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April 23, 2007

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Welcome to the April 23, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Tragedy Spurs Renewed Interest in Mining Internet to Spot Killers
Star-Ledger (NJ) (04/23/07) Coughlin, Kevin

In an effort to prevent future tragedies like the one at Virginia Tech, the government is exploring a variety of controversial data-mining projects that search Web sites and documents for subtle patterns and associations that could expose potentially dangerous people, including shooters, terrorists, and sexual predators. Rohini Srihari, a computer scientist at the State University of New York at Buffalo and an expert on document analysis, believes these automated systems could catch potential criminals by scanning blogs, audio, and video files on Web sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube for clues of potential trouble. "It's not inconceivable to try and do that," Srihari said. "Are we there yet? Probably no. But does the technology exist and is it feasible? Yes. And I think we have to, for the safety of people." Privacy advocates are concerned the government could compile dossiers on millions of Americans using these data-mining operations. "The cost to law-abiding citizens is way too high given the remote possibility of benefits," said Jim Harper of the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute. According to the Government Accountability Office, by 2004, some 52 agencies had data-mining projects, or were planning to do so, with the Department of Homeland Security running nine programs and planning to create three more.
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Researchers Look to Devise Earthquake-Warning System
Computerworld (04/20/07) Weiss, Todd R.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Southern California, the California Institute of Technology, and other affiliated schools are developing algorithms that can accurately analyze incoming seismic data so earthquakes near cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles can be predicted in time to send out warnings. The work is complicated by the fact that the cities are located on top of major fault zones, so early warning systems are unlikely to be able to provide a warning more than 10 or 20 seconds before an earthquake hits. Bill Leith, coordinator of the advanced national seismic system at the U.S. Geological Survey, said 10 to 20 seconds could provide enough time for children to get underneath their desks, allow emergency workers to respond more efficiently, and help personnel at utility companies, airports, highway departments, and other agencies better prepare. The three algorithms being developed would use raw data from existing seismic collection systems in California to determine how strong an earthquake is, how much the ground is shaking, and how far away it is. David Oppenheimer, project manager for the USGS's Northern California Seismic Network, said the three algorithms are being developed independently using a grant from the USGS so each algorithm can be analyzed to determine which would create the best early warning system. Several countries have early warning systems for earthquakes, including Mexico and Japan, where the systems are highly developed because the government spent a significant amount of money to create them, and the frequency of off-shore earthquakes, in both Mexico and Japan, allow for a longer warning period.
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Bill to Increase H-1B Visa Makes a Comeback in Congress
InformationWeek (04/19/07) McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

The Securing Knowledge Innovation and Leadership (SKIL) bill, which aims to reform green-card and H-1B visa limits, was reintroduced to the Senate and House of Representatives on April 18. The bill features proposals similar to those in larger immigration reform bills, but unlike the larger bills that focus primarily on boarder security and lower-skilled workers, the SKIL bill focuses on reforming issues surrounding highly skilled foreign workers. The H-1B visas are the most common visa used by employers to bring technology workers into the United States for up to six years. The bill proposes raising the annual H-1B cap from the current limit of 65,000 to 115,000, with the ability to automatically increase the cap in following years by 20 percent, or up to a total of 180,000. The bill also looks to raise the limit on "employment-based visas," or green cards, from 140,000 to 290,000 per year, as well as create a new visa category, the F-1, for foreign students pursuing a bachelor's or advanced degree in science, technology engineering, or mathematics from a U.S. school. Programmer's Guild President Kim Berry said he opposes any legislation that seeks to raise the visa cap rather than reforming current H-1B hiring rules. In early April, Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a bill that would require all employers to "pledge" that they made a "good faith" effort to fill available jobs with American workers. Currently, only companies where 15 percent or more of their workforce have H-1B visas are required to make such a pledge.
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MIT Shows How Brain Tells Glossy From Grainy Surfaces
MIT News (04/19/07) Trafton, Anne

Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers studying the brain have discovered the difference in how the brain views glossy and rough surfaces, a discovery that could potentially be used to improve the visual systems in robots. Researchers asked participants to rate the lightness and glossiness of natural materials such as stucco or fabric, quantifying the images in terms of "luminance histograms," which plot the distribution of pixel values. The researchers found that the "skewness" of the histogram, a measurement of its asymmetry, was directly correlated with the subject's perceptions of surface qualities. Study author and MIT computer science and artificial intelligence graduate student Lavanya Sharan said a subject's perceptions of glossiness could be manipulated by digitally altering the skewness of the images, and that technology based on this research could be used in autonomous vehicles for detecting road conditions.
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New Report Explores Nanotechnology's Future
EurekAlert (04/23/07)

A new report from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, "NanoFrontiers: Visions for the Future of Nanotechnology," summarizes discussions between over 50 scientists, engineers, ethicists, policymakers, and other experts on the opportunities for the significant advancements and benefits nanotechnology could have on the energy crisis, medical treatments, and environmental cleanliness. The report calls nanotechnology a "platform technology," as it is capable of merging with other technologies and "could change how we do just about everything." The report says advancements in research tools, information management, and assembly and manufacturing are fundamental to the advancement of nanotechnology research and development needs. Researchers voiced a need for integrated sets of probes and other tools capable of providing the combined data necessary to obtain a "fuller picture of the nanoworld in 3D and in real time." Gathering such massive amounts of information presents a challenge, and scientists and policy planners are advised to focus on "nanoinformatics," a discipline that address how to organize, standardize, share, compare, analyze, and visualize the enormous amounts of physical and biological data collected at the nanoscale.
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Free Wi-Fi Software Nixes Need for Routers
Network World (04/19/07)

New software from researchers at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology makes use of Wi-Fi to link nearby computers without a router. The WiPeer software is designed to connect computers that are no more than 300 feet apart inside buildings and no more than 900 feet away from each other outside. Computer users can use the wireless connection to swap photos, hold online chats, or transfer a 700 MB file within 15 minutes, according to the researchers. "When there are two computers in the same room, it doesn't make sense that they must go out to the Internet to communicate," says professor Roy Friedman of the Technion Faculty of Computer Science. "WiPeer's main added value is the ability to keep things local." The researchers are offering WiPeer for free online. They are now focusing on adding a new feature that will allow cell phone users to bypass operators and make free calls to people nearby.
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Gov't Straining to Secure Computer Systems
Washington Post (04/19/07) Krebs, Brain

Security experts from the Commerce and State departments told the House Homeland Security Committee's cyber-security panel on Thursday that federal computer networks are being targeted on an unprecedented level and that recent high-profile compromises at two federal agencies are visible symptoms of a government-wide security epidemic. Jerry Dixon, director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Cyber Security Division (NCSD), said federal agencies are fighting and cleaning up after more digital attacks against their information systems then ever before. In 2006, the NCSD received reports on almost 24,000 security "incidents," ranging from attacks probing electronic networks to find vulnerabilities, to computer viruses, to unauthorized access of government information resources. Dixon said the NCSD is already on track to receive more than double that number of incident reports in 2007. "Report cards" issued by a congressional oversight committee last week gave both the Commerce and State departments failing grades, and the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for ensuring that federal information systems are protected and is supposed to lead the nation by example, received a grade of "D." "I don't know how [DHS] thinks it's going to lead this nation in security cyberspace when it can't even secure its own networks," Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., said. "Not only are these grades embarrassing, they're dangerous."
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IT Managers Fear Growing Technical Gender Gap
Computerworld (04/19/07) Fonseca, Brian

Recruiting and retaining women for IT jobs such as storage administration, which requires being on-call at almost all times, has become a problem for many companies. Attendees at the recent Storage Networking World conference discussed the issue, and some participants saw it as a major problem in the years to come because more women are leaving such jobs and not enough are coming in behind them to take their place. Though statistics from the Department of Labor forecast an increase in IT jobs through 2012, research from Gartner indicates 40 percent of women will leave the industry for more flexible business, functional, and research and development careers over the next five years. The IT industry stands to miss out on the diversity and balance that women bring to teams that run and maintain storage environments. Dot Brunette, network and storage manager for Grand Rapids, Mich., retailer Meijer, says companies are failing "to provide day care at work, or work at-home options for someone who leaves to have a child." Mentor relationships, team building, and training are also vital to retaining women, adds Lisa Johnson, manager of systems at Freedom Communications in Irvine, Calif. For information about ACM's Committee on Women and Computing, visit http://women.acm.org
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Open Source, Transparency and Electronic Voting
Linux Insider (04/18/07) Mello, John P. Jr.

Critics of electronic voting systems are calling for any software used in voting systems to be made open source and fully transparent. University College Dublin in Ireland computer science lecturer and open source voting software researcher Joseph Kiniry said using open source software for electronic voting would add credibility to the process. Kiniry said with open source, "not only can experts evaluate the software and make sure it does what it says it does, but it also increases the level of trust that normal, non-expert users can have in that software system." Software engineer John Washburn pointed out a disturbing trend with electronic voting's reliability and testing systems. "Everyone who is not paid by a vendor who has looked at existing electronic voting machinery has found significant flaws," Washburn said. "Moreover, they've never found the same flaw twice. That tells me that that must be some defect-dense code. Not only do you find something every time someone looks at it, you find something new every time someone looks at it." Speaking before a congressional subcommittee on elections, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) staff attorney Matt Zimmerman said the EFF felt hindered, both as election observers and as legal counsel for voters who felt compelled to challenge election results due to malfunctioning equipment, by the lack of transparency in the electronic voting "closed technological regime." Some argue that creating open source voting software will expose electronic voting systems to hackers, but Washburn says that argument is based on the "security through obscurity model," and anyone who takes security seriously knows better.
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IBM Props Up Mainframe Education in Schools
ITworldcanada.com (04/17/07) Lau, Kathleen

IBM and financial and academic institutions are working together in an effort to create 23,000 mainframe-literate information technology professionals by 2010 to ensure there are enough mainframe-skilled employees in the global market to support businesses that use mainframe technology. Mainframes are primarily used by large organizations with critical applications such as bulk data processing of census data, consumer and industry statistics, and financial transaction processing. Financial institutions in particular rely on mainframes to process ordinary transactions such as client transactions, according to TD Bank Financial Group's Jeff Henderson. "The concern we have is young people view mainframes as a legacy--almost a dead technology--when in fact, it's still used very extensively and is a critical aspect of our infrastructure," Henderson says. A program such as this is widely considered a necessity as it is estimated that half of IT professionals in North America with at least 20 years of mainframe expertise will soon retire, according to an IBM survey. The program will help mid-career IT professionals develop or enhance their mainframe skills and assist organizations replacing soon-to-retire mainframe experts, as well as provide course material to universities and free access to IBM's mainframe hubs for students as part of IBM's Academic Initiative Program.
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EU-Funded Project Seeks 'Quality Seal' for Open Source Software
European Commission (04/20/07)

The European Union hopes the QualOSS project will give Europe more of a competitive edge in the software market. Researchers involved in QualOSS recently completed the first phase of the effort to provide organizations with a better understanding of the reliability and deployability of open source software. The EU-funded project will comprehensively evaluate source code, documentation, data about the developer community supporting the software products, and other available resources in an attempt to assess the robustness and evolvability of open source software. Organizations would be able to use the assessment tool to quantitatively, objectively, and quickly determine which open source solutions are best for their core operations. The QualOSS offering would be easier to use than current assessment tools. There are also plans to create an automated tool for rating open source solutions.
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Proposed ICANN Status Change Questioned
Washington Internet Daily (04/19/07) Vol. 8, No. 75, Standeford, Dugie

Experts are debating the implications of a possible move by ICANN to recast itself as a private international organization (PIO) like the International Red Cross. The move, which was recommended to ICANN by an advisory panel, would give ICANN the privileges and immunities associated with other PIOs, including avoiding lawsuits. Intellectual property lawyer Andrew Klungness believes the proposed move to a PIO framework may be a strategy to protect ICANN's resources from the draining effects of lawsuits, thereby allowing more of these resources to reach actual end users. Syracuse University professor Milton Mueller opposes the idea of bestowing PIO status upon ICANN. "If [ICANN] does things that are really out of line, you need to be able to sue it, to put it bluntly," says Mueller. Allowing ICANN to avoid lawsuits would effectively allow it to avoid accountability, and this would be a more dangerous development than exposing ICANN to unrestrained litigation, according to Mueller. University of Miami law professor Michael Froomkin notes that the U.S. government and other world governments have already indicated that they would not be pleased if ICANN moved toward PIO status.
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Getting Women Back Into IT
CIO Insight (04/17/07) Chabrow, Eric

More schools should follow the lead of Carnegie Mellon University in revamping their admission requirements for computer science studies, writes Eric Chabrow. At a time when more women are leaving IT jobs and young girls view IT as a career for nerds, the Pittsburgh school has decided to focus on how computers are connected to many fields, according to a recent story in The New York Times. Carnegie Mellon no longer requires high overall achievement and programming know-how for admittance into its computer science program, but now demands that would-be computer science majors have high overall achievement, broad interests, diverse perspectives, and the potential to become future leaders. With the new admission criteria, Carnegie Mellon has seen the number of women enrolled in its computer science program jump from 8 percent to almost 40 percent, according to computer science professor Lenore Blum. Since 2000, the industry has lost 76,000 women, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows. Blum adds that factors that discourage women from IT could influence men as well. For information about ACM's Committee on Women and Computing, visit http://women.acm.org
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Founding Father of the Internet Surveys His Domain
Scripps Howard News Service (04/17/07) Swett, Clint

Vinton Cerf shared his thoughts on the Internet during a speech Monday at a gathering of TechCoire, a group of technology entrepreneurs, in Davis, Calif. One of the founding fathers of the Internet, Cerf said he is very surprised and pleased that people have been willing to put information online with no promise of compensation in return. "It's created the most democratic access to information we have ever seen," said Cerf, who helped develop software that serves as the foundation for transmitting email, movies, and everything else online. Cerf, currently Google's "chief Internet evangelist," acknowledged that spam, viruses, worms, fraud, and worthless content are problems, but added that society has addressed such issues, sometimes in other forms, in the past. He said mobile devices would be key to the future growth of the Internet, and that Internet-connected devices would be seamlessly linked in the years to come. Cerf, who is also chairman of ICANN, added that security and the transmission of data needs to be improved.
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P2P Worms Get Their Turn
InfoWorld (04/16/07) Hines, Matt

Experts claim that botnet-driven mass attacks are replacing traditional worms as the platform of choice for a growing array of skilled and well-funded fraudsters. This trend is illustrated by the P2P, or Storm, worm currently evading anti-virus systems and propagating itself through botnet commands. The new breed of P2P worms are delivered through large networks of hijacked computers and have sophisticated techniques, such as exploiting private networks to contact external servers. Employed by a variety of customers for a variety of purposes, botnets are easy to use; single-purpose botnets can be abandoned after use, making pursuit even more difficult. Many of those involved in creating the attacks are from China and Eastern Europe, and criminal groups with pools of laundered money are becoming involved as well. Experts worry that organizations are consolidating to mount large-scale attacks with increasing professionalism, and urge the IT security community to prepare for the growing botnet problem.
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Robot Wars
Economist (04/17/07)

The Department of Defense want to replace a third of its armed vehicles and weaponry with remote controlled robots by 2015, but officials at the Pentagon are looking to take robotic warfare even further by giving robots increasing amounts of autonomy, including the ability to decide when to use lethal force. Ronald Arkin of the Georgia Institute of Technology is developing a set of rules of engagement for battlefield robots to allow them to use lethal force only under certain situations, essentially creating an artificial conscience. Arkin's artificial conscience uses what he calls a "multidimensional mathematical decision space of possible behavior actions." Decisions would be based on multiple information sources including radar data, current position, mission status, and intelligence feeds, categorizing all possible actions as either ethical or unethical. Arkin believes that robots may actually behave more humanly under battle conditions than people as they are not subject to stress and fatigue the way human soldiers are. Although robots may not be effected by emotion, they are still capable of making mistakes, and surveillance and intelligence data could be incorrect or conditions and situations on a battlefield can change. Some question if robotic soldiers would cause wars to break out more easily. Arkin has started to question policy makers, the public, researchers, and military personnel to gauge their opinions on autonomous robots capable of lethal force.
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Social Computing: From Social Informatics to Social Intelligence
IEEE Intelligent Systems (04/07) Vol. 22, No. 2, P. 79; Wang, Fei-Yue; Zeng, Daniel; Carley, Kathleen M.

Social computing is a core concept for a broad array of information and communication technology (ICT) fields, and the authors note that its growth is carrying repercussions across nearly all arms of software research and practice. "From both theoretical and technological perspectives, social computing technologies will move beyond social information processing toward emphasizing social intelligence," the authors predict. Social informatics studies indicate that ICT and society share a reciprocal relationship, so that social computing has stressed technological development for society while embedding social theories and practices into ICT development, which frequently requires the construction of artificial societies through the use of agent modeling methods in accordance with specific rules and via the interaction of autonomous agents in the environment. Theoretical underpinnings of social computing include social psychology, social network analysis, communication and human-computer interaction theories, sociology, organization theory, anthropology, and computing theory; its infrastructure is composed of Web, database, multimedia, wireless, and agent technology, along with software engineering; and applications of social computing include online communities (blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc.), interactive entertainment (gaming, edutainment, etc.), business and public sector applications (recommender systems, feedback, decision analysis, e-government, etc.), and forecasting (predictive systems). Social computing's chief application areas include the development of improved social software for enabling interaction and communication between groups of people or between people and computing devices, the computerization of human society aspects, and projecting how changing technologies and policies will impact social and cultural behavior. The representation of social information and knowledge, the agent-based modeling of social behavior at both the individual and collective strata, and analysis and prediction methods for social systems and software constitute key issues in social computing research.
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