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December 12, 2007

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Welcome to the December 12, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Europe Wants World's Brightest As America Keeps Limits Tight
Investor's Business Daily (12/12/07) P. A1; Detar, James

The European Union recently proposed a "blue card" program to attract highly-skilled workers to Europe, which could further complicate U.S. companies' efforts to hire foreign tech workers. Analyst Will Strauss says the blue card program could make it even harder for U.S. companies to fill the skills gap. "There are only so many brains available," Strauss says. "And either they're going to get them or we are." However, all 27 EU members need to agree on any major policy changes, leading some analysts to believe that the blue card program will not go into effect until 2009. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) says the United States has always done a good job of attracting skilled workers, but the U.S. has been unable to keep them because of the miles of red tape that prevents workers from becoming permanent residents. U.S. universities attract tens of thousands of students from China, India, and other countries looking to obtain advanced degrees, and foreign nationals account for the majority of U.S. doctoral degrees in math, computer science, and engineering, but many of these students find it easier and more appealing to return to their home countries than to navigate the U.S. immigration system. Compete America co-chair Robert Hoffman says Europe is streamlining the process to bring in foreign workers while the U.S. is throwing up roadblocks. Part of the problem is that the H-1B visa program is too broad, covering not only scientists and engineers but other specialty jobs such as "fashion models of national or international acclaim," the immigration service says. Lofgren says the U.S. needs to make it easier for people educated in the U.S. in science, technology, engineering, and math to remain in the country. "The H-1B is a real mishmash," Lofgren says. "The refinement of that program would be appropriate."
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Computer Servers in U.S., Europe and Japan Are Power Hogs
InformationWeek (12/12/07) McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

The consumption of energy to power computer servers, cooling equipment, and related infrastructure doubled worldwide between 2000 and 2005, with the United States accounting for 40 percent of that, concludes a new study from Jonathan Koomey, project scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The report, "Estimating Regional Power Consumption By Servers, A Technical Note," predicts that if current trends continue, energy consumption worldwide for servers and related cooling and infrastructure will grow about 76 percent from 2005 to 2010. Koomey says that in 2005 total electricity used to power computer servers and related infrastructure worldwide reached 123 kWh, the equivalent to 14 megawatt power plants. The United States, Japan, and Europe combined use about 75 percent of all server-related electricity worldwide, Koomey notes. He says power consumption could be reduced by about 20 percent if certain energy-efficient processes and technologies are developed, including the use of virtualization software, better management of hot and cold areas in data centers, and changes in corporate policies. "A lot of changes aren't technology, but are institutional and people changes," Koomey says, such as combining the budgets of IT and data center facilities so IT leaders have more incentive to use energy-efficient technologies and processes.
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Chinese Automation Scientist Honored for 'Smart' Ideas
Xinhua General News Service (12/12/07)

ACM recently named Fei-Yue Wang a "2007 Distinguished Scientist" for his work in intelligent control and management for "smart" consumer electronics. Wang, a professor at the University of Arizona and a deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute of Automation, is the first mainland Chinese scientist to be honored by ACM. Wang led a study on how to integrate the Internet into home electrical appliances. "Upgrading high-end appliances and powerful computers are costly," Wang says. "But the linked world via the Internet provides us with a connected lifestyle that is much cheaper and with more energy-efficient devices." Wang devised the idea of using shared smart control agents for all types of appliances. Each appliance had just enough memory space and processing power to help electrical appliance manufacturers cut costs. Computer-centered control agents could lower the computing power needed by each appliance, and could easily be upgraded with software, meaning consumers would have to buy new appliances only when there was a major hardware upgrade. With Wang's system, a central control system at the manufacturer's headquarters would receive information from the appliance and design custom control agents that re-train the appliance with tailored functions that make it more cost efficient for the owner.
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Software Helps Mars Rovers Find Winter Havens
Ohio State Research News (12/12/07) Gorder, Pam Frost

Ohio State University professor Ron Li and his research team are developing software that will help the Spirit rover navigate its way around Mars and find safe places to stay through the winter. The newest program uses satellite images and rover images to determine if an area will allow the rover to gather enough solar energy during the winter, and if the route to those locations provides safe spots to go during a pinch. The software is similar to previous software used to map the Opportunity rover's path, but the new software helps scientists identify Martian surface features. Li says the software can combine the rover's images with orbital images to identify rocks from the orbiter and the ground. The key, Li says, is combining panoramas taken by the rovers to give a wide view of the terrain, much like how the human brain combines images from the left and right eye to create a stereo view of our surroundings. "It's as if the rover had a baseline view that was bigger than the rover itself," Li says. Li is now working on software to enable the rovers to navigate automatically.
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New Endeavors Aim to Build a Better Internet
MSNBC (12/10/07) Nelson, Bryn

University of Washington computer scientist and search engine pioneer Oren Etzioni is working to make computers more user friendly. "I think that right now, there is the expectation that people will do a lot of the work," says Etzioni. "The Web is cool, but to get something done like set up a vacation in Italy or even decide when's the right time to buy your airline ticket to get the right price, it actually demands quite a bit of manual labor." Etzioni says Web 2.0 is about sharing information through "the wisdom of the crowds," and spreading labor over a large workforce. The next stage of the Web, the Semantic Web, is about taking all of the stored knowledge and converting it to data that is easily retrieved, processed, and integrated into a wide range of new applications. "Web 3.0 is trying to push more and more of that labor to the machine," Etzioni says, "so that the machine can do the work for you." Some of Etzioni's projects include a program called Opine that automatically extracts the essence of online reviews and condenses them so a single, comprehensive review can be read instead of needing to read multiple reviews of a product or hotel to get a complete picture. Etzioni says as Internet applications evolve they will become increasingly transparent and provide a greater amount of quality information, helping people spend less time finding information on blogs, social-networking sites, and other informative pages that could otherwise take hours to search through.
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Community College Uses a Video-Game Lab to Lure Students to Computer Courses
Chronicle of Higher Education (12/14/07) Vol. 54, No. 16, P. A26; Young, Jeffrey R.

Northern Virginia Community College has converted a computer lab into a game lab with PCs loaded with popular video games, a PlayStation, and an Xbox in an effort to convince more students to take game-design and other IT courses, according to John Min, dean of business technologies on the college's campus. Min created the Game Pit because he noticed that IT enrollment has been falling since 1999. "We need to find ways to get more students," Min says. The Game Pit is full of posters and fliers for computer courses, and professors sometimes visit to talk about their classes. University of Wisconsin at Madison psychology professor David Williamson Shaffer says the community college might have found a successful strategy. "There is some data that suggest that one of the reasons that kids go into technical fields is when they have early technological experiences, many of which are playing computer games or using them in other ways," Shaffer says. Games can also give students skills that could be useful in the work force, particularly when students play together to achieve a common objective, he says. Min says the Game Pit has also succeeded in building a sense of community, something the school was struggling with. Min says the Game Pit has also become a major new attraction for perspective students. "If I can get one of these high-school students who never thought of going to community college," says Min, "I'll be happy."
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Intel Looks Beyond Silicon
Technology Review (12/11/07) Greene, Kate

Intel has developed a new nonsilicon transistor that could potentially be faster and use less electricity than current chips. The new transistors are more economical and could be manufactured using existing facilities because they can be built directly on top of standard silicon wafers. Although the nonsilicon chips are still at least a decade away from widescale manufacturing, experts say they are one of the more promising options for replacing silicon in the coming years. Chipmakers are scrambling to find an alternative to silicon, and one option is using carbon nanotubes and another carbon material called graphine to replace silicon, while another option are compound semiconductors made from a combination of elements from the third and fifth columns of the periodic table. Compound semiconductors are an attractive alternative to silicon because electrons move through the compound material far more efficiently than through silicon, meaning compound transistors can work just as fast, or even faster, without requiring a larger voltage, critical to shrinking the size of transistors. However, compound semiconductors are difficult to grow on silicon, and are often incompatible with silicon because the atoms are spaced and do not layer well, which can lead to cracked crystals and defective transistors. Intel recently proposed a solution that creates compound semiconductors with indium gallium arsenide and indium aluminum arsenide. Some of the obstacles compound transistors face including shrinking transistor size, which is currently about 80 nanometers, to get a high transistor density.
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'Smarter' Robots Work Together to Perform Tasks
Associated Press (12/11/07) Freire, Carl

Honda Motor has retooled its Asimo robot to enable the humanoid to perform more tasks without the assistance of humans. Asimo has been under development since 1986, but the latest version is "smarter" in that it includes a system that enables it to share information and work with another Asimo robot. During a demonstration at Honda's headquarters on Tuesday, two Asimo robots took requests for drinks, retrieved the drinks and served them, and did a good job of moving around people. The robot has a bubble-head and is 51 inches tall. One of the more sophisticated robots in the world, Asimo is able to walk, jog, wave, avoid obstacles, and hold a simple conversation. "By the end of 2010s, we'd like to see these robots working at every street corner of the city," says Tomohiko Kawanabe of Honda's Fundamental Technology Research Center.
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When Big Blue Got a Glimpse of the Future
New York Times (12/11/07) Markoff, John

A little-known encounter between Theodore Holm Nelson, author of the 1974 manifesto "Computer Lib/Dream Machines" and the man who coined the term "hyperlink" and a team of IBM executives took place in 1978 just as IBM was beginning to design its PC. The story of Nelson's encounter with IBM was retold by William C. Lowe, the IBM executive who oversaw the introduction of the IBM PC in 1981, at a recent panel discussion at the Computer History Museum celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Commodore 64 home computer. Lowe says Nelson was invited to IBM's offices in Atlanta for a presentation, during which Nelson described a world in which computer users would be able to retrieve information wherever they were. Nelson's presentation gave a glimpse of the world that PCs would create, but those present at the presentation had no idea of the broader social implications, which would not become clear for another 20 years, Lowe says. However, Nelson, almost simultaneously with SRI International computer scientist Douglas C. Engelbart, accurately predicted the future, independently envisioning today's Internet in the 1960s. Both men believe the commercial world cherry-picked some of their ideas but left out most of their visions. Nelson continues to explore his idea of an information system called Xanadu, while Engelbart works on his ideas for using computers and networks to augment the human mind.
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DNS Attack Could Signal Phishing 2.0
IDG News Service (12/11/07) McMillan, Robert

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Google are examining "open recursive" DNS servers, which translate domain names into Internet Protocol addresses to tell computers how to locate each other on the Internet. Open-recursive DNS servers reply to all DNS lookup appeals, which makes them valuable to hackers. Researchers estimate that 17 million open-recursive DNS servers currently exist on the Internet, 0.4 percent of which are acting maliciously by returning incorrect answers to DNS queries. An additional 2 percent of such servers are supplying questionable results. Together, these servers are beginning to undercut the Internet's trustworthiness, researchers say. "These hosts are like carnival barkers," says Georgia Tech researcher David Dagon. "No matter what you ask them, they'll happily direct you to the red light store, or to a Web server that does nothing more than spray your eyeballs with ads." Criminals have been attacking DNS systems for at least four years by using computer viruses to change DNS settings in victim's computers. However, only recently have the criminals possessed the expertise and technology, such as Web-based malware, to consistently mount open-recursive DNS attacks in a pervasive way, the researchers report. "It's really the ultimate back door," says IBM's Chris Rouland. "All the stuff we've deployed in the enterprise, it's not going to look for this."
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Gold Medalist Computer Scientist Boosts ID Security
Frederick News-Post (MD) (12/10/07) Boin, Sonia

National Institute of Standards and Technology computer scientist James F. Dray Jr. received his third gold medal from the U.S. Department of Commerce for developing a secure government identification card with a computer chip that contains secret information. "Nothing is 100-percent foolproof, but these are essentially unforgeable," Dray says. Dray developed the card for Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12, which called for the development of a common identification standard for federal workers and contractors. The card was approved under the personal identification program enacted in August 2004 and will be issued to all government employees, contractors, and military personal within a few years. The card contains an electronic chip that will be customized for the person who carries it. "This is a tremendous step forward for secure identification," Dray says. "It will fit all government agencies." Dray says the practice of encoding information so only the person it is intended for can read it is becoming the foundation of anything online in a computer system. "Identification in the online world is kind of a fundamental societal issue," he says. "It doesn't look like it's going to go away."
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Untapped Potential
Computerworld New Zealand (12/13/07) McCarthy, Diane

Joint director of the GRAVIR lab at Grenoble Universite & INRIA Marie-Paule Cani says computer technology holds a different level of interest for men and women, in that men tend to be interested in the technology's technical aspects while women view it as a tool for getting work done. This divergence in perspective can discourage women from pursuing a career in computer science because they imagine the field to be boring, socially isolating, and male dominated, when the reality is that computer science is quite the opposite, according to Cani. She says the view of computer science as a male profession stems from an old male/female stereotype that assigns masculine qualities to all kinds of machines, which is ignorant of the fact that women use many machines as tools in their domestic duties. Such stereotypes are reinforced by the media, Cani adds. She thinks social upbringing rather than biology may play a bigger role in why computer science is less attractive to girls than boys, and notes that girls seem to suffer a psychological block against using computers, fearful that they lack knowledge and will break the machine. "This attitude is made worse by a major mistake that people assume that computers are computer science," Cani says. She also points out that women tend to be more organized and less impulsive than men when it comes to their computer science work ethic, and interaction with students has encouraged her to promote the idea that the real world can be improved with the use of virtual worlds and other computer science tools.
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New Laboratory Lets IU Informatics Faculty Study Interactive Social Media
Indiana University (12/10/07)

Indiana University School of Informatics professors Jeffrey Bardzell and Shaowen Bardzell have received a multi-year grant to establish a research laboratory for media and user-engagement research. The neurological/physiological user engagement research lab includes a data-monitoring "lifeshirt" worn by test subjects, a wireless PDA device with a removable data drive that captures research information, a simple tiara-like head device to measure EEG waves, and non-invasive finger rings that monitor physiological modalities such as blood pressure and galvanic skin response, which measures the ability of skin to conduct electricity caused by an emotional stimulus. The lab will also have a computer system for facial recognition and eye movement tracking. The system is capable of providing second-by-second real-time data, which will allow researchers to identify subtle changes in engagement and pinpoint the changes in screen space and time. "User-engagement testing in human-computer interaction is a hot field now with significant demand in both academic and commercial worlds," says Jeffrey Bardzell. "This kind of lab is very new. I don't know of any other university that has all five modalities brought together in a single system like this."
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Human After All: Ethical Questions and the Future of Robotics
Asia Pulse (12/09/07)

Sydney University philosophy professor Caroline West believes that humanity should be discussing what will happen when humanoid robots develop the ability to reason and integrate into society. She says that robots are already becoming increasingly able to realistically replicate and simulate human appearances and behaviors. Professor Mary-Ann Williams, who has developed two advanced humanoid robots and heads the innovation and research laboratory at Australia's University of Technology in Sydney, believes that true artificial intelligence is inevitable and that it could happen quite soon if there is a scientific breakthrough. "It could happen tomorrow, it could happen in 50 years, it could happen in 100 years," Williams says. "People and animals are just chemical bags, chemical systems, so there's no technical reason why we couldn't have robots that truly have AI." Williams believes that a unique form of robotic emotion could evolve one day, which could pose a significant problem. Humans generally anticipate how another person might feel by trying to picture themselves in the same situation. However, because robots might have a completely different way of viewing and experiencing the world, they may be unable to understand human emotions. Williams and West wonder what will happen when humans need to deal with other intelligent beings that have perceptions beyond our own and are capable of reason potentially beyond humans. "If something is a person then it has serious rights, and what it takes to be a person is to be self-conscious and able to reason," West says. "If silicon-based creatures get to have those abilities then they would have the same moral standing as persons."
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Report From the 18th Machine Evaluation Workshop
HPC Wire (12/07/07) Vol. 16, No. 48, Lazou, Christopher

Among the trends in multicore chip development spotlighted at the 18th Machine Evaluation Workshop was the fact that quad-core processors offer more overall cost-effectiveness than dual-core processors, although performance starts to fall apart when memory bandwidth becomes an issue. It therefore pays to know your application. It is advised that users of dual-core processors utilize both cores, while quad-core processors should employ all four cores to ensure that interactions of cache, memory, and communications will be considered in any performance measure. When additional cores are put on a chip, the bandwidth to L3 memory must be proportionately raised to equal the extra computational power from the added cores. Most of the presentations at the workshop emphasized cluster solutions based on commodity chips, interconnect networks, and associated file storage systems. Factors that play into the decision of what kind of system to select include the price/performance tradeoff, the type and size of application the system is purchased for, electrical power, space, and other infrastructure needs. Mike Ashworth of the Science and Technology Facilities Council Daresbury Laboratories discussed the STFC petascale project, whose goal is to identify the kind of new scientific research that can be accomplished with 100 teraflops or 1,000 teraflops of sustained performance, and to tackle the technical challenges for extreme scaling. He concluded that petascale computing will be available in Britain perhaps by 2011, and this will be facilitated by a multicore node-based system with immensely more processors.
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The Untethered Web
Government Computer News (12/10/07) Vol. 26, No. 30, Hendler, James

The Internet of the future will be ubiquitous, with the Web being accessible through screens and surfaces everywhere throughout our daily routines, writes Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor James Hendler, chairman of the Tetherless World Senior Constellation, which is working to create a tetherless, instantly accessible Internet. "As the Web moves to being something you can access anywhere anytime on any screen, how will this change things? How will we use that? It is an issue of the granularity of information," Hendler says. Hendler predicts that shared information spaces will allow people to find information instantly when they want it, and that displays and other items of interest will be able to send information directly to our cell phones and personal devices. "It's a matter of coupling your information space with their information space," Hendler says. "There's no reason why you and I should always find the same thing on the Web." Hendler says his new lab is working on integrating the social Web with the semantic Web. "Right now, so much of our lives depend on a central information source--Google or some similar thing ... But information about who I know and how I know them, and things like that, I may not want published to Google," Hendler says. "Really, almost all of our information systems except the Web are closed."
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Network Coding: Networking's Next Revolution?
Network World (12/10/07) Vol. 24, No. 48, P. 1; Duffy, Jim

Advocates claim that the network coding algorithm can increase network throughput more than 100 percent while also augmenting reliability and attack resistance, and the most enthusiastic supporters expect network coding to usher in the next networking revolution. Network coding separates messages into smaller pieces of "evidence" that can then be inferred by the destination node without transmitting, retransmitting, or reproducing the entire message. Potential applications of network coding being investigated include the extension of wireless base stations' range and the increase of content distribution system efficiency. The first application could be particularly beneficial to multihop relay, says Intel Research's Sumeet Sandhu. Supporters say the method is especially applicable in shared-router infrastructures, peer-to-peer content distribution, and wireless mesh networks, and the implementation of network coding depends on the network operator's intended goals, says MIT professor Muriel Medard. MIT's work with network coding is supported by Hewlett-Packard, which sees potential in P2P content distribution. Network coding can boost the efficiency of multicast in the same way that traditional routing can be enhanced. Medard says information security can be augmented beyond encryption and cryptography via network coding by rendering network traffic as an untranslatable algebraic flow.
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Emerging Tech
eWeek (12/03/07) Vol. 24, No. 37, P. 39; Rapoza, Jim

A wide array of emerging technologies have the potential to effect changes on the role of IT professionals. Social networks are becoming increasingly important in everyday life and work, although their closed nature restricts their effectiveness; fortunately, opportunities for linking multiple social networks are increasing thanks to innovations such as the OpenSocial platform and the OpenID digital identity standard. Advanced Web-based applications that function in a similar manner to desktop applications, enabled through technologies such as Asynchronous JavaScript and XML and JavaScript Object Notation, are another emerging technology with a lot of potential. Next-generation smart phones equipped with Web and Internet capabilities hold substantial promise for bringing us nearer to a PC-like phone, as does constant, low-power Web connections. Practical applications of the semantic Web began to arrive in 2007, as many vendors started offering products to help businesses implement semantic Web technologies that facilitated the construction of actual sites and solutions. Applications and sites that comprehend and connect to data across the Internet are already possible through the semantic Web, which is expected to radically transform the linkage of businesses, applications, and people across the Web. The delivery and consumption of hardware and software are finally starting to be shaped by green technologies, which represent attempts to make the entire IT infrastructure more environmentally friendly and energy-efficient. Looking ahead, businesses and users will expect future laptops to consume less power while also delivering wireless connectivity and other capabilities found in the small and cheap machines developed for the One Laptop Per Child project.
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