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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


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Volume 7, Issue 831: Friday, August 19, 2005

  • "A New Arms Race to Build the World's Mightiest Computer"
    New York Times (08/19/05) P. C1; Markoff, John

    In the race to design the next breed of supercomputer, one that will vault past current leader IBM's Blue Gene in speed and performance, China has emerged to join the United States and Japan as a leader in the global technology economy. Though the next batch of supercomputers will not likely be functional before the decade's end, high-performance computing itself has filtered down from the arcane world of strategic defense to mainstream commercial applications. China currently claims 19 of the world's top 500 supercomputers, and Chinese developers have recently been under pressure to create high-performance computers independent of the United States. The next frontier for supercomputing is the petaflop, a measure of speed roughly eight times faster than Blue Gene. Major public funding has enabled the United States to reclaim the top spots on the list of 500 since Japan's Earth Simulator emerged to lead the pack in 2002, and many researchers and technology leaders insist that maintaining preeminence in supercomputing is vital to U.S. competitive advantage in a number of fields. Responding to reports that Japanese auto makers had used Earth Simulator to speed production, Suzy Tichenor of the Council on Competitiveness said, "This is a subtle but important change in the competitiveness game." As part of a government-directed computing technology plan, China's Lenovo Group has announced its intention to aid in the development of a petaflop machine by 2010, while several Japanese developers are looking to create multi-petaflop machines in a similar timeframe. Though the United States has recaptured the top spots on the list of the world's fastest computers, their application has been uneven across different industries, as defense has been a principal beneficiary, while concentrated areas of focus for other countries, such as climate change, have been comparatively neglected.
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  • "Al-Qaida Recruiting Target: Skilled Hackers"
    Investor's Business Daily (08/19/05) P. A4; Tsuruoka, Doug

    Mark Rasch, chief security counsel for Solutionary, Inc. and former head of the Justice Department's computer crime unit, reports that foreign governments and terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida are attempting to hire Internet hackers to break into commercial and federal computer networks, with an eye toward sabotage or information theft. He says a massive assault against our cyberinfrastructure would disrupt services but not inspire terror; much more effective would be a combination cyberattack and physical attack, which would spread fear as well as hinder response strategies. Rasch says al-Qaida has formulated plans to attack U.S. networks controlling the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems underlying the country's utility infrastructure. Terrorists can contact hackers in a variety of ways, including through Internet relay chat channels, anonymous outsourcing, and anonymous remailers that hide the original source of messages. Rasch suggests a number of precautions to defend against cyberterror attacks, such as the installation of disaster recovery and business continuation technology and redundant systems. So that people can understand and identify attack precursors, he recommends an exchange of information. Rasch also suggests improving information sharing networks following an attack.

  • "$150 Million TeraGrid Award Heralds New Era for Scientific Computing"
    EurekAlert (08/17/05)

    TeraGrid, the largest and most comprehensive computing infrastructure for science and engineering research in the world, will be operated and augmented through a five-year, $150 million award from the National Science Foundation. The award will apportion $48 million to the University of Chicago to deliver TeraGrid architecture, software integration, operations, and user support coordination, while $100 million will go toward the provision of operation, management, and user support of TeraGrid resources at eight resource provider sites. NSF director Arden Bement, Jr. said the award will enable a multitude of new users from a broad spectrum of scientific communities to access advanced IT applications, which will eventually be tailored to meet individual or community needs. This access will allow researchers to analyze trillions of bytes of data collated by scientific apparatus, remote sensors, telescopes, and satellites, and TeraGrid will let scientists handle massive data sets in unique ways to make new discoveries about scientific and social problems. "Reliable, sustainable cyberinfrastructure requires both close collaboration among organizations making their resources available to scientists and engineers through grid technologies, and a critical mass of people responsible for the overall enterprise," noted TeraGrid project director Charlie Catlett. NSF program manager Guy Almes said TeraGrid is aiding the construction of a national platform for scientific research. According to Bement, "TeraGrid unites the science and engineering community so that larger, more complex scientific questions can be answered," and this will subsequently drive the creation of next-generation cyberinfrastructure.
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  • "'War of the Worms' Spurs Latest Cyber-Attack"
    ABC News (08/17/05); James, Michael S.

    The attack earlier this week that slowed systems at The New York Times, The Associated Press, and other media outlets may have been an example of battling worms competing for control of major computer networks. The culprit was identified as different strains of the Zotob worm, which targets computers running Windows 2000, though if unprotected, Windows 2003 and XP are also vulnerable. In the latest attacks, the hackers were attempting to seize control of the computers to create botnets, and posted death threats aimed at antivirus companies. The pursuit of unlawful computer armies has led to a virtual turf war, where rival hackers delete each other's worms to clear the way for their own in an effort to build the largest botnet. The recent trend in hacking has been toward personal greed, as simply defacing a Web site or launching a denial of service attack no longer motivates hackers: "Destroying the Internet is not really useful if the Internet is the means to your financial goals," noted Art Manion of the U.S. CERT center at Carnegie Mellon. Botnet operators use the expropriated computers to send out torrents of spam or access personal information, though there is also an underground economy that pays to rent botnets for various purposes, most commonly to send out spam. The use of multiple third-party computers makes it difficult to track the originator of botnet spam. Cybertrust's David Kennedy believes poor laptop security may have facilitated the recent attacks, and cautions businesses to keep security patches updated, and use a special router to manage the connection between the notebook and the providing pipeline; he adds that users should power their notebooks down completely before connecting to the network.
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  • "Gates Urges Legislators to Harness Power of Technology"
    Associated Press (08/18/05); Gillespie, Elizabeth M.

    Computer security, international competition, and declines in U.S. computer science and engineering graduates were some of the topics Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates touched on in an on-stage interview at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Seattle. He told the gathered delegates they could more efficiently serve their constituents by tapping the power of technology, and voiced his expectation that there will be as many technological advances in the next decade as there have been in the past 30 years. Gates expressed concern about the drop-off in American computer science and engineering grads, concurrent with increasing numbers of tech-proficient college grads in China and India. He said many foreigners are having more difficulty securing U.S. work visas because of more stringent immigration policy in the wake of 9/11. As a result, overseas rivals are in a position to hold on to more of their talent, which could create problems for U.S. tech firms. Gates also emphasized the increased importance of computer security at a time when malware and spam are running rampant across the Internet. He predicted that computers will continue to shrink in size and simplify email sorting, appointment scheduling, and news and daily activity updates, as well as increase the transparency of legislators' work. People's growing reliance on digital documents rather than hardcopy data will spur the increasing prevalence of portable computers, Gates said.
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  • "Computer Virus Writers Moving Faster with Attacks"
    Reuters (08/17/05); Swartz, Spencer

    A flood of malware-based attacks against U.S. media companies and other corporations this week has prompted security analysts to warn that the window between the disclosure of vulnerabilities and their exploitation by hackers is shrinking. "These guys have gotten a lot faster...they are doing it faster than managers can keep up with," stated F-Secure virus researcher Eno Carrera. Analysts said the interim between advisories of flaws in Microsoft's Windows operating system and the release of exploitative viruses was several weeks or months a few years ago. However, hackers authored and released exploits of three Windows security vulnerabilities mere days after Microsoft notified users of their existence last week. The malware caused thousands of vulnerable machines to restart repeatedly, and potentially exposed computers to hackers who could hijack a system as a launch-pad for future virus attacks and steal personal data while the user is unaware. Also troubling is the fact that virus writers often release malicious code faster than computer system safeguards can be updated. Hackers have additionally started exploiting instant messaging's popularity among office workers as a vehicle for delivering viruses.
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  • "Despite Gains, Women Still Face Bias in Science Careers"
    UW-Madison (08/18/05); Devitt, Terry

    A group of eminent women researchers and administrators present the case that most women scientists at universities must still contend with bias, a lack of respect, and even outright hostility in the Aug. 19 issue of Science. University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and group leader Jo Handelsman says most of the hostility is subtle and insidious. The analysis indicates that women seeking tenured faculty positions and advancement opportunities face a number of challenges, including a "chilly" campus atmosphere that many men do not perceive; unconscious discrimination; disproportionate family obligations; and fewer women being trained to the Ph.D. level in engineering and physical sciences. Alice Hogan, director of the National Science Foundation's ADVANCE Program, reports that these issues often hurt women's chances of advancing in their science careers. "While we as a nation have made considerable progress in attracting women into most science and engineering fields, we still see fewer women at the full professor and academic leadership levels than we would expect given the pool of women with doctorates," she explains. Handelsman reports that the gender bias issue is finally starting to come to light, which is a positive step. She also notes that people and institutions can address the issue through various strategies: She cites UW-Madison's Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute, which has set up workshops to teach solid search techniques to faculty search committees, as well as make committee members more cognizant of hidden bias. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, has launched a Web-based effort to make gender-, race-, and ethnicity-related biases understandable to deans, department chairs, and tenure and promotion committee members.
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    For information about ACM's Committee on Womena and Computing, visit www.acm.org/women.

  • "Pixels Speed Quantum Crypto"
    Technology Research News (08/17/05); Smalley, Eric

    Scientists from the University of Rochester have developed a new method for quantum cryptography, a technique that could yield theoretically perfect security. Their research considers the position of a photon within an array of pixels; because it condenses more data into each photon, pixel entanglement could accelerate the speed of quantum cryptography schemes, which is one of the principal drawbacks of current systems. Each photon in an entangled pair of photons, linked through quantum mechanics, is sent into an identical pixel array to determine which pixels light up. When one photon is measured, the other mirrors it instantly, regardless of the distance between them. Pixel entanglement improves on the traditional method of designating photon attributes as 1s and 0s to include more information per photon, which the researchers anticipate will translate into higher bit rates in communication schemes. The placement of photons entangles pixels at random, which, according to quantum theory, creates perfect encryption. The researchers demonstrated their approach using a three-pixel array, and have shown that it can also be applied to a scheme of six pixels, though they look for higher pixel arrays in the future. Although the technology is not likely to see practical application for five to 10 years, University of Rochester researcher Malcolm O'Sullivan-Hale envisions it having a significant impact: "The most readily imaginable application is free-space quantum key distribution for the secure transmission of data," he says.
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  • "Researchers to Use Quicker Data Network"
    Charlottesville Daily Progress (VA) (08/18/05); Mayhew, Melanie

    The National LambdaRail (NLR) academic data network will be accessible to researchers at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech in the next few months. UVa environmental sciences professor Bruce Hayden will collaborate with a consortium to construct ecological monitoring stations throughout the United States, and he said measurements taken from aircraft will be shared via NLR. The fiber-optic network will allow the general community to access the project's data banks and let people conduct research while sparing them the trouble of purchasing costly infrastructure. NLR promises to relay more information than 7,000 home broadband links or 160,000 dial-up Internet connections, and NLR's Greg Wood said the network will give researchers the resources to experiment in previously impossible ways. The cost of transmitting data over the network will be more than 700 times less than that for sending data over the high-speed links typically used by Virginia schools and libraries. Gov. Mark Warner and the Virginia General Assembly made a $2.4 million commitment to bring NRL to Virginia as part of an initiative to boost academic R&D by $1 billion by the end of the decade. The participating state universities will share the bulk of the financial responsibility as partners in the Mid-Atlantic Terascale Partnership, a Virginia/Washington/Maryland university consortium to establish NRL connections via a broadband fiber-optic network. UVa CIO Robert Reynolds remarked that NRL access "keeps us in the competitive world of 'big science' so that our researchers will continue to be competitive for grants from large agencies."
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  • "Google Pauses Library Project"
    CNet (08/12/05); Kane, Margaret

    Google recently announced it will temporarily suspend scanning copyright-protected books into its database until November, so that it may revise its Google Print Publisher Program in the interim. Google's library project involves scanning copyrighted and out-of-print works so that users can access text versions through the database. The publisher program also scans copyrighted books at the publisher's request so that searchers can access excerpts, critical write-ups, and other information, with links to publisher's Web sites or other locales where the content is for sale. Google said on its blog that it expects most authors and publishers to participate in the publisher program to make their works accessible to scores of readers worldwide, adding that it intends to respect the views of critics as best it can. One such critic is Association of American Publishers (AAP) CEO Patricia Schroeder, who claimed that Google has inverted every principle of copyright law by making copyright owners rather than users responsible for preventing infringement: "Many AAP members have partnered with Google in its Print for Publishers Program, allowing selected titles to be digitized and searchable on a limited basis pursuant to licenses or permission from publishers," she said. "We were confident that by working together, Google and publishers could have produced a system that would work for everyone, and regret that Google has decided not to work with us on our alternative proposal." Google said the reworked publisher program will allow publishers to submit a list of books that will be added to the program once they are scanned through the library project, as well as submit a list of books that are forbidden from scanning.
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  • "System Carries PC Soul"
    Technology Research News (08/17/05); Patch, Kimberly

    The SoulPad is a prototype device developed by IBM researchers that allows users to carry a personalized virtual computer between PCs while retaining the user's work. The virtual computer can be stored on a USB disk or any portable device with enough storage capacity; the "soul" of the virtual computer--the data, applications, and settings--can then be uploaded to a new PC by plugging in the device. "SoulPad exploits the widely deployed ecosystem of standard PCs, and does not require those PCs to have network connectivity, preinstalled software, or even disks of their own," says Ramon Caceres of IBM Research. He notes that mobile workers could use the SoulPad to carry their work between home and office, and to switch among various devices. The SoulPad prototype employs a version of the Linux operating system that automatically configures the host computer's components, and suspended virtual machine software that enables the user to interrupt a computing session and resume it later on whatever machine the device is plugged into; the SoulPad also secures sensitive data via encryption software. The SoulPad's process of configuring the host system for use takes longer than it does for a typical PC to enter and exit a state of hibernation or to shut down and then reboot. Caceres says the SoulPad could allow more people in developing areas to exploit computing technology: "People could instead own smaller and cheaper SoulPads, and borrow or rent PCs from a community center, Internet cafe et cetera," he reasons. The IBM researchers detailed their work on the SoulPad at the third International Conference on Mobile Systems, Applications, and Services in June.
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  • "Musings From a Mouse"
    Technology Review (08/15/05); Chabria, Anita

    In a departure from traditional and costly methods of measuring eye movements, a new study analyzing the movements of a computer mouse could shed important light on the understanding of language cognition. Cornell psycholinguist Michael Spivey placed 42 undergraduates in front of computers displaying two images, and charted their mouse movements as they were given instructions as to which to click on. Spivey found that when the two images had similarly sounding names, the mouse typically moved in a slow, curvilinear fashion, arguing against the theory that the human brain, like a computer's processor, absorbs language in a sequenced, linear progression. The process of gradual cognition is one Spivey classifies as quantum superposition, where the mind lingers in ambiguity until it ascertains the complete meaning of the word. Aside from aiding to the understanding of human cognition, Spivey's study could be an important step in the evolution of artificial intelligence. The argument his research makes against the binary functionality of the brain could lead AI researchers down the path of modeling biological neural networks, Spivey believes. "If you want to invent a mind, you probably don't want to be using a computer format," he said. Another application could be a less expensive method of testing the effectiveness of Web sites, as the existing method of tracking eye movements is expensive, though, some believe, less problematic, given that most eye movements are unintentional, and therefore a better indicator of a user's instinctive interest.
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  • "Purdue Nurtures Cyber Infrastructure"
    Federal Computer Week (08/18/05); Arnone, Michael

    Purdue University officials announced the launch of a new cyber infrastructure program on Aug. 18. The Cyber Center will connect the school's computer resources and augment research, as well as cultivate new, economically beneficial technologies, according to center director and computer science professor Ahmed Elmagarmid. He said the facility will serve as a nexus for collaboration on the improvement of radio-frequency identification, sensor, and wireless technologies that could have homeland security applications. Purdue vice president for IT James Bottum declared that the Cyber Center "will take advantage of two important developments: The increasingly interdisciplinary nature of research and the use of information technology for the discovery process." Purdue's decision to create the center was based on the recommendation of its cyber infrastructure advisory committee. Elmagarmid said the facility's first three years of operation will be underwritten by part of a $10 million Lilly Endowment grant. Purdue intends to secure $25 million in outside funding for the Cyber Center over the next three years. In related news, the National Science Foundation announced the creation of an Advisory Committee for Cyberinfrastructure, which will advise NSF's Cyberinfrastructure Council on the foundation's cyber infrastructure creation and maintenance efforts.
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  • "Virtual World Fits on a Smartphone"
    New Scientist (08/18/05); Knight, Will

    Artificial Life, an American game company, plans to launch a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) for third-generation (3G) cell phones before year's end. The game, which will run on phones outfitted with the Java J2ME software engine, will let players take on a virtual identity and roam throughout a virtual metropolis. Users will be able to interact with other players and computer-controlled characters, and work on puzzles that are more easily solved through cooperation. Artificial Life developed the Distributed Smart Engine Mobile Platform, the game's core software engine. The company hopes its MMORPG will be used as a tool for meeting people and perhaps dating. Watagame CEO Henrick Riis expects even more sophisticated multiplayer games to emerge thanks to increasingly powerful 3G phones and related networks, while handset power upgrades should facilitate the incorporation of location-based phone technology and the combination of real video and computer graphics in future mobile MMORPGs. "There will be a hybrid between reality and the real world," Riis predicts. "You could do some really cute stuff using augmented reality."
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  • "Facing the Global Competitiveness Challenge"
    Issues in Science and Technology (08/05) Vol. 21, No. 4, P. 72; Hughes, Kent H.

    Kent Hughes, author of "Building the Next American Century: The Past and Future of American Competitiveness," warns that the United States is in danger of losing its lead in the global economy unless it systematically focuses on innovation, a strategy that has been critical to the country's prosperity. Other countries are vying for international talent and service occupations through increased investment in research education, their adoption of the U.S. innovation model, and the advent of the digital economy and the proliferation of broadband. To remain a viable global competitor, the United States must increase research investment, make improvements to its educational system so that it extends from before birth to well after retirement, and sustain its attractiveness to students, researchers, and professionals the world over. Hughes writes that the U.S. innovation system will need to be evaluated on a regular basis via a quadrennial report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and recommends that science and technology support be cultivated through annual "State of the Innovation System" addresses by the president as well as public-private partnerships. The country's strength in a global economy must be maintained, while weak links in the innovation chain--the stagnation of physical sciences and engineering research funding, a lack of cultural enthusiasm for science, etc.--must be fortified. Missions that draw next-generation scientists and engineers, fuel innovation, and tackle major national challenges should be established, examples of which include the development of new energy sources, the application of technology to elderly care, and efforts to wipe out new and old diseases. Finally, a climate for commercialization must be improved.

  • "The Future of Open Source Grid Computing in the Enterprise"
    Enterprise Open Source Journal (08/05) Vol. 1, No. 1, P. 50; Yared, Peter

    The emergence of Web services-driven data transactions and the expanding adoption of open source technologies are driving grid computing's evolution toward the transaction grid model. This model involves scores of horizontally scaled commodity computers that process business applications in close collaboration. The result is less strain on back-end applications, reduced transaction response time and scaled overall transaction throughput, and the dynamic delivery of data based on the user and transaction's context. A transaction grid's chief advantages stem from its ability to execute composite applications and cache both data and the user interface. The grid wraps all data inputs from traditional back-ends as self-subscribing XML data through a declarative strategy, and translates application logic into local Web services. Transaction grids can enable enterprises to complement and broaden existing IT investments by running applications on an open source-based grid of commodity machines. This lowers cost, simplifies applications, and scales to make room for increasing numbers of transactions. The LAMP platform is the ideal mechanism for powering the transaction grid computing model thanks to its scalability, reliability, and cost-effectiveness.