Welcome to the June 17, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
E-Mail Surveillance Renews Concerns in Congress
New York Times (06/16/09) Risen, James; Lichtblau, Eric
A National Security Agency (NSA) operation involving surveillance of American residents' communications, especially domestic emails, is fueling debate in the U.S. Congress about its legal and logistical ramifications, with current and former officials calling such monitoring much broader than previously admitted. Emails have been a particularly thorny issue for the NSA because of technological problems in drawing a distinction between messages by U.S. citizens and foreigners. Several former intelligence officials note that email traffic from all over the world is frequently channeled through U.S.-based Internet service providers, and when the NSA monitors a foreign email address, it does not know when the person using that address will send messages to someone inside the United States. A representative of national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair says that due to the complicated nature of surveillance and the need to comply with the rules of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and "other relevant laws and procedures, technical or inadvertent errors can occur." Agency advocates say the process of collecting millions of electronic messages by computer inevitably leads to the examination of innocent emails. Such messages are supposed to be filtered out, but critics say the NSA is not doing a good enough job in this area. An anonymous former NSA analyst verifies that the agency used a secret database that archived foreign and domestic emails and enabled analysts to read large volumes of messages to and from U.S. citizens, provided they fell within certain parameters and the citizens were not explicitly targeted in the queries. Officials acknowledge that the massive over-collection of U.S. citizens' communications can lead to a substantial number of privacy infringements, which has raised alarms in both the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and Congress.
China Backpedals on Filtering Software Order
Associated Press (06/17/09) Olesen, Alexa
China has backed down on its mandate that all personal computers sold within its borders come with pre-installed Internet-filtering software. The software, called Green Dam Youth Escort, will still come with all PCs sold on the mainland beginning July 1, but computer users will not be required to install it. The software attracted heavy criticism in the form of legal challenges, petitions, and satirical cartoons. Beijing lawyer Li Fangping submitted a request to the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology demanding a public hearing on the "legitimacy and rationality" of forcing computer makers to include the software with every unit sold. Chinese blogger Yang Hengjun says the Internet plays a major part in the lives of Chinese citizens and allows them to criticize the government in a way that was not possible before. For example, the Internet played a central role in exposing recent scandals that were particularly dangerous, including the contamination of infant formula with industrial chemicals and the structural deficiencies of Chinese schools. China has the world's most extensive system of Web monitoring and censorship, and continues to impose more regulations in response to blogging and online communications, but the Internet is still far more open than the country's strictly controlled print and TV media. Critics argue that even packaging the software with new computers will lead to greater self-censorship among Chinese net users because they will fear that the program may secretly be running in the background.
IBM Awarded DARPA Funding for Cognitive Computing Collaboration
Frontier India (06/15/09)
IBM Research and five universities are working together to create computing systems that will simulate and emulate the brain's abilities in sensation, perception, action, interaction, and cognition. The project has been awarded $4.9 million by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as part of the first phase of DARPA's Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics initiative. IBM's proposal, "Cognitive Computing via Synaptronics and Supercomputing (C2S2)," emphasizes research in areas such as synaptronics, material science, neuromorphic circuitry, supercomputing simulations, and virtual environments. Initially, the researchers will focus on nanoscale, low-power synapse-like devices, and on uncovering the functional microcircuits in the brain. The long-term objective of the C2S2 project is to demonstrate low-power and compact-cognitive computers that rival mammalian intelligence. "We believe that our cognitive computing initiative will help shape the future of computing in a significant way, bringing to bear new technologies that we haven't even begun to imagine," says IBM Almaden Research Center's Josephine Cheng. The IBM-led project's ultimate objective is to rival the brain's low power consumption and small size using nanoscale devices for synapses and neurons. IBM says the research and resulting technology could lead to entirely new computing architectures and programming paradigms.
Navy Wants Proposals on Cyber Research
Federal Computer Week (06/15/09) Bain, Ben
The U.S. Navy has posted an announcement online seeking new models of computation and system architectures for cooperative cyberdefense, as well as research on controlling systems to produce trustworthy results. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) also is interested in research from industry and academia on metrics for comparing computation in networked environments; automated ways to define architectures for embedded real-time systems; and critical principles for new host architectures, focused on information assurance, manageability, and agility. The Navy plans to use the research for a large-scale and always-on information infrastructure that would be highly mobile and dynamic, and operate across many networks. ONR also is interested in research on "cyberphysical interaction spaces" caused by advances in networking and software-enabled devices. "ONR believes that significant fundamental advances can be achieved through research at the intersection of computer science, the natural sciences, and social sciences," according to the announcement. "There are many research opportunities and challenges we anticipate in this area." Researchers have until Aug. 27, 2009, to submit full proposals for approximately $14.5 million in awards.
ACM Announces Advanced Web Analytics Software for Library Community
AScribe Newswire (06/15/09)
ACM recently announced that it will provide its corporate and academic library customers with an enhanced Web analytics platform that will measure the use of the ACM Digital Library full-text and bibliographic databases. The platform, which will be released in July and provided by Scholarly iQ, will enable librarians to access past and current usage statistics and receive COUNTER usage reports that comply with the industry standard for measuring the online usage data of scholarly journals. The platform also features a Web services framework to provide greater flexibility in library access to ACM's electronic resource usage data. "This next generation platform is a major advance for ACM Digital Library users who rely on its vast information resources to support their research and educational programs," says ACM Group Publisher Scott Delman. Scholarly iQ CEO Gary Van Overborg says the self-service platform will enable librarians to create custom reports that fit COUNTER Release 3 standards, and automate the download and delivery of this information to stakeholders within the library system.
Weta Finds Way to Manipulate Real Facial Expressions
New Zealand Press Association (06/01/09)
Researchers from Weta Digital and universities in the United Kingdom and the United States have developed software for "cloning" facial expressions. The researchers examined established assumptions about human behavior and influences on behavior when communicating by tracking the expressions of individuals during live conversations through videoconferencing and mapping the facial movements to model faces. The researchers found that facial expressions and head movements can be manipulated in real time to alter the apparent expressiveness, identity, race, and even gender of someone communicating through videoconferencing. "These visual cues can be manipulated such that neither participant in the conversation is aware of the manipulation," the researchers say. The software is now being tested by psychologists interested in challenging preconceived assumptions about how humans behave while communicating. Previous research found that speakers move their head differently when speaking to a women than when speaking to a man, and the new software has helped show that this difference is not because of the woman's or man's appearance, but because women and men move their head differently when being spoken to. "If a person appears to be a woman but moves like a man, others will respond with movements similar to those made when speaking to a man," the researchers say. "This exciting new technology allows us to manipulate faces in this way for the first time."
Semantic Web Set for Critical Mass
InfoWorld (06/16/09) Krill, Paul
The Semantic Web is finally approaching critical mass, said World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) officials at a recent technical conference. W3C technology and society technical director Ralph Swick said the Semantic Web is starting to see commercial developments. The W3C has jurisdiction over critical Semantic Web technologies, including the Resource Description Framework (RDF) for representing information on the Web, the Web Ontology Language to allow information in documents to be processed by applications, and SPARQL for querying RDF data. The Semantic Web could be used for a variety of purposes, including building better mashups or publishing social networking data, according to W3C Semantic Web activity lead Ivan Herman. He said Semantic Web technologies could allow information to be accessed and linked, including data in medical databases, geographical information, and government data. Thomas Reuters' Thomas Tague urged technology developers to create tools that use the Semantic Web and semantic data. Monetization of the Semantic Web could come from adding semantic capabilities to social sites, improving opportunities for advertising performance, and semantic search, Tague said.
Spintronic - The New Electronic?
ICT Results (06/17/09)
European researchers working on the Nanospin project have developed spintronic devices using ferromagnetic semiconductors. Although still in development, spintronics has already led to faster, instant-on technology and massive increases in data storage capacity. Spintronic devices also use little power and are highly scalable. "It takes a very low current to switch spin, which makes these devices very efficient," says Nanospin co-coordinator Charles Gould. He also says that, theoretically, spintronic devices could have very high switching speeds. "We have not proven this in the lab yet, but many results in the theory have already been proven, so high switching speeds [are quite likely]," Gould says. The Nanospin project sought to achieve four objectives: writing information to ferromagnetic semiconductors, retrieving that information, switching between different states at high speeds, and the theoretical modeling of the devices to explain their operation and optimize performance. The researchers say the project was successful on all accounts. "Currently, we are looking at logic schemes for spintronics, so we are moving from memory and storage to processing," Gould says.
Computer Science Is Widening the Education Gap
Computerworld (06/15/09) Tapia, Richard
The book, "Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing," by Jane Margolis, argues that technology and computer education programs that target minority students in underserved areas are not achieving their objectives of driving these students toward computer and technology programs in higher education, writes Rice University professor Richard Tapia. The book, which Tapia says mirrors the "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" report, cautions that the United States is at risk of losing its position as a world leader in science and technology innovation, and that it is at risk of not being able to fill its need for high-end technical jobs. Although the U.S.'s greatest hope of avoiding these dangers is to strengthen participation in technology and computing among underrepresented groups, the programs designed to stimulate greater involvement are not driving these groups to computing and technology in higher education. The programs provide minority students with high-tech experiences, but can make them technologically rich and cognitively poor, Tapia says. Students are not being encouraged to be innovative or to pursue paths that lead to high-end technology jobs, and the fault lies with a lack of encouragement from educators who often overlook them because they do not fall under the traditional notions of being "the best and the brightest." The book demonstrates that in addition to the established programs intended to spark student interest in technology, students need more encouragement from educators and clearer pathways into high-tech fields. Margolis will be a keynote speaker at the Computer Science and Information Technology Symposium on June 27 in Washington, D.C., which is sponsored by the ACM-launched Computer Science Teachers Association.
Data Center Overload
New York Times Magazine (06/14/09) P. 30; Vanderbilt, Tom
Data centers are being threatened with an overload of the many search queries they receive as technological advancements and an expanding corpus of data demand more computing muscle at the lowest possible energy and resource costs, writes author Tom Vanderbilt. Microsoft supported close to 150,000 servers in 2008, and about 80,000 of those were used by its Bing search application. Uptime Institute founder Kenneth Brill notes that during the past few decades offices have swung back and forth between using centralized and decentralized computing power, and the latest wrinkle is the use of centralized servers instead of desktop software and operating systems to fulfill most computing requirements. This has been accompanied by an increase of servers in larger data centers. "The promise is that instead of making costly investments in redundant IT hardware, more and more companies will tap into the utility-computing grid, piggybacking on the infrastructures of others," Vanderbilt says. He says the hunger for data-center space is being propelled by the growth of Internet-driven business models, along with the data retention and compliance requirements of an array of tighter accounting specifications and other financial regulations. Data centers' energy requirements are expanding along with servers and the Internet. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Jonathan Koomey estimates that the computing cloud eats up 1 percent to 2 percent of the world's electricity. This trend is prompting research into ways to increase data centers' energy efficiency, and concepts under consideration include improvement of airflow via computational fluid-dynamics modeling and revisions to the data center's form factor.
Collaboration Eyes Computing Boost for New England
MIT News (06/11/09) Frost, Greg
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is leading a collaborative effort to design and build the Holyoke High-Performance Computing Center (HPCC), an environmentally friendly high-performance computing center. MIT says the HPCC will help establish Massachusetts as a leader in the application and development of the next generation of computing technologies. "Many of today's most important technical challenges will yield only to the power of high-performance computing, from modeling climate change to managing a massively complex 'smart grid' and developing novel materials for 21st century technologies, from biomedicine to batteries," says MIT president Susan Hockfield. "At MIT, we're committed to help drive the effort to deliver state-of-the-art computing performance to universities and companies across the region, through aggressive development of the Holyoke HPCC." In addition to MIT, the state of Massachusetts, the University of Massachusetts, Boston University, Accenture, EMC, and Cisco are involved in the development of the Holyoke HPCC. The new center will be built next to the Connecticut River, which will allow it to run on hydroelectric and wind power, and could allow the river's water to be used in a cooling system.
Moon Magic: Researchers Develop New Tool to Visualize Past, Future Lunar Eclipses
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (06/08/09) Mullaney, Michael
Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have created a model that can generate picture-perfect images of lunar eclipses. Professor Barbara Cutler assisted graduate student Theodore C. Yapo with configuring and combining models for sunlight, the solar system, and the different layers and effects of the Earth's atmosphere to simulate and render a visualization of a lunar eclipse. The tool can show how famous eclipses in history look, how future ones will look, and how they would appear to someone in New York, Rome, or from any other geographical location on Earth. Cutler and Yapo say it is almost impossible to distinguish the computer-generated images of eclipses from actual photos. "Other researchers have rendered the night sky, the moon, and sunsets, but this is the first time anyone has rendered lunar eclipses," Cutler says. "Our models may help with investigations into historical atmospheric phenomena, and they could also be of interest to artists looking to add this special effect to their toolbox."
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