Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the September 27, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


U.S. Wants to Make It Easier to Wiretap the Internet
New York Times (09/27/10) P. A1 Charles Savage

Federal law enforcement and national security officials want the U.S. Congress to mandate that all communications-enabling services be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. They say the ability to wiretap criminal and terrorism suspects is being hindered as people increasingly favor Internet communications over the phone. The Center for Democracy and Technology's James X. Dempsey says the proposal has huge implications and challenges "fundamental elements of the Internet revolution," including the Web's decentralized design. U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation general counsel Valerie E. Caproni says the proposal is not an expansion of federal authority, but rather "preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order to protect the public safety and national security." U.S. phone and broadband networks are already required to possess interception capabilities, but existing laws are inapplicable to communications service providers. The proposal is likely to require communications services that encrypt messages have a way to decrypt them; foreign-based providers that do business inside the United States set up a domestic office capable of executing intercepts; and developers of software that enables peer-to-peer communication redesign their service to permit interception.

China's 'Big Hole' Marks Scale of Supercomputing Race
Computerworld (09/24/10) Patrick Thibodeau

China, Europe, and Japan are ramping up their efforts to build supercomputing facilities to compete with the United States, says David Turek, IBM's vice president of deep computing. "You have sovereign nations making material investments of a tremendous magnitude to basically eat our lunch, eat our collective lunch," says Turek, speaking at a recent forum organized to discuss the effort to build the next generation of supercomputers, which could be 1,000 times more powerful than current systems. "The No. 1 goal is to maintain U.S. leadership in high-performance computing," says Rick Stevens, Argonne National Laboratory's associate director for computing, environment, and life sciences. Stevens says the benefits of such a system could take science into new areas, such as simulating everything that goes on inside a human cell. He notes that about 1,000 scientists are involved in the U.S.'s Exascale Initiative, but warns that Europe and China "have accelerated their investment" in high-performance computing. Stevens says the European effort is proceeding faster and could pass the U.S. "if we don't sustain the investment to stay ahead."

Automated Biometric Recognition Technologies 'Inherently Fallible,' Better Science Base Needed
National Academy of Sciences (09/24/10) Molly Galvin ; Christopher White

A National Research Council (NRC) study found that biometric systems designed to automatically recognize individuals based on biological and behavioral traits are inherently fallible, and no single trait was found to be stable and distinctive across all groups. "For nearly 50 years, the promise of biometrics has outpaced the application of the technology," says Hewlett-Packard technologist Joseph N. Pato. "While some biometric systems can be effective for specific tasks, they are not nearly as infallible as their depiction in popular culture might suggest." Biometric systems provide "probabilistic results," meaning that confidence in results must be tempered by an understanding of the inherent uncertainty in any given system, according to the NRC report. The report identifies several features a biometric system should have, including the ability to anticipate and plan for errors, and calls for additional research to strengthen biometric science and improve its effectiveness.

WGBH, ACM Celebrate 'Dot Diva' Launch to Reshape Image of Computing for High School Girls
ACM (09/23/10)

The WGBH Educational Foundation, ACM, and the National Center for Women & Information Technology invited hundreds of female students from Massachusetts to celebrate the launch of Dot Diva, a new initiative to create a positive image of computing for high school girls. The Dot Diva initiative is designed to increase the number of girls who recognize the potential of computer science to fulfill their career goals. "Dot Diva enables us to offer young women a realistic view of computing that gives women the power to create and discover new things," says WGBH's Julie Benyo. "With the launch of Dot Diva, we are helping to deliver messages that illuminate the rich diversity of careers in the computing field--not just in technology companies but in the many industries that rely on computing technology," says ACM CEO John White. Misperceptions and negative images have hurt student interest in computer science, especially among girls. Dot Diva project leaders determined that underlying image issues come from deeply rooted beliefs among young people, such as the feeling that science is too difficult and an overexposure to media stereotypes of socially isolated programmers.

Cyber Attacks Test Pentagon, Allies and Foes
Wall Street Journal (09/25/10) Siobhan Gorman ; Stephen Fidler

Adversarial nations worldwide have adopted cyberespionage and cyberattacks as staples of modern warfare, and U.S. defense officials estimate that more than 100 countries are currently attempting to penetrate U.S. networks, with the greatest concentration of attacks based in China and Russia. Although the Pentagon's Cyber Command is slated to be fully operational in October, cybersecurity experts warn that much of the rest of the U.S. government has fallen behind as it argues over the duties of different agencies. One source reports that NATO's systems are behind those of the United States in terms of cyberdefense, noting that NATO delayed installing many of the basic network security patches because it had decided some of its computers were too critical to ever deactivate. Meanwhile, many nations have developed cyberoffensive capabilities that can repeatedly breach and lay waste to computer networks, according to cybersecurity specialists. The expansion of the threat of cyberattacks is spurring calls for an international accord to limit them. The International Institute of Strategic Studies' Nigel Inkster says that such a pact needs to establish thresholds beyond which a cyberattack would be designated an act of aggression.

Cars as Traffic Sensors
MIT News (09/24/10) Larry Hardesty

Researchers working on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) CarTel project are studying how cars could be used as ubiquitous mobile sensors. CarTel project researchers, led by MIT professors Hari Balakrishnan and Sam Madden, developed an algorithm that optimizes the dissemination of data through a network of cars with wireless connections. The researchers collected four years' worth of data about the driving patterns of Boston-area taxicabs equipped with global positioning systems. An effective information-dissemination system will ensure that two cars passing each other in opposite directions will exchange high-priority data, while also enabling two cars sitting at the same traffic light to exchange lower-priority data. Disseminating data through networks of cars will be especially useful in urban areas, says Ford's T.J. Giuli. With a network of wirelessly connected vehicles, "as the density of mobile-networking consumers increases, the bandwidth also increases," Giuli says.

Carnegie Mellon Will Lead HP-Sponsored Consortium Developing News Ways of Measuring Learning
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (09/22/10) Byron Spice

The Measuring Learning Consortium will develop new technologies for measuring students' competency in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The computer-based programs will be designed to provide a detailed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of students. The global consortium will be led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). The six members of the consortium include higher-education institutions in France, Hong Kong, Russia, South Africa, and the United States. "Ultimately, we want to develop a new breed of technology-enabled embedded assessments that measure STEM competencies that the international community values," says Candace Thille, director of CMU's Open Learning Initiative. "Many of the competencies that we believe are important are difficult, if not impossible, to appraise through conventional methods." The Hewlett-Packard (HP) Catalyst Initiative is funding the project, which is part of a larger HP-funded effort to help ensure that STEM meet the needs of today's students.

IBM Breakthrough Advances Nanotechnology Research
eWeek (09/23/10) Jeffery Burt

IBM researchers have developed a technique that can measure how long a single atom can hold data, enabling scientists to record, study, and visualize the magnetism of atoms at very fast speeds. IBM's Scanning Tunneling Microscope allows researchers to study the behavior of atoms at a speed a million times faster than before. The new technique also enables researchers to study the behavior of atoms at the nanosecond level, whereas before it was at the millisecond level, says IBM's Andreas Heinrich. "This technique developed by the IBM Research team is a very important new capability for characterizing small structures and understanding what is happening at fast time scales," says University of California, Berkeley professor Michael Crommie. A better understanding of the nature of atoms could lead to advances in quantum computing. "This breakthrough allows us—for the first time—to understand how long information can be stored in an individual atom," says IBM's Sebastian Loth.

The Density of Innovation
The Atlantic (09/21/10) Richard Florida

Patents are the conventional measure of innovation in the high-tech industry because they represent a systematic, quantitative measure of innovation and are used by economists as the single dominant measure of innovation. A map showing the density of innovation based on this measure reveals that the median density of innovation is .008 patents per square kilometer and that the densest metros have more than .4 patents per square kilometer, while the least dense have fewer than .001. San Jose (Silicon Valley) tops the list with .831 patents per square kilometer, followed by San Francisco with .446 patents per square kilometer. The density of patents is closely associated with key regional economic outcomes, including wages, incomes, and economic output. A scattergraph suggests a close association between innovation density and regional wages. The density of high-tech employment is measured by the number of high-tech workers per square kilometer. The densest metro area, Los Angeles, has nearly 40 high-tech employees per square kilometer, followed by San Francisco (30), Trenton, New Jersey (29), San Jose (24), and New York City (23). Another scattergraph shows that a high density of high-tech workers also is closely associated with innovation density.

Google Researching Real-Time Frustration Detection
InformationWeek (09/21/10) Thomas Claburn

Google researchers are studying how people behave when their search is unsuccessful. Frustrated searchers may frown or move closer to the computer monitor to make sure they have not missed anything. "In addition to many of them sighing or starting to bite their nails, users sometimes started to type their searches as natural language questions, they sometimes spent a very long time simply staring at the results page, and they sometimes completely changed their approach to the task," write Google user experience researchers Anne Aula, Rehan Khan, and Zhiwei Guan. Such signals can be detected, which means it is conceivable that computers would be able to detect them as well. Computer users would have to embrace the idea of having Google watch them through a Web camera. "[W]e believe we can use [behavioral observations and other metrics] to build a model that will one day make it possible for computers to detect frustration in real time," the researchers say.

Rice Growers Turn to Computer for Advice, Predictions
AgriLife News (09/21/10)

Texas A&M University (TAMU) researchers have developed a database that helps farmers forecast how successful their rice crops will be and what changes could improve the outcome of the harvest. "What we are doing now is a logical extension of previous methods where information had to be entered into a computer by hand," says TAMU AgriLife Research Center's Ted Wilson. The researchers worked with rice farmers in more than 20 counties to create the Integrated Agricultural Information and Management System, a database for rice farmers. "The obvious benefit would be planning for planting, irrigation, fertilizer application, and harvesting," says TAMU professor Yubin Yang. A researcher working on any U.S. crop could use the database to see how the growth pattern will be affected, Wilson says. "One of the uses might be to help determine where to locate a bioenergy facility based on the function of the land, what crops are grown in the area, how far the land is from major highways, and other such factors," he says.

Computer Servers Could Help Detect Earthquakes
Wired News (09/21/10) Priya Ganapati

IBM wants to use vibration sensors inside server hard drives to analyze information about earthquakes and tsunamis and predict their location and timing. IBM researchers Bob Friedlander and James Kraemer say the use of rack-mounted servers bolted to floors in data centers would result in detailed information about movements and vibrations because researchers would know the orientation of the machine, the environmental conditions would be better controlled, and they would be better able to predict the noise generated by the device. Anywhere from 100 to a few thousand computers would be able to participate. The collected hard-drive sensor data would be transmitted via high-speed networking to a data-processing center, which could help classify events in real time. The data would reveal exactly when an event started, how long it lasted, its intensity, frequency of motion, and direction of motion. IBM plans to launch a pilot using its own data centers over the next few months, and wants companies with large data centers to participate.

UGA Researchers Apply Artificial Intelligence to the Study of Gothic Cathedrals
University of Georgia (09/21/10) Philip Lee Williams

University of Georgia professors Michael Covington, Don Potter, and Stefaan Van Liefferinge are using artificial intelligence to study gothic cathedrals. "The aim of our project is to develop an ontology or knowledge representation for architectural history that will make it possible for us to apply methods from artificial intelligence to historic descriptions of architecture," Van Liefferinge says. The professors say the information gathered could be used as a real-time corrector for students struggling to learn architectural terminology and it could lead to software that would help detect contradictions in ancient descriptions of buildings. The research also could help in digital reconstructions based on partial descriptions of now-lost structures, Van Liefferinge says. "In the future, implementing this specialized ontology will, for example, make possible the programming of computers for reasoning about the syntax of architecture and the detection of gaps or contradictions in studies of something such as a cathedral," Covington says. The professors also say the software's use eventually could be expanded to the study of other fine arts or the descriptions of space in fiction writing.

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