Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the April 10, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


French Lawmakers Reject Internet Piracy Bill
Associated Press (04/09/09) Sayare, Scott

French lawmakers have unexpectedly rejected a bill that would have created the world's first surveillance system for Internet piracy, forcing Internet Service Providers to disconnect customers accused of making illegal downloads in certain cases. The proposed law would have allowed music and film industry associations to hire companies to analyze the downloads of individual users to detect piracy, and report violations to a new agency overseeing copyright protection. The agency would have been permitted to use the downloading computer's unique Internet Protocol address to trace illegal downloads to individuals. After the first violation the agency would send a warning by email, while a second violation within three months would warrant a second warning by certified mail, and a third violation within a year would allow the agency to force the service provider to terminate service. Music labels, film distributors, and artists say that the bill is a decisive step toward eliminating online piracy. An earlier version of the bill was passed by the French Senate, but when the bill was presented to a near-empty National Assembly, it was rejected by a vote of 21 to 15. The government plans to resubmit the measure to both houses of parliament after the legislators return on April 27. Some French activists say that the law represents a Big Brother intrusion on civil liberties, and say that users downloading from public Wi-Fi hotspots or masked IP addresses could be impossible to trace.


Yahoo! Partners With Four Top Universities to Advance Cloud Computing Systems and Applications Research
Yahoo! Finance (04/09/09)

Yahoo! has expanded its partnerships with top U.S. universities to advance cloud computing research. The University of California at Berkeley, Cornell University, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst will join Carnegie Mellon University in using Yahoo!'s cloud computing cluster to conduct large-scale systems software research and explore new applications that analyze Internet-scale data sets, ranging from voting records to online news sources. To date, academic researchers have had limited access to Internet-scale supercomputers for conducting systems and applications research. To help alleviate this obstacle, Yahoo! is granting these four universities access to the Yahoo! cloud computing cluster. The Yahoo! cluster, also known as M45, has been operational since November 2007 and in use by Carnegie Mellon. The cluster has approximately 4,000 processor-cores and 1.5 petabytes of disks. "We have been using the Yahoo! cluster for more than a year now and have made significant progress in a number of key research areas, resulting in the publication of more than two dozen academic papers," said Randal E. Bryant, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. "Our researchers were able to extract and process documents from the Web in a way that was not possible before, changing the way we think about research problems." Yahoo!'s M45 cluster runs Hadoop, an open source distributed file system and parallel execution environment that enables its users to process massive amounts of data.


The Hunt for a Universal Compiler Gets $16M
GigaOm.com (04/07/09) Higginbotham, Stacey

Rice University researchers have received a $16 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a universal compiler that can run on heterogeneous hardware and multicore platforms, which are found in supercomputers and embedded systems, such as those used in routers and game consoles. If the effort is successful it could result in software that takes advantage of the underlying hardware to create faster and more energy-efficient computers and devices. As devices evolve, they contain more semiconductors and use more power, and writing code that takes full advantage of the hardware becomes more difficult. Programmers can either customize code running on the heterogeneous hardware or use a compiler that can translate the code into the 0s and 1s the specific type of chip can process. However, developing custom code is time consuming, expensive, and can only be applied to one specific device, so most chipmakers or outside vendors develop compilers for each chip, which can take between three to five years, but can be used with the chip in a variety of devices. The Rice-led project hopes to build a universal compiler that will improve software performance by developing a software suite that maps out the limitations of and capabilities of the hardware it is running on; creating a planned compiler to examine the source code of the application and attempting to automatically partition the source code to run on multicore processors; and creating a runtime tool that measures the performance of the application on the system, and possibly even changes the code on the fly if the software is written for an x86 processor. Rice University professor Keith Cooper says the researchers will have 54 months to achieve this objective.


Researchers Enhance Spam Call Filtering
Helsinki University of Technology (04/02/09)

Helsinki Institute for Information Technology (HIIT) researchers are developing a new system for filtering spam calls for Internet-based telephony. Internet-based telephone services such Skype, which offers free calls using peer-to-peer networks, are rapidly growing in popularity, but they carry with them an increased risk of spam calls. HIIT researchers Joakim Koskela, Juho Heikkila, and Andrei Gurtov have developed a system for filtering calls on peer-to-peer networks with more flexibility. The new system allows users to accept calls from people who are unknown to the user, but are in the contacts of that user's friends, or even friends of those friends, instead of only accepting phone calls from immediate friends or accepting all calls. Users can be alerted about unknown callers before they answer as well. The increased flexibility makes spam call prevention more practical, and makes it easier to filter unwanted calls. The objective of the new system is to implement an application integrating Host Identity Protocol and Peer-to-Peer Session Initiation Protocol, which provides VoIP and IM capabilities using trust chains to prevent spam calls. A challenge the system faces is finding a way to form trust chains from call trace data without violating privacy. HIIT, a joint research institute of the Helsinki University of Technology and the University of Helsinki, focuses on future Internet research and basic and strategic research in information technology.


Demand for H-1B Visas Tumbles
Computerworld (04/08/09) Thibodeau, Patrick

Applications for H-1B visas are down about a third from a year ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency began accepting applications for H-1B visas on April 1, and says the preliminary numbers indicate that petitions from foreign workers with at least a bachelor's degree have fallen by about half, but petitions from graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees are close to reaching the cap for 20,000 visas. Many of the applications from graduates "are likely from people who are already in the workforce and participating in OPT [Optional Practical Training]," says Robert Hoffman, co-chairman of Compete America, a coalition of businesses and universities that wants to increase the H-1B cap. "What the numbers reaffirm is that this is a program that essentially tracks with the broader demand in the economy." Foreign students can apply for an H-1B visa after they graduate in May, so both visa caps could still be reached for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The government received 163,000 H-1B visa petitions for 85,000 visas at this time last year.


Caltech Researchers Train Computers to Analyze Fruit-Fly Behavior
California Institute of Technology (04/07/09)

California Institute of Technology (Caltech) scientists have trained computers to automatically analyze aggression and courtship in fruit flies, allowing researchers to perform large-scale, high-throughput screens for the genes that control these behaviors. The computers can examine a half-hour of video footage of pairs of flies interacting and characterize the behavior of a new line of flies, which could take a biologist more than 100 hours. Using the techniques of machine vision and other engineering advancements, Caltech professor Pietro Perona and postdoctoral scholar Heiko Dankert started training computers to see and recognize aggression and courtship behaviors, creating an automated system that can monitor a variety of behaviors in fruit-fly pairs in only a few minutes. "This is a coming-of-age moment in this field," says Perona. "By choosing among existing machine vision techniques, we were able to put together a system that is much more capable than anything that had been demonstrated before." The pair fed the computer the characteristic details of each individual behavior, and once the computer had mastered those details, the researchers compared the computer's analysis to the analysis done by a human. After repeating this process and correcting errors made by the computer, the computer system is now actually better than humans at detecting some of the various behaviors. The next step is to extend the automatic behavior-detection system to mice.


Quantum Computers Will Require Complex Software to Manage Errors
National Institute of Standards and Technology (04/07/09) Boutin, Chad

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) theorists have demonstrated that a type of software operation, believed to be a solution to the fundamental problems with computer hardware, will not function as originally hoped, adding additional complexity to the development of quantum computers. If quantum computers are ever realized, they will use effects associated with atomic physics to solve enormously complicated problems. Prototype quantum processors have proven to be prone to errors caused by noise from stray electric or magnetic fields. To make error correction more efficient, researchers are designing quantum computing architectures to limit errors, including creating software that does not permit qubits to interact if their errors could compound one another. Quantum software with this property is called "transversal encoded quantum gates." However, the NIST team has proven that this software, which is heavily studied due to its simplicity and robustness against interfering noise, is insufficient for performing arbitrary computations, meaning any software that quantum computers use will have to be far more complicated and resource-intensive to ensure devices work properly. The NIST researchers mathematically proved that transversal gates cannot be used exclusively and that more complex solutions for error management and correction need to be found and deployed.


Keep On Spinning
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (04/01/09) Preuss, Paul

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Materials Science Division researchers have made a major advancement in spintronics by controlling the spin states of highly mobile electrons at different locations in a semiconductor and turning the collective state on and off as desired. This could lead to more efficient spin transistors and other devices, as controlling and measuring the magnetic fields of electrons with aligned spins could allow faster data recovery and lower power consumption. In semiconductors, however, a "gas" of free electrons moving through the crystal lattice reacts to the electric fields of the atoms it encounters. Individual electron spins fluctuate wildly in response to different fields and their orientation quickly becomes random. By creating a two-dimensional electron gas by confining the electrons in a "quantum well," charged particles were forced to travel in a plane. When electrons move through that plane, their interaction with passing atoms causes them to precess, eventually exchanging initial spin-up states for spin-down states. The researchers induced a "helical" spin state in the electron gas and measured how the collective spin state evolved.


Sensitive Robots
Fraunhofer Institute (04/01/09)

Robots are becoming increasingly common in production lines, but are only allowed to be used in certain areas to prevent them from endangering or injuring humans. A new cost-efficient force sensor would make robots safer by allowing them to detect and prevent potential collisions. Developed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicon Technology (ISIT) in Germany, the force and torque sensor sits on the outer joint of a robot's arm. When equipped with the sensor, as soon as a robot even brushes against a person, it immediately retracts its steel arm. "We expect our sensors to be far cheaper than conventional force sensors once they enter mass production," says ISIT department head Jorg Eichholz. "This makes them suitable for wide-scale use." The sensor measures the forces and torques exerted by the robot arm. "It functions in a similar way to a strain gauge.:Its core element is a long wire through which an electric current flows," says Eichholz. "If the wire stretches, it becomes longer and thinner--the resistance increases and so less current flows through it." The sensor is a square piece of silicon with bridges that carry electrical resistances on each side. If the robot arm bumps into an obstacle, the shape of the silicon changes, changing the flow of electricity and causing the robot to stop, even if the silicon shifts by only a few micrometers. By making the sensor out of a single piece of silicon, it is less error-prone than similar systems.


NERSC's Deep Sky Project Provides a Portal into Data Universe
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (03/30/09) Vu, Linda

The National Energy Research Scientific Computing (NERSC) Center receives about 3,000 astronomical files every night from automated sky scanning systems from around the world. The center holds a decade's worth of files comprising more than 8 million images, making it one of the largest collections of ground-based celestial images. A multidisciplinary team of NERSC astronomers, computer scientists, and engineers are working to develop a user-friendly database system and interface to provide high-resolution cosmic reference images to astronomers worldwide. "The whole concept of this project is to efficiently streamline access to massive amounts of data on NERSC's computers, basically providing a nice portal to astronomy data that we have acquired over the years," says Deep Sky project lead Peter Nugent. He outlined a strategy for organizing and delivering data to the astronomical research community, and developed the algorithms that facilitate the database's search capabilities. Nugent says that astronomy is just one of the numerous disciplines supported by NERSC that generate massive amounts of data, either through simulation, observation, or experiments, and that NERSC users simply want to share their data with other researchers around the world. Nugent believes that the Deep Sky project can serve as a model for building other extreme data-serving systems in the future.


World Wide Web Consortium's Ivan Herman Talks About the Semantic Web
Georgia Straight (03/26/09) Hui, Stephen

The Semantic Web could lead to the creation of "mash-ups on steroids," according to Ivan Herman, the World Wide Web Consortium's Semantic Web activity lead. "If... the data was available the same way as documents are available in HTML with links and the same way that the Web of data was there, then mash-up sites could be built easily--much more easily than today--by combining the various types of data together," he reasons. Herman contends that Resource Description Framework (RDF) is the core model of the Semantic Web, and he calls RDF a "very essential technology" because it is capable of adding RDF information to an HTML file and then retrieving the information in RDF. Bridging two relational databases is a challenge that must still be addressed if the Semantic Web is to proliferate, and Herman says one of the as-yet unanswered questions is whether this bridge should be shaped by market forces or standardized. "The practicality of scaling, the practicality of reasoning over large scale, large amounts of data is coming more and more to the fore because there are a number of movements which put public data into RDF," he observes. "But today on the Web, you have billions and billions of triples that are available, and there are applications that begin to make use of those."


A Futurist Weighs in on Techies' Tomorrows
CIO (03/29/09) Daniel, Diann

Technology is not only key to our future but to turning around the economy, says James Canton, CEO of the Institute of Global Futures. According to Canton, IT leaders and tech workers should be focusing on how their employers can use technology as a tool to grow their businesses during these tough times. IT leaders and tech workers have an opportunity to show how Web 2.0 tools such as Second Life, wikis, Twitter, and predictive analysis can be used to serve customers better or manage knowledge, and show how pervasive wireless technology can be exploited. IT leaders will need to think of themselves more as thought leaders and visionaries, align IT with the business strategy, and pursue new ideas that will make the company profitable and give it a competitive edge. To keep companies from cutting IT people and budgets, IT leaders will need to show their bosses how to migrate a customer relationship management platform to a wiki, free up knowledge, or gain a competitive advantage. Canton says different kinds of encryption will be needed to protect systems as they become Web-centric and interoperable, Web 3.0 (driven by the semantic Web) is emerging, and the mashup of geospatial information and GPS could be used with radio-frequency identification. He also says there will be a greater need for data warehousing in the health-care sector, and believes singularity computing and pervasive connected intelligence will emerge.


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