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November 15, 2006

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Welcome to the November 15, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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A New Push to Raise Cap on H-1B Visa
New York Times (11/15/06) P. C2; Helft, Miguel

Compete America, a coalition of business and education groups, is reviving the drive for an increase in the number of skilled foreign workers permitted to enter the U.S. each year. They are asking for an increase of both the annual number of H-1B visas granted to skilled immigrants and the number of employment-based green cards made available. Microsoft's Jack Krumholtz says, "The first part is to ensure that U.S. companies have the ability to hire the best and the brightest." Since the end of the Internet boom, the limit on H-1B visas granted each year was set at 60,000, with an additional 20,000 visas given to foreigners with an advanced degree from an American university. A bill, passed by the Senate earlier this year, would have raised the number of H-1Bs given each year to 115,000, and employment-based green cards from 290,000 to 410,000, but came to a halt when Congress encountered internal conflict over broader immigration reform. Some, such as the I.E.E.E.-U.S.A., a professional organization that represents engineering and computer programmers, believe that reform of the H-1B system is needed before the cap is raised. They claim that current laws allow companies to pay immigrants less than standard wages, which does harm to the overall wages of America's workforce. Compete America, with the backing of the National Venture Capital Association, believes that next year's Democratic Senate will pass the bill.
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Salary Survey 2006: Hot Skills, Hot Pay
Computerworld (11/13/06) Collett, Stacy

Pay for IT workers went up across the board this year at an average of 3.1 percent, according to Computerworld's 20th Annual Salary Survey. Several specialties saw above average raises, such as network architects, who saw a 5.3 percent rise this year, and Web developers, Internet managers, and directors of e-commerce, all of whom saw a rise of 4 percent or greater this year. Consumer demand is said to have caused the jump, says analyst David Foote: "The dominant business model is now Web-based. Customer are dictating the way the want to interact across the network with the vendors. They're willing to define the relationship in part by how secure and how easy it is to do business with them." Computerworld's survey, as well as others, reveal a solidifying labor market. About 41 percent of responding IT execs said recruiting talent was more difficult than last year. Nearly half of the respondents said they were passively or actively looking for a new job, and three quarters said they sought better pay. David Rial, Internet services manager for the California Department of Technology, says the demand for specialists in the private sector has made it dangerous to train his employees for fear they will chase higher paying jobs elsewhere. Job-hopping is making a comeback, as a result of what Foote calls a fight for specialized skills. "There have always been talent wars in specific fields," he says. "The different today is it's now down to this niche level." Foote points out the popularity of signing or retention bonuses, and praises them over simply giving a new IT hire whatever position they want, as a way to prevent overly inflated pay scales in the future.
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CSCW 2006: Notes on the ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work
Gumption (11/13/06) McCarthy, Joe

About 400 hundred people attended ACM's Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW 2006) in Banff, Alberta, Canada, last week, which was the conference's 20th anniversary. The paper, "FEEDme: A Collaborative Alert Filtering System" was presented, which considers ways of deciding when people should be alerted as to changes in resources included in the IBM Activity Explorer application. A paper titled "Providing Artifact Awareness to a Distributed Group through Screen Sharing," discussed a project aiming to translate informal awareness activities taken from one's actual desktop into virtual desktops in order to aid distant collaborators. Another project aimed to create technology for collaborative work in a life-critical medical setting. Improving the development and sharing of multimedia via phones through increased interactivity, cohesiveness, and flexibility, was also discussed. A CSCW 1996 paper concerning email was the topic of a presentation that focused on ways that email had evolved since its publication. Studies focusing on various social aspects of del.icio.us, World of Warcraft, thefacebook.com, geographically distributed teams, and megachurches, were also presented. The afternoon was concluded by a discussion of what has been accomplished in 20 years of CSCW.
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Charging Batteries Without Wires
Technology Review (11/14/06) Greene, Kate

MIT researchers have devised a way to wirelessly charge portable devices such as phones, laptops, and cameras. The technology behind the original idea of wireless power idea is known as inductive coupling, which occurs when current is passed through wires in a device (charger), producing a magnetic field that induces a current in the wires of a nearby device such as a cell phone. The researchers propose that a suitable mid-range wireless-energy system could be established by plugging a power base into a wall outlet and would emit low-frequency electromagnetic radiation between 4 MHz and 10 MHz that would be picked up by receivers resonating at an identical frequency within devices. Low frequency, "near-field" radiation would be used because it "just sits there" rather than radiating in all directions, explains Imperial College physics professor John Pendry. He suspects that people will be uneasy at first about having electricity being transmitted through the air around them, but explains that while the electric field could be harmful if humans were nearby, the magnetic field would be a lot safer and just as easy to utilize. The system is still completely theoretical, but it is suspected to be about half as effective as plugging a device into a wall outlet; so what the researchers envision are power stations on the ceiling of every room in a home in order to provide constant charging.
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Supercomputing: A New Who's Who
IEEE Spectrum (11/14/06) Guizzo, Erico

The new TOP500 supercomputer ranking project list was unveiled at this week's SC06 high-performance computing conference in Tampa, Fla., and showed "how the field remains both constant and constantly changing," according to its organizers. The IBM Blue Gene/L at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., was again given first place, and with 280.6 teraflops performance does not seem to be giving up its title very soon. Second place went to the Cray Red Storm at the Sandia National Laboratories, which was upgraded from single-core to 26 544 2.4-GHz dual-core Opteron processors and was rated at 101.4 teraflops, the second ever to break the 100 teraflop mark. MareNostrum of the Barcelona Supercomputer Center in Spain, which came in fifth place, is a cluster of blades, technology that some are calling revolutionary. With 2560 IBM blade servers in 44 racks, MareNostrum clocked in at 62.63 teraflops. Receiving ninth place was the Tsubame supercomputer of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, which included the addition of ClearSpeed number-crunching acceleration boards with two massively parallel floating-point coprocessors to help with math-intensive projects. The Tsubame sustains a speed of 50 teraflops, and is an example of the idea of putting boards in servers that are hooked up to assemble a less expensive supercomputer.
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IT Women in the Industry
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (11/14/06) Miller, Nick

Sex discrimination ranging from subtle to blatant is still a problem for women in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry, according to a poll of 289 female ICT professionals conducted by James Cook University researchers. The Department of Education, Science, and Training reports that the proportion of women to men in the ICT industry has dipped from 26.65 percent to 20 percent in the past five years; the survey finds that over 10 percent of ICT women are subject to outright discrimination, while more than 50 percent claimed that understated discrimination is an offshoot of ICT culture. More than one-third reported that key decisions were made outside the workplace, while 20 percent said they were not included in non-work socializing--viewed as critical to career advancement--as a result of their work culture. Over 40 percent claimed they were judged according to a higher standard than their male counterparts, and nearly 20 percent said they have to act like men to get what they want; one respondent said advancing one's career in the ICT industry required a more rigorous work ethic than men face. "The stories I hear are that women need help in areas like influence, like learning leadership skills, feeling like it's a bit of a boys club, and they don't feel like they can break through barriers," notes consultant Dr. Catherine Norton, who adds that organizations need to do a better job of encouraging female employees and helping them network with other IT women. In return, women's exceptional communications, organizational, and balancing skills can benefit the workplace tremendously. A diverse workforce often produces better end products, according to Google engineering director Jen Fitzpatrick. She says women are stimulated to pursue IT careers as well as network by projects such as the Anita Borg scholarship. The James Cook University report says many women are discouraged from studying ICT as a career choice because of the stereotypical image of tech workers as antisocial nerds. Thoughtware Australia CEO Sonja Bernhardt believes that "If more females were involved in designing and creating technology, we may see a world with different designs and one that takes into account an inclusive set of perspectives. We may even see technology that is simpler to use and more attractive." For information about ACM's Committee on Women in Computing, visit http://women/acm.org
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Designers Give CAD Research Gurus an Earful
EE Times (11/13/06) Goering, Richard

At last week's International Conference on Computer-Aided Design (ICCAD) in San Jose, chip designers told researchers of various problems they faced. Typically, ICCAD is a conference of CAD researchers, but organizers chose to add a designer's perspective this year. "Our goal is to bridge the gap between practitioners and research," said Soha Hassoun, ICCAD general chair and associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Tufts University. "We would like them [designers] to tell you [researchers] what critical issues should drive CAD research in the next few years." Design-for-reliability was identified as an area where help is needed by several speakers. Marek Patrya, principal component design engineer at Intel, said that simply using tools available on the market with design-for-reliability could lead to problems; "It takes manual intervention and a lot of experience to develop a product that meets specifications and still is within reliability requirements." Many other concerns were expressed, such as how a "well-behaved" power grid is to be built, and how to create "power grid-aware" synthesis and other types of tools, both of which were brought up by Mondira Pant. She is against the current situation where researchers and designers "work in isolation. The design and EDA communities need to work together to develop a robust die-on power delivery system." Similar need for collaboration was expressed by those who spoke on other issues.
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Intel Eyes Nanotubes for Future Chip Designs
CNet (11/10/06) Kanellos, Michael

Intel has successfully built interconnects using carbon nanotubes instead of copper wires, which could lead to a new generation of semiconductors. Although the interconnects are still merely prototypes, this advancement allow theories concerning the properties of carbon nanotubes used as interconnects to be tested. As Moore's law drives the size of transistors down, shrinking copper interconnects will have increased resistance, thus slower electron movement, due to "electrons carom[ing] off the metal atoms," according to Dave Lammers, a director with VLSI Research, a semiconductor analysis firm. Carbon nanotubes, however, display "ballistic conductivity," where electrons are free from obstruction and scattering. They are also much thinner than metal interconnects, at only a few billionths of a meter thick, which should make the job of chipmakers much easier for years to come. Currently, the problem with carbon nanotubes is that it is impossible to mass produce uniform nanotubes (some are conductors, some semiconductors; length also varies), so a way to achieve uniformity, or separate them into groups, is needed. Carbon nanotubes interconnects are still several years off from being used in commercial chips.
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Scientists Use Pixels to Ease Amputees' Pain
University of Manchester (11/14/06)

University of Manchester researchers are using 3D computer graphics to help reduce the painful sensations that follow an amputation. Phantom limb pain (PLP) is pain felt in a missing limb, which past research has shown can be decreased if a patient's brain is made to believe it can see the limb. School of Psychological Sciences professor and project leader Dr. Craig Murray said, "One patient felt that the fingers of her amputated hand were continually clenched into her palm, which was very painful for her. However, after just one session using the virtual system she began to feel movement in her fingers and the pain began to ease." The system consists of a headset and sensors that allows the patient to view themselves in a life-sized virtual environment with all of their limbs. The sensors are fitted around the remaining limb, either arm or leg depending on what has been amputated, which is used to control the limb that appears in the 3D computer-generated world in place of the missing one. Four out of five patients that the system has been tested on said that PLP improved, almost immediately for some. Another professor from the School of Computer Science who contributed to the project, Dr. Stephen Pettfier, explains, "It's very satisfying being able to apply the same technology [people are familiar with from the entertainment industry] to something that may have a real positive effect on someone's health and well being."
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IU Team Building Data-Sharing Model to Aid Scientists in Developing Nations
Indiana University (11/02/06)

Indiana University School of Informatics and Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics (CGB) researchers have developed a secure database environment that will provide conservation scientists a way to publicize their findings without the fear of it being used fraudulently. The aim of the project is to encourage sharing of data concerning natural resources in developing countries. CGB conservation scientist Sukamol Srikwan, said, "While professional publications provide a way to assign academic credit, and the notion that patents protect ownership of inventions, there is no similar system to protect raw data such as what a field biologist might observe and collect in a jungle." The database system the researchers have devised credits the work to its contributor using a technique known as cryptographic time-stamping. School of Informatics researcher and computer security expert Markus Jakobsson, said, "Our design has its foundation in computer security principles, but goes beyond the traditional approaches for access control and privacy. Many current data-sharing systems are deigned by biologists with little or no guidance from computer experts--or designed by computer scientists with no input from biologists. Our work seeks to avoid these pitfalls."
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An Interview With Linux Australia's Cover Girl
Computerworld Australia (11/13/06) Tay, Liz

Pia Waugh believes that the cultural stereotypes keeping many women from careers in IT could be overcome if the actual state of IT was better understood. In addition to running Linux Australia, Pia runs Software Freedom International and her own consultancy, as well as holding a research position at Macquarie University. She blames the low rate of women entering IT in countries such as the U.S. and Australia on "cultural expectations...that you need to be masculine to go into IT," whereas in countries such as Malaysia, Finland, or Iran "there's not a gender association with IT." Waugh believes that "The kids of today are more technologically gifted than any of the generations above them. They are all very comfortable using technology to solve problems," she says. She cites cell phones as away to prove to children, especially girls, that technology is useful rather than intimidating. Any student who likes "solving problems...having challenges, learning, and being surrounded by smart people" would be a good fit for an IT career, Waugh says. "Because there's such a diverse amount of jobs out there, you don't need specific math, science, programming, or even creative skills. There's a job for pretty much everyone in IT," she says. The gap between the perception of the industry held by teachers and that which actually exists, especially the diversity of jobs available, must be addressed, says Waugh, because schools are about six years behind. "Some schools are actually telling their kids not to go into IT," she says. For young girls, who are more career-oriented than young boys, according to Waugh, such misguided advice is very influential. For information about ACM's Committee on Women in Computing, visit http://women/acm.org
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Sensor Networks Protect Containers, Navigate Robots
Washington University (St. Louis) (11/09/06) Fitzpatrick, Tony

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have achieved a new level of flexibility in wireless sensor networks, which can support multiple applications over the same hardware to meet changing conditions. In an experiment, a sensor network that utilized software agents was able to locate a simulated fire and direct a robot to the location, using heat detection. After finding the fire, the software agent "clones" itself, forming a ring of software around the fire that a fireman can use to learn about the fire, and if the fire grows, another ring can be created. The research team created a middleware program called Agilla that allows agents to traverse sensor networks connected through the Internet, creating intricate communities of agents in cooperation. Gruia-Catalin Roman, Ph.D., the Harold B. and Adelaide G. Welge professor of Computer Science and department chair, and director of Washington University's Mobile Computing Laboratory, who contributed to the project, predicts that wireless sensor networks are ready to have a huge global impact, not unlike the rise of the Internet following the development of the World Wide Web. "What researchers are banking on is that sensor networks will be so cheap to make that they can be employed on a very large scale," says Roman. "This way you can spread hundreds and thousands of them around gathering data and communicating." Potential future applications include a farmer retrieving data concerning the various types of soil on his land, or a warehouse monitoring its containers.
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Researcher Finds 'Trusted Computing' Chip in Apple Models
eWeek (11/10/06) Turner, Daniel Drew

A "trusted computing" module (TPM) was found in Intel-based Apple computers, but the reason for it is unknown. Amit Singh, a member of Google's technical staff, discusses the existence of the chip in his book, "Mac OS X Internals: A Systems Approach," in which he also writes that there is no way for Apple's Mac OS X to directly make use of the TPM; no DRM or similar restrictions are linked to the chip. "The TPM is an opt-in feature," said Singh. "Apple can't turn it on--nobody can, other than the user." The TPM is a single chip that is made up of a random number generator, a small memory chip, and a low-power processor, plus a few other parts. It has no influence on the system due to a lack drivers that are aware of it in either the computer's OS or its firmware. While it is possible for users to make use of the TPM, Singh's best guess is that the chip is simply part of the motherboard package from Intel. Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, does not believe that the TPM would be included without reason. Based on "software economics" and "Apple's traditional business model," he suggests "future use of the TPM, whether in OS X 10.5, 10.6 or later," or "use directly by application software vendors, e.g. in Office 2007." Anderson has been very critical of past trusted computing efforts, linking them to attempted, strict DRM restrictions, such as the prevention of the copying of purchased media files or the playing of a CD on more than one computer.
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Military Dreams Big With Help From OSU Brains
Albany Democrat-Herald (11/09/06) Lair, Patrick

Oregon State University's research into artificial intelligence is one of many DARPA-funded research projects that could one day develop practical products for civilian use. Tom Dietterich, director of Intelligent Systems Research in OSU's school of electrical engineering and computer science, is currently developing a computer that can play video games, and a personalized assistant that learns (PAL). The challenge of a project such as teaching a computer to play a video game is to understand and reproduce the way that strategies are comprehended and applied, Dietterich says. PAL development aims at producing an AI secretary that knows the needs of its user and can perform tasks such as the filling out of orders forms. DARPA has always had the goal of developing military technology, but as Terri Fiez, director of electrical engineering and computer science at OSU, explains, "For years, DARPA has supported research that has helped the U.S. economy become successful." Fiez is currently involved in development of system-on-chip (SoC) technology. Along with reducing interference between digital and analog circuitry, Fiez's team plans to create software that identifies future problems on a given system.
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Software Devises Best Plan for Tackling Forest Fires
New Scientist (11/10/06) Simonite, Tom

Researchers in Spain are using artificial intelligence to give planning software the ability to suggest firefighting strategies to firefighters. SIADEX, the planning system, is quickly able to show fire departments the best ways to coordinate firefighters, vehicles, and other resources, based on whether they want the fastest approach, the least complicated solution, or the cheapest option. "It suggests two or three optimizations for approval based on different measures of success," says Luis Castillo, an artificial intelligence researcher at the University of Granada, who designed SIADEX along with several colleagues. The system analyzes how standard operating procedures of firefighters apply to a current blaze, using Hierarchical Task Network planning techniques and more advanced software. Fire department administrators, firefighters, and emergency workers will be able to use PDAs, laptops, or desktop computers to go to a Web site and find their specific duties for responding to a blaze. Systems such as SIADEX, which is expected to be tested outdoors in 2007, could be used by governments, emergency planners, and militaries to coordinate response to natural disasters or homeland security emergencies, says Edinburgh University researcher Austin Tate. "People are desperate to get AI into these areas," says the emergency planning systems expert.
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Hoping to Avoid Election-Day Glitches, One County Calls in the Computer Scientists
Chronicle of Higher Education (11/17/06) Vol. 53, No. 13, P. A35; Foster, Andrea L.

Yolo County, Calif., enlisted 60 computer-science grad students from the University of California at Davis to help clear up confusion about the assembly, disassembly, and use of electronic voting machines among elderly poll workers on Election Day, although the machines ultimately saw little actual use. The machines were rolled out for use by disabled voters, but voters reported a preference for paper ballots because of a lack of trust with the e-voting machines. Around one-third of voters cast ballots on e-voting systems nationwide, but while reports of problems with the devices were sparse, watchdog groups said it was too early to generally rank the systems' performance this election. "You can't really tell how well things went until after the dust clears, and that hasn't happened yet," reported Stanford University computer science professor and VerifiedVoting.org founder David Dill. "We definitely saw some problems." E-voting machines were cited by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as the culprits behind precincts that opened late and long polling place lines. A lack of poll worker training and voting machine testing will likely generate major problems for both this latest election and future elections, according to Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project co-director Ted Selker. Lax security of voting machine equipment in terms of handling and storage is also a problem, and many computer-security experts see a need for a voter-verifiable paper trail. E-voting machines are required by California law to supply a paper record of ballots.
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An Ecological Approach to the Design of Information Systems
Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science & Technology (11/06) Fidel, Raya

It is a sensible notion to base the design of information systems on the comprehension of the activities people perform, according to director of the University of Washington Information School's Center for Human-Information Interaction Raya Fidel. But these activities are not consistent for everyone at any time, bringing to mind the idea that each activity type may need its own individual information system. Anyone who participates in cognitive work--work that involves decision making--should have customized information systems designed according to analysis of their activities, and such analysis can be guided by the cognitive work analysis (CWA) framework developed by researchers at Risoe National Laboratory. CWA analyzes the work activities as well as the environment in which they transpire through the empirical study of environmental factors or "constraints" that influence the activities. The framework labels the people who perform the activities "actors," and the analysis of actors is predicated on the assumption that people within a certain group have traits in common that facilitate effective performance of their tasks. Understanding the constraints that shape and impact the actors' activities involves analyzing seven dimensions--including the actors themselves, the workplace environment, and their task or tasks--proposed by the CWA. Probing the work domain, the tasks, and the decisions that are made can particularly benefit from means-ends analysis, which posits five analysis levels (goals/constraints, priorities, functions, processes, and resources) whose relationships are also means-ends relationships in themselves. Fidel concludes that the customization of information systems for defined user groups is already happening: Such systems are being used to facilitate electronic commerce, and she reasons that further customization can significantly improve access to online information.
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Playing for Keeps
Queue (11/06) Vol. 4, No. 9, Geer, Daniel E.

Removing some of the general-purpose aspects of computing is one way to address the complexity versus security challenge, according to Verdasys chief scientist Daniel Geer. He observes that software vendors' self-interest demands increasing software complexity, while the availability of computers and computer-like devices to people is rising thanks to orders-of-magnitude innovations in labs. The decline in the proportion of (people) skill to (computer) horsepower is precipitous and shows no sign of slowing down, and data is becoming increasingly valuable as hardware costs shrink. As software complexity grows, subtle product flaws are multiplying, and Geer writes that the solution is to eliminate complexity from the equation through the creation of appliances. One example of this principle in action is virtualization, which substitutes purpose-built appliances for the general-purpose computer. "Whether it is a side effect or a purpose, little virtual machines that are fast to restart also get you high availability by making recovery time near zero," Geer points out. Another option is surveillance, which the author notes has much more traction than appliance creation.
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