to replace the use of linguistic theories, which can be expressed mathematically, due to concerns about coverage and cost. Descriptive grammars exist for all languages, are affordable, and can be used without linguistic experts. The researchers used the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language's Descriptive Grammar of the Spanish Language (GDLE), applying knowledge elicitation methodologies proper to knowledge engineering. The model could potentially be used to build natural language processing applications ranging from language analysis to generation for less dominant languages.
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Better Computer Chips Raise Laptops' Abilities
USA Today (07/15/08) P. 1B; Kessler, Michelle

Chipmakers are focusing more on features for small, portable computers as sales of laptops continue to soar. The Centrino 2 next-generation laptop chips introduced on Monday by Intel are not only faster than their predecessors, but they also offer better graphics and battery life. For example, the new chip line features an ultra-low-power processor and other energy-saving tools. Last month, chief rival Advanced Micro Devices rolled out laptop chips that are capable of detecting whether a computer is plugged in and adjusting power levels accordingly. More people are using their laptops to watch movies, play games, and use graphics-heavy programs, and computer chip companies have responded by making more powerful standalone graphics chips. AMD says it has improved its graphics processor for its new chip line, and Nvidia, which specializes in graphics chips, is focusing more on the laptop. Intel's new chips also feature the latest Wi-Fi technology, and the company plans to offer chips using the new wireless Internet standard WiMax later in the year.
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Computer Dream Team to Help Find Water
Fairfax Digital (07/11/08)

Researchers from Melbourne University and three other Australian universities recently won the Imagine Cup challenge in Paris for their Smart Operational Agricultural toolKit (SOAK), a computerized system for managing farm water resources. SOAK provides farmers with a software dashboard of reports and tools designed to help them better manage limited water resources from their computer. SOAK uses satellite maps of each property to oversee the system, and relies on GPS sensors placed around paddocks to measure and record information such as soil moisture and dam depth. Farmers can use the system to get instant updates on their water storage volumes using a mobile phone or PDA. The program is designed so some crops or paddocks can be assigned more water than others, and by defining the crop's lifecycle, the farmer can enable SOAK to determine when a crop requires the most water. SOAK also distinguishes between the different water resources that are used on a farm. SOAK can also integrate weather forecasting, so if heavy rains are predicted the system will not irrigate a paddock before the rain. The system is designed to reduce inefficient water use and to use smart technology to direct water where it is most needed at certain times. A user could log on to SOAK using a Web browser to manage the farm's water resources from anywhere in the world.
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Trying to Give Robots a Human Touch
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (07/06/08) Paulson, Tom

University of Washington (UW) professor Yoky Matsuoka wants robots to function more like human beings. Her lab at UW is full of mechanical hands, fingers, and arm parts, but she knows that even a human's little finger is far more complex and flexible than today's robots. For example, she says a simple task such as using a needle to sew a ripped seam becomes increasingly complex as it requires the coordinated use of all the fingers, thumbs, palm, forearm, and a precise combination of moving the needle with the proper amount of force, velocity, and orientation. "We take these kinds of motions for granted, but looked at from an engineering and robotics perspective they are very complicated," Matsuoka says. She says the last quarter-century of attempts to build robots has largely ignored the wisdom of biology and arrogantly tried to engineer a better, mechanical version of humans. Matsuoka has taken a different approach that focuses on why humans evolved the way they did to build a mechanical hand based on biology. One discovery that Matsuoka and her team made was that the rough surface of the bones in the fingers was an essential development, rather than an unimportant side effect of bone development. When Matsuoka made the mechanical "bones" smooth, the routing cables, which serve as artificial tendons, stopped working, so the bones were made rough again. Matsuoka's work could lead to robotic devices that could benefit people with spinal cord injuries or other disabilities that limit the body's functions.
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Japanese Team Developing Palm-Held 3D Display
PhysOrg.com (07/14/08)

People could soon hold a three-dimensional (3D) image of someone in the palm of their hand using a device that is being developed by Japanese imaging experts. The gCubik gadget is a 3.9-inch cube that has panels with tiny lenses on liquid crystal displays. Users will be able to view the gCubik from three sides, see different images from various angles, all without using special glasses. "Suppose you have a picture of your girlfriend smiling on your desk," says Shunsuke Yoshida, a researcher at Japan's National Institute of Information and Communications Technology. "She could be smiling as a 3D image in a cube." The device is still in the prototype stage, and uses only still images. However, the team wants to enable 3D images to move in real time, allow viewing from all six sides of the box, and enable gCubik to produce vocal sounds for the images.
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IBM Software Boosts Web Access for Visually Impaired
IDG News Service (07/08/08) Williams, Martyn

IBM has introduced new software that promises to make the Web more accessible for blind and partially sighted users. The visually impaired can use the software to report problems with the text or descriptive tags to a central database, and they will able to request that additional descriptive text be added to better explain the items on a Web page. Internet users around the world will be able to check the database for submitted problems and then resolve them by adding text labels. The information will be incorporated into a metadata file that is loaded each time a visually impaired user visits the site. "Every day we find images without alternative text (the text description of an image that usually accompanies it in the HTML code), but there is no way for me to say, 'I want to have a description for this image,'" says Tokyo-based researcher Chieko Asakawa, who is blind. "It's a simple motivation, but if we can report this kind of problem without difficulty and have it easily understood by sighted people, I think it's going to be great." Available as a beta release through the AlphaWorks Web site, the software could potentially be expanded to improve the Web for people who are deaf or hard of hearing or have motor disabilities, Asakawa says.
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On a Small Screen, Just the Salient Stuff
New York Times (07/13/08) Markoff, John

The introduction of the Apple iPhone has sparked a rush to re-format Web sites to accommodate the device's small screen, and this trend demonstrates that site designers can focus the user's attention and deliver pertinent data free of clutter by streamlining the site interface to its most basic functions. "By having fewer items to scan for on a small display, users can find what they want more quickly and can be more confident that they have made the right choice," notes Ben Shneiderman, founder of the University of Maryland's Human-Computer Interaction Library. "If you just put the juicy stuff up there it works better." The iPhone is currently the best handheld for viewing the Web thanks to its software design and higher screen resolution. The original iPhone could be used as a window onto a full-size newspaper Web page, but the device has shifted away from the window metaphor and toward customized vertical orientation, allowing users to scroll up and down rather than sideways to view information. Donald Norman with the Nielsen Norman Group says the iPhone is very useful for Web sites that do not require a great deal of searching.
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'Prefetching' Scheme Saves Time, Energy
Government Computer News (07/08/08) Jackson, Joab

Two University of Arizona researchers have discovered a technique to save energy when using a computer while maintaining access to data through a concept called "context-aware prefetching." Igor Crk and Chris Gniady presented their findings at the recent Usenix conference in Boston. The approach runs a small program that logs user actions and notes which chains of actions generally lead to interactions with the hard disk. The researchers say that monitoring user interactions with applications provides an opportunity to predict upcoming power mode transitions and eliminate the delays associated with those transitions. The researchers wrote a program that, when sensing a sequence of actions that generally results in hard-drive use, will instruct the hard drive to power up before it is actually needed. Prefetching is used in many systems, but in most of those approaches the hard drive is activated whenever the user does anything, whether it is a task that may result in hard drive use or not, only powering down the hard drive when the user does not interact with the computer for a set period of time. The new approach correctly predicted hard-drive use 79 percent of the time, reducing spin-up delays by an average of 35 percent, while maintaining low energy consumption.
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Researchers Rebuild Their Effort to Rebuild the Internet
Chronicle of Higher Education (07/18/08) Vol. 54, No. 45, P. A11; Young, Jeffrey R.

Concerns that the collapse of the Internet is imminent are particularly worrying for colleges, whose campus activities often depend on high-speed networks, and providing a sturdier next-generation network was the goal of the Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) project. However, reservations about the project led to the rechartering of the initiative's research advisory panel, and the invitation of researchers from fields outside of computer science--such as social scientists, economists, and networking theorists--to offer insights so that GENI can be even more impactful. Taking online social behavior into consideration, for example, could help lead to the design of systems that predict users' activities and make appropriate adjustments in advance, says Jeannette M. Wing with the National Science Foundation's Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate. One of the project's goals is to provide a testbed for radical computer networking concepts that could facilitate new features, augment network security, and boost data speeds. The development of several virtual test tracks is a focus of the GENI Project Office. While the project currently plans to construct a pair of nationwide backbones as well as other experimental domains in the coming months, GENI's initial plan was to quickly erect a large nationwide test network, an idea that was met with skepticism. "I do see the need to think about new approaches, but I don't know if actually building a real network is sensible," says University of Minnesota professor Andrew M. Odlyzko.
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Enigma Variations
Economist (07/10/08) Vol. 388, No. 8588, P. 88

The development of a photon detector by Andrew Shields and colleagues at Toshiba's research laboratory in Cambridge, England, is viewed as an important step in the enablement of practical quantum cryptography, which promises unbreakable codes for messages. The device can count single photons at room temperature, and represents a simple tweaking of the design for avalanche photodiodes that are being used to detect multiple photons, which should ease implementation. In an avalanche photodiode, the striking of a semiconductor by photons can be read by detecting positively charged "holes" in the crystal lattice left by the displacement of electrons caused by the photonic impact, but determining the number of photons that have arrived requires analysis of the signal just after it has been formed. Shields has tackled this challenge through a technique that filters out noise and allows the signal to be extracted. Without a practical photon counter, photon repeaters that do not destroy quantum states cannot be constructed. Shields' device allows cryptographers to harness the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, in which photons share quantum states, to support this breakthrough.
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