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ACM TechNews
February 25, 2008

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Welcome to the February 25, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Gates to Students: Consider IT Careers
eSchool News (02/25/08)

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates says the widespread shortage of information technology graduates in North America is forcing Microsoft and other software companies to look to developing countries such as China to meet their needs. "When we want to hire lots of software engineers, there is a shortage in North America--a pretty significant shortage," Gates says. Speaking at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, Gates told students that IT workers are in high demand and urged students to consider a career in IT. Gates criticized the United States government for its strict adherence to the H-1B visa and argued that there should be a free flow of talent going into the United States. He said if there is a bright person who wants a job it should not be difficult to cross a boarder to get one. Gates also recalled when he want to college in "the Dark Ages" and learned about computers on his own time, and told students how lucky they are to be learning during this period. "Fortunately for all of you, you're in a generation where all of these courses are going to be online and basically free," Gates said. "I'm taking solid state physics from MIT, though MIT doesn't know it." Speaking at Carnegie Mellon University, Gates predicted that people will increasingly interact with computers through touch and speech rather than with a keyboard, and said that software is proliferating into different branches of science such as biology and astronomy. Gates said that researchers have to manage so much information that the need for machine learning is absolutely essential.
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HPC Challenge Awards at SC08
HPC Wire (02/21/08)

The DARPA High Productivity Computing Systems (HPCS) Program and IDC have announced the annual HPC Challenge Award Competition as SC08, which encourages HPC experts to develop hardware and software capabilities that will improve the use of HPC systems. The HPC Challenge benchmark suite, including Global HPL, Global RandomAccess, EP STREAM (Triad) per system, and Global FFT, will be the focus of the competition. There will be four awards for Best Performance on a base or optimized run submitted to the HPC Challenge Web site. For the Most Productivity class of awards, the evaluation committee will look for the most "elegant" implementation of the benchmarks, with a 50 percent weight on performance and a 50 percent weight on code elegance, clarity, and size. By Oct. 24, 2008, participants must provide a short description of the implementation, the performance achieved, lines-of-code, and the actual source code of the project. Finalists will be invited to present their work at the awards session, which will take place during the SC08 conference, which takes place Nov. 15-21, 2008, in Austin, Tex.
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One Million Trillion ‘Flops' Per Second Targeted By New Institute for Advanced Architectures
Sandia National Laboratories (02/21/08) Singer, Neal

The new Institute for Advanced Architectures, launched jointly by Sandia and Oak Ridge national laboratories, will focus on preparing the groundwork for an exascale computer, which would be capable of processing one million trillion calculations per second. Currently, teraflop computers are state of the art, performing trillions of calculations per second. Sandia project lead Sudip Dosanjh says the idea behind the new institute is to close critical gaps between optimal performance and actual performance on current supercomputers, which Sandia researchers believe can be done by developing novel and innovative computer architectures. "An exascale computer is essential to perform more accurate simulations that, in turn, support solutions for emerging science and engineering challenges in national defense, energy assurance, advanced materials, climate, and medicine," says Sandia's James Peery. Dosanjh says one of the main goals of the institute is to reduce or eliminate the growing mismatch between processing speeds and data movement. In larger computers, data may be stored farther away from a processor, increasing data movement and reducing overall efficiency. The institute will also work to reduce the amount of power needed to run a future exascale computer, as well as improve software's ability to run in parallel.
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Java Increasingly Threatened by New App Dev Frameworks
InfoWorld (02/21/08) Krill, Paul

Java could slip to second-tier status as a development language as rival technologies start to garner more attention. Nearly 13 years old, Java is now competing with scripting languages such as PHP, Ruby, and Microsoft's .Net. Java has been praised for its ability to run on multiple platforms through the Java Virtual Machine, and Java received most of the attention for years before being seriously challenged by .Net and open-source scripting varieties. Microsoft has since made its .Net platform a serious contender, and a November 2007 report by Info-Tech Research Group found that .Net is becoming more popular than Java. However, Java is far from obsolete. Rick Ross, president of the DZone developer community and founder of Javalobby, says that Java can be found in almost everything, including major databases and in the Web sites of large companies such as eBay, and notes that it represents a multibillion-dollar industry. Info-Tech senior research analyst George Goodall says that Microsoft has an advantage in its ability to offer a single soup-to-nuts stack that features .Net, the Exchange email system, and the SQL Server database. Info-Tech's survey of 1,900 companies, mostly midmarket companies with less than $1 billion in annual revenues, found that 12 percent of enterprises focus exclusively on .Net while only 3 percent focus only on Java. Additionally, 49 percent center primarily on .Net, while 20 percent center on Java. The survey did find that .Net popularity decreases very gradually as the size of the enterprise increases, but that the decreased popularity of .Net does not come from an increase in Java, but rather a preference for other development platforms in heterogeneous environments.
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Europe Invests in Real-Time Java for Multicore Systems
EE Times (02/20/08)

The Open Group is collaborating with a consortium of European real-time technology developers, industrial manufacturers, and research organizations to develop a new framework for Java-based real-time applications on modern parallel processor systems. The Java Environment for Parallel Real-Time Development (JEOPARD) project, with the support of the European Commission, is creating an advanced framework for real-time Java on multicore and parallel systems. The platform-independent framework will maintain the reliability essential for safety and mission-critical applications while using the additional processing power available in the latest parallel processors. The JEOPARD project's goal is to provide the tools for platform-independent development of predictable systems that make use of symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) multicore platforms that enhance software productivity and reusability by extending processor technology already used on desktop systems for the specific needs of multicore embedded systems. The project will contribute to standards required for the development of portable software, such as the Real-Time Specification for Java. JEOPARD will also develop a platform independent software interface for real-time multicore systems that will be based on existing technologies, including the Real-Time Specification for Java and Safety-Critical Java.
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'World Wide Computer' Is on Horizon
USA Today (02/25/08) P. 13B; Juskalian, Russ

The Internet is evolving into a gigantic "world wide computer" that will eventually achieve a degree of artificial intelligence, theorizes Nicholas Carr in "The Big Switch." He says IT and computing usage resembles electrical power in that peak load and capacity patterns are similar. Idle capacity can be reduced to a minimum by analyzing and matching the usage patterns of various types of customers. Carr reasons that IT can function as a utility, and that corporations can purchase IT services over the Internet from specialty companies rather than setting up in-house servers and applications at a much higher cost. Carr cautions that utility computing should not be promoted as a panacea for societal ills, noting that electricity made a similar promise that it could not fulfill. He focuses in one chapter on the Department of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff's 2003 Information Operation Roadmap, which he finds "disconcerting to read military planners calmly laying out a doomsday scenario in which American forces act to 'disrupt or destroy the full spectrum of globally emerging communications systems, sensors, and weapons systems dependent on electromagnetic spectrum.' "
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Apostrophes in Names Stir Lot o' Trouble
Associated Press (02/21/08) Odriscoll, Sean

Despite their sophistication, computers are still often confused when an apostrophe appears in a name, which can cause problems for users when they to vote, schedule appointments, rent a car, book a flight, or take a college exam. In addition to names with apostrophes, names with hyphens and names with surnames such as "van" can also cause problems. Permission Data's Michael Rais says the problem is sloppy programming. "It's standard shortsightedness," he says. "Most programs set a rule for first name and last name. They don't think of foreign-sounding names." Rais says problems normally arise in two ways. First, online forms often have a filter that searches for unfamiliar terms that might be a mistake or a joke and might automatically block a last name with an apostrophe, hyphen, or space. Second, if the computer system is sophisticated enough to accept unusual last names, the names must be stored in the database, where a hyphen or apostrophe can be mistaken for a piece of computer code, corrupting the system. During the 2004 Michigan caucus, thousands of voters with names such as O'Connor, Al-Hussein, and Van Kemp did not have their votes counted. The technical problem is difficult to correct because computer systems have numerous ways of recognizing names. "It depends on the form filters and it depends on the database program," Rais says.
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Scientists Demand an Ethical Education in Computer Engineering
Innovations Report (02/21/08) Flores, Francisco Javier Alonso

Computer engineers could become the depersonalized tools of other parties if they do not receive a solid ethical education, concludes a new report from researchers at Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M). Ethics is ultimately about personal freedom because it guides computer engineers along their destiny of personal growth as they find new ways to bring good into the world, suggests study co-author M. Rosario Gonzalez from the Complutense University of Madrid. The discussion of ethics in information technology essentially involves the differing ideas of consequentialism (that good actions are determined by the consequences) and deontologism (that right or wrong is independent of the consequences). The researchers studied the different ethics systems and came up with a model, "moderate deontologism," or rational behavior based on rules and consequences. The most correct ethical position takes the consequences of actions into consideration while recognizing the barriers necessary for respecting human dignity. UC3M will take a cross-sectional approach to professional ethics for new computer engineering degrees offered in the incoming academic year. Gonzalo Genova, another study co-author, says that "the subject is important enough to warrant specific intellectual and rigorous treatment."
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Global Consortium Launches Study on Open Source as a Development Tool
United Nations University (02/19/08)

Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) will be the focus of a $1 million European project over the next two years. Specialists from research institutes, government agencies, private companies, and non-governmental organizations in nine countries will come together to study the potential of FLOSS as a development tool in target regions. UNU-MERIT, the joint research and training center of United Nations University and Maastricht University in the Netherlands, will head the consortium of 11 organizations that are participating in the FLOSSInclude project. They will study the key factors that could influence the growing use, deployment, and development of FLOSS, and implement solutions, tools, and services that are ultimately cost-effective and practical for each environment. The pilot will build on previous projects by partners such as the FLOSSWorld study, and provide a foundation for future collaborations between the European Union and developing countries.
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No Directions Required -- Software Smartens Mobile Robots
Scientific American (02/21/08) Sergo, Peter

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's three-year Learning Applied to Ground Robots (LAGR) initiative, which awarded eight teams of computer scientists $2 million to $3 million to develop software that would give unmanned vehicles the ability to autonomously survey and navigate off-road areas, recently concluded with final tests of the developed systems on a test course in San Antonio. Initially, researchers believed that visual learning would be easy to implement in computer systems, but as New York University Laboratory for Computational Vision principal investigator Eero Simoncelli points out, humans take vision for granted and overlook its complexity. In addition to classifying natural obstacles, LAGR researchers had to implement a software program that could improve a mobile robot's ability to analyze and travel through an environment. Until LAGR, most self-navigating robots could only scan their immediate surroundings and plot a course over short distances, which makes it difficult for robots to determine an optimum route to a destination farther than their immediate area, about 25 feet. Many LARG teams failed to equip the LAGR robot with sufficient long-range vision, but participants took advantage of a mapping system that stored collected information, which made their robots more successful at certain challenges the second time. Some also developed systems that were exceptional at responding to obstacles that suddenly popped up during trials.
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Computers 'Spot Alzheimer's Fast'
BBC News (02/22/08)

University College London researchers say they have developed a method using MRI scans for identifying brain damage caused by Alzheimer's disease with 96 percent accuracy. The new method works by teaching a computer the difference between the brains scans of people with no signs of the disease and scans from proven Alzheimer's patients. "The advantage of using computers is that they prove cheaper, faster, and more accurate than the current method of diagnosis," says UCL professor Richard Frackowiak. "The new method makes an objective diagnosis without the need for human intervention. This will be particularly attractive for areas of the world where there is a shortage of trained clinicians and when a standardized reliable diagnosis is needed." Frackowiak notes that symptoms only emerge after a considerable amount of brain damage has occurred, so it is important to make an early, accurate diagnosis to improve the chances of preventing further damage. He says the next step is to see if the technique can be used to track the progression of the disease in a patient, a breakthrough that could be used to test the efficacy of new drug treatments without the cost of clinical trials.
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Tech Workplace Climate Unfavorable to Women
eWeek (02/21/08) Perelman, Deb

Women in the technology industry are less satisfied with fairness and their supervisory relationships than male tech workers, as well as men and women in nontechnical fields, reveals a new Catalyst report sponsored by IBM. The report, "Women in Technology: Maximizing the Talent, Minimizing Barriers," says IT is making progress, but many women still feel excluded and left out of the decision making process. IBM's Maria Ferris, a contributor to the report, says she is unsure if women feel this way because they see few females in their departments or organizations. "But it's important to be inclusive, and to train managers on becoming more inclusive," she says. "It's not that difficult to ensure that all people who report to you participate in decisions that are made, to call on them and get their input." A lower percentage of women in IT said they were provided with regular feedback, good communication, or general availability by supervisors than men, and both women and men in other fields. And companies are not doing enough to develop their talent. The report also notes that IT employment has rebounded since the dot-com bust, but the number of women in certain technical fields has been flat or declined.
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Virtual Teachers Outperform Real Thing
MSNBC (02/21/08) Lloyd, Robin

Researchers at the Annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said that virtual characters and digital tutors are helping children and adults develop advanced social and language skills that can be difficult to learn through conventional approaches. Northwestern University's Justine Cassell says children with autism can develop advanced social skills by interacting with a "virtual child." Cassell has developed the Embodied Conversational Agent (ECA), a virtual human capable of interacting with people using language and gestures. The virtual child is a cartoon about the size of an 8-year-old that kids interact with using a plasma screen projection. Cassell says that children who played with the virtual child improved their language skills and social-interaction skills. The virtual child can also teach autistic children the ability to stay on topic in conversations, take turns, and to talk and nod when being spoken to. Meanwhile, University of California, Santa Cruz researcher Dominic W. Massaro has developed 3D animated tutors that can teach remedial readers, children with language challenges, and anyone learning a second language. The teachers are less cartoonish and focus on speech accuracy. One of the tutors has been used by the Defense Language Institute in California to teach foreign languages to Americans doing military and other work in Iraq.
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Software to Evaluate Developmental Disorders in Children Developed
The Hindu (02/14/08) Varma, Dinesh

The Automated Software Screener for development disorders is a 48-question software matrix, based on a computational questionnaire matrix, that can be used as a pre-clinical tool to evaluate if a child's development milestones are age-appropriate. "We initially set out with a questionnaire of around 200 enquiries. The subsequent pruning based on inputs from experts has helped make the matrix more reliable and sensitive," says computer scientist Sampathkumar Veeraraghavan, who developed the software along with physician Karthik Srinivasan. The software framework includes an automated screener system, a report generator system, and gaming techniques, which are still being fine-tuned. The screener uses responses given by the primary care taker to evaluate such areas as fine and gross motor skills, social skills, and language. Following a screening session, the program sends a comprehensive report stating whether the child demonstrates any symptoms of developmental disorders. Jaya Krishnaswamy, director of the Madhuram Narayanan Centre for Exceptional Children, says the software will enable even lay parents to be reassured that their child is attaining the proper developmental milestones. Sampathkumar says the program will enable properly-trained teachers to shortlist children suspected of a developmental delay and refer them to an expert for further evaluation.
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Researchers Say Sharing Is the Key to Privacy for EPC Tags
RFID Journal (02/14/08) O'Connor, Mary Catherine

ThingMagic's Advanced Development Group cofounder and head Ravi Pappu, RSA Laboratories principal research scientist Ari Juels, and Carnegie Mellon university graduate student Bryan Parno have published a paper describing a process that can protect RFID tag data and address consumer privacy concerns without sabotaging existing efforts to integrate RFID throughout the supply chain. The process is based on threshold or secret-sharing cryptography, which uses a secret key to encrypt a number, then divides that key into multiple pieces. Anyone attempting decryption must collect a certain number of those pieces to figure out the key. The researchers call their technique privacy-through-dispersion. For example, when a product is first manufactured, it is given an electronic product code (EPC) and packed along with numerous identical products. At a distribution center, the pallet is broken down, and a single case containing the product, which is still in close proximity to several identical products, is sent to a store location. At the store, the product is stored or shelved with identical products, but when a consumer picks up the product, it is removed from the presence of the other identical products and loses its ability to be scanned because not enough pieces of the key are present. Pappu and Juels plan to arrange the first real-world tests of privacy-through-dispersion using pharmaceutical products in a closed-loop supply chain.
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Application Requirements & Objectives for Petascale Systems
HPC Wire (02/22/07) Vol. 17, No. 8,

Doug Kothe, director of science for Oak Ridge National Laboratory's (ORNL) National Center for Computational Sciences (NCCS), says in an interview that NCCS held a broad user survey to "first ... elicit and analyze scientific application requirements for current and planned leadership systems out to the petascale; and second, to identify applications that would qualify for early access to ORNL's 250-teraflop and 1-petaflop systems." Kothe says the survey's results uncovered substantially more commonality in the application algorithms and software implementations than they assumed, and says he is aware of at least 12 applications where a single job can employ a large fraction, 50 percent to 75 percent, of ORNL's processors today. "An important conclusion is that we cannot expect application code developers to rewrite codes from scratch to achieve better scaling or parallel performance," Kothe says, stressing the need to collaborate with developers to help them refactor their existing code base to enhance performance. He also points to the possibility that application developers may need to extensively rewrite their codes in consideration of forthcoming exascale applications. High-performance computing "centers will collaborate to optimally map the applications to the platform and continue to work with the researchers and vendors to ensure that the science demands of today and the future are met with leadership computing resources," Kothe projects.
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DNS Inventor Warns of Next Big Threat
Dark Reading (02/11/08) Higgins, Kelly Jackson

At the Network and Distributed System Security Symposium, researchers from Google and Georgia Tech presented their study on DNS resolution path corruption and malicious alteration of DNS answers. The new DNS attacks consist of DNS servers manipulated by hackers that redirect unsuspecting users to malicious sites. Georgia Tech's David Dagon, Chris Lee, and Wenke Lee, and Google's Niels Provos documented roughly 17 million open-recursive DNS servers, finding that nearly 70,000 were conducting malware-based operations through DNS queries. While DNS entries can be rewritten to prevent malicious sites, hackers have joined the ranks of security experts in infecting DNS resolution paths via viruses or malicious URLs. "Companies are rewriting DNS answers, ideally to improve the user experience, but also to expose the users to ads," says Dagon. "But DNS vendors aren't the only ones commercializing the alteration of DNS traffic. Malware authors also use this technique to exploit victims." Researchers say the modification of DNS answers still needed to be thoroughly explored, but DNS inventor Paul Mockapetris warns it is only a matter of time before DNS attacks result in sizeable losses. Mockapetris says users connecting through public wireless ports are at risk for hackers' manipulated DNS servers, adding that successful DNS attacks could cost enterprises up to $100 million.
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