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ACM TechNews
October 26, 2007

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Welcome to the October 26, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Could Europe's New 'Blue Card' Cause Global Tech Talent to Shun U.S.?
InformationWeek (10/25/07) McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

While efforts to raise the H-1B visa limit in the United States have stalled in Congress, the European Union this week unveiled its proposed "blue card" system, which is designed to make it easier for highly skilled workers from abroad to obtain jobs in the EU's 27 member countries. The EU is predicting a severe workforce crisis over the next few decades and expects to attract 20 million workers from abroad with its blue card alternative to the American green card system. The blue card program would allow foreign-born, educated immigrants, including tech professionals, to receive a two-year, renewable visa in less than three months. The U.S. green card process can take between five and 10 years for an individual to gain permanent residency, and the 85,000 annual quota for H-1B visas has been filled very quickly for the past few years, forcing talented foreign workers to seek employment elsewhere. The blue card program would also allow applicants to take jobs in Canada or Australia. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate recently approved a spending bill amendment that would raise employers' H-1B visa fees from $1,500 to $5,000 per worker. The additional fees would be used to fund scholarships for American students pursuing math, science, and technology degrees.
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Programming Superstars Eye Parallelism
eWeek (10/24/07) Taft, Darryl K.

A panel of programming experts at ACM SIGPLAN's Object-Oriented Programming, Systems and Languages (OOPSLA) conference used the 40th anniversary of Simula 67, the first object-oriented programming language, to evaluate programming's past and future. "Going forward, the big challenge we have today is we have to really think deeply about programming for concurrency," says Anders Hejlsberg, a Microsoft distinguished engineer and creator of C#. "The models we have today for concurrency don't work." Hejlsberg says only the top 10 percent of programmers can adequately program for concurrent environments, and that going forward the industry is going to have to program very differently. Developers need to move an abstraction level up, Hejlsberg says, adding he has been speculating on the area of querying with his Language Integrated Query (LINQ) project, which is especially useful in parallel computing and can automatically optimize and parallelize query operations based on dynamic runtime information. Hejlsberg also sees a resurgence of functional programming, which treats computation as the evaluation of mathematical functions and avoids state and mutable data, and says he is fascinated by the resurgence of dynamic languages such as Ruby, Python, and Perl. "The attraction to Ruby has nothing to do with typing, but with this element of meta-programming," he says. "Dynamic languages or languages without types are precursors of what's going to happen in languages with types, because types are just better."
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Dan Reed to Discuss NITRD Program Recommendations at SC07
HPC Wire (10/24/07)

SC07, an international conference on high performance computing sponsored by ACM and IEEE that takes place Nov. 10-16 in Reno, will feature a session on U.S. research initiatives dubbed Birds of a Feather, Federal Activities Impacting Long Term HEC Strategies. The session will identify the objectives of the latest research efforts and how they need to change to guarantee that important scientific questions are answered and that the United States maintains its position as the world's scientific and technological leader. Renaissance Computing Institute director and member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Dan Reed will deliver feature presentations and the keynote address at the International Workshop on Performance Analysis and Optimization of High-End Computing Systems. Reed recently co-authored the Leadership Under Challenge: Information Technology R&D in a Competitive World report, which assesses the United States' global competitiveness in networking and information technology and makes some recommendations to ensure that the federal Networking and Information Technology R&D (NITRD) Program is properly focused and deployed. NITRD is a $3.1 billion project involving 14 federal agencies. Reed will also address recommendations made in the PCAST report, including rebalancing the NITRD portfolio, redesigning IT education and training programs, reprioritizing some NITRD topics, and improving interagency planning and coordination. For more information about SC07, or to register, visit http://sc07.supercomputing.org/index.php
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Changing the Way Undergraduates Are Taught
Washington University Record (St. Louis) (10/25/07) Fitzpatrick, Tony

Washington University in St. Louis has received a $562,000 National Science Foundation grant to research changing how undergraduate students are taught. The new "active learning" approach, led by associate professor of computer science and engineering Kenneth J. Goldman, replaces passive learning through lectures with a stronger emphasis on studio courses that involve team projects and interdisciplinary collaboration. "Passive learning can be done effectively out of class. We want students to interact in the classroom more instead of hearing a lecture," Goldman says. "We will be making video and audio from lectures available on the Web. We can then assign these, much like reading assignments, so that students can arrive in class ready to do something with that knowledge." Undergraduate courses affected by the change will be divided into two groups--foundation courses that will concentrate on fundamental problem-solving skills, and studio courses in which students apply their fundamental knowledge. Students will experience active learning and frequent critiques from faculty and students in both types of courses. As passive material is phased out, it will be made available through an online course management system so students can view the material to prepare for in-class learning. The course management system will also be used to track where the class is in the curriculum and allow students to keep portfolios of their project work. "People are attracted to computer science and engineering because it is a creative discipline," Goldman says. "Educational research shows that if students are creating during class, rather than sitting there listening, motivation will be higher and the students will learn more."
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A One-Eyed Robot Can Do Pushups on Command
San Francisco Chronicle (10/24/07) P. C1; Abate, Tom

DeVry University seniors are developing a small, bipedal, one-eyed robot called Ami, short for artificial machine intelligence. Responding to voice commands, Ami was able to walk backwards and forwards and perform several pushups, a significant achievement for a bipedal robot. "Walking is one of the most underdeveloped forms of locomotion for robotics," says Feras Khatib, one of Ami's developers. "It requires feedback and stability and constant correction." More significant than Ami's individual achievement is what the robot represents--an increasing interest in robotics among America's youth. Robots have captured the imagination of today's young innovators the same way Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were enchanted by personal computers. "We're coming into a time when robotics is being incorporated into school curriculums throughout the United States," says Dan Kara, president of Massachusetts' Robotics Trends. Kara says most of the work being done on robotics is taking place in classrooms and laboratories. Another sign of a growing interest in robotics is the DARPA Urban Challenge, in which several university teams will race their autonomous cars against one another in an urban setting. The event has created a sense of excitement over robotic vehicles at the corporate, university, and even high school level, encouraging computing and engineering enthusiasts to pursue similar projects. "The response has really overwhelmed us," says DARPA director Anthony Tether. "We've got people working day and night and putting their hearts and souls into this."
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Simplest 'Universal Computer' Wins Student $25,000
New Scientist (10/24/07) Giles, Jim

University of Birmingham computer science student Alex Smith solved the simplest "universal computer" proof by proving that a simple mathematical calculator can be used as a "universal computing machine," earning a $25,000 prize. The proof involves a mathematical calculator known as a Turing machine, some of which are "universal computers" that given enough time and memory can solve almost any mathematical problem. In May 2007, mathematician Stephen Wolfram announced a contest to see if anyone could prove that the simplest Turing machine, a cellular automaton that uses just three different symbols in its calculations, is also a universal computer. Smith, who is 20 years old and knows 20 different programming languages, including six he describes as "esoteric," solved the proof by showing that the machine is equal to another mathematical device that is already known to be a universal computer. Wolfram says proving that even the simplest machine is capable of being a universal computer indicates that equally simple molecular versions could some day be the foundation for new kinds of computing. "We are also at the end of a quest that has spanned more than half a century to find the very simplest universal Turing machine," says Wolfram.
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Rating Facial Expressions
Technology Review (10/25/07) Davison, Anna

Japan's Omron Corporation recently demonstrated smile recognition software at an exhibition in Tokyo. The software is part of Omron's OKAO Vision software suite, which detects faces in images, can determine a person's gender and approximate age, and can verify a person's identity using a database of faces. The smile software is Omron's first effort in facial expression recognition, a field that could potentially revolutionize how humans interact with machines and with each other. Omron's James Seddon says the software could be used in digital cameras to capture people's biggest and most sincere smiles, in market research and customer-service training, and by mental-health professionals to evaluate patients. The software looks for certain facial signatures such as narrowed eyes, an open mouth, creases around the mouth, and wrinkles turning downward around the eyes to detect when people are smiling. An algorithm is used to determine the extent of the smile, a process that takes about 44 milliseconds using a typical PC. A database of about 10,000 pictures of human faces, some smiling spontaneously, some smiling intentionally, and others with different expressions was used to train the software. MIT postdoctoral associate Rana el Kaliouby, who is developing mind-reading machines, says recognizing more complex expressions is an even greater challenge. "You can have an angry smile, an interested smile--even a confused smile," he says.
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ASU Researchers Give Memory a Boost
Arizona State University (10/23/07) Gerbis, Nicholas

The battery life, performance, and capacity of consumer electronics could be significantly upgraded by a new, inexpensive memory device developed by researchers at Arizona State University's Center for Applied Nanoionics (CANi) that is fashioned from common materials and can interoperate with nearly any current market offering. "In using readily available materials, we've provided a way for this memory to be made at essentially zero extra cost, because the materials you need are already used in the chips--all you have to do is mix them in a slightly different way," says CANi director Michael Kozicki. CANi elected to improve performance with special materials while also effecting a switch from charge- to resistance-based storage. The project involved the employment of nanoionics, a method for shuffling ions around on a chip, as opposed to the traditional technique of moving electrons among ions. The major breakthrough of CANi's innovative memory is the mixture of copper in silicon dioxide, materials that are already common in chip fabrication. Kozicki says the technique allows the copper to move around in the oxide, enabling the creation of a nanoscale switch. "Because it is so low energy, we can pack a lot of memory and not drain battery power; and it's not volatile--you can switch everything off and retain information," he notes. "What makes this significant is that we are using materials that are already in use in the semiconductor industry to create a component that's never been thought of before." The work was a joint project between CANi and Germany's Research Center Julich.
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Is It Time to Scrap the Internet and Start Over?
Christian Science Monitor (10/25/07) P. 13; Gaylord, Chris

The Internet was not designed to carry the massive amounts of video and information it is currently being used for, and some experts wonder if the Internet is outdated. IDC forecasts that streaming video will increase from 7.3 percent of all U.S. consumer Internet traffic in 2006 to almost 33 percent in 2012, while total Internet traffic is expect to double every two years, analysts say. Larry Roberts, who managed the Pentagon's APRAnet, the precursor to the Internet, says the Internet is insufficient for the new types and new amounts of information being shared today. Roberts says the Internet is perfect for email, but that 40 years ago he and the other designers never imagined it would be used for streaming high-definition television. Despite its wide use for watching video, significant improvements need to occur before the Internet can truly rival TV. The problem in the United States is not the core "backbone" of the Internet, but the in-home delivery of the Internet. Many companies are hesitant to pay the cost of installing fiber-optic networks, and as a result U.S. Internet speeds have fallen behind. Japan has broadband speeds that are 12.7 times faster and 12.3 times less expensive than the average connection in the United States, according to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Japan's faster speeds are largely credited to the country's denser population and willingness to swallow up-front costs in the name of innovation. David Clark, a key architect of the early Internet, says the Internet of the future could be much different. "We're looking for ways to make the Internet fundamentally safer and more manageable," Clark says. "That might require making an Internet from scratch. It might mean we'll have two parallel Internets. We don't know yet."
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Identity Theft: Costs More, Tech Less
Network Computing (10/23/07) Claburn, Thomas

A study by Utica College's Center for Identity Management and Information Protection (CIMIP) revealed that the median actual dollar loss for victims of identity theft is $31,356, a much higher figure than suggested by past studies. However, earlier studies primarily concentrated on consumer losses, whereas Utica's study reviewed 517 cases investigated by the U.S. Secret Service, which tend to be major incidents, not minor scams. Indeed, the CIMIP study is the first to review the Secret Services' closed case files, and as such aims to provide empirical data. The report proved that companies as well as individuals are affected by identity theft. The study also discovered that the Internet is not always an essential tool for identity thieves. Of the 517 cases reviewed, 102 cases involved Internet use and 106 involved non-technological means, such as mail rerouting. In other instances, criminals used mail theft to access sensitive information and then used Internet-related tools to create fake documents. Another unanticipated finding was that in the 274 cases with identifiable points of compromise, businesses were the starting point for half of the breaches. Moreover, one-third of the identity theft cases reviewed implicated insiders. Finally, the study's results challenged the belief that most identity thieves are white males, as roughly 50 percent of the offenders were black and roughly 40 percent were white. CIMIP works with corporate, government, and academic institutions to research identity management, information sharing, and data protection, including the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute, Indiana University's Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, and Syracuse University's CASE Center.
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Bus Scheduling Algorithm Picks Up the Slack
USC Viterbi School of Engineering (10/22/07)

Bus passengers' wait for rides may be shortened thanks to an award-winning paper by USC Viterbi School engineer and professor Maged Dessouky, who studied a transit scheduling problem with former USC graduate student Jiamin Zhao and former USC assistant professor T.S. Bukkapatnam. The problem concerns the amount of "slack time" bus or tram schedulers should add to prevent a bunching up of operations. Dessouky's paper explains that too little slack time reduces the likelihood that buses will catch up with the schedule once they lag behind, while too much slack time lowers service frequency, which can inconvenience riders. The researchers worked out an algorithm that provides an approximation of the optimal amount of slack time, based on the size of the loop a vehicle must travel and the distribution of the travel time delay. The work builds upon empirical studies Dessouky published eight years ago in an analysis of bus operations at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit District. No transit system is currently using the new algorithms to schedule operations, but "our next step ... is to make the agencies aware of our approach instead of the current method of using rules of thumb," Dessouky says. Dessouky, Zhao, and Bukkapatnam's paper earned the authors a "Best Paper for 2007" award from the Institute For Operations Research and Management Science Transportation Science and Logistics Society.
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Trends in ICT - Connected Anywhere and Anytime
ICT Results (10/23/07)

German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence director Wolfgang Wahlster believes that future applications of information and communication technologies will be incredibly diverse and will lead to better safety, improved health, and universally accessible information and entertainment. "In the end, we will have what we call ambient network access--always on and always best connected, ad hoc networks, personal body area networks, moving networks on the plane, the train, home networks, and so on," Wahlster says. He believes that by 2012 homes will have various SIM-cards, intelligent entertainment, network appliances, biometric access control, intelligent recycling, digital product memories, cleaning robots, and health monitoring. The Internet itself will also change, with embedded Internet services, machine-to-machine communication, and eventually a fully semantic Web. Wahlster believes the greatest challenges for information society technologies are the 100-percent safe car, multilingual and service companion robots, the self-monitoring and self-repairing computer, the Internet police agent, cell-based disease and drug simulators, augmentation of personal memories, a pervasive communication jacket, the everywhere visualizer, and the intelligent retail store. "All of these challenges have a societal dimension: health and the aging society, anywhere-anytime-anyhow connectivity, new values and services, and finally safety, security, privacy and trust," Wahlster says. Another important issue is environmentally sound ICT practices, including energy conservation and recycling ICT components. Wahlster says more attention must now be paid to developing the algorithmic foundations for low-power software.
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Fewer IT Students in University
The Chronicle Herald (Canada) (10/24/07) Lipscombe, Kristen

Fewer students are enrolling in computer science and computer engineering programs, reveals a new report from Dalhousie University researchers, who say that government and industry are losing touch with the importance of investing in the future of information technology. "We have potentially a huge problem that could rock the entire economy," says Dalhousie University professor Jacob Slonim. "Now that it's there, it could take awhile to get out of it." Slonim presented the study's findings at the UBM Toronto Center for Advanced Studies. "Enrollment has been going down for three or four years," Slonim says. "The question was: Is it a phenomenon that is happening here at Dalhousie? There were a lot of stories of this happening at other places, but there were very little facts." The researchers found that enrollment was down in universities coast-to-coast, both in undergraduate and graduate programs. However, British Columbia is experiencing a less extreme enrollment decline largely due to new interdisciplinary degrees that have attracted more women to information technology programs. Slonim says that industry partners need to act quickly, as does the government, which Slonim says needs to seriously rethink its policy and invest more money in post-secondary institutions.
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Password-Cracking Chip Causes Security Concerns
New Scientist (10/24/07) Brandt, Andrew

Russia's Elcomsoft has filed a U.S. patent application for a technique for cracking computer passwords using inexpensive off-the-shelf computer graphics hardware. Using an inexpensive graphics card, Elcomsoft was able to increase its password cracking speed by a factor of 25, says Elcomsoft's Vladimir Katalov. The most difficult passwords, such as those used to log onto a Windows Vista computer, would normally take months of continuous computer processing using a normal central processing unit. However, Katalov says they can be cracked in as little as three to five days by using a graphics processing unit. He says less complex passwords can be cracked in a few minutes instead of hours or days. The speed increase comes from how a GPU processes information. Password cracking is an effective way to access information on a computer, but is generally ineffective at accessing online banking services since their Web sites often require multiple passwords and shut down after several incorrect attempts. Cryptography Research's Benjamin Jun says the technique is an impressive achievement that required elegant, intelligent design, and while the ability to crack passwords using GPUs is concerning, it is not a cause for panic. Advancements in cryptographic keys and the growing trend of encrypting entire hard drives is making accessing sensitive data more difficult. "Should I throw away my Web server and run for the hills?" asks Jun. "I don't think so."
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The Future Is Here Right Now, If You Can Read the Signs
Age (Australia) (10/22/07) Gettler, Leon

European author and futurologist Ray Hammond believes that society is on the brink of a technological breakthrough that will make many of the fantasies in science fiction a reality. "My particular approach is to study trends in the present and work out the number of ways that they may extrapolate into the future," Hammond says. Hammond uses a process he calls accelerating exponential technology to predict the future. "Every single day that I use Google, and I use it constantly, I notice that it's getting a little bit more capable at understanding what I mean when I don't say precisely what I mean," Hammond says. "Now, if brainpower in the computer is doubling every 12 months and Google is gathering every single minute of every day the intentions of all the humans in the planet, imagine where that might lead in 10 years." Hammond says that if Moore's Law continues, by 2035 artificial intelligence will equal human intelligence, and then double. Globalization, the world population explosion, the climate crisis, and the looming energy crisis will be four other major reasons significant changes will occur in our lifetime, Hammond says. "I am certain that in 10 years every single business person will be conducting their business in parallel virtual world as in the real world," he predicts.
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How Linux Is Testing the Limits of Open Source Development
InformationWeek (10/22/07)No. 1159, P. 42; Babcock, Charles

Updates for Linux are being developed so rapidly that the Linux Foundation is releasing a new kernel every few months in an effort to keep up with new technologies, device drivers, and bug fixes. Linux creator Linus Torvalds is pushing open source development to new extremes, straining the capacity of volunteers who test and debug updates, but nevertheless producing high-quality, reliable code. Analysts say Torvalds cannot let Linux fall behind technologically or it will risk losing business users, while it also needs to feed its developer community. New features to work on keeps coders interested in Linux projects and help attract new coders as older coders leave the process. The need to add new features while maintaining quality and stability creates a tension that is unique to Linux. "No other open source project has gotten this large or moved this fast," says IBM's Dan Frye, who tracks the kernel process. "It's a first-of-a-kind developer community." Despite Torvalds' attempts to limit the amount of code that gets added to the kernel to keep it as efficient as possible, Linux gains an average of 2,000 lines of code per day, and some believe the kernel has exceeded the software development speed limit. Alex Cox, a key maintainer of the process, warns that some device driver changes need to get more testing before being added to the kernel, and programmer and general manager Andrew Morton says he would like to see people spending more time fixing bugs and less time on new features. Torvalds says that slow kernel releases create logjams as additions wait to be added to the kernel and that contributors lose interest without immediate feedback from kernel maintainers and expert developers. By pushing forward, Torvalds is trusting in the basic open source principle that numerous users testing frequent releases of code are likely to find more bugs than a structured testing process.
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Where the Jobs Are
Computerworld (10/22/06) Vol. 41, No. 43, P. 24; Weiss, Todd R.; Machlis, Sharon

Assumptions about how "techie" a region's overall workforce is were inverted by the findings of the U.S. Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey, which evaluated areas according to the percentage of self-reported computer professionals. California's Silicon Valley led the list in 2006 with 8.3 percent of its workforce composed of "computer specialists," followed by the Washington, D.C., metro area with about 6 percent, Raleigh-Cary, N.C., with 5.3 percent, and Boulder, Colo., and Huntsville, Ala., with 5.2 percent each. Only about 2.5 percent of the New York metro area's workforce are IT professionals, despite the fact that some 221,020 such workers reside in the area. The D.C. metro area's high concentration of IT jobs owes a lot to the siting of government agencies and contractors, along with the tendency for companies to cluster near government facilities, educational institutions, and other businesses. Among the factors cited by Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce executive Ken Atkins for playing a role in the Raleigh-Cary metro area's computer specialist workforce are the presence of top-tier colleges that provide a steady flow of fresh IT talent, an excellent quality of life, an abundance of good jobs, and an exceptional educational system; the affordability of homes and the number of companies eager for IT workers may contribute as well. Huntsville's aerospace and defense industry connections have enhanced the area's appeal to tech workers, says spokesman for the local chamber of commerce John Southerland. Meanwhile, Bloomington, Ill.'s citation in several lists of "best" and "most affordable" places to live has helped attract IT workers, according to McLean County Chamber of Commerce executive director Mike Malone. The Census Bureau's report indicates that IT workers draw higher salaries in regions where the workforce has a larger segment of techies, but it remains unclear as to whether demand, the cost of living, or both are responsible for this trend.
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