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ACM TechNews
July 25, 2008

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Welcome to the July 25, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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In Memoriam Randy Pausch, Innovative Computer Scientist at Carnegie Mellon, Launched Education Initiatives, Gained Worldwide Acclaim for Last Lecture
PRNewswire (07/25/08)

Randy Pausch, renowned computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, died July 25 of complications from pancreatic cancer at the age of 47. Celebrated in his field for co-founding the pioneering Entertainment Technology Center and for creating the innovative educational software tool known as "Alice," Pausch earned his greatest worldwide fame for his inspirational "Last Lecture." That life-affirming lecture, a call to his students and colleagues to go on without him and do great things, was delivered at Carnegie Mellon on Sept. 18, 2007, a few weeks after Pausch learned he had just months to live. Titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams," the humorous and heartfelt talk was videotaped, and unexpectedly spread around the world via the Internet. Tens of millions of people have since viewed video footage of it. Pausch, who had regularly won awards in the field of computer science, spent the final months of his life being lauded in arenas far beyond his specialty. ABC News declared him one of its three "Persons of the Year" for 2007, while Time magazine named him to its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Pausch was well-known within the academic community for developing interdisciplinary courses and research projects that attracted new students to the field of computer science. He also spent his career encouraging computer scientists to collaborate with artists, dramatists and designers.
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Attack Code Released for New DNS Attack
New York Times (07/24/08) McMillan, Robert

Developers of the Metasploit hacking toolkit have released an attack code that exploits a recently disclosed flaw in the Domain Name System. Internet security experts warn that this code could be used to launch virtually undetectable phishing attacks against Internet users whose service providers have not installed the latest DNS server patches. The bug could be used to redirect users to fake software update services to install malicious software on their computers through a technique called cache poisoning. The bug was first disclosed by IOActive researcher Dan Kaminsky in early July, but technical details of the flaw were recently leaked, allowing for hackers to create the attack code. Kaminsky had worked with major DNS software providers like Microsoft, Cisco, and the Internet Systems Consortium for several months to create a patch for the problem before the flaw was known to the public. Corporate users and Internet service providers who are major users of DNS servers have had since July 8 to patch the flaw, but many have not finished installing the patch on all DNS servers. ISC president Paul Vixie says that most people have not patched yet and that this flaw is a "gigantic problem for the world."
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Intel: Human and Computer Intelligence Will Merge in 40 Years
Computerworld (07/23/08) Gaudin, Sharon

As Intel reaches its 40th anniversary, a top company executive looks forward 40 years to the point when human intelligence and machine intelligence starts to merge. Intel CTO Justin Rattner says that perhaps as early as 2012 we will start to see the lines between human and machine intelligence blur, with nanoscale chips or machines moving through our bodies to fix damage organs or unclog arteries. Rattner also says virtual worlds will become increasingly realistic, and robots will develop enough intelligence and human characteristics that they will become companions. Most aspects of our lives will be rather different as we approach the year 2050, with computing becoming less about running applications and more about living lives in which computers are inextricably woven into daily activities. "The intelligent systems will move from being information systems to intelligent systems that will carry out a whole variety of tasks that we just won't think of as computing tasks," says Rattner. "The technology will find its way into so many things we do, and we won't even think about it. The explicit way we've done computing in the past will be there, but it will be a very small subset of what we'll be doing." Chip advancements will continue throughout the semiconductor industry, though computer chips will extend beyond computers and phones as people seek to become more connected in virtual worlds and computers learn to react to our motions and thoughts.
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'Nanonet' Circuits Closer to Making Flexible Electronics Reality
Purdue University News (07/23/08)

Researchers from Purdue University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have overcome a major obstacle in producing transistors from networks of carbon nanotubes, which could lead to the printing of circuits on plastic sheets for applications such as flexible displays or electronic skins to cover structures such as aircraft to monitor for cracks. The "nanonet" technology, circuits made of numerous carbon nanotubes that randomly overlap in a fishnet-like structure, has been hindered by metallic nanotubes that cause short circuits. The researchers solved this problem by cutting the nanonet into strips, breaking the path of metallic nanotubes and preventing short circuits. Purdue University led research to develop and use simulations and mathematical models to design the circuits and interpret and analyze data, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign led experimental laboratory research to build the circuits. The nanonets are made of walled carbon nanotubes; metallic nanotubes form during the manufacturing of carbon nanotubes, and link together in threads that eventually stretch across the width of the transistor, causing a short circuit. University of Illinois professor John A. Rogers says while other researchers were looking into eliminating the metallic nanotubes, this solution essentially removes the effect of the metallic nanotubes without actually eliminating them. The researcher created a flexible circuit containing more than 100 transistors, the largest nanonet ever produced and the first demonstration of a working nanonet circuit. The nanonet technology can also be produced at low temperatures, allowing the transistors to be placed on flexible plastic sheets that would melt under the high temperatures necessary to produce silicon-based transistors. The advance could allow researchers to use carbon nanotube transistors to produce high-performance, shock-resistant, lightweight, flexible, and low-cost integrated circuits.
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Study Suggests Human Visual System Could Make Powerful Computer
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (07/23/08)

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (PRI) researchers have begun to develop a technique to turn our eyes and visual system into a programmable computer. RPI professor Mark Changizi suggests that executing artificial computations could be as simple as looking around. He says harnessing the computing power of our visual system requires visually representing a computer program in such a way that when an individual views the representation, the visual system naturally executes the computation and generates a perception. Ideally, we will be able to look at complex visual stimulus, or the software program, and our visual system, the hardware, will automatically and effortlessly generate a perception, which would tell us of the output of the computation, says Changizi. He has started applying his approach by developing visual representations of digital circuits, which are constructed from assemblies of logic gates that always have an output of 0 or 1. Changizi uses simple drawings of unambiguous boxes as inputs for his visually represented digital circuits, with the positioning and shading of each box indicating the direction the image is tilted, as well as visual representations of the logic gate NOT, which flips a circuit's state from 0 to 1 or vice versa. By perceptually walking through the visual representation of a digital circuit, from the inputs downward to the output, our visual system will naturally carry the computation so that the "output" of the circuit is the way we perceive the final box to tilt, representing either a 1 or a 0. "Not only may our visual system one day give DNA computation a run for its money, but visual circuits have many potential advantages for teaching logic," says Changizi. "People are notoriously poor logical reasoners--someday visual circuits may enable logic-poor individuals to 'see their way' through complex logical formulae."
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Ireland's Trinity College to Hold Public Trials of New, Low Cost Internet Mobile Phone System
AlphaGalileo (07/23/08)

Trinity College researchers have developed a new type of software, codenamed Metakall, that is designed to provide mobile phone users with low-cost calls using public wireless hotspots and the Internet as a network infrastructure. During a month-long trial scheduled to start on Aug. 1, users will be able to download call credit to test the new phone system. After registering for the trials, users will receive scratch codes that they can use to receive call credits, which will be used to make mobile calls using Skype, Fring, SIP, or any other widely used Internet phone system. "The possibilities for this new technology are huge," says Trinity College professor and Metakall project director Donal O'Mahony. "For the first time, users will be able to make low cost calls from any part of the world using a handset or other mobile device, and will be able to seamlessly roam from one wireless hot spot area to another." O'Mahony says Metakall will create new revenue streams for firms in the mobile industry, such Wi-Fi hotspot operators, and will increase demand for low-cost handsets. The Metakall software runs on Microsoft Windows XP and Vista for laptops and Microsoft Windows Mobile for handheld PCs such as HP iPAQ and smart phones. The researchers have also focused on low-cost handsets emerging from Asian manufacturers that run platform software such as Qtopia and Google's Android operating system. O'Mahony says Metakall was designed to move easily onto any kind of handset or gaming device that may appear over the coming months.
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Games People Like to Play: Computer Picks Stayers
Queensland University of Technology (07/21/08)

Artificial intelligence research at Queensland University of Technology in Australia has lead to a computer program that invents highly absorbing, mentally challenging games that can be played either on a board or online. The program, called Ludi, uses the component rules of board games such as chess, draughts, and tic-tac-toe, and develops them into new games. Ludi then estimates how captivating the new games will be to players, according to Ph.D. candidate Cameron Browne. He says Ludi represents a new direction in combinatorial games research, as traditionally the field has focused on producing computer players that can compete, or even beat, the best human players instead of on the quality of the game. The best game created by Ludi so far, named Yavalath by the program, has all the elements of a high-quality game, and has been praised by an international group of serious game players. To win Yavalath, a player must place four pieces in a row without first placing three pieces next to each other. "The good thing about these new games is that many of them require novel and innovative strategies to be played well. Players are therefore often surprised at situations that emerge during play, which keeps the games interesting," says Browne.
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Finding a Parking Space Online
Technology Review (07/24/08) Grifantini, Kristina

This fall, San Francisco will install around 6,000 wireless sensors alongside parking spots to create the largest mesh network for parking monitoring to date. The city hopes that by monitoring the volume and speed of passing traffic, it will be able to display information from sensors on Web maps, smart phones, and signs to reduce traffic and pollution caused by circling cars looking for a parking spot. A mesh network differs from a typical wireless network in that there is no central transmitter and every node can transmit to every other node. San Francisco will deploy clusters of plastic-encased, networked sensors that will be embedded into the surface of a street. The main sensor in a cluster used to detect cars is magnetic, which works by detecting when a large metal object locally disrupts the Earth's magnetic field. The clusters also rely on other types of sensors to prevent false positives. Jim Reich, vice president of engineering at Streetline, which is providing the sensors, says that the Streetline system has 97 percent to 99 percent accuracy in recognizing parked cars. The Streetline sensors use Dust Networks' SmartMesh system, a spin-off of the Smart Dust project at the University of California, Berkeley. The SmartMesh nodes can operate for an average of 10 years on two AA batteries before needing a replacement, and Dust Networks CEO Joy Weiss says that SmartMesh networks are more than 99.9 percent reliable.
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Soon, a Device that Allows Objects to Be Controlled by Your Thoughts
Britain News.Net (07/20/08)

The University of Essex has developed a device that allows a user to control an object on a computer screen, and even a robot, by imagining the object's or robot's movement. The creators of the device expect that their technology may allow people to move wheelchairs or even drive cars using only their thoughts. The hat-shaped device uses electrodes to detect changes in the electrical activity produced by neurons in the brain. When a person wearing the device imagines a particular action, such as moving a hand, it produces a precise signal pattern that the computer learns to recognize. "We have been developing this to help disabled patients who have limited movement ability or don't have any, so they can control a computer or a wheelchair by thinking," says University of Essex department of electrical engineering research lead John Gan. "But the general applications are quite widespread, from controlling computer games to using the brain to control things in the living environment, such as turning lights on and off, opening and shutting curtains, or switching channels on the television." The researchers hope that technological advancements such as this one will eventually completely change how humans interact with computers and technology, leading to the elimination of keyboards in favor of devices that interpret signals directly from the brain.
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Body Sensors Could Improve Your Skiing Style
NewScientistTech (07/17/08) Barras, Colin

A researcher in New Zealand is strapping motion-capturing sensors to skiers to collect data that could ultimately help them improve their performance. Matthew Brodie at Massey University in Wellington has skiers wear up to 15 inertial motion units (IMUs) on their limbs, torso, pelvis, and head. About the size of a matchbox, the lightweight IMUs have three gyroscopes to measure up, down, or sideways movements, which enable Brodie to reconstruct the orientation of a skier's limbs and body in three dimensions. The IMUs have accelerometers to measure gravity and other forces a skier encounters, and Brodie attaches a GPS receiver to the skier's helmet to gather data for measuring velocity and directional changes during a ski run. Data from the various sources is delivered to a central hub on the skier's torso, and Brodie uses "Fusion Motion Capture" algorithms to calculate the skier's movement and position during the run. The skier's body movements, position, velocity, and acceleration can be constructed and displayed on a computer in less than a minute. "None of the data streams are accurate enough by themselves," says Brodie. "But by fusing the different data streams, accurate measurements [of the skier's motion] are possible."
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Set Top Boxes to Revolutionise Internet Architecture
Computerworld Australia (07/16/08) Hendry, Andrew

National ICT Australia (NICTA) is working on the Nano Data Centers (NADA) project, a European Commission-backed research effort that could revolutionize how information is delivered over the Internet. NADA aims to build an Internet architecture that delivers data from the edge of the Internet, instead of from centrally located servers. NICTA's Max Ott says the traditional way of delivering online services from huge data centers is a power- and space-hungry method that requires expensive hardware, networking, and cooling costs. He says services such as video, music, entertainment, and massively multiplayer online games are not necessarily intended for PCs anymore, and may more likely be directed to a set-top box or game console. Set-top boxes do not consume much energy, are well ventilated, and are becoming increasingly efficient as chip manufacturers create faster, more energy-efficient processors. Ott says NADA is working to push the functionality currently built into data centers and distribute it across hundreds of thousands of set-top boxes, creating nano data centers. Nano data centers would leverage advancements in peer-to-peer technology to provide services to end users. NADA set-top boxes would essentially be divided in two, with one half facing the end user and supplying the typical functionality and services, and the other half acting as the peer, or nano data center.
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Data Can Leak from Partially Encrypted Disks
IDG News Service (07/16/08) McMillan, Robert

Encrypted data can spill over into unencrypted parts of a computer, exposing it to hackers and viruses, according to researchers from the University of Washington and British Telecommunication. Essentially, a computer is not fully protected unless it is 100 percent encrypted, says study co-author Tadayoshi Kohno. "I suspect that this is a potentially huge issue. We've basically cracked the surface," says Kohno, an assistant professor at the University of Washington's Seattle campus. When a user opens an encrypted file with Word, Google Desktop, or even an encrypted USB drive, the information can still be stored in unencrypted areas of the hard drive. During their experiments, researchers viewed encrypted Word documents by opening the auto-recovery folder and read encrypted files over Google Desktop when the Enhanced Search option was on. Even encryption software platforms like TrueCrypt 5.1a contain the same vulnerabilities, researchers found, and the software version 6.0 addresses some problems but still does not fully protect encrypted data on an unencrypted computer.
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Emotional Robots in the Spotlight
ICT Results (07/17/08)

Europe's Feelix Growing project believes people will be more willing to accept robots that are in tune with their emotions. Twenty-five specialists in robotics, adaptive systems, developmental and comparative psychology, neuroscience, and ethology hope to develop robots that are capable of learning how to respond to emotions people display, similar to the way small children learn from experience. They envision emotional robots backing away and appearing less threatening if someone appears fearful or shows he or she is in pain. Feelix Growing has developed special software that is capable of learning when a person is sad, happy, or angry, using data gathered from cameras and sensors. The artificial neural network is designed to pick up a person's facial expressions, voice, proximity, and other information. The researchers have used mostly off-the-shelf equipment to build simple robots. So far, the three-year project has demonstrated a robot that learns as it trails a researcher, similar to a young bear cub that follows its mother, and a robot face that can show different "emotions."
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This Robot Toots Its Own Flute
IEEE Spectrum (07/08)

Atsuo Takanishi, a professor of engineering at Waseda University, Tokyo, has completed building the first member of his robotic orchestra, a flute-playing robot. Takanishi hopes to eventually create a humanoid robot orchestra. The next robot, currently in development, is a saxophone-playing robot, though Takanishi believes the process will go much faster because he started with one of the most difficult instruments. The robot is made of two acrylic cylinders and bellows for the lungs, a vibrato mechanism to imitate human vocal cords, an artificial tongue and lips made of a thermoplastic rubber called Septon, two CCD cameras for eyes, and flexible arms and fingers that can open and close. Getting the robot to produce a melody started by working with professional players to create a performance index of what constitutes the best flute sounds. The sounds were then translated into mathematical formulations that the robot refers back to. The researchers then programmed the robot's "organs" to produce a sound. Once a sound was produced, the researchers adjusted different parameters controlling the organs to adjust the sound until the robot eventually produced the target sound. To make the procedure less laborious and more autonomous, audio feedback control was added to allow the robot to make its own adjustments. Additional computer intelligence was also added to allow the robot to "read" Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) data and translate it into the parameter controls to transform the data into playing the flute. Takanishi says virtually any MIDI file can be downloaded into the robot's computer and be reproduced unaided. Takanishi says the goals of his research is to obtain a better understanding of human motor control, develop robots that can mimic and respond to human emotions to improve human-machine interactions, and produce humanoid robots that can perform tasks like caring for the elderly or infirm.
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Semantics Gives the Web Meaning--for Machines
ICT Results (07/16/08)

European researchers have long pursued the dream of giving form to the Semantic Web, envisioned as a web of data that imbues words and digits with meaning that computers can comprehend in order to realize "the vision for interoperability between data sources on the Web" and to give the information "meaning in a way that computers can understand and reason with it," according to Frank van Harmelen of the Free University of Amsterdam's Department of Artificial Intelligence. Semantic Web research is not restricted to Europe, but the EU's Sixth Framework Program for research has underwritten 17 Semantic Web projects and some 50 million euros are apportioned for continued Semantic Web research yearly under the Seventh Framework Program. A major European focus is the engineering of ontologies, which are collections of associated concepts used to infuse data with meaning and represent the relationships between data. Natural language processing is another important area of European research, with current projects concentrating on the construction of automated semantic extraction engines. European projects seeking to tackle the Semantic Web's "reasoning" challenge include LarKC, a platform for massive, distributed, incomplete reasoning that will facilitate scalability both via its incompleteness and its parallel processing; and the REWERSE project to develop a set of interoperable reasoning languages for advanced Web systems and applications that will be submitted to entities such as the World Wide Web Consortium as the chief foundation for international standards. Yahoo announced in February that the Semantic Web's RDF format would be supported by its indexing, which will undoubtedly spur demand for semantic technologies.
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Dartmouth Begins Network Security Project
Access Control & Security Systems (07/15/08)

A new research project at Dartmouth College promises to reveal key information on how the campus wireless computer network is used and how to provide better security. The Dartmouth Internet Security Testbed (DIST) will give campus researchers an opportunity to monitor live network activity at scale and in real time, says David Kotz, professor of computer science and the principal investigator on the DIST initiative. "We've worked in laboratory settings with controlled parameters; now it's time for a live, real-world test," adds Kotz. The team will develop and test sensing technology for gathering real-time data, and could learn how to quickly discover malicious activity and the best way to respond to such situations. The project will provide a model for how other enterprises can secure their wireless networks, and will help improve network security technology and practices for using the Internet. The Department of Homeland Security is funding DIST through Dartmouth's Institute for Security Technology Studies. "We've ensured that strict processes are in place to monitor the project to protect the privacy of our Wi-Fi users," says Kotz.
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Researcher to Demonstrate Attack Code for Intel Chips
IDG News Service (07/14/08) Lemon, Sumner

A security researcher at this year's Hack In The Box (HITB) Security Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, will demonstrate how to attack a computer through vulnerabilities in Intel's microprocessors. Kris Kaspersky plans to show attendees of the October conference how processor bugs, or errata, can be manipulated to give an attacker full access on the kernel level or even take down a system. The risk from these kinds of attacks is rising, and processors may carry hundreds of millions of errata without ever being aware of their existence. "It's possible to fix most of the bugs, and Intel provides workarounds to the major BIOS vendors," Kaspersky states. "However, not every vendor uses it and some bugs have no workarounds." Kaspersky's proof-of-concept attack will take place on a spectrum of operating systems that use JavaScript or TCP/IP packets. These systems include Windows XP, Vista, Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008, Linux, and BSD.
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