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February 20, 2008

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Welcome to the February 20, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Princeton Researchers Envision a More Secure Internet
Princeton University (02/15/08) Riordan, Teresa

Some of Princeton's top brains have divergent ideas about fortifying the security of the Internet, with Larry Peterson offering the Global Environment for Network Innovation (GENI) as a much-needed platform for investigating and validating potential security solutions. Peterson says GENI is particularly important as a tool that would allow the research community to significantly shape the Internet's future and counter industry's increasingly pervasive influence. He believes the network offers the optimum path for tackling the Internet's security challenges, arguing that "the network needs to be able to quarantine compromised machines so that we can limit their collateral damage." Edward Felten, director of Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy, focuses on short-term, high-impact research, and is convinced that many of the Internet's security problems can be traced to how technology is used rather than the technology itself. Ruby Lee, who heads the Princeton Architecture Lab for Multimedia and Security, stresses that security should be an element of system design, and wants to embed basic security features within hardware. Her lab has demonstrated that such an innovation can be accomplished without hiking up the hardware's power consumption or impacting its performance. Felten does not agree with Peterson and Lee's contention that online security can be adequately shored up by trust features incorporated into hardware or networks, while Princeton computer scientist and GENI participant Jennifer Rexford sees advantages to approaches espoused by all three researchers. "GENI would really open up the intellectual space in thinking about the Internet," she says, even as she works on incremental security enhancements such as the improvement of routing protocols.
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IBM Experimenting With DNA to Build Chips
CNet (02/20/08) Kanellos, Michael

IBM scientists are researching the possibility of creating nanotube-based data storage devices and microprocessors by arranging carbon nanotubes into arrays with DNA molecules. "These are DNA nanostructures that are self-assembled into discrete shapes," says IBM scientist Greg Wallraff. "What we are really making are tiny DNA circuit boards that will be used to assemble other components." The IBM effort is based on "DNA origami" research conducted by the California Institute of Technology's Paul Rothemund. Although the technology is still in the preliminary stages, a growing number of researchers believe that designer DNA could be used to create self-assembling computer components. Self-assembly would allow the intrinsic chemical and physical properties of molecules, along with environmental factors, to guide the raw materials into complex structures. The challenge is in getting raw materials to behave in a precise and orderly manner, which is why DNA is being used. DNA consists of specific chemical bases that bind and react in somewhat predictable ways. In DNA assembly, a scientist would create scaffolds of designer DNA that are manipulated into specific shapes. When nanotubes are added to the process, interactions between the DNA and the nanotubes would cause the nanotubes to be assembled into a desired pattern. Chips made through such procedures could have features as small as two nanometers.
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Study Shows Women Still Face Hurdles in High-Tech Careers
Reuters (02/14/08) Cooke, Kristina

Women in the high-tech industry like their jobs, but they have more concerns about their relationship with supervisors than men, as well as men and women in other fields, according to a new Catalyst study. In addition to the way they interact with supervisors, women in IT cite the inability to offer suggestions during the decision-making process as a challenge. "In high-tech organizations people who have great technical skill often advance into managerial roles, and while these folks may be stellar technicians, they are often not given the support and training to enable them to be equally good managers," says Catalyst's Debbie Soon. Catalyst based its study on employee-satisfaction surveys from 21 global high-tech companies and an online study of nearly 500 respondents. Women often noted that their supervisors were not available when needed, did not provide regular feedback, and did not respond to suggestions. IT companies would do well to offer face-to-face training for managers and programs that focus on different leadership styles.
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Microsoft Giving Away Developer Software
Associated Press (02/19/08) Mintz, Jessica

Microsoft has announced DreamSpark, a program that will provide students with free access to some of the company's most popular software development tools. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates says past efforts to create education discounts limited the number of students that could use the programs, but DreamSpark could reach as many as 1 billion students. DreamSpark will allow students to download Visual Studio Professional Edition, a software development environment; Expression Studio, which includes graphic design and Web site and hybrid Web-desktop programming tools; XNA Game Studio 2.0, a video game development program; SQL Server 2005 Developer Edition; and Windows Server Standard Edition. "It's a brilliant strategic move on the part of Microsoft," says analyst Chris Swenson. "This is one of the core audiences you have to hit if you really want to make a difference in the rich Internet application market going forward." Analysts say that distributing free copies of its tools increases the chances that a Microsoft product will be used to develop the next big Web 2.0 craze, and could also help convince a generation of programmers to move away from open source software. DreamSpark will be made available to high school students around the world starting in the fall, and to college students in other countries starting next year.
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Negroponte: OLPC Machine Will Be $50 in 2011, Electronics Are 'Obese'
Wired News (02/17/08) Madrigal, Alexis

One Laptop Per Child has delivered thousands of $187 laptops to children in the developing world, has 500,000 machines in its pipeline, and is producing as many as 110,000 units per month, said OLPC co-founder Nicholas Negroponte during his keynote address at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting. Negroponte said that OLPC will lower the cost to its target of $100 before the end of 2009, and by 2011 the price will fall to $50. He said the idea is to apply Moore's Law to pricing. "If you make anything electronic today, you know that 18 months from today it will cost you half of what it does today," he said. "But if you make [electronics], you have no interest in that product being half price in 18 months." He noted that companies add electronic extras such as cameras and MP3 players, and likened laptops to SUVs that need energy to move the vehicle rather than people. Big rollouts of OLPC computers in Peru, Uruguay, and Nigeria are scheduled for the coming months. Negroponte added that OLPC is forming partnerships and making changes that will allow other companies to come aboard and help make inexpensive laptops more widely available.
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Friendly 'Worms' Could Spread Software Fixes
New Scientist (02/14/08) Simonite, Tom

Microsoft researchers are working to make it easier to distribute useful pieces of information such as software updates and patches by designing the updates to behave more like computer worms, spreading from computer to computer instead of having to be individually downloaded from a central server. The research used to develop such a technique may also help defend against malicious worms. Software worms spread by infecting a computer, self-replicating, and probing computers to find a new host. Microsoft research Milan Vojnovic says that method is inefficient because the worm wastes time exploring groups, or "subnets" of computers that contain few uninfected hosts. Vojnovic and his team have designed smarter strategies. The ideal approach would be to use prior knowledge of how uninfected computers are distributed on a subnet, but a company distributing a patch after a worm attack rarely has such extensive information. To compensate, the researchers have developed strategies that would allow their beneficial worms to learn from experience. A worm starts by contacting a potential new host, and after finding one uses a targeted approach to contact other computers on the same subnet. If the worm finds many uninfected hosts it stays on the subnet, but if most computers have already been updated, it switches subnets. Software patches that spread like worms could be faster and easier to distribute, and better countermeasures can be developed by understanding how malicious worms spread.
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College Coders Working With IBM's Project Zero
InfoWorld (02/14/08) Kanaracus, Chris

North Carolina State University students are using IBM's Project Zero programming framework to build Web 2.0 business applications. The project includes a scripting runtime for Groovy and PHP, as well as application programming interfaces for creating representational state transfer Web services, user interfaces, and mashups. Project Zero is available as a plug-in for the Eclipse integrated development environment and in a version for developers who prefer working from the command line. Project Zero is not an open source project, although it does follow open source's community-driven model. NCSU professor Munindar Singh says Project Zero's rapid development framework has helped students focus on higher-level issues surrounding application development. IBM's Mark Hanny says the needs of the IT industry are changing. "Professors are spending a lot more time helping people at a higher level to be the architect, to be the project managers," Hanny says. "These are the jobs that are in great demand." IBM has also partnered with the University of California, Los Angeles to create a class in which computer science students choose their own Web 2.0 project and work with IBM mentors to complete it.
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Virtual Evolution Breeds Answers
The McGill Daily (CAN) (02/18/08) Vol. 97, No. 37, Anderson, Ashton

Computer scientists are using genetic algorithms to re-create the process of evolution and solve some of the hardest problems researchers face today. Researchers have used evolutionary principles to design airplane wings, boat hulls, satellite antennae, robot vision, and electronic circuits. Computer scientists can solve difficult problems by evolving solutions in a virtual world. The solutions are often much different from anything human engineers would have conceived, as they are occasionally hindered by preconceived notions on how problems should be solved. A genetic algorithm starts with a group of possible solutions and narrows the answers down to the best solution by eliminating bad ideas and combining strong ideas until the perfect solution evolves. Sometimes, the algorithm can go through hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of generations of solutions before reaching a suitable answer. Still, although genetic algorithms have been successful in many cases, they are not a universal problem solver. "They are quite slow, and they require quite a bit of fiddling," says McGill University professor Doina Precup. However, despite their drawbacks, Universite de Montreal professor Michel Toulouse says they have sparked a revolution in computer science. "The beauty and success of genetic algorithms motivated other computer scientists to look to biology for inspiration," Toulouse says.
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With Improvements, E-Voting Could Be Good, Says Researcher
CNet (02/16/08) Vamosi, Robert

Princeton graduate student J. Alex Halderman discussed ways to improve e-voting machines during his keynote address at the ShmooCon computer hacker conference. Halderman said that direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines are essentially computers and are susceptible to the same problems, including viruses, bugs, and crashes. Halderman said the most troubling aspect of DRE machines is that a single person could launch an attack on all the voting machines in a county or state. During a study of Diebold DRE machines, Halderman found that the company provided potential attackers with an upgrade process that was easy to manipulate. Using a specific file name could allow a hacker to inject malicious code into one or more voting machines, and because the PCMIA card can be used to load a specific ballot within a precinct, county, or state, a single altered card could spread the infection to numerous machines. Halderman said that improvements to e-voting machines could make them reliable, which he said would please voters, since many prefer using them over paper-based systems. E-voting machines provide faster reporting, offer more accessibility to disabled voters, and allow for better and less-expensive vote auditing if paper receipts are added to the system.
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Program Advances 3-D Images
Stanford Daily (02/15/08) Kamat, Nikhil

Stanford computer scientists have developed Make3d, an algorithm that can render accurate three-dimensional models from ordinary pictures. Make3d, developed by computer science professor Andrew Ng and postdoctoral student Ashutosh Saxena, uses data drawn from a set of images to relate the relative depth of objects in various circumstances to properties of the two-dimensional image. The depth data is used to extrapolate the relative positions and shapes of objects in new photographs. "If you look at a single image you will notice that some parts of the image relate to the depth--for example, the sky is usually far away," Saxena says. "The machine-learning algorithm, which is a branch of artificial intelligence, learns the relations, so it learns the relation between the image and the depth or the 3D structure." Ng says that until recently the concept was considered to be technically impossible because of the difficulties in differentiating two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects. Ng and Saxena say the algorithm could be used to improve object detection for complicated structures such as faces or moving objects, accelerate the development of virtual worlds and characters for video games, or be used to improve robotic navigation and dexterity. Ng says that future uses of the algorithm could include modeling houses for real estate and modeling fly-through views for applications such as Google Earth.
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Lab Works to Develop Fast, Handheld Computers
Daily Californian (02/15/08) Dongallo, Angelica

Technology that would enable computers to operate at faster speeds is the focus of a new laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Founded in January, the Parallel Computing Lab will allow an interdisciplinary group of researchers to pursue prototypes that would make parallel computing more accessible to the average computer programmer. Effective parallel programs have only been written by specialists, says lab investigator Ras Bodik. Overheating computer cores was a problem associated with improving the speed of computers until the emergence of parallel computing. The technology could allow handheld devices such as cell phones to replace laptop computers, enable people to browse YouTube in minutes instead of hours, or help improve the understanding and diagnosis of diseases. Microsoft and Intel recently said they will award UC Berkeley a grant to pursue parallel computing research. "It's one of the biggest changes in the computer industry in the last 30 years, which is why the industry's paying attention to academic ideas quite a bit," Bodik says.
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How Can We Be Sure We'll Remember Our Digital Past?
Christian Science Monitor (02/14/08) P. 13; Gaylord, Christian

The obsolescence of technology goes hand in hand with its advancement, and this represents a major problem to institutions that wish to preserve knowledge recorded on storage media and formats that are rapidly becoming outmoded, according to San Diego Supercomputer Center director Dr. Francine Berman, whose Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation will investigate the challenge over the next several years. The maintenance of archaic computers is an expensive proposition, while a more likely method is to migrate the data by upgrading the file format every generation, but problems with this concept include who will foot the bill for this service, according to Berman. Data accessibility and sustainability models being discussed by task force members include a pay-per-use model in which users would pay a fee to download old books and other kinds of information; a privatized model whereby businesses that already host files or images online agree to maintain them long-term; and a public-good model in which preservation is underwritten by endowments or governments. The NSF, the Library of Congress, and several other organizations are supporting Berman's task force, with the NSF also offering $100 million for five organizations to create a "DataNet" for sustainable data preservation. The European Union's Planets project describes itself as an attempt by several national libraries to save $4.3 billion in European data "at risk of digital obsolescence." Meanwhile, computer experts recommend that households start backing up their files, and it is a matter of preference which preservation format is best for each household. "Only 10 to 30 percent of consumers back up their stuff, and really it's closer to 10," warns CNet editor Natalie Del Conte.
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Why Should Women Want to Be in IT?
IT Business Canada (02/15/08) Orlov, Laurie M.

A lack of definition in the enterprise IT field is a major reason why women are so discouraged from pursuing careers in that sector, and former Forrester Research analyst Laurie M. Orlov writes that an emphasis on programming, robotics, engineering, and computer science obstructs the actual nature of enterprise IT jobs and the skills and background they necessitate. "Now you need business analysts, program managers, vendor managers, relationship managers, information architects or process analysts," she says. "These jobs (any of which can lead to CIO) demand employees with excellent communication skills that many of the women you know have: The ability to speak, negotiate, influence others, write, analyze, manage projects or programs, and lead cultural change." What is needed, Orlov argues, is the circulation of better information about business technology's true nature and the various backgrounds successful women in business technology can have, along with the backing and participation of the 86 percent of top male IT executives. CIOs and senior managers can give tech-centric personnel a better grounding in business so that they can more effectively engage with other departments and recognize the career paths that may swerve to and from their organization's business areas. Orlov makes the case that senior women in IT should promote business technology careers to young women in view of rising salaries, companies' fervent desire for workforce diversity, the positions' opportunity to give women an education on how companies function, and the work-life balance IT jobs facilitate. Furthermore, women with IT jobs that are gauged by deliverables know that the most valuable element of the job is the work itself.
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Attention Please! Next-Generation E-Learning Is Here
ICT Results (02/14/08)

European researchers working for the AtGentive project have developed two new software platforms that incorporate artificial intelligence and social networking into their approach toward e-learning. AtGentive coordinator Thierry Nabeth says the first generation of e-learning platforms focused on replicating the classroom experience, but student's often had difficulty staying motivated and the learning program failed to keep their attention. To overcome this problem, one of the AtGentive platforms uses techniques similar to those found on Web sites such as Facebook that make them so popular as a means of staying in touch with others. The platforms also use artificial intelligence to keep students interested. "Artificial agents are autonomous entities that observe users' activities and assess their state of attention in order to intervene so as to make the user experience more effective," Nabeth says. "The interventions can take many forms, from providing new information to the student, guiding them in their work, or alerting them when other users connect to the platform." The artificial intelligence agents provide a smart form of proactive coaching for students by assessing, guiding, and stimulating them. The agents can alert students when others have read their articles, or when they receive feedback on their contributions to a collaborative project. The agents are also able to detect when students are not interacting with the system and try to get them to rejoin the lesson.
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Gliding to Gold - World-Beating Software Could Boost British Swimming
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (02/13/08)

New software being developed by sports scientists at the University of Edinburgh's Center for Aquatics Research and Education and Sheffield Hallam University could provide instant, in-depth feedback to a swimmer's glide technique, helping swimmers improve a key aspect of their performance more quickly and effectively than previously possible. The software would provide information on head position, body posture and alignment, and other elements of a swimmer's technique. It could also actively suggest ways swimmers could improve their posture to minimize resistance and pinpoint the optimum moment to begin kicking. The researchers say the software's advantages over other systems currently in use include the ability to provide instant feedback so swimmers and coaches can use it at the poolside and implement its recommendations while a training session is still in progress. To use the program, a swimmer is marked at body joints using water-resistant markers. The swimmer is then videotaped in action using underwater and poolside cameras. The images are fed into a computer where the software tracks the movements and runs them through a mathematical model. A replay of the swim instantly appears on a poolside plasma screen. The research is backed by funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
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AMD Drives Shift in Computer Software
EE Times (02/12/08) Merritt, Rick

Advanced Micro Devices says that developers need to rewrite software to prepare for the multicore processors that will use a variety of cores in the future. AMD has started talks with Microsoft and other partners, and believes the work will ease the job of programming heterogeneous computer microprocessors that mix x86, graphics, and other cores. "Over the next few months or quarters, I think we will sharpen our views and put out a proposal--and perhaps a consortium behind it," says AMD senior fellow Chuck Moore, the chief architect of the initiative. "It's not just an AMD thing. It's an open system, and lets other players innovate at different layers." AMD believes software needs to be redefined in an open way similar to how the Open Systems Interconnection stack redefined networking software in the late 1970s. Establishing new levels of abstraction would allow applications developers to write parallel programs without having to know the details of every multicore processor. The new computer stack could include an expanded set of runtime environments above the operating system that could help find, schedule, synchronize, and manage chip-level resources for applications programmers. Virtualization software could be used below the operating system to track and correct programming errors more efficiently.
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Mistakes, Not Hackers, Are to Blame for Many Data-Security Glitches on Campuses, Report Says
Chronicle of Higher Education (02/12/08) Young, Jeffrey R.

Hackers were not responsible for the increase in the number of colleges that reported computer-security incidents in 2007, according to a study conducted by Adam D. Dodge, the assistant director for information security at Eastern Illinois University. The study, which analyzed reports on computer security by news and computer-security organizations, found that while the number of colleges that reported computer-security incidents rose from 65 in 2006 to 112 last year, the number of attacks committed by intruders remained essentially flat. Instead, the increase in the number of computer-security incidents at colleges was due to an increase in the number of mistakes made by college officials and an increase in the number of thefts of property, the study concluded. Dodge found that 49 colleges unintentionally released sensitive information in 2007, up from 20 the previous year. Meanwhile, 36 colleges reported 39 cases of theft of college computers or storage devices last year, up from 26 cases of theft at 24 institutions in 2006. Eugene H. Spafford, director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security at Purdue University, warned against drawing too many conclusions from the study, since it relies on other reports and has only been taken for two years. "Campus systems continue to be prized because of high bandwidth, number of systems (particularly student-owned), and collections of personal information of people with good credit histories," he says.
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Web Tool Predicts Election Results and Stock Prices
New Scientist (02/11/08)No. 2642, P. 30; Palmer, Jason

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Peter Gloor has developed Condor, software that monitors activity on the Web to predict the future of stock prices and election results. Condor has successfully predicted the results of an Italian political party's internal election as well as stock market fluctuations. Condor starts by taking a search term, such as the name of a political candidate or a company, and running it through a Google search. Condor then takes the URLs of the top 10 results and plugs them into the Google search field, prefaced with the term "link:". Google then returns the sites that link to the 10 original sites, which Condor then reinserts into Google. Condor then maps the links between all the sites it has found, even if they do not contain the original search term, and finds the shortest way to get from one site to the other through the links they contain. The more often a site is involved in moving between sites, the higher its "betweenness" score. Condor averages the betweenness scores for all of the sites to produce an overall score for the original search term. The score provides some indication of popularity. In December of 2006, Gloor entered a range of film titles from that year and found that of the 10 with the highest betweenness scores, five won Oscars, four were nominated, and only one did not receive an award. Gloor is working on altering Condor so that it only searches blogs or chat sites.
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Replicating Virtual Servers Vulnerable to Attack
Network World (02/15/08) Greene, Tim

Jon Oberheide, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, says there is a big security risk related to virtualization. He says that one of the most attractive features of virtualization--the ability to spontaneously replicate virtual servers in order to meet demand--increases the risk of attacks such as data theft and denial of service. Oberheide attributes this increased risk to the fact that authentication between machines is weak when a virtual machine moves from one physical server to another, and because virtual-machine traffic between physical machines is unencrypted. However, there are two solutions to these problems, Oberheide says. A short-term solution is to install hardware-based encryption on all the physical servers that might send or receive virtual machines, while a long-term solution is to incorporate strong authentication into virtual machine software. Oberheide has developed a proof-of-concept tool he used in a lab to launch man-in-the-middle attacks against virtual machines as they moved from one physical server to another. Nemertes Research analyst Andreas Antonopoulos says Oberheide's work is fascinating, and adds that virtual servers face much more basic challenges. "Our entire security infrastructure has been built around a static model, and as we're virtualizing everything else, the virtualization of security is lagging by a tremendous amount," he says. "That's causing real problems in architecture decisions today."
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