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ACM TechNews
August 6, 2008

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Welcome to the August 6, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Can We Make Software That Comes to Life?
Telegraph.co.uk (08/05/08) Highfield, Robert

A conference of 300 biologists, computer scientists, physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, and social scientists in Winchester, England, is focusing on the creation of a truly artificial life form. Reed College professor Mark Bedau will present the argument that research into artificial life will be a critical tool in the discovery of an as-yet undetermined mechanism in people's understanding of how complex organisms evolved. He says that although organisms breeding inside a computer is a workable concept, such systems rapidly break down because genetic possibilities are predefined. "Evolution on its own doesn't look like it can make the creative leaps that have occurred in the history of life," says conference co-organizer Seth Bullock. "It's a great process for refining, tinkering, and so on. But self-organization is the process that is needed alongside natural selection before you get the kind of creative power that we see around us." The integration of self-organization and natural selection represents biology's greatest challenge, Bullock says. At the Riken research institute, Masashi Aono and Masahiko Hara have converted a single-celled organism into a computer to solve the traveling salesman problem by tapping the amoeba's response to light. Another conference participant, Essex University's Hugo Marques, will discuss an attempt to emulate the relationship between the human brain and body by giving a robotic consciousness a skeleton to reside in.
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An Energy Diet for Power-Hungry Household PCs
New York Times (08/06/08) P. C2; Lohr, Steve

Microsoft, the nonprofit Climate Savers Computing Initiative, and a startup called Verdiem are collaborating on a project to find ways for the world's 1 billion PCs to use less energy. The Climate Savers group is distributing Edison, free software that helps consumers become more energy efficient. Studies show that half of all electricity consumed by a standard PC is wasted. Gartner estimates that 40 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions resulting from information technology and telecommunications are attributable to PCs, with data center computers accounting for 23 percent, and the rest coming from printers and telecommunications equipment. "If you are going to tackle climate change and curb energy use, you have to deal with consumer devices like PCs," says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Andrew Fanara. The EPA's Energy Star program has developed voluntary power-management standards for PCs, but Fanara estimates that less than half of PCs meet Energy Star standards, partially because more energy-efficient hardware adds to production costs. Edison is a consumer version of Verdiem's PC energy-saving software sold to corporate customers. Other energy-management tools are available from a variety of companies, but Edison allows for more flexibility, specifically in making the settings more or less stringent, analysts say.
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Designers on Quest to Build $12 Computer
Boston Herald (08/04/08) Kronenberg, Jerry

A group of computer designers at MIT's International Development Design Summit are trying to develop a $12 computer. Derek Lomas is basing the computer on a device he saw people using in Bangalore, India, in which a cheap keyboard was combined with a Nintendo-like device and connected to a home TV. Lomas and others at the MIT symposium hope to improve the system, based on old Apple II computers, to have rudimentary Web access and other features. "We see this as a model that could increase economic opportunities for people in developing countries," Lomas says. He thinks that with some help from programmers, the Apple II computers can be developed into more capable devices and give schools in third-world countries computer labs. A six-member team at the MIT conference is working on writing improved programs and connecting the devices to the Internet using cell phones. The group also wants to add memory chips to allow users to write and store their own programs. Apple II enthusiasts have been recruited to help with the programming, and the group has contacted an Indian nonprofit that has expressed interest in using the devices.
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Visualizing Open Source Software Development
UC Davis News and Information (07/30/08) Fell, Andy

Code_swarm, a new open source program developed by Michael Ogawa, a computer science graduate student at the University of California, Davis, creates short, colorful movies of the development process of open source software. Modeled after music videos, Code_swarm uses dancing points of light, rings of color, and a soundtrack as it displays the contributions of programmers to open source applications. The names of developers float across the screen to show the stage of their involvement in a project, then float away if they stop contributing. Colored dots move toward the names to show which developer worked on new files, and form rings around the names. They hover together when developers worked on the same or related files, and they are farther apart when they worked on different parts of the application. "The viewer gets an impression of the dynamics of the project: Who the big players are, whether they work on the same or separate files, and the scale of the project in time and space," Ogawa says.
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A Photo That Can Steal Your Online Credentials
IDG News Service (08/01/08) McMillan, Robert

Researchers at the Black Hat computer security conference in Las Vegas next week will demonstrate an attack that could steal online credentials from users of popular Web sites. The attack uses a new type of hybrid software file the researchers have dubbed a GIFAR. By placing the file on Web sites that allow users to upload images, the researchers can circumvent security precautions and take over the Web page users' accounts. NGS Software's John Heasman says the GIFAR is a Java applet in the form of an image. GIFAR is a contraction of the graphics interchange format (GIF) and Java Archive (JAR), the two file types that make up the applet. The researchers will demonstrate how to create the GIFAR, while omitting a few details to prevent it from being used for a widespread attack. To a Web server, the file looks exactly like a GIF file, but a browser's Java virtual machine will open the file like a JAR file and run it as an applet, giving the attacker an opportunity to run Java code on the victim's browser, which treats the applet as though it was written by the Web site's developers. The researchers say the attack could work on any site that allows users to upload files, possibly even sites that are used to upload banking card photos or sites such as Amazon.com. The GIFAR attack can be prevented by improving filtering tools so Web sites can detect the hybrid files, and Sun could also improve the Java runtime environment.
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Small, Cheap, Swarming Robots Unveiled
Daily Telegraph (UK) (08/05/08) Highfield, Roger

University of Southampton researchers Alexis Johnson and Klaus-Peter Zauner unveiled a group of swarm robots inspired by bees, ants, and other social creatures at the Eleventh International Conference on Artificial Life in Winchester, England. The inexpensive coin-sized bots could be used for basic research on emergent behavior, which examines how individual creatures cooperate, such as how to form flocks of birds, swarms of insects, or shoals of fish. Zauner says applications for swarm robots include tasks such as monitoring pollution spills. "Armed with sensors, they can map out a danger zone if a barrel of pollutants in a storage area has leaked, and move if it continues to spread," Zauner says. Swarm robots also could be used on roads to quickly close a line following an accident, with each robot displaying a bright sign to warn traffic. Zauner says swarm robots could also be used to help explore other worlds as a swarm of inexpensive robots is more robust and reliable than a single expensive all-purpose robot. Swarm robots could also be used to create vast arrays of solar panels in space. A small swarm of 25 prototype robots can run for more than two hours between charges, and are constructed using basic manufacturing techniques, eliminating the need for hand assembly and lowering their cost. Johnson says the robots can already detect when their energy is low and charge themselves at special charging stations.
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Software Predicts Where El Nino Will Strike Next
New Scientist (08/05/08)

Researchers have developed software that will make it easier to determine where El Nino events are having an influence other than in the Pacific Ocean, and ultimately help in forecasting the weather. The software is designed to map temperature around the world as an interconnected network. Temperature measurements for several locations are plotted daily to nodes of the network, and links between nodes are calculated if their measurements change in the same way. The researchers entered climate records from 1979 to 2005 into the application, and most of the links are stable and form a "skeleton" to the world's climate. Some links occasionally break and then re-form under normal climate conditions, but during an El Nino event they "blink" on and off every few weeks, revealing where it is having an effect, says Avi Gozolchiani from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel. "Their behavior becomes much more erratic," says Gozolchiani, the leader of the team behind the software.
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Relays Pass Baton to Next-Gen Broadband Networks
ICT Results (07/30/08)

The European Union-funded FIREWORKS project aims to deliver fourth-generation (4G) broadband wireless access (BWA) systems to hard-to-reach areas such as remote communities and large buildings with thick walls that interfere with wireless signals. The FIREWORKS project concentrated on orthogonal frequency division multiplexing access-based networks with an emphasis on those designed for BWA, particularly WiMax and Wi-Fi. FIREWORKS' systems promise to be able to provide, for the first time, seamless operation between WiMax and Wi-Fi networks, enabling users with a mobile device to move from one network to another without a drop in service. One of the main challenges the researchers faced was how to maximize the use of overlapping transmissions. The project developed new algorithms that ensure, whatever transmission protocol is used, the best combination and clearest reception. The benefits of FIREWORKS will likely not be made available until the next generation of BWA networks are deployed in Europe, starting in 2010.
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Microsoft Rolls Out Publishing and Research Tools for Academics
Chronicle of Higher Education (07/31/08) Monaghan, Peter

Microsoft has released a set of software tools intended to help scholars and publishers write, edit, and publish academic articles, as well as navigate difficult copyright issues and find and share scholarly data. The tools are add-ons for Microsoft Office Word and are available for free to licensed users of Word and other Microsoft products. One tool, the Article Authoring Add-in for Word 2007, enables authors to structure and annotate their documents according to formats required by publishers and digital archives. The tool allows users to create documents in the format developed by the National Library of Medicine's PubMed Central. Users will also be able to shape the software to suit other formats because the code for the software is openly accessible and freely adaptable. The products are intended to make it easier for authors and editors to electronically embed into papers details about the research process and results, such as bibliographies and key phrases. Microsoft says the goal is to help readers who conduct searches in electronic databases find relevant articles more easily.
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Virtual World Is the Safest for Miners
University of Adelaide (08/01/08) Gibson, Candace

Virtual reality and video games will be used to train miners in South Australia. Researchers from the University of Adelaide and the University of New South Wales will develop a simulated mining environment, including the hazards that miners face as they work at heights and use ladders, scaffolds, and elevated work platforms. "Virtual reality simulation and computer gaming are powerful tools for conditioning human behavior," says Adelaide professor Anton van den Hengel, director of the Australian Center for Visual Technologies. "Both technologies enable users to experience a range of situations that would otherwise be impossible, or prohibitively dangerous or expensive." BHP Billiton will use the virtual reality simulator model to train miners at its Olympic Dam mining site. Other participants in the $430,000 collaborative project include TAFE, the national industry skills council Skills DMC, and the Resources and Engineering Skills Alliance.
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Language Lessons for Robots
The Engineer (UK) (07/28/08) Nguyen, Anh

Plymouth University researchers are building two robots that will use software that allows them to interact with each other and exchange learned information, such as the meaning of words, in a manner similar to humans. "Robots still don't know the meaning of things," says Plymouth's Tony Belpaeme. "The only techniques we have at the moment are using mathematical tricks and statistics to produce more or less sensible replies." Belpaeme says the goal is to let computers and robots truly experience the meaning of words by going through a process where the meaning of words is gradually learned, similar to how children learn. The first robots in the Plymouth project will be designed to encourage human interactions. The robots will feature a long robotic arm with a face instead of a grasper so the robot can look at objects from all sides. The robot will have speakers, a microphone and two cameras in the robot's head, which will be used to identify humans, make eye contact, track human gaze and interpret pointing gestures and correlate them with the object being pointed at. Belpaeme says the goal is to make the robot look cute and trick people into teaching the robot as though they were teaching a small child.
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Microsoft Research Lab Opens Quietly Next to MIT
Xconomy (07/29/08) Buderi, Robert

Microsoft's new research lab in Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., is the company's first research outpost in the United States not on the Web Coast and its sixth research facility worldwide. Already a small group of renowned mathematicians, economists, and computer scientists have joined the lab, which has also reached a partnership agreement with MIT. The lab's managing director, mathematician Jennifer Chayes, says the reception illustrates the latent computer science potential in the region. Chayes says the lab's scientists have created a mini-intellectual frenzy around some of the topics being researched at the lab, which, like other Microsoft Research labs, will be published in open literature in an effort to emulate academic institutions. Chayes and fellow lab member and husband Christian Borgs, the lab's deputy managing director, have identified four core areas of focus: computer science theory and mathematics, economics, social science, and design. Chayes and Borgs expect to build the social sciences and design work quickly because they feel the convergence of these fields creates tremendously interesting and potentially valuable areas for study. The lab has already established agreements to hold joint seminars or symposia with MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems.
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The Barcelona Supercomputer Center Has a New Prototype to Investigate the Supercomputing of the Future
Barcelona Supercomputing Center (07/30/08)

The Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) has developed MariCel, a new prototype for a supercomputer that would be 10 times faster than the most powerful machine in the world. MariCel, which means sea and sky in Catalan, will help define the hardware components and the software stack for the 10 petaflops supercomputer. "MariCel is part of an initiative to create a common supercomputing structure for Europe," says BSC's Francesc Subirada. "On this prototype, similar to the architecture of the American Roadrunner, we will test the latest software technologies, some of them developed at the BSC." MariCel will be based on the Cell and Power6 processors. The European Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe project will use the prototype supercomputer. The code for the Kaleidoscope project, which is developing the latest seismic imaging technology, will run on MariCel.
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The Next Big Thing in Humanities, Arts and Social Science Computing: Cultural Analytics
HPC Wire (07/29/08) Franklin, Kevin D.; Rodriguez'G, Karen

In this article University of California, San Diego professor Lev Manovich talks about cultural analytics, which he describes as a new approach to culture facilitated by the convergence of the arts, humanities, social science, and digital technologies. He notes that computer-based analysis and visualization of large data sets and data flows are important tools used by science, business, government, and other entities, and that these methods should be applied to cultural data, which is abundant thanks to digitization initiatives by museums, libraries, and companies over the last decade, and the prosperous growth of cultural Web content. Among the things Manovich cites as key sources for cultural data sets are media content; digital traces left by people's discussion, generation, publication, consumption, sharing, editing, and remixing of the media; Web sites that supply statistics about cultural preferences, popularity, and cultural consumption in different areas; and blogs that document the most notable developments in various cultural areas. Manovich says his interest lies in the analysis and visualization of patterns in both past and present culture, the application of statistical analysis on visual media, and the use of this work as an interface for computational analysis. He expects user-generated content and professionally produced content to grow rapidly in keeping with current trends, and that the use of supercomputers for cultural analytics is justified by the massive data sets this will entail. "I feel that the ground has been set to start thinking of culture as data [including media content and people's creative and social activities around this content] that can be mined and visualized," Manovich says. "In other words, if data analysis, data mining, and visualization have been adopted by scientists, businesses, and government agencies as a new way to generate knowledge, let us apply the same approach to understanding culture."
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Building an HPC Linux Cluster Has Gotten Simpler, Beowulf Leader Says
SearchEnterpriseLinux.com (07/24/08) Derringer, Pam

Donald Becker, who helped launch NASA's Beowulf Project, notes that more than 75 percent of high-performance computing (HPC) systems costing $1 million or more run Linux, according to the Top500 supercomputer list. An even higher percentage of machines costing $50,000 to $1 million run Linux, with most of them using the Beowulf model, Becker says. After the Beowulf Project proved the feasibility of low-cost cluster computing, the team worked on other problems that made commodity-based HPC challenging, including designing better hardware, building in diagnostics, adding debugging features, tuning the BIOS settings, creating libraries, and improving software. However, significant hurdles remain. Becker says building a HPC cluster is still too complex and requires extensive training to install, configure, and use, and long-term administration is also difficult. He says HPC systems built on the Beowulf model still need more power, plug-in capabilities, reliable booting, and improved software and networking to create a unified system that is easier to manage. Becker is now working on making HPC Linux clusters more accessible by automating the configuration of the operating system, enabling a single full install on a master node with a diskless, single-system image. He is also working with the Linux community to improve the network boot process to allow it to automatically identify any hardware and upload the correct drivers.
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When Computers Meld With Our Minds
Discover (07/25/08) Cass, Stephen

Futurist and retired computer science professor Vernor Vinge says that if we can learn to manage the massive amounts of digital information constantly being generated, we will be on track for using technology to create superhuman intelligence within our lifetime. Almost any amount of information about the reality that surrounds us could be useful if it were correlated, he says. Most of the information gathered today can be handled through automated processing, and the primary purpose of humans is to utilize our human judgment and intuition. Vinge says the places where human judgment and intuition are needed are becoming smaller and smaller, but are still essential. The smaller areas of focus mean our attention is more easily diverted to other areas, causing us to jump from one area to the next, creating the human version of information overload. Vinge says as we continue down this path, human nature may have to change to accommodate our prescribed roles in the world. He says technological advancements may also lead to a world with thalience, an idea created by science fiction writer Karl Schroeder in which every object knows what it is, where it is, and can communicate with nearby objects. Such objects would effectively turn reality into its own database, Vinge says.
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Google's Open Source Android OS Will Free the Wireless Web
Wired (07/08) Vol. 16, No. 7, P. 135; Roth, Daniel

Google's Android operating system is an open source mobile platform, which any programmer can write for and any handset maker can install, and is expected to hit the market this fall. Nearly any new phone will be able to run Android, and several phone manufacturers have dedicated Android phones on the way. However, the Android operating system is only a start as Android-based phones will continue to evolve as users add applications from independent developers to take advantage of the seamless Web access it enables. Android is a fully customizable system that allows any application to be removed or swapped for another. Software normally accounts for about 20 percent of the cost of a phone, so by providing Android to mobile carriers for free, Google is making possible lower-priced handsets in an effort to get more consumers interested in using smart phones. Android has even been designed to account for the limits of the carriers' networks to avoid using too much data, giving the users a solid experience without wasting the wireless spectrum. Android could possibly turn the phone into a useful tool for Web surfing and cloud computing, with voice functions such as phone calls simply being another application. Wireless developers say Android jumps the barely 0.5 mobile world to Web 2.0, but caution that poorly designed Android phones or lack of access to wireless networks could derail the technology. So far, Google's Open Handset Alliance has attracted only Sprint and T-Mobile, but the company is working to lure other carriers by providing mobile advertising. "We've learned from computers that it's really nice to have complete connectivity, to be able to connect anything in a kind of open way," says Google's Larry Page. "For a lot of people and a lot of the time during your life, the phone is your main computing platform. We look at those technologies and say, Wow, we could do a whole lot more."
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