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Welcome to the January 22, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Top 10 IT Priorities for Obama
VNUNet (01/19/09) Thomson, Iain; Nichols, Shaun

U.S. President Barack Obama has a number of IT issues to address, and Webcasting is one such priority, according to authors Iain Thomson and Shaun Nichols. Thomson says he is hopeful that the Internet will be used much more widely to broadcast government business, while Nichols stresses the need to retool the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to accommodate Web 2.0 and smart phones, to name just two variables that have changed the nature of the copyright issues the act was originally designed to handle. The authors say the president must pass laws to guarantee that privacy is respected where it is desired, with Nichols arguing for an overhaul and update to compliance rules, along with stronger enforcement. Another IT priority for Obama is how to manage the new wireless spectrum opened up by the cessation of over-the-air TV broadcasts in the United States. Thomson writes that "now that we are finally starting to see WiMax deployments there are going to be no excuses for not allowing everyone the chance to go online." Thomson and Nichols make the case that green technology is a solid business investment amplified by pressing issues about climate change and the need for greater energy efficiency. The authors agree that a major investment in broadband infrastructure is needed, with Nichols noting that such a move "could open the possibility of new business development to rural areas where property is cheap and jobs are hard to come by." Thomson says net neutrality will be the biggest technological issue for the Obama administration, and argues that such neutrality must be instituted as a statute as expediently as possible. Nichols says net neutrality is essential to preventing big businesses from receiving preferential treatment, to the detriment of any emerging online enterprise.

Leading Research Agencies Announce New International Competition: 'The Digging Into Data Challenge'
National Science Foundation (01/16/09) Cruikshank, Dana W.

The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) in the United Kingdom, the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) in Canada recently announced the Digging into Data Challenge, which encourages humanities and social science research through the use of large-scale data analysis. The competition challenges scholars to develop international partnerships and explore digital resources, including electronic repositories of books, newspapers, and photographs to identify new opportunities for scholarship. Applicants will form international teams from at least two of the participating countries, and winning teams will receive grants from two or more of the participating agencies. Teams will be asked to demonstrate how data-mining and data-analysis tools can improve humanities and social sciences. "The Digging into Data Challenge brings together scientists and humanities scholars to take advantage of the digitization of millions of books, newspapers, photographs, and countless other documents," says NEH chairman Bruce Cole. JISC's Alastair Dunning says the competition will allow for huge collections of diverse cultural heritage to be analyzed on a large scale. "Such forms of analysis, unthinkable before the arrival of the Internet, will help give new insights to academic inquiry," Dunning says.

Engineer Hopes Cars Will Drive Us to Work Some Day
New Brunswick Business Journal (Canada) (01/19/09) Mullin, Kyle

University of New Brunswick researchers led by professor Howard Li are developing cars capable of driving themselves. Li says one of the first steps is to take detailed pictures of sharp turns, deer, pedestrians, and other obstacles and program those images into a simulator so the system learns what objects to avoid. He says the biggest challenge is developing the right algorithms to allow thousands of smart cars to be compatible on the road and avoid collisions with each other. "We obviously can't use thousands of vehicles to test artificial intelligence compatibility," he says. "We'll use computer simulations to test it and write computer simulations of multiple cars working together." Li says the technology is likely decades away from being used in commercial cars. However, he says there will be breakthroughs made as part of the process that could lead to sensors that prevent accidents by warning drivers of potential dangers. The technology also could be used to save lives in Afghanistan by helping troops avoid hazards. Li says artificial intelligence technology could be used to automate vehicles for tasks such as snow removal, city transit, assembly lines, and farming. "The robotics market is growing 40 percent every year," he says. "This is a field that's going to keep growing and evolving, and one day it will be as common for every family as owning a PC is today."

Techies Get a Lego Up
Washington Times (01/20/09) P. A6; Kellner, Mark A.

Microsoft's WomenBuild initiative was created to find and develop future female software development professionals. "This is not about getting in a room to experiment, but to let women know they're not alone; that creates a community," says Microsoft's Lindsay Rutter. Rutter and fellow Microsoft developer Asli Bilgin recently held an exercise at a Microsoft Developers Conference in which participants were encouraged to use Lego building blocks to express their views on women in technology. Exercise participant Mekka Williams created a tiny "eye" representing a woman against a large "male" figure. "This represents opportunities women may not be aware of, because they don't have the networks," Williams says. Another exercise participant, Erin Hoover, says working in Web and computer-based graphics design is fun and creative. "There's a side of me that likes to code, and a side that is really, really artistic," Hoover says. "This combines the two." Bilgin, who previously developed complex financial modeling applications for Wall Street firms, now looks for ways to get women involved in programming. "It's growing faster than I wanted it to," Bilgin says. "I keep saying, 'baby steps, baby steps.' " She says one of the big challenges is dispelling the myths surrounding software engineering, such as the need to work long hours, often alone.

It's Like Software Understands, Um, Language
ICT Results (01/21/09)

The European Union-funded Luna project is working to create speech recognition systems capable of understanding spontaneous speech, instead of the limited responses such systems currently understand. The researchers are developing spoken language understanding (SLU) technology that is capable of understanding the meaning of what someone says while filtering out irrelevant verbiage. The Luna project is developing the technology for use in several languages, including Polish and Italian. "We had to spend a lot of time initially recording spontaneous conversations between people and between people and machines," says Luna coordinator Silvia Mosso. The recorded conversations provide the software with a collection of words and phrases that forms its basic language. The researchers then annotate the terms in a way that enables machines to understand them, before finally applying statistical language models. The researchers say the scientific work behind the advanced SLU system explored the fundamental mechanics of language and the development of SLU, which could have an impact in robotics and other areas.

Maine Researcher Advances Green Supercomputing
HPC Wire (01/15/09)

University of Maine professor Phillip Dickens has received a two-year, $200,000 National Science Foundation grant for his effort to make supercomputing more energy efficient. The grant funded the development of a scientific grid portal in Maine, which will make research from the University of Maine Institute of Climate Modeling available to research scientists and school-age children, and the purchase of an energy-efficient supercomputer. The grid portal and supercomputer will run ice sheet models and other tools for climate change research. The grid portal also will offer a rendering engine to execute very-high-resolution models and receive animations and other visual information in real time. Recently, the University of Maine's Department of Computer Science unveiled the first cyclist-powered supercomputer, a SiCortex SC072 supercomputer powered by 10 cyclists for 20 minutes. "The fact that a computer can be powered by a team of cyclists underscores how efficient computers have become," says University of Maine professor George Markowsky. The SiCortex SC072 can run multiple applications on 72 processors using only 300 watts of power. "We are still in the beginning phase," Dickens says. "It would have been nice to show multiple displays, all executing different phases, showing different processes. We have one application now and we are looking to get more because there is a lot of demand."

Demand for Key IT Skills Remains High
ZDNet UK (01/14/09) Barker, Colin

Demand for Oracle, SAP, .NET, VMware, and similar skills will remain high over the next few years despite the economic downturn, according to a survey from the National Computing Centre (NCC) in the United Kingdom. The survey found that 33.7 percent of organizations experience problems recruiting or retaining people with Oracle, SAP, .NET, Web development, business analysis, and network support skills. Positions demanding skills in areas of growing importance, such as VMware, virtualization, C#, security, and the Information Technology Infrastructure Library also are hard to keep filled. The NCC reports that perceived shortages rose from the "very low level" of 6.8 percent in the previous year's survey to 7.9 percent this year, the highest perceived shortage since 2001. The report also says that demand for systems and support staff is expected to grow to 10.2 percent over the next two years. System development staff have the highest predicted two-year demand growth rate at 13.1 percent. Eighty percent of respondents believe that the IT services sector will increase IT staff numbers over the next two years by 20 percent or more, and government and finance also are expected to increase IT staff.

Beyond the Mind's Eye
MIT News (01/13/09) Thomson, Elizabeth A.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Center for Advanced Visual Studies have spent more than 20 years working on a "seeing machine" that will make it possible for some people who are blind or visually challenged to view images. The research, led by MIT's Elizabeth Goldring, has evolved from a large diagnostic device that costs about $100,000 to a portable seeing machine that costs less than $500. The device can be connected to any visual source, such as a video camera or a desktop computer. "When someone has a diminished sense, the inability to express yourself with that sense can be frustrating," says Goldring, who is blind in one eye. The concept behind the seeing machine came from one of Goldring's visits to an optometrist, when technicians used a scanning laser opthalmoscope (SLO) to determine if she had any healthy retina left by projecting a simple image directly onto the retina of one eye. Goldring was able to see the test image, read her own handwriting, and see a video of her optometrist. SLOs are prohibitively expensive, but the portable device developed by the MIT researchers replaces the laser of the SLO with light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which cost much less but produce high-intensity light. MIT's device receives a visual feed from the camera, which is projected onto a liquid crystal display illuminated by LEDs. The visual data is then focused into a single "point" that is sent into the eye.

A Search Engine for Virtual World Users
University of Teesside (01/09/09)

Researchers at the United Kingdom's University of Teesside are developing Meta-Mole, a dedicated searchable online resource for virtual worlds on the Internet. Meta-Mole users will be able to share and compare information and gain access to the core, technical, and specialist features of virtual worlds. "We were analyzing virtual-world platforms and realized that there doesn't appear to be a comprehensive service offering to list and compare key data for major two-dimensional and three-dimensional environments," says Philip McClenaghan with Teesside's Center for Design in the Digital Economy (D-LAB), which is based in the Institute of Digital Innovation. Meta-Mole relies on data provided by platform developers, and D-LAB researchers want it to accommodate all platforms. The digital industry, firms looking for a platform for new business opportunities, and academia all stand to benefit from Meta-Mole, McClenaghan says.

Rice University Software Helps ID Terrorists Carrying Out Attacks
Rice University (01/12/09) Brotzen, Franz

Rice University researchers have developed a new computer program that rapidly scans large news report databases to determine which terrorists groups could be responsible for new attacks. The program was used to quickly identify the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyiba group as the most likely culprit for the Thanksgiving Day attack in Mumbai. "There's an enormous amount of value in using computing to profile conflicts," says Christopher Bronk, a member of the software development team. "While experts on conflict are essential, they need new tools for coping with information overload. That’s what we're trying to provide." Bronk says the Rice project demonstrates that technology can be used to determine where to look, enabling human efforts to be more focused for better assessment and analysis. The goal is to perfect a system that can assist the government in identifying future "hot spots" of activity before an attack occurs. On the day of the attacks in Mumbai, Rice undergraduate student Sean Graham ran several queries based on the information reported by TV networks. By entering the weapons used in the attack, the targets, and tactics, with no input on geographic or ideological influence, the program identified several possible culprits. The researchers then focused on groups active in South Asia, which reduced the list of possibilities. When the list of the groups was run against a second database constructed by researchers at the University of Maryland, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba was found to be the most likely perpetrator. "We designed the software to better assign attribution in terror attacks, and it appears to have worked," Bronk says.

Networked Embedded System Middleware Speeds Up the Development of Innovative Systems
Fraunhofer Institute (01/20/09) Deeg, Alex

The Fraunhofer Institutes for Applied Information Technology and Secure Information Technology has developed context aware middleware that is designed to help in the manufacturing of intelligent environments. The institute's Hydra project developed a Networked Embedded System Middleware for Heterogeneous Physical Devices that will help manufacturers and system integrators in combining and connecting devices that can work together in cost-effective and flexible solutions. "A main issue in the Hydra project is networking a broad range of heterogeneous devices," says project coordinator Markus Eisenhauer. "The middleware makes it easy for developers to integrate additional devices and sensors into a distributed infrastructure. And it helps them take care of privacy and security requirements." The Hydra middleware supports several operating systems and programming languages, and can be used in a broad range of applications. To improve security, the middleware minimizes information exchange and the mechanisms needed for secure communication. To demonstrate its use, the researchers created a small model building equipped with sensors that send short messages to alert users to a technical defect. The model includes a situation in which a sensor detects humidity inside the house's heating system and alerts inhabitants by calling a mobile phone and orders an emergency repair request at a service company.

Semantic Search Engine Helps Scientists Do Productive Searches
University of Alabama in Huntsville (01/12/09)

Scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAHuntsville) have developed Noesis, a new semantic Web search engine that enables researchers to obtain more focused and productive results. Noesis performs searches based on a discipline-specific semantic ontology. For example, a search of Mobile Bay sea grass would return a list of additional terms that narrows the search based on taxonomy, location or water type, while filtering out Web sites offering sea grass mats, oils, and lotions. The terminology and the structure of relationships between terms in the ontology focuses the search on items related to the specific field of study, and datasets and scientific publications have been added to broaden Noesis' search. The scientists have already created ontologies for meteorology or environmental science-related projects, but Noesis could be used to perform searches in other fields of research. "It can be configured to different domains for different projects," says Rahul Ramachandran, a researcher in UAHuntsville's Information Technology and Systems Center. "The hope for the future is there will be a growth of these small ontologies."

Ruby on Rails on Track for Major Upgrades
InfoWorld (01/12/09) Krill, Paul

Ruby on Rails is expected to undergo significant changes in 2009, including an upgrade in January that will feature several enhancements and a merger with the Merb Web framework later in the year. The 2.3 release of the open source Rails framework features performance optimizations, customizable templates, memory savings, and the ability to write the most performance-dependent parts in Ruby. The update also will feature HTTP Digest Authentication, an API for authentication. Version 3.0 of Rails, which is expected sometime around May, will merge Rails with Merb, and the 2.3 release will serve as a precursor to new version. For example, the respond_to block capability in Rails, which allows an application to respond to a single request with HTML, XML, or JavaScript, is 8 percent faster in Rails 2.3, which was made possible by Yehuda Katz, a new Rails core team member who was previously at Merb. Rails 2.3 also features a new templates capability that enables the creation of templates already fitted with specific capabilities such as plug-ins. Rails 3.0 will contain several ideas from Merb, such as framework agnosticism that will work with Rails' emphasis on strong defaults, and routing for mapping browser requests.

U.S. Businesses Concerned About ICANN Changes
Computerworld (01/14/09) Gross, Grant

NetChoice executive director Steve DelBianco says that ICANN's traditional role should be broken up if a 10-year agreement between ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce is not renewed before it expires in September. Many U.S. Internet-based businesses are concerned that ICANN will be taken over by foreign governments if the Commerce Department agreement expires. DelBianco suggested that ICANN continue to oversee generic top-level domains (TLDs) and a new organization be created to manage country-code TLDs. ICANN officials said that splitting up the organization's responsibilities would cause confusion within the Internet community. ICANN's agreement with Commerce has long been criticized by foreign governments, who believe the U.S. has an unfair level of control over ICANN. Even if the agreement is allowed to expire, ICANN will keep its headquarters in California and remain subject to U.S. law. Other issues brought up at the recent State of the 'Net conference panel discussion included ICANN's proposal to allow the sale of new generic TLDs. A representative from the Internet Commerce Association suggested that ICANN slow down its time line due to the large amount of feedback received during the first comment period.

Hot New Memory
Science News (01/17/09) Vol. 175, No. 2, P. 10; Barry, Patrick

Researchers say that computer circuits based on quantum packets of heat instead of electricity could use the heat generated by processors to perform computations and store information. Recent research into the physics of controlling the flow of heat packets has led to designs for heat-based diodes, transistors, and logic gates capable of performing "and," "or," and "not" operations. Baowen Li, a physicist at the National University of Singapore who designed the thermal memory with his colleague Lei Wang of the Renmin University of China in Beijing, says heat-based circuits could lead to a new science and technology in controlling heat flow. "This, we believe, will revolutionize our daily use of heat and can help human beings save energy and live in a more environmental world," Li says. The phonons in thermal circuits are discrete units of vibration in the atoms of a solid. The stronger the vibrations, the hotter the solid. In materials that conduct heat, phonons travel through the substance like electrons travel through electrical conductors. Li and Wang did not build an actual heat-based memory device. Instead, the researchers used computer simulations and theoretical calculations to prove that such a device is physically possible. Concentrated heat tends to dissipate over time, indicating that heat-based memory would be impossible, but Li and Wang showed that, under certain conditions, information stored as phonons can be preserved.

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