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ACM TechNews
July 16, 2007

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Welcome to the July 16, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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How Many H-1B Workers? Counts Vary
San Jose Mercury News (CA) (07/15/07) O'Brien, Chris

The debate over H-1B visas continues to become more complicated due to a lack of publicly available data on the program. "There's no good data," says Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel. "We know demand well exceeds supply, but we don't really know what the demand is." The confusion over the numbers is a result of the complex nature of the H-1B program and the lack of any hard data on who is using the visas and for which jobs is frustrating to people on every side of the debate. Visa applications are processed through three different government agencies. A company submits an H-1B application to the U.S. Department of Labor. The application is screened and then passed to the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Applications approved by the immigration service are sent to the U.S. Department of State, which issues the visa. Technology companies say there is a shortage of skilled workers in the United States, and the increase in H-1B applications mirrors the increase in general hiring practices. Shotwell, however, says the total number of visa applications, which reached 119,193 applications for the available 65,000 visas that will be awarded for the fiscal year starting in October 2007, is misleading because companies often file multiple applications for a single person, or large blanket applications because companies want to submit as many applications as possible before the cap is reached. Attempts to collect information from the government agencies involved in the application process generally receive responses that vary from non-disclosure statements to lists of the number of new and renewal visas, but not the jobs the visas were issued for.
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Re-Vote Likely After E-Vote Error
IDG News Service (07/14/07) Lawson, Stephen

A Berkeley, Calif., city initiative is likely to be put back on a ballot because of the mishandling of electronic voting machine data. Judge Winifred Smith of the Alameda Country Superior Court indicated that she would nullify the defeat of the medical marijuana initiative in Berkley in 2004 and order the measure to be put on a ballot in a later election. The case highlights the dangers of electronic voting, which makes it harder to ensure fair elections, says attorney Gregory Luke, who is representing Americans for Safe Access, a medical-marijuana advocacy group that is suing the county. Americans for Free Access wanted a recount of the vote for Measure R in 2000, which would have established procedures for opening marijuana dispensaries in Berkeley, and was defeated by fewer than 200 votes. A recount was not possible because the city failed to share necessary voting records, a violation of election laws, Judge Smith ruled in April. Luke says the country reused voting machines from Diebold election Systems without saving enough data to have a recount or to review the election. Additionally, election officials failed to save key evidence after the suit was pending, and data from the vote in question has been found on only 20 out of the hundreds of machines used in the election, Luke argued.
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Intel, in Shift, Joins Project on Education
New York Times (07/14/07) P. B3; Markoff, John

Intel announced that it has agreed to partner with the One Laptop Per Child Foundation. The foundation is working to provide children in poor nations with inexpensive portable computers that can be used to enhance their learning opportunities. Headed by former MIT Media Laboratory director Nicholas Negroponte, the group's wireless-connected laptops would make use of open-source software and are expected to cost $100 by the end of 2008. Negroponte is targeting the end of September or early October for the start of full-scale manufacturing. William A. Swope, an Intel vice president and the director of the chip maker's corporate affairs group, will join the board of the foundation, which will also use the company's server technology for its educational systems. The laptops use a microprocessor from Advanced Micro Devices, but could use Intel chips in the future. "By aligning here we are just going to help more kids," says Swope.
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The Future of Search
Technology Review (07/16/07) Greene, Kate

In an interview, Google director of research Peter Norvig provided some insight into the research and projects Google is working on to improve search engines. A significant number of researchers are working on search and advertising to make search results and ads match up better, as well as gathering more sources of information, including text in books, still images, video, and even audio for speech recognition. Norvig says the two biggest projects at Google are machine translation and the speech project, the results of which are used in services such as Google 411, which allows people to call a completely automated service for information on local businesses. Speech recognition is also being applied to video searches. Norvig says the two major problems in search technology are developing a better understanding of users' needs and developing a better understanding of a document's contents. He says Google's software looks at more than the words typed into the search bar by looking at spelling variants and breaking down longer search entries, creating more of a natural language search. Norvig also says artificial intelligence is a big part of Google's search engine. "There's an AI algorithm involved, there's software engineering, hardware, and networking to make it fast and efficient," he says. "I wouldn't want to say that AI is everything, but it's a big part of it."
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Purdue Makes Distributed Rendering Available at SIGGRAPH 2007 via TeraGrid
Purdue University News (07/13/07)

University staff and faculty members will have an opportunity to use a Purdue University-sponsored rendering service at the 2007 ACM SIGGRAPH Conference. Attendees with accounts on the National Science Foundation's TeraGrid will be able to render their animation files using Purdue's TeraGrid Distributed Rendering Environment (TeraDRE). A pilot version of TeraDRE was offered at the SIGGRAPH conference last July, according to Laura Arns, research scientist and associate director of the Envision Center for Data Perceptualization at Purdue. "We were able to take several animations that would have required 142 days of rendering time running on a single machine and complete them during the six days of the conference," says Arns. "This year we hope to have many more people bring files and try to maximize the rendering we perform during the week." With Purdue's rendering farm, 3D animations can be rendered in about a fraction of the time it takes on a single computer. The conference is scheduled for Aug. 4-9 in San Diego. For more information about ACM SIGGRAPH, or to register, visit http://www.siggraph.org/s2007/
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'Dragon' Stalker Heads to Hopkins
Baltimore Sun (07/16/07) P. 1A; Bhanoo, Sindya N.

Carnegie Mellon University professor Jim Baker today joins the Johns Hopkins University's new Human Language Technology Center of Excellence with the goal of developing advanced systems for converting human speech to written text. The center was opened with a $48 million Defense Department grant. The ability to translate speech into text has been deemed critical to the department to help sift through the massive amounts of raw voice and text it collects every day. Baker, along with his wife Janet, developed the program Dragon NaturallySpeaking, one of the first practical speech-recognition programs. Baker's mathematical model for speech recognition is still the gold standard for the industry today. Baker, however, believes more can be done in speech recognition. "I'm not satisfied," Baker says. "I'm still trying to leap-frog." Baker hopes his work at the language technology center will lead to better speech-recognition tools, as well as tools that can intelligently scan and sort through billions of words on Web sites and blogs. About half of Baker's work is expected to be classified. Baker hopes to advance speech-recognition software beyond the Hidden Markov Model, a statistical process that makes inferences about unknown or future events based on what has come before. Baker used the Hidden Markov Model in his original design, but thought that the technology would have progressed by now. Current speech-recognition programs generally only work when a user is deliberately dictating to the computer, but not for casual conversations, which is what the Defense Department is interested in.
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Computer Science Teaching to Be Redesigned
Duke University News & Communications (07/13/07) Basgall, Monte

Duke University professor of the practice of computer science Owen Astrachan is one of two recipients of a new National Science Foundation (NSF) award intended to help redesign computer education for undergraduate students in the United States. Astrachan will receive $250,000 over two years to develop a solution to what the NSF believes is a national shortcoming. "Unfortunately, despite the deep and pervasive impact of computing and the creative efforts of individuals in a small number of institutions, undergraduate computing education today often looks much as it did several decades ago," the NSF said when awarding the grants. Astrachan, who co-directs undergraduate studies in his department, says he will use the funding to promote "problem-based learning" to revitalize how computer science is taught. "Instead of teaching students a lot of facts and then giving them a problem to solve, this method starts out by giving them a problem," Astrachan says. "Then they have to figure out what facts they need to solve it." Students may spend a couple of weeks on a problem while the instructor stands back, providing minimal guidance to help students find solutions on their own, Astrachan says. Astrachan will develop the teaching method with help from an advisory board of former students who currently work in a variety of professions. He will also receive advice from five senior educators in computer science, engineering, and biology.
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IT Skills Crisis Requires a Joint Effort
Computing (07/12/07) Williams, Lara

As IT departments increasingly align themselves with business and its objectives, IT and academia grow farther apart, only worsening the skills gap in the IT profession. To avoid a devastating talent shortage, the IT profession needs to bridge the gap between academia and the real-world skills needed in industry. As technical jobs are sent overseas, most employers are no longer looking for pure technologists, and universities have not changed their programs fast enough. Universities and employers need to work together to develop curricula that will train workers with a variety of technical and business skills. The British Council for Industry and Higher Education reported that applications for computer science degrees fell 29 percent from 2003 to 2006, and A-level candidates fell by almost half. One successful effort to develop business-savvy technology employees is the new IT management for business degree pioneered by sector skills body e-Skills U.K., which will graduate its first students next year. A number of universities offer the course, but it is not yet available at major research-led institutions such as Southampton University and Imperial College. If the course does not gain widespread acceptance, students may believe that incorporating business skills is not worthwhile. Top-tier universities need to include business skills in their curricula and realize that because business skills are now a vital part of the IT professions, their students will not succeed without them.
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Calit2 Looks Into the Games People Play
California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (07/09/07)

Research into computer gaming conducted by the California Institute of Technology (Calit2) and UC Irvine indicates that games offer far more than mere entertainment value to children and adults; they are being used as tools for learning, socialization, business, and even improvement of the world. Certain researchers believe computer games help nurture socialization skills by rewarding collaboration and linking people of diverse cultural backgrounds, and UCI professor Bonnie Nardi says the World of Warcraft massively multiplayer online game prepares participants for the cultivation of relationships and collaboration with strangers through the mastery of various tasks or quests. She notes that the game's community-based operating principles are "actually the opposite of what traditional culture does, which is cut us off from people who are different from us." Calit2 researchers Bill Tomlinson and Lynn Carpenter have designed a computer game that educates children about restoration ecology by enabling them to virtually eradicate species to determine extinction's ecological impact. "One wonderful possibility for games is the ways in which they can be used to change the world," notes Tomlinson. "They can help bring communities together, and help people learn about new concepts and engage with new topics in new fields." Virtual-world games such as Second Life enable real-world business applications, with some players earning a livelihood by designing, purchasing, and selling actual products in the simulated environment. UCI professor Patricia Seed teaches a course in which students research and design games around specific historical periods.
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Three Hamilton Students Examining Computer Security for Summer Research Project
Hamilton College (07/12/07)

The Air Force Research Lab in Rome, N.Y., is sponsoring the computer security-related summer projects of three students from Hamilton College. One project will focus on how the formal access policies of SE-Linux are defined, and how they are enforced by the Department of Defense-sponsored secure operating system that controls computer use. Student Kyla Gorman will write new programs to help determine failure in the policies, and show how policies can be written to improve the security of operations. Meanwhile, students Colden Prime and Tom Williams will team up to define a framework for "live" computer forensics. Prime will concentrate on rootkits and Williams will focus on other kinds of malware, with the goal of creating a new framework for recognizing such programs while machines are still running and possibly under attack. Professor Stuart Hirshfield is overseeing the computer security research efforts of the students.
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Mobile Math Lab for Cell Phones
University of Haifa (07/10/07)

University of Haifa professor Michal Yerushalmy, of the Institute for Alternatives in Education, working with researchers from the university's computer science department, have developed software for cellular phones that enables them to function like a computer and process mathematical functions, from elementary school geometry to high school calculus. Yerushalmy says the software means students are no longer restricted to computer classrooms and schools to perform mathematical functions. "I believe that mathematics needs to be learned in creative ways, and not by memorization and repetition," he says. "Just as physics and biology labs teach through experimentation, I believe that there should also be math labs, where learning is experimental." The program also allows users to send graphs and formulas to one another as short text messages, allowing for collaborative learning and problem solving. During a pilot research program, students recorded simple events, like the speed of a dripping faucet or a bus pulling away, with the video cameras on their cell phones. The students were then asked to turn the video clip into a mathematical model using the program. "It was important for us to see whether or not the students actually do use their phone as a medium for communication to help solve the problem," says University of Haifa Faculty of Education member and researcher in the pilot study Dr. Galit Botzer.
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Computer Science Prof Researches Program Safety
Regina Leader-Post (CAN) (07/10/07) Couture, Joe

Philip Fong, a computer science professor at the University of Regina, views the granting of access rights only to programs on a need-to-know basis as a way to make computers safer. He uses the game Solitaire as an example of a program that has all the access rights of computer users, and is not considered to be dangerous. "But as soon as vulnerabilities of these seemingly safe programs get discovered by malicious parties, they could exploit them to attack our machines," he says. Thanks to nearly $250,000 in funding from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Fong plans to create a software language that is trustworthy and a deployment platform for safely running untrusted software. "My research really is about how to build programming abstractions or programming languages that would allow us to implement the principle of granting only enough access rights to a program so that they can function, rather than granting them all the rights that we have as users," he says. Fong wants to develop open source tools that software developers can build on and use to create safe applications.
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Emoticon Turning 25: You Can Thank This Guy :-) ... or Not :-(
Network World (07/10/07) McNamara, Paul

In a few months' time the emoticon will have reached the quarter-century mark, and its inventor, Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Scott Fahlman, explains in an interview that his invention did not yield any financial riches for him. He released it into the world in a purely philanthropic gesture. "If there were some practical way in which I could charge people a few cents every time they used these symbols, nobody would use them," Fahlman reasons. He acknowledges that emoticons can be infuriating for first-time users. "They generally settle down after a while, but until they do, these people can be annoying to those of us who have been using this stuff for many years, and who try to use them sparingly--and also to those writers who see no need for smiley faces in the first place," Fahlman comments. Backlash against emoticons can sometimes be very heated, although Fahlman says none of this vitriol has ever been directed at him personally. "It has been very interesting to watch the infectious spread of the smiley face and the 'turn your head sideways' principle from my first message, through the research community, on to other universities, and then around the world as the Internet spread into people's homes," Fahlman says.
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Cyberterrorism: By Whatever Name, It's on the Increase
InformationWeek (07/09/07)No. 1145, P. 32; Greenemeier, Larry

Recent incidents in Russia and England suggest that criminals are increasingly using the Web to organize or initiate Web attacks intended for political or cultural treason. In Britain, three Muslim men dubbed "cyber-jihadis" were convicted of inciting Muslims to attack non-Muslims via the Internet; the men received prison terms of up to 10 years. The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team described Russian cyberattacks that struck political Web sites such as the United Civil Front. Moreover, cyberwarfare has existed for months, with a Russian newspaper, a Russian radio station, and Estonia's cyberinfrastructure all targeted by denial-of-service attacks in April 2007 and May 2007. On the jihadi Web site Al-jinan.org, the "Electronic Jihad Program" is an application that lets users select a Web site to attack. Al-jinan has existed for over four years, but contradictions in its domain name server registration make it hard to track its source. Large-scale cyberattacks would significantly affect American businesses, as companies in the private sector run most of the country's crucial infrastructure. Still, everyone must be aware of security issues, as electronic jihad is out to produce economic disruption of any kind.
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Arresting Developments
Economist (07/12/07)

Weizmann Institute researcher David Harel has been developing an accurate computer simulation of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans in the hopes of revealing the specialization methodology of pluripotent stem cells, and he proposes to assess the result through an updated Turing test to see whether scientists familiar with the organism can distinguish between the simulation and the actual nematode. Microsoft Research's Stephen Emmott is considering inverting the strategy by building computers out of biological elements, and he speculates that a biological computer might be more capable of meeting long-standing challenges such as recognizing visual input. Emmott is collaborating with Stephen Muggleton of London's Imperial College to create an "artificial scientist" that combines inductive logic with probabilistic reasoning, and which could design experiments, accumulate the results, and incorporate those results into theory. Emmott and Muggleton believe such a computer could construct hypotheses directly from the data. Other researchers are studying how the proliferation of diseases such as AIDS and malaria can be likened to information systems, and are investigating their relationship with machine learning. The University of Cambridge's Peter Lipton suggests that computers that prescribe the wrong treatment for patients based on misdiagnosis of their symptoms could be held morally accountable, and this raises the issue that computers might also be awarded credit for good work as well.
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Mounting Scrutiny for Google Security
InfoWorld (07/12/07)

Search behemoth Google is experiencing an increasing amount of examination as it expands into the business sector with new products. Ponemon Institute researchers have completed a report focusing on the only substantial security flaw found in the Google Desktop program, to date; the flaw was a cross site scripting vulnerability discovered and patched in February 2007 by Google. Still, the Ponemon report reveals that nearly three quarters of the approximately 600 IT security specialists polled believe that Google Desktop probably contains other security flaws. Google recently acquired GreenBorder Technologies and Postini to augment its security skills and sponsored Stopbadware.org, a malware research project. However, Ponemon contends that Google's prominence in the market makes it an increasingly attractive target to hackers. Google's intent to cultivate "deep integration" between Web-based and desktop tools has also concerned some who believe that remote queries can jeopardize sensitive data stored on computers. Google CIO Douglas Merrill says Google pays more than 1,000 engineers to test for gaps in its software, encourages communication between technology providers, security researchers, and white hat hackers, and promotes responsible problem disclosure. Google also has an advantage in that problems can be resolved immediately on its servers, unlike companies that must convey patches to all users, notes Merrill. In addition, Google Desktop and Google Apps systems actually add an additional layer of security to joint business endeavors by requiring authentication and by helping companies locate improperly used data. The company also notifies customers of its security efforts and stays informed of cutting-edge attack strategies through Stopbadware.org and the Google Security Blog. Industry experts concur that Google has excelled at safeguarding its users from attacks and major vulnerabilities thus far, but nevertheless recommend that Google learn from Microsoft's mistakes in order to maintain a strong reputation.
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Dan Wallach: Security Watchdog for the Industry
Computerworld (07/09/07) Vol. 41, No. 28, P. 58; Collett, Stacy

Dan Wallach is on sabbatical from Rice University, where he is a tenured associate professor, but he continues to focus on making sure key technologies affecting the public are secure. The security researcher is serving as associate director of ACCURATE, and is concentrating on voting security at the $7.5 million research center. Among the many papers that Wallach has published is one that analyzed the Secure Digital Music Initiative and found that all of the proposed systems were very vulnerable. For another research project, Wallach led a team that identified similar security flaws in the electronic voting systems from Diebold. Exposing the security flaws prompted threats of lawsuits from the SDMI consortium and Diebold, but they ultimately decided against mounting a legal challenge to Wallach, who says his claims are backed by scientific evidence. "I'm not a hacker," says Wallach, 35, who even uncovered security flaws in Sun Microsystems' Java technology while pursuing graduate studies at Princeton University. Wallach, who was named one of Computerworld's 40 leading innovators under the age of 40, says he joined ACCURATE because "it's hard for me to think of anything more important [to work on] than our democracy."
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