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April 18, 2007

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Welcome to the April 18, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Computer Science Takes Steps to Bring Women to the Fold
New York Times (04/17/07) P. D1; Dean, Cornelia

Over the past few decades women have been playing a larger role in science and engineering, exceeding enrollment parity in mathematics, biology, and other fields, but in the field of computer science women's role is static or even shrinking when compared to men. In 1985, women received about 38 percent of computer science bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States, a figure that fell to about 28 percent in 2003, according to the National Science Foundation. At universities with graduate programs, only 17 percent of bachelors degrees went to women during the 2003 to 2004 academic year, according to the Taulbee Survey, conducted annually by a computer science research organization. Many believe the percentage has worsened in recent years as well, with computer science the only field in science or technology in which women are consistently giving ground. Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Lenore Blum believes women are essentially "canaries in the coal mine," and factors that drive women away from computer science will eventually drive men away as well, such as the dot-com bust, the outsourcing of high-tech jobs, and negative stereotypes about jobs in computer science. Experts say these fears about the computer science industry are blown out of proportion as there are more computer science jobs today than at the height of the dot-com boom, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts demand for computer scientist in the United States will increase during the coming years. Some programs, such as the one at Carnegie Mellon, have shifted the focus away from programming proficiency to overall achievements and broad interests in an effort to attract more women applicants, but these changes have brought accusations of lowered standards. To learn about ACM's Committee on Women in Computing, visit http://women.acm.org
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Open-Source Project Aims to Erase E-Voting Fog
IDG News Service (04/16/07) Kirk, Jeremy

University College Dublin computer science lecturer Joseph Kiniry believes that e-voting is risky and available software systems are substandard, saying governments feel obliged to use e-voting to feel modern, despite computer security experts' warnings that e-voting is insecure. Kiniry knows governments are going to forge ahead with the implementation of e-voting systems, so he and a team of researchers designed an open source e-voting software system that he hopes will create a secure foundation for e-voting. In Kiniry's system, voters register at a government office and receive a PIN. Later, the voter will receive a unique ballot in the mail, and on election day, the voter will enter their voter ID code and PIN on the Web site. To select a candidate, the ballot has a number next to each candidate that is different for every voter, a type of pre-encryption, ensuring that the number can only be used once and will be useless if intercepted. Kiniry's system also provides the voter with a receipt number to make sure the vote was counted. Recounts remain a problem because there are no physical ballots, and like other systems, a recount would entail the system running the same software over again, which is not an acceptable solution according to Kiniry. Kiniry believes a possible solution would be to allow a third party to develop their own software that could be used for recounts, but because elections have such ambiguity without computer technology, it is likely any electronic voting system will have ambiguities as well. For information about ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Patently at Odds
Washington Post (04/18/07) P. D1; Sipress, Alan; Drezen, Richard

The computer technology and drug industries are fighting each other over Congressional efforts to revamp the patent system for the first time since the 1950s. The computer industry would like to see more flexibility in the patent system for its fast moving and developing companies, while the drug industry wants the strongest possible protection measures for its patents. The technology industry uses a recent patent case involving Microsoft as an example for the necessity to change patent law. For infringing on two patents for MP3 technology owned by Alcatel-Lucent, Microsoft was ordered to pay $1.52 billion, the largest patent penalty ever and widely considered to be far too much even if Microsoft was guilty. Large tech companies are more likely to infringe upon existing patents because software develops so quickly, so the computer industry wants more flexibility to challenge patents while being protected from excessive damages, particularly for unintended infringements. Drug companies, however, want strong regulations to defeat challenges and ensure violators pay hefty penalties for copying a patented product, which can cost billions of dollars to develop and patent. Emery Simon, counsel to the Business Software Alliance, argues that patent law, which was originally intended to protect inventors, now discourages individual innovation, and drug companies use patent law to impose strong penalties and dominate the market, using patent law as a weapon against generic drug companies and other competitors. Patent reforms bills are expected to be introduced today in both the House and Senate, an issue that also affects universities, small businesses, banks, and financial services firms.
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Shape-Shifting 'Smart Dust' May Explore Alien Worlds
New Scientist (04/18/07) Knight, Will

Several research groups are developing miniscule wireless sensors, or "smart dust," that could be used to explore other planets, deep space, or be sprinkled in a building to sense chemicals or vibrations. While these tiny smart dust devices are currently theoretical and have only been tested in computer simulations, the possibility to explore inaccessible environments is promising. The tiny devices are only a few cubic millimeters in volume and can perform simple sensing tasks and relay information to other devices less than a meter away, but a group of them could synchronize their radio signals to transmit messages over many kilometers. University of Glasgow electronics researcher John Barker created an electronic experiment simulating the turbulent winds of Mars to test if minute changes in the dust particles' shape, shifting between smooth and dimpled, would allow the dust to navigate. When the virtual motes were programmed with a simple set of rules, Barker found that about 70 percent of the motes were able to successfully navigate a 20-kilometer track. The technology to create these changes in shape does not currently exist, but progress in electronic manufacturing could help miniaturize smart dust with electro-active polymers that could change shape with minimal energy consumption. Michael Sailor, who works on smart dust at the University of California, points out that by distributing the task to multiple, smaller devices, if one device fails, others can fill its role, but smaller devices make it more difficult to place high-fidelity, high-sensitivity sensors into the device.
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I.T.'s Top 81 R&D Spenders
Baseline (04/17/07) Hertzberg, Robert

The biggest technology companies have been spending a lot of time and money on product development, with the majority of research and development spending focused on consumer products such as games and Internet services. A Baseline survey of 81 U.S. companies, more than half in the software industry, shows that R&D spending increased 17 percent last year. The top 10 companies spent $32.5 billion on product development during their 2006 fiscal years, almost 70 percent of all R&D spending among the surveyed companies. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Arvind said once a technology company pulls ahead of the competition they are forced to devote resources to research to ensure they stay at the top of the field. Fast-growing companies are frequently forced to invest development dollars to fine-tune products customers are using, such as the iPod at Apple and printers at Hewlett-Packard, to protect a major source of revenue for the company. Even if companies wanted to spend more money on new breakthrough products or new enhancements for the most popular products, R&D executives say it would be impossible because companies would be unable to hire enough engineers and programmers. Nevertheless, some companies have developed innovative methods for enhancing their R&D efforts. At Adobe, for example, an "idea mentor" is responsible for encouraging "the engineers no matter what, and to make sure they get heard," says Adobe director of technology programs Leslie Bixel. "As the company has grown in size, that's one of the biggest challenges."
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Docs Point to E-Voting Bug in Contested Race
Wired News (04/17/07) Zetter, Kim

Incident reports from a controversial election in Sarasota County, Fla., last November show that poll workers from at least 19 precincts contacted technicians and election officials to report touch-screen sensitivity problems, symptoms associated with a known software flaw in the I-Votronic voting machine made by Election Systems & Software (ES&S). County officials claim the election results were not altered by the bug, but activists are arguing that the flaw might have contributed to the high number of lost or uncast votes in what is now a highly contested and controversial election. Voters complained of having to press the touch screen harder and multiple times to register a vote, a symptom similar to one caused by a bug the machine's maker revealed prior to the election but was ignored by the county. The incident reports also cited problems during the primary election two months earlier, a contradiction to a statement made by Sarasota supervisor of elections Kathy Dent, who said no such problems occurred during the primary. ES&S sent a sign to be posted in polling places instructing voters to hold their finger on the screen until their selection was highlighted, which could take several seconds according to the sign. Dent chose to post a different sign listing steps for casting a ballot and encouraging voters to check the review screen at the end of the ballot for accuracy, but the replacement sign made no mention that voters may need to hold their finger to the screen for several seconds. In the election, Republican Vern Buchanan won over Democrat Christine Jennings by fewer than 400 votes, and more than 18,000 ballots recorded no vote in the race. Jennings is now contesting the results in court, and the House Administration Committee has formed a special taskforce to investigate the election.
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Is the Web Ready for HTML 5?
InternetNews.com (04/16/07) Kerner, Sean Michael

Mozilla, Opera, and Apple's Safari have joined together to propose specifications for HTML 5 to the W3C, the standard body responsible for HTML. The proposal includes Web Apps 1.0, Web Forms 2.0 specifications, and backwards compatibility with HTML 4. Opera spokesperson Anne van Kesteren said preserving information is the purpose of HTML 5. "By remaining backward and forwards compatible, we hope to ensure that people will be able to interpret HTML for decades if not centuries to come," Kesteren said. The last major upgrade was version 4.0, released in 1997, and recommendations for HTML 4.0.1 were published in 1999. Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich said HTML 5 will allow for better cross-browser compatibility, better support for Web 2.0 applications, and better multimedia support. Web Apps 1.0 would form a core part of HTML 5, and provide features that make it easier to create Web-based applications, including context menus, direct-mode graphics canvases, in-line popup windows, and server-sent events. Web Forms 2.0 specifications include new attributes, DOM interfaces, and events for validation and dependency tracking, and XML form submission and initialization. Although HTML 5 is not yet a formal standard, Mozilla and Opera have already built HTML 5 technologies into their browsers. Microsoft has signaled whether it plans to participate in the HTML 5 effort.
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Profit Slows Tech Innovation, Report Says
News & Observer (04/13/07) Simmons, Tim

The desire to seek big profits instead of less lucrative yet more practical innovations is preventing technology from being transferred from university labs to the U.S. marketplace, according to a report by Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a nonpartisan group focused on the advancement of entrepreneurship. The report applauds the work of university researchers, but says a "home run" philosophy among school officials could hinder the development of new technologies. The report calls technology transfer offices "the maximizer of revenue streams, rather than the grease in the gears that allowed the system to flourish." Most technology transfer offices were created after 1980 on the philosophy that most scientists are not business executives, so the office would apply for patents and negotiate license agreements with the university retaining the legal rights to sell new technology and splitting the profits with faculty members who created the technology. The Kauffman Foundation reports that instead of increasing efficiency, the centralized process has created bottlenecks that choke the transfer of new ideas. Officials from North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill dismissed the findings of the Kauffman group. Mark Crowell, the associate vice chancellor responsible for the oversight of technology transfer and economic development at UNC-CH, called parts of the report "silly" and "naive." Dave Winwood, an associate vice chancellor who oversees technology development at NCSU, said "home-run licenses" are not a focus of daily operations and, "The opinions of the Kauffman group could hardly be more inaccurate as regards to the technology-transfer structure, mission and mechanisms in place at N.C. State."
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Dartmouth Gets Award for Cyber Security Studies
Dartmouth News (04/13/07) Burnham, Laurie

Dartmouth is set to receive more funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that will enable its Cyber Security Collaboration and Information Sharing Project to further study cyber security. The Institute for Information Infrastructure Protection (I3P) will receive $8.7 million to conduct new studies on insider threats, privacy protection, and the economics of cyber security, and the Institute for Security Technology Studies (ISTS) will receive $3 million and continue its research into security and privacy matters. "ISTS is excited to initiate several research projects that will develop cutting-edge technologies, including sensor networking, autonomic computing, video forensics, and public-key infrastructure," says ISTS executive director David Kotz. "Addressing real-world problems related to cyber security and infrastructure requires a multidisciplinary approach," says I3P Chair Martin Wybourne. "The unique character of the consortium enables faculty and students from many disciplines to join forces to further our understanding of the issues." Both institutes will also put some of the funds toward educational programs, seminars, and workshops for students.
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Security Remains a Challenge for Browser Developers
eWeek (04/17/07) Galli, Peter

At the Web 2.0 conference this week in San Francisco, leading companies in the Web browser industry, ranging from open-source communities to software powerhouse Microsoft, addressed the arrival of Web 2.0 and what effect it would have on Web browsers, and everyone agreed that security was one of the biggest challenges facing the industry. Charles McCathieNevile, the chief standards officer at Opera, said security models on the Web are immature, and that Web browser developers are committed to interoperability and what users want, not starting another browser war. Microsoft's Chris Wilson, platform architect for Internet Explorer, admitted that Web browsers still have a long way to go. "They are all missing some of the client-side features, but have certainly become far more robust over time," Wilson said. When asked what spurred the development of Web 2.0 applications, Wilson said social networking and mashups were widely responsible, but Mozilla's chief technology officer Brendan Eich said development tools were helpful. Eich said current efforts are focused on making memory use more linear, but this type of development takes time.
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Complexity Is Killing IT, Say Analysts
IDG News Service (04/13/07) Krill, Paul

It is becoming increasingly difficult to handle IT system complexity, IT experts said during IBM's Navigating Complexity conference. Tata Consultancy Services vice president Harrick Vin noted that there are so many kinds of problems, from security compliance and root cause analysis to overlapping functions. "Essentially, what happens is we only have a silo-based understanding of what is going on," said Vin. Changes to operating systems, applications, workload types, and volumes are the source of the rising complexity, according to Vin, who described the response as reactive firefighting. Peter Neumann of SRI International's computer science laboratory said old mistakes are often repeated, such as the buffer overflow issue, and developer tools are not being used. There needs to be "some sort of approach to complexity that talks about sound requirements" and good software practice, Neumann said.
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Feds: Accuracy of Face Recognition Software Skyrockets
LiveScience (04/13/07) Wood, Lamont

Face recognition software is 20 times better than it was five years ago, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. In NIST's latest results from its Face Recognition Vendor Test, the best face recognition algorithms had a rate of false rejections of 1 percent, compared with a failure to make correct comparisons 20 percent of the time in 2002. Speed is not a key characteristic of the algorithms, which make use of the single comparison approach, rather than compare every face in a database to every other face. "We fed the algorithms lots of data to get a statistically meaningful answer," explains Jonathon Phillips, an electrical engineer who directed the test. "Our goal was to encourage improvement in the technology, and provide decision makers with numbers that would let them make an educated assessment of the technology itself." With random lighting on each face, the rejection rate was about 12 percent, compared with 20 percent five years ago.
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Intel R&D on Slow Boat to China
CNet (04/16/07) Krazit, Tom

Intel is showing more of a commitment to China by announcing plans to set up a plant in Dalian to build chips, but the company plans to move more slowly when it comes to research and development. In an attempt to bring greater attention to its growing operation in China, Intel is holding its semiannual Intel Developer Forum in the nation this week. Intel has packaging facilities in Shanghai and Chengdu, and research labs in Beijing and Shanghai, where much of the work involves software development. However, Intel's next processor design is unlikely to come from China because the chipmaker still has concerns about the local educational system, which does not provide engineering students with the same level of technical know-how that Americans receive from U.S. schools. Export controls, which will keep the latest chipmaking technology from being imported to China, are also a problem. "The fab announcement in Dalian is certainly an indication that we're willing to do more in China, but we're trying to pace ourselves," says Intel CTO and chief of labs Justin Rattner.
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Parsing the Truths About Visas for Tech Workers
New York Times (04/15/07) P. BU4; Lohr, Steve; Giridharadas, Anand

Testifying before the Senate last month, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said more H-1B visas for skilled workers would help make the United States more competitive, arguing these workers are "uniquely talented" and highly paid. Ronil Hira, a Rochester Institute of Technology assistant professor of public policy, argues that H-1B visas are not attracting skilled workers to the United States, but actually fast-tracking the outsourcing of computing jobs, with companies hiring a limited number of skilled workers to collect the requirements and specifications of a client and carry that information to India where most of the software coding is done. Traditionally, about half of all H-1B holders eventually get green cards, but major outsourcing companies apply for thousands of H-1B visas but ask for relatively few green cards, according to government figures. The commerce minister of India Kamal Nath called the H-1B the "outsourcing visa," but many economists believe that outsourcing is creating a more efficient global trade in technology services, and the U.S. economy will be more competitive with more job opportunities as a result. Technology lobbying groups argue that the overflow for H-1B visas, applications for which exceeded the yearly allotment in one day, is proof of the skills shortage in the United States, but others disagree. George Mason University associate professor of public policy David M. Hart says, "There is no labor market test, using technically sound criteria, to determine whether or not there is a shortage." Hart suggests an accurate measurement would include recent wage trends and unemployment rates in specific professions. Hira said Microsoft may be using the H-1B visa to bring in the best and brightest, but, "it's definitely not representative of how the H-1B program is being used today."
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Technology Can Improve Lives
Government Technology (04/16/07) Scott, Gina M.

Technology can make life easier for those willing to take advantage of it, but people with disabilities, in the United States there are approximately 51 million, can have difficulty gaining access to that technology. A recent United Nations report found that only 3 percent of Web sites are accessible to persons with disabilities. In 2004, the Federal Communications Commission held hearings to determine the effectiveness of the Emergency Alert System, including to determine if emergency information could reach people with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center for Wireless Technologies recommended the FCC expand its rules to include new digital technologies and devices capable of reaching people with disabilities in case of an emergency. Voting technology has also been improved to be more accessible to the disabled. The November 2006 mid-term election was the first federal election to use voting system updates mandated by the Help America Vote Act, which provides funding to replace punch-card voting systems and set aside funding for local governments to ensure access for individuals with disabilities. Electronic voting machines are believed to be more accessible for voters with disabilities, but some controversy has developed over their reliability, security, and accuracy.
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Software 'Fix' Responsible for Loss of Mars Probe
New Scientist (04/13/07) McKee, Maggie

A preliminary report from a NASA investigation board cites commands incorrectly sent to the wrong memory address on the onboard computer in June 2006 as the primary reason for the loss of NASA's Mars Global Surveyor Spacecraft. The Mars Global Surveyor had been in space for almost 10 years, the longest period for any spacecraft studying Mars, before NASA lost contact on Nov. 2, 2006. The incorrect uploads caused the corruption of two independent parameters, one of which caused a solar array to try to move beyond its limit. The over-rotated solar array caused the spacecraft to reorient itself in space, directly exposing one of its batteries to the Sun, causing the spacecraft to mistakenly believe the battery was overcharged, resulting in a shutdown of the charging process. The other battery could not provide enough power to keep the spacecraft running, and both batteries ran down in about 12 hours. The second parameter malfunction caused the spacecraft's high-gain antenna to point away from the Earth, making communication with the spacecraft impossible and the unsafe thermal and power conditions to be unidentifiable by ground controllers. The June 2006 upload was intended to correct a problem from September 2005 that was caused when two engineers created two slightly different updates to two redundant control systems for the high-gain antenna, which led to a discrepancy with the computer's two memories. The report also found that existing procedures were not thorough enough to catch the resulting problems, and reductions in budgets and staff may have contributed to the loss of the spacecraft.
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The Grand Challenge for Text Mining
Intelligent Enterprise (04/13/07) Grimes, Seth

ClearForest co-founder and computer science professor Ronen Feldman threw down the gauntlet last year with his text mining grand challenge to create "systems that will be able to pass standard reading comprehension tests such as SAT, GRE, GMAT etc," but Seth Grimes writes that Feldman's proposed test is incomplete. He asserts that a far lower f-score than Feldman suggests would be sufficient enough to enable a machine to choose the best of five answers in a multiple-choice reading comprehension test, and speculates that "moderately sophisticated pattern-matching software" might do the job. Grimes also points out that a reading-comprehension test such as Feldman envisions would fail to mine real-world materials (call-center notes, email, survey responses, etc.) that may contain ungrammatical or fractured syntax, irregular or abbreviated spelling, or externalities or references that are not addressed by studying a single source document. A third flaw Grimes finds in Feldman's methodology is that the test may yield correct answers that may not be factually true, given the debatable accuracy of much of the information on the Web. The author reasons that this problem could be resolved through the creation of a mechanism for evaluating and scoring the correctness of identified responses so that a single, best response can be arrived at. Grimes goes on to offer another suggestion, which he terms "the synthesis of responses in accordance with a contextually determined model." The author concludes that passing the Turing Test--which posits that a machine is intelligent if a person cannot distinguish between it and a human being in conversation--remains the optimal grand challenge for text mining.
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Inconsistencies and Disconnects
Communications of the ACM (04/07) Vol. 50, No. 4, P. 76; Stone, Jeffrey A.; Madigan, Elinor

Despite the growing emphasis that institutions of higher learning place on information and communication technology (ICT) for student learning, incoming freshmen's ICT skills are frequently inadequate, while a shift in the workplace toward effective technology and information consumption is exacerbating the situation. An absence of fundamental ICT know-how makes the performance of valid research, information analysis, and communication difficult, and also hinders coordination, knowledge exchange, collaboration, and other essential knowledge work skills. Many states have tried to bridge the gap in students' ICT competence by implementing statewide curriculum standards, and Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers carried out a content analysis of such standards in 10 states three years ago. They concluded that more and more states are acknowledging ICT literacy as a basic skill, and the emphasis of some states on technology education is countered by a lack of solid ICT standards in other states; in many instances the language of the standards was too opaque to allow specific skills to be identified as learning outcomes. Further research revealed an overall disconnect between participating university students' perceived ICT skill levels and their actual skill levels, and a correlation between their lack of ICT prowess and the weakness of state technology curriculum standards. "There must be a consensus among educators and business and government leaders on the definition of ICT literacy and a generally accepted road map of how to produce an ICT-literate individual," the PSU researchers argue. Most of the 10 state standards polled by the researchers failed to cover the basic skills necessary to do research, communicate, and navigate Web sites, while basic computing skills needed to install and remove programs or work with applications were also overlooked.
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