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November 7, 2007

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Welcome to the November 7, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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NASA to Strut Its Supercomputing Stuff at SC07
InformationWeek (11/06/07) Jones, K.C.

NASA engineers will present 40 demonstrations at the Supercomputing 2007 (SC07) conference, covering research projects that demonstrate how employees use high-fidelity computational and experimental data for safe re-entry, shuttle landings, and how NASA analyzes the safety of designs for its Orion crew exploration vehicle and Ares I crew launch vehicle. NASA will also show how computing resources help with the study of planet formation, stars, and black holes. "NASA high-end computers are enabling simulations of the Earth's weather and climate with ever-increasing detail," says Phil Webster, chief of the Computational and Information Science and Technology Office at the Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA will also exhibit Data-Parallel Line Relaxation code simulations, which help predict the heating environment encountered by the high-speed re-entry of space vehicles such as the space shuttle orbiter, the Orion crew capsule, and the Mars Science Laboratory. Rupak Biswas, active chief of the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Division at the NASA Ames Research Center, says, "These simulations involve modeling extremely complex geometry and are vital to ensuring the safe launch of next-generation space vehicles." SC07 is expected to attract more than 7,000 people from around the world. For more information about SC07, or to register, visit http://sc07.supercomputing.org/
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Targeting Internet Terror
Baltimore Sun (11/07/07) P. 4A; Gorman, Siobhan

President Bush on Nov. 6 requested $154 million in preliminary funding for his plan to launch a program targeting terrorists and others who would attack the United States through the Internet. Former government officials say the initiative is expected to become a seven-year, multibillion-dollar project intended to track threats in cyberspace on government and private networks. The project would be run by the Department of Homeland Security, but use resources from the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies. As many as 2,000 people would staff the initiative, and the first goal would be developing a comprehensive cyber security program. Lawmakers, who only recently received briefings on the initiative, continue to have concerns over whether the program has adequate privacy protection, as well as other questions. One former government official familiar with the project says total startup costs could reach $400 million. "The proposal may be long overdue, but there are too many questions on how it will be implemented and how it will avoid the fate of past failed plans that remain unanswered," says chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). "I hope the answers to those questions will come shortly so that cyber security no longer remains on the government's back burner." Thompson expressed specific concerns over the legality of the program and whether it provides sufficient privacy protections. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who chairs the Senate committee overseeing Homeland Security, says he is "encouraged that the Department of Homeland Security is finally taking a strong, leadership role in domestic cyber security." He says that without knowing the details, the initiative "appears to be a step toward better protection of government computers and information."
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Women Lose Ground in IT, Computer Science
T.H.E. Journal (11/07) Nagel, Dave

Women are falling further behind in information technology and computer science, concludes the NCWIT Scorecard, a new report from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. The study found that women are a distinct minority among science- and technology-related students, particularly as they climb the academic and corporate ladder. The report found that girls in K-12 have an advantage over boys in coursework in math, with more algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus, and other math courses among SAT exam takers. However, girls accounted for only 15 percent of students taking AP computer science tests in 2006, and only 1 percent of females taking the SATs in 2006 indicated an interest in computer and information sciences as a possible major. For the 2005/2006 school year, only 11 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer engineering, and 15 percent in computer science, were given to women, although women earned 60 percent of all degrees awarded that year. Meanwhile, for the 2004/2005 academic year, only 18 percent of new tenure-track faculty hires in computer science were women, and only 16 percent of all computer science assistant professors are women. In the private sector, women are the vast minority in technical and IT-related positions, with an even lower percentage of women at executive levels. While women hold 56 percent of professional positions in the United States, they account for only 27 percent of professional computing-related positions, 15 percent of CIO positions in Fortune 500 companies, and only 5 percent of CTO positions at those companies. The report cites a lack of awareness of what computer science entails as a key reason for women's lack of interest. "In one study of high school calculus students, only 2 percent could accurately describe what a computer science major studies," the report says. "And several studies have shown that more female than male students worry that a computing degree will not allow them to work with people."
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U of M Researchers Reveal New Findings About Wikipedia Authorship and Vandalism
University of Minnesota News (11/05/07)

About half of the content on Wikipedia comes from only one-tenth of 1 percent of its 75,000 contributors, according to the latest installment of a study from University of Minnesota researchers. And edits are quickly fixed, as the research reveals that less than one-half percent (0.0037) of typical viewing is likely to involve a damaged article. Although encounters with vandalism increased over time, there was a break in June 2006, which the researchers believe is the result of the increased use of anti-vandalism bots. "Our research suggests vandalism on Wikipedia is a relatively small problem today," says computer science and engineering professor Loren Terveen. "But continued research is needed to contain that damage in the future." ACM's Group 2007 Conference published the paper, "Creating, Destroying and Restoring Value in Wikipedia," in its proceedings on Nov. 4.
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Taming the Guzzlers That Power the World Wide Web
New York Times (11/07/07) P. S7; Wald, Matthew L.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that unless energy conservation for data centers becomes a priority, data center energy consumption will double by 2011. By 2006, data centers in northern Virginia and Washington state were consuming 1.5 percent of the nation's electricity supply, according to the EPA, putting additional strain on the power supply in areas where demand for power was already high. "The amount of energy spent on data centers is huge, and it's not really very well understood," says Hewlett-Packard's Brian Brouillette. The EPA says the electricity needed to run the nation's server farms costs $4.5 billion a year. Significant improvements could allow consumption in 2011 to drop back to the consumption levels of 2001, about half of current levels. However, a significant problem lies in the fact that servers are not required to meet federal energy standards. The EPA report says that managers who buy data center equipment need reliable, objective information on equipment energy performance. Another problem is that those responsible for purchasing and operating IT equipment are often not responsible for power and cooling infrastructure. Manufacturers are beginning to make more energy efficient electronics. "Not many years ago, typical was 75 to 80 percent efficient," says Richard DuBois of server manufacturer Emerson. "We're pretty religiously running in excess of 90 percent right now." Data center managers are also examining how to cool more efficiently, using thermal scanning to find hot spots and redirecting cool air flow. Other power saving strategies including using chips that turn off sections when not in use and improving hardware to reduce electricity leaks.
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NLR, Internet2 Merger Off Again
Network World (11/06/07) Reed, Brad

For the second time this year National LambdaRail has ended discussions to merge with Internet2 after its board of directors voted down a motion to approve the combination of the two nonprofit research networks. NLR board chair Erv Blythe says the research network provider's bylaws, which entitled NLR members to a portion of assets liquidated in a merger, were a key factor in the decision. "Even though NLR's bylaws permit the board of NLR to cause a merger with another entity, the provisions in NLR's bylaws pertaining to the contributions of NLR's members had to be considered when evaluating a merger," Blythe says. Jeffery Lehman, chairman of Internet2's board of trustees, says he regrets the decision, but adds that his research network has "no choice but to move forward independently." The proposed tie-up looked promising because NLR and Internet2 offered similar Layer 1, 2, and 3 services.
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Better Search in Virtual Worlds
Technology Review (11/06/07) Naone, Erica

Linden Lab recently released a search tool that helps residents of its Second Life virtual environment find 3D objects. The tool scores results by relevance instead of rating them according to the amount of traffic they produce or arranging them in alphabetical order, while Linden Lab's Jeska Dzwigalski says the tool lets Second Life residents search not just for objects, but also for information in each other's profiles, which could enhance the virtual world's social features. The Second Life search tool's underlying algorithm will rank found objects based on how well the data used to describe them matches the search terms entered, the closeness of multiple words, and the apparent popularity of the objects according to the frequency of references to their locations. The new tool relies on tags flagging objects and places, and it is residents who have the ultimate responsibility for tagging items they want indexed. As developers strive to allow users to pass easily between virtual worlds, searching those worlds is an increasingly important challenge. "If we're enabling a whole network of virtual worlds, it's critical for the user to find just the world that he or she wants," says Multiverse co-founder Corey Bridges. "Odds are, it's going to end up like the Web, where there's a whole bunch of stuff out there, and you don't want 98 percent of it."
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IBM Video Game Teaches Business and Computer Skills
Journal News (NY) (11/06/07) Alterio, Julie Moran

IBM has developed a video game called Innov8 designed to teach graduate students a combination of business and IT skills through a three-dimensional gaming experience. IBM is offering the program for free to more than 2,000 universities worldwide. Similar to how pilots use flight simulators to learn to fly airplanes, information technology management students can learn from business simulations and problems, says IBM's Sandy Carter. "You get 80 percent greater retention when someone does a task versus reading about it," Carter says. "The concept is to get students to experience the task in a fun way." The game's main character, named Logan, receives assignments to solve business problems from the company's CEO. The first task involves improving operations at a call center with long call times and poor documentation. "The fun part is you are a character," Carter says. "You click on a video and learn about how to do things. You can click on posters and the posters come alive." Pace University associate professor of information systems Jim Lawler, who was involved in the Innov8 pilot program, says the game is more like a tool with a lot of intelligence behind it, and that a video game should appeal to today's generation. "It brings the course into the 21st century," Lawler says. "Enrollment is lower in computer science and information systems nationally. This is what schools have to do, integrate these kind of games and tools."
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Is It Really a Van Gogh?
University of Haifa (11/05/07)

Researchers at the University of Haifa have developed a mathematical program that is capable of determining if a painting is the artwork of a particular artist. Haifa computer science professor Daniel Keren says the program turns drawings of nature, people, and other scenes into a series of mathematical symbols, sines, and cosines, which enable a computer to learn some of the work of an artist, pick up the individual style of an artist, and then identify an artist's painting from artwork it has never seen. "As soon as the computer learns to recognize the clock drawings of Dali, it will recognize his other paintings, even without clocks," Keren says. "As soon as the computer learns to recognize the swirls of Van Gogh, it will recognize them in pictures it has never seen before." The research is a key contribution to the field of computer vision. Determining when a picture is of a human face or how many faces are in a picture is not an easy task for computers.
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DARPA Race Pushes Robotics Forward
CNet (11/05/07) Olsen, Stefanie

Participants said the completion of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Urban Challenge--a competition of unmanned cars on urban streets that was won by Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing vehicle--represented a major victory for robotics, in that it brought the concept of driverless vehicles much closer to reality in people's minds. Advocates say the technology underlying the challenge will lead to a new generation of safer vehicles. Although a number of entrants successfully completed the course, the fact remains that the cars are still not ready for autonomous driving, says Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University, whose vehicle came in second. "There's clearly more development needed," Thrun says. The winners were ultimately judged by how quickly they finished the course as well as their obedience to traffic rules. DARPA director Tony Tether drew parallels between the Urban Challenge and the Wright brothers' historic flight at Kitty Hawk. "Bot on bot was a new experience [this year], and I saw them pass each other like any person would," he says. Nevertheless, driverless cars remains a significant challenge. Only 35 of the original 89 entries were chosen to compete in a qualifying event for the race, and only 11 of those passed that test to compete in the actual race. Although six of the 11 entries completed all three of DARPA's required missions, only four did so in the allotted time of six hours.
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'Suicide Nodes' Defend Networks From Within
New Scientist (11/01/07) Marks, Paul

University of Cambridge researchers have developed a computer defense system that mimics how bees sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the hive. The approach starts by giving all the devices on a network, or nodes, the ability to destroy themselves, and take down any nearby malevolent devices with them. The self-sacrifice provision provides a defense against malicious nodes attacking clean nodes. "Bee stingers are a relatively strong defense mechanism for protecting a hive, but whenever the bee stings, it dies," says University of Cambridge security engineer Tyler Moore. "Our suicide mechanism is similar in that it enables simple devices to protect a network by removing malicious devices--but at the cost of its own participation." The technique, called "suicide revocation," allows a single node to quickly decide if a nearby node's behavior is malevolent and to shut down the bad node, but at the cost of deactivating itself. The node also sends an encrypted message announcing that itself and the malevolent node have been shut down. The purpose of the suicide system is to protect networks as they become increasingly distributed and less centralized. Similar systems allow nodes to "blackball" malicious nodes by taking a collective vote before ostracizing the malicious node, but the process is slow and malicious nodes can outvote legitimate nodes. "Nodes must remove themselves in addition to cheating ones to make punishment expensive," says Moore. "Otherwise, bad nodes could remove many good nodes by falsely accusing them of misbehavior."
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New Computer Program Automates Chip Debugging
University of Michigan News Service (11/02/07)

University of Michigan engineering researchers have devised FogClear, a new computer-aided design tool to automate "post-silicon debugging" that employs puzzle-solving search algorithms to determine problems early on and automatically adjust the chip's blueprint, dramatically speeding up parts of the process. FogClear co-developer and University of Michigan professor Igor Markov says it is physically impossible to validate today's chips for all possible conditions. "Bugs found post-silicon are often very difficult to diagnose and repair because it is difficult to monitor and control the signals that are buried inside a silicon die, or chip," notes recent University of Michigan doctoral graduate Kai-Hui Chang. "Up until now engineers have handled post-silicon debugging more as an art than a science." FogClear can spot subtle bugs that can be overlooked even after months of simulations. The application looks for and locates the least complicated debugging method that minimizes the effects on working parts of the chip. Chang will present a paper on FogClear at the International Conference on Computer-Aided Design.
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Computer Scientist Fights Threat of 'Botnets'
University of Wisconsin-Madison (10/31/07) Mattmiller, Brain

University of Wisconsin-Madison computer scientist Paul Barford is developing Nemean, a new computer security technique for detecting network intrusions. Barford says the problem with current detection systems is the high number of false positives. Hackers have become so capable of disguising malicious traffic that security systems create thousands of false positives. Most network-intrusion systems compare traffic against a manually collected database of previously recognized attack signatures. Nemean automatically generates intrusion signatures, making the detection process faster and more accurate. A test comparing Nemean against current technology on the market showed that both systems had a high detection rate of malicious signatures, 99.9 percent for Nemean and 99.7 percent for the commercially available technology, but Nemean had no false positives, compared to the 88,000 false positives created by the other system. "The technology we're developing here really has the potential to transform the face of network security," Barford says. Barford's research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office, and the Department of Homeland Security. "This is an arms race and we're always one step behind," Barford says. "We have to cover all the vulnerabilities. The bad guys only have to find one."
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Revolution Ahead in Data Storage, Say IT Wizards
Agence France Presse (11/01/07)

The latest breakthroughs involving "spintronics" could lead to some amazing developments for hard disk storage capacity and date retrieval, according to French IT expert Albert Fert in the British journal Nature Materials. In a review of nanoscale computing, Fert notes that spintronics will allow researchers to take advantage of the quantum "spin" state of electrons. Fert, co-winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics last month, helped discover the giant magnetoresistance (GMR) principle, and he believes the effect can be applied to Magnetic Random Access Memory (MRAM). By collapsing the disk drive and computer chip into one, processing power and storage capacity can be substantially increased. "MRAM potentially combines key advantages such as non-volatility, infinite endurance and fast random access--down to five nanoseconds read/write time--that make it a likely candidate for becoming the 'universal memory' of nanoelectonics," according to Fert and his colleagues. IBM engineers are developing next-generation disk drives that will offer 100 times the data storage of current offerings. Meanwhile, the transition from silicon to metals inside the transistor "gate" at a nanoscale level means transistors will continue to adhere to Moore's Law.
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Why VoIP Is the Next Target for Spammers
Guardian Unlimited (UK) (11/01/07) Hargrave, Sean

Email spam filters have become so good at preventing unsolicited marketing messages from making their way into users' inboxes that it has become rare for spam to actually be read, says Columbia University computer science professor Henning Schulzrinne. As a result, spammers are increasingly choosing to send their unwanted messages to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) accounts instead of email inboxes, Schulzrinne says. He notes that while such attacks on Internet telephony accounts--known as "spit" (spam over Internet telephony)--are still very rare compared to email spam, spammers are finding it tempting to target VoIP because a ringing phone is a lot harder to ignore than an email message. In addition to spam, VoIP accounts are also prone to a type of phishing called "vishing." In vishing attacks, a fraudster can choose the name and number that will be displayed on the victim's caller ID. This allows fraudsters to claim that they are calling from their victim's bank and trick them into supplying personal information that can be used to steal money from online accounts or commit identity theft. IBM's Jean Paul Ballerini says vishing will likely become the most common type of attack on VoIP accounts because it is more likely to lead to money for spammers.
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Survey: Good News for COBOL Programmers
Campus Technology (11/02/07) Nagel, David

The higher education sector has a need for COBOL programmers to work with its legacy systems. More than 75 percent of CIOs plan to recruit COBOL programmers over the next five years, according to a survey from Micro Focus. The company also found that 73 percent of CIOs are having some difficulty finding people who know how to work with the programming language. Micro Focus has launched the ACTION initiative and has signed up 22 colleges and universities that will receive COBOL support for maintaining legacy systems. "As educators we must not only expose our students to the theoretical and 'hot' programming languages, but we must also provide the knowledge of systems and languages that are more prevalent in the work environment," says Harrison Simmons, a computer science lecturer at New York City College of Technology, a participant in the program. "By incorporating joint initiatives such as ACTION into the curriculum, we provide our students better ways to equip themselves for today's large-system, enterprise computing jobs."
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Aussie Math Whiz Supercharges Net
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (11/05/07) Moses, Asher

University of Melbourne research fellow John Papandriopoulos has developed an algorithm that reduces the electromagnetic interference that slows down ADSL connections, a discovery that could make Internet connections up to 100 times faster. Most ADSL connections have a speed limit between 1 Mbps and 20 Mbps, but Papandriopoulos' discovery could increase the speed limit to 100 Mbps. Stanford University engineering professor John Cioffi, who developed the computer chips inside the first DSL modems, was so impressed by Papandriopoulos' work that he offered him a job at his Silicon Valley startup company ASSIA, which is working on ways to optimize DSL networks. Papandriopoulos says his algorithm was designed to limit the "cross-talk" interference that occurs on transmissions carried over existing copper telephone wires, which power ADSL connections. "Many years ago people used to pick up the phone and make a phone call and you'd be able to hear a faint or distant telephone conversation taking place, and that's called cross-talk," Papandriopoulos says. "That is not an issue for voice calls these days but it becomes a problem when you're trying to wring more bandwidth out of these existing copper telephone wires. This cross-talk in current day DSL networks effectively produces noise onto other lines, and this noise reduces the speed of your connection." The technology could be implemented by Internet providers within two or three years.
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Virtual Worlds, Real Science
Science News (10/27/07) Vol. 172, No. 17, P. 264; Vastag, Brian

Virtual worlds such as the online game environment World of Warcraft are being increasingly tapped by behavioral scientists as a resource into social dynamics. Tufts University's Nina Fefferman points out that infectious disease computer models are limited in terms of accurately projecting human behavior, and virtual worlds, which involve real human interactions, sometimes on a vast scale, can help fill this void. She presented this argument in a paper she co-authored with University of North Carolina epidemiology grad student Eric Lofgren based on observations about a virtual plague epidemic that ravaged the World of Warcraft population. Fefferman notes a group dynamic during the outbreak in which thrill-seeking characters willingly entered disease epicenters, a phenomenon that could conceivably be paralleled in the real world. "I tend to think that it's more realistic than we acknowledge, that there would be motivations for people to go to the disaster," says director of the National Science Foundation's Human-Centered Computing Cluster William Sims Bainbridge. Fefferman now wants to intentionally unleash a virtual plague on a game world to study its effects, and she contends that such a scenario could be used to enhance the challenge of game worlds by offering players the opportunity to collaborate on a cure or build hospitals, for instance. With game companies reluctant to participate in such experiments, some academic researchers are building their own virtual worlds to test their theories, but success has been spotty. A $360,000 NSF grant was awarded to a team headed by Carnegie Mellon University's Robert Kraut to study interactions in World of Warcraft, Wikipedia, and other online social centers, while University of Pennsylvania Wharton Business School professor Dan Hunter has termed this emerging discipline "computational social science."
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