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ACM TechNews
July 23, 2007

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


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New Generation of Processors Presents Big Problems, Potential Payoffs for Software Industry
Associated Press (07/23/07) Robertson, Jordan

Computer chip designers are adopting new designs that use multiple cores on the same chip, creating processors that are slightly slower but more energy efficient and essentially the equivalent of having several computers on the same piece of silicon. The multi-core chips are ideal for demanding multimedia tasks such as processing large video files, pulling and sorting information from multiple databases at the same time, or playing a computer game while simultaneously downloading music and burning a DVD. A major problem that exists with the use of these multi-core chips is that software designers do not know how to break up big programs to run on separate processors. "You can imagine a scenario where people stop buying laptops and PCs because we can't figure this out," says University of California, Berkeley computer science professor and computer-architecture expert David Patterson, a former president of ACM. When processors were simply getting faster, software developers were able to keep pace by making their programs faster. Now that chip developers are no longer focused only on speed, programmers need to change their approach and learn to send pieces of the programs to different parts of the chip. Supercomputers have used multicore processors for several years, and software design for supercomputers has reflected that, but now multicore processors are being used in mass-market PCs and everyday software programming needs to change. Experts warn that programs could stop getting faster as chips with eight or more cores are sold in PCs. "We'd be in uncharted territory," Patterson says. "We need to get some Manhattan Projects going here--somebody could solve this problem, and whoever solves this problem could have this gigantic advantage on everybody else."
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Accessibility Isn't Only Hurdle in Voting System Overhaul
New York Times (07/21/07) P. A11; Drew, Christopher

Efforts in Congress to create legislation that would establish an easy-to-use and traceable voting system stalled again as tension arose over conflicting objectives for the system. The ultimate goal is to create a system that is affordable, uses durable paper ballots or leaves a paper trail, and can be used by disabled voters without help from poll workers. However, conflict between the desire to make every voting machine accountable and other needs, including the desires of the disabled and state budgets, caused the movement to stall. Voting analysts say the tensions made it easy for Democrat leaders to postpone the most drastic changes until 2012, four years after originally planned, a decision that was disclosed July 19. Congressional leaders are hesitant to tell states to throw away hundreds of millions of dollars of relatively new voting machines until it is clear that better technology is available. A proposed compromise also drew heavy criticism. Although 28 states now require that voting machines provide a paper record of each vote cast, many jurisdictions do not. Voting experts said a stopgap proposal to add spool-like printers to touch-screen machines for 2008 and 2010 would not be possible in some of the states that currently do not print out ballots, forcing them to make larger changes by next year. Meanwhile, efforts to guarantee equal access to disabled votes could cause a delay in replacing touch-screen machines with optical-scan systems, which use sturdier paper ballots. Due to touch-screen reliability fears, about half of the U.S.'s counties use optical-scan machines, and most analysts expect that any federal legislation would promote the use of scanners.
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Untangling the Office: Multi-gigabit Wireless Research Could Soon Make Wired Computers and Peripherals Obsolete
Georgia Institute of Technology (07/20/07)

Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology's Georgia Electronic Design Center (GEDC) are exploring the possibility of creating broadband connections and sending high data transmission over short distances through the use of extremely high radio frequencies. Using frequencies around 60 GHz, which are currently unlicensed in the United States and free for anyone to use, the researchers have already achieved wireless data transfer rates of as high as 15 Gbps at a distance of one meter. "The goal here is to maximize data throughput to make possible a host of new wireless applications for home and office connectivity," says professor Joy Laskar, GEDC director and lead researcher on the project. Stephane Pinel, another lead researcher on the project, says the GEDC's "multi-gigabit wireless" project is expected to have a major impact on data and video applications in particular, and that extremely high-speed, peer-to-peer data connections could be available in less than two years. Storage devices such as external hard drives, laptops, MP3 players, cell phones, and others would be able to transfer massive amounts of data in a few seconds, and data centers could wirelessly install racks of servers. "Our work represents a huge leap in available throughput," Pinel says. "At 10 Gbps, you could download a DVD from a kiosk to your cell phone in five seconds, or you could quickly synchronize two laptops or two iPods." Pinel says the researchers expect to be able to double the transition rates by next year, and to decrease the already-low power consumption. "We are pursuing a combination of system design and circuit design, employing both analog and digital techniques," Pinel says. "It's definitely a very exciting mixed-signal problem that you have to solve."
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Card Sharks to Battle Computer in First Major Man vs. Machine Matchup
Associated Press (07/21/07) Crenson, Matt

A contest between champion poker players and a computer program will be held at the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence in Vancouver, and University of Alberta computing science professor Jonathan Schaeffer says the competition represents "the first time there's going to be a man-machine event where there's going to be a scientific component." Poker is gaining interest from artificial intelligence researchers because it is a game that must contend with uncertainty and incomplete data, which is a key challenge in the computing field. The best players adapt their strategy over time by following the behavior of their opponents, and some of the difficulties programmers encounter in games such as poker can be eliminated through the application of game theory. Game theory enables computers to vary their strategy so that the opponent has difficulty determining whether the computer is bluffing or deploying some other tactic. However, such programs still lack the capability to consistently achieve major victories. "The notion of forming some sort of model of what another player is like ... is a really important problem," notes University of Maryland computer science professor Dana S. Nau.
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IPhone Flaw Lets Hackers Take Over, Security Firm Says
New York Times (07/23/07) P. C4; Schwartz, John

Researchers at Independent Security Evaluators have discovered a vulnerability in Apple's iPhone that hackers can exploit to take control of the device. Independent Security's Dr. Charles A. Miller, a former National Security agency employee with a doctorate in computer science, recently demonstrated to a reporter how a hacker can take advantage of the vulnerability to gain access to the personal information stored on an iPhone. In his demonstration, Dr. Miller used his iPhone's Web browser--a version of Apple's Safari Web browser--to visit a Web page that he designed. Once he had logged onto the site, the Web page injected a bit of code into the iPhone that made the device transmit a set of files to the attacking computer that included recent text messages, telephone contacts, and email addresses. Dr. Miller noted that hackers could also use the vulnerability to program the phone to make calls or turn it into a portable bugging device. Steven M. Bellovin, a professor of computer science at Columbia University, said the hack appears to be genuine. He added that such vulnerabilities are inevitable, given the fact that cell phones are becoming more and more like computers. "We've been hearing for a few years now that viruses and worms were going to be a problem on cell phones as they became a little more powerful, and we're there," he said. Bellovin noted that the iPhone is a full-fledged computer, "and sure enough, it's got computer grade problems."
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SC07 Features Four HPC Challenges
HPC Wire (07/17/07)

The SC07 conference, sponsored by ACM and the IEEE Computer Society, will feature four challenges designed to test the most creative and innovative approaches to the application and analysis of high performance network resources. The four challenges include a Cluster Challenge, a Bandwidth Challenge, an Analytics Challenge, and a Storage Challenge. "Each year, the SC conference provides a friendly competitive platform for teams of scientists, researchers, and networking experts from around the world to showcase their abilities to push supercomputing and networking resources to the edge," says Harvey Wasserman, the SC07 Technical Program Chair from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "This year, we are pleased to offer four challenges that will highlight not only technical prowess but the great collaboration among the teams involved." New to the conference this year, the Cluster Challenge will showcase the enormous power readily available in today's clusters, computing power that was once only available at national labs. In the challenge, teams of undergraduate students will assemble a small cluster and run benchmarks and applications. Teams will be judged on the speed of benchmarks and the throughput of application runs over the first three days of the conference. The Bandwidth Challenge will test a team's ability to fully utilize high bandwidth links from each end point. The Analytics Challenge will focus on sophisticated methods of data analysis and visualization in high performance computing by highlighting powerful analytics programs to solve complex, real-world problems. The Storage Challenge will feature effective approaches for the use of storage subsystems. SC07 will be held in Reno, Nev., from Nov. 10-16. For more information about SC07, visit http://sc07.supercomputing.org/
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Software Spots Key Players in Online Communities
New Scientist (07/20/07) Kleiner, Kurt

Microsoft Research and Cornell University researchers have developed software that analyses posting patterns to determine who are the most informative members of online communities. The software could help Web site designers and managers automatically reward or highlight the most valuable members, and also improve ways of searching through an online conversation for information. "You have a socially recognized role of some people as experts in some way in a community," says Cornell University sociologist and research leader Howard Welser. "That role was what we were trying to measure." Previous research examined the contents of each message, but this program is the first to analyze the relationship between messages. By analyzing a total of 5,700 messages from 450 active users, Welser's group found that the most informative members of a network, called "answer people," generally only post one or two messages on a lot of different threads, normally only respond to users who do not post a lot, and tend to avoid getting involved in long discussions, jumping in to provide an answer to a specific question and then leaving. Welser says because the study used quantitative data on posting behavior, the findings could be used to develop an automated system that assigns reputations to people within a discussion, or make it easier for search engines to find messages that are most likely to be useful, based on the person who posted the message.
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At Checkers, Chinook Is Unbeatable
Baltimore Sun (07/20/07) O'Brien, Dennis

University of Alberta computer scientist Jonathan Schaeffer spent six years working on a network of up to 200 computers to develop a program that will never lose at checkers. The best any opponent, human or computer, could hope to achieve is a draw. The program, called Chinook, was designed with help from some of the world's best checkers players and analyzes 64 million positions on the board every second. "We've taken things to beyond what humans can do," Schaeffer says. "What's amazing is there are so many possible situations in checkers, and they were able to explore all of the ones that mattered," says Johns Hopkins University computer science professor Jason Eisner. While checkers is commonly considered a simple game, there are a massive number of variations to try to predict when creating a program like Chinook. In checkers, each player has 12 pieces, and with 64 squares on the board, the possible number of positions reaches 500 quintillion. Schaeffer did not try to examine every possible outcome but narrowed the search by identifying any moves that would put a player in a losing position as the game reached its finish. "It's really a profound scientific discovery," says Ed Trice, who has worked on computer programs that play both checkers and chess. "In 2007, if we're just solving the game of checkers, think about trying to create programs that can help determine the right course of treatment for a patient, and how complicated things like that can get."
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U.S. Tech Employment Hits Its Highest Point in Seven Years
InformationWeek (07/18/07) Murphy, Chris

The IT industry added some 93,000 computer-related jobs over the past year to lower its unemployment rate by 2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest household employment survey. The industry has an available workforce that numbers 3.65 million people who are working or unemployed, but only 3.58 million have jobs. During the recession of 2003 and 2004, the IT industry faced an unemployment rate of 5.3 percent. But total IT employment is now at its highest level since the BLS started surveying employment by eight computer-related job categories in 2000. Employers added more software engineers, IT managers, and network systems analysts than other IT positions over the past year. However, programming employment fell 3 percent, but with more than a half million workers, programming remains the third largest job category at 15 percent of all jobs, while there was a 4 percent decline in the number of support specialists, who now account for 9 percent of the workforce. Software engineers represent 25 percent of the workforce, and computer scientists and system analysts account for 21 percent.
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UMBC Sees Enrollment Boost in Computer Science
Baltimore Examiner (07/19/07) McIlroy, Megan

University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) will enroll 41 new students in its information systems department this fall, a 40 percent increase over the department's previous four-year average, according to officials. Additionally, about 40 percent of the new students are women. The increase in computer science students at UMBC stands out against a national trend showing an overall decline in undergraduate enrollment in computer science and related majors. Nationally, newly declared computer science majors fell to 8,000 students in the fall of 2006 from 16,000 in 2000, according to the Computing Research Association. Andrew Sears, chair of UMBC's information systems department, credits recruitment and education efforts for the increase in enrollment, including general outreach to help people understand the information technology job market and to dispel misperceptions about a lack of opportunity. UMBC's Center for Women and Information Technology has made specific efforts to increase female interest in computer science majors. "Women are out there consuming technology, so we think it's really important that they are involved in the process of designing it," says Bria McElroy, the center's director of internal relations.
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Microsoft Research Inventions Are Wacky and Useful
IDG News Service (07/17/07) Gohring, Nancy

This week's Microsoft Research Faculty Summit featured the display of a variety of projects under development, including a flying bike, a personal audio system, and various display technologies. The Flying Bike is a stationary bike that is integrated into a video game. In the demonstration, the game was Flight Simulator X and the user had to pedal fast enough to stay airborne. Yolanda Rankin, a Northwestern University computer science researcher and one of bike's developers, says the bike can work with many other games, including racing and even shooting games where the player had to chase and run away from opponents. Another potential product is the InkSeine, which allows users to write on a screen using a special pen, and then circle a word to run a search for the word, either on the Internet or on the computer's hard drive. Microsoft also showed off a speaker system called Personal Audio Space. In the demo, 16 small speakers were placed in a vertical line, simultaneously playing two different songs, one a rock song and the other classical. When close to the speakers, the two songs mixed together, but when standing at a spot about five feet from the speakers, only the rock song was audible. Standing on another spot about two feet from the first spot allowed the listener to hear the classical music. Eventually, the system could use cameras and microphones to determine where a person is and point the sound directly at them. This would allow two people to be in the same general area but be able to listen to different songs. Computer researcher Andy Wilson is working on a device that could provide an affordable alternative to Microsoft's recently released surface computer. Wilson's system uses a projector to display an application on any surface while two infrared lasers allow the user to grab and drag items with their hands.
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Wobbly Polarity Is Key to Preventing Magnetic Avalanches on Disk Drives
University of California, Santa Cruz (07/16/07) Powell, Hugh

Research by University of California, Santa Cruz professor of physics Joshua Deutsch and Andreas Berger, who did research at Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, will help physicists understand the properties of magnetic avalanches, such as what happens when two magnets are pushed together and when information is saved on a computer. The research could help engineers design more reliable materials for disk drives by providing insight into why magnetic avalanches happen and why they do not wind up completely out of control, which would erase disk drives. All digital information is saved when a magnetic head grazes a tiny patch on a disk drive, forcing the polarity, or "spin," to align up or down, representing either a one or zero. "The big advance in this paper is that in previous models of avalanches, the spin just flips from up to down as soon as they apply a magnetic field, and they're done," Deutsch says. The researchers describe an individual piece of information as a tiny pincushion dull of individual magnetic fields. As the disk drive approaches, each pin wobbles in a widening circle before settling on a new polarity. The wobbling is called precession and is similar to how a spinning top draws out circles as it rotates. The combined effects can create a wave of energy that knocks over adjacent pins and spreads across the magnet's surface. One reason the researchers suggest that avalanches die down is because the magnetic material inherently dampens the spin precession, due to the way the spins interact with their nonmagnetic surroundings. "Obviously, disk drive makers have already learned by an enormous amount of ingenuity and trial and error what materials make good disks," Deutsch says. "But now we understand a lot better one of the reasons why."
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DSpace Foundation Created to Digitally Preserve Research Collections
InformationWeek (07/18/07) Gardner, David

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Hewlett Packard have created the DSpace Foundation in response to the growing popularity of the DSpace community, a non-profit organization focused on the digital preservation of research collections. The DSpace community was started by the MIT Libraries and HP in 2002 by creating open source software for accessing, managing, and preserving scholarly works in digital archives. "The software was put out and taken up worldwide," says MIT Libraries' Heather Denny. "Now there is a need to bring it all together." The DSpace Foundation will provide leadership and support for the DSpace community, which currently includes more than 200 research institutions, including the Texas Digital Library, the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, and the China Digital Museum, among many others. MIT Libraries director Ann J. Wolpert says the creation of the foundation signals that "both the platform and the community have successfully reached the point where an independent organization is needed to direct the project." The free DSpace archives can be linked so researchers can search other repositories, and the program supports next-generation digital format archiving, which is more permanent and sharable than current analog archives.
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Microsoft Picks New UW Center to Develop Distance Learning Technologies
University of Washington News and Information (07/16/07) Hickey, Hannah

Last year, several courses at the University of Washington used experimental classroom videoconferencing software developed by Microsoft Research so students could communicate via videoconferencing with teachers who were several hundred miles away. Microsoft Research recently announced that the university will continue research on educational videoconferencing in the new Center for Collaborative Technologies, funded by a $750,000, three-year grant from Microsoft. "We will continue to develop technologies to support distance learning," says center director and University of Washington professor of computer science and engineering Richard Anderson. "This will allow us to extend the technology to use it potentially in international settings, potentially for applications in the developing world." The videoconferencing system developed at Microsoft Research, called ConferenceXP, will be the primary focus for the center. ConferenceXP uses standard computer hardware and university high-bandwidth Internet connections, and is less expensive and more flexible than commercial videoconferencing systems. During the test last year, standard computers were able send and receive high-quality video and audio between four classrooms with almost no delay, but the experimental software currently requires trained technicians to be in each of the classrooms. Future plans for the system include making it easier to use, more flexible, establishing connections with classrooms in India and South America, and creating a simplified version that does not require a high-bandwidth connection.
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Q&A: IBM Visionary Retires
eWeek (07/16/07) Taft, Darryl K.

Retiring IBM visionary Irving Wladawsky-Berger says in an interview that an organization that does not adapt to a changing marketplace is courting trouble, and cites IBM's own difficulties in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it resisted the market's call to move away from mainframe systems as an object lesson. He notes that companies such as IBM are in a bind in that "not only do you have to innovate by looking into the future, but you have to innovate while at the same time making your numbers" in every quarter. Among the topics Wladawsky-Berger discusses is health care IT such as genomics, which he says has enormous potential in improving personalized medicine. "The other part of health care is the engineering systems side of things, which is to make everything work well as a system and apply six sigma kinds of quality and lean production kinds of quality," he comments. Wladawsky-Berger is enthusiastic about several developments in the computing domain, particularly the increased integration of technology and business through such things as the application of engineering principles to the business world, and the continued maturation of the Internet into a more visual, intelligent, and collaborative platform. Wladawsky-Berger refers to the war on terror as "the long cultural war," implying that culture is the root cause of our protracted conflict with unseen, unidentifiable enemies; in such a situation, the best strategy is, in his words, "to start out by trying to view everybody as a potential good guy and then try to understand how to make them even better." Wladawsky-Berger thinks perhaps the principles underlying the Web's design as an open, collaborative medium could be applied further toward the resolution of this conflict. He lauds the impact of open source, and believes it behooves business and industry to create more and more standard protocols that are universally available and that allow everyone to interoperate at the business tier.
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MIT Encryption Pioneer Rivest Wins Marconi Prize
MIT News (07/17/07)

MIT professor Ronald L. Rivest has been named the 2007 Marconi Fellow and prizewinner for his innovative work in cryptography and computer and network security. Rivest is the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and is known for having helped develop one of the world's most widely used Internet security systems, public key cryptography, which allows users to create and share secure information on an insecure connection. Public key cryptography uses two keys, one known to everyone and one known only to the recipient. The public and private keys are paired so that only the public key can be used to encrypt messages and only the corresponding private key can decrypt them. Even if someone knew the public key, it would essentially be impossible to determine the private key. The RSA encryption algorithm that Rivest created (with Adi Shamir and Leonard M. Adleman) relies on the challenge of factoring large prime numbers, normally over 250 digits long. The receiving computer secretly selects two prime numbers and multiplies them to create a "public key," which can be posted online. The sending computer can take that public key, enter it into the RSA encryption algorithm, and encrypt the message. The system works because only the recipient knows the prime factors that were used to make the public key, and that is what is needed to decrypt the message. Marconi Society Chairman Robert Lucky said, "Public key cryptography has flattened the globe by enabling secure communication via email, Web browsers, secure shells, virtual private networks, mobile phones and other applications requiring the secure exchange of information." Rivest, Shamir, and Adleman are recipients of the 2002 ACM A.M. Turing Award; http://awards.acm.org/homepage.cfm
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Career Watch: CS at Neumont and Title Inflation
Computerworld (07/16/07) Vol. 41, No. 29, P. 45; Eckle, Jamie

Graham Doxey, the president of Neumont University in South Jordan, Utah, recently discussed the school's project-based computer science curriculum. Doxey says Neumont's accelerated curriculum--students are in classrooms from eight to four every weekday and graduate in 24 months--is designed to replicate the environment students will experience in the workplace and is 70 percent project-based, allowing students to build core computer skills along with vital team leadership and collaboration skills. The program is built around teaching 400 core competencies in computer science and looks at students with the same expectations employers will view its graduates. Doxey says the school's placement rates and average starting salaries serve as a measure of Neumont's success. The average salary for Neumont computer science graduates is $60,000, 19 percent above the national average for new computer science graduates, Doxey says. The school expects to have 2,000 graduates by 2010, which Doxey says "would make Neumont one of the largest graduates of studies in computer science in the world."
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