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September 25, 2006

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Welcome to the September 25, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Electronic Voting Machines Are Making Officials Wary
New York Times (09/24/06) P. A19; Urbina, Ian

An increasing number of state and local officials are growing concerned about the reliability of electronic voting machines as the November elections approach. The most recent warning about the technology came from Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R), who suggested that the state return to paper balloting. Some election officials are concerned that the electronic systems that have been widely adopted since the 2000 presidential election simply trade in old problems for new ones. Roughly one-third of the nation's precincts are using e-voting systems for the first time, boosting the chances of Election-Day problems as poll workers adjust to the new technology. "I think there is good reason for concern headed into the midterm elections," said former Ohio Governor Richard Celeste, adding that the new technology creates new demands for training a generation of non-technologically inclined poll workers. The major source of concern has been paperless touch-screen systems, which are expected to be used by roughly 40 percent of voters this year, raising the prospect of fraud or computer failure. The number of challenges to an election filed in court increased from 197 in 2000 to 361 last year, according to Richard Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Last month, a Pennsylvania state senator introduced a bill to require all precincts in that state to provide voters with the option of using paper ballots, a provision that has already been implemented in at least 27 states. The recent primaries in Maryland, where Election Day problems echoed earlier issues in Texas, Illinois, and other states, were just the latest example of the problems that can go wrong with e-voting systems. For information on ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Universities See Sharp Drop in Computer Science Majors
Tennessean (09/25/06) Snyder, Naomi

Despite one of the highest starting salaries of any profession in the country, computer science is attracting fewer and fewer undergraduates. The declining enrollment comes at a time when employers are having an increasingly difficult time finding qualified candidates. The current situation is a marked departure from the period between 1997 to 2001, when the tech economy was at its peak and ambitious college students were eagerly enrolling in computer science classes with dollar signs in their eyes. Since the dot-com bust, many students and parents have been spooked by the tech industry, particularly as the migration of programming jobs overseas has become a greater concern. Others believe that universities do a poor job of tailoring their courses to the latest skills, instead preferring to pursue a degree from a technical school or career college. "It's not one university that's doing a bad job, they're all doing a bad job," said Andy Orr of the employment agency Robert Half Technology. However, even without a four-year degree, students can still earn certifications in the latest programming language or as a database administrator, according to Robert Half's Beth Hunter.
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Nanowire Computing Made Practical
Technology Review (09/25/06) Bullis, Kevin

A team of Caltech researchers has developed a new technique for creating efficient circuits based on nanowires that they believe are sufficiently dependable for mass production. The preliminary applications of the technology would most likely be used to create cheap, ultrasensitive sensor networks capable of detecting and measuring within a sample hundreds of pathogens or cancer markers. Nanowires could ultimately be used to produce new forms of computer chips as existing designs approach their physical limitations. While there are other technologies with similar potential, nanowires have the advantage of being able to be formed from silicon. The centers of the neighboring nanowire transistors developed by the researchers are denser than the current cutting-edge technologies, though lead researcher James Heath, a Caltech chemistry professor, claims the team could have gone "much, much denser." The development is the first to utilize nanowires in CMOS, the current standard-bearer of semiconductor technology, whereas previous nanowire technology had involved more energy-intensive designs. The principal challenges facing the researchers were to make the nanowire transistors work reliably and to place both p- and n-type transistors on the same surface.
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Europe's Software Patent War Ignites Again
CNet (09/21/06) Broersma, Matthew

The European Parliament could vote Oct. 11 or Oct. 12 on a measure that would legitimize and enforce software patents in Europe. A software patent directive failed in Parliament last year, but supporters of the idea have renewed hopes with the emergence of the European Patent Litigation Agreement (EPLA). The European patent system does not allow software patents, but critics say the European patent office continues to grant them. Companies that have accumulated a large number of software patents view them as a way to add value to their assets. However, software patents are largely considered to be something that would raise the legal costs of larger companies while making it more difficult for small businesses and open-source projects to operate, and some observers have expressed concern about a weakening of democratic controls. "We are all for improvements to the European patent system, but we must continue the search for solutions within the framework of the EU," says Maria Berger of PES, a parliamentary group that has expressed concern about the EPLA. Other groups that have been critical of software patents include Nokia and the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure. "More U.S.-style litigation is not the solution," foundation President Pieter Hintjens said in a statement.
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With Homeland Security Grant, Cornell Seeks to Sort Facts >From Opinions
Cornell News (09/18/06) Steele, Bill

Researchers from Cornell University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Utah have launched a project seeking to train computers to scan text and make a determination as to whether its contents are fact or fiction. The Department of Homeland Security created the consortium of three universities as one of four that are exploring sophisticated techniques for information analysis and security-related computational technologies. "Lots of work has been done on extracting factual information--the who, what, where, when," said Cornell computer science professor Claire Cardie. "We're interested in seeing how we would extract information about opinions." The research aims to bridge the gap between the distinctly human form of intuitive intelligence and the more literal machine intelligence by giving meaning to sentences through novel machine-learning algorithms. Cardie says his team is also working to rate the sources of a work that a writer might cite. "We're making sure that any information is tagged with confidence. If it's low confidence, it's not useful information," he said.
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Technology Helps Foster 'Democratization of Cartography'
University of Wisconsin-Madison (09/20/06) Mattmiller, Brian

Commercial map-making software has helped make it an exciting time to be involved in the field of cartography, according to Mark Harrower, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although commercial map-making software and geospatial information have helped reenergize cartography, in the 1970s there were serious concerns among geographers who believed the new technology would signal the decline of their profession. Harrower, who specializes in visualization and animation in cartography, sees technology as democratizing map-making. "Mapping used to be a job of the elite, the Rand McNallys and National Geographics of the world," he says. "Now people are taking it upon themselves to map their passions." Harrower has helped them by developing several tools, and making them free and available to the public online. Working with graduate school colleague Cindy Brewer, Harrower created Color Brewer, a tool that helps users find more sensible color schemes for maps. Since the 2002 debut of Color Brewer, Harrower has gone on to develop Earth Systems Visualizer, a tool for focusing in on key data sets; Visual Benchmarks, an application for emphasizing dynamic change such as traffic accidents or population growth; and Map Shaper, a program for generalizing and smoothing lines on a map.
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What If Bionics Were Better
Wired News (09/25/06) Oakes, Chris

A small but growing number of early adopters have started to undergo bionics procedures out of choice, rather than necessity. While many still consider radical transformations to the human body taboo, the convergence of man and machine is fast becoming a reality. To some, such as freelance illustrator Phillipa Garner, who has already undergone a sex reassignment operation, bionics surgery is simply a logical step on the path to self improvement. "I would be inclined to go through some pretty radical conceptual self-improvement procedures," she said. Still, prosthetic surgeries such as Victhom's Neurostep are experimental and often inconvenient. "If you try to replace something on the human body, you have to do it in the way that the individual will feel exactly that they have the full control of the mechanism," said Victhom founder and COO Stephane Bedard. Last November, European researchers unveiled the Cyberhand, a prototype of a device that enables amputees to touch, feel, and manipulate the hand in accordance with the wearer's neural signals. When developing procedures that imbue the human body with technology, researchers carefully must guard against the possibility of a machine taking over, according to Henrik Christensen, a professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
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What Are The Hottest Tech Skills Today? Think Fast
InformationWeek (09/21/06) Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Many companies are rewarding technology professionals with particular skills that can help a business meet today's fast-changing needs, rather than basing pay on position, rank, or title, says a new study by Foote Partners that examines 1,800 U.S. and Canadian companies. In addition, companies are acting more flexible with budgets for projects and more rigid about time deadlines, says the research company. Technology professionals specializing in customer-facing skills are in top demand right now, says Foote Partners President David Foote. These professionals who act as extreme programmers or rapid application developers are garnering an extra 16 percent above their customer-facing peers. Companies in 2006 are spending about 8.2% more this year on IT training and leadership development compared to 2005, and this is because developing from within is easier and less expensive than recruiting from outside. At the same time, "outsourcing and offshoring for many companies has been more of a blessing than a curse," says David Foote.
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Author Explores World of Japanese Robots
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (09/21/06) Machosky, Michael

There is a big difference between the robots developed by Japanese researchers and those made in the United States, claims Timothy Hornyak, author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." Speaking generally, Japanese robots tend to be friendly and consumer oriented, whereas the most advanced U.S. robots are often designed for military applications. U.S. robots are commonly viewed as competitive threats for jobs or simply as tools to be used until they break down. By contrast, the Japanese seem to genuinely care about their robots and treat them as partners in labor. Robots, and technology in general, emerged as a way for Japan to rebuild after the devastation of World War II. "They did not develop this latent technophobia that you see in the West," Hornyak says. The Japanese also widely consider robots to have some form of soul or spirit, which is reflected in designs such as Sony's AIBO robot dog and Paro, a robot in the form of a fuzzy baby seal. In a country with some of the world's longest life expectancies and lowest birth rates, Japanese robots are widely used to fill in gaps in the labor supply and care for the elderly. Also, in Japanese popular culture, robots frequently embody the best characteristics of humans, rather than being depicted as the dystopic monster that turns on its master, or as simple comic relief.
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Another Perspective on Petascale
HPC Wire (09/22/06) Vol. 15, No. 38,

Concordia University's David Probst, who was asked to offer a broader perspective on petascale efforts at the HPC User Forum in Denver, expects that there will be solid ideas about ways to boost petaflops performance and productivity significantly via new architectures, languages, and system software by the end of the decade, although he cautions that there are no assurances "that the people with clout will choose good architectures, good languages, and good system software." Probst believes a general-purpose sustained petaflop system will be affordable to only a few governments in the 2009-2011 timeframe specified by several nations, and suggests that perhaps attention should be devoted to offering a less powerful yet productive computer system--maybe a desktop--that less wealthy government agencies can afford. Probst says addressing power consumption is just one of seven challenges in petascale system design, the others being contending with latency, supplying sufficient system interconnection bandwidth, more effectively leveraging familiar and unique forms of locality, extending the von Neumann computing model to permit thread migration and affordable synchronization, increasing processor-generated parallelism, and using good system software to pair a good programming model with a good execution model. Though Probst thinks heterogeneous processing is essential to the revitalization of high-end computing, he says the term is excessively defined, with people currently concentrating "on the most trivial form of heterogeneous processing." His solution is to adopt a single, unified series of programming abstractions, and leave the job of mapping these abstractions to the various execution abstractions deployed by each heterogeneous processor to the compiler and runtime. Probst opines that certain aspects of the petascale movement could be reexamined, remarking that, among other things, "we need more clarity about who is desperate for productive petaflops and who is not really that unhappy with the way things are."
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Interactive Simulator Brings Computing and Software Education to Life
McMaster University Silhouette (Canada) (09/14/06)

An investment in an interactive motion simulator is the latest way in which McMaster University is trying to attract more students to computer science and software engineering. Students at the Hamilton, Ontario, university will use the mini-van-sized simulator with a space-ship-pod fiberglass shell to develop software for simulated flight, driving, real-time game design, medical research, virtual reality systems, and other applications. "It is the same simulator technology used by industry for product development and training but now applied in a classroom setting for teaching," says Martin von Mohrenschildt, chair of computing and software in the faculty of engineering. At a time when fewer students are expressing interest in tech careers, McMaster wants to show students that there is more to IT than writing code and building PCs, as well as how it impacts every facet of society, from business and entertainment to medicine. "The simulator is an entry point for students to learn the latest in 4D-modeling techniques for virtual reality, real-time systems and control, animation tools, user interfaces, and sensory feedback," says Mohrenschildt.
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It Could All Be So Much Better
New Scientist (09/16/06) Vol. 191, No. 2569, P. 54; Holderness, Mike

Social networks such as YouTube and MySpace would never have been realized without hypertext navigation technology created by Ted Nelson, who says in an interview that specific flavors of hypertext undergirding such networks determine easy, difficult, or impossible social networking applications. According to Nelson, the Internet is treated like real estate in which users stake out territory, when what he originally envisaged and constructed "is about sharing media and acknowledging sources, without walls or boundaries." He cites three areas that reflect the naivete of the Web's designers: Hierarchy, the simulation of paper, and the assumption that the human world is entirely factual "and can be represented without the 'says who?' information that is built into my way of doing things." Nelson exemplifies his approach in the Xanadu system he began in 1960, which uses a process of "transclusion" whereby a document quotes another by pulling in the actual text from the source. Xanadu also operates on a "transcopyright" principle in which anyone posting a Xanadu document grants the world permission to quote from it, charging the reader a one-time fee if they so desire. Transcopyright would enable artists to make a living, while Nelson explains that with transclusion "You could follow through from a comment someone put on your page to see at once what they said to everyone else, and then ask 'Is is it only me you love or are you spamming everyone else?'"
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Researchers Reveal Potential 'Click Fraud'
Indiana Daily Student (09/22/06) Oloffson, Kristi

"Click fraud" could pose a considerable threat to online advertisers because it can go unnoticed, according to researchers at the University of Indiana. In fact, Markus Jakobsson, an associate professor of informatics, and research assistants and computer science graduate students Jacob Ratkiewicz and Mona Gandhi are unsure if online attackers have already taken advantage of Web advertisers in such a manner. Online advertisers pay Web sites when Web surfers click on their ads, and scam artists can exploit the business model by having friends visit the site and click on the ads, according to the researchers in a new study. In addition to the social approach, online attackers can employ a technical strategy using "badvertisements," in which tiny ads are placed all over a site, giving the impression that visitors are viewing them. "It's going to be invisible to the advertisement provider," says Jakobsson, who is also an associate director at the IU Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research. "They won't realize there's click fraud on your site." Small pay-per-click advertisers appear to be more vulnerable to click fraud. The researchers will present their study at the Anti-Phishing Working Group's annual conference in November.
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National Biomedical Computation Resource (NBCR): Developing End-to-End Cyberinfrastructure for Multiscale Modeling in Biomedical Research
CTWatch Quarterly (08/06) Vol. 2, No. 3, Li, Wilfred W.; Baker, Nathan; Baldridge, Kim

The authors detail The National Biomedical Computation Resource's (NBCR) advances in building end-to-end cyberinfrastructure to support multiscale modeling in biomedical research. The Finite Element Tool Kit, the Python Molecular Viewer, AutoDock Tools, and the Adaptive Poisson-Boltzmann Solver are just some of the innovations that are helping NBCR in this regard. Presented by the authors is a prototype environment that permits the transparent operation of existing applications on the grid, leveraging open source software that offers a GridSphere-enabled portal interface; Grid Account Management Architecture (GAMA)-based transparent GSI authentication; the Opal Web service wrapper; a CSF4-supported metascheduler; the Gfarm virtual file system; and the Rocks grid-enabled cluster environment. "Better and more robust approaches will always come out of close collaborations between computer scientists and biomedical researchers, as well as other field specialists," the authors note. "The interactions will educate all the groups to be fully aware of the requirements and challenges of the state of the art technology, and make routine use of the grid possible today." The collective cost of global computation grids is substantially lowered by the invention of new tools that support applications in various fields and via international cooperation, the authors point out. Their conclusion is that the specific problems to be addressed and the target audience of the designed environment dictate what tools are to be selected.
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From Hypertext to Hypervideo
Economist (09/21/06)

Just as hypertext enables Web users to click on a passage of text and be transported to a new page, an emerging technology known as hypervideo makes it easier to stitch together online video segments in new ways, giving rise to the phenomenon of video blogging, or vlogging. Using object-tracking software, the objects in hyperlinked videos become clickable as they move around. Clicking on an object takes the viewer to a related video; once it has played, the original video picks up where it left off. To alert users that a video contains hyperlinks, editors can use audible clues, highlight the moving images, or place images from the hyperlinked videos alongside the clip that is currently playing. Siemens plans to use the ADIVI system developed by researchers at the Technical University in Darmstadt, Germany, to improve the technician's experience when consulting an online-video technical manual, enabling viewers to click on a portion of the manual to call up a more detailed explanation of a specific topic. That feature is alternately referred to as "drilling" and "telescoping." In addition to competing terminologies, there are also questions about the etiquette of linking to other users' clips. The controversial practice of hotlinking, where a site owner displays another user's content on his own page, is discouraged by some sites. The technology also has considerable commercial potential for advertisers and technology companies. A new software application allows users to create videos that link to advertising or e-commerce pages, or to supply product information.
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Artificial Intelligentsia
Atlantic Monthly (10/06) Vol. 298, No. 3, P. 146; Fallows, James

Debate is brewing over whether the Internet is nurturing a form of artificial intelligence through the group efforts of bloggers, editors, and other Internet users, whose individual pursuits are collectively creating a vast, impartial, and multidisciplinary knowledge base. Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Fallows expects two significant achievements--spot knowledge retrieval via the embedding of computing power in everyday objects and machine-created categorization--to have an ultimately beneficial effect on human beings' cognitive capabilities. With spot recall, people will be able to retrieve any piece of information whenever they wish, while categorization will give them a leg up in recognizing patterns in the data. Fallows writes that these capabilities will be a mental version of eyeglasses, enhancing the lives of people whose memory fades as they get older. "For those without such problems, these new tools could, while perhaps less immediately essential, yet become the modern-day equivalent of the steam engine or the plow--tools that free people from routine chores and give them more time to think, dream, and live," the author concludes. At the same time, Fallows acknowledges sympathy with technology essayist Jaron Lanier, who warned in the online publication Edge that collective intelligence would have an effect similar to political collectivism in its stifling of innovation and creativity.
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Compliance Deconstructed
Queue (09/06) Vol. 4, No. 7, P. 30; Cannon, J.C.; Byers, Marilee

It is possible for companies to contend systematically with compliance and automate compliance-related business processes through technological application via a process of deconstruction, write Microsoft's JC Cannon and Marilee Byers. Compliance is chiefly fueled by regulatory legislation and corporate governance, and companies should understand that the primary compliance drivers should be the processes that impact the bottom line. Ensuring, or validating, compliance is a formidable task for large companies. The enterprise should perform a compliance assessment with an internal or external compliance expert to identify high-risk business processes, and put in a series of controls to address those processes. The consolidation of compliance management can foster the development of a single corporate compliance policy, which can avoid duplication of effort that gives rise to conflicting policies; each department should define a strategy for corporate policy compliance. The next step is to ascertain how controls for high-risk business processes should be automated, but automation should wait until it has been confirmed that the controls accommodate the company's compliance requirements in an appropriate manner. The automation mechanism should be a system that supplies end-to-end control over business processes, and that is capable of determining the reasons behind the incidence of an action, and the person or persons who approved the action. Following the compliance evaluation's identification of business processes in need of automation, systems that assist with the automation process must be found.
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