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ACM TechNews
August 22, 2007

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Welcome to the August 22, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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ACM, Infosys Create $150,000 Computing Award
IDG News Service (08/20/07) Gross, Grant

ACM and the Infosys Foundation have created the ACM-Infosys Foundation Award, a new award to recognize mid-career computer scientists, around age 40, for outstanding innovations. The award will be given annually to a computer scientist, or a small group of computer scientists, and comes with a prize of $150,000, the second-largest monetary prize for ACM awards. Infosys decided to donate the money for the award to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2006. Infosys CEO S. Gopalakrishnan says the company hopes the award will inspire students to consider careers in computer science. "Our goal is to identify breakthroughs that have broad implications well beyond the scope of the innovation itself and that reflect an underlying scientific or engineering methodology that is remarkable for its rigor or for its sheer audacity," Gopalakrishnan says. ACM and Infosys decided to leave the qualifications for the award fairly open and available to any mid-career computer scientist in any core computing field who has created an outstanding innovation. ACM President Stuart Feldman says computer science will change and the sponsors did not want to exclude any new branches that may join the field. Feldman expects there will be a backlog of nominees for the first few years. ACM plans to announce the first winner in early 2008.
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With Labor Crunch in IT on the Horizon, Why Are Careers Failing to Lure Women?
Wall Street Journal (08/21/07) P. B5; Worthen, Ben

The IT industry, which already has a low percentage of women, continues to fail to attract new women to the field, and with an IT labor shortage looming, many are wondering why women are not interested in joining the IT work force. The National Center for Women and Information Technology reports that although women hold 51 percent of all professional positions in the work force, they accounted for only 16 percent of IT professionals in 2006, down from 29 percent in 2004. Additionally, only 13 percent of corporate officers at Fortune 500 technology companies are women. "Women feel discrimination in IT," says NCWIT communications director Jenny Slade, pointing out that women who enter the IT industry leave at a higher rate than men. A Women in Technology International survey of 2,000 female IT workers found that 48 percent of respondents feel their opinions are not as acknowledged or as welcomed as those of their male counterparts, and 44 percent say they are given fewer opportunities to participate in or lead large initiatives. Slade says consequently women feel they need to leave the IT industry to find advancement opportunities. Over time the problem has become self-perpetuating as women cite a lack of women in the field as one of the primary reasons they leave IT. Women are also avoiding IT before they choose a profession. In 1985, women received 37 percent of computer science undergraduate degrees, but in 2006 women received only 21 percent, according to the NCWIT. The number of incoming freshmen women majoring in computer science dropped 70 percent between 2000 and 2005, and teenage girls are less interested in computer science than other scientific fields.
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New Devices Promise Touchy-Feely Computing
New Scientist (08/20/07) Busse, Matthew

Several haptic technologies were on display at ACM's recent SIGGRAPH 2007 computer conference. The Gravity Grabber, developed by Susumu Tachi and colleagues at the university of Japan, uses two tube-shaped objects that fit over a person's thumb and forefinger. Each tube has a set of motors that drive a belt that wraps around the tip of the person's finger and can be tightened to give the feeling of holding an object. The Haptic Telexistence, another device developed by Tachi, is designed specifically for remote manipulation. The device has a large metal controller that wraps around the user's hand that is used to manipulate a corresponding robotic hand. Each fingertip on the robotic hand has LEDs and a small camera. The amount of light reflected off of an object back to the camera reveals the object's shape and how tightly it is held. An equivalent force is then applied to the user's fingertips through an array of tiny pegs that pop up and send a tiny amount of electric current that stimulates nerve fibers. Electro-tactile feedback is better than other feedback techniques such as vibration, says project team member Katsunari Sato, and is even capable of simulating the sensation of texture and possibly heat. Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research researcher Farzam Farbiz is also investigating ways to simulate touch with electrical stimulation by examining how stimulating forearm muscles with electricity can produce the sensation of hitting a tennis ball. Tohoku University in Japan researcher Satoshi Saga has developed a device that could give robots a more human-like sense of touch and feel. The device has feathers embedded in a silicone gel mounted over a checkered pattern with a video camera beneath. Moving the feathers moves the gel and allows a different amount of light to be picked up by the camera, which a computer can calculate as pressure.
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Official Threatens to Fine E-Vote Firm
Contra Costa Times (CA) (08/22/07) Harmon, Steven

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen on Tuesday threatened to fine Election Systems & Software nearly $15 million and ban the company from doing business in California for three years for possibly selling as many as 1,000 uncertified machines to five California counties. Bowen accused ES&S of illegally selling 972 uncertified AutoMARK version 1.1 machines. The AutoMARK version 1.0 is a certified machine and is used by disabled voters in 14 California counties, including Los Angeles. If Bowen finds ES&S made unauthorized changes to the AutoMARK machine in version 1.1, she could ask a court or an administrative judge law to impose a $10,000 fine per violation, a total of $9.72 million, as well as a refund of nearly $5 million for the $5,000 machines. Bowen first became aware of the possible new version when ES&S applied for certification of a system that was already in place in five counties. If ES&S is banned from doing business in the state, counties that use ES&S machines would have to switch to another vendor, though Bowen plans to use the funds from the fines to help counties replace ES&S machines. An ES&S spokesman did not directly address Bowen's accusations, but said the company will work with her and that ES&S has a long history of complying with extensive and thorough examinations of its voting technology.
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Baucus Proposing Free College Tuition
Associated Press (08/20/07)

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) says he will introduce legislation that calls for providing free college tuition for math and science majors. The bill, the Education Competitiveness Act, is a $25 billion education incentives package that also provides help for rural teachers and more money for pre-kindergarten programs. Baucus says the goal is to better prepare children for school and to get more children into college, ultimately to make the United States more competitive, particularly with countries such as China and India. "I think the challenge is fierce, and I think we have a real obligation to go the extra mile and redo things a bit differently, so we leave this place in better shape than we found it," Baucus says. The first provision would offer a full scholarship to any high school graduate majoring in math, engineering, science, or technology at any university, but students would be required to work or teach in a related field for at least four years after graduation. The bill would also create 25,000 merit-based scholarships for teaching students in the same fields, with the same requirement that graduates must teach the subject for at least four years. The legislation would also create grants to help states supplement teacher wages in often underserved rural areas, and to establish and expand pre-kindergarten programs.
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NIST Prepares for Final Awards in IT R&D Funding Program
Government Computer News (08/20/07) Jackson, William

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is evaluating proposals for what will be the last set of Advanced Technology Program awards, a program implemented in 1990 to accelerate the development of challenging, high-risk technologies that have the potential for significant commercial payoff. The program encourages the research and development community to develop projects that would normally be considered too risky for private enterprises. The America Competes Act authorizes funding for NIST for the next three years, and would double NIST's research and development budget over 10 years, but also eliminates the Advanced Technology Program. While no new awards will be given after this year, the America Competes Act provides funding for previous and pending ATP awards. The Consolidated Appropriation Act set aside $179.2 million for ATP this year, $61 million of which will go to new grants. NIST plans to announce award recipients for 2007 by Sept. 30. This year, ATP accepted proposals in all technology areas, but focused on technologies for advanced and complex systems, challenges in advanced materials and devices, 21st-dentury manufacturing, and nanotechnology.
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Japan Working to Replace the Internet
Kyodo News (08/20/07)

Japan plans to develop a next-generation network that would replace the Internet. Yoshihide Suga, Japan's communications minister, says an organization that will bring together business, academic, and government interests will be established this fall. The group will head the efforts to pursue research and development for the new network. The ministry sees the Internet as lacking in data throughputs and security. The new network, which could be ready for commercial use in 2020, would be faster, offer more reliable data transmission, hold up better against computer virus attacks, and suffer fewer breakdowns. Japanese officials also see the initiative as a way for the nation to take the lead in developing new Internet technology and setting global standards, which they hope will better position local hardware and software providers in the global market.
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Live From Hot Chips 19: Keynote 1, Vernor Vinge
CNet (08/20/07) Glaskowsky, Peter

Former San Diego State University computer science professor and science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge's keynote address at the recent Hot Chips conference outlined several scenarios for the future of the integrated-circuit industry. In his speech, titled "Digital Gaia," Vinge said that as embedded systems become smaller, smarter, and better connected, including a knowledge of their location and environment, the network these systems exist on will become an independent computing and communication platform, a digital Gaia. Vinge believes that new services should be designed to operate on this platform as current systems will be unable to perform properly. The first scenario Vinge describes is that the process we are accustomed to under Moore's Law reaches a termination point, which Vinge believes is unlikely as long as there is an economic demand for technological improvement. The second scenario is that hardware complexity will surpass software's ability to operate, which Vinge believes is more likely and may ultimately prevent the development of practical artificial intelligence. Vinge points out that multicore processors are already creating such a problem. The third scenario results in "wide-area hardware failures of embedded microcontrollers," not by external causes such as EMP attacks, but by failures of the system itself. Vinge concluded by suggesting that integrated circuits could possibly one day be considered a new domain of life equal to plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria.
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Stanford University's EyePoint: Web Surfing With Eye Gaze
Computerworld (08/20/07) Robb, Drew

Stanford University doctoral researcher Manu Kumar has improved the accuracy of eye-tracking technology by using more computing power. Kumar has developed the EyePoint system, which allows people to use their hands and eyes to interact with computers. The technology could potentially serve as an alternative to the use of the mouse. "Using gazed-based interaction techniques makes the system appear to be more intelligent and intuitive to use," says Kumar, who adds that some users say the system even seems to read their minds as they engaged in Web surfing or other everyday pointing and selecting tasks. EyePoint works by having a user magnify the area they are viewing on a screen by pressing a hot key on the keyboard, look at the link within the enlarged area, then activate the link by releasing the hot key. Headsets or monitor frames with infrared capabilities are typically used for eye tracking, but following eye movements alone only results in an accuracy to about one degree of visual angle. "What is really exciting is that the processing power of today's computers is completely changing the kinds of things we can use for computer interfaces," says Ted Selker, associate professor at the MIT Media and Arts Technology Laboratory. Selker expects eye tracking to become a standard computer interface in five years.
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Open Source Developers Face H-1B Visa Puzzle
LinuxWorld (08/20/07) Romeo, Jim

Sixty-six percent of 225 U.S.-based organizations surveyed in July by Gartner Group anticipated an increase in IT staff in the next 12 months, compared to 61 percent in 2006, but the number of openings appears to be far exceed the permitted limit of H-1B visas allocated by Congress. One open source developer currently working in the United States on an H-1B visa comments, "There's a great concern over undocumented immigrants and we tend to get bundled together with that issue." Critics say many small and midsize open source firms are being hurt by the H-1B program. "First ... they make it more expensive to hire the worker you want because of the H-1B overhead," says Open Source Software Institute (OSSI) member Russ Nelson. "Second, they tie the worker to the corporation that created the job, so the worker is not free to change jobs." OSSI executive director John Weatherby has fewer issues with the H-1B program, and notes that his organization works with many software development firms that are either wholly open source shops or use open source as a component of their solutions and service offering. OSSI is also involved in project management for certain open source efforts on a national as well as global level. Executives who use the H-1B program strongly disagree with critics' claim that it allows foreigners to steal jobs from U.S. workers, and argue that there are in fact more positions available than there are domestic workers. They are calling for a more realistic H-1B program cap that takes projections of future economic growth into account.
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Processor Design Gets Mathematical Sweetener
IST Results (08/15/07)

The property specification language (PSL), a new microchip specification language, has been adopted by the IEEE as a standard specification language, creating an industry standard for microprocessor design. PSL, which will replace ambiguous English descriptions with mathematically precise definitions of processor functions and design, applies to every stage of microprocessor design and could save millions of dollars for microchip producers. When designing a microchip, engineers need to describe with precise detail the chip specification for each stage of the microchip creation process, including design, fabrication, verification, and final function. Each stage of development requires engineers to rewrite the English specification as a mathematically precise function. Additionally, each stage of development uses different languages, which vary between microchip companies, creating an industry that is prone to mistakes. During a two-year 7 million euro project, PROSYD demonstrated reductions in design error up to 100 percent, and increased design efficiency between 16 percent and 22 percent. Cindy Eisner, PROSYD coordinator and senior architect for verification technologies at the IBM Haifa Research Lab, says as designers become more familiar with PSL, even greater improvements in efficiency can be expected.
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Computers Help Chemists in Superbug Battle
VNUNet (08/21/07) Jacques, Robert

Researchers in Canada say computer analysis of drugs can be used to quickly come up with emergency medications if new infectious agents and antibiotic-resistant superbugs appear. "In the case of new infectious threats, there might be no time to develop a completely new drug 'from the ground up' as the corresponding toxicological studies and regulatory investigations will take years to complete properly," says Artem Cherkasov, of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The scientists plan to use a new computer system to identify vulnerable cellular components of a pathogen using proteomics. Cherkasov says they will enter the key structures into the system, and use some aspects of artificial intelligence to determine which drugs have the best chance for activity against the target and for antimicrobial activity. The highest-rated compounds then could be tested in a laboratory against the pathogen and eventually used to treat people who have become infected. New developments in chemo-informatics, which combines chemistry and computer science, have made it possible to use computational models to search for "antibiotic likeness."
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Grid Experts Address Barriers to Distributed Applications
Grid Today (08/20/07) Jha, Shantenu

Grid computing entails the coordination of decentralized resources while employing standard, open, general-purpose interfaces and protocols to provide appreciable qualities of service, while the issues that the grid applications community must presently contend with are distinct from the issues of five years ago. Infrastructure status was generally considered to be the major early obstacle to grid-enabling applications five years ago, whereas today other hindrances are asserting themselves. The Distributed Programming Abstractions theme was launched at NeSC/eSI to facilitate a better comprehension of the more effective use of distributed infrastructure for the development of grid applications. A workshop was held which determined that the MPI library offered a useful standard for developing parallel applications as the most widely used and best-understood parallel model employed for standardization, and that new tools and models to aid the composition of applications were more desirable than a distributed computing language in this situation. Another part of the workshop listed the numerous programming models/abstractions and then recognized common elements to allocate them to high-level categories of Composition, Messaging, Component, Services, and Grid Aware (grid libraries). Identifying and categorizing a full range of applications was undertaken in subsequent sessions. In general, workshop participants identified a need for classification and analysis of available/potential distributed application programming abstractions; a similar categorization for distributed applications and consequential application mapping; and a gap analysis of the programming abstractions.
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MacArthur Foundation Explores Virtual Worlds
Chicago Tribune (08/16/07) Storch, Charles

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's five-year, $50 million commitment to closely examine the impact of digital technology on how young people learn, play, and participate civically will include $2 million in prizes for innovations in digital media and learning. Individuals, nonprofits, and corporations will have until Oct. 15, 2007, to submit their applications for the new awards. One category is for "entrepreneurs and builders of new digital environments for informal learning" and offers prizes of $250,000 and $100,000, and the other category is for "communicators in connecting, mobilizing, circulating or translating new ideas around digital media and learning" and offers prizes of $30,000 to $75,000. A MacArthur spokesman says applicants "are strongly encouraged to include a partnership with formal or informal learning or community-servicing institutions, when relevant to the proposal." A network of educators and digital innovators will oversee the competition, and a panel of experts in the field will serve as judges. The Chicago philanthropy will announce the winners in January. The Second Life Community convention Aug. 24-26 in Chicago, for which MacArthur is funding a series of programs, will give the foundation another opportunity to investigate digital media and virtual worlds.
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Most Teen Computer Hackers More Curious Than Criminal
USA Today (08/20/07) P. 5D; Elias, Marilyn

Teenagers mostly commit cyber crimes due to curiosity and not criminal motivation, said University of San Francisco psychologist Shirley McGuire at the American Psychological Association conference. A survey of about 4,800 San Diego-area high school students revealed that 38 percent copied software illegally, while 18 percent accessed someone's computer or Web site without permission. However, only about one in 10 students said their intentions were for causing trouble or making money, while several cited the excitement and challenge as their motivation. Additionally, boys were more likely than girls to participate in hacking and make unauthorized software copies. "In the vast majority of instances, it's not a crime because it's not done with criminal intent," says University of Illinois in Chicago researcher Steve Jones. He adds that parents should play a more active role in educating teens about the peril of copyright issues online and that they should also trust their children. Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use says most kids hack "just to see if they can do it" and that schools should implement programs pairing students with industry professionals that foster and promote positive PC activities.
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Flight Plan for Security
Government Computer News (08/13/07) Vol. 26, No. 21, Jackson, William

Seymour Goodman of the Georgia Institute of Technology argues that the IT community must take a proactive stance toward securing cyberspace, and suggests using the Civil Aviation Convention as a prototype. The convention, to which nearly every country belongs, concentrates on standardizing rules for guarding the aviation infrastructure, and mandates operational competence in participating countries. As a result, the aviation industry is relatively safe despite its innate risks and high target profile. Meanwhile, the current information infrastructure was designed to be easily accessible, and "access is the enemy of security," according to Goodman. There are currently some 1.3 billion users of the Internet in over 220 countries. The majority of email traffic is spam, malware has infected roughly 14 percent of American household PCs, and today's global, interactive networks have no single source of authority or control. While the Council of Europe's Convention on Cybercrime is attempting to address such issues, its emphasis on law enforcement is too passive, says Goodman. Moreover, the convention does not insist that member countries create strategies for enforcing its regulations. In comparison, the Civil Aviation Convention insists that participating countries be able to fulfill and enforce its safety standards. A similar scheme in the cybersecurity world may find a helpful vehicle in the International Telecommunication Union, suggests Goodman.
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The Ultimate Answer Machine
InformationWeek (08/06/07)No. 1149, P. 40; Hoover, J. Nicholas

Next-generation search engines are under development that will enable natural language queries, a single stream of multimedia results, greater accuracy and summarization of results, automated categorization, preference-determined relevance, shared searching, and other sophisticated functions. Future search engines will be capable of performing searches on the user's behalf, based on previous queries, and without prompting. Such ability requires a great deal of computation and a redesigned interface, according to IDC analyst Susan Feldman. Powerset CEO Barney Pell predicts that search engines' comprehension of meaning will be dramatically enhanced over the next 10 years, through such milestones as the application of linguistics to interpret questions, study Web content, and polish results via user interaction. Search engines that possess detailed knowledge about the searcher can make better educated guesses about the searcher's intent, and companies such as Google are pushing personalization technology that can facilitate such queries, although the storage of search-related information in corporate databases has aroused concerns about privacy. The emergence of Web 2.0 technologies has hastened the momentum for social search with concepts such as shared searches, social bookmarking, tagging, and search systems that improve as more people employ them. Social bookmarks and tag clouds do not have infinite applications: Autonomy CEO Mike Lynch reports that an overabundance of tags reduces the reliability of searches, while a paucity of tags can vastly inflate related search results. In addition, Google engineer Matt Cutts says spammers and search engine optimization abusers are eager to exploit tagging and social bookmarking.
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Recognizing Gestures
EDN (08/16/07) P. 44; Cravotta, Robert

Gesture interfaces are becoming more complex and capable, broadening the scope of control for many different kinds of electronic devices used in games, infotainment, and industrial and medical environments. The bulk of the advances in emergent gesture interfaces will stem from more sophisticated software algorithms that maximize the advantages and offset the shortcomings of each type of input interface. Some of the interfaces concentrate on encompassing a wide spectrum of gestures to mimic the manipulation of a real-world tool instead of sending abstract instructions to a computer. A great deal of the properties that support reliability and usability in a gesture interface, such as predicting or deducing intent, are non-obvious to users. Numerous gesture-recognition interfaces are of the direct-control variety whereby users explicitly guide the system to carry out actions, while embedded or "invisible" interfaces offer even more potential applications through their ability to determine user intent by mere implication. The interface's success, regardless of its richness and intuitiveness, is a direct reflection of how capably the interface addresses uncertainty with the user. One technique an interface can use to compensate for errors or misunderstandings is for the system to restrict the series of potential inputs to only those with an authentic context, while another strategy is to yield sufficient relevant feedback so that users can change their expectations or habits in an appropriate manner. If neither of these approaches work, designers can use a context-relevant response to accommodate a given input's uncertainty. Devices equipped with contemporary interfaces must consider how to contend with wireless and network connectivity between systems in order that the user perceives them as one, unified system.
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Blueprint for a Green Laptop
Popular Science (08/07) Vol. 271, No. 2, P. 70; Aaronson, Lauren

Designers are working on more environmentally friendly laptops whose greenness is sustained throughout their entire life cycle. To eliminate the problem of petroleum-saturated plastic cases, plant-based polymers called bioplastics, which can be produced with less energy and oil than traditional plastics, are being looked into. Discarded laptops are a mounting waste problem, but this could be addressed by making laptop upgrading easier and cheaper; the enormous power consumption by laptop displays could be relieved by the jettisoning of backlights through the use of organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). The energy requirements of manufacturing a laptop could be slashed by the advent of more efficient plants, such as a Texas Instruments facility in Richardson, Texas, that will use 20 percent less electricity and 35 percent less water while also emitting considerably fewer pollutants. Another energy-saving measure being implemented for laptops is the use of solar energy technology, while the European and U.S. governments have decreed that toxic ingredients be phased out of electronics. Laptops could shed 10 percent of their energy consumption by replacing hard drives with flash memory, while one solution to the costly and time-consuming process of computer recycling would be for manufacturers to outfit laptops with radio-frequency ID tags so that recyclers could be instantly told how to retrieve components instead of examining each unit individually.
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