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December 13, 2006

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Welcome to the December 13, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Congress and Tech: Little to Show
CNet (12/11/06) McCullagh, Declan

The 109th Congress, which concluded over the past weekend, was rather ineffective in passing technology-related legislation during its two-year life span. The politicians went home for the holidays before a vote could be taken on raising the number of available H-1B visas, which is currently set at 65,000 per year. Microsoft's top lobbyist, Jack Krumholz, commented, "Without an increase in the number of H-1B visas and green cards issued each year, our nation loses the opportunity to benefit from the contributions of highly educated and skilled workers from around the world. American business and society in general will be worse off." Web censorship and filtering legislation did not have much more success: While a bill targeting the protection of children on social networking sites passed in the House, it died in the Senate. A House subcommittee let another bill protesting Chinese Web censorship expire without much debate, and voting on a bill that would require Web labeling was put off until February. Net neutrality regulations were defeated soundly in the House, and a Net neutrality amendment was rejected by a Senate committee that voted 11-11 when a majority was needed. Democrats tried to reinsert the amendment into a broader bill being voted on in the Senate, but the vote never happened. Copyright and digital rights management has not received much attention ever since the Grokster file-swapping case. The issue of making "broadcast flags" mandatory for hardware makers was brought up, but Congress avoided voting on the matter. A temporary extension of the R&D tax credit was passed as part of a larger tax relief, but a popular tax credit for R&D was not. The day they adjourned, Congress send an anti-pretexting bill to the President, which would make it a federal crime to buy or sell private phone information, but which exempted police and spy agencies.
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Tool Will Give Robots a Leg Up
San Francisco Chronicle (12/13/06) P. D1; Abate, Tom

Betting that robotics is set to take off, Microsoft has released a point-and-click software tool that is intended to make programming simple robots rather easy. Microsoft Robotics Studio has already gotten the attention of some robot enthusiasts; over 100,000 copies of the software have been downloaded so far. While free for educational or personal use, the software is being used by about 30 companies, who have signed deals with Microsoft, to develop commercial robots. Stanford computer science professor Sebastian Thrun, director of the DARPA automated car competition team, says, "I know of nothing like this out there." Many experts notice a similarity between Microsoft's entrance into the robotics field at this time and their entry into the PC field in the 1970s. Microsoft veteran Tandy Trower says, "You have all this passion and excitement and the nagging question: What are these things good for." Jenny Grau, president of educational robot company RidgeSoft, whose robots can be programmed using the Microsoft software says, "Robotics is such an amazing tool for teachers, elementary, all the way through university, to get kids interested in computer science." Experts say that Microsoft's toolkit can alleviate some of the tedious work involved in robotics programming by standardizing fundamental software routines. Still, realizing the level of standardization in robotics that has been achieved in PCs will take years.
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A Window on the Environment From Tahoe to the Ocean
UC Davis News and Information (12/11/06)

UC Davis environmental and computer scientists are utilizing a network of hundreds of sensors to study the interconnectedness of many different elements of the environment in a more efficient way than ever before. The NSF funded project, known as the Coast to Mountain Environmental Transect (COMET), covers coasts, forests, farmland, urban, and suburban areas to provide perspective on environmental issues and allow forecasting of how climate change will affect California. One application could be predicting wildfires and the affect they will have on the climate. The data, ranging from animal counts to chemistry, gathered by the various types of sensors is put into a "virtual library" to be combined, reviewed, and analyzed. Co-principal of the project and UC Davis department of computer science associate professor Bertram Ludascher says the aim of the project is to "allow scientists to spend less time managing data and more time studying it." The other co-principal investigator, UC Davis department of computer science associate professor Michael Gertz, says, "Up to 80 percent of time is [currently] spent on data management. We want to reduce this drastically." Other sensor networks are being built up around the country, and Congress hopes that they will one day be able to link up.
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Shared Encounters: Content Sharing as Social Glue in Public Space
networked_performance (12/12/06) Green, Jo-Anne

Organizers of ACM SIGCHI 2007 are calling for papers on the subject of how the use of mobile and ubiquitous technologies to share content will impact social interaction. The subject will be the focus of the Shared Encounters: Content Sharing as Social Glue in Public Space workshop, and selected authors will have an opportunity to participate in sessions. The workshop will focus on the types of encounters among people and what makes one meaningful, why certain shared encounters endure, and how mass and personal media can be used to communicate and engage others. Key issues also include the relationship of social groups in networked communities, and the role of situated computing as an enabling technology. Organizers are inviting experts in human-computer interaction, architecture, media, psychology, urban studies and other fields to submit papers for the workshop. Position papers must be received by Jan. 12, 2007. The workshop is scheduled for Sunday, April 29, 2007, during ACM SIGCHI 2007 in San Jose, Calif. For more information on CHI2007, visit http://www.chi2007.org
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Return of the Porta-People
Technology Review (12/13/06) Talbot, David

Sun researchers have developed an improved teleconferencing system that takes advantage of increased bandwidth to enable those not actually in attendance to have a physical presence at meetings. The contraption consists of microphones, speakers, and a tablet PC displaying a real-time image of the person's face, all set up on a box that can be swiveled by the remote colleague to look around the room. Sun principal investigator Nicole Yankelovich says, "We are trying to give those remote people a real tangible presence in the meeting room." The user can both hear what is said and speak at will, and in the direction he chooses. The user is presented with a panoramic screen, and by clicking the mouse on a certain spot, the stand-in can be made to face that spot. Sun researcher Jonathan Kaplan, who has used the system, says, "Being able to move the box lets you grab people's attention, which is very hard to do ... on the phone." Teleconferencing systems have been developed and sold for years, ranging from simple Web cams to those that can actually move around a room. MIT Media Lab director Chris Schmandt says, "The idea of indicators of presence and of stereo audio are themselves not particularly new. What is new is that now IP-based networks are omnipresent and can do a pretty good job of carrying the voice traffic. Doing stereo over conventional telephone channels is difficult, but over a packet network it becomes very easy."
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New University of Maryland Technologies Could Move Video Surveillance to New Level
AScribe Newswire (12/11/06)

University of Maryland electrical and computer engineering professor Rama Chellappa has created an artificial-intelligence-based real-time computer video monitoring system that can identify suspicious activities or individuals, which may remove some of the burden from security guards who must monitor many video screens simultaneously. Chellappa, a pioneer in pattern recognition and computer vision software, developed a digital signature for the human gait, called "human gait DNA." Deviations in this normal gait pattern cause asymmetries that the system can recognize and analyze, but for now a concealed object not effecting one's gait would not be noticed. Gait is also used to identify specific individuals, as is face recognition software. To locate and observe actual pedestrians, Chellappa has used corrective algorithms to compensate for changing light, shadows, and viewing angles. Other recognition technologies are currently being worked on with support from the Department of Homeland Security, including an algorithm to estimate the heights of subjects in the field of view of a camera, and a program that can find unattended packages using a structured representation known as attribute grammars.
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Microsoft Research Goes to School
CNet (12/12/06) LaMonica, Martin

Microsoft's iCampus initiative, a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that is scheduled to conclude this spring, has allowed students and educator's access to specialized equipment and allowed software companies experience in the realm of education. Microsoft Research chief Rick Rashid explains that Microsoft "constructed the project so that there wouldn't be any sort of Microsoft advantage out of it," instead the goal was to "educate and inspire students." ICampus allowed a "rethinking" of "education in the context of technology" using sophisticated equipment that is "very difficult to work with, from a student-management perspective," according to Rashid. He says the educational system is still lagging behind the "opportunities and possibilities" that face today's tech professionals. Rashid faults the educational system for not preparing students for a career in computer science. He says, "Through high school, there's very little computer education--that has been the case of K-12, where it's just not considered a priority by the school system. So there, the issue is more one of just general math and science training. There's a lot of work yet to be done there." He also says that while "industry can be a catalyst in working with universities," it doesn't have the resources to replace government funding for universities.
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Gartner: Firms at Risk of Losing Women Technologists
SearchCIO.com (12/05/06) Tucci, Linda

The IT industry needs to hire more women, as their superior communication skills make them "innately better suited than men" to do business in the world economy, according to the new Gartner report "Women and Men in IT: Breaking Through Sexual Stereotypes." "Let's be frank: Men and women behave, think, and operate differently. To pretend otherwise is to ignore fruitful inputs into IT team-building, leadership, global projects, innovation, and talent management," says report co-author Gartner analyst Mark Raskino. While 80 percent of consumer spending decisions are made by women, men still design 90 percent of IT products and services. Forrester analyst Laurie Orlov has found that communication skills are "the differentiator" in IT hiring these days, as companies realize "you can train someone technically, but changing their personality is a much more difficult job." However, Bank of New York VP of systems and technology Ilene Grossman is quick to point out that while not all women are good listeners and good communicators and not all men are poor listeners and communicators, these skills are certainly lacking in the industry. She adds that since men hold most COO and CEO positions, men will continue to be hired at a greater rate than women because men are "more comfortable with men." However, she says that once more women reach these positions, the current gender inequality will begin to even out. For information about ACM's Committee on Women and Computing, visit http://women.acm.org
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Declining Level of IT Grads Could Hurt High-Tech Sector
ITBusiness.ca (12/11/06) Lysecki, Sarah

A new study from the non-profit Software Human Resource Council (SHRC) has called attention to the severe gap between the number of job openings in the Canadian ICT sector, 35,000 each year, and the number of students graduating from Canadian universities with computer science or engineering degrees, 7,000 each year. The number of new hires needed is expected to increase to 89,000 over the next three or four years, according to the SHRC. SHRC President Paul Swinwood says, "We're looking at a maximum of 7,000 coming out of the school system. We're trying to figure out where the heck the rest of the people are going to come from." Still, some Canadian universities are witnessing an increase in science and engineering enrollment, probably due to a curriculum change made in 2004 that removed a course called geometry and discrete math as a prerequisite for many undergraduate science and engineering programs. The course was avoided by many students who feared a low grade that would bring down their average. Ryerson University dean of engineering, science, and architecture Dr. Stalin Boctor explained, "All of the engineering schools have noticed that the numbers ... have improved." A stigma still exists among young people that technology is not a reliable field, but Dr. Boctor says this is an outdated assumption. He says, "There is a psychological impact from that IT bubble bursting in 2001. We are far removed from that. There are very lucrative jobs in the IT and communications industry."
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World's Fastest Transistor Approaches Goal of Terahertz Device
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (12/11/06) Kloeppel, James E.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will discuss their breakthrough involving transistor speed during the International Electronics Device Meeting in San Francisco this week. Milton Feng, the Holonyak Chair Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and graduate student William Snodgrass have developed a transistor that has set a new world record for speed of operation; the new device takes advantage of tinier components that have enabled them to reduce its base to 12.5 nanometers in thickness. Their transistor, which is made from indium phosphide and indium gallium arsenide, is nearly 300 GHz faster than other transistors in reaching a frequency of 845 GHz. "By scaling the device vertically, we have reduced the distance electrons have to travel, resulting in an increase in transistor speed," Snodgrass says. "Because the size of the collector has also been reduced laterally, the transistor can charge and discharge faster." Feng and Snodgrass have made the "Holy Grail" of a terahertz transistor appear more of a reality, with its expected improvements on the speed of computers as well as the security and flexibility of wireless communication systems. For the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funded the research, a terahertz transistor would mean better combat systems.
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Computers to Fix Themselves
ABC Online (Australia) (12/11/06) Salleh, Anna

Computer scientists at the University of Melbourne have created a system whereby "intelligent" computers can provide help to those seeking technical support. Monash University professor of computer science Dr. Yuval Marom, one of the system's creators, explains that, "Help desk operators are generally dealing with the same thing over and over again," so by mixing and matching parts of generic responses based on key words it identifies in a question, the system will be able to provide appropriate answers. To build its knowledge base, over 30,00 genuine pairs of questions and answers from email help desks have been analyzed by the software. Marom says the program will only supply an answer if it has a certain degree of confidence in its response, and even if its answer is not exactly what the user needs to know, it should at least point them in the right direction. Although it will mean a decrease in human positions at IT help desks, the software will not completely eliminate the need for a human presence, as some questions will always be beyond the scope of the program. The research will be presented next month at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Hyderabad, India.
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Tapping Geek Talent
Bloomberg (12/13/06) Thaw, Jonathan

Yahoo's "Hack Day" event is an example of the way smart programmers are being encouraged by businesses to channel their creativity to innovate the Web. Yahoo co-founder David Filo says, "If we're going to be successful in the next 10 years, we have to tap into all those external creative resources." Yahoo wants to find new-product concepts to compete with the likes of YouTube and MySpace. Of the approximately 500 attending programmers, some were hoping to land a job, while others participated only for fun. Each "geek" had 24 hours to create new uses for Yahoo's applications, then present their ideas and code to executives. Prizes were awarded to 17 teams. Winners included a platform that displays Yahoo's weather information and stock quotes on TV sets, and a version of Yahoo's email that provides photos of contacts. Hybrids, or mash-ups, made up a large portion of the concepts developed. All of those involved maintain ownership rights over what they created. Other companies such as Google and Intel have held similar gatherings to harness the combination of ability and creativity possessed by today's programmers. While such events used to be confined to Silicon valley, they now take place across the country.
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It Is the Business, Stupid
CIO Australia (12/10/06) Bushell, Sue

The failure of software projects is attributable to a dearth of concentration on business outcomes and associated change and an overemphasis on technology. Such failings were categorized as "managerial unconsciousness" by David Avison, Shirley Gregor, and David Wilson in the July issue of Communications of the ACM; they studied three disastrous Australian projects that were connected by needlessly complex application system software, bad IT governance, and novice and/or powerless IT personnel without influence among corporate decision makers, and concluded that senior management is responsible for correcting these faults at the outset. Avison et al traced managerial unconsciousness to unawareness of IT projects' importance and unwillingness to address complex issues and ask hard questions. Fujitsu Consulting's John Thorp, author of "The Information Paradox," proposes an "enterprise value management" strategy to help executives make better informed IT investment decisions and achieve projected return on investment: The strategy secures IT value through a combination of "benefits realization" and "portfolio management." An IT project can be doomed if it has little support from upper management, notes Cutter Consortium Fellow Robert Charette. More and more organizations are adjusting their management architecture to a project-based strategy to augment their project management capabilities, while others have established project management offices to give all project managers centralized support. Valense managing partner Michel Thiry cites the absence of an integrated project management vision as one of the reasons why projects fare so poorly. Thorp sees an urgent need for a basic revision of management's attitude so that organizations can implement a management structure that stresses business programs via a focus on business benefits, and building and proactively managing a portfolio of programs; CIOs must powwow with business stakeholders to guarantee that the project's intended business outcome is clearly understood from the beginning.
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Computers 'Could Store Entire Life by 2026'
Telegraph.co.uk (12/13/06) Fleming, Nic

Computer scientists participated in a debate on the potential impact of "human black boxes" Tuesday in the United Kingdom. During the Memories for Life conference at the British Library, some experts said the ability to record and store high-quality digital video footage of every second of people's lives would do wonders for business, education, medicine, crime prevention, and recording history. For example, such a device would enable retailers to learn even more about customers, and could be used to deliver vital data on patients' heart rates and blood sugar levels to health-care providers, they said. However, other experts countered that a human black box would have huge implications for the issue of privacy and would move society a step closer to becoming a nanny state. "Technology can play a vital role in memory, for example, by providing an artificial aid to help those with memory disorders or enabling communities to create and preserve their collective experiences," said professor Wendy Hall of the University of Southampton. "However, we must also consider the social, ethical, and legal issues associated with technology development and how increased access to knowledge will affect our society in open, inter-disciplinary forums." The pace of expansion of computer processing power means a human black box, about the size of a sugar cube, could be a reality in 20 years.
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IT Job Market Best in Five Years, Survey Finds
InformationWeek (12/11/06) Gardner, W. David

The beginning of next year will be the best time to look for IT work in five years, according to a new report from Robert Half Technology (RHT), an IT employment service and agency. Some 1,400 CIOs were surveyed in the latest RHT IT Hiring Index and Skills Report, which indicates that in the first quarter of 2007 16 percent will be looking to add IT workers, with 2 percent planning to eliminate IT jobs. "The net 14 percent hiring increase--the highest since the fourth quarter of 2001--is up from the previous quarter's forecast," says the report. Most companies with plans to hire will do so because their businesses are growing, and others said they need more IT workers to help with customer and end-user growth. Larger firms, with at least 1,000 employees, are expected to do most of the hiring, with a forecast of a 23 percent net increase. Transportation is likely to be the most active industry, with 24 percent of companies saying they are looking to hire, followed by 19 percent of manufacturing companies. The East South Central area consisting of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri is expected to be a hot region, as well as many major cities. Windows administration skills were cited as in demand by about 77 percent of CIOs, followed by network administration skills by 71 percent and database management skills by 63 percent.
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ICANN Conference Bears Much Fruit
eWeek (12/08/06) Prince, Brian

ICANN's fruitful Brazil meeting ended on Dec. 8, 2006, with a cornucopia of accomplishments: approving a new .asia domain name, launching a new ICANN Regional At-Large Organization, signing three gTLD registry agreements, and agreeing on a three-year strategic plan for ICANN. ICANN's three-year plan includes broadening international participation in ICANN, launching international domain names (IDNs), and improving IANA functioning. The strategic plan also calls for periodic independent reviews of ICANN functions in an effort increase agency transparency. The new ICANN Regional At-Large Organization will represent Latin America and the Caribbean. It will include 22 regional user groups who will work to present a regional consensus on various issues to ICANN. ICANN also approved new registry agreements for .biz, .info, and .org--agreements that included a 10 percent price-hike limit on those domains.
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Green Grid Attacks Data Centers' Power Draw
EE Times (12/11/06)No. 1453, P. 14; Merritt, Rick

The Energy Department held a meeting last in Silicon Valley to discuss ways to more efficiently power large computer centers. As the meeting, the Green Grid, an industry consortium aimed at increasing the energy efficiency of data centers, revealed that it is preparing for the official release of membership and agenda details in early 2007. The groups' attention has recently been drawn to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is beginning development of a data center that "could triple power requirements of the whole lab," says William Tschudi, the lab's project manager. "These supercomputers used to be purchased for performance at any cost, but ... the cost of power is becoming an issue." The Green Grid is expected be comprised of various computer companies, such as Intel, and later is expected to invite more government and industry groups to join. John Pflueger, Dell Computer strategist and member of the Green Grid's technical working group, says, "The worst thing we could do is fracture the limited expertise in the industry." However, the Energy Department has said that it plans to work with about seven such groups. The government does not plan to enforce regulation of data centers, but is accepting incentive proposals. Sun co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim says, "We're getting better ... but we could get another 20 to 40 percent in energy efficiency."
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2006 CRN Industry Hall of Fame: Alan Kay
Computer Reseller News (12/11/06)No. 1223, P. 32; Cowley, Stacy

Alan Kay, who collaborated on the work at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in the 1970s that produced much of what we know as the modern PC, believes that the potential for the next great intuitive leap in computing lies in children. "Children don't know the way the world is supposed to be," Kay says. "In all of the revolutions, it was always the children who did it--usually several generations of children." Kay hopes that the "One Laptop per Child" initiative, as well as Squeak, a modern application of Smalltalk designed to allow children to create their own media, will help change the state of the computing world. He describes the industry as having lost inspiration: "In the last 25 years we went from people thinking about all this stuff very carefully to people who are not thinking about it at all, just using external goal structures ... occupying themselves with imitations of old media." Kim Rose, who co-founded the Viewpoints Research Institute with Kay five years ago, says Kay's interests cross many disciplines. Rose says, "There's so much I've learned from him, whether it's basic properties of physics that I didn't understand properly as a student or strategies for working with corporate executives." Kay's many awards include ACM's A.M. Turing Award and Kyoto Prize. Despite his many years in the industry, Kay says his work is never finished. He says, "Anything that has to do with human thought and amplifying human thought and finding better ways to think is not something you'd expect to have closure on."
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Getting There From Here: A Roadmap for Software Product Line Adoption
Communications of the ACM (12/06) Vol. 49, No. 12, P. 33; Clements, Paul C.; Jones, Lawrence G.; McGregor, John D.

The authors outline steps to take and technical and business activities to perform in order to facilitate the successful organizational adoption of a software product line. An SPL organization embodies a trio of mutually supportive operations, namely core asset development, product development, and management. Core assets (plans, requirements, designs, documentation, tests, and code) are used throughout the entire SPL as common resources and can be customized in a predefined way to fulfill the requirements of individual products, while feedback about the assets' quality and usability is generated by product creation. What products to include in the product line is a management decision founded on the existing core assets' capabilities and the market's needs, and managerial oversight is needed to guarantee that the assets are applicable to product development. The Software Engineering Institute's (SEI) Framework for Software Product Line Practice lists many practices for successfully fielding a SPL, and the combination and coordination of practice areas to yield useful outcomes is detailed by product line practice patterns such as Adoption Factory. The process of executing the product line strategy by blending technical and business activities is mapped out by Adoption Factory, which positions an organization to establish a product line context prior to code development and set up real production capability before trying to operate the product line. Time to market and cost can be reduced, while agility, quality, and productivity can be raised by following the SPL strategy.
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