Welcome to the October 17, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Giant Database Plan 'Orwellian'
BBC News (10/15/08)
Britain has proposed creating a central database of all mobile phone and Internet traffic in an effort to fight terrorism and other crimes. Although critics have called the plan "Orwellian," the U.K.'s Secretary of State for the Home Department Jacqui Smith says the data warehouse is necessary to help police and security services deter crime. Smith says the content of conversations would not be stored, just the times and dates of messages and calls. Liberals say the idea is "incompatible with a free country," while the Tories say the government has to justify its plans first. Details on the times, dates, duration, and location of mobile phone calls, numbers called, Web sites visited, and email addresses used are already stored by telecom companies in the U.K. for 12 months under a voluntary agreement. That data can be accessed by the police and security services on request, but the government is looking to take control of the process in part to comply with a European Union directive. Information would be kept for two years, and would be held centrally on a searchable database. Smith says without increasing the capacity to store data, police and security services will have to consider a significant expansion of surveillance practices. "Our ability to intercept communications and obtain communications data is vital to fighting terrorism and combating serious crime," Smith says.
E-Voting Report: Several States Still Vulnerable
IDG News Service (10/16/08) Gross, Grant
Several U.S. states are not doing enough to ensure the accuracy of electronic-voting machines, concludes a report from three voting security advocacy groups, which gave 10 states inadequate grades in three out of four safeguard categories. The report, released by Common Cause, Verified Voting, and the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, predicts that some voting systems will fail on election day. "Unfortunately, we don't know where," the report says. "For this reason, it is imperative that every state prepare for system failures." Verified Voting president Pamela Smith says that state protections against voting fraud and e-voting machine failure have improved greatly since the last U.S. presidential election in 2004, but several states still refuse to take basic precautions to protect the integrity of voting systems. Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia all received failing grades in three of four voting security areas. Of the 24 states using direct-recording electronic machines, only California, Indiana, and Ohio received satisfactory grades in all four categories. Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia have no state-mandated requirement for emergency paper ballots to be available in precincts that use e-voting machines should those machines fail. Eighteen states, including Florida, New York, Texas, and Virginia, do not have adequate requirements in place for paper-record backups to e-voting or other non-paper methods, and 27 states do not have adequate provisions in place for conducting post-election audits of voting results.
FCC Moves to Open Up Idle Airwaves for Gadgets
Wall Street Journal (10/16/08) P. B1; Schatz, Amy
A U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report has found that new wireless devices that take advantage of vacant TV spectrum provide only minimal interference to TV broadcasters, paving the way for a vote on the issue next month. The devices, still in development, would use the unlicensed, vacant TV airwaves known as white space. FCC chairman Kevin Martin says companies would be able to access the white space to develop new and innovative wireless gadgets, using the airwaves as a low-cost method for creating a broadband connection. The FCC decision is a victory for high-tech companies, which say access to the airwaves could lead to a revolution in wireless services, similar to when the FCC reserved different airwaves that are now used for Wi-Fi networking. Station owners and users of wireless microphones oppose the plan, saying the new gadgets could cause interference, and argue that the open airwaves should be auctioned off, instead of being given away for free use, which is the FCC's current plan. Google lawyer Richard Whitt says now is the time for the FCC to put the power of better and faster broadband into the hands of innovators and entrepreneurs. It is still too soon to say exactly how the airwaves will be used, but high-tech companies and consumer electronics manufacturers say there are plenty of options, including providing cheap yet powerful wireless Internet access.
Computer Programmers Probe Latest Software Trends at OOPSLA
AScribe Newswire (10/15/08)
Software technologists from around the world will gather at ACM's 2008 Object-Oriented Programming, Systems, Languages, and Applications (OOPSLA) conference to discuss the newest trends in improving programming languages, refining the process of software development, and exploring new programming paradigms. In addition to its traditional focus on object orientation, OOPSLA also will focus on how software programming is embedded in other disciplines. The OOPSLA conference, which takes place October 19-23 at the Nashville Convention Center in Nashville, Tenn., will include international speakers, interactive panel discussions, research papers, and demonstrations. Some of the topics to be presented include agile software development and other developmental techniques for programming languages, embedded development, and Web services. Unorthodox subjects such as archeology, anthropology, and astronomy, also will be addressed. OOPSLA's keynote speakers include Egyptologist Mark Lehner, who will discuss the infrastructure that supported the construction of the great pyramids at Giza, including the social and architectural modularity of provisioning large workforces. Keynote speaker Lancaster University professor Lucy Suchman will discuss methods for understanding how people work together and how to use such observations to better support their work.
NASA Completes Remote Fix of Hubble's Failed Computer
Computerworld (10/15/08) Gaudin, Sharon
NASA engineers and scientists have completed a remote computer switchover in the Hubble Space Telescope, from a failed computer to an onboard backup system. Hubble operations deputy project manager Keith Kalinowski says NASA will not know if the switchover was successful until they can demonstrate that the redundant system is communicating with the instruments and is able to relay data to the ground. Hubble Space Telescope program executive Michael Moore says this is the first Hubble computer malfunction that required installing a replacement system, and this computer problem is the worst that Hubble has suffered since it went into orbit more than 18 years ago. The problem was in the Science Data Formatter, which is designed to take information from five onboard instruments, format the information into data packets, put a header on the packets, and send them to Earth. Without this computer, Hubble would have been unable to continue long-planned research projects. A planned October space shuttle mission to the telescope was postponed so scientists can prepare another system to be installed as the next redundant system. The flight will likely be rescheduled for February or April.
Computing With RNA
Technology Review (10/17/08) Graham-Rowe
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) researchers Christina Smolke and Maung Nyan Win have created molecular computers that can self-assemble from strips of RNA within living cells. The Weizmann Institute of Science's Ehud Shapiro says the research creates the possibility of computing devices capable of responding to specific conditions within a cell, and could lead to drug delivery systems that target cancer cells by sensing genes used to regulate cell growth and death. Smolke and Win's biocomputers are built using three main components--sensors, actuators, and transmitters--all made from RNA. The input sensors are made from RNA molecules that act like antibodies, binding tightly to specific targets. The actuators are made of ribozymes, complex RNA molecules that have catalytic properties similar to enzymes. These two components are combined with another RNA molecule that serves as a transmitter. It is activated when a sensor molecule recognizes an input chemical and triggers an actuator molecule. By combining RNA molecules in certain ways, the researchers demonstrated that they can get them to behave like different types of logic gates. Smolke says the modular molecules have a plug-and-play like capability, which allows them to be combined in different ways and could potentially be used to detect thousands of different metabolic or protein inputs.
Stanford Finds Ways to Overcome Obstacles Associated With Free Online Courseware
Tufts Daily (10/10/08) Duffy, Mitchell
Stanford University's Stanford Engineering Everywhere (SEE) is a digital rendition of courses that the university provides to both enrolled students and the public free of charge. The videos are actual in-class lectures, and the available assignments are the same as those used in Stanford's classrooms. Other universities, including Tufts, have made course materials available to the public online through a program called OpenCourseWare (OCW), which contains tools including lecture notes, video tutorials, and assignment sheets. However, OCW does not provide the same amount of comprehensive course materials as SEE and other programs. In fact, OCW posts a warning at the bottom of each course page that says the course presented online does not contain the full content of the course as taught at Tufts. OCW attempts to mimic the experience of physically taking a class by providing students with virtual access to necessary information, but the program lacks the ability to provide an interactive forum in which students can ask questions. Stanford's SEE program offers online communities based on the various courses. Stanford's David Orenstein compares the course communities to social networking sites. SEE operates under the Creative Commons License, which means that permission has been obtained for all material used in each class, and students can take and reuse content as long as they acknowledge Stanford as its source.
Smart Fabrics, the New Black
ICT Results (10/15/08)
The European Union's SFIT is a research cluster aimed at solving the technological challenges to developing smart textiles and intelligent fabrics. SFIT cluster coordinator Jean Luprano says the SFIT cluster was formed because there were many European projects researching new types of smart fabrics and it was necessary to share expertise and find a way to avoid repeating each other's work. "Often the work of one project could help another, even if they were not working on the same area," Luprano says. "Many of the underlying objectives are the same, like connectivity, wearability, and ensuring the fabric is accepted by users." SFIT's initiatives include the Context project, which is researching contactless sensors for the prevention of lower back pain and repetitive strain syndrome. The Proetex project is focused on developing a system to monitor rescue workers such as firefighters from outside the environment, while the Sweet project is developing stretchable and washable electronics for embedding in textiles. Optical fibers are a promising technology for smart clothing because of their flexibility and their ability to not only use light as an information carrier but as a sensor in itself.
Researchers Teach Computers to Search for Photos Based on Content
Penn State Live (10/08/08) Kennedy, Barbara
Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers have developed Automatic Linguistic Indexing of Pictures in Real-Time (ALIPR), image-retrieval software that teaches computers to recognize the contents of photographs without using keywords. PSU professor Jai Li says the researchers first manually tagged approximately 60,000 photos with a variety of keywords that described their content. "For example, we might select 100 photos of national parks and tag them with the following keywords: national park, landscape, and tree," Li says. "We then would build a statistical model to teach the computer to recognize patterns in color and texture among these 100 photos and to assign our keywords to new photos that seem to contain national parks, landscapes, and/or trees. Eventually, we hope to reverse the process so that a person can use the keywords to search the Web for relevant images." Li says ALIPR can assign at least one accurate keyword to photos about 90 percent of the time, but she says the accuracy rate depends on the evaluator. "It depends on how specific the evaluator expects the approach to be," Li says. "For example, ALIPR often distinguishes people from animals, but rarely distinguishes children from adults." The researchers are working to improve ALIPR's accuracy, and the public can help by visiting a designated Web site, uploading photographs, and evaluating whether the keywords that ALIPR uses to describe photographs are appropriate.
Tools That Will Discreetly Tap a Shoulder to Offer Help
Financial Times Digital Business (10/08/08) P. 4; Branscombe, Mary
Microsoft Research's Adaptive Systems and Interaction group is developing interruption-alerting technology. "We want to build our applications to be courteous and intelligent about the nature and timing of interruptions," says Microsoft researcher Eric Horvitz. "We need a better alerting model that understands how busy you are and when to defer alerts till later." Horvitz uses tools so that when he is in a meeting only the right people can interrupt. These tools prioritize messages and contacts and predict how busy Horvitz is going to be based on his calendar and working habits. One tool learns who to respond to immediately and who to put off, while another uses economic models for the value of information and the cost of being interrupted. The tools combine into a notification platform that acts as a virtual receptionist, postponing email alerts and calendar reminders until Horvitz finishes an important task, and redirecting calls and instant messages that it perceives as interruptions. Horvitz's group is working closely with the team developing Outlook to manage alerts using such methods, and Microsoft's Office Communicator team is using these tools to build a better model of "presence" to determine how to route messages to users in the right way at the right time. Horvitz wants to advance such systems to the point that they can help users work on long-term projects by scheduling time to work on the projects and automatically bringing up resources they are likely to use.
Missing Person: Computer Program Searches for Right Person in Organizations and Networks
Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) (09/26/08)
Dutch Ph.D. student Krisztian Balog has developed a computer program that accelerates the process of finding a person in an organization's network and makes it easier to search for specific people on the Internet. Balog focuses on searching and finding people within companies and organizations, which could be useful for businesses when, for example, a manager needs to quickly determine who has previously worked on a certain project. Human-resources departments also could use the system to learn more about job applicants. Balog's Ph.D. thesis focuses on two methods of information disclosure. The first is compiling a list of experts for a subject, while the second is making a list of subjects per expert. Balog's program automatically links the information found in online texts to a person to compile a list of subjects for a person. The program then selects the person that can satisfy the criteria of the search query. Balog combines generative language models with learning algorithms. The language models expose patterns in the language use in regards to persons and subjects, while the learning algorithms recognize people and organizations in texts. Currently, the method can only be used within organizations, but the technology could be adapted for finding people on the Internet.
California Scientists Demonstrate How to Use Advanced Fiber-Optic Backbone for Research
UCSD News (10/09/08) Ramsey, Doug
The Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC) recently held a two-day workshop to demonstrate end-to-end advanced scientific applications enabled by the California Research & Education Network's (CalREN's) high-performance, fiber-optic infrastructure. CENIC president Jim Dolgonas says the workshop was designed to educate researchers in a variety of disciplines surrounding cyberinfrastructure technology to enable new ways of conducting scientific research. CalREN is a fiber-optic network that stretches 2,700 miles and connects every public K-20 research and education institute in California, as well as many private and independent institutions. California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology professor Falko Kuester demonstrated a prototype application called HIPerVerse, which allows two of the world's highest resolution, distributed visualization systems to be interconnected into ultra-resolution environments at the pixel level. Another demonstration involved the multichannel streaming of cinematic sound, employing a never-before-used technique. University of California, San Diego professor Peter Otto says previous experiments used transport control of a distant audio workstation, a bandwidth intensive approach, but the new approach uses the network to send device-control streams to distant workstations and receive status updates at the lowest latency possible, achieving seemingly instantaneous control of any audio parameter at the source.
Feds, Industry Announce Center for Identity Management Research
GovExec.com (10/07/08) Aitoro, Jill R.
Security leaders from government, academia, and corporations have formed the Center for Applied Identity Management Research in an effort to improve how government and industry organizations control access to information and data stored in networks. The new center will study ways of improving the practice of identity management, the ability to verify computer users' identities, and how to safely store sensitive information on a network. The Office of Management and Budget recently reported that the number of federal network information security incidents more than doubled in fiscal 2007, while federal networks have experienced a 70 percent increase in unauthorized access. The center's backers, including IBM, Lockheed Martin, Indiana University, and the U.S. Secret Service, revealed several areas of research the center will focus on. Public safety research will focus on cybercrime, organized criminal groups, and detecting sexual predators. National security efforts will focus on cybersecurity, cyberdefense, human trafficking and illegal immigration, and terrorist tracking and financing. Financial and corporate fraud research will focus on mortgage fraud, data breaches, and insider threats. Finally, individual protection research will focus on identity theft and fraud. The research objective will be to develop strategies and policies for protecting data and personal privacy to ensure individual civil liberties are respected.
Scientist: Holographic Television to Become Reality
CNN (10/07/08) Steere, Mike
University of Arizona professor Nasser Peyghambarian says that scientists have made a breakthrough in rewritable and erasable holographic systems, a development that could lead to the creation of three-dimensional (3D) holographic displays. Peyghambarian says the breakthrough came when scientists made the first updateable 3D displays with memory. He says the discovery is a prerequisite for any type of moving holographic technology, but it is not presently suitable for 3D images. The researchers produced displays that can be erased and rewritten in a matter of minutes, but to create TV sets with the technology, the images would need to change several times every second. However, Peyghambarian is optimistic that this will happen. He believes that much of the difficulty in creating a holographic TV has now been overcome. "It took us a while to make that first breakthrough, but as soon as you have the first element of it working the rest often comes more rapidly," he says. "What we are doing now is trying to make the model better." Holographic TV could be constructed as a screen on the wall, like flat-panel displays that show 3D images, with all the image-writing lasers behind the wall, or it could be a horizontal panel on a table with the technology underneath the surface.
Robot Suit for Rent in Japan to Help People Walk
Associated Press (10/07/08) Kageyama, Yuri
HAL (hybrid assistive limb), a new robot suit designed by Japan's Cyberdyne, can help people with mobility problems walk and could be especially helpful for the disabled and elderly. Yoshiyuki Sankai, a University of Tsukuba professor and chief executive of the company, designed the 22-pound battery-operated computer system, which is belted to the waist. The computerized suit includes sensors that are capable of capturing brain signals and directing the movement of limbs through the skin. Users strap mechanical braces to their thighs and knees. University of Sheffield professor Noel Sharkey says HAL could have wide-ranging benefits for the elderly and others with movement disabilities. "HAL can only lead to extending the abilities of the elderly and keep them out of care for longer," Sharkey says.
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