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November 17, 2006

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Welcome to the November 17, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

Democrats May Give Voting Machines More Scrutiny
National Journal's Technology Daily (11/14/06) Martinez, Michael

Paper trails for e-voting machines may become a reality under the newly-elected Democratic Congress. Concerns continue to be raised about the security of e-voting machines, and the problems uncovered in several races during the recent election gave voting-rights activists no reason to abandon the issue. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) plans to reintroduce in the next session his bill that would mandate e-voting systems leave paper records, and the proposal has attracted more than 200 of his colleagues as co-sponsors. The House got a late start in addressing the issue, as the House Administration Committee did not hold its hearing until late fall. Voting-rights activists are also optimistic because Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who was a major figure in investigating e-voting problems in Ohio for the 2004 presidential election, is in line to become the next chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. And in the Senate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is poised to head the Rules Committee, plans to introduce a companion bill to the House bill that would also require paper records. "It will be a different environment," Holt's spokesman Patrick Eddington says of Congress. For information about ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Productive Petascale Computing
HPC Wire (11/15/06) Vol. 13, No. 3,

MIT Lincoln Laboratory's Jeremy Kepner, who chaired a panel discussing "High Productivity Computing and Usable Petascale Systems" at SC06, said government funding for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's HPCS program is necessary because there are needs that cannot be met by existing commercially produced systems. Measuring innovations and determining which ones feed into productivity is key to the creation of productive petascale systems, according to Kepner. "I think from a technology perspective, the biggest roadblocks are steep memory hierarchies and requiring heterogeneous parallel programming approaches to achieve performance," he reported. In Kepner's opinion, the most productive manner in which to balance the various demands of HPCS is to blend technologies so that they yield the flattest memory hierarchy and let the users perceive the system in the least complicated and most persistent way. Kepner described the ideal HPC programming language as one that boasts "strong support for multi-dimensional array constructs, PGAS, good single thread performance, and an integrated interactive development environment." He was confident that once the most beneficial features of the programming language have been specified, the optimal adoption strategy will be determined in a straightforward way.
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Computer Industry 'Faces Crisis'
BBC News (11/17/06) Ghosh, Pallab

British Computer Society President Nigel Shadbolt has expressed concerned that the U.K. is in danger of losing "its preeminent position as a knowledge-based economy," he said in his first major interview since assuming the title earlier this month. Shadbolt, who is a professor of artificial intelligence in the School of Engineering at the University of Southampton, cites the fact that demand for IT and computer professionals has doubled but the number of university students graduating with these degrees has decreased by a third. He fears an inability to compete with India and China, because "They are equipping their younger generation, their graduates with substantial amounts of skills particularly in computing and IT and we do not want to be faced with the situation in which major corporates who have traditionally sought skills of that sort in this country look to supply that demand offshore." It is not only the IT field that would feel the repercussions of such a loss; fields such as pharmaceuticals and transportation depend heavily on IT abilities. Shadbolt places blame on schools and public image that portrays IT professionals as "geeky." The economy of the 21st century, as he describes it, is one where "information is one of the primary assets. So really understanding the consequences of the technology and the society on business is fundamental."
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Cornell Robot Discovers Itself and Adapts to Injury When it Loses One of its Limbs
Cornell News (11/16/06) Steele, Bill

A robot has been built by Cornell researchers that is able to learn how to walk by analyzing its parts, creating the ability to adapt to any changes it may encounter. Cornell assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Hod Lipson explains, "Most robots have a fixed model laboriously designed by human engineers. We showed for the first time, how the model can emerge within the robot. It makes robots adaptive at a new level, because they can be given a task without requiring a model. It opens the door to a new level of machine cognition." The robot is only given the knowledge of what it consists of and an objective. It begins by creating models of how these parts may be arranged and developing communications to send to its motors in order to test these parts; after choosing commands based on which model is best, it sends commands and analyzes its movements. This process is repeated 16 times before selecting a method of moving forward. After completing its first task of reaching a certain point, the researchers remove a leg, and the robot must go through the 16 cycles that will let it find the most effective means of continuing forward. The researchers consider the robot to have primitive consciousness, because of its ability to consider actions before executing them. They also believe that this project could provide insight as to the way humans use images of themselves and the imagined result of specific physical movements when learning to walk.
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Election '08: Vote by TiVo
Wired News (11/14/06) Axline, Keith

While electronic voting has met its share of critics and difficulties, many believe the technology should be worked with rather than completely scrapped. VoteHere founder Jim Adler believes that elections could, and should, be made completely electronic, with voting taking place online. He says, "The technology is done. It's really an issue now of politics and people's will." Online elections have been held in Arizona and Michigan, as well as Estonia, Switzerland, Canada, and England; and head of elections for Swindon, England, Alan Winchcombe, said the system performed very well, and that "People did try to hack it, but no one got through. The security levels were very high." Those such as Adler believe that any voting system would have inherent flaws, and that it is useless to assume that the technology will fail outright. One way to solve the problem of the vulnerability of home PCs would be a set-top box running open source, verified, and digitally-signed software; voters would be given a receipt containing a serial number by which voters can verify ballot-box results. Several scientists interviewed agreed that this set-top technology would quell many of their e-voting concerns. While it has been shown to increase turnout, the idea of voting from home not only opens up issues of voter confidentiality and coercion, but it makes the assumption that every voter has Internet access. Meanwhile, other experts say online voting suffers from a dependence on inherently insecure home PCs, the threat of denial-of-service attacks, and database hacks. University of California at Berkeley computer science professor David Wagner says voting "over the Internet is crazy," while computer scientist David Jefferson says that "there's really no way to secure the transmission of votes over the Internet."
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NSF Chief Urges Colleges to Build Better High-Speed Networking Tools
Chronicle of Higher Education (11/16/06) Young, Jeffrey R.

National Science Foundation director Arden L. Bement Jr. shared his vision of cyberinfrastructure and its potential impact on technology and higher education in the United States during a speech to U.S. college leaders. Bement said cyberinfrastructure would be key to innovation, and added that universities and colleges should invest in shared high-speed networking tools and protocols for research as soon as possible. "Leadership in cyberinfrastructure may well become the major determinant in measuring pre-eminence in higher education among nations," Bement said during his address, "Cyberinfrastructure: The Second Revolution," which was delivered at The Chronicle for Higher Education's Technology Forum near Las Vegas. Innovations in cyberinfrastructure have the potential to make the same impact that the Internet has had on society, he said. Bement equated leadership in cyberinfrastructure to America's ability to innovate and compete globally in the future. For Bement, cyberinfrastructure is a "comprehensive phenomenon that involves creation, dissemination, preservation, and application of knowledge," and would also require new "norms of practice and rules, incentives, and constraints that shape individual and collective action."
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Not Lost in Translation
Technology Review (11/16/06) Ornes, Stephen

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced the results of its annual evaluation of computer algorithms designed to translate Arabic and Chinese text into English. Original documents are sent to each competing team, which then uses their algorithm to create a translation that is submitted for review by NIST's BiLingual Evaluation Understudy (BLEU). Google's algorithm was ranked as the best translator out of 40 entrants. Their system works by taking small groups of words and looking at how they have been translated in past translations. The Google software creates its memory by comparing the same document in both English and Chinese or Arabic. The statistical approach it uses takes account of the language as a whole, rather than referring to English language rules for each word it encounters. Google's head of research, Peter Norvig, says, "This is a more natural way to approach language." The team from Kansas State University uses a combination of computer scientists, anthropologists, language scholars, psychologists, and statistical methods to establish a unique method of translation. NIST Machines Translation Evaluations coordinator, Mark Przybocki, says that since some teams uses statistics and other linguistics, the dialog provides experts in the field with ample material for discussion and research. He says, "It's a hard call to say any one technology is going to be the dominant force in the future."
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New Computer Software Enable Rapid Response to Time-Critical Emergencies
Newswise (11/16/06)

The U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory and University of Chicago researchers presented specialized software at SC06 that allows quick access to supercomputers and distributed computational grids in emergency situations. The system, called Special Priority and Urgent Computing Environment (SPRUCE), "makes massive resources available on short notice for critical applications," including public health, safety, and security emergencies, according to SPRUCE project leader and Argonne National Laboratory computer scientist Pete Beckman. The demonstration at SC06 displayed scientists demanding immediate access to the TeraGrid of supercomputers at the University of Chicago in order to execute analyses of a developing weather emergency in which time was of the essence. Resources connected to SPRUCE are able to preempt current functions for emergency response, or execute the emergency computations immediately after a current function is finished. "Severe weather predictions can be computationally intensive and naturally the workload is unpredictable," says NSF Linked Environments for Atmospheric Discovery and University of Oklahoma associate vice president for research Kevin Droegemeier. Beckman's vision of the future of emergency response is that "all of the nation's supercomputers will be ready to provide urgent computing to support and protect the nation."
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IU Informatics Scientists Seek Tools to Shied Against Wi-Fi Drive-Bys
Indiana University (11/15/06) Stuteville, Joe

Indiana University researchers recently conducted a study concerning the weaknesses in the security of wireless routers used in homes and small businesses. Hackers can gain access to vital information through bad configuration or replacement of a router's firmware. Visiting research associate at IU and computers science doctoral student Alex Tsow explained, "Once compromised, a wireless router spoils Internet access for all clients. Clients would be vulnerable to pharming, password sniffing, and other man-in-the-middle attacks. Since a compromised router can victimize all connected clients, public hotspots become a high value target for this kind of attack." Tsow's team estimated that about 10 percent of household wireless routers do not have any changes to their widely known default security settings, and that about 33 percent use open-source firmware that is widely available, making them easy targets for hackers. No known anti-virus software kits are able to stop the kind of attacks the study outlined, but the best defense is "to use a strong administrative password, disengage wireless administration when possible, or use wireless protected access encryption methods," according to IU associate professor of informatics and contributor to the study, Mark Jakobbson. More can be found out about attacks on wireless router networks through the use of honeypots that emulate wireless servers with apparent vulnerabilities.
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Gender Gap: Women's Paychecks Still Lag Men's
Computerworld (11/13/06) Collett, Stacy

The job shortage in the information technology industry could worsen considerably if the earnings gap between men and women is not closed. According to Computerworld's 20th annual Salary Survey, women in IT average $80,781 in total compensation, compared with $91,464 for men. Female CIOs and vice presidents of IT make nearly $10,000 less then their male counterparts, and women who are directors of IT earn an average of $109,446 while men make $114,045. The disparity in pay is a turnoff for many women in the industry, says Gartner analyst Diane Morello. She warns that up to 40 percent of women in IT will leave the industry by 2012 if it does not address its negative stereotypes about what women have to offer in the workplace. But she also offers advice for them. "If I were a women trying to advance, I would look at companies that have more global business and put myself in positions for greater teaming and global projects," says Morello. "Also, I would be asking if I have the right kind of mentors--those who are tapped into business-based advancements and the people who have high credibility."
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Spend More, Get More in Tech R&D? Not Always, According to Innovation Study
InformationWeek (11/16/07) Gardner, W. David

A six-month Booz Allen Hamilton study of research and development at 1,000 global companies learned that less than 10 percent were getting full value from money spent. "People think there are predictable black boxes out there," noted chief investigator Barry Jaruzelski. "They think if you put money in, innovation comes out. If only it worked that way." Jaruzelski said high-tech firms with successful innovation models agree on one major standard despite their various R&D approaches: An in-depth comprehension of customer needs. They also utilized an end-to-end multifunction product development process. The chief investigator reported that Apple Computer, with its exceptional understanding of users, is the poster boy for solid R&D maximization. Jaruzelski said Apple appears to be aware that it can only make a few major innovation investments because its R&D resources are limited. According to him, the outstanding innovators "all viewed innovation as an end-to-end process." Google was also cited in the Booz Allen Hamilton study for stimulating its engineers to spend a considerable amount of their time imagining new concepts.
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Exterminating the Nuisance of Spam
CNet (11/15/06) McCullagh, Declan

The United Nations Internet summit in Athens, Greece, earlier in November was beneficial because it brought NGOs, regulators, law enforcement, and ISPs together and enabled the various stakeholders to share their ideas on how to curb spam, according to Suresh Ramasubramanian in an interview with CNet. Ramasubramanian, the head of antispam operations for Outblaze, says convincing more email users not to click on attachments, persuading ISPs to get involved in anti-spam mailing lists, and getting regulators and NGOs to pass anti-spam laws would be a big help in reducing spam. He is also an advocate for capacity-building for people, training sysadmins, promoting open source, and improving connectivity. Developing countries have become the source for a large percentage of spam, says Ramasubramanian. Outblaze filters messages for sites such as Lycos, Mail.com, and Register.com, and Ramasubramanian believes the ratio of spam to legitimate email is at least 10 to 1. He adds that a good spammer who launches 1 million messages a day is likely to reach less than a fraction of legitimate email addresses. Spammers' costs remain low by doing a botnet or an open relay, and they are able to make money off of the 2 percent to 3 percent of people who decide to buy their products.
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Metadata Labelling for Multimedia Content
IST Results (11/15/06)

The goal of the IST-funded aceMedia project is to devise a way to organize massive volumes of multimedia content for easy location, retrieval, and sharing by enabling self-analysis, self-annotation, and self-adaptation through advances in knowledge, semantics, and multimedia processing technologies. "People don't want to have to spend time managing their content manually, they just want to be able to view it whenever and however they want," notes aceMedia project coordinator Paola Hobson. "For that to happen, multimedia content needs to become intelligent." Content pre-processing, image recognition, and knowledge analysis tools are employed by the aceMedia system to provide metadata annotations on still and dynamic images, as well as specific segments of those images. The image can then be identified when the user enters any of the annotated words, similar words, or combinations of them into a search engine. The central concept behind the aceMedia system is an Autonomous Content Entity (ACE), and the system is comprised of three tiers of technology: A scalable content tier that adjusts to the user's device and its manner of viewing, a metadata tier that performs semantic analysis and annotation, and an intelligence tier that offers programmability and facilitates autonomous action by the ACE. Content providers could give their business a shot in the arm through the use of the aceMedia system, particularly in instances where content is sold over the Internet.
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Global Developers to Number 17M by 2009, Report Says
SD Times (11/15/06)No. 162, P. 1; Morgan, Lisa

Evans Data's first-ever Global Developer Population and Demographics Report, completed in late October, predicts a 46 percent growth rate for the global developer population for a total of over 17 million developers by 2009. The Asia Pacific region (APAC) is expected to experience an 81 percent increase in developer population between 2005 and 2009, while the rate predicted for North America is 15 percent. Management consultant George Gilbert says, "This is part of a 40-year trend to push application development farther out into the community." America creates great demand for less skilled developers for off shore tasks such as testing and maintenance, but is also witnessing a decrease in skilled specialists. Cost of labor in India is increasing, so countries such as Ireland, the Philippines, and China are becoming more popular for outsourcing of American work. "Ultimately, this won't be about labor costs," according to Gilbert. "The quality of the engineering talent coming out of the key universities in these countries will determine just how high up the ladder of economic value-add they can move. And it's clear they won't stop at maintenance." Engineers around the world see top software companies in America as their goal and have become a staple for these companies, but they are still about 15 years younger on average than American developers and less experienced, but this gap will most likely close within five years.
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Scholars Challenge the Infallibility of Fingerprints
Chronicle of Higher Education (11/17/07) Vol. 53, No. 13, P. A14; Monaghan, Peter

Scholars' warnings that fingerprint analysis is not faultless are falling on mostly deaf ears, and key to their arguments is a dearth of scientific scrutiny. University of California at Irvine professor Simon Cole, author of "Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification," points out that because courts have not needed more substantial scientific examination of fingerprint analysis techniques, law-enforcement agencies "retain legal carte blanche to claim that fingerprinting is validated and infallible. They have nothing to gain and everything to lose from validation studies." Cole notes, for example, that examiners use "latent" prints that often do not provide whole, undistorted images, which are then compared to much clearer inked or scanned prints in police databases. The obscuring of myriad details of the print can lead to mistakes. Michigan State University computer science professor Anil K. Jain believes fingerprint technology can only be improved upon, not perfected, and he started a biennial competition to bring such improvements to light. University of Southampton researcher Itiel Dror thinks fingerprint examiners make mistakes because human cognition is not infallible, and he has run experiments that show that the perceptions and judgments of even expert analysts can be shaped and disrupted by cognitive and psychological effects. Practitioners of fingerprint identification have been nonresponsive to the researchers' findings, and Cole contends that forensic scientists are convinced that the research "doesn't matter because it doesn't hurt them. They operate in the courtroom, where the scholarly literature is just ignored." However, there does appear to be increasing pressure for reform.
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Attack of the Bots
Wired (11/06) Vol. 14, No. 11, P. 171; Berinato, Scott

Autonomous software programs or "bots" can coalesce into networks that execute all kinds of mischief on a global level, and this has emerged as the latest threat to the Internet. Bots proliferate like viruses by installing themselves on Net-linked computers; but while viruses follow a rigid program and act individually, bots can be controlled externally from a remote server and work in concert to perpetuate mayhem. Bots can coordinate distributed denial-of-service attacks for the purposes of extortion, distribute spam, facilitate identity theft and credit card fraud by stealing passwords and other sensitive information via keystroke logging, and automate the process of clicking on ads that generate per-click revenue, to name a few strategies. Bots scan for susceptible systems where they can spread, and command and control (C&C) software can upgrade botnets with new abilities as they are devised. Former Arbor Networks researcher Jeremy Linden says, "Bots are at the center of the undernet economy. Almost every major crime problem on the Net can be traced to them." Users usually rent botnets from an intermediary or "bot-herder," whose forte is marketing. Without an effective defense against botnet attacks, the Internet could become increasingly unfriendly to online commerce, or spark more and more severe vigilantism by users, fueling a botnet arms race. The continuing demand for better bots has fueled an intense competition among bot software developers to innovate, and their resulting code attracts a wide array of customers, including organized criminals, political activists, and corporate spies. Meanwhile, Symantec security director Vincent Weafer testified before Congress last year that 20 nations now have ongoing computer attack programs. Researchers are working on ways to defend against C&C programs, such as alerting ISPs to disable the C&C, but many move too fast, as the bot writers are far ahead technically, says SRA International's Adam Meyers.
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Seeing With Superconductors
Scientific American (11/06) Vol. 295, No. 5, P. 86; Irwin, Kent D.

Fields that range from antiterrorism to quantum communications security to astronomy could be dramatically affected by minuscule superconductors that can detect photons and other particles, substantially boosting the sensitivity of measurements across the electromagnetic spectrum. Superconducting photon sensors could help spot materials that could be used in a nuclear weapon, analyze defects in microchips, and gather images much more rapidly, for example. The new sensors come in two varieties: Thermal sensors that rely on how a photon's energy raises the temperature of the detector material, and pair-breaking detectors that sense how a photon disrupts some of the electron pairs that generate superconductivity. Practical imaging is executed by large detector arrays, but all the output signals emitted by the detectors must be blended into a smaller number of data lines via multiplexing. The key to superconducting materials' suitability as sensors lies in the fragility of superconductivity. Currently available superconducting detectors boast 10 to 100 times more sensitivity than conventional detectors functioning at room temperature, and these devices have applications in homeland defense and nuclear nonproliferation, submillimeter astronomy, and cosmology, to name a few areas.
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Embedded Multicore Needs Communications Standards
Embedded Systems Design (11/06) Vol. 19, No. 11, P. 16; Levy, Markus; Brehmer, Sven

Communications application programming interfaces (APIs) are a sticking point in embedded multicore systems, and Embedded Microprocessor Benchmark Consortium President Markus Levy and PolyCore Software founder Sven Brehmer discuss the Multicore Association's effort to address the problem through the development of communications standards. Many communications standards are available, but none are made to support closely distributed embedded multicore systems, and areas of programming multicore systems that must be accommodated include resource management, communications, and synchronization. When data must be shared between cores or core synchronization is called for, there has to be a physical transfer of messages, which can happen synchronously or asynchronously; the availability of both shared and local memory can facilitate the creation of efficient communications structures. Levy and Brehmer note that proprietary implementations and APIs are most frequently employed for shared memory architectures that use simple communications schemes. The majority of standard protocols and APIs target widely distributed architectures (such as the Internet, wide area networks, local area networks, servers, and single-chip processing devices), given the wide distribution of multiprocessing implementations; some form of message passing for data and command transfer is used, but programming difficulties and a lack of support for incremental parallelization of an existing sequential program complicates the situation. The authors push for the creation of an API specially developed for multicore systems with similar characteristics to MPI, while minimizing overhead and enabling the ability to leverage the proximity of multiple cores on one chip. The Multicore Association has begun developing a message-passing API as well as a resource-management API that offers the fundamental communication and synchronization properties needed for embedded distributed systems. Levy and Brehmer write that ascertaining what features and functions should not be applied is the major challenge in creating such APIs.
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