Association for Computing Machinery
Timely Topics for IT Professionals

About ACM TechNews

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


ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of either Thunderstone or ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 7, Issue 882: Friday, December 23, 2005

  • "Building Efficient Global Computing Systems"
    IST Results (12/23/05)

    To facilitate the interaction among global computing systems, high-performance networks, distributed platforms, and other diverse applications, the Computer Technology Institute is coordinating the FLAGS project, which amalgamates a wide-ranging set of existing design rules into a common scientific framework. "A significant requirement of global computing is that the applications running on top of them must achieve both efficiency and performance without needing heavy intervention for coordination," said Ioannis Chatzigiannakis of the Computer Technology Institute. The best computer system will be able to interface with an increasing number of systems without forfeiting its quality, an end that can be achieved by creating sufficiently fast and distributed algorithms to execute a broad variety of functions. Chatzigiannakis says that decentralized algorithms are central to global computation characterized by vast networks linking a multitude of applications through complex interactions. FLAGS researchers concentrated on cooperation and antagonism, stability and fault tolerance, and motion and communication within global systems, drawing on a variety of disciplines, including physics, theoretical computer science, game theory, statistics, and economics. The resulting research created a consistent host of tools to monitor the interaction of humans, intelligent agents, and sophisticated computers with sensor networks, smart spaces, and ambient intelligence settings. FLAGS research has already been deployed in such software applications as AdhocSim, which develops and simulates ad-hoc network protocols, and simDust, which simulates the functions of wireless sensor networks, among others.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "France on Track to Legalize P2P Downloading"
    Reuters (12/23/05); Sidhva, Shiraz

    While most Western nations are pursuing regulatory action to stem the surge of illegal peer-to-peer downloading, the lower house of the French parliament has voted to legalize online film and music sharing, raising the considerable ire of the nation's entertainment industry. The measure, which now moves to the upper house, comes in the form of two amendments to legislation seeking to impose tougher digital copyright laws, calling for unlimited file-sharing of music and movies for a fixed-royalties charge of $8.50 a month. France's often fractious entertainment industry has vowed to unite and stall the measure before it is taken up by the Senate. "This could be a catastrophe for French cinema, affecting present and future generations of creators and artists," said Alain Terzain, head of the French film producers' union UPF, echoing the sentiment of the nation's leading artists and entertainers. The entertainment industry is concerned that if the measure passes, pay channels could be ruined and the livelihoods of artists sapped, asserting that lawmakers failed to see the grave implications of the legislation. The bill could still be struck down in the Senate, or returned to the lower house for more debate, though Cultural Minister Renaud de Vabres has requested that any further debate be postponed to ensure that more lawmakers are involved in the debate: only 58 of the National Assembly's 577 members voted. Meanwhile, consumer groups lauded the move, which aligns France with the 2001 EU stipulation that "authors cannot forbid the reproduction of works that are made on any format from an online communications service when they are intended to be used privately," rather than commercially.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "The Internet Is Broken--Part 3"
    Technology Review (12/21/05); Talbot, David

    In response to the mounting perception that the Internet has degenerated into a jumbled mosaic of stopgap security measures with no cohesive plan to defend against an attack, the NSF has proposed the launch of a $300 million alternative network that could, if it catches on with users, gradually supplant the original as service providers convert their routers and software. The NSF envisions the new architecture going through a rigorous testing period at research labs in the United States and abroad, where a high-speed platform and intelligent routers could provide a far more comprehensive evaluation than today's test beds. Some critics maintain that crafting a smarter Internet would make it more prone to failure, and that the network should be intrinsically simplistic, while the devices that support it should become smarter. Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf shares that belief, arguing that the greater the workload of the network, the less efficient it becomes. "It's really hard to have a network-level thing do this stuff, which means you have to assemble the packets into something bigger and thus violate all the protocols," Cerf said. There is also a fear that rewriting the Internet would go against the grain of its spontaneous, grassroots character, though should a widespread cyberattack occur, the government would be likely to intervene and impose sweeping regulations and controls. Regardless, there is a broad agreement that the Internet needs help, that it is getting worse while society becomes more dependent on it. Thus it is an encouraging sign that researchers are now finding an audience in the top legislators and presidential advisors.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Taking on QWERTY's Illogic"
    CNet (12/22/05); Borland, John

    Entrepreneur John Parkinson has developed an alternative to the traditional QWERTY keyboard, known as Parkinson's New Standard Keyboard, which preserves the order of the alphabet, but splits it in two, assigning one half to each hand in a design similar to most ergonomic keyboards. "For the longest time, I thought, like everyone else, there's nothing you can do about QWERTY," Parkinson said. "In the end, some ideas occurred to me, and I decided to do something about it myself." Regardless of how logical Parkinson's design may be, it is unlikely to gain traction among typists, most of whom have spent considerable time learning the traditional model. The QWERTY keyboard, so called because of the six letters at the top left, was designed to keep the most commonly used letters at opposite ends to avoid collisions from the bars on a typewriter. Competition to QWERTY dates to 1936, when a new system was patented based on research that University of Washington professor August Dvorak claimed proved its superior efficiency. More recently, researchers have developed one-handed keyboards and keyless systems where lasers read the movements of a typist's fingers, though the only real change to have caught on is the ergonomic design where the keyboard is split in two halves, so the hands are in a more natural position. In Parkinson's system, punctuation keys are placed in the middle, which he believes will make them easier to reach. While he has developed working models, he has met with muted interest from the larger companies that he had hoped would latch on to the idea. Failing that, he has decided to market the device himself.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "CMU Computer Study Improves Data Image Retrieval"
    Central Michigan University News (12/23/05); Lichtman, Pat

    Central Michigan University computer science professor Neelima Shrikhande and Avanade's Eva Bordeaux have developed a program to enable computers to recognize images more like humans, facilitating the search of large databases of images. Computers currently view images simply as a series of numbers, but the new program enables them to identify domes, towers, and flat areas in sketches or blueprints by breaking images apart and reassembling them mathematically, demonstrating 99 percent accuracy. Computer vision could have broad applications for architects, builders, government, and military, particularly with the rapid growth of image databases. Locating an image within a large database depends on recognizing the object in image data, matching the images, and then mining the database. "The question is how much information do you need to use to find an image?" said Shrikhande. "You need artificial intelligence to make sense of numbers in image data."
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "IU, Crane, Purdue Complete Project for U.S. Navy"
    InsideIndianaBusiness.com (12/21/05)

    A team of researchers from Indiana University, Crane Naval Surface Warfare Division, and Purdue University has developed cutting edge diagnostics and maintenance capabilities for systems on a ship for the Navy's Knowledge Projection System. "The need for tele-maintenance and distance support technologies for today's battleships, aircraft carriers, and submarines is compelling," said Donald McMullen, director of Indiana's Knowledge Acquisition and Projection Lab, adding that "the current generation of naval vessels is more complex than ever, and correcting problems with shipboard systems is frequently a team effort involving both ship- and shore-based personnel. In the current environment, distance support is critical to maintaining operational preparedness." The improvements to the system will enable engineering personnel at varying levels of expertise to work together to diagnose and solve problems regardless of their location. The improved system uses case-based reasoning, an artificial intelligence method that taps into similar scenarios that occurred in the past to help the crew diagnose the current problem. A recording system logs engineering expertise as it is applied in real situations to inform future solutions. McMullen acknowledges that capturing expertise in action is inherently difficult in a distributed environment, particularly as it is frequently based on personal experience, though the new system is able to observe and record problem-solving as it occurs, and then organizes it in a database that can easily be searched in the future.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Rutgers Researchers Scientifically Link Dancing Ability to Mate Quality"
    EurekAlert (12/21/05)

    Computer scientists at the University of Washington helped Rutgers University anthropologists prove scientifically that a relationship exists between dancing ability and the quality of mates attracted. Rutgers researchers were able to derive their conclusions after having Jamaican teenagers evaluate the dancing ability of computer-animated figures--gender neutral, faceless, and the same size--that duplicated the dance movements of 183 of their peers. Associate professor Zoran Popovic and computer science and engineering graduate students Keith Grochow and Karen Liu assisted in affixing infrared reflectors on 41 body locations of each dancer to record and measure body movements. The researchers entered the data in a program that created the computer-animated figures. "At least since Darwin, scientists have suspected that dance so often plays a role in courtship because dance quality tracks with mate quality," says anthropology professor Lee Cronk. "By using motion-capture technology commonly employed in medical and sports science to isolate dance movements, we can confidently peg dancing ability to desirability."
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "German Informatics Society: There Are Too Few Computer Science Teachers"
    Heise Online (Germany) (12/20/05); Smith, Robert W.

    Because most schools have failed to make it a regular subject, there is a shortage of computer science teachers in Germany, said Michael Fothe, spokesman for the German Informatics Society and a professor for didactics of computer science. Fothe added that many current computer science teachers are nearing retirement, casting even greater doubt on the future of the field. The German Society for Informatics has called for all federal states to make computer science a compulsory subject in secondary school; it is optional now, which Fothe credits as one of the reasons for the teacher shortage. Because computers are a pervasive necessity in modern life, Fothe believes that computer science education should be universal, particularly since most secondary school students already have a basic familiarity with computers from using them at home and in earlier grades in school. Fothe emphasized the need for teachers to explain the risks and opportunities of the Internet, while addressing such fundamental questions as how an email reaches its recipient, and how a search engine works. Fothe also argued that students should have a basic knowledge of programming: "Every search for a word in a text is based on a program of 10 lines in length. Once I understand how the latter works, I can tailor my searches much more precisely," he said.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Software Program Brightens IT Job Future for Students"
    IT World Canada (12/21/05); Williams, Lisa

    Microsoft is helping to boost information technology skills in British Columbia by making free software development tools available to all high school students in the province. British Columbia launched a program in October 2005 to provide students with access to the Microsoft Developer Network suite of tools in computer science courses. Microsoft approached the Vancouver-based Educational Resource Acquisition Consortium (ERAC) about providing the current version of the Visual Studio program over five years, at a time when the government is seeking to improve the IT skills of students. The nation has seen the number of students enrolled in computer and information science courses fall 7.5 percent in 2003-2004, according to figures from Statistics Canada. ERAC helps the government bring useful technology to local schools. "The government was really interested in investing in students, specifically using technology for their careers, and getting those skills up to date," says ERAC's Janet Gregory. She says the initiative could prompt more girls to pursue computer science studies and careers in IT, and that software training is being provided to teachers.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Cutting Through the Patent Thicket"
    BusinessWeek (12/20/05); Blonder, Greg

    While the patent process long served its purpose of protecting intellectual property and stimulating innovation, patents in their current form have outlived their use, and indeed, often end up stifling innovation rather than encouraging it, writes Morgenthaler Ventures partner Greg Blonder. Small companies are restricted by the patent process due to the lifetime costs of filing and maintaining a patent, as well as the substantial expense of defending a patent in court. Recent years have also seen the rise of patent trolls, companies that purchase marginal intellectual property and then sue other companies using similar concepts for legitimate, productive purposes. Patents were originally intended to protect useful ideas with practical applications, though studies indicate that 95 percent of the patents that have been awarded have never been used in an actual product and have generated no economic value, indicating that far too many are granted in the first place. The Patent Office often conflates science with invention, as it frequently awards patents to a researcher who simply applies existing scientific knowledge to a new area, such as many of AT&T's optical inventions that simply took the same physics in use in microwaves, only on a scale 10,000 times smaller. The Patent Office should reject applications that only slightly modify demonstrated science by tinkering with its shape, size, or properties when the results of those changes are readily predictable. Such a move would compel people to work on truly difficult problems, accelerate the patent process, and reduce the amount of patent litigation.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "European IT Education Spending Slows"
    VNUNet (12/20/05); Jaques, Robert

    Budget cuts will continue to keep the education sector in Western Europe from spending heavily on IT in the years to come, according to IDC. For example, there is no money available for the Italian Ministry for Education, University, and Research to pursue a planned 184 million-euro project to improve school infrastructure. However, some countries plan to move forward with initiatives, such as building an information network for students, connecting institutions to national education and research networks, and mobilizing access. In its new report, IDC projects the growth of education sector spending on IT to slow from $9 billion in 2004 to $11.5 billion in 2009. Spending by higher education institutions is expected to grow 5.7 percent from 2005 to 2009, fueled by a demand for more value-added systems such as student management and e-learning. Hardware is expected to be more of a focus for primary and secondary schools. IDC says a key theme will be mobilization of access, particularly in higher education.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Poll: Americans Need High-Tech Gadgets"
    Associated Press (12/21/05); Lester, Will

    An AP-Ipsos survey of just over 1,000 adults taken Dec. 13-15 shows that Americans are addicted to high-tech gadgets. After a two-year lull in demand following the near-saturation of products such as DVD and CD players and cell phones in U.S. households, this year's holiday season sees new-generation high-tech items being most in demand, including the new Xbox, Apple's iPod, and TiVo, driven by lower prices and mobility. The poll shows that one-third of American households spend upwards of $200 a month on entertainment and communications at home. Forty percent spend between $100 and $150. About 50 percent of computer owners said they could not envision life without their computer, which is about the same number of cell phone owners who said they could not live without their mobile phones. Nearly 40 percent of high-speed Internet subscribers said they considered broadband essential. About one in seven households has satellite radio while one in four has an MP3 player. "Our culture is about distraction, numbing oneself," says Connecticut psychologist David Greenfield of the trend. He adds that "Some people feel the products will improve the quality of their lives."
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "IT Graduates' Need for Real Work Experience"
    St. Petersburg Times (Russia) (12/05); Linkov, Alexey

    Moscow has many fine opportunities for software developers as a result of other companies' outsourcing efforts, though there is a growing acknowledgement that Russia's educational institutions are doing an inadequate job of training their students on modern platforms and the current needs of the industry. Industry expert say that many recent computer science graduates find themselves unemployable because their university failed to provide them with practical experience, despite the fact that programmers and developers are highly sought-after professions. "In order to receive their diplomas, students at Singapore Technical University are obliged to work part-time for a commercial IT company that has an agreement with the university. Why not follow this example?" asks Andrei Terekhov, head of the Software Engineering Department at St. Petersburg University. Russia could also take a cue from the United States, Europe, and Asia and use its universities' techno-parks to provide small companies with an inexpensive infrastructure and a ready-made labor force. While Russia has made some steps toward expanding its IT-parks, it must also address the absence of a mentor system, which can give students an individual connection with an expert who can shape the student's academic career, though Russian IT firms are leery about partnering with a university unless there is some form of guarantee that the students will come to work for the company upon graduation. While St. Petersburg University has already seen substantial investment from companies such as Intel, Nokia, and Motorola, there is concern that the investment could go for naught without government involvement and feedback.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Semantic Web, Here We Come"
    Red Herring (12/16/05)

    A consortium of blogging startups this week announced their intentions to give the Semantic Web concept a boost through the Structured Blogging Initiative, an effort to build categories into Web sites that would make them more easily searchable and combination-friendly. Embedding descriptive information into Web page code will allow nonprogrammers to categorize their content and hopefully encourage vast volumes of pages using these formats in order that companies and applications can be created to employ the information. Speaking at the Syndicate conference on Tuesday, Broadband Mechanics' Marc Canter said the Structured Blogging Initiative will be open source in order to satisfy backers of alternative approaches, and insisted that he wanted to collaborate with attendees--skeptics included--to perfect the system. PubSub CTO Bob Wyman compared the challenge of deploying the Semantic Web to "the chicken and egg problem," and argued that "the only way we're going to make it from here to there was to get one of the two sides to start doing this." He proposed "pretty posts" as a solution; the concept involves convincing users to structure their blogs by providing them with style sheets to augment each entry. Structured blogging is more likely to benefit the companies that have signed up for the initiative than the individual users of pretty posts, at least for the foreseeable future.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Darpa Eyes Smart, Agile Nets"
    EE Times (12/19/05) No. 1402, P. 24; Mannion, Patrick

    DARPA is working to develop readily available, low-cost battlefield communication systems by deploying inexpensive handsets or nodes with smart, responsive networks. "The idea is to try to shift the emphasis from very high-capacity, high-cost radios to a more inexpensive radio, and then make up for that by shifting the burden to the network," said DARPA's Preston Marshall. The next-generation (XG) Defense Department communications program was crafted to tap into all available spectrum as needed, and forms the basis of the new program, known as the Wireless Network after Next (WNaN), which will reduce the cost of radio nodes without compromising performance. The cost of software-defined radios rises precipitously when seeking to overcome the limitations of spurious-free dynamic and linearity, two critical metrics of a radio's performance. The XG program seeks to exploit holes in the spectrum and avoid interferences such as spurs. Four integrated radios would form the node, enabling multiple inputs and outputs, multiple bands, and repeater-like methods. DARPA has issued a call for proposals for the WNaN program, which will be complemented by a spectral-processing initiative aiming to develop inexpensive and broadly tunable filters.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Change Agents"
    InformationWeek (12/26/05) No. 1069, P. 46; Ricadela, Aaron; McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk; Greenemeier, Larry

    Among the people expected to influence IT in 2006 is Scott Kveton, associate director of Oregon State University's Open Source Lab, whose effort to turn Portland into a hub for open-source projects and services has attracted great interest from the likes of Google, ComPiere, and state agencies. Another major open-source booster is SourceLabs VP Bruce Perens, who plans to dedicate much of his time pursuing legislation to safeguard open-source code from patent challenges. Michael Lynn, 24, promises to open up new avenues in computer security research by uncovering exploitable flaws in Cisco Systems' Internetwork Operating System, which he disclosed not to give hackers a new weapon, but to warn security professionals that their networks are vulnerable. Philadelphia CIO Dianah Neff mobilized lobbyists to oppose telecoms' attempts to stifle the deployment of a city-wide Wi-Fi network that would make Internet access affordable to low-income residents and small businesses; the grit and determination she exhibits as chair of Philadelphia's wireless committee promises to carry the project well into next year. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has earned plaudits as well as criticism with his support of patent reform legislation, and Harvard Business School professor Josh Lerner lauds the congressman for playing the much-needed role of "strong individual champion" for such a complex and divisive issue. The work of the late Peter Drucker is credited with influencing how IT business leaders perceive management, and giving them the impetus to meet his challenge to make IT an important provider of knowledge about the outside business landscape.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Threads That Think"
    Economist Technology Quarterly (12/05) Vol. 377, No. 8456, P. 32

    Clothing that incorporates sensors and miniature computers, collectively known as electronic textiles or "smart fabrics," has the potential to embed intelligence in everyday items. Smart fabrics take the most basic form of electrically conductive products such as Textronics' "textro-yarn," which can produce heat, power other devices woven in the clothing, form electrodes to monitor vital signs, and act as electromagnetic shielding; another smart material from Textronics is "textro-polymer," which can detect the presence or movement of the wearer by registering changes in the resistance of fibers when the material is stretched. Eleksen has developed a multi-layer smart fabric called ElekTex that can detect sliding and tracing gestures, making the material highly resistant to damage. Another multi-layer smart fabric from Eleksen can sense moisture, which the company thinks could be useful for building monitoring and incontinence management. An example of a smart fabric that serves as an output device is Luminex, which features fiber-optic strands that can emit light via battery-powered diodes. However, these products depend on the presence of separate control circuitry to function, and Rehmi Post of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms says weaving control electronics directly into the fabrics will be a major milestone. Addressing issues such as electrical interference, power supplies, and programming will be no simple matter. Textronics head Stacey Burr anticipates that the fields of medicine, communications, sports, and personal security will especially benefit from smart fabrics.