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Volume 7, Issue 879: Friday, December 16, 2005

  • "Three Technology Companies Join to Finance Research"
    New York Times (12/15/05) P. C5; Markoff, John

    In the face of declining federal funding for university research in the sciences, Google, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems are contributing $7.5 million to establish the Reliable, Adaptive, and Distributed Systems Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. The resulting research, which will focus on more dependable systems, will be made freely available as a result of the mounting consensus even among competitors that the future of technology is imperiled if the industry does not take action to support research in the government's absence. ACM President David Patterson, the founding director of the Berkeley lab, has been an outspoken critic of the declining emphasis on university research, as evidenced by DARPA's decision last year to withdraw funding for basic research. DARPA has acknowledged that its university funding for basic computer science dropped by 5 percent between 2003 and 2004. Berkeley research has provided the foundation for many commercial applications, such as Sun's Sparc processor, which is based on Patterson's reduced instruction set computing project. Patterson says that with the new lab, "We're trying to sustain the broad vision, high-risk and high-reward research model." Still, many academics are worried that even generous corporate funding initiatives will still not be able to recoup the loss of government funding. "I don't think it's realistic that companies will be able to fill the void left by federal retrenchment," said Thomas Kalil, special assistant to Berkeley's chancellor for science and technology. The new lab will concentrate on the application of statistical methods of machine learning to Web services and will consist of six faculty members and up to 30 graduate students. The lab's research will be nonproprietary and freely licensed, and each of the companies has agreed to provide $500,000 a year over the next five years.
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  • "New Tests Fuel Doubts About Vote Machines"
    Miami Herald (12/15/05); Caputo, Marc; Fineout, Gary

    Security experts demonstrated vulnerabilities in Diebold's e-voting machines to election officials in Florida, claiming that a politically motivated hacker could alter election results. The Leon County commission responded by scrapping the Diebold machines in favor of ones made by Elections Systems and Software, which create paper ballots enabling a manual recount. "That's kind of scary. If there's no paper trail, you have to rely solely on electronic results. And now we know that they can be manipulated under the right conditions, without a person even leaving a fingerprint," said Ion Sancho, election chief of Leon County. Diebold supplies paper-ballot voting machines to 29 Florida counties, and a touch-screen system to one county. Sancho has argued that the state legislature should mandate the use of paper-ballot systems in every county. Sancho hired BlackBoxVoting.org's Herbert Thompson in May to hack into Diebold machines that had last been used in a high school election. Thompson was appalled at how easily he could access the system and reverse the election results--typing five lines of computer code changed 5,000 votes. More recently, computer expert Harri Hursti hacked into the memory card of a Diebold system with a readily available agricultural scanning device to demonstrate how election results could be manipulated. Sancho's testing has met with hostility from Diebold, and county officials claim that they are committed to ongoing vigilance, though Sancho believes that passive monitoring is no longer a sufficient response.
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  • "Senate Panel Approves More Net-Policing Powers"
    CNet (12/15/05); Broache, Anne

    The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday approved the Undertaking Spam, Spyware, and Fraud Enforcement with Enforcers Beyond Borders Act of 2005, a proposal that would broaden the Federal Trade Commission's policing powers over the Internet and allow the FTC to share with foreign law enforcement agencies information about spammers and any other "unfair or deceptive practices" that would probably cause "foreseeable injury" in the United States or involve U.S.-based activities. "This is one of the most insidious things that can possibly happen...and we can't get at it because so much of it is done overseas," said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) at the committee meeting. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) added that the bill would "enhance the confidentiality of FTC investigations" because the FTC would not be required to show any material gathered during the probe to anyone without a direct order from Congress or a court. A court could also postpone or ban such disclosure if the judge determines that such an action could threaten someone's life or personal safety, cause evidence to be destroyed or criminals to flee from prosecution, or otherwise put an investigation in serious jeopardy. Civil libertarians say the bill's wording is too broad to protect against privacy infringement and to file Freedom of Information Act petitions about the FTC's dealings in that area.
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  • "Technology's Just Getting Started"
    USA Today (12/16/05) P. 4B; Maney, Kevin

    Researchers across the country are developing technologies that will translate into new devices with human-like capabilities, such as Stanford's Morning After Bot that cleans up after a party by taking a picture of what a room looked like before, and working to restore it to that condition by picking up bottles and glasses. Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft are both developing a coffee table with touch-screen capabilities, so people could use it to play video games or share photos. In Microsoft's version, the table could detect the presence of an object such as a coffee cup, and reformat a Web site so that the words would scroll around it. Stanford researchers have created a smart walker with GPS sensors embedded inside that link to external sensors to ensure that the elderly do not get lost. GPS sensors will appear in a host of new products by 2010. Just as users can download music from the Internet, 3D fabrication machines will enable users to create objects at home simply by downloading the design and plugging it in to the device. Microsoft is also developing a camera that is loaded with miniature sensors that users could customize to take a picture under certain conditions, such as when another person comes into sight. Researchers are now exploring intelligent eyewear that could map the flight path of a golf ball and report its distance to the hole, or project sheet music so musicians would not have to turn pages.
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  • "Yahoo Snags DARPA AI Guru for NYC Research"
    InternetNews.com (12/15/05); Kuchinskas, Susan

    Yahoo has formally announced its new think tank in New York City to focus on social media, with artificial intelligence expert and ACM Fellow Ron Brachman as its head. Brachman was hired away from DARPA, where he led the Information Processing Technology Office's cognitive systems project. Brachman looks forward to bringing serious scientific inquiry to a more casual, fun environment. He wants to elevate the stature of Yahoo Research while continuing to advance real research. "Yahoo, like many young companies, has many very strong technical people, but it didn't have a separate culture of longer-term scientific research that includes prominent leadership positions at important conferences publishing important papers and books and the wherewithal to sit back and think a bit longer-term than the next product release," Brachman said. He recognized the balance he will have to strike between addressing difficult scientific problems and moving the company forward at the pace that it demands. Computer science research also got a boost this week when Google, Microsoft, and Sun announced that they will partner with the University of California, Berkeley in a five-year, $7.5 million agreement to support Berkeley's Reliable, Adaptive, and Distributed (RAD) systems laboratory. Researchers at the RAD Lab are working to develop alternative approaches to the waterfall method of software engineering, where each stage is completed incrementally with extensive testing. Opponents claim that the waterfall method is too slow for the Internet age. Microsoft has shifted its own development approach away from the waterfall method.
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  • "Understanding Grid Semantics for Virtual Collaboration"
    IST Results (12/15/05)

    The EU's InteliGrid project seeks to advance grid computing to the point where an intelligent network is aware of its domain and each of its components, realizing the long-anticipated potential of networked computers. The project hopes to produce a grid that would be suited for complex industries such as aerospace, construction, or ship-building. The platform must balance reliability and security with ease of use, says University of Ljubljana professor Ziga Turk, though to achieve this computers must be able to understand what data actually mean. Turk likens the grid to architectural design programs where instead of simply being the instrument of the design, computers that understand what the lines mean can create designs themselves. Data comprehension is the goal of the thriving semantic computing industry, which the InteliGrid project is tapping to model engineering projects. The project, which has completed its first of three years, is now focusing on selecting the appropriate ontologies, which are central to building a semantic grid. "The ontology services are the key component of InteliGrid because it is there where humans, but more importantly, applications and services get the metadata about the IT environment and the domain that can be intelligently reasoned about in a machine," said Turk. While the traditional applications of grid computing have been in solving computationally-intensive problems, the InteliGrid is aimed at the engineering and design community, where it will handle the data processing that often takes away from the time designers and engineers can spend on creative endeavors.
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  • "High Performance Computing in the UK"
    EurekAlert (12/13/05)

    English and German researchers have collaborated on a review of the state of high performance computing in the United Kingdom. The two groups, the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the English Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), addressed issues such as accessibility, training, and interdisciplinary fluidity in an effort to ensure that today's systems are capable of meeting the demands of future scientific applications. A group of 10 prominent international researchers examined 15 British research institutions that depend on high performance computing in their work. "The EPSRC wanted a totally unbiased, independent opinion of their research facilities," said the DFG's Harald Knobloch. "That was one of the reasons why there were no British researchers on the panel." The review found that the United Kingdom is at the cutting edge in the application of high performance computing to research, though it recommended the installation of such services as the High End Computing Terascale Resource, or HECToR.
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  • "Women Desert IT in Droves"
    VNUNet (12/14/05); Thomson, Iain

    Hudson UK reports that nearly two-thirds of women working in IT have left or are about to leave the field, with about 88 percent of women saying they disliked the nine-to-five routine, and 43 percent saying they did not expect to be working a full time nine-to-five routine by 2010. More than half of the women surveyed say they are frustrated with the lack of flexible schedules, over three quarters are angry that they cannot work from home, and over half feel frustrated at the lack of career prospects for women in the industry. Employers know there is a problem, but many have been reluctant to come up with a solution. "Many women have tasted corporate life and have decided that there are better ways of making their mark on the world than following the traditional working model set before them," says Hudson UK IT director Paul Taylor. Nearly 70 percent of employers admit they would have staffing problems if women left the profession, but just 6 percent have come up with a recruitment strategy for hiring more women.
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  • "Trying to Take Ownership"
    Washington Post (12/15/05) P. D1; Krim, Jonathan

    Although many are quick to blame the lack of regulation for the Internet's current ills, much of its meteoric development has been due to the free-wheeling nature of an ownerless environment. The structure of the Internet has traditionally been steered by its vast community of users, but some large stakeholders are seeking to alter that model by introducing private ownership in the name of efficiency and profitability. As a result, network owners are no longer required to lease their cables to competitors, copyright laws have been extended, and there has been an extensive lobbying campaign to block the government from adopting open-source software or establishing its own wireless networks. BellSouth CTO William Smith has articulated the most sweeping vision for reform, as he has argued for network owners to have the right to govern the flow of Internet traffic, a move that would enable providers to prioritize between Web vendors based on how much they are willing to pay. The ability for one Web site to buy its way into prominence is reminiscent of a restaurant jukebox where one patron can pay a premium to vault his selections ahead of another's. Many argue that such a structure would be a pure implementation of capitalism, though there is no doubt that the nature of the Internet would be fundamentally altered, and that the new model would pose a decided disadvantage to startups seeking to supplant Internet mainstays such as Google.
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  • "Where Sensors Make Sense"
    Technology Review (12/15/05); Greene, Kate

    Researchers developing networks of miniature, intelligent, and wireless sensors envision a host of applications, from endowing pill bottles with the ability to alert caretakers when patients do not take their medicine to implanting a battlefield with the devices to warn of an advancing enemy. Manufacturing equipment could monitor and repair itself in the event of failure, though the technology has yet to emerge from the prototype stage. That could soon change, as Siemens has developed a mass-producible sensor capable of detecting a broad array of environmental alterations. Siemens' technology stacks six sensors on top of each other on a single chip, unlike conventional sensor networks that string together multiple nodes that each detect a specific condition. Each layer in Siemens' sensor consists of a different material customized to detect a specific condition such as an elevated level of carbon monoxide, an arrangement that streamlines the production of sensor networks and costs much less. The sensor also improves power consumption by gleaning energy from its surroundings to supplement its lithium-ion battery and powering down into sleep-mode when environmental factors are unchanged. Siemens' Osman Ahmed foresees the emergence of a "comfortstat" that will adjust the conditions of a home based on information gathered from sensors placed in every room. Information about carbon dioxide levels, airflow, humidity, and other factors would be relayed to the comfortstat, alerting residents to potential hazards. University of Florida researchers are using the technology to monitor the conditions in cages of lab animals, testing for levels of ammonia, water, and temperature, though commercial implementation is still around two years away.
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  • "Online Bonding"
    Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (12/10/05); Manktelow, Nicole

    CSIRO's Floyd Mueller is developing technologies that enable Internet users to play real sports with each other over network connections. "I am researching how sports and technology can bring people together over distance," Mueller said of his human-computer interaction research that seeks to determine whether sports can strengthen the bond between people who are geographically separated. Mueller's research enables players to use actual equipment to play games such as air hockey and baseball through videoconferencing cameras linked over CSIRO's high-speed network CeNTIE. A catching mechanism collects the puck as it slides over a user's half of the air hockey table while the network relays its speed and direction to the other player, where it is recreated by a group of cannons that fire the puck at the other player's goal. While video conferencing technology is useful in work meetings, Mueller believes that much collaboration between co-workers occurs away from the desk. Mueller has previously developed networked soccer games, where players kick a real ball against a screen that transmits the impact over a video conferencing link through pressure sensors. He believes that his approach is a far more effective way to build a team than the impersonal interactive computer game. A forthcoming trial of Mueller's research will compare the bonds formed between players of his Distributed Air Hockey table with players of a more traditional, virtual version.
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  • "Robot Friends for Autistic Kids"
    Australian IT (12/13/05); Gengler, Barbara

    Yale University computer science researcher Brian Scassellati believes a robot that has the ability to interact more naturally could serve as a friend for autistic children. Scassellati has been building a humanoid robot that is able to mirror the size, speed, and range of motion of a one-year-old child who suffers from autism. Although the condition compromises the way in which the child communicates and relates to others, the interactive diagnostic robot would pick up behavioral skills from humans and respond with gestures and utterances in social situations. "In the past three years we have designed and constructed the majority of the mechanical structure of the upper torso including the head, torso and arms," says Scassellati. Thus far, the social robot is able to perform basic hand-eye coordination tasks such as reaching out to touch an object, perceptual tasks including visually identifying people, and cognitive tasks such as recognizing itself in a mirror. Nonetheless, technical challenges remain in getting the robot to understand a person's tone of voice and pointing gestures.
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  • "Humanoid Robot Gets Job as Receptionist"
    New Scientist (12/13/05)

    Honda plans to introduce its Asimo robot in its Wako office, north of Tokyo, in the capacity of a receptionist in April 2006. Unveiled as the first walking humanoid robot in the world in 2000, Asimo is now capable of guiding guests to a meeting room, serving coffee on a tray, and pushing a cart that has a load of up to 10 kilograms. Asimo stands 130 centimeters tall and weighs 54 kilograms, can move up to 3.7 miles per hour, and can run in a circle and zigzag. Visual sensors, a floor surface sensor, and an ultrasonic sensor enable Asimo to assess its surroundings as it carries out tasks, and a telecommunications card enables the robot to interact with someone who also holds a card. The company plans to make more models of the robot, introduce them in its other locations, and make them available for leasing for about $166,000 a year. "Honda is aiming to create a humanoid robot that can help people and live together with people," said Satoshi Shigemi, head of development for Asimo at Honda, during a news conference. The announcement follows the use of security robots in Japan during the six-month World Expo, which ended in September.
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  • "Clemson University Computer Science Research Aids Computer Users With Color-Deficient Vision"
    AScribe Newswire (12/13/05)

    Computer science researchers at Clemson University have developed a program that will make it easier for people with color-deficient vision to read a computer screen. The program automatically detects contrasts of colors and re-colors images to produce a greater amount of contrast, offering some compensation to users who are unable to differentiate between colors and make out image information on their computer screens. By preserving contrast in such a manner, the program makes it easier for people to see information contained in an image more clearly. "Now our goal is to make the procedure run in real time, so that computer users do not have any noticeable delay in viewing re-colored images," says Robert Geist, a computer science professor at Clemson. "Once we achieve that, I see this going in as a part of any software package that is simply installed on a computer." The development will help 10 million Americans suffering from color-deficient vision.
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  • "Java? It's So Nineties"
    BusinessWeek (12/13/05); Hamm, Steve

    The portion of programmers who use Java as their principal language has dipped to 47.9 percent, compared to 51.4 percent in 2002, according to a recent survey from Evans Data, while .Net has actually surpassed Java in Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, PHP, one of the central languages in the LAMP technology suite, has seen its usage surge to 36.1 percent, up from 26 percent in 2003. Sales of Java-related books have fallen off by 4 percent this year, while sales of books pertaining to AJAX have risen 68 percent, though sales for Java books are still much higher. Sun maintains that Java is only at the beginning of its run, citing its sustained use in advanced corporate applications and its broad popularity in cell phones. A dimming of Java's prospects could portend a substantial loss for Sun and other companies that have invested extensively in the language, such as IBM, BEA Systems, and jBoss. A signpost of Java's irrelevance is its absence in companies with a major Web presence such as Google and Yahoo!, as well the popularity of AJAX, PHP, and other tools in Web 2.0 startups. While Java's edge may be eroding, the language retains its popularity in the corporate setting, and has even garnered the support of open-source advocates such as Red Hat, which acknowledges that the language is essential for sophisticated Web applications, though Microsoft's .Net has been gathering momentum, leading some analysts to speculate that the two languages are locked in a dead heat.
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  • "Quality Is Now Development Job One"
    eWeek (12/12/05) Vol. 22, No. 49, P. D1; Coffee, Peter

    Embedding quality assurance (QA) deeply into the software development life cycle makes sound business sense, as it would help reduce the cost of correcting defects and satisfy regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley. A roundtable discussion convened by eWeek Labs focused on the breadth and nature of QA, which is expanding as organizations depend on purchased software and network-based services as elements for line-of-business applications. Identify Software's Lori Wizdo argued that it is wiser for customers to define quality in terms of user experience instead of what developers produce. Sam Guckenheimer of Microsoft said development managers must understand that most developers are not security specialists, which points to the need for the pervasive incorporation of automatic potential security issue analysis into tools and processes. He and others stressed that the quality process must be a closed feedback loop. Segue Software's Ian MacLeod expressed his wish for extensive industry adoption of tool integration, noting that "Quality is all the elements of the ecosystem--requirements, development and test management, defect management, monitoring, and diagnostics across the deployment line and into operations." Station Casinos CIO Marshall Andrew reported that QA time is currently about half as long as development, and his company is working to reduce that time without a tradeoff in quality through the use of QA-accelerating tools. Panelists concurred that as developers become more productive thanks to quality improvement tools, enterprise managers should apply the increased efficiency toward better understanding and fulfilling user requirements.
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  • "Battling to Give Web Access to Visually Impaired Users"
    Nikkei Weekly (12/05/05) Vol. 43, No. 2212, P. 16; Takeshita, Atsunobu

    IBM Japan computer specialist Chieko Asakawa continues to work toward making the Web more accessible for visually-impaired people. Asakawa, who works at the Tokyo Research Laboratory, scored a breakthrough when her Home Page Reader Web browser, which reads Web site text for Web surfers, was completed in 1997. However, the emergence of sophisticated graphics and videos is making it more difficult for the visually-impaired to use the Web because the talking browser has become overwhelmed by the enormous amount of extra information on pages. For example, the talking browser has problems working with the Flash application because it is unable to convert to voice information the data Flash hides in a Web page. Asakawa, who lost her sight when she was 14, hopes to develop software that solves the problem by the end of the year. She recently developed and published the "a-Designer" software to help Web authors determine whether their Web site is user-friendly for the visually-impaired. Asakawa is also considering ranking sites based on their accessibility, and believes Japan should have Web accessibility regulations similar to American and British laws. "My goal is a society where people can equally enjoy the benefits of technology and information," says Asakawa.

  • "In the Very Near Future"
    Economist Technology Quarterly (12/05) Vol. 377, No. 8456, P. 22

    More popular wireless standards may have near-field communication (NFC) technology beat with their wider coverage radius and faster data transfer speeds, but NFC's ambition to harmonize heterogeneous contactless-card standards could give mobile phones the usability that comes with a contactless card and reader. Mobile phones outfitted with NFC chips could replace contactless credit cards and function as electronic wallets and travel passes, which would give the adoption of electronic cash a shot in the arm. NFC could also enable mobile phones to serve as tickets to events and shows as well as pass cards, and let the devices smoothly and securely access or download promotional materials from NFC-equipped posters. Handset-makers think NFC could provide a simple solution to the vexing problem of configuring devices to communicate over wireless links, since its narrow coverage area could allow such pairing by holding NFC devices against each other. Once this is done, the paired devices can shift to a wireless, higher-bandwidth technology to support functions that NFC cannot because of its relatively sluggish transmission speed. Companies backing NFC include Nokia, Sony, Philips, Microsoft, Matsushita, NEC, MasterCard, Texas Instruments, Samsung, LG, Siemens, Intel, Motorola, Visa, SonyEricsson, and American Express. Mobile operators, however, are hesitant to support NFC out of concern that NFC could discourage subscribers from transmitting data across cellular networks, and also because of their customers' historically cool reception of many technologies. On the other hand, NFC could represent an opportunity for operators to boost their revenue and customer loyalty through new services enabled by increased mobile phone functionality.

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