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ACM TechNews
August 15, 2008

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Welcome to the August 15, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Ruling Is a Victory for Supporters of Free Software
New York Times (08/14/08) P. C7; Markoff, John

In a major victory for the open source software movement, the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., has ruled that simply because a software programmer may give his work away for free does not mean that the software cannot be protected. The decision legitimizes the use of commercial contracts for the distribution of computer software and digital artistic works for the public good. The ruling also boosts the open source movement by easing the concerns of large organizations about relying on free software from developers who contributed to the effort without pay. The ruling will also have implications for the Creative Common license, which is used by organizations such as Wikipedia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for distributing courseware and other materials. Creative Commons CEO Joichi Ito says the ambiguity facing open source licensing has been one of the obstacles hindering the movement. The appeals court decision reversed a San Francisco federal court ruling over the misappropriation of a software program by Kam Industries, a company that publishes model train hobbyist software. Kam Industries owner Matthew A. Katzer had sued free software developers for patent infringement while the free software community argued that Katzer failed to disclose earlier technology, or prior art, in his patent filings. In March 2006, University of California, Berkeley professor Robert G. Jacobsen filed a lawsuit against Katzer claiming that his company was distributing a commercial software program that used code from the Java Model Railroad Interface project, and was redistributing the program without the credits required as part of the open source license it was originally distributed under. The lower court ruled that the terms of the open source contract were overly broad.
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Judge Refuses to Lift Gag Order on MIT Students in Boston Subway-Hack Case
Computerworld (08/14/08) Vijayan, Jaikumar

A trio of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students discovered several security vulnerabilities in the electronic ticketing system used by Boston's mass transit authority, but they are not allowed to publicly discuss these vulnerabilities because of a temporary restraining order that U.S. District Judge George O'Toole refused to lift at the latest hearing on Aug. 14. The gag order will remain in effect until at least Aug. 19, when O'Toole is scheduled to hold another hearing on the case. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says O'Toole asked the students to submit a copy of a class paper in which they detailed the vulnerabilities, along with copies of the programming code that they included in a planned presentation to demonstrate how the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's (MBTA's) e-ticketing system could be hacked. The gag order was granted when the MBTA filed suit to prevent the disclosure of the vulnerabilities, arguing that it was forced to seek court intercession because neither MIT nor the students had provided it with sufficient information to evaluate the vulnerabilities that were about to be publicly revealed at the Defcon hacker convention. The EFF filed a motion in court requesting that O'Toole lift the order, contending that it constitutes a violation of the students' First Amendment rights as well as a prior restraint on free speech. The decision to issue the restraining order was sharply criticized by Carnegie Mellon University professor David Farber, who says he found the move especially deplorable in view of the fact that the students' paper was vetted by MIT professor Ron Rivest.
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University of Massachusetts Professor Honored for Contributions to Computer Networking
AScribe Newswire (08/13/08)

ACM's Special Interest Group on Data Communications (SIGCOMM) has named University of Massachusetts-Amherst professor Don Towsley the winner of its highest honor. ACM says that Towsley's contributions to modeling, analyzing, and controlling communication networks has influenced an era of networking research and practice built upon a more scientific foundation. His work has helped give computer scientists and engineers a better understanding of computer networks, network protocols, and networked applications. The distinguished professor of computer science collaborated with experts in other scientific disciplines for many of his nearly 200 journal papers. Towsley is a fellow of ACM and IEEE, and is currently the editor-in-chief of IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking. He is the winner of the 2007 ACM SIGMETRICS Achievement Award from ACM's Special Interest Groups on Measurement and Evaluation. Towsley will receive the award at the upcoming ACM SIGCOMM annual conference in Seattle, Wash., and he is also scheduled to deliver the keynote address on Aug. 19.
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Experts Accuse Bush Administration of Foot-Dragging on DNS Security Hole
Wired News (08/13/08) Singel, Ryan

Security experts charge that bureaucratic lassitude at the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is responsible for a major, lingering security hole in the Internet's domain name system (DNS). Experts and the NTIA concur that DNSSEC, a series of security extensions for name servers, is the only solution for a flaw that allows hackers to redirect Web traffic at will by feeding fake information into DNS listings. DNS servers function in a massive hierarchy, which means that the successful deployment of DNSSEC requires having a trustworthy party sign the root file with a public-private key. "The biggest difference is that once the root is signed and the public key is out, it will be put in every operating system and will be on all CDs from Apple, Microsoft, SUSE, Freebsd, etc," says Sparta's Russ Mundy. NTIA's refusal to implement DNSSEC is a purely political move, as the technical difficulties of implementation have been addressed, says Packet Clearing House research director Bill Woodcock. NTIA's Bart Forbes says the administration has a responsibility to explore all possible solutions with all stakeholders before committing to DNSSEC, while even the most committed DNSSEC advocates acknowledge that Internet-wide installations of the extensions will consume a lot of time and money. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority has spent the last year prototyping a system to sign the root-zone file, but it requires approval from the Commerce Department to do the same for the top Internet servers, at which point the issue becomes politically charged "because there seems to be the perception that the introduction of a key guardian changes the current policies," says Dutch networking expert Olaf Kolkman.
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Helping the Deaf to 'See Sound'
BBC News (08/13/08)

Goldsmiths, University of London researcher Mick Grierson has developed Lumisonic, software that enables the deaf to view a real-time representation of sound. Lumisonic is designed to respond to computer-generated noise or sound from a microphone, and translate the sound waves into circles that radiate on a display. "If I make a sound and lower the pitch, the rings contract," Grierson says. "I can change the pitch using a keyboard and see how that appears as I do so." The visual representation elicits a quick response from the human brain. Deaf children at one local school played instruments with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and were able to see the impact of sound on the circles via a monitor. In another test, a deaf student said Lumisonic allowed her to relate more to sound. The system also consists of tools for recording and editing sound.
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Hollywood Hair Is Captured at Last: Details in SIGGRAPH 2008 Paper
Jacobs School of Engineering (UCSD) (08/13/08) Kane, Daniel

Researchers from the University of California at San Diego's (UCSD) Jacobs School of Engineering, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Adobe Systems are presenting at ACM SIGGRAPH a new technique for accurately capturing the shape and appearance of a person's hairstyle for incorporation into video games and animated films. The method involves the employment of multiple cameras, light sources, and projectors to capture imagery of real people's hairstyles. Algorithms were then devised to automatically "fill in the blanks" and produce photo-realistic images of the hairstyles from new angles and under new lighting conditions. "We want to give movie and video game makers the tools necessary to animate actors and have their hair look and behave as it would in the real world," says SIGGRAPH paper co-author and UCSD professor Matthias Zwicker. About 2,500 real-world images are captured for each hairstyle using 16 cameras, 150 light sources, and three projectors arranged in a dome configuration. The researchers use this data to ascertain the physical position and orientation of every visible strand of hair; complex hair models are then generated by the algorithms. The researchers can realistically calculate the hairstyle's shininess regardless of what angle the light is coming from by determining the orientations of individual hairs. One possible application of this research involves making an animated character's hair move realistically when blown by wind. "Our method produces strands attached to the scalp that enable animation," the researchers write. "In contrast, existing approaches retrieve only the visible hair layer."
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A 'Frankenrobot' With a Biological Brain
Agence France Presse (08/13/08)

University of Reading scientists have developed Gordon, a robot controlled exclusively by living brain tissue using cultured rat neurons. The researchers say Gordon, is helping explore the boundary between natural and artificial intelligence. "The purpose is to figure out how memories are actually stored in a biological brain," says University of Reading professor Kevin Warwick, one of the principal architects of Gordon. Gordon has a brain composed of 50,000 to 100,000 active neurons. Their specialized nerve cells were laid out on a nutrient-rich medium across an eight-by-eight centimeter array of 60 electrodes. The multi-electrode array serves as the interface between living tissue and the robot, with the brain sending electrical impulses to drive the wheels of the robot, and receiving impulses from sensors that monitor the environment. The living tissue must be kept in a special temperature-controlled unit that communicates with the robot through a Bluetooth radio link. The robot is given no additional control from a human or a computer, and within about 24 hours the neurons and the robot start sending "feelers" to each other and make connections, Warwick says. Warwick says the researchers are now looking at how to teach the robot to behave in certain ways. In some ways, Gordon learns by itself. For example, when it hits a wall, sensors send a electrical signal to the brain, and when the robot encounters similar situations it learns by habit.
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Disney Launches Global Research & Development Labs With Carnegie Mellon and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
Carnegie Mellon News (08/11/08) Spice, Byron

Disney, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) will work together on a research and development initiative that will establish collaborative labs in Pittsburgh and Zurich. "Creating the next generation of sophisticated technologies requires long-term vision and collaboration with world-class innovators," said Disney and Pixar Animation Studios president's Ed Catmull at ACM SIGGRAPH. The labs will conduct research and development on computer animation, computational cinematography, autonomous interactive characters, robotics, data mining, user interfaces, and other initiatives. Each lab represents a five-year commitment from Disney to fund a director and seven to eight principal investigators. "The access Disney provides to real-world problems and data will enable us to do research with greater impact than is typically possible within a purely academic environment," says Jessica Hodgins, a professor of professor of computer science and robotics and director of Disney Research, Pittsburgh. Hodgins expects projects to include research into autonomous animated characters, databases, machine learning, and visualization. Markus Gross, head of ETH Zurich's Computer Graphics Laboratory, says the collaboration with Disney is on the "cusp of the cutting edge," and that the partnership will create synergies that will open up a variety of different fields in entertainment technology. "Our research will explore novel algorithms to bring both traditional animation and 3D computer animation to the next level of perfection," Gross says.
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'Virtuality' Gets Real
ICT Results (08/12/08)

The European Union-funded IMPROVE project has developed a series of hardware and software innovations that combined provide a complete platform for virtual and augmented reality. "We worked on head-mounted displays [HMDs], improved tiled displays, rendering and streaming software, color calibration techniques, collaboration and networking, and novel interaction systems," says IMPROVE coordinator Pedro Santos. The initiative produced three prototype HMDs offering good resolution, including a handheld model to be presented at ACM SIGGRAPH that Santos says can obstruct daylight so that sunlight does not wash out the image. The platform's rendering software uses images from high-dynamic range cameras to calculate realistic shadows, reflections, and light-intensity levels so that a model can be accurately visualized from any direction in real time. IMPROVE's video-streaming technology enables high-quality stereoscopic streaming across a mobile network, while the project's marker and marker-less tracking systems are another notable breakthrough. The marker tracking system utilizes reflective markers to compute the position of real objects in a fixed reference frame, allowing the system to precisely plot an object's shape. Santos says the marker-less tracking system involves the detection of feature points in real scenes and the comparison of current images from a camera to calibrated reference images of the same scene in order to calculate a user's present position. Other IMPROVE innovations include interaction systems that support collaborative design and multi-modal, multi-user interaction, and a color-calibration method to ensure the faithful rendering of colors by tiled banks of high-definition screens.
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MIT Developing Super-Realistic Image System
MIT News (08/07/08) Chandler, David

MIT Media Lab professor Ramesh Raskar has developed realistic pictures using "6-D" images that have a full three-dimensional (3D) appearance and respond to their environment and produce natural shadows and highlights. The process can be used to create images that change over time as the illumination changes, creating animated pictures that move as the sun changes positions. Raskar calls it the "ultimate synthetic display," and notes that it is based entirely on an arrangement of lenses and screens. The new technology is on display at this year's SIGGRAPH conference. The new MIT process is similar to inexpensive 3D displays that use an overlay of plastic with a series of parallel linear lenses that create a visible set of vertical lines over the image. By using an array of tiny square lenses instead of linear ones, the displays can be made to change as the viewing angle changes vertically, in addition to changing horizontally as in the traditional images, creating a four-dimensional image. The new lighting-aware system adds additional layers of lenses and screens to add two more dimensions of change. The new system is still a low-resolution laboratory proof-of-concept, but it could be applied to pictures used for training purposes. Raskar says the main applications likely will be for entertainment and advertising, but he says the technology could also be developed for use in computer displays and movies.
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Medicine on Verge of Software Revolution
Stuff (NZ) (08/11/08) Pullar-Strecker, Tom

The health care industry will soon be revolutionized by computerized clinical decision support tools capable of advising doctors and patients on diagnoses and treatments, predicts a new Datamonitor report. Datamonitor says the culture of the medical profession is the largest hurdle hindering the adoption of new technology, and the concept that a computer could be more accurate than a physician is difficult for providers to accept, despite numerous studies that have shown that algorithms and computers outperform most doctors on some tasks. "Critics of clinical decision support maintain a computer cannot understand the nuances of medicine even when the technologies have been shown to improve efficiencies and outcomes," says Datamonitor's Christine Chang. "While a fundamental shift in culture is not impossible, it will take time as well as an increase in provider education and pressure from patients, payers, and 'C-level' hospital executives." Datamonitor says such tools are being included as add-ons to electronic health record software, which has gained widespread adoption. However, Chang says that without clinical decision support, electronic health records are little more than a compilation of paper records in an electronic format. The software can include tools used to make reference materials available online, programs that uses data-mining tools and artificial intelligence to analyze patient information, and tools that recommend particular treatments or issue alerts.
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Commanding Your Browser
Technology Review (08/12/08) Greene, Kate

Mozilla Labs is about to introduce Ubiquity, a new JavaScript-based interface for its Firefox Web browser that will allow users to run a variety of complex tasks by typing instructions, in the form of sentences, into a box in the browser. Ubiquity could be used to email a paragraph or picture from an article to a friend by simply selecting the text or image, opening the input box with a keyboard shortcut, and typing in a command to email it to the desired recipient. Ubiquity can even determine what person you are trying to send the email too, if there are multiple listings with the same name, based on previous emailing patterns. Mozilla Labs' Chris Beard says the objective is to make it easier to find and share information on the Web while avoiding complex copy-and-paste methods. Ubiquity also aims to eliminate the need for multiple browser plug-ins, as well as reduce unnecessary mouse movements. Ubiquity is being released as a Mozilla Labs project, which makes both the program and the underlying code available to people looking to test the interface and contribute design and programming ideas to improve its functionality. Beard says Ubiquity is also highly customizable, with built-in instructions in the interface that provide quick links to different tasks, such as email, Twitter, or Digg.
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Flash, HTML, Ajax: Which Will Win the Web App War?
CNet (08/11/08) Shankland, Stephen

Despite the proliferation and increasing richness of Web applications, a dominant underlying Web app technology has yet to emerge. Adobe Systems' Kevin Hoyt anticipates the coexistence of hypertext markup language (HTML), Adobe's Flash, and JavaScript, but predicts that "you'll continue to see a high degree of flux for probably the next several years." One of HTML's biggest advantages is its pervasiveness, and Zimbra engineering director Kevin Henrikson believes JavaScript will be employed in 10 times the number of Flash apps that are rolled out. Conversely, Microsoft thinks programmers would be best served by jettisoning HTML and JavaScript once Web apps start getting rich. HTML, JavaScript, and Ajax's biggest booster is possibly Google, which is, among other things, attempting to bolster the HTML camp through the open-source Gears project. Gears' features include offline access to Web applications such as Google's Web-based word processor, improved MySpace search, and faster blog posting via WordPress. Adoption of Gears by major services could inspire installation and support by Web site operators, and Google's Sundar Pichai says wide adoption could be fueled by products such as Gmail. The advantages of Flash and its new competitor, Silverlight, include support for audio and video streaming, and Darrin Massena, CTO of startup Picnik, lauds Flash's role in photo editing. Flash Player Version 10, currently in beta version 2, includes features such as 3D graphics, special effects, and improved video streaming, hardware-accelerated graphics, and text control.
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Can Avatars Stop Identity Theft?
Salon.com (08/05/08) Caruso, Denise

Digital avatars like those that inhabit massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as Second Life may be crucial to restoring people's control over their digital identities. Businesses currently call the shots and basically force consumers to disclose whatever personal information they want so that they can purchase products and services, while a core element of such virtual worlds is the ability to conduct credible and anonymous transactions through avatars. Blogger Denise Caruso says virtual worlds are an excellent testbed for the possibilities of user-centric identity systems. "Even at their relatively crude stage today, the technology on which they are based already allows them to interact and transact anonymously--with varying degrees of intimacy and in relative security--with millions of other avatars, including those who are hellbent on causing them some kind of digital harm," she notes. Identity Woman blog operator Kaliya Hamlin predicted at the 2007 Digital ID World conference that avatars will eventually demand or be granted other digital rights, including the legal right to exist in the virtual rather than the physical domain. Identity professionals are investigating how to construct a less intrusive network that lets people drive their own identities around the Internet with a greater degree of safety. "Avatar technology has a long way to go before it can be truly useful as an identity system, but based on the trajectory of technology adoption--from enthusiast to professional to mass adoption--it is probably on the right course," Caruso concludes.
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