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January 23, 2008

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Welcome to the January 23, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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ACM's Flagship Magazine Marks 50 Years of Computing Innovations That Changed the World
AScribe Newswire (01/17/08)

The January 2008 issue of Communications of the ACM represents the 50th anniversary of the magazine. The issue includes articles from leading contributors to CACM throughout its history as well as some of the most prominent voices in computing sharing their thoughts and concerns on the future of technology. The January 2008 issue is also the first issue available in a digital version that allows readers to navigate, search, link, and browse articles. The digital format of Communications will not replace the print edition or articles posted in the ACM Digital Library, but will offer the look and feel of browsing through the pages of a magazine while zooming in on particular paragraphs, checking references or advertisements, or searching the issue for precise content markers. The digital Communications can also be stored on readers' PCs or laptops for long-term archiving or sharing with friends and colleagues. Among the prominent voices in the issue are Whitfield Diffie of Sun Microsystems, who made digital privacy possible by inventing a revolutionary encryption concept, MIT robotics professor Rodney Brooks, whose research on understanding human intelligence and intelligent robots led to the development of artificial intelligence as a field of study, and Peter G. Neumann, a principal scientist at SRI International's Computer Science Lab.
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Touch Screen Voting a Hit; Critics Miss Mark on Security, Study Says
University of Maryland (01/22/08)

The University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, and the University of Rochester conducted a five-year study concluding that e-voting products, particularly touch-screen voting systems, score highly in terms of voter satisfaction and confidence, but still suffer from key usability concerns that the addition of paper trails cannot redress. Unintentionally failing to cast a vote in some races or voting for the wrong candidate are among the errors that the e-voting systems were susceptible to, and the study recommended necessary improvements to enhance e-voting's user-friendliness, and educational campaigns to guarantee that voters and poll workers are aware of what they are doing. "One of the things we've learned in this study is that training may be even more important than which voting system is used," notes University of Rochester political scientist Richard Niemi. Voter verification system tests were carried out separately, and determined that voter accuracy is modestly improved by the devices. The study ascertained an overall voter accuracy rate of 97 percent, which fell to 80 percent to 90 percent as the job of voting became more complex. "Recent history is clear: The election problem most likely to tilt a close race is not security, but the inability of voters to cast their ballots the way they intended," says Paul Herrnson, director of the University of Maryland's Center for American Politics and Citizenship. For manufacturers, the study recommended that usability engineering should be stressed at the outset of product development, while voters should be provided with clear feedback on their place in the voting process, review screens should show full information on one screen, the completion of the voting process should be clearly indicated, and systems should not supply too much information at once.
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Who Killed the Software Engineer? (Hint: It Happened in College)
IT Management (01/21/08) Maguire, James

New York University computer science professor Robert Dewar co-authored an article in which he laments the state of U.S. CS graduates, whose programming skills he believes are woefully inadequate due to CS programs' lack of rigor and low emphasis on problem solving and in-depth thinking. The widely read article provoked much debate on the state of computer science education. In an interview, Dewar detailed some of the article's findings. He says that in their eagerness to boost CS enrollment, universities are essentially eviscerating their programs. The dot-com crash and the media's focus on outsourcing, which have combined to make a CS career unappetizing for students and their parents, are chiefly to blame for the decline in enrollment. Dewar says the schools' response has been to simplify CS curriculums in an attempt to boost their appeal by playing up their "fun" aspects and jettisoning elements viewed as tedious or too challenging. The result is software engineers who cannot compete on a global level, he contends. Dewar says universities erred in adopting Java as the most widely used introductory programming language in a bid to increase CS programs' popularity, when in fact Java, by its ease of use, skips or conceals many important aspects that people need to learn in order to become solid programmers. "If people come out of school and they know Java and Web programming, and they know how to put things together from libraries, that's just the kind of skills that are not going to be [in] demand," the NYU professor warns.
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Industry Feels Pinch as Numbers of IT Grads Plummet
Globe and Mail (CAN) (01/21/08) Church, Elizabeth; Hartley, Matt

The number of computer science graduates in Canada continues to dwindle, causing employers to scramble to recruit new employees and bringing attention to a situation that could create a major skills shortage in Canada and across all of North America. "A lot of parents got burned through the dot-com era and weren't encouraging their kids to go into IT-related programs because of that fear of instability," says recruiter Terry Power. However, during the past three years demand for IT professionals in Canada has doubled as baby boomers start to retire and the economy continues to support tech spending in all sectors, Power says. Microsoft Canada President Phil Sorgen says there simply are not enough graduates to meet demand. About 35,000 new information and communication technology jobs are created annually in Canada, but universities produce only enough graduates to fill about one out of every five positions, Sorgen says. Jacob Slonim, the former dean of computer science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says there is no quick fix to the problem. He says the industry must take the lead in finding a solution, and that universities need to examine how they teach their courses to attract and retain students. Many universities are making changes, such as combining computer science courses with other popular majors such as business, science, or math. Jim Little, the chairman of graduate programs at the University of British Columbia, credits such combined programs for keeping interest in computer science strong on his campus, and he expects demand from employers will help pull new students into the programs.
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W3C Offers HTML 5 Draft
InfoWorld (01/22/08) Krill, Paul

The World Wide Web Consortium has published an early draft of HTML 5, the first major upgrade to the HTML specification since 1997. The final version of HTML 5 is not expected until late 2010, and support for the specification among browser vendors will be optional. HTML 5 is intended to boost interoperability and reduce software costs by establishing rules on handling HTML documents and recovering from errors. W3C HTML Working Group co-chair Dan Connolly says the two main goals with HTML 5 are catching up with how HTML is actually implemented versus what the specifications say and adding new features, which mostly pertain to Web applications and integrating video as a first-class medium on the Web. Connolly says the W3C studied what people do on the Web and what leading-edge Web sites do, and it is now time to standardize such practices so the capabilities can show up in authoring tools and become easier to learn. Other capabilities planned for HTML 5 include the ability to edit documents and parts of documents interactively, maintenance of persistent client-side storage, and features to make it easier to represent familiar page elements. Mozilla already supports HTML 5 in its Firefox browser, and other browser vendors, including Microsoft, Apple, and Opera, are active participants in the HTML Working Group.
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SC Voting Machines Prompt Calls for Federal Action
Cybercast News Service (01/22/08) Bansal, Monisha

Problems with electronic voting machines in Horry County, S.C., during the Republican primaries on Jan. 19 have led to renewed calls for a paper trail requirement. "Voters are understandably outraged that in this important primary election they could not exercise their right to vote because of the machine malfunctions," says Common Cause President Bob Edgar. "This was a preventable and foreseeable crisis. Congress and state election officials must move fast to fix this problem by the general election in November." The South Carolina Election Commission blamed the problem on human error while the machines were being prepared. "South Carolina's voting system has performed today as it was designed to perform," the commission said. Election Systems and Software, manufacturer of the iVotronic voting machines used in Horry County, defended the malfunctioning machines. "The iVotronic's three independent but redundant memory paths ensure that no votes will ever be lost or altered," the company says. "Also, if an election is ever contested, iVotronic's unique, patented recount system allows replication of the entire election process, including production of all ballot images for re-verification." Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) has introduced legislation that would provide $500 million in federal funding to jurisdictions that convert to paper-based voting systems in 2008, as well as to those that do not fully convert but provide emergency paper ballots. "Voters should never have to leave their polling places wondering if their legitimate vote will be counted," Holt says.
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Cell Phone Sensors Detect Radiation to Thwart Nuclear Terrorism
Purdue University News (01/22/08) Venere, Emil; Gardner, Elizabeth K.

Purdue University researchers and the state of Indiana are developing a system that would use a network of cell phones to detect and track radiation to prevent terrorist attacks with "dirty bombs" and nuclear weapons. The system could cover the nation with millions of cell phones equipped with radiation sensors capable of detecting even small residues of radioactive material, and because cell phones are already equipped with global positioning locators, the network could serve as a tracking system, says Purdue physics professor Ephraim Fishbach. "It is the ubiquitous nature of cell phones and other portable electronic devices that give this system its power," Fishbach says. "It's meant to be small, cheap, and eventually built into laptops, personal digital assistants, and cell phones." The system was developed by Andre Longman, a consulting instrumentation scientist, who also developed the software for the system and worked with Purdue researchers to integrate the software and radiation detectors into cell phones. The tiny radiation sensors are commercially available, would not require additional circuitry, and would not add significant bulk to portable electronic products, say researchers. "The likely targets of a potential terrorist attack would be big cities with concentrated populations, and a system like this would make it very difficult for someone to go undetected with a radiological dirty bomb in such an area," Longman says.
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Researcher 'Cracks' Yahoo Anti-Scam Feature
Techworld (01/18/08) Broersma, Matthew

A Russian security researcher claims to have created an automated access system that can bypass Yahoo's CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) image-recognition system. CAPTCHAs are used to prevent automated systems from registering Web-based email accounts, filling comment sections with spam, and guessing passwords. Various automated CAPTCHA-cracking systems have been developed, mostly by spammers, but until recently Yahoo's CAPTCHA was ranked as one of the toughest to break. The researcher says his system can attain an accuracy rate of about 35 percent, and that Yahoo has been notified about the problem but has not responded. "It's not necessary to achieve a high degree of accuracy when designing automated recognition software," the researcher wrote. "An accuracy of 15 percent is enough when attacker is able to run 100,000 tries per day." Yahoo released a statement saying it is aware of attempts being made toward automated solutions for CAPTCHA images, and it is developing improvements to the system and other defenses.
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Cyber Espionage Seen as Growing Threat to Business, Government
Network World (01/17/08) Messmer, Ellen

The SANS Institute has ranked cyber espionage as this year's third-biggest security threat, behind Web site attacks that take advantage of browser vulnerabilities and botnets such as Storm. "Economic espionage will be increasingly common as nation states use cyber theft of data to gain economic advantage in multinational deals," SANS said. "The attack of choice involves targeted spear phishing with attachments, using well-researched social engineering methods to make the victim believe that an attachment comes from a trusted source." Several organizations have been the target of cyber espionage in the last several months. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) last month acknowledged that about 12 of its staff members received emails urging them to go to phishing sites or open attachments laced with malware. The attack, which some security researchers say was launched in China, was part of a "coordinated attempt to gain access to computer networks at numerous laboratories and other institutions across the country," says ORNL Director Thom Mason. China has denied any involvement in the attack. Despite such attacks, the RSA Conference Advisory Board's Tim Mather says concerns about cyber espionage are overblown. He believes open source intelligence gathering is a growing industry, with several companies available for hire to scour the Internet for desired information.
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2008 Set to Be a Bumper Year for IT Graduates
Computerworld Australia (01/21/08) Hendry, Andrew

Career placements for IT graduates in Australia looks ready to overtake the national average across all sectors for graduate job placements, according to Computerworld Australia. In 2003, career placements for Australian IT graduates looking for full-time work was at its lowest, 68.1 percent compared to a national average of 80.1 percent, but since then IT graduate placements have climbed to 83 percent in 2007. Graduate placements are expected to continue to rise as demand for IT workers grows, according to Graduate Careers Australia (GCA). GCA research manager Bruce Guthrie says it is important to remember that the graduate placement figures do not reflect IT workers in general. "What you need to keep in mind with these figures is that they are new graduates with varying amounts of experience, and in many cases little, if any, experience. So it can take them a little longer to find work than somebody who has been in the labor market a couple of years," Guthrie says. Experienced IT workers are always in high demand, but the improving graduate placement percentages show that the market for new IT graduates is catching up with graduate levels in all job sectors.
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Rock Star Coders
Computerworld (01/22/08) Brandel, Mary

Some believe that the surge in Web 2.0 startups and the high demand for talent has led to a culture where programmers are equated to rock stars. "The employment rate for technology professionals is extremely high, and that gives some people the sense that they're now and forever in charge of their own destinies," says recruiter David Hayes. Others say the rock star programmer phenomenon comes from the growing fanfare and increasingly large winnings at code competitions, which can offer up to $50,000 for first place winners. TopCoder's Jim McKeown says he has seen the social status of frequent winners grow significantly over the past four or five years, particularly because of the incredible search for talent among well-financed companies. Viget Labs senior developer Clinton Nixon says the development of the rock star programmer can be partially attributed to the changing culture of the Internet and the rise of social networks. Young programmers grew up in an age where it is normal to create an image of one's self online. "We live in an age of individual, self-promoted celebrity within niche markets, where some programmers really work at promoting their expertise, eventually becoming recognizable to anyone who spends time reading Weblogs and Digg-style sites," Nixon says. "Image is now part of what makes a well-known developer, much like a designer's image is a major part of her portfolio." The combination of talent, passion, creativity, and confidence when exposing their code and ideas to the developer community are highly sought-after traits, and looking past the wackiness and personality of these developers, many have published books, started companies, written downloadable code, and spoken at conferences.
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Math Models Snowflakes
University of California, Davis (01/16/08) Fell, Andy

Mathematicians at the University of California, Davis and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed software that creates three-dimensional snowflakes. UC Davis mathematics professor Janko Gravner says no two snowflakes are exactly alike, but they can be very similar, and why they are not more different from each other is a mystery. Snowflakes grow from water vapor around some type of nucleus, such as a bit of dust. The surface of the growing crystal is a complex, semi-liquid layer that water molecules from the surrounding vapor can attach to, which is more likely to occur at concavities in the crystal shape. Gravner, along with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's David Griffeath, developed the software by accounting for these factors, along with temperature, atmospheric pressure, and water vapor density. By running the program under a variety of conditions, the researchers were able to recreate a wide range of natural snowflake shapes. Rather than modeling every water molecule, the program divides the space into three-dimensional pieces one micrometer across. The program takes about 24 hours to build one "snowflake" on a modern desktop computer.
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NASA Investigates Virtual Space
BBC News (01/18/08)

NASA is considering developing a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game that would be aimed at students and would simulate NASA engineering and science missions. NASA believes the game would help inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. "A high quality synthetic gaming environment is a vital element of NASA's educational cyberstructure," says a request for information published by NASA. "The MMO will foster career exploration opportunities in a much deeper way than reading alone would permit and at a fraction of the time and cost of an internship program." NASA already owns an island in Second Life, called CoLab, that the agency hopes will one day allow the public to participate in virtual missions. "We at NASA are working hard to create opportunities for what I might call participatory exploration," says CoLab director Simon Worden. "When the next people step onto the surface of the moon in a little over a decade, your avatar could be with them." A proposal published by NASA's Learning Technologies Projects Office, which supports and develops education projects to promote science and technology, says that games are becoming increasingly important in education and could be useful for teaching a variety of skills.
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The Invisible Keyboard
New Scientist (01/17/08) Simonite, Tom

Daniel Rashid and Noah Smith believe an invisible keyboard could be used to enter text into mobile devices. The Carnegie Mellon University Language Technology Institute researchers are behind the "relative keyboard," a concept that would allow users to type on any touch-sensitive surface. However, users will need to have good touch-typing skills. The relative keyboard relies on software to measure the relative distance between keystrokes as it determines what is being typed, and a dictionary to filter possible strings as it figures out what was meant. In a test involving 10 people typing 160 words on a blank touch screen, some of the participants were not as accurate using the invisible keyboard and some said it was difficult to type without seeing any keys. The researchers believe the concept can work on any surface as long as a device knows where a user's fingers fall.
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IP Addresses Are Personal Data, E.U. Regulator Says
Associated Press (01/22/08) White, Aoife

Internet protocol addresses are personal information, according to the head of the European Union's data privacy regulators. German data-protection commissioner Peter Scharr told the European Parliament that if an Internet user is identified by an IP address, then it must be considered personal data. This view differs from Google, which argues that an IP address identifies the location of a computer, not the identity of the user. Many people consistently use the same computer, which generates the same IP address, a factor that has resulted in the creation of many "Whois" Web sites. These sites allow users to find out the person or company who is linked to a certain IP address. If the EU decides to mandate that IP addresses be considered personal information, it would change the way search engines record data. Google stores search data for up to 18 months, taking the last two numbers off of the stored IP address. This makes the address part of a geographic group, instead of a representation of an individual user. Google stores user's search information in an effort to improve its regional search results and to prove to advertisers that they are not being deceived by "click fraud." Microsoft does not store user IP addresses, instead hoping that users will log into the Passport network that is featured on Hotmail and Windows Live Messenger. Artemi Rallo Lombarte, Spain's data protection regulator, criticized both companies for not clearly stating their privacy policies on their home pages.
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Harris Corp., Community Foundation of Brevard Announce $5 Million Grant to Florida Tech
Florida Institute of Technology (01/17/08)

The Florida Institute of Technology has received a $5 million grant from the Community Foundation of Brevard's Harris Corporation Charitable Fund to create the Harris Institute for Assured Information, which will work to develop advanced solutions to help solve the global information security problem. The Harris Corporation will also provide research and development support to assist the new institute over the next four years. The institute will develop solutions for a variety of real-world commercial and government security applications, as well as help foster new, highly qualified talent by providing post graduate and research opportunities. "Florida Tech and Harris have a very strong common interest in information assurance and in developing solutions that protect organizational and individual security," says Harris CEO Howard L. Lance. "Florida Tech has strong capabilities in information assurance, and Harris is one of the largest companies focused strictly on assured communications and information technology. We saw that it was a natural area for collaboration." The grant will fund three efforts. First, $1.75 million will help build the Harris Center for Science and Engineering. Second, $2.5 million will finance a Harris Faculty Chair in Assured Information. Lastly, $750,000 will support student scholarships and fellowships.
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Student Develops Anti-Spam Program
Stanford Daily (01/16/08) Sy, Andrea

Stanford University graduate student David Erickson and computer science professor Nick McKeown have developed Default Off Email (DOEmail), a free anti-spam tool that enables users to broadly categorize received mail. DOEmail divides mail into three basic groups--a list of people you want mail from, a list of people you do not want mail from, and an unknown group for all uncategorized addresses. Email received and classified as "unknown" generates an auto-response from DOEmail, which emails a form to the sender to verify that they are a person and not a spam machine. The sender is then given three weeks to respond. Erickson says DOEmail can help users regain control of their inboxes by allowing users to micromanage their spam control or to simply set broad filters and let the program do the rest. He says DOEmail is more effective and more user-friendly than other anti-spam tools such as those based on content filtering. Currently, the 35 users participating in the research project have not received any spam since using DOEmail, which has a plug-in for Mozilla Thunderbird and is accessible to anyone who wants to use it.
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Chairman of Cyberspace Has Right Stuff
New Zealand Herald (01/12/08) Doesburg, Anthony

Peter Dengate Thrush followed an unusual path to becoming the chairman of ICANN. After graduating from New Zealand's Victoria University in the 1970s with a degree in zoology and geology, Dengate Thrush spent a season as an exploration geologist, and then decided to become a patent attorney. Dengate Thrush went to work for Baldwin Son & Carey, where he spent three years qualifying as a patent attorney. He remained at the firm as a partner until 1995, when he decided to go out on his own and specialize in intellectual and industrial property, information technology, Internet, and competition cases. Dengate Thrush was soon involved in efforts to manage the Internet at a global level. He had input into the body that became ICANN, and attended its first meeting in Singapore in 1999. Dengate Thrush was immediately put on an ICANN committee, and in 2004 was elected to its board. Although ICANN's choice of Dengate Thrush as its chairman seemed unlikely to some, others say it was no great surprise. Among those who praised the selection of Dengate Thrush was outgoing ICANN Chairman Vint Cerf, who said that Dengate Thrush understands the board's role, as well as the fact that the organization has moved "from a foundation state to a steady state." He added that Dengate Thrush "is a great choice to keep the organization strong and focused."
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The Original
Redmond Developer News (01/08) Richards, Kathleen

Sun Microsystems fellow James Gosling, creator of the Java programming language, says in an interview that he expected Java to go open source, recalling that the development of the language followed a model that was very similar to open source. Gosling notes that all of the source code is published and community interaction is very collaborative, and he is confident that the new open source status of Java will permit other open source communities to bundle Sun's Java implementation. Gosling describes JavaFX as "a really strong, coordinated set of client-side technologies" that will feature JavaFX Mobile, a deployment of the cell phone stack along with the cell phone hardware. He says cell phones are evolving into desktop computers, pointing out that a pretty small number of activities--email, Web browsing, etc.--comprise the majority of desktop applications used. "Those apps all work really well on cell phones, and there have been cell phones that do this for years," Gosling says. He says Java is a platform for building rich and sophisticated Internet applications, and easing the difficulty of building such applications is what most of his efforts have been focused on. Gosling laments the low student enrollment in computer science, which he chiefly blames on both the media's exaggeration of the IT outsourcing trend and the dot-com crash, which he says simply represented the collapse of companies whose ideas were bad.
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