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ACM TechNews
July 13, 2007

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Welcome to the July 13, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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U.S. and Japan Keep IT Thriving
eWeek (07/12/07) Perelman, Deborah

The IT Competitiveness Index, a benchmark report conducted by the Economist magazine's research department Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), examined 64 nations and found that the United Sates, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom all understand what is needed to support a thriving IT sector. The study reviewed the quality of IT and communications infrastructure, supply of local talent, and the research and development environment to determine how well countries support the competitiveness of IT firms. The United States ranked in the top five countries in all categories, which included education, infrastructure, encouragement of innovation, and legal protection. The report is seen as good news because counters concerns that the United States is falling behind other countries in technology and innovation, although experts still believe the U.S. has significant problems. Congressman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chair of the house committee on science and technology, says the education system does not give students the strong background in science and math that is needed to succeed in engineering careers. Every top-ranking country had its flaws. The success in India and China was attributed to their large work force, low wages, and language attributes, but the report said other countries could use the same attributes to replace them. Skill-rich countries such as Russia, Brazil, Malaysia, and Vietnam, and smaller countries such as Estonia, Lithuania, and Chile are expected to rival India and China. IT skill training and adapting to changing skill demands were listed as priorities, and only a few counties, including the United States and Australia, were credited for making a concerted effort to adjust their curricula to fit demand.
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Digital Wand Gives Texture to Sound
Discovery News (07/10/07) Staedter, Tracy

Attendees of ACM's SIGGRAPH conference in August will be able to try out a digital wand that will allow them to record how they believe physical materials sound, and then use the noise to manipulate other sounds. MIT Ph.D. candidates David Merrill and Hayes Raffle developed the new instrument, called the Sound of Touch, which is intended to create sound effects by brushing, scraping, or tapping. For example, people can imagine what sandpaper sounds like when they rub a finger against it, but the device will let them hear how it sounds to rub their voice against it, how it sounds when it is tapped with glass, or how it sounds when it is rubbed with felt. The wand records a sound sample when a button on its stem is pressed, and effects can be added by moving the wand across a texture. The stimulation from the surface is captured by sensors at the tip, and that data is sent to a computer where the recorded sounds are merged using specialized software inspired by MIT alum Roberto Aimi. Merrill and Raffle will use SIGGRAPH to assess the robustness of the device, which they envision will be used by kids, musicians, sound-designers, scientists, and anyone else. For more information about ACM SIGGRAPH, or to register, visit http://www.siggraph.org/s2007/
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Data on Americans Mined for Terror Risk
Associated Press (07/10/07) Jordan, Lara Jakes

The U.S. government is engaged in a data-mining effort to collect and store information on U.S. citizens to help find potential terrorists, insurance frauds, and corrupt pharmacists, according to a Justice Department report sent to Congress this week. Justice told Congress that records on identity theft, real estate transactions, motor vehicle accidents, and Internet drug companies are being examined to find connections between occurrences. Additionally, the report disclosed government plans to build a database that will be used to asses the risk posed by people considered potential or suspected terrorists. The chairman of the Justice Department's Senate oversight committee said the database was "ripe for abuse," and the American Civil Liberties Union immediately questioned the quality of the information that would be used to label someone as a terror threat. Justice's Dean Boyd said the data-mining databases are strictly regulated to protect privacy and civil liberties. The report said that all but one of the databases, the one intended to track terrorists, have been operating for several years. The terrorist-tracking database, or System to Assess Risk (STAR), is still under construction and is design to help counter-terror agencies narrow the field of people who pose the greatest possible threat, not to label anyone a terrorist, Boyd said. The Justice report also said that STAR might be used to create a list of terror suspects from other sources, including Data Mart. Data Mart is a collector of government information, as well as travel data from the Airlines Reporting Corp., and other information from private data collectors, which may including information such as voter and vehicle registration.
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Open Source Semantic Desktop Is Coming
InternetNews.com (07/13/07) Kerner, Sean Michael

NEPOMUK, or Networked Environment for Personalized Ontology-based Management of Unified Knowledge, is a Semantic Web-based open source project designed to correlate and organize the massive amounts of information saved on PCs into a Semantic Desktop. "NEPOMUK is a project attempting to address what we see as a major missing component of the open source environment--what we call 'semantic capabilities,' which you can think of as the ability to define and take advantage of the relationships between different items and types of data throughout the desktop and beyond," says Stephane Lauriere, Semantic Web activities coordinator at Linux distribution Mandriva. Lauriere says the Semantic Desktop will be more powerful than existing desktop search tools, because they are limited to full text indexing. "The Semantic Desktop makes it possible to store relations, and then to search specific ones," Lauriere says. The Semantic Desktop merges the document and database approaches by converting all documents on the computer into a graph of data that can be queried by all desktop applications. "The desktop consists of isolated data whose structure and meaning are encapsulated in each application, just as Web data semantics is encapsulated in each Web site information system," says Sebastian Trug, a Mandriva architect of NEPOMUK for the upcoming release of KDE 4 for the Linux desktop. "This data would become tremendously more meaningful if it were cross-linked through a layer of interoperable metadata."
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Happy Birthday, Dear Viruses
Science (07/13/07) Vol. 317, No. 5835, P. 210; Ford, Richard; Spafford, Eugene H.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the genesis of the first computer virus. In 1982, a high school student in Pittsburgh wrote a virus that infected Apple II systems. The virus is known as the "Elk Cloner" and did little more than copy itself to floppy disks and display bad poetry, a minor irritation compared to the viruses of today. After Elk Cloner, the problem of malware grew slowly in the early 1980s, but became major news in 1988 when the "Morris Worm" spread worldwide and caused outages across the still young Internet. Since then, numerous viruses and pieces of malware have made news, created fear and headaches for everyone with a computer, and caused billions of dollars in damage. Some of the more memorable names include the Michelangelo virus, SQL.Slammer, Code Red, Nimda, Concept, and Melissa. Today, the greatest risk is financial damage from stolen information and identity theft, and attacks are far more quiet to avoid getting noticed. Instead of displaying a message or erasing a computer's hard drive, malware turns computers into spam machines, platforms for other attacks, or secretly records financial information and passwords. Despite the best efforts of researchers, programmers, and security experts, malware is not going to go away anytime soon. Cell phones continue to become more advanced, and as handheld mobile devices are used for computing tasks, cell-to-cell malware will become prevalent. Computers are difficult to make and keep secure, and humans are normally the reasons viruses manage to bypass security measures, write Purdue University's Eugene H. Spafford and Florida Institute of Technology's Richard Ford.
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Software Development, Eh? Canada Seeks Foreign Tech Workers
Computerworld (07/11/07) Thibodeau, Patrick

Canada is quickly becoming the next place to develop software thanks to the absence of a H-1B visa cap, an immigration system that favors tech workers, an exchange rate that puts the Canadian dollar almost even with the American dollar, and an endorsement from Microsoft. Microsoft recently announced it will open a software development center in Vancouver, evidence that Canada's efforts to expand its economy are working. The Canadian government has specific programs designed to attract high-tech workers with certain skills. The process can take between two to eight weeks, according to immigration attorney Evan Green. Green says if a company needs a worker with specific skills, education, and work experience, and will be paid a salary equal to what a Canadian would earn, a foreigner can get a work permit. Unlike the United State's H-1B visa program, there is no numerical limit on the number of foreign workers entering Canada. Microsoft says it decided to open the Vancouver facility partially to "recruit and retain highly skilled people affected by immigration issues in the U.S." Canadian consultant John O'Grady says notes that Canadian high-tech workers can be paid as much as 20 percent less than what U.S. workers are paid. Paul Swinwood, president of the Information and Communications Technology Council in Ottawa, estimates that there are about 620,000 high-tech workers in Canada. He says the number of available jobs is expected to increase by about 100,000 over the next few years, but Canadian schools will produce only about 15,000 students with the necessary skills. Swinwood says an employee brought into the country on a temporary bases can usually get permanent residency.
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While Schools Combat Low Tech Enrollment, Are Businesses Contributing to IT Workplace Woes?
Wisconsin Technology Network (07/10/07) Plas, Joe Vanden

Schools in Wisconsin and other U.S. states are attempting to reverse declines in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) enrollments by convincing students and parents that the better IT jobs are not being offshored to developing nations, and by getting kids--especially girls and minorities--interested in the STEM fields through outreach efforts. Some examples include the National Science Foundation-funded Wisconsin Girls Collaborative Project and Women in Mathematics and Computers, a University of Wisconsin-Stevens point organization in which tech-oriented college women mentor middle and high school girls. Academics consider interactivity to be a critical element in the cultivation of students' interest in technology careers, and ways to provide such interactivity include student clubs and competitions. Carlini & Associates President James Carlini thinks U.S. tech companies are partly to blame for the decline in STEM enrollments through their exploitation of H-1B and other government programs, which tap lower-wage foreign labor to fill jobs, especially in the IT sector. "Some young people choose other careers, and I think they are being influenced by what's happening to adults in the workforce," he remarks. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that three of the 10 fastest-growing occupations between 2004 and 2014 will be computer-related professions.
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Researchers Dream of Humanizing Androids
Wired News (07/11/07) Beschizza, Rob

Although science fiction has long portrayed robots as humanoid androids capable of performing unlimited tasks, the current reality is that robots have little to no resemblance to humans and are designed to perform very specific tasks. However, research into human-like robots is progressing. Jimmy Or, a research professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, has developed a bipedal robot with a flexible spine that is self-supporting and capable of walking, a task he was told was impossible a few years ago. After watching Lucy Liu belly dance in a movie, and taking classes himself, Or made a connection between belly dancing and the lampreys he was studying. Or thought it must be a natural behavior for there to be such similar movements between the eel-like creature and belly dancing, a revelation that inspired him to develop a robot capable of similar movement. "At present, almost all humanoid robotics researchers are working on similar things. Their robots have box-like torsos," Or says. "I believe the next-generation humanoid robots should have a spine as we do." Or believes that robots with flexible, motorized spines will be better able to interact with humans. Other researchers have developed flexible-spine models as well. At the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, researchers have developed an artificial spine to test medical devices, and University of Tokyo researchers are exploring similar work. Or says that to make more advanced bipedal robots with flexible spines, more powerful and coordinated actuators that embody the most recent neurological research are needed.
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Security Paper Shows How Application Can Steal CPU Cycles
Ars Technica (07/11/07) Reimer, Jeremy

At the annual Usenix security symposium, Dan Tsafrir, Yoav Etsion, and Dror G. Feitelson presented their paper, "Secretly Monopolizing the CPU Without Superuser Privileges." The researchers presented a proof-of-concept program that allows a specified task to "cheat" and consume more CPU cycles than the operating system would normally permit. The program was designed for Unix-based systems, though it could theoretically be altered to affect any multitasking operating system. The program in the paper, called "cheat," can run as a regular non-administrative user. Theoretically, a task could hide by arranging for its process to run immediately after the CPU interrupt "tick," and stop running right before the next tick. By avoiding the ticks, the standard operating system would never notice the task is running. Without any modification to an operating system, all methods of monitoring tasks would not display the cheating task. Seven different operating systems were tested as potential platforms for the attack, and only Mac OS X was immune to the cheat attack, but only because it uses a different scheduling algorithm for its timers. The researchers say they doubt cheat-like attacks will become common because while they could be used to avoid detection, using most of a computers CPU would noticeably slow the computer and raise suspicion. However, programs could be written to cheat a little bit, and would be extremely difficult to detect and remove. The researchers say it is possible to protect the operating system against cheat attacks, but performance suffers as a result.
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Supercomputing on Demand: SDSC Supports Event-Driven Science
UCSD News (07/10/07) Tooby, Paul

The San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego has introduced OnDemand, a new supercomputing resource that will support event-driven science and allow researchers from various fields to utilize SDSC's computer power for urgent computational tasks. An example would be processing information gathered during an earthquake to create videos the public can understand so they know where the epicenter was, how large the quake was, and what areas sustained the greatest damage. Normally, processing information could take hours or even days, but because of OnDemand, researchers can access the supercomputers to run necessary calculations in as little as 30 minutes. "This is the first time that an allocated National Science Foundation TeraGrid supercomputing resource will support on-demand users for urgent science applications," says SDSC's Anke Kamrath. "In opening this new computing paradigm we've had to develop novel ways of handling this type of allocation as well as scheduling and job handling procedures." The OnDemand system will be used to make movies of Southern California earthquakes or provide near real-time warnings and predictions for the paths of tornados, hurricanes, or the direction of toxic smoke from industrial accidents. For example, when an earthquake with a magnitude greater than 3.5 hits Southern California, which normally happens once or twice a month, the movie simulation will need to use 144 processors for about 28 minutes. Shortly after the earthquake strikes, information will automatically be submitted to SDSC and allowed to be processed. Any "normal" jobs running on those processors will be interrupted. The SDSC OnDemand system will serve as a model to develop on-demand capabilities on other TeraGrid systems in the future.
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CyberTrackers of the Kalahari
allAfrica.com (07/11/07) Hulm, Peter

South African conservation scientist Louis Liebenberg and former University of Cape Town computer scientist Justin Steventon have developed software that turns a handheld device into a digital wildlife tracker. Liebenberg saw a need for combining technology with the traditional methods of the Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert and Botswana when he learned tracking from the bushmen. Liebenberg knew their skills and knowledge of conservation was undervalued by protection authorities, partially because the Bushmen cannot read or write. The solution was CyberTracker, software that can be downloaded to PDAs. The screen displays a variety of symbols that represent more than 40 animal species, subspecies, and plants, as well as activities such as drinking, feeding, running, fighting, mating, and sleeping. When the Bushmen observe an animal or encounter anything of significance, they can enter the information using the pictures, with each screen recording increasingly detailed information. Using CyberTracker, a single tracker can record up to 300 observations a day. The handheld computers are connected to a satellite navigational system, and automatically record details including time, date, and exact location. All data collection can be done on a PDA and processed on a personal computer. The free software has been downloaded more than 25,000 times in more than 50 countries. After Liebenberg received a Rolex Award for Enterprise for his work on CyberTracker, the European Union provided funding that allowed him to set up a non-governmental organization to develop and distribute the software, and there are now hundreds of certified trackers.
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Canadian Universities Get $1 Million Research Grant
IT World Canada (07/05/07) Smith, Briony

The University of Toronto, Queen's University, the Universite du Quebec en Outaouais, Carleton University, and the University of Waterloo will share a three-year research grant from CA to study management, security, and governance issues, says Gabby Silberman, senior vice president of CA Labs. The University of Toronto has been working with CA for about a year on an enterprise services bus project, according to computer science and engineering professor Hans-Arno Jacobsen, that aims to make it easier to build SOA and integrate it with event-driven architecture. Jacobsen says the middleware could be applied to many verticals, including manufacturing, transportation, and health care. At Queen's University, research will focus on Web services, specifically a system that can manage itself and adapt without asking the user, according to computer science professor Pat Martin. The Universite du Quebec en Outaouais is working on creating policies for identity access management, according to Silberman. Researchers at Carleton University will study querying inconsistencies, and University of Waterloo researchers will try to develop more adaptive systems for diagnosis and logging. Silberman says CA viewed Canadian universities as a good source for innovative research. "There's a lot of strength in Canadian Universities in areas we're interested in," Silberman says.
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Robot Unravels Mystery of Walking
BBC News (07/12/07)

A group of scientists from across Europe used knowledge gained by a 1930s human physiologist to build Runbot, the world's fastest walking bipedal robot. Runbot can move at speeds just over three leg lengths per second, slightly slower than the fastest walking human. The scientists based the robot's design on the theories of Nikolai Bernstein, who said that animal movement is not under the total control of the brain, but "local circuits" were primarily responsible for movement. Bernstein said the brain only managed tasks such as walking when the understood parameters changed, like switching from one type of terrain to another or dealing with uneven surfaces. Runbot uses local neural loops to monitor information from peripheral sensors on the joints and feet of the robot, as well as an accelerometer that monitors the robot's pitch. The local neural loops analyze the information from the sensors and the accelerometer to make adjustments to the gait of the robot in real time to ensure joints are not overstretched before the next step begins. If the robot encounters an obstacle, only then is the robot's higher learning function utilized. Runbot is different from other robots such as Asimo, because those robots are kinematic walkers that have every step and movement calculated for them, while Runbot is designed to walk more naturally and adapt to new challenges, like a human.
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Bootable Disc Makes for Safer Banking, Researcher Claims
Computerworld Australia (07/10/07) Springell, Sharon

Bond University professor and computer science researcher Paddy Krishnan has developed a secure software application that bypasses the problem of viruses completely for sensitive transactions such as online banking. Krishnan and his team at Bond's Software Assurance Center created a security system for home users tentatively called BOSS, or Bank on Secure System. The user places the BOSS CD into the PC and reboots the computer. Instead of the usual operating system loading, the BOSS system loads first. Once loaded, a browser opens with a graphical keyboard for extra security. Normal online banking can then be conducted. When the user is finish, the original operating system is restored by removing the CD and rebooting. Krishnan says the BOSS system works because viruses on a computer's hard drive are inactive when running the BOSS CD, and that banks and home users would not have to change their hardware or software. Krishnan's next step is to continue his research into a formal verification system for the software. "Verification is very hard because you need to mathematize the whole thing and the system is too big for that," Krishnan says. "But it is the only way to ensure that something works."
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High-Performance Computing: Not Just for Physical Scientists Any More
University of Chicago (07/09/07)

Demand for high-powered computing at the University of Chicago, once limited to physical scientists, is now nearly universal across the school's various departments and as a result the university has expanded its facilities. The university installed a cluster of Linux servers, called Teraport, three years ago that contains 260 processors, each one as powerful as a normal desktop. "It's not enormous, but it's bigger than any other resource on campus," says Ian Foster, director of the Computation Institute, a collaborative effort between the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory. "What's interesting is the number of people who are finding it useful and the breadth of demand that we see for it." So far, Teraport has processed nearly 800,000 jobs, taking more that 2.5 million hours of computing time, according to Computation Institute senior research associate Rob Gardner. Teraport is accessed by nearly 120 users at the school, representing more than a dozen local research groups and collaborators from other institutions. Teraport is also accessible through the Open Science Grid, a national network dedicated to large, computing-intensive research projects. "We're seeing exponential growth in the number of people who want to compute," Foster says. "Part of that is we're hiring people who have the interest. Part of it is that people are facing new problems."
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'Less Is More' Online
University of Missouri-Columbia (07/09/07) Kostiuk, Katherine

In a study that examined responses to pictures viewed online, University of Missouri-Columbia researchers found that people paid more attention to pictures selected from a small number of choices than from a large amount, suggesting that for online content, less is more. The results of the study may have an impact on Internet search engines, advertising, and news sites. Kevin Wise, an assistant professor of strategic communication in MU's School of Journalism, and Fleishman-Hillard researcher Kimberlee Pepple conducted a study that asked participants to select three pictures they would like to examine more closely from a group of thumbnails. In one scenario, participants were asked to choose from six thumbnail pictures, and in another they were asked to select from 24 thumbnails. The researchers found that participants who viewed pictures selected from the six thumbnails showed an orienting response, while participants selecting from the 24 thumbnails showed no response. Participants who selected from the group of six thumb nails also had better and faster recall of the pictures they saw. Wise says search engine firms, news portals, and online advertisers may want to consider presenting fewer picture options in the future to create a more memorable response. Similar concepts may apply to other media, such as video and text, but more research is needed, Wise says. The study, "The Effect of Available Choice on Cognitive Processing of Pictures," will be published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
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The Future of the Web as Seen by Its Creator
IDG News Service (07/09/07) Moon, Peter

World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee calls the Internet of the future the Semantic Web, the technological infrastructure of which he is currently developing in his current capacity as head of the World Wide Web Consortium. He explains in an interview that the Semantic Web's power will be unprecedented, and at the heart of this breakthrough is data integration, in which applications, databases, and Web pages share a common data format. "The Semantic Web is much more powerful, because you can connect the people, connect data, which is about the same person, which is about the same place, which is about the same time," Berners-Lee notes. He says an MIT research group is focusing on the issue of data privacy through the development of systems that support "information accountability," while another MIT team is committed to making the Semantic Web usable to people with a non-technical background. Berners-Lee thinks the Semantic Web explosion will take place when people employ it for data processing, although such a development is a long way off. He believes the inclusion of more bureaucracy into the Internet is unavoidable, while noting that "the administration of something so big will never be controlled by a unique bureaucracy." Berners-Lee stresses the construction of the Web as an infrastructure, a platform for future innovations.
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Xerox's Inventor-in-Chief
Fortune (07/09/07) Vol. 156, No. 1, P. 65; Colvin, Geoff

Xerox CTO Sophie Vandebroek discusses in an interview how her company's fortunes have improved in recent years, thanks to its production of new technologies for reading, comprehending, routing, and securing documents. She describes innovation as "a matter of making sure that our customers constantly want to buy our products and services. Ultimately innovation is about delighting the customer, and that results in great economic returns for Xerox." Vandebroek says Xerox's overall vision is to help clients manage document-intensive processes, which involves guaranteeing that they receive their information at the right time and in the right place, along with the history and context of the information they require. "It also means seamlessly bridging the digital and physical, and making it easy and fast to get to information," notes Vandebroek. Xerox's research centers employ a large percentage of "work practice specialists" in fields that include anthropology, ethnography, psychology, and sociology to aid in the company's mass customization effort. Vandebroek says the area of greatest emphasis for Xerox is the increase in the simplicity, speed, miniaturization, intelligence, security, and environmental friendliness of the company's systems and products. Vandebroek observes that girls' interest in science and technology usually starts to wane in middle school, and there must be an initiative to sustain their interest throughout middle school and high school, with a particular concentration on the engineer's social impact. Vandebroek will receive the National Medal of Technology in late July.
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