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September 8, 2006

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

I.B.M. to Build Supercomputer Powered by Video Game Chips
New York Times (09/07/06) P. C13; Markoff, John

IBM has won a contract from the Department of Energy to develop a peta-scale supercomputer powered by 16,000 Cell chips. The system, due to be completed in 2008, will cost a projected $110 million. The selection of the Cell chip, which originally was jointly designed with Sony and Toshiba for video games and animation, is an indication of how the computer industry is increasingly shaped by technologies that were initially developed for home and consumer uses. The IBM system will be housed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and will be used to protect and maintain the nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons. It will pair the Cell processors with a corresponding group of AMD microprocessors--a kind of hybrid design that is becoming increasingly popular with designers looking to squeeze more performance out of off-the-shelf processors. For use in supercomputing environments, however, hybrid designs are still in their experimental stages, several computer scientists caution. "There are a number of risks involved," said Jack Dongarra, a computer scientist at the University of Tennessee. "It will be a challenge and it's still unknown how we get to that performance."
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Time Is Running Out for H-1B Visa Cap to Be Raised--Or Is It?
InformationWeek (09/06/06) McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

U.S. tech companies will continue to lobby members of Congress on raising the cap on the H-1B visa program, even though they are running out of time to get a new limit in place for fiscal 2007. The Senate and House calendars are said to be full as the Oct. 1 start of the next fiscal year approaches, and lawmakers in both chambers continue to have serious differences over immigration reform legislation, which include H-1B visa provisions. Nonetheless, tech employers remain hopeful because separate legislation, the Securing Knowledge, Innovation and Leadership (SKIL) bill introduced by Sen. John Cronyn (R-Texas) in May, has emerged that does not focus on contentious immigration issues such as border security. Like the comprehensive immigration reform bill, the SKIL bill seeks to raise the cap on foreign workers from 65,000 to 115,000, give employers an opportunity to increase the limit by 20 percent annually based on need, and institute changes in the green card program. "There's still a window of opportunity Congress will pass H-1B and green card reform post-election," says Jack Krumholtz, director of federal government affairs for Microsoft. Meanwhile, U.S. programmers who oppose an increase for the H-1B visa program still express concern that Congress will attach the H-1B visa provision to another bill or pass a separate H-1B visa bill during a lame duck session before next January. "Sometimes we think these things are dead, and then someone slips something through at 5 p.m. on a Friday," says Programmers Guild President Kim Berry.
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Researchers Tackle Problem of Data Storage for Next-Generation Supercomputers
Carnegie Mellon News (09/07/06) Spice, Byron

The national Department of Energy has granted the Petascale Data Storage Institute--composed of Carnegie Mellon University, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the University of Michigan, and the Los Alamos, Sandia, Oak Ridge, Lawrence Berkeley and Pacific Northwest national laboratories--a five-year, $11 million grant under its Office of Science Scientific Discovery Through Advanced Computing program. The institute will be charged with coming up with advanced data storage technology to handle the huge amounts of data that will be produced by future petaflop supercomputers used for scientific research. Today's supercomputers crash once or twice a day. On the scale of petaflops, the number could increase to once every few minutes. "It's beyond daunting," says Gary Grider, a co-principal investigator at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "Imagine failures every minute or two in your PC and you'll have an idea of how a high-performance computer might be crippled. For simulations of phenomena such as global weather or nuclear stockpile safety, we're talking about running for months and months and months to get meaningful results."
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Rice Awarded $10M DOE Grant for Computer Research Center
Rice University Press Release (09/07/06) Boyd, Jade

Computer-science researchers at Rice University have received three major grants from the U.S. Department of Energy through the department's Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) program. The projects include a $10 million five-year grant for the Center for Scalable Application Development Software (CScADS) for research and development of software tools for supercomputers. CScADS is a multi-university initiative led by Rice that includes such partners as Argonne National Laboratory, the University of California at Berkeley, the university of Tennessee at Knoxville, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A series of summer institutes put together by CScADS will allow researchers into scalable computing to discuss problems, share information, and create a long-term vision for high-performance software development tools. CScADS director and principal investigator Ken Kennedy says, "The fundamental question [CScADS] will address is: how do you build software tools that are scalable from a system with a single homogenous processor to a high-end computing platform with tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of heterogeneous processors? Our goal will be to take the results of our research and turn them into useful and usable tools for these high-end platforms." The other two grants involve two SciDAC projects specifically focused on programming models and performance evaluation for leadership-class computer facilities; the three projects are all preparing for the expected arrival by 2010 of "petascale" supercomputers that can perform quadrillions of calculations each second.
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Registration Opens for SC06 Conference
Business Wire (09/07/06)

"Powerful Beyond Imagination" is the theme for the Supercomputing 2006 conference to be held at the Tampa Convention Center during the week beginning Nov. 11. The conference, sponsored by ACM's Special Interest Group on Computer Architecture (SIGARCH) and the IEEE Computer Society, will offer more than two dozen full and half-day tutorials, eight workshops, seven panel discussions, and 54 technical papers, among other offerings. Hands-on sessions will also be made available to educators interested in using computational tools in the classroom. Additionally, attendees can browse over 225 exhibits displaying new systems, services, and scientific breakthroughs. Awards to be presented at the conference include the Sidney Fernbach and Seymour Cray Engineering awards, the Gordon Bell Prizes for fastest computer performance, and challenge awards recognizing competitive efforts in utilizing bandwidth, analyzing and visualizing data, and effectively accessing stored data. For more information go to http://sc06.supercomp.org.
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A Report Card on Anti-Terror Technology
CNet (09/07/06) McCullagh, Declan

While the federal government has developed and adopted many anti-terrorism technologies in the five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI is still working with out-of-date computer systems, the Department of Homeland Security is struggling to systemize its container inspections, and it remains uncertain whether the passports with RFID tags that are being rolled out are any harder to duplicate. The FBI has only recently launched an initiative to outfit its field agents with wireless technology to take and upload digital pictures of a suspect that other agents could, in turn, view on their BlackBerry. Preliminary feedback from agents has been positive, and the FBI hopes soon to roll the system out to all its field offices, though it has not yet established a timetable. The FBI is also behind on search technology. The agency's Investigative Data Warehouse tool, which enables approved users to search through some 650 million records of multiple government agencies through a single Web interface, does not update information in real time, instead waiting for contributing agencies to upload their records into the system. "Right now, we don't have that Google-like search capacity to go (directly) into databases of different agencies," said Zal Azmi, the FBI's CIO. Also, government auditors have declared the computerized modeling system designed to help identify which cargo containers should be inspected a failure. Government intelligence could also benefit greatly from improved language-translation software that can provide automatic real-time translations of obscure languages such as Pashtu and Somali. While many of the government's post-9/11 technology initiatives lag frustratingly behind schedule, others have raised troubling privacy questions, such as the proliferation of surveillance cameras in public places, particularly if they were to be used in conjunction with facial recognition software. Another potentially invasive technology is known as brain fingerprinting, which relies on the detection of an electrical signal to try to determine whether a suspect was present at a crime scene, which has already been ruled admissible by one judge in Iowa.
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Organization Makes Case for Supercomputers
Electronic News (09/07/06) Taylor, Colleen

Supercomputers need to be employed more aggressively, according to the U.S. Council on Competitiveness. "The Council on Competitiveness believes the nation that out computes is the nation that out competes," stated Council on Competitiveness President Deborah Wince-Smith. "High performance computing is undervalued in many regions of the country, and public and private sector organizations are frequently unaware of the supercomputing resources available within their own economic regions." The organization released a pair of studies at Thursday's annual High Performance Computing Users conference indicating that it can be competitively advantageous for industry to access supercomputing resources at federally-funded academic institutions. Both of the reports were prepared in collaboration with IDC; one study assessed a National Science Foundation program that helped American businesses exploit federally-supported university supercomputing resources, and the businesses that participated in the study said their innovation output--and thus their competitive edge--was raised by the partnerships. The other study focused on industrial alliances with Department of Energy-sponsored universities, with industry participants claiming that access to university supercomputing centers helped generate "breakthroughs needed to create superior products for the private sector and government." Wince-Smith said the council is preparing a plan for a national "innovation ecosystem" designed to increase joint supercomputing ventures between government, industry, and higher education.
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Beefing Up Animation Software
Technology Review (09/07/06) Greene, Kate

Researchers at the University of Bournemouth in the U.K. have created a set of tools to make the skin and muscles of animated figures move more realistically. Traditionally, animators start creating characters by drawing their external appearance, adding details such as how muscles look when flexed after the basic design is created. Animators favor this skin-based approach because it is the most intuitive and because adding muscle details to a form that is already drawn is simple enough, but it cannot account for the subtle ways that skin moves when the muscles underneath flex or contract, and characters can look fake if their skin does not fit correctly. Building the muscles first and then layering the skin on top of them creates more natural-looking characters, though it requires an advanced knowledge of human anatomy, says Jian Zhang, a professor of computer graphics at Bournemouth. Zhang and his colleagues have developed an algorithm that begins a design with the muscles while retaining the intuitive appeal of the skin-based technique. Animators begin with the character's external appearance, and then alter the movement of the major muscle structures. When a body part is flexed, the animation algorithm makes the muscle expand or contract and the skin react accurately using information about the muscle's shape underneath the skin. Zhang began by looking at the muscle groups that most often cause skin to move, including the shoulder, neck, arms, thighs, and calves. Using software, he then analyzed the muscles' shapes and simplified them into ellipses. While he notes that they are just estimations of the shapes, the simplifications enable the animators to make realistic movements without having a detailed knowledge of anatomy, as well as conserving the computational power required by the process.
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Quantum Effect Offers Molecular Transistors
New Scientist (09/08/06) Mullins, Justin

A new generation of more efficient, molecular-scale microprocessors could spring from a novel molecular switch that taps the unique laws of quantum mechanics, according to scientists at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Molecular transistors proposed by several groups require relatively large amounts of energy to switch the current on and off, and power requirements would rise substantially as microprocessors equipped with molecular transistors become more complex. A molecular switch envisioned by University of Arizona physicist Charles Stafford and colleagues harnesses the quantum process of "interference" to address this challenge. Stafford discovered that a circuit could switch current on and off if it is built so that electrons passing through it naturally negate each other via destructive interference, resulting in a new kind of transistor that regulates current flow by switching quantum interference on and off. "Quantum interference effect transistors" could be fashioned from well-known molecules such as benzene, according to Stafford and colleagues. "We simply exploit the beautiful symmetries that occur naturally in these molecules," the physicist explains.
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Subatomic IT
Computerworld (09/04/06) Anthes, Gary

Intel has partnered with Stanford University and the University of California campuses at Los Angeles, Berkeley, and Santa Barbara to establish the Western Institute of Nanoelectronics (WIN) with the primary goal of developing a viable alternative to conventional CMOS technology. The institute specializes in spintronics, a technique that capitalizes on the vertical spin of electrons as a novel way to store and manipulate data. As CMOS features scale to below 65 nm, chips waste more energy through heat, which has driven researchers to explore alternative designs. "The major reason for spintronics is clearly anticipation that there are really no solutions below 20 or 30 nanometers, particularly in terms of power dissipation," said Kang Wang, director of the institute. "Today we use electron charge, but we are looking for alternatives." Spintronics is also an appealing method because the electrons' spins align to create a magnetism that persists even without power. That type of nonvolatile memory, such as Freescale Semiconductor's magnetoresistive RAM (MRAM), which blends magnetic materials with traditional silicon, could lead to computers that can boot up instantly. In the near future, spintronics researchers at WIN should be able to refine MRAM to make it faster and denser. They are also looking to make use of the spins in logic circuits, which could ultimately lead to a logic device that contains a memory state. Binding memory and logic together could significantly speed image processing and other applications that need frequent and fast memory access. WIN researchers are also exploring more distant applications, such as techniques to harness the spin of the atomic nucleus in an attempt to create memory and logic units at the subatomic scale. One possibility is to use an electron's spin to shuttle data to the nucleus, where it could be either utilized or retained by nuclear spin.
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STEM Workforce Salaries Between 1995 and 2005
CRA Bulletin (09/07/06) Vegso, Jay

Salaries for scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematic (STEM) workers rose about 6 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars between 1995 and 2005, according to a report from the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST), peaking in 2002 and remaining flat since. The increase is similar to the entire U.S. workforce, but the median salary for STEM workers in 2005 was significantly higher. Computer software engineers had a median annual salary of $73,000, followed by $59,000 for math and computer scientists, and $43,000 for computer support specialists. The median salary for math and computer scientists dropped significantly between 2002 and 2003, which the report noted could have been the result of changes in occupation codes during that time. The report can be found at https://www.cpst.org/STEM/STE5_Report.pdf.
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Researchers Challenge DOS Attack Data
Dark Reading (09/06/06) Wilson, Tim

A group of University of Michigan, Carnegie Mellon University, and AT&T Labs-Research researchers say DOS attack data may not be generated by sources of spoofed IP addresses as previously thought. The researchers conducted a study that found 70 percent of DOS attacks are created by less than 50 sources. Many think IP spoofing is the most popular way to launch a DOS attack, but the researchers found that IP spoofing was found in a only a small number of incidents. Unwanted traffic that is delivered to unused addresses, commonly known as backscatter, is often used as a way to track DOS attacks, but researchers say it does not track DOS attacks launched by botnets. The report found that less than 1 percent of directly measured attacks produced backscatter. The researchers suggest that organizations use DOS defense tools to decrease the number of malicious traffic.
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India Attracts Western Tech Talent
BBC News (09/05/06) Ahmed, Zubair

India is becoming more attractive to information technology workers from Western countries. Some local IT companies, such as Infosys Technologies in Bangalore, are now able to offer salaries and other perks that are comparable to what Western IT talent would find in their home countries. Infosys, which is currently training 126 Americans at its cutting-edge complex in Mysore, expects to employ 300 Americans by the end of 2006 and add a large contingent from Great Britain next year. For years, industries such as aviation, hospitality, and tourism have been bringing in senior level talent from abroad, but IT companies are wooing employees for lower level management positions and for work in software development units. The opportunity to work in a fast-growing nation is attracting many Westerners to India, says John Almeda, a management trainee from the University of Houston. "The environment here is at the same level if not better than the companies I've worked for," according to Almeda. Working with Westerners will have a positive affect on India workers, says Infosys human resource director Mohandas Pai. "We are trying to make sure that over a period of time our workforce reflects the countries from where we do business," Pai says of the global firm, which obtains only 2 percent of its revenues from India.
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Synthesizing Certified Code
University of Southampton (ECS) (09/06/06) Whalen, Michael; Schumann, Johann; Fischer, Bernd

Researchers Michael Whalen, Johann Schumann, and Bernd Fischer present a process that integrates code certification with automatic program synthesis to relieve software designers of the burden of manually adding annotations to code. Their approach involves the concurrent generation of code and all annotations necessary to certify the code. Advantages of this strategy include the provision of independent verification that automatically generated programs are okay; certification of properties that are too "low-level" to be practically confirmed by typical correctness-by-construction contentions of the synthesis approaches; validation of higher-level properties and bigger programs; and the ability to customize the process to supply proofs that serve as audit trails for specific characteristics that regulatory agencies require for safety-critical software. The architecture of the researchers' certifying synthesis system consists of the AUTOBAYES synthesis system, the MOPS verification condition generator, and the E-SETHEO automated theorem prover. By offering a tool and methodology that illustrates important code properties in an automatic and independently re-checkable manner, the system addresses the biggest drawback of correctness-by-construction -- namely, the difficulty current technology has in ensuring the correctness of the underlying synthesis engine and the domain theory. The researchers see no reason why the approach cannot be extended to the entire domain theory.
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U.S. Leadership on Cybersecurity 'AWOL'
SD Times (09/01/06)No. 157, P. 1; deJong, Jennifer

For nearly two years, the position of cybersecurity chief at the Department of Homeland Security has been vacant, and while the department could be close to appointing an acting assistant secretary for cybersecurity and telecommunications, such a move would be little more than a stopgap. "We are operating without a cyberspace czar," said Ron Moritz, chief security officer at CA, noting that government and industry will never be in a full partnership until a permanent appointment is made. Chief among the security concerns is the increasing frequency of consumer-data breaches. The absence of leadership has also stalled the department's response to the recommendations on creating secure software drafted by the Improving Security Across the Software Development Lifecycle task force, which Moritz co-chaired. "It is frustrating not having the government respond to that," he said. In 2003, DHS brought in Symantec executive Amit Yoran to lead its cybersecurity branch, but he resigned after just a year. Though Yoran has not made his reasons for leaving public, it has been reported that he was given less authority than promised at the department. While it continues the search for a nominee, DHS has launched the "Build Security In" Web portal to provide guidance to software developers, and in the future it will sponsor publications that support software security.
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Computer Education's Failing Grade
CIO (09/01/06) Vol. 19, No. 22, P. 18; Overby, Stephanie

CIOs must show more concern for computer science education in the United States if the nation is to head off a severe shortage of IT workers by 2012. Concerns about teacher training and resources at the high school level, the low number of female and minority students in courses, and the inability to add computer science courses to full schedules prompted the National Science Foundation to set up the Computer Science Teachers' Association (CSTA) last year to address such issues. CSTA has studied other countries that have had success with computer education, and has developed a model curriculum. CSTA is making the model curriculum available at a time when only 25 percent of U.S. high schools require students to take a computer science course. CSTA executive director Chris Stephenson says students become interested in computer science when they understand how it can impact their interests, such as health care or the environment. CIOs should make visits to schools to discuss potential career opportunities with students, support the CSTA in its efforts to lobby policymakers on spending more on computer science education, and encourage their companies to invest in education programs.
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Sandia's Red Teams: On the Hunt for Security Holes
eWeek (09/04/06) Vol. 23, No. 35, P. 22; Preimesberger, Chris

Countries and companies hire Sandia National Laboratories' Red Teams to project and assess cyber-terrorism scenarios, produce worst-case contingency measures, and deter a pending attack by patching existing vulnerabilities. "The threat and risk level has never been higher for cyber-security," maintains Red Teams' leader Michael Skroch, who says government agencies and utilities' replacement of custom IT systems with cheaper, commercially available Windows and Unix systems places them at greater risk because the off-the-shelf components are more hackable. Each Red Team consists of a small group of computer and systems experts who supply independent evaluations of information, communication, and critical infrastructure to spot security holes, upgrade system design, and help decision makers boost system security. "We have a spectrum of assessment methodologies and assessment types that we apply as needed to most efficiently meet customer goals and provide consistent, measurable and actionable results," explains Skroch. Sandia's Information Operations Red Team & Assessments (IORTA) group lists eight "red teaming" categories--design assurance, hypothesis testing, benchmarking, behavioral red teaming, gaming, operational red teaming, penetration testing, and analytic red teaming--that are blended together to fuel evaluations. In addition, the teams employ external methods such as event trees and fault trees, processes such as the Control Objectives for Information and related Technology governance framework, and open-source computer and network security tools that apply to specific assessments. Both hardware and software tools are used by IORTA, with Skroch noting that some tools are utilized in an analytical capacity, others are used for planning attacks, and still others are used to make contact with targets. According to him, the Red Teams also create their own scripts and tools on the spur of the moment.
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Spam+Blogs=Trouble
Wired (09/06) Vol. 14, No. 9, P. 104; Mann, Charles C.

Spam blogging or "splogging" is the practice of posting nonsensical gibberish in blog form and then getting viewers to click on ads that run next to the text, and Wired contributing editor Charles Mann warns that the Internet's potential as a user-controlled, bottom-up platform for all kinds of data could be undone by such chicanery. Splogs are created by software that pillages Web pages for potential search terms, automatically copying text and then jumbling it together, thus creating a deceptive blog that searchers might click on without realizing it is a scam. "The blogosphere is increasingly polluted by spam," reports Six Apart VP Anil Dash. Spammers are using blogs as components in fake networks of interconnected sites or "link farms," which are employed to imitate the popularity that search engines use to determine sites' ranking on search results pages. Dash is concerned that as spammers seek easy money through pay-per-click advertising via highly ranked search results, the time will come when there will be "a reckoning with the economy that's building up around search engine rankings, one way or another." Sploggers can not only set up vast numbers of bogus blogs, but can also assume control of abandoned real blogs; worse still, sploggers employ robo-software to inundate real blogs with phony comments that link back to the splog. To spot splogs so they can be eliminated from blog-search companies' results, Technorati founder David Sifry proposes training computers to recognize splog identifiers that are distinct from authentic blog characteristics, while URLs with multiple dashes and .info domains are other splog telltales. Dash thinks the best defense against sploggers is the enforcement of accountability, and Six Apart's solution is to make bloggers pay a monthly fee, which not only ties bloggers to a bank account but also discourages spammers, who would have to pay outrageous sums to support the massive numbers of splogs they operate; realizing that not all companies will employ such a scheme, Dash suggests the implementation of a global identifier.
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