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ACM TechNews
August 13, 2008

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Welcome to the August 13, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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'Slow' Light to Speed Up the Net
BBC News (08/13/08) Palmer, Jason

Researchers believe that it may be possible to increase the speed of the Internet by slowing down certain parts of it by using metamaterials. Metamaterials could be used to replace the bulky and slow electronics that route Internet information, allowing for faster Internet speeds. The Internet carries different streams of information in different channels, each with its own light frequency. As data nears its destination, the frequencies must be separated. The light must then be converted into electrical signals, which are stored, routed, and converted back into optical signals. The conversion not only adds significant cost and complexity to the process, but slows down the transmission as well. "It limits the speed of the whole process to the speed of your electronics," says University of Oxford professor Chris Stevens. "The light and the fibers can quite cheerfully sustain a couple of terahertz, but your electronics can't do more than a few gigahertz." However, if the light signals could be slowed during the switching process, they would not need to be converted into an electrical signal. Metamaterials could be used in electronics to store light signals, placing different delays on different frequencies, and to spread different frequencies, much like a prism splits white light into colored light. "The ability to slow the light could be a tremendous force for telecoms that is sure to enhance speed and efficiency," says University of California professor Xiang Zhang.
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Before the Gunfire, Cyberattacks
New York Times (08/13/08) P. A1; Markoff, John

Weeks before any physical fighting occurred in the country of Georgia, a security researcher in Massachusetts observed a cyberattack against Georgia's Internet infrastructure. Arbor Networks' Jose Nazario noticed a stream of data directed at Georgia's government Web sites that contained the message "win+love+in+Russia." Other Internet experts say the cyberattacks against Georgia started as early as July 20, with distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks overloading and effectively shutting down servers in Georgia. Researchers at Shadowserver, a volunteer group that monitors malicious network activity, reported that Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili's Web site was rendered inoperable for 24 hours due to multiple DDOS attacks, and that the control server that directed the attack was based in the United States and had come online only a few weeks before the attack started. It now appears that the July attack may have simply been a test run for a larger cyberwar between Georgia and Russia. In addition to DDOS attacks, researchers say there is also evidence that Internet traffic was redirected through Russian telecommunications firms. Experts say this is the first time a cyberattack has coincided with a physical attack. However, it is unlikely to be the last, says Packet Clearing House research director Bill Woodcock, who notes that cyberattacks are inexpensive, easy to execute, and leave so few fingerprints that they will almost certainly be a fixture in modern warfare. "It costs about 4 cents per machine," Woodcock says. "You could fund an entire cyberwarfare campaign for the cost of replacing a tank tread, so you would be foolish not to." Georgia experienced few adverse effects from the attack, other than a lack of access to government Web sites.
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Yale's Spielman Wins Godel Prize for Showing How Computer Algorithms Solve Problems
Yale University Office of Public Affairs (08/12/08)

The Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM's) Special Interest Group on Algorithms and Computing Theory (SIGACT) and the European Association for Theoretical Computer Science (EATCS) presented Daniel A. Spielman and Shang-Hua Teng with the Godel Prize during the International Colloquium on Automata, Languages, and Programming in Reykjavik, Iceland. Spielman, a professor of applied mathematics and computer science at Yale University, and Teng, a professor of computer science at Boston University, received the prestigious award for their research involving the Smoothed Analysis technique. The paper, "Smoothed Analysis of Algorithms: Why the Simplex Algorithm Usually Takes Polynomial Time," was published in the Journal of the Association for Computing Machinery in 2004. The mathematical analysis represents a major development in predicting the performance of optimization tools for real data, says ACM, because the mathematical structure needs to be understood to design efficient protocols and software. Spielman and Teng will share the prize's $5,000 award for their contribution to theoretical computer science.
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Web-Security Inventor Charts a Squigglier Course
Wall Street Journal (08/13/08) P. B5; Smith, Ethan

Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn, the primary inventor of the Captcha online security test, has updated the system to make the test more secure. The new ReCaptcha system would also have users assist in the digitalization of old books and newspapers. The new system presents users with two words containing distorted characters. Both words are taken from an old book or newspaper article that has been scanned into an online library. One of the words was recognized by the scanning software, while the other was unrecognizable to the computer, possibly because of a smudge or some other imperfection on the original document. The user tries to decipher the distorted characters of both words, and if the user matches the first word correctly, which the computer already knows, then the user's reading of the unknown word is recorded. Multiple Web users will be shown the same unknown word as part of different tests, and when three people have submitted the same answer for the unknown word, it is considered solved and added to the library database to be inserted into the digital version of the document. Deciphering these unknown words is one of the greatest challenges for the Internet Archive library digitalization effort, since scanning software generally has an accuracy rating of only about 80 percent for books published before 1900. About 40,000 Web sites now use the free ReCaptcha system, and when fully operational, von Ahn expects it to process about 160 books a day for the Internet Archive. "It's a really mind-blowing application," says Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle.
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Technique Developed to Capture Human Movement in 3D
AlphaGalileo (08/12/08)

A technique has been developed that will enable interactive video games to recognize gestures made with human hands and feet. The approach makes use of algorithms for capturing body movements, and does not involve the wearing of a special suit or receiver. A team from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) and the University of Lovaina (UCL) in Belgium use two video cameras to capture human movement, as part of a system that is designed to display gestures in three dimensions on a computer. The system captures images of a person's outline, calculates the extremities, creates "morphological skeletons" for visual analysis, then repeats the process with the second camera to obtain the points in a three-dimensional space. The system can be used in real time on a personal computer, and has a margin of error of between 4 percent and 9 percent. Potential applications include "all those that require motion interaction with the computer; that is, from browsing through applications in an operating system [like moving windows and text with hand movements] to interactive aerobic video games, and much more," says Pedro Correa, an engineer with the UCL Telecommunications and Teledetection Laboratory.
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Images for 3-D Video Games Without High Price Tags or Stretch Marks From UC San Diego
University of California, San Diego (08/12/08) Kane, Daniel

University of California, San Diego (UCSD) computer science undergraduate student Alex Goldberg has developed a new tool that will allow developers to create high-quality images for three-dimensional (3D) video games that are generated "on the fly" and are free of stretch marks, flickering, and other graphical glitches. UCSD professor Matthias Zwicker and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Fredo Durand also contributed to the project. The new technology is being presented at ACM SIGGRAPH. "People are looking for ways to get rid of these distortions, preferably without having to pay artists to generate background and detail images by hand," Goldberg says. "We have come up with a way to do this, and we are planning to provide code for download soon." The 2008 SIGGRAPH paper highlights a significant improvement over the established technique known as Perlin noise, in which small computer programs create multiple layers that are piled on top of each other and manipulated like layers of paint on a canvas to create detailed and realistic textures. Goldberg says that previous methods for using computer-generated noise to make backgrounds and details for 3D video games were fast, but the quality of the images was poor. The new method provides the computational benefits of noise without the distortion or flickering and also eliminates the need to store the textures as huge images that consume valuable memory. Instead, the textures are generated by computer programs every time an image is rendered, Zwicker says. The new technique maps elliptical areas of background images back to circular pixels, which yields higher quality background images with less stretching and other distortions than traditional methods.
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Record Number of US Voters May Cast Paper Ballots
Associated Press (08/06/08) Hoffman, Allison

More Americans may vote in November using paper ballots than in any other election in U.S. history, despite the federal government's $3 billion investment in new voting technology. Thousands of touch-screen devices are being stored in warehouses instead of being used for elections because election officials are worried about machine security and reliability, replacing the glitch-prone electronic-voting machines with scanners that will read paper ballots. An Associated Press Election Research survey found that 57 percent of the nation's registered voters live in counties that will use paper ballots this fall. The number of registered voters who live in jurisdictions that will rely primarily on e-voting machines has dropped from a high of 44 percent during the 2006 midterm elections to 36 percent. Growth in the electorate over the past decade, the expansion of absentee voting rules, and expectations for high voter turnout has led some experts to predict that a record number of Americans will cast their votes on paper ballots this year. "More people will be using computer-read paper ballots than at any other time in the nation's history," says Election Data Services' Kimball Brace. In 2000, about 97 million registered voters lived in counties that used some form of paper ballot, Brace says. That figure is expected to reach 100 million this fall, according to data from the Associated press. Counties will have to spend millions of dollars printing and processing ballots, and some first-time voters may be confused by them.
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UK Leads in 'Readiness for E-Voting'
Heise Online (UK) (08/08/08) Sietmann, Richard

The United Kingdom is the most prepared to introduce electronic-voting systems for political elections, according to an analysis of 31 countries. Robert Krimmer and Ronald Schuster of the Austrian Competence Center for Electronic Voting and Participation presented their findings, the "E-Voting Readiness Index," at the recent 3rd International Conference on E-Voting (EVOTE08) in Bregenz, Austria. The benchmark project assessed the e-voting environment of all 27 members of the European Union, in addition to the United States, Russia, Switzerland, and Venezuela. Krimmer and Schuster rated the countries on their political, legal, information society, and e-voting environments, and each category included about 100 indicators. For example, the researchers noted the number of e-voting trials for the special e-voting category, and the cost of Internet access and use for the information society category. The United Kingdom, with its score of 70.60, has an "excellent" legal environment and has tested different e-voting options from voting machines and kiosk voting to Internet voting. The United States was second at 66.68, followed by Estonia with 66.60 and the Netherlands at 62.90.
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A Bridge Between Virtual Worlds
Technology Review (08/11/08) White, Brian

The launch of Linden Lab's Open Grid Beta has given developers the opportunity to build and test software bridges that would link Second Life to other virtual worlds. The Open Grid Beta will allow users to move between a Second Life test grid and non-Linden Lab grids running the OpenSim software. OpenSim is an independent open source project for creating a virtual-world server. The Open Grid Beta is the first effort to run Second Life interoperable code that demonstrates previously hypothetical approaches. "We are still early in the game," says Linden Lab's Joe Miller. "The point of the beta is to give the rest of the development community the chance to try the protocols themselves." So far, more than 200 users have signed up for the beta program and 15 virtual worlds have been connected. Terry Ford, the owner and operator of an OpenSim-based world, says interoperability is the future of the Web. Interoperability will allow users to create a single avatar and identity and to move between virtual worlds, instead of having to sign up for accounts with each world that users want to use. IBM's David Levine, who is working with Linden Lab on the interoperability protocols, says this effort has a better chance of success than previous interoperability efforts because it is less ambitious and is focusing on the Linden main grid and a set of broadly similar grids instead of trying to create virtual world interoperability across the entire Web.
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Large Area Transistors Get Helping Hand From Quantum Effects
University of Surrey (08/08/08)

Quantum-size effects offer a significant advantage for nano-designed transistors in the large-area display and sensor application field. The boost to switching performance shows that there are other routes for improving transistors based on disordered silicon films. A team from the Hitachi Central Research Laboratory in Japan and the Advanced Technology Institute of the University of Surrey has made disordered transistors with a very thin conduction channel. The approach supports the design of low-power memory for large-area electronics based on a low-cost industry standard material processing route. Researchers are optimistic about low-power electronics because of nano-structure silicon thin-film transistors, says lead investigator Xiaojun Guo. "However, carrier transport in such devices is very complicated, and results in electrical characteristics that may not be described by conventional field effect transistor [FET] models," Guo says. "This work reveals the key physical properties of the devices, which will help to further optimize and model the devices for circuit design."
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Computation Institute to Bulk Up Data Analysis Capability With $1.5 Million Grant
University of Chicago (08/05/08)

The Computation Institute, a joint effort by the University of Chicago and the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, has received a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant for a computer system that will allow researchers to store, access, and analyze large sets of data. The new system is called the Petascale Active Data Store (PADS) and has been optimized for quick data transactions, both on campus and worldwide. The PADS design is the result of a study on the storage and analysis requirements of groups in astronomy and astrophysics, computer science, economics, evolutionary and organismal biology, geosciences, high-energy physics, linguistics, materials science, neuroscience, psychology, and sociology. The PADS teams say the new system will give these groups the opportunity to look at their data in new ways, resulting in innovative scientific insights and collaborations across disciplines. PADS will also help computer science researchers examine active data storage systems and provide rich data to investigate new techniques. PADS will contain several nVidia Tesla graphics processing units (GPUs) that will be integrated with traditional CPUs. The GPUs are capable of computing certain operations many times faster than general-purpose hardware. PADS will be a hybrid system with multiple layers that range from a large, tape-based system at Argonne to individual computers on campus and in other locations.
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Military Use of Robots Increases
Washington University in St. Louis (08/04/08) Fults, Erin

Washington University in St. Louis researchers Doug Few and Bill Smart report that the military's goal is to have about 30 percent of the Army comprised of robotic forces by approximately 2020. Currently, all of the Army's robotic force is teleoperated, meaning someone controls the robot from a remote location, and while this may seem like a caveat in the effort to add robots to the military, keeping humans involved in robotic operations is very important. "You want to have a human hit the button," says Smart. "You don't want the robot to make the wrong decision. You want to have a human to make all of the important decisions." Smart and Few are not necessarily working to create intelligent, decision-making robots, but rather they are working on improving the "intelligent" functioning of the robot. Few is working to develop a system in which the robot executes tasks while constantly sending updates to a human, giving the human the ability to create new goals for the robot. One advancement Few and Smart have made is adapting a Wii controller to create more natural controls, which would allow users, particularly in a military setting, to keep more attention on their surroundings while controlling a robot, rather than being hunched over a laptop.
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Technological Crystal Ball Boost AIDS Survival
ICT Results (08/08/08)

European researchers have developed a predictive software system for HIV that could help extend the lives of AIDS patients. The European Union-funded EuResist project has created new mathematical prediction models for HIV by focusing on the genotype of the virus. EuResist's key achievement was combining data from HIV databases in Italy, Sweden, and Germany, says EuResist coordinator Francesca Incardona. The new database could help find treatments for patients with a particularly resistant strain of the virus, or reduce the cost of therapy for non-crucial cases by choosing the right combination of drugs that will work for the longest time. All of the information from the three national HIV databases is now located in what EU researchers say is the world's biggest database of AIDS resistance-related information, with more than 18,000 patients, 64,000 therapies, and 240,000 viral mode measurements on file. This data will allow medical researchers and doctors to predict what would happen if a patient with a certain strain of the virus was given a certain combination of drugs.
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Indiana University Hosts National Computing Workshop
Converge (08/04/08)

Members of the Coalition for Academic Scientific Computation (CASC) and the EDUCAUSE Committee on Campus Cyberinfrastructure gathered last week at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) to discuss ways in which universities can work together to support their research initiatives. The IT leaders will draft recommendations for using IT resources more collaboratively, and IU CIO Brad Wheeler said in his opening address at the workshop that the strategy should encourage economic growth at the state level and advance national competitiveness. Individual universities have powerful computing systems, but a geographically distributed cyberinfrastructure would be a better way to support innovation. "The computer scientist Alan Kay once wrote that the best way to predict the future is to invent it," said Craig Stewart, IU associate dean for research technologies and CASC chairperson. "We are bringing some of the best computer scientists in the nation together in Indianapolis to do just that."
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28 Colleges and High Schools to Use Personal Robots in Class
Chronicle of Higher Education (08/06/08) Vinas, Maria Jose

The Institute for Personal Robots in Education hopes to improve the basic computing skills of students by helping to fund the use of personal robots in 28 colleges and high schools across the country. They will share $250,000 and will receive their own book-sized, wheeled blue robot. Students will be able to program the robot, called Scribbler, to perform simple tasks. The institute also has developed the curricula, software and text for Scribbler. The Georgia Institute of Technology, Bryn Mawr College and Microsoft Research support the institute, which sees robotics as a way to boost interest in computer science and enrollment in programs at the undergraduate level, especially among women. Bryn Mawr says enrollment in upper-level computer science courses has more than quadrupled since the women's liberal-arts college started using Scribbler in the introductory course. Georgia Tech says students in robotics courses have a higher pass rate and express more interest in computers after taking the classes.
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Whom Do We Fear or Trust? Faces Instantly Guide Us, Scientists Say
Princeton University (08/05/08) MacPherson, Kitta

Princeton University psychology researchers have developed a computer program that allows scientists to analyze what aspects of the human face make them look either trustworthy or frightening. The program allows the researchers to construct computer-generated faces that display the most trustworthy or dangerous looking traits, and the research could have implications for people who are concerned about what their faces portray to other people. Princeton professor Alexander Todorov and research specialist Nikolaas Oosterhof decided to find a way to quantify exactly what it is about each person's face that influences other people's gut instincts. To conduct the study, the researchers show unfamiliar faces to test subjects and asked them to describe traits they could detect from the faces. The trait options were limited to a given list that included aggressiveness, unkemptness, and various emotional states. The researchers showed the faces to another group and asked them to rate each face for the degree to which it possessed one of the dozen listed traits. Using this research, the scientists discovered that humans make spilt-second judgments on two major factors, whether the person should be approached or avoided and whether the person is weak or strong. Then the researchers used a commercial software program that generates composites of human faces, based on laser scans of real subjects. The scientists asked another group of test subjects to look at 300 faces and rate them for trustworthiness, dominance, and threat. Common features emerged, with trustworthy faces having a slightly surprised and happy look, and threatening faces looking angry with a frown and eyebrows that point down at the center.
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Computers Can Spot Criminals' Bad Habits
New Scientist (08/09/08) Vol. 199, No. 2668, P. 24; Geddes, Linda

Linkage analysis attempts to draw connections between serial crimes using similarities in the criminals' behavior, but its validation as a reliable tool--reliable enough to be used in court testimony--has proved elusive. "The assumption is that a given offender will exhibit similar behaviors across their crimes, and that these will be relatively distinct from those of other offenders committing similar types of crimes," says Craig Bennell of Ottawa's Carleton University. However, police officers must be able to recognize these similarities in order for this method to be successful, and individual officers will have their own subjective impressions of crimes. Several groups have developed linkage analysis software and are currently conducting research to demonstrate the method as being more rigorous and reliable. Bennell has been working on a program capable of reading a database of crimes in which the police have detailed behavioral domains, and then producing a set of behavioral similarity scores for any two crimes, with one rating in each domain. "If the crimes have been committed by the same person you'll often find higher levels of similarity in certain behavioral domains," Bennell says. He imagines a program that provides officers with a technique for uploading data about particular crime-scene behaviors, and then blends and weights the behaviors and offers suggestions on whether the crime should be treated as a linked one or not.
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