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ACM TechNews
August 20, 2008

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Welcome to the August 20, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Agile Approach Slashes Software Development Time
EUREKA (08/19/08)

The results of the EUREKA ITEA software Cluster AGILE project will make it possible for manufacturers to develop embedded software in significantly less time and at a much lower cost than is possible through traditional techniques. The project has applied the approach to 68 pilot case studies in a variety of industries. The use of embedded software in electronic devices is growing faster than advances in the electronics themselves, but the ability to produce software has not increased as quickly. "The amount of software is growing very rapidly and it is increasingly difficult to find the people and resources necessary to develop it all," says project coordinator Pekka Abrahamsson of the VTT Technical Research Centre in Finland. Problems also exist in the speed of development as it is necessary to get solutions to market in optimum time and with sufficient reliability. To solve these problems, AGILE focused on processes and technologies needed to develop software systems faster and more reliably to meet changing market needs. Agile technology involves a methodology that stretches from the beginning of the development process to the end, but generally focuses on the actual processes, techniques, and tools used to create systems. "A set of values and a set of 12 principles provide the underlying rationale for why we operate in this way," Abrahamsson says. "And the process is very tightly time-framed with delivery in monthly or even fortnightly cycles."
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Federal Judge Throws Out Gag Order Against Boston Students in Subway Case
Wired News (08/19/08) Zetter, Kim

A federal judge in Boston has allowed the expiration of a temporary restraining order against three Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who discovered a vulnerability in the Boston subway's fare tickets and cards. The restraining order prevented the students from presenting a talk on the security vulnerabilities at the DefCon hacker conference in Las Vegas. "It's great news for the free speech rights for these students," says the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Rebecca Jesche. "Although it's extremely unfortunate that the students were not allowed to give their talk at DefCon." A week before the scheduled DefCon talk, the students met with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to reassure the agency that they would withhold key information from their presentation and would not teach someone how to defraud the system. Nevertheless, the MBTA filed a motion for a restraining order. A district judge approved the restraining order, citing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and implied that the students' speech on how the MBTA system was vulnerable to hacking was equivalent to someone actually hacking the MBTA system, or at least assisting in the illegal hacking activity. However, that ruling was overturned on the grounds that the Computer Fraud Abuse Act does not apply to speech and that the MBTA failed to supply sufficient proof to merit a restraining order or preliminary injunction. A lawsuit filed by the MBTA still threatens the students, accusing them of hacking the MBTA system and causing damages.
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U.S. at Risk of Cyberattacks, Experts Say
CNN (08/18/08) Griggs, Brandon

The next large-scale military or terrorist attack against the United States may be launched by hackers half a world away through cyberspace, which Internet security experts say could be just as devastating to the U.S. economy and infrastructure as a physical attack. Experts say the recent attacks on Georgia heralds a new kind of cyberwar, for which the United States is not fully prepared. Tulip Systems CEO Tom Burling says that no one has developed a way to prevent such attacks from happening. "The U.S. is probably more Internet-dependent than any place in the world," Burling says. "So to that extent, we're more vulnerable than any place in the world to this kind of attack." United States Cyber Consequences Unit director Scott Borg says Internet security is a critical issue, and in the United States, at every level, security is dependent on computers. "It's a whole new era. Political and military conflicts now will almost always have a cyber component," Borg says. "The chief targets will be critical infrastructure, and the attacks will emerge from within our own computer systems." A major challenge is that such attacks can be launched anonymously, and relatively cheaply, from anywhere in the world. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security created the National Cybersecurity Center this year to coordinate federal cyberdefense efforts and improve responsiveness, but a recent Homeland Security Department intelligence report concluded that there are currently no effective means to prevent a coordinated attack on U.S. Web sites.
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NSF Announces Expeditions in Computing Awards
National Science Foundation (08/18/08) Zacharias, Maria C.

The National Science Foundation's Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) has awarded four new Expeditions in Computing grants. The $10 million grants will enable teams of researchers and educators to pursue potentially far-reaching agendas that could lead to significant advancements in computing and benefit society as a whole. "We created the Expeditions program to encourage the research community to send us their brightest and boldest ideas," says CISE assistant director Jeannette Wing. Wing says the four Expeditions will pursue long-standing scientific questions of computing, create a new field of computational sustainability, experiment with novel technologies for secure and ubiquitous computing and communications, and explore the basic concepts of what constitutes computing. The first project, the Expedition to Understand, Cope with, and Benefit From Intractability, will work to bridge the fundamental gaps in the understanding about the power limits of efficient algorithms. "Computational Sustainability: Computational Methods for a Sustainable Environment, Economy, and Society," will explore the development and applications of computational methods to ensure a sustainable environment, economy, and society. The Open Programmable Mobile Internet 2020 project addresses issues emerging in the forthcoming broadband wireless mobile revolution. The Molecular Programming project will develop computer science principles for programming information-bearing molecules, such as DNA and RNA polymers, and demonstrate their applications experimentally.
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US to Back 21st Century Learning
BBC News (08/16/08) Shiels, Maggie

The new National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies, authorized by the higher education bill approved by the U.S. Congress last month, will focus on advancing education in the 21st century using computer and communications technologies. "America's reputation as an international leader rests in the hands of our youth," says Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). "It should be among our top priorities to provide our students with the tools they need to maintain and build upon this standing." The new center will support a "first of its kind" comprehensive research and development program with the intention of improving all levels of learning, from kindergarten to university, and from government training to college. The Federal of American Scientists president Henry Kelly says education is increasingly falling behind the rest of the economy and the United States must rethink its basic approach to helping people learn. Kelly says the center will concentrate on understanding how to use technology to help people learn in more effective and interesting ways that makes knowledge stick. The center will award grants for research on a variety of issues, including taking technology that is effective in industry and applying it to the classroom.
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Virtual Applications Reach Out to Real World
ICT Results (08/14/08)

European researchers working on the IMPROVE project have developed a series of tools to break through virtual reality development bottlenecks and foster the acceptance of virtual reality in new business areas. IMPROVE focused on augmented reality applications and tools. Augmented reality consists of mixing real objects and landscapes with computer-generated images and designs, which could, for example, allow an architect to see a virtual building on a real landscape or a car designer to see how a small change would affect the existing body of a car. IMPROVE project coordinator Pedro Santos says the researchers worked on head-mounted displays, tiled displays, rendering and streaming software, color calibration techniques, and novel interaction systems. The researchers selected two design-intensive domains to test their platform--architecture and automotive design--because the two areas were a good fit. Car manufacturers have the budgets to invest in expensive equipment that can quickly be used to improve systems, and architectural companies could use virtual reality and augmented reality for a wide variety of purposes. The IMPROVE team surveyed potential users to determine what functionality they required. Santos says the architects wanted to be able to review a virtual rendition of a proposed building collaboratively and to test the impact of shadows, while car makers wanted high-quality imaging for surface inspection.
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UC San Diego Researchers' New Algorithm Significantly Boosts Routing Efficiency of Networks
University of California, San Diego (08/18/08) Mueller, Paul K.

University of California, San Diego computer scientists have developed XL, a new algorithm for helping computer networks find the most efficient way of sending data. The XL algorithm increases network routing efficiency by suppressing updates from parts of the system, which previously forced connected networks to continuously recalculate the paths used to send data. "Routing in a static network is trivial," say the authors of a paper on the algorithm, which will be presented at ACM SIGCOMM. "But most real networks are dynamic--network links go up and down--and thus some nodes need to recalculate their routes in response." The algorithm reduces the overhead of route re-computation after a network change, allowing for the support of larger networks. The major innovation in the new algorithm is that it propagates only some network updates. The algorithm determines which updates are important and which can be suppressed by establishing three rules for update propagation. "The rules ensure that selected routes are nearly as good as if complete information about the network were available, but at a fraction of the overhead required for maintaining such a state of perfect knowledge," says team member Ramamohan Paturi. The researchers believe that the efficiency of link-state routing can be further improved.
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Intel Offers $100,000 Prizes for Innovative Ideas
InformationWeek (08/19/08) Gonsalves, Antone

Developers should focus more on technology that will help improve life in developing countries, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett said during his opening keynote of the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco on Aug. 19. The chipmaker will offer four prizes of $100,000 each to developers who come up with the best ideas for its Inspire/Empower Challenge. Projects will be judged on the "sustainability and innovativeness" of the technology. The event also featured developers that Intel believes are good examples of pursuing innovation in areas such as education, health care, economic development, and the environment. Johnny Lee, who recently earned his Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University, discussed a Wii-based sensor for tracking digital pens used to write on an electronic chalkboard. Meanwhile, Columbia University's Miguel Angarita demonstrated how a camera phone capable of reading the bar code on a health card could be used to deliver medical records to doctors in remote offices during emergency situations. Barrett also said the United States should encourage an "environment for innovation" and spend more on education and research and development.
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Visualisation Highlights Flood Risk
Monash University (08/18/2008)

An interactive visualization tool for predicting flood risk in a region of Australia that has experienced significant flooding in recent years has been developed by researchers at Monash University. The tool can be used to create scenarios of how climate change is affecting Lakes Entrance in East Gippsland. "Until now there has been no way of visualizing what may happen during a flood event at Lakes Entrance," says Ph.D. student Peter Wheeler. Wheeler developed the Lakes Entrance Visualization tool with the help of professors Jim Peterson and Joshphar Kunapo, and Master's student Matthew Coller. The team says strategic planning decisions for low-lying coastal settlements in other areas of Victoria also need to be made. "The methodology of this tool can be applied to these other areas, which will help with flood contingency planning and the identification of at-risk land parcels and infrastructure," Wheeler says.
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Spin Flip Trick Points to Fastest RAM Yet
New Scientist (08/13/08) McAlpine, Kate

German researchers have developed prototype magnetoresistive random access memory (MRAM) technology, which is being heralded as the future of computing by hardware manufacturers. MRAM is a faster and more efficient version of the RAM currently used in computers, offering high speeds but using less power. MRAM stores data by changing the north-south direction of a tiny magnet's magnetic field. Each variable magnet is placed next to a magnet with a fixed field. Reading the stored data is done by running a current through the pair of magnets to determine the direction of the variable magnet's field. The type of MRAM that many manufacturers are backing uses the spins of electrons to flip the magnetic fields, a technology called spin-torque MRAM. Santiago Serrano-Guisan and Hans Schumacher of the Physical-Technical Federal Laboratory of Germany, working with the University of Bielefeld and Singulus Nano-Deposition Technologies, have built a spin-torque system that is significantly faster than any other system. The system is built from tiny pillars 165 nanometers tall. The top of each pillar acts as a variable magnet that stores data, while the bottom is the fixed magnet. A current runs from the bottom of the pillar to the top, with its electrons lined up by the permanent-magnet region at the bottom. When the electrons reach the pillar's other end, they flip the variable magnet region's field to match. The field can be flipped back by reversing the current. The German researchers developed a way to observe and control the field's adjustment during and after the change, which could lead to devices significantly faster than before.
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No Time to Question the Need for Speed
Stuff (NZ) (08/18/08)

In 2006, the New Zealand government paid $43 million to meet the capital costs of the high-speed Kiwi Advanced Research and Education Network (Karen). The Karen network was turned on 20 months ago with the intention of facilitating research between universities and other research organizations in New Zealand and around the world. In September, the New Zealand cabinet will review its business model and determine whether the network was worth the investment. Some believe that establishing the network was a matter of national pride, as it enabled New Zealand to host the biannual Asia Pacific Advanced Networking conference. Karen can transfer data between New Zealand institutions at speeds of 10 gigabits per second, and offers a 620Mbps link to the United States and a 155Mbps connection to Australia. Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand (Reanzz) CEO Donald Clark says the network is currently running at an average of between one and four percent of capacity. However, Clark says the point of a research network is to have plenty of unmetered bandwidth available on demand, and if the network ever averaged 20 percent capacity it would be time to upgrade. Waikato University head of computer sciences Tony McGregor says a "massive" international trend towards e-research, where individual researchers from around the world collaborate using Internet networks, makes Karen a vital resource. Reanzz will continue to look for new customers to use the network, which is expected to see increased traffic as schools, libraries, and even some businesses are allowed to access the network.
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University of Toronto, IBM to Launch Supercomputer
Reuters (08/14/08) Dabrowski, Wojtek

IBM will help the University of Toronto build a supercomputer capable of performing 360 trillion calculations per second. The most powerful supercomputer in Canada, and one of the 20 fastest machines in the world, it would use IBM's iDataPlex system, which holds twice as many processors per unit as standard systems. The completely water-cooled supercomputer would also link together more than 4,000 servers. "Every aspect of the system has been put together to be the most powerful and yet the most energy efficient," says IBM's Chris Pratt. Scientists at the university and its associated research hospitals will use the supercomputer for a wide range of projects in aerospace, astrophysics, climate change prediction, and medical imaging. The Canadian Foundation for Innovation, in partnership with the province of Ontario and the university, is funding the construction and operating cost, which will be $47 million over five years. The team will begin installing the supercomputer this autumn and it is expected to be fully operational by next summer.
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Computer Scientist Aims for a Better-Networked Military
Washington University in St. Louis (08/06/08) Fitzpatrick, Tony

Washington University in St. Louis professor Patrick Crowley has received a one-year, $499,765 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Agency for his research project, titled "Revolutionizing Defense Communications with a Diversified Internet Infrastructure." The grant is the second phase of Crowley's participation in the DARPA Computer Science Study Group (CSSG). Last year, as part of the CSSG, Crowley traveled for 20 days visiting Defense Department (DoD) sites, including military bases, intelligence agencies, combatant commands, military contractors, and civil agency headquarters, talking with officials to get a comprehensive understanding of the organization. For the second phase of the CSSG program, Crowley will design a new kind of network for the DoD that will link all components of the DoD, so that every foot soldier, commander, tank, and transport vehicle are networked, to better manage information in real time. "Imagine tactical combat-type situations where commanders in part of a region want to understand the location and states of all the platforms, equipment and personnel in real-time," Crowley says. "The core idea is information sharing. What had been lacking was knowledge of platform components. Now we have that knowledge and can try it out."
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Gates Speaks of Software-Writing Revolution
Associated Press (08/12/08)

Microsoft's Bill Gates says the dramatic growth of the Internet will eventually help eliminate "the last constraints we have" and lead to a software-writing revolution. Speaking at a forum marking the 10th anniversary of Microsoft's Asian research division, Gates said that technology currently in development will transform how people use computers as well as expand their ability to interact with machines. Greater Internet connectivity will give users better services, providing remote access to a variety of software and information, Gates says. "That will eventually lead to machines that have lots of server capacity, lots of low-cost computing, low-cost storage," Gates says. "And that will let us write software in an even more ambitious way, eliminating the last constraints we have." Gates believes that uses for computers will expand to encompass all interactive techniques, such as touch, sight, and speech. Gates also praised the work of Microsoft's Asian research division, and praised science and technology as a force for positive change. Gates says major developments in Internet services and computer interfaces are at a good stage of development in the labs, and should be widespread within 10 years, while more advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence or robotics, could be available within 20 years.
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From Lego Robots to Hammers and Nails, Linux Gets Embedded
Network World (08/08/08) Fontana, John

At the LinuxWorld conference, small vendors and independent developers showcased a variety of embedded Linux projects, ranging from a wirelessly controlled Lego robot to a device designed to aid information sharing in third-world countries. The nonprofit Literacy Bridge displayed its Talking Book Device, which contains a low-cost digital audio recorder with playback for distributing the spoken word. The Talking Book Device will cost under $10 and is scheduled for production in mid 2009. The device is intended to provide a library of easily retrievable recordings on topics such as helping people recognize symptoms of tuberculosis or explaining how to prevent dehydration. The device also contains a USB cable for uploading and downloading information between devices or external sources, and a built-in microphone allows users to record conversations or specific instructions. Literacy Bridge executive director Cliff Schmidt says the Talking Book Device is a way of replacing the Internet for document distribution. Meanwhile, the Linuxstamp project is a general-purpose processor module that includes a standard Linux kernel, and a SD card, Ethernet, and USB/serial converter, intended for use in initial product design so users do not have to build an entire motherboard. Linuxstamp developer Paul Thomas says the project is an example of open source hardware because the instructions for building the hardware are freely available. Thomas demonstrated a small Lego robot fitted with a USB wireless transmitter and a PC application that served as a remote control. "We are on the cusp of seeing what Linux did for software repeated on the hardware side," Thomas says.
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Why Complex Systems Do Better Without Us
New Scientist (08/06/08) Vol. 199, No. 2668, P. 28; Buchanan, Mark

Research by Swiss Federal Institute of Technology physicist Dirk Helbing suggests humans' desire to force complex systems into a regular, predictable model is misguided, and a much better strategy is to cede a certain degree of control and let systems work out solutions on their own. "You have to learn to use the system's own self-organizing tendencies to your advantage," he argues. Helbing and Stefan Lammer at Germany's Technical University of Dresden have considered whether traffic lights could be engineered to reduce congestion by giving the devices the means to adapt their behavior rather than have engineers shape traffic into patterns that seem favorable. The researchers have found that traffic lights, when provided with some simple operating rules and left alone to organize their own solution, can do a better job. Helbing and Lammer have crafted a mathematical model that assumes a fluid-like movement for traffic and describes what happens at intersections. The researchers make the lights at each intersection responsive to increasing traffic pressure via sensors. Lights that only adapt to conditions locally might give rise to problems further away, and to address this the researchers have engineered a scheme in which neighboring lights share their information so that what occurs around one light can affect how others respond, preventing the formation of long traffic jams. Helbing and Lammer have shown through simulation that this setup should substantially reduce overall travel times and keep no one waiting at a light too long, even though the lights' behavior runs counter to accepted human concepts of efficiency.
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