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ACM TechNews
September 17, 2008

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Welcome to the September 17, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Voter Database Glitches Could Disenfranchise Thousands
Wired News (09/17/08) Zetter, Kim

Election experts are warning that thousands of voters could be disenfranchised in the November elections by statewide, centralized voter-registration databases that are not federally tested or certified. Election experts say the real worry is how states are performing database matches of new voters under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), given the databases and applicants' propensity for error in the provision of unique voter identifiers. States are left to themselves when it comes to deciding how to conduct matches, and in August Wisconsin carried out a test of 20,000 voter names against motor vehicle records and discovered 20 percent with mismatches, chiefly because of typos and transposed numbers. HAVA mandates that databases be equipped with "adequate technological security" without specifying precise safeguards, and access controls have not been devised in some states even though the databases interface with all county election offices. "Generally speaking, the uncertainty that hangs over the process, including uncertainty that results from election challenges and litigation introduced shortly before election day, creates a greater likelihood for problems or confusion at the polls," says the National Association of Secretaries of State's Kay Stimson. A recent study from the Academies of Sciences concluded that many states' matching procedures are based on intuitive reasoning without additional systematic validation or mathematically stringent analysis, fail to reflect the state of the art in matching methods, and have not been scientifically, commercially, or otherwise validated.
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Warning Sounded on Web's Future
BBC News (09/15/08) Ghosh, Pallab

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is helping to create the World Wide Web Foundation, a new organization that will certify Web sites it finds to be trustworthy and a reliable source of information. Berners-Lee says there needs to be a new system that will give Web sites a label for trustworthiness once they have proven to be a reliable source. "On the Web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable," he says. "A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging." Berners-Lee and colleagues at the World Wide Web consortium examined simple ways of branding Web sites, but concluded that a whole variety of different mechanisms are needed. In addition to creating a trustworthiness rating, the World Wide Web Foundation also will strive to make it easier for people to get online. Currently, only 20 percent of the world's population has access to the Web. The foundation also will explore ways of making the Web more mobile-phone friendly, which will increase its use in Africa and other developing parts of the world where there are few computers but plenty of handheld devices. The foundation also will examine how the Web can be used to benefit those who cannot read or write. "We're talking about the evolution of the Web," Berners-Lee says. "When something is such a creative medium as the Web, the limits to it are our imagination."
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Critics: Homeland Security Unprepared for Cyberthreats
CNet (09/17/08) Condon, Stephanie

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is being criticized for its lackluster cybersecurity efforts on the grounds that it has proven to be inefficient, bureaucratic, and unable to monitor federal computer networks. Some have even suggested that DHS should no longer be trusted with its cybersecurity mission and another federal agency should be given the task. "While DHS has improved, oversight for cybersecurity must move elsewhere," says James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This is now a serious national security problem and should be treated as such." Lewis testified at a recent hearing of the House Homeland Security's subcommittee on emerging threats, cybersecurity, and science and technology. Adding to public criticism of DHS are two reports published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Since 2005, the GAO has reported on DHS' cybersecurity efforts and has made 30 recommendations to the department, but DHS "still has not fully satisfied any of them," says GAO director of information management issues David Powner. The GAO's latest reports include descriptions of DHS' failure to fully address 15 key cyberanalysis and warning attributes related to activities such as monitoring government networks for unusual activity.
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Voting Group Release Guidelines for E-Voting Checks
IDG News Service (09/15/08) Gross, Grant

About 20 U.S. states using electronic-voting systems currently do not audit the results after elections, but there is still time to change that policy, according to a coalition of fair elections advocates and e-voting critics. The groups, including Common Cause, Verified Voting, and the Brennan Center for Justice, called on states to require post-election audits of e-voting systems, including touch-screen voting machines and optical-scan systems. The groups released a set of recommendations for election audit best practices, which calls on states to hand count paper records generated in conjunction with many e-voting systems. Verified Voting president Pamela Smith says audits can help restore voter confidence in elections. Since the 2000 U.S. presidential election, e-voting machines have been blamed for lost votes in several elections. In August, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner filed a lawsuit against Premier Election Solutions, saying the company should pay damages for dropped votes in the state's March primary election. Audits after the election found hundreds of uncounted votes. Premier first denied its machines were to blame, but later admitted that programming errors were at fault. "Audits really help to restore the public trust in our voting systems," says Maggie Toulouse Oliver, county clerk for Bernalillo County, N.M. "When there is a lack of trust in how that vote came out or how that transition took place, it can cast aspersions on our system of government."
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World's Largest Gathering of Women in Computing Attracts Leading Researchers, Industry Experts
AScribe Newswire (09/16/08)

The impact of women on technology that has helped improve world conditions will be the focus of this year's Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC), which is scheduled for Oct. 1-4, in Keystone, Colo. GHC will offer a program filled with speakers from around the world and more than 88 sessions. Fran Allen, IBM Fellow Emerita and ACM's 2006 A.M. Turing Award winner, will be a keynote speaker, along with Mary Lou Jepsen, founder and CTO of One Laptop Per Child. The seven tracks of the sessions cover technology skills and career opportunities. There will be sessions on organizing regional celebrations to bring women in computing closer together, helping women to contribute to projects and brainstorming new projects and priorities, and ACM's new Membership Gender Study on meeting the dynamic needs of women in computing. There also will be new investigator technical papers, Ph.D. forums, and achievement awards. The three-day technical conference, co-presented by the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and ACM, is expected to have more than 1,400 participants.
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Websites Shed Light on How Humans Value Fresh Ideas
New Scientist (09/11/08) Barras, Colin

Emerging Web sites supplant more established Web sites half the time, a new study from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers Vwani Roychowdhury and Joseph Kong and the University of Regina's Nima Sarshar suggests. The team visited roughly 22 million Web pages once a month for a year and recorded the number of other pages that link to each page, or its "in-degree." Just under half the pages with the most links were younger pages, and the proportion remained the same when the researchers raised the in-degree value above 1,000. Roychowdhury says the study suggests that the quality of content of a Web site ultimately determines whether it succeeds or fails. "Talent versus experience is difficult to document in a society," he says. "But what we show is that on the Web it can be documented in terms of page popularity--and newborn pages become more popular than older established pages on a regular basis." Search technology could benefit from the analysis, considering many engines use the page in-degree to deliver search results. Still, Roychowdhury acknowledges that ranking pages by the rate of in-degree growth might better reflect the impact of new Web sites.
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Engineering Students Exhibit E-Voting Applications
IDG News Service (09/15/08) Wanjiku, Rebecca

At the Engineering Students' Exhibition in Nairobi, students from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Canada, and the Philippines displayed 150 projects on information and communications technology. Electronic voting applications gained the most attention. Students demonstrated how e-voting technology could have prevented the bloody chaos that followed the controversial general election in Kenya earlier this year. "Laptops and mobile phones offer a better system of monitoring the elections; everyone now has a phone," says University of Nairobi student Quentin Papu, who developed vote tallying software for handheld devices. Papu says the software can be used by agents at polling stations to log on to their mobile phones using a unique user ID and password to enter presidential and parliamentary results, which would then be relayed to the Election Commission of Kenya. Nimrod Kibua and Juliet Kamau from Kenya Methodist University also impressed judges with their e-voting system. Abdelkareem Abdelrahman from Khartoum University was recognized for a sign language voice translator, and Julliet Mutahi and Frederick Omondi of the University of Nairobi won an award for a Short Message Service program for the visually impaired. "The event has showed the determination by students within African universities to use technology to improve the way of life," says event organizer Kevit Desai, a member of the Kenya ICT Board.
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Putting Pictures Into Words
ICT Results (09/16/08)

European researchers working on the aceMedia project are developing an information layer that would be added to digital image files. The goal is to create image files that contain content information, metadata, and an intelligence layer that automatically generates word-searchable data for the image. The researchers say the extra information layer, which would add both automatically generated and manually generated information to images, could revolutionize image searching on the Internet. The aceMedia project reused, developed, and combined a variety of technologies that provide enriched content information on an image. One of the technologies is software that can identify low-level visual descriptors, such as consistent areas of color that could be the sky, sea, or sand, as well as information on the texture, edge, and shape of the subject. Combining low-level descriptors with sets of contextual rules held in domain ontologies, such as the fact that consistent areas of blue at the top of an image are most likely sky, makes data a rich information source. Data from low-level descriptors also was combined with the results from specific detectors, such as the kinds of face detectors commonly available in some cameras, adding additional data for image searching. Additional information can be added by the user, including rules defining personal preferences, profiles, and policies to create a personalized filing system.
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First 3-D Processor Runs at 1.4 Ghz on New Architecture
University of Rochester News (09/15/08) Sherwood, Jonathan

University of Rochester researchers have developed the Rochester Cube, a microprocessor based on three-dimensional (3D) synchronization circuitry. The 3D chip, which runs at 1.4 gigahertz, was designed specifically to optimize all key processing functions vertically, through multiple layers of processors, in the same way ordinary chips optimize functions horizontally. "This is the way computing is going to have to be done in the future," says Rochester professor Eby Friedman, co-creator of the chip. "When the chips are flush against each other, they can do things you could never do with a regular 2D chip." However, Friedman notes that vertical expansion is problematic. He says getting all three levels of the chip to act in harmony is like trying to devise a traffic control system for the entire United States, and then layering two more United States above the first and simultaneously coordinating all three systems. The system is further complicated when the two upper layers are different systems. Each cube layer could be a different processor with a different function, such as converting MP3 files to audio or detecting light for a digital camera, for example. Friedman says the 3D chip is essentially an entire circuit board folded up into a tiny package. This complicated structure is made possible by the architecture Friedman and his students designed, which uses many techniques used in regular processors, but also accounts for different impedances that might occur from chip to chip, different operating speeds, and different power requirements.
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Software Agents Make Their Way Out of the Laboratory
Financial Times Digital Business (09/17/08) P. 2; Cane, Alan

Agent-based software development could be a key to progress in both stem cell research and business data processing. The University of London's Mark d'Inverno uses agent-based systems in his stem cell research by applying mathematical modeling techniques to understand stem cell growth and development. D'Inverno aims to create software that humans can communicate with easily, can delegate certain responsibilities to, and can use to understand the natural world. D'Inverno's research team includes an artist, a mathematician, an artificial life programmer, and a curator. In a recent book by d'Inverno and Southampton University researchers Michael Luck and Ronald Ashri, the authors note that agent technologies are already providing benefits in a variety of business and industry domains, including manufacturing, supply chain management, and business-to-business exchanges. Software agents have some similarities with artificial intelligence (AI), but d'Inverno says AI deals with abstract questions of knowledge representation while software agent development is close to engineering. "As technology increasingly becomes part of our everyday life, we want different things from the old-fashioned ideas of input which produces some output," d'Inverno says. "We want to have a much higher level of interaction with computer systems, possibly at the level of ascribing to these systems the kind of things we ascribe to each other such as beliefs, desires, and intentions."
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Universities Announce Virtual Clusters Project Called SnowFlock
InfoWorld (09/15/08) Marshall, David

Computer science researchers at the University of Toronto and Carnegie Mellon University have jointly made the binaries and source release of the SnowFlock project available to the general public under the GNU General Public License. SnowFlock allows for virtual machine (VM) cloning involving dozens of identical replicas running on different hosts, in less than a second and with little runtime overhead, says Andres Lagar-Cavilla, a member of the SnowFlock project team. "With SnowFlock you can, for example, perform parallel computations on the fly by scaling instantaneously your computing footprint in a shared cluster," Lagar-Cavilla says. SnowFlock relies on VM descriptors, a memory-on-demand subsystem, a set of avoidance heuristics, and a multicast distribution system for commodity Ethernet networking hardware to enhance Internet applications.
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UW-Eau Claire Computer Science Professor Receives $404,305 NSF Grant
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (08/26/08)

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor Paul Wagner has received a $404,305 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop portable and customizable software for hands-on, computer-intensive educational workshops. The three-year grant builds on the work Wagner completed through a previous NSF grant to create a laptop-based computer security workshop program. Wagner devised a program that enables instructors to control file downloads, run programs, and monitor laptops in a workshop setting. The program eliminates problems with workshop participants from different universities from putting new software on other university systems, leading to compatibility problems. The new NSF grant will enable Wagner to adapt the program for wireless functionality. "The tricky thing to do is to run our program without destroying or damaging other files or programs people have on their laptops and to do this in an isolated environment so the workshop environment is protected from the outside world and the outside world is protected from the workshop," Wagner says. Going wireless will significantly expand the uses of the program, he says. Currently, the program is only used for workshops on computer security, but once wireless functionality has been added the program will be useful for wider variety of general education purposes. The team plans to implement the program in the next year, and will submit a proposal to distribute it at the 40th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education, which takes place Mar 3-7, 2009, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
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Robotics Institute and Caterpillar Inc. to Automate Large Off Highway Haul Trucks
Carnegie Mellon News (09/09/08) Spice, Byron; Kenny, Kate

Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute researchers are working with Caterpillar to develop autonomous versions of the large haul trucks used in mining operations. The driverless truck effort is the first major project resulting from a three-year master agreement for sponsored research that was signed last year by Carnegie Mellon University and Caterpillar. Researchers from the Robotics Institute's National Robotics Engineering Center will work with Caterpillar's Pittsburgh Automation Center. The driverless truck effort is part of an autonomous mining haulage system that Caterpillar recently announced it is developing with BHP Billiton. Plans call for the autonomous trucks to be integrated into some of BHP Billiton's mine sites by 2010. The autonomous technology is expected to provide productivity gains through a more consistent process, and also should help minimize the environmental impact of mining through efficiency and overall mine safety. The Carnegie Mellon researchers will be adapting perception, planning, and autonomous software architectures originally developed for the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's autonomous vehicle program and the DARPA Urban Challenge.
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Internet Specialists See 'Clouds' Gathering
Chicago Tribune (09/01/08) Van, Jon

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) computer scientists are working with Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Yahoo! researchers, along with researchers in Europe and Asia, to build a global test bed for exploring future cloud computing systems. 3Tera CEO Barry Lynn says that within six years cloud computing will expand to the point that corporations rely less on on-site information technology infrastructure and more on applications supplied over the Internet. UIUC computer scientist Michael Heath, one of the leaders building the global test bed, says cloud computing will go beyond replacing corporate data centers. "You won't even have to know about applications or where things happen or what happens," Heath says. "You take the Internet to the next level, where it doesn't just cough up pre-stored data but it creates new knowledge by extracting new information from data." Linking thousands of computers to enhance their speed and power is the key to the global test bed project. Creating a cloud computing system on an Internet scale will involve problems of allocating work with optimal efficiency among various processors, which researchers will explore once the test bed is operating later this year. "We're focused on a large amount of data and a great deal of processing power," Heath says. "For example, the computer must not merely do a symbolic search of a document, it must understand the English semantics of the document and do analysis."
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Even the Pentagon Shares 'Open-Source' Approach
Kansas City Star (09/01/08) Canon, Scott

Minerva is an open source Pentagon effort to pool information on various issues--such as the Chinese military and anti-terror strategies--by asking everyone to contribute and posting the results publicly. The project follows the philosophy that secrecy and classification of data is counterproductive, says Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "In the open source world, respect is earned, not assigned," says Rice University computer scientist Dan Wallach, who recently worked on open source software for voting machines which he thinks will deliver transparency to ballot-counting and make elections more trustworthy. Software development is ideal for open source collaboration, given the massiveness of the challenges and the ability to fragment them into pieces that all kinds of programmers can focus on. The Pentagon, politicians, and other institutions have thrown down the gauntlet to all kinds of people to develop better technologies for applications ranging from remote-controlled unmanned vehicles to a battery that can replace the internal combustion engine through competitions that often offer huge cash prizes. The Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center at Fort Leavenworth is engaged in experiments with blogs to encourage the more open sharing of advice between troops, and is inviting papers from anyone with some deep knowledge about various subjects, including the illegal immigration of Albanians into Kosovo. One of the sticking points of open source collaboration is the potential for concept theft, especially for concepts designed to improve or facilitate business.
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Hotline to the Cowshed
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (09/08)

Scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems IMS in Duisburg have developed a wireless system for monitoring the health of livestock. The wireless measuring system makes use of a tiny sensor that is placed in the rumen of a cow. The pH level and the temperature inside the cow's rumen is wirelessly transmitted to another receiver module attached to the animal's collar, and the data is forwarded to a central database via a network of sensors. A reading below a certain reference value serves as the first sign of disease for a farmer. The wireless measuring system does not need special infrastructure or supervision. Capable of autonomous networking, the system also uses little energy. There are plans to test the wireless measuring system on pilot farms. The developers of the system say the technology could have other uses in agriculture and forestry.
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