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ACM TechNews
September 24, 2008

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Welcome to the September 24, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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How Wall Street Lied to Its Computers
New York Times (09/18/08) Hansell, Saul

Most Wall Street computer models radically underestimated the risk of complex mortgage securities, partially because the level of financial distress is "the equivalent of the 100-year flood," says Capital Market Risk Advisors president Leslie Rahl. Rahl, and others, say that the people who ran the financial firms chose to program their risk-management systems with overly optimistic assumptions and to provide those systems with oversimplified data, preventing the systems from detecting the problem before it was too late. Top bankers cannot simply ignore computer models, because after the last round of significant financial losses, regulators required financial institutions to monitor their risk positions. If a model says a firm's risk has increased, the firm must either reduce its risk or provide more capital as a cushion should things turn south. "There was a willful designing of the system to measure the risks in a certain way that would not necessarily pick up all the right risks," says RiskMetrics' Gregg Berman. "They wanted to keep their capital base as stable as possible so that the limits they imposed on their trading desks and portfolio managers would be stable." Berman says one way this was accomplished was to make sure the computer models looked at several years of trading history instead of just the last few months, which made the computers slow to report that risk had increased as defaults started to rise because the markets had been placid for several years.
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IBM Considers Quitting Standards Bodies
Wall Street Journal (09/23/08) P. B9; Forelle, Charles

IBM says it may withdraw from some of the groups that set common standards for the technology industry. Company officials say IBM has become frustrated by what it considers to be an opaque process and poor decision making at some of the hundreds of bodies that set technical standards for a variety of technologies. IBM controls a vast amount of intellectual property in the high-tech field, and its contributions and agreement often are critical to the formation of a standard. IBM is reacting in part to the recent decision by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to approve Microsoft's Open XML as an office document standard. IBM supported a rival format called Open Document that was previously certified as an ISO standard. IBM vice president Bob Sutor, IBM's top standards official, says there are other problems with standards groups beyond the office-documents area, citing high membership fees that discourage small companies and organizations, complicated intellectual-property policies, and opaque procedures. Sutor singled out Ecma International, a Geneva-based group IBM helped form more than 45 years ago, for particular criticism for certifying Open XML despite IBM's objection. Ecma secretary-general Istvan Sebestyen says he was "really amazed" at Sutor's contention that Ecma certification could be unduly influenced, and that he has not formally heard from IBM about any intention to withdraw.
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New Study Examines Diversity in STEM Fields
Diverse Online (09/18/08) Delos, Robin Chen

Executives at Fortune 1000 companies say a shortage of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workers is threatening to push the United States out of its position as a global leader and key innovator in STEM fields. A new Bayer Corp. study found that most executives agree that more minorities and women are needed to solve the talent deficient. In STEM fields, Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians account for only 8 percent of employees, and women account for 20 percent of employees. Executives blame the pre-college school system for the low representation of women and minorities in science and technology fields. Mae Jemison, who was the first Black women in space, agrees that grade school experiences play a major role in determining how many women and minorities pursue science and technology careers. Nearly all of the executives surveyed said the best way for students to learn science is through a hands-on approach. Jemison says that every child finds science fascinating, but as they go through school that excitement is squashed because science is not taught in an exploratory way. High school teacher Hau Tran says the solution is to introduce more science in elementary and middle school to give kids a stronger interest in the fields at a younger age. However, teachers are not the only ones responsible for improving the number of women and minorities in STEM fields. Jemison says the STEM industry as a whole must do more to develop and recruit diverse workers.
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Robots Put Human Ingenuity to Test
West Australian (09/24/08) Maier, Alex

The National Robocup Junior competition in Perth, Australia, recently brought nearly 50 teams of primary and secondary students from Australia, China, and Singapore together to test their robots in soccer and dance competitions and in rescue operations. The event exposes younger students to a higher level of computer science, design, and technology, says Robocup Junior WA chairwoman Helen Deacon. For the soccer competition, the teams were charged with building fully autonomous humanoid robots that could defeat a team of human soccer players. Similarly, the teams had to use robotics and artificial intelligence to create sophisticated dance steps for robots, which also had to keep time with the music. The student teams also had their robots navigate various obstacles as they rescued a "person" from an oil spill. "Seeing the students using their own initiative to create something unique is fantastic and of course it's a lot of fun to bring robots to life in the real world," says event coordinator Craig Bloxsome.
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New Music Software Can Create Accompaniment to Any Melody, in Style of Any Artist
University of Southern California (09/17/08)

Two University of Southern California (USC) researchers have developed the Automatic Style Specific Accompaniment (ASSA) system, software that creates appropriate musical accompaniment in the style of any chosen artist. USC professor Elaine Chew, an accomplished pianist, and recent Ph.D. graduate Ching-Hua Chuan, an accomplished guitarist, starting working on ASSA two years ago. They say the goal of the ASSA project was to create an automatic system that makes songwriting accessible to both experts and novices, is able to identify the features important to the style specified by the user, and allow the user to ask for harmonization similar to particular songs. The ASSA system looks at a tree of possible accompanying chords, first determining the chord tones in the melody, and then applies machine-learning techniques to choose the chord tones from the input melody based on the example pieces. The chords are then prescribed at checkpoints in the melody to build chord progressions between the checkpoints. An initial study took four songs from the band Radiohead and applied the rules derived from analyzing three of the songs to generate an accompaniment for the bare melody of the fourth. ASSA was 82 percent accurate on a 54-note sample on one trial and 70.5 percent accurate on a 61-note sample on another trial using a different song.
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More Evidence that Autonomous Agents Are Emerging From the Laboratory
University of Southampton (ECS) (09/24/08) Lewis, Joyce

Talal Rahwan from the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) has won this year's British Computer Society Distinguished Dissertation Competition for developing new algorithms that enable agents to coordinate their activities more efficiently. The algorithms offer improvements on execution time, solutions quality, and memory requirements. A year ago, another ECS researcher, Rajdeep Dash, won the competition for his study into the way agents are used by auctions to manage supply chains. "The fact that dissertations on autonomous agent-based systems have won the British Computer Distinguished Dissertation Competition two years running is firm evidence that our agents are leaving the laboratory and are ready to be used in industry," says ECS professor Nick Jennings. "We are now moving towards practical devices that support the effective coordination and formation of teams of first responders in major disaster response scenarios."
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As Text Messages Fly, Danger Lurks
New York Times (09/20/08) P. A1; Steinhauer, Jennifer; Holson, Laura M.

Even as the use of text messaging explodes, it is increasingly being criticized because of the danger it can pose to distracted users and those around them. A significant amount of anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of fatal accidents resulting from texting while driving, crossing the street, or similar activities is on the rise. Futurist Paul Saffo says the act of texting automatically removes 10 IQ points. "You don't want to do mushroom hunting and bird watching at the same time, and it is the same with texting and other activities," Saffo says. "We have all seen people walk into parking meters or walk into traffic and seem startled by oncoming cars." In a backlash against text messaging, the California Public Utilities Commission announced an emergency measure on Thursday temporarily banning the use of all mobile devices by anyone controlling a moving train. The ban was adopted after federal investigators announced that they were exploring the possibility that a train engineer's text messaging may have played a role in the U.S.'s most deadly commuter rail accident in four decades. California also is considering banning text messaging while driving, which already is illegal in several other states. Meanwhile, the National Collegiate Athletic Association recently upheld a 2007 ban on all text messaging by coaches to student recruits, arguing that it is unprofessional, intrusive, and expensive. And Verizon recently started offering a service that blocks texting during certain times of the day, to help parents control their children's texting habits.
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'Cognitive Radios' to Improve Wireless Devices
iTnews Australia (09/16/08) Tay, Liz

Software-controlled digital electronic circuits could enable cognitive radios to adapt to situations, similar to the way cell phones sign onto different networks while roaming. Cognitive radios, based on software-defined radio technology, could be used in public safety devices and wireless networks. "A cognitive radio is aware of its environment, its own capabilities, the rules within which it can operate, and its operator's needs and privileges," says Virginia Tech professor Charles W. Bostian. "It is capable of learning in the process and of developing configurations that its designer never anticipated." For example, cognitive radios could allow radios to automatically locate unused frequencies, share channels based on a priority system, or provide interoperability between various signals and automatically adjust radio performance. Developers still need to lower the cost and improve the battery life of cognitive radios. Researchers expect the technology to hit the market in five years, and to become commonplace in 10 years.
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Award Will Lay Groundwork for Next Generation Computers
Georgia Institute of Technology (09/17/08) Vogel, Abby

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Karsten Schwan has received a 2008 HP Labs Innovation Research Award to help solve some of the problems in developing exascale machines, which would be capable of processing more than a million trillion calculations per second. "The need for exascale-sized machines is well established," Schwan says. "With exascale machines, weather simulations will be able to operate at finer resolution, biologists will be able to model more complex systems, and businesses will be able to run and manage many applications at the same time on a single large machine." Schwan says exascale computing will be reached by combining common chips, such as quad-core processors, with special purpose chips, such as graphics accelerators. Such a strategy comes with challenges, specifically how to efficiently run programs on these heterogeneous multi-core chips. Exascale machines also need to be able to simultaneously run multiple systems and applications on a single platform, while guaranteeing that they will not interfere with each other. Virtualization may help solve this problem by hiding some of the underlying computer architecture issues from the applications. "This future virtualized and managed exascale system will guarantee some level of service even when parts of the machine get too loaded or too hot or fail, since applications can be moved while they are running," Schwan says.
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Mobile Video Communication From a Mountain Top
Umea University (Sweden) (09/18/08) Wikman, Karin

Ulrik Soderstrom from the Digital Media Lab at Umea University has developed a method that enables high-quality mobile video to be transmitted over any kind of connection. The approach focuses on key areas, such as a person's mouth and eyes, and uses a model of the person's face to reconstruct the image in a way that reduces storage space. The video can be transmitted at speeds as low as 5 kbps, which is comparable to audio via regular cellular phone networks that need almost 10 kbps. Soderstrom currently uses a backpack with a video camera mounted on a bar in front of the person wearing the backpack or mounts a small camera on a helmet, but envisions future equipment being so small that such mobile video communication would be almost hands free. He says users will be able to transmit HDTV-quality videos over regular cellular phone networks.
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Team Bests Young Bill Gates With Improved Answer to So-Called Pancake Problem in Mathematics
University of Texas at Dallas (09/17/08)

A new paper from a team of University of Texas (UT) at Dallas computer science students and their faculty adviser discusses a better solution to the pancake problem. Arranging a stack of different-sized flapjacks, using the fewest flips, so that the smallest is on top and they increase in size all the way to the bottom, is a theoretical issue. But the pancake problem could potentially impact computing power. Processors could be configured in a pancake network to increase its power, and using the smallest number of steps to reorder the pancakes is synonymous with computing the shortest path between any two processors in the network. "So our paper gives a way to compute a shorter route in such a network," says UT professor Hal Sudborough.
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University Students Create a Virtual RFID-Enabled Hospital
RFID Journal (09/16/08) Bacheldor, Beth

University of Arkansas (UA) researchers are testing radio frequency identification (RFID) technology for use in the health care industry. UA professor Craig Thompson and his students created a digital hospital in Second Life to model and test the technology. The project is connected to the University of Arkansas' Center for Innovation in Healthcare Logistics and the RFID Research Center. The Center for Innovation in Healthcare Logistics includes an interdisciplinary team of researchers who investigate supply chain networks and information and logistics systems for use in health care. While attending SimU 2007, a conference on digital gaming, massive multiplayer online games, and social networking, Thompson got the idea to explore virtual worlds and ubiquitous computing as a model for efficient operations. "It occurred to me that maybe we could build virtual RFID, so I challenged my students," Thompson says. "In the real world, to try out RFID in a hospital, you often have to hire a contractor to come in with a design and estimates, then lay it out and test it, and perhaps it works or doesn't work." The virtual world will enable hospitals to model their environments in great detail, depicting everything from rooms to beds and wheelchairs, and even doctors and patients. Eventually, Thompson would like the project to move beyond modeling so the system can be utilized as a tool by actual health care organizations.
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Group Pushes Internet Protocol for Sensor Nets
EE Times (09/16/08) Merritt, Rick

The newly created IP for Smart Objects Alliance (IPSO) is developing an interoperability standard for running IPv6 on networks based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard. Advocates say Internet Protocol can be used to link sensor and other simple networks directly to the Internet, but some developers say that sophisticated programming techniques would be needed to pack IPv6 into the memory and power requirements of sensor nets. "The technical people like [IP] because it means they don't have to build translation gateways, but the business people wanted to see an ecosystem of companies behind it," says IPSO Chairman Geoff Mulligan. An interoperability program could be set up by November, and initial tests will involve the interoperability of the 10 or more 6LoWPAN software stacks that have been released to date. All of the pieces for IP sensor nets are now available, but there has been only a handful of pilot programs. "Most of these organizations deploy on TCP/IP today and they also see 6LowPAN as an easy extension to this architecture," says analyst George West.
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reCAPTCHA: Human-Based Character Recognition via Web Security Measures
Science (09/12/08) Vol. 321, No. 5895, P. 1465; von Ahn, Luis; Maurer, Benjamin; McMillen, Colin

The reCAPTCHA project employs CAPTCHAs to help digitize scanned typeset texts by having people decipher the words that computers are incapable of recognizing, says Carnegie Mellon University's Luis von Ahn and colleagues. CAPTCHAs are distorted word puzzles that humans can successfully solve but current computer programs cannot, and they are used to prevent the abuse of online services by automated programs. Von Ahn notes that reCAPTCHA "is used by more than 40,000 Web sites and demonstrates that old print material can be transcribed, word by word, by having people solve CAPTCHAs throughout the World Wide Web." ReCAPTCHA provides the user with two words, the one for which the answer is unknown and a second "control" word for which the answer is known. A correctly typed control word causes the system to assume that the user is human and confidently conclude that he also typed the other word correctly. ReCAPTCHA accounts for human error in the digitization process by sending every unrecognizable or suspicious word to multiple users, each time with a different random distortion. The authors have learned from a large-scale implementation of the reCAPTCHA system that deciphering words using CAPTCHAs can match the highest-quality guarantee provided by dedicated human transcription services. Von Ahn and colleagues conclude that reCAPTCHA clearly shows that "'wasted' human processing power can be harnessed to solve problems that computers cannot yet solve."
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Preserving Digital Data for the Future of eScience
Science News (08/30/08) Vol. 74, No. 5, P. 32; Szalay, Alex

Libraries and other archives have been struggling to preserve diverse digital media, and scientists are falling behind the curve in protecting digital data, threatening the ability to create new findings from existing data or validate research analysis, writes Johns Hopkins University professor Alex Szalay. Scientific data approximately doubles every year, largely due to the availability of successive new generations of inexpensive sensors and faster computers. Such progress has essentially created an industrial revolution in the collecting of digital data for science. However, every year it takes longer to analyze a week's worth of data because the ability to perform software analysis has not kept pace. Extracting knowledge has become increasingly more difficult, with new indexes needed to help search through the accumulating mountains of data. Data in many areas are growing so fast there is no time to send data to a central repository. Instead, data is quickly stored in an increasingly anarchic system. New information management systems are needed to process and calibrate, transform, reorganize, analyze, and publish data and scientific findings. Szalay says that once such huge data sets are created, people will find new ways of mining them in previously unimagined ways. For example, he says the Sloan Digital Sky Survey provides account holders with the ability to extract, customize, and modify the data they use. Instead of physically looking at the sky through telescopes, people can examine the data collected from some portion of the sky and analyze what they "see" in the virtual universe. Szalay says the key to success is the need for a new paradigm in publishing in which people collaborate to publish raw data.
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