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ACM TechNews
January 14, 2008

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Welcome to the January 14, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Yes, the Tech Skills Shortage Is Real
InformationWeek (01/12/08) Luftman, Jerry; Kempaiah, Rajkumar; Bullen, Christine

There is a profound shortage of IT-skilled professionals in the United States, and this situation is only going to worsen as massive numbers of IT pros retire over the next 15 years, writes Stevens Institute of Technology professor Jerry Luftman. The demand for experienced IT pros between the ages of 35 and 45 will surge by 25 percent over the next 30 years, while supply will decline by 15 percent, predicts McKinsey. A survey of top IT management sponsored by the Society for Information Management learned that there is a still a strong need among employers for IT professionals with both technical and business-related skills, with respondents worried about the scarcity of such talent. Research indicates definite expansion in the market for IT-skilled individuals, with the growth centered both globally and domestically in IT organizations within client companies that purchase IT products and sourcing services, and in IT service providers. The National Center for Education found that there have been dramatic declines in graduate science degrees awarded in the United States and undergraduate computer science enrollments, and children are deciding not to pursue IT careers because of a lack of communication or encouragement from teachers, counselors, and parents. Many Asian and European nations are more successful than the United States in educating and training their upcoming workforce in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills that the marketplace demands, and Luftman argues that "universities in the United States should continue to augment these [STEM] skills along with the skills being demanded by employers--such as business, industry, communications--to ensure that these candidates are prepared for the challenges and opportunities that await them." He says the key U.S. stakeholders--private industry, educational systems, and government agencies--must cooperate on the revitalization of the IT candidate pipeline in order to guarantee the continuance of U.S. global economic leadership.
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Avoiding Plane Crashes by Crunching Numbers
Washington Post (01/13/08) P. A1; Wilber, Del Quentin

For years, the role of aviation authorities was similar to that of homicide detectives, examining the scene of an accident or crash and trying to reconstruct what happened. Now, with so few crashes in recent years, air carriers and regulators have adopted a new strategy to prevent accidents. Instead of searching debris, aviation authorities are using data mining technology to search through computer records, including data from thousands of daily flights, to identify potential problems and trouble spots. The computerized research has found safety problems such as unsafe landing and takeoff procedures, difficult landing approaches, and even unsafe conditions, like a large bulge in the runway of a Vermont airport. "We have improved our safety so much from having this data," says US Airways pilot Matt Merillat, one of the company's data analysts. "There is no doubt that by using this data we have prevented an accident." US Airways and 16 other airlines have data monitoring initiatives approved by the Federal Aviation Administration known as flight operations quality assurance programs, and the FAA has launched its own effort to monitor flight data. The programs combine data from flights, including airspeed, pitch angles, engine temperatures, and movements, with pilot reports to spot precursors, an industry buzzword that describes events that often go unnoticed until they cause an accident.
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Big Brother Really Is Watching
Computerworld (01/14/08) Mitchell, Robert L.

The Department of Homeland Security is investing in Project Hostile Intent, an initiative whose goal is to detect unfriendlies posing as benevolent parties through the automatic identification and analysis of behavioral and physiological cues affiliated with deception. However, critics contend that the behavioral profiling system's development will take much longer than the DHS is expecting, assuming that it works at all. Current areas of research include recognition of gestures and microfacial expressions, analysis of variations in speech, and grading of physiological characteristics, which the DHS hopes to integrate in order to boost the predictive accuracy rate higher than what other deception detection techniques yield. The accuracy rate of deception detection technologies under development as part of Project Hostile Intent varies according to cultural background and personality type, while lab testing may not necessarily mirror real-world situations. Developers of microexpression recognition technologies complain that they need more psychological data in order to optimize the algorithms that associate expressions with deception, while rules also need to be applied in the proper context. Another project being pursued by DHS' human factors division is an effort to model violent intent via the application of social behavior theory in order to help analysts extract relevant information as they review documents. Privacy advocates are also concerned that Project Hostile Intent's collection of personal data and its risk of generating false positives could be detrimental for innocent people, including racial and ethnic minorities, who are wrongly singled out as suspicious. The behavior profiling systems developed through Project Hostile Intent may eventually be used by the Transportation Security Administration.
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New Predictive Approach Seeks to Stay Ahead of Hackers
EE Times (01/11/08) Riley, Sheila

Military and academic researchers from the Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Buffalo, Pennsylvania State University, and the U.S. Air Force are working on CUBRIC, an intrusion prediction project that uses mathematical models and algorithms to predict a hacker's probable moves after having penetrated a network. "We want to be one step ahead of them and predict what they are going to do," says RIT computer engineering professor Shanchieh Jay Yang. "When they first get in, we try to observe what they are doing, and use that information to forecast their probable future actions." The goal of CUBRIC is to provide information on how an intruder will react to particular network defenses and architectures so that administrators can lessen damage and better protect their systems. Intrusion prediction modeling is meant to be a part of a larger network protection plan and is designed to defend against the different tactics used by network intruders, such as interrupting service or stealing data. CUBRIC is capable of following individual attackers, or tracking multiple attackers, and will have both commercial and military applications.
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South Carolina Officials See No Problems With Touch-Screen Voting Machines
Anderson Independent-Mail (SC) (01/12/08) Williams, David

Election officials in Anderson, Oconee, and Pickens South Carolina report that they do next expect to have any problems with the electronic voting machines used in those counties. Officials anticipate a smooth voting process for both the Republican presidential primary on Jan. 19 and the Democratic primary on Jan. 26, and say that tampering with the voting machines is nonexistent. "I would say it would be quite remarkable if anyone did attempt it," says Pickens County Registration and Elections Commission director Ashley Harris. "There is security to prevent tampering in place, including the poll workers and poll watchers for the candidates and the parties." However, Clemson University computer science professor Eleanor Hare says there are problems with the machines, as shown by the study of Ohio's voting machines, and that replacing the counties' iVotronics machines with a paper ballot scanned into a computer would ensure a more accurate and verifiable vote count. "Computer scientists have been saying for 10 years that elections are much too important to trust to a computer that you can't verify," Hare says. "It is not enough to trust that the machine tallied the vote accurately. You should also be able to verify that the tally is correct."
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Prof. Kale to Lead Project for Advanced Computing Institute
HPC Wire (01/11/08)

An inaugural project of the new Institute for Advanced Computing Applications and Technologies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will focus on the development of petascale parallel programming tools and petascale applications. Computer science professor Laxmikant Kale will team up with materials science and engineering professor Duane Johnson for an initiative that could combine codes for astrophysical (FLASH) and biomolecular (NAMD) simulation and for determining the electronic-structure of materials (QMCpack and MECCA) with computer science research. Adaptive runtime systems that automate dynamic load balancing and fault tolerance, best-practice software engineering to petascale applications via refactoring tools, productive programming environments that integrate performance analysis and debugging tools, and automatically tuned libraries will also draw the attention of researchers. "Our major goal is to focus on applications having impact on challenging physical problems of broad community interest and that could really show sustained petascale performance given the right computer science tools and libraries on the planned hardware," Johnson says. "Concerted effort between the physical and computer scientists is critical for this to happen--not all square blocks fit into the same round hole."
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Ambient Intelligence: Snowboarding to the New Frontier
ICT Results (01/07/08)

Research in ambient intelligence may one day lead to sensors in our clothing, or even our skin, that are capable of alerting emergency services the moment an accident or injury occurs, or automatically reveals to friends the type of mood you are in. However, before people can fully interact in a responsive electronic environment, several hurdles need to be solved, such as the development of miniaturized, unobtrusive hardware, unique interfaces, secure data systems, autonomous and flexible network protocols, and more efficient wireless infrastructures. "The idea is to integrate sensor networks into wireless communication systems and to 'capture' the user's environment, perhaps using a mobile phone as a gateway, and then transmit this context to a service platform to deliver a personalized service and act on situations," says Laurent Herault, project coordinator of the e-Sense project, a research scheme developing new ways of capturing ambient intelligence. Potential applications include entertainment, e-health and safety, and remote asset monitoring. Systems could be created to improve the response of emergency services to car crashes and other accidents, as well as leisure and sporting applications. "We can measure the feelings you experience while skiing, such as acceleration, speed, and happiness," Herault says. "This can be useful if you want to share your experiences with friends."
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Ancient Roman Road Gets Virtual Life
Associated Press (01/08/08) David, Ariel

The Virtual Museum of the Ancient Via Flaminia, unveiled Tuesday and developed over two years by a project team supported by Italy's National Research Council, is a virtual reconstruction of the ancient Via Flaminia, one of the arteries that led into ancient Rome. The virtual world allows visitors to wander through rebuilt monuments and to interact with ancient Rome's political elite. Users can also switch between a reconstruction of ancient Rome and how the monuments look today. The virtual reconstruction, which cost more than $1.1 million, is hosted in Rome at the Museum of the Diocletian Baths. "It's a voyage through the past and the present," says project leader Maurizio Forte. He say a team of 20 archaeologists, architects, and computer experts used laser scans, satellite imagery, and ancient texts to reconstruct the ancient road. In a darkened room, four visitors can control their avatars using joysticks, while a larger audience can watch on a movie screen. In addition to educational and entertainment value, the virtual world is also beneficial to researchers. "Besides what you see on the movie screen, which is of interest to the public, we have reams of data, scans, and maps that are of help to archaeologists and historians," says archaeologist Augusto Palombini.
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CES - A Sensitive Arm Is the Next Big Thing for Robots
Network World (01/10/08) Shah, Agam

Microsoft robotics group general manager Tandy Trower says that robots with fully functioning arms will be able to set tables, load dishwashers, and pick up delicate objects. "That will be the tipping point," Trower says. "Once robots can manipulate things in our environment in a safe way, they can do virtually anything a human can possibly do physically." The hardware may be ready in as little as five years, but the real challenge will be the programming, Trower says. Software that allows robots to understand surface textures and to identify objects will require complex code that will take a long time to write, Trower cautions, adding that while a fully functioning arm is reasonable, real artificial intelligence is another matter. "The artificial intelligence community has struggled for years to create models that allow technology to be more expansive," he says. "What we find today are crude things." To improve the quality of programmers with specialized skills, universities are trying to introduce mainstream robotics courses. For example, Carnegie Mellon has started a course based on Microsoft's Robotics Studio. Another challenge is creating interoperability between various software platforms and tools used in robot programming. Trower says moving away from proprietary systems will make it easier to exchange ideas and software code and help develop reliable, usable robots.
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Computer Brings Science Up a Gear
BBC News (01/14/08)

Edinburgh University has unveiled Hector (High End Computing Terascale Resources), a new supercomputer that is four times faster than its predecessor. Hector is capable of performing 63 million million calculations a second and handling the work of about 12,000 desktop systems. Hector, part of six-year project, is housed at Edinburgh's advanced computing facility. Edinburgh scientists will use Hector to develop life-saving drugs, design new materials, model epidemic patterns, and forecast changes in climate and ocean currents. British scientists will remain at the forefront of their fields because of Hector, says Dr. David Henty, group manager at Edinburgh University's parallel computing center. "Nowadays, a new strand is to write computer programs to simulate things that are as small as a sub-atomic particle, through to things that are as big as the whole universe," Henty told Radio Scotland. "It really can do whatever you want it to do."
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Accenture Labs Gets in Your Head
CMP Channel (01/10/08) Bosavage, Jennifer

Accenture's research group is pursuing human-computer interaction research in its Personal Performance Coach, a personal feedback device that is capable of monitoring the behavior of a user and making recommendations that will lead to desired results. The Accenture Technology Labs in Palo Alto, Calif., is developing the Personal Performance Coach, which makes use of a mobile phone, wearable GPS and digital bio sensors, and software. Users wear a wireless head set with a cell phone that serves as the service delivery channel. The device is capable of determining if a user is not listening enough or not exhibiting good conversational behaviors during a sales call, and can send voice prompts to the earpiece such as "slow down" or "speak up." The technology is also capable of sensing whether the user is in a research conference room for a meeting, or in the coffee room at the snack machine. Users can program the device, so a dieter could even have it remind them that they are on a diet and to buy fruit instead. The Personal Performance Coach is still in the prototype stage, but clients who have seen the device are coming up with different uses, such as a training tool.
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Bank Card Attack: Only Martians Are Safe
ZDNet Australia (01/11/08) Tung, Liam

Security researchers from Cambridge University have discovered a way to attack chip and PIN cards. Cambridge students Steven J. Murdoch and Saar Drimer recently demonstrated that the cards do not need to be cloned to be compromised, crippling the banking industry's claim that the cards can only be compromised through card holder error. By tampering with a chip and PIN terminal, Murdoch was able to use a "relay attack" to capture authentication information sent from the merchant's point of sale terminal to the bank. The compromised information can be transmitted over Bluetooth, GPRS, or GSM networks to someone who then uses the information for a fraudulent transaction. Once the information is obtained, the fraudulent transaction must occur within the time that the legitimate cardholder's card is being read by the terminal. Murdoch says he alerted the banks to this possible exploit a few years ago, but that it was dismissed. "The banks general response to this, and, in fact, to everything we do, was that the people from Cambridge are very smart and we find it very amusing but these are lab conditions and it's not going to work in the real world," Murdoch says. Murdoch proposes several adjustments that would make the chip and PIN cards more secure, such as making terminals tamper-resistant, ensuring the numbers embossed on the card match the receipt, and imposing time constraints on the authentication.
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9 Questions for Carnegie Mellon Robot Chief Matthew Mason
Popular Mechanics (01/10/08)

Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute director Matthew Mason says we probably entered the Age of Robotics in the mid 1990s as machines are being built that show an "awareness of the physical world and the ability to take effective action." Mason says that everyone asks when they will have a personal robotic assistant to cook and clean, but he notes that there are already noticeable, important ways in which robots have improved our lives. One example is Project Listen, which has developed a device that uses voice recognition to listen to children read and to guide them when they are having difficulties. Mason says that people will have personal robotic assistants someday because there is such a high demand for it, but that the technology has to become more affordable, and that other developments such as the driverless car and medical robots will one day be a reality for the average person. Mason says one of the biggest challenges for designing intelligent robots is dealing with the uncertainty of the real world. Humans are well designed for dealing with uncertainty and have a kind of common sense physics we use to solve problems and create answers in a few seconds. This type of intelligence is exactly what robots have a very hard time with. If robots are ever able to solve such problems at a human level, it would imply a kind of common sense understanding of how the world works and make it possible to assign new tasks to robots without them having to be completely reprogrammed.
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Ant Antics to Help Piggery Communications
FarmingUK (01/08/08)

Farmex in Reading is conducting research into wireless communication methods that could be used to improve the performance of systems that are used to monitor pigs. Computer systems specialist David Dobson will lead the two-year project to come up with a better way to establish reliable links for farming in difficult environments. Dobson plans to create a self-healing mesh system that will function in all atmospheric conditions. "Wireless connection will make the monitoring of crucial performance indicators, such as feed and water consumption, cheaper and easier," says Farmex's Hugh Crabtree. "With ever-tightening margins in pig production this will become increasingly important." The U.K. government is contributing nearly 70 percent of the funding of the project, and the technology also could be used to monitor potatoes, grain stores, or lagoons.
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Women in Computer Science
The Triangle (01/11/08) Kurtz, Josh

The Center for Women & Information Technology says the number of females majoring in computer science in the United States has dropped significantly in recent years, as has the number of women applying for professorships in the field. In the early 1980s, computer science was considered a subject that could potentially serve as a model for gender equity, the Boston Globe writes, but now women earn less than 30 percent of all bachelor's degrees in computer science, according to the National Science Foundation. Drexel professor of computer science Yuanfang Cai says the gender difference in computer science is a well known problem that partially stems from the time constraints the field requires, which makes it difficult for women who want to have families to stay in the field because new material must constantly be learned to stay competitive. Cai says that women who enjoy the subject can overcome such obstacles, and that China, where Cai attended college, is more encouraging of women interested in computer science. The Boston Globe writes that educators do not feel the need to dispel the popular image of computer science as male-dominated, which also discourages women from pursuing computer science, because the field was so popular in the 1980s.
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Q&A: New Technologies Pose Online Privacy Uncertainties, Rotenberg Claims
Computerworld (01/02/08) Thibodeau, Patrick

In terms of the new perspective on privacy held by Facebook-using young people, Electronic Privacy Information Center executive director Marc Rotenberg feels the true privacy issue is that social networking sites covertly gather information to utilize for marketing purposes. In general, Rotenberg asks the question "Are companies being fair with what they do with the data they collect?" to determine whether rules need to be established to protect customer privacy. Privacy law advocates are often simply calling on companies to provide more disclosure about their practices of data collection and use. In terms of RFID tags, Rotenberg explains that many individuals in the privacy and security communities are unhappy about the Department of Homeland Security's new "vicinity read" RFID tag standard. Such tags remove the individual's ability to identify when the tag's data is being read, which breaches the principle of basic access control, says Rotenberg. Remote RFID tags could be exploited in many ways; credit card numbers that have not been encrypted, medical data, and information on overseas U.S. travelers could all be pulled by hackers, according to Rotenberg, which is why the e-Passport proposal from the U.S. State Department had to be overhauled. Rotenberg adds that EPIC has been critical of many new proposals from DHS regarding personal identification, border control, and video surveillance. Rotenberg claims many of these proposals, such as the Real ID card, have not been fully thought through, and contain many fundamental security problems. Overall, secure systems of information are those which are only utilized for their premeditated purposes.
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What Coders Can Learn from Supercomputing
Government Computer News (01/07/08) Vol. 27, No. 1, Jackson, Joab

Software programmers that need to develop parallel programs could learn a lot from the high-performance computer community, which has had to divide its programs into large clusters across hundreds or even thousands of processors. One of the most popular approaches is a library called the Message Passing Interface (MPI), an open-source library of bindings that can coordinate tasks between various processors when used in programs. MPI is an interface that allows hardware to send intra-program messages to improve parallel processing. However, hardware can hinder performance based on how fast the network retrieves data and competition among processors for shared resources such as memory and communication buses. MPI was designed to help the programmer reduce the number of inter-processor communications created by a program. "If you can get the number of program communications down, you can get the best performance," says University of Maryland Baltimore County mathematics professor Matthias Gobbert. While many older vector-based and shared-memory computer systems divided work automatically, MPI allows programmers to improve performance by identifying particular parts of a program best suited for simultaneous execution. MPI does not greatly alter a programmer's environment, allowing for Fortran, C, and C++ applications, and the program code stays a single file, even if different processes are divided for different processors.
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