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ACM TechNews
March 12, 2008

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Welcome to the March 12, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Computer Security Team to Report Hacking Into Defibrillator-Pacemaker
New York Times (03/12/08) P. C4; Feder, Barnaby J.

Computer security researchers say they were able to gain wireless access to a combination heart defibrillator and pacemaker in a lab. The researchers were able to reprogram the device, and to cause it to deliver jolts of electricity that would potentially be fatal if the device was in a person. The researchers were also able to obtain personal patient data by monitoring signals from the tiny wireless radio that was embedded in the implant as a way to enable doctors to monitor and adjust it without surgery. However, the researchers say that people with implanted defibrillators or pacemakers are not at risk yet since the experiment required more than $30,000 worth of lab equipment and a sustained effort by a team of specialists from the University of Washington and the University of Massachusetts to interpret the data. Additionally, the device the researchers tested was placed within two inches of the test gear. The researchers say the test results suggest that too little attention is being paid to security for the increasing number of medical implants equipped with communication abilities. "The risks to patients now are very low, but I worry that they could increase in the future," says University of Washington lead researcher Tadayoshi Kohno.
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20th World Computer Congress
Italian Computer Association (03/12/08)

The Italian Computer Association (AICA) will organize the 20th IFIP World Computer Congress from Sept. 7-10 in Milan, Italy. An innovative program accommodates a record number of 13 technical and 17 industry conferences with cross-links and presentations on national experiences and best practices. Globalization in the Digital Scenario will be the subject of the opening session. Hosted conferences include Women and Technology, e-Inclusion, and the AICA's 46th National Congress. Industry conferences at WCC 2008 will include e-Government, Web 2.0, Smart Grids, Intelligent Building, Service Science, and ICT for Innovation in Finance. Technical conferences include Distributed and Parallel Embedded Systems, Human Computer Interaction, IFIP Artificial Intelligence 2008, 23rd IFIP International Information Security Conference, Knowledge Management in Action, Biologically Inspired Cooperative Computing, 1st IFIP Entertainment Computing Symposium, Open Source Systems 2008, and the 5th IFIP International Conference on Theoretical Computer Science. WCC 2008 will also offer a topical session on Computer-Aided Innovation. AICA is determined to make this event one of the best ever and extends a cordial invitation to ACM members to join the international ICT community at the Congress. For more information and to register, go to www.wcc2008.org.
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Military Networks Increasingly Are Under Attack
Wall Street Journal (03/12/08) P. A7; Dreazen, Yochi J.

Gen. Kevin Chilton, the top U.S. commander in charge of cyberspace, said the nation's military networks are being targeted by an increasing number of attacks. Chilton said there is evidence that links China to many of the incidents, though he did not formally accuse the Chinese government of involvement. A recent Pentagon report said that China was expanding its military power into cyberspace, which angered the Chinese. Although the People's Liberation Army repeatedly denies being behind the hacker attacks, the U.S. government has linked China to several cyber attacks, including the hacking of a Pentagon email system used by the Secretary of Defense's office. A 2007 Government Accountability Office report warned that the nation's infrastructure, including water-treatment and power plans, are at risk of being targeted by a cyber threat. Chilton said the military is concerned that the increasing number of "mining" attempts could just be the beginning of a growing cyber threat. He said hackers could eventually attempt to knock out classified networks or slow down the nation's government, media, and financial Web sites. "You don't shut the system down completely, but you slow it down," Clinton says. "I would consider that an attack."
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Study: Digital Universe and Its Impact Bigger Than We Thought
Computerworld (03/11/08) Mearian, Lucas

In three years' time there will be a tenfold increase in the 180 exabytes of electronic data created and stored in 2006, according to a white paper from IDC. The report estimates that electronic receptacles for that data are expanding 50 percent faster than the data itself, and that information will be stored in over 20 quadrillion containers by 2011, producing a massive management conundrum for consumers as well as businesses. The bulk of the data consists of digital "shadows" such as surveillance photos, Web search histories, financial transaction journals, mailing lists, and so on. IDC chief research officer John F. Gantz says that a great deal of the data being created by consumers outside of enterprises will require enterprise protection, as 85 percent of that information sooner or later goes through a corporate asset. IDC acknowledges an underestimation of earlier digital figures for 2007, noting that the actual data total--281 exabytes--is 10 percent greater than it had projected earlier in its first "Digital Universe" study, owing to more rapid growth in digital cameras, televisions, and data, and improved comprehension of data replication. IT organizations will need to accommodate the digital universe's rapidly increasing size and sophistication by transforming their existing relationships with business units; driving the development of organization-wide policies for information governance such as security and retention of information, data access, and compliance; and expediting new tools and standards into the organization, from storage optimization, unstructured data search, and database analytics to virtualization and management and security tools.
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U.S. Tech Companies Add Five Workers for Each H-1B Visa They Seek
InformationWeek (03/10/08) McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

For each H-1B visa position request, U.S. technology companies increased their employment by an average of five workers, reveals a new National Foundation of American Policy (NFAP) report. NFAP, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, examined all H-1B Labor Condition Applications (LCA) submitted by S&P 500 technology companies to the U.S. Department of Labor between 2001 and 2005. The researchers used a "regression model that controls both general market conditions and firm size" to analyze the association between the number of positions required in H-1B LCA documents and the percentage of total employment. The analysis found that S&P 500 technology companies with more than 5,000 employees added an average of five workers for every H-1B position requested, and companies with fewer than 5,000 employees increased employment by 7.5 works for each H-1B position requested. "At the minimum, this shows that H-1Bs are complementary to other U.S. workers being hired, not displacing them," says NFAP executive director Stuart Anderson. NFAP did not examine the types of jobs that companies added, or the pay for those positions. Anderson also says the research did not conclude that companies added to their employment because they were saving money by hiring H-1B workers.
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NSA Shifts to E-Mail, Web, Data-Mining Dragnet
CNet (03/11/08) McCullagh, Declan

The National Security Agency may be engaging in the widespread monitoring of email, text messages, Web browsing, and other forms of electronic data-mining, without court supervision, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, documents released by a security consultant indicate that an unnamed major wireless provider has given the government access to its network, allowing customers' email, text messaging, and Web use to be monitored. Last week, assistant attorney general for National Security Kenneth Wainstein said that the surveillance of email was the real concern raised by the debate over amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Taken together, the reports indicate that the NSA is developing a data-mining operation similar to the much-criticized Total Information Awareness program, writes Declan McCullagh. The NSA says it abides by U.S. law, and principal deputy director of national intelligence Donald Kerr blames the critical reports on the NSA's culture of "stand-offishness."
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Is There Really an IT Labor Shortage?
Baseline (03/05/08) Chickowski, Ericka

IT industry executives and analysts say that skilled IT professionals are in short supply, yet a number of economists, academics, and industry experts counter that there is no hard evidence to support this assertion. Duke University professor Vivek Wadwha says that "this whole concept of shortages ... shows a lack of understanding of the labor pool in the USA." His most recent research backs his conclusion that skilled IT workers are plentiful in the United States, and studies by RAND Corporation, the Urban Institute, and Stanford University confirm Wadwha's findings. Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira says the most cogent proof that there is no IT worker shortfall is the fact that IT salaries have not significantly spiked in years, while the Urban Institute's Hal Salzman says the gap between employers' perception of a worker shortage and employees' views of a contracting job market partly stems from impractical expectations from IT industry leaders. A paper that Salzman and Georgetown University's Lindsay Lowell prepared for the Urban Institute last fall estimates that general science technology engineering and math (STEM) enrollment at U.S. universities overtook the annual net increase of jobs each year by at least a factor of two. Meanwhile, the paper says that up to two-fifths of IT workers completely lack a STEM degree and learned the technology on the job, thus widening the pool of qualified workers. Salzman attributes a decline in enrollment for IT-related degrees to flat wages that lessen the financial incentive to pursue IT careers, but he says this is not an indication that there are insufficient graduates to fill IT positions. Wadwha and others believe there is an abundance of experienced IT workers who are unemployed or underemployed because of ageism or because they dropped out of IT due to a lack of work following a downturn.
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Bringing Second Life to Life: Researchers Create Character With Reasoning Abilities of a Child
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (03/10/08) Cleveland, Amber

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute researchers are engineering virtual characters with belief systems and the ability to reason based on the beliefs of others. The researchers say that the engineered characters will be able to predict and manipulate the behavior of human characters. At a recent conference on artificial intelligence, they unveiled a Second Life character named Eddie that has the reasoning abilities of a 4-year-old child. "Current avatars in massively multiplayer online worlds--such as Second Life--are directly tethered to a user's keystrokes and only give the illusion of mentality," says Selmer Bringsjord, lead researcher and head of Rensselaer's Cognitive Science Department. "Truly convincing autonomous synthetic characters must possess memories; believe things, want things, remember things." Engineering these virtual characters requires combining logic-based artificial intelligence and computational cognitive modeling techniques with supercomputer processing power, Bringsjord says. The goal is to build artificial agents that are able to ascribe the mental states of other agents, making the virtual characters more interesting and useful.
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Cyber Preparedness Symposium Leaves Unanswered Questions
Dark Reading (03/07/08) Wilson, Tim

At the recent National Symposium on Unifying Cyber Preparedness Efforts, industry leaders and academic researchers agreed that better collaboration is needed to prepare for cybersecurity threats, but they couldn't agree on how to work together or even on what the threats are. The half-day discussion wavered between defending against attacks on the nation's government and infrastructure to resolving specific consumer PC vulnerabilities. Capitol College organized the symposium to discuss how government industry, critical infrastructure providers, Congress, and academia can cooperate to build a cross-disciplinary effort to prepare for and fight cyber threats. "We're simply stalled, as a nation, when it comes to cyber security," says Capitol College's Vic Maconachy, former head of the National Security Agency's information assurance training program. "We can no longer wait for somebody to take the lead." Maconachy urged government, industry, and academia to pledge to get involved in the cyber security effort, and to identify, coordinate, and combine the "silos of excellence" in cybersecurity.
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Web of Entities: Prepare to 'Okkamise'!
ICT Results (03/06/08)

European researchers are developing the Okkam project, semantic Web-based technology designed to make it easier to publish, link, and find information using a "Web of entities." Objects in Okkam can include "entities" such as people, locations, organizations, and events, as well as documents, says Trento University's Paolo Bouquet, an Okkam team member. The core Okkam infrastructure will store and provide access to "global identifiers," which can be used by anyone across formats and applications. "One of the biggest risks we face is people thinking the identifiers are a controlling device, a 'Big Brother' scenario," Bouquet says. He says the information users gather "is the bare minimum to improve Web searches. So you can quickly discern, for example, whether 'Paris' is the capital of France or a bistro in Boston, and whether it's a Web-page or an obscure mention in a Voltaire manuscript." He says large companies will be able to quickly and accurately benchmark new products of processes against competitors or run internal knowledge management tasks. Corporate partners are testing how Okkam can help manage information on their public Web portals, while other Okkam partners are defining the authoring environment for scholarly and news content. Bouquet expects to have a base of about 1 million entities by the end of 2008, with the goal of adding a million more each year through the life of the project.
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Saving Energy in Data Centers
Technology Review (03/11/08) Naone, Erica

Microsoft Research's Networked Embedded Computing group is working to make data centers more energy efficient in two ways. First, new algorithms make it possible to lighten the work load for servers and put them in sleep mode. Then sensors are used to identify which servers would be the best to shut down based on the environmental conditions in different parts of the server room. Microsoft researchers says eliminating hot spots and minimizing the number of active servers could reduce data center energy consumption by 30 percent. The Web-enabled sensors monitor both heat and humidity and can be networked and used with Web services. Microsoft's Feng Zhao says he envisions the sensors, which are still just prototypes, as a new type of scientific instrument that could be used in a variety of projects. Meanwhile, the algorithms, which distribute the load to free up servers during off-peak times so they can go into sleep mode, are designed for connection servers, which are used with services users may log into for several hours. The long sessions require complex planning to avoid disconnecting users and other service problems. The researchers have developed two algorithms, one that predicts how many servers will be needed hours ahead of time, and one that distributes traffic according to those predictions and shuts down relatively empty servers.
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Microsoft Researches User Interface for the Illiterate
Computerworld (03/07/08) Gaudin, Sharon

Scientists in Microsoft Research's laboratory in Bangalore, India, displayed a prototype of a user interface for the illiterate last week during Microsoft's seventh annual TechFest. For people who are unable to read, write, and interact with computers, "a textual interface where they have to read and write just is not useful," says laboratory managing director P. Anandan. "You can show a lot more in a picture." A new interface would have to rely on better icons, Anandan says. He says iconic images might mean different things to people in different countries, different cultures, and even in different towns. But Anandan also believes the creation of richer and more meaningful icons will ultimately improve more traditional interfaces as well. Microsoft has been developing a user interface for illiterate users since 2005, but has no plans to include the technology in a product anytime soon.
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The Microchips That Could Heat Your Home
New Scientist (03/08/08) Graham-Row, Duncan

IBM engineers in Switzerland have developed a cooling system that uses waste heat from computer chips to heat homes. IBM wants to recapture the wasted heat from corporate data centers and use it to heat nearby homes and offices. Computer circuits are normally cooled by blowing cold air over them. Bruno Michel, an engineer specializing in thermal research at IBM's Zurich lab, says because water conducts heat 4,000 times better than air, switching to a water-cooled system would make it easier to recover waste heat. IBM's home heating system uses a "microfluidic" heat sink made from a network of water-carrying microchannels drilled into silicon on top of the chip. Water is pumped into the silicon, where it absorbs the heat and is pumped to a heat exchanger where the heat can be used for residential heating. For the most efficient heat transfer, a thin layer of water has to flow as close to the chip's electronics as possible, get as hot as possible, and remove the heat quickly. Michel says the current prototype, if integrated into the processor and memory chips used in servers, would be able to recover as much as three-quarters of the energy computers use, enabling a medium-sized data center that consumes 1 megawatt of electricity to heat about 70 homes.
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Coming Soon: Nothing Between You and Your Machine
New York Times (03/09/08) P. BU4; Markoff, John

The concept of direct human/computer interaction is being furthered by the convergence of more powerful and affordable computer hardware and a younger generation of software designers who "come from a world of fluid media, and ... multitask at an extraordinary level," says former Yahoo executive Joy Mountford. For example, the Cooliris startup's PicLens software plug-in for Web browsers allows online images, video, and other digital media to be explored directly without navigating Web pages through the elimination of the browser frame and the establishment of a 3D space resembling an infinite corridor of images. "People should think of a computer interface less as a tool and more as a extension of themselves or as extension of their mind," says Cooliris CTO Austin Shoemaker. Meanwhile, multitouch displays have been realized by researchers at the consulting firm Applied Minds and New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, who created a "touch table" world map that allows images to be manipulated by direct tactile contact. Not only is new hardware fueling the switch to more immersive displays, but so is a surge in more powerful programming tools that offer sophisticated visual effects. In addition, a new generation of consumer-oriented wireless handsets is being equipped to employ voice commands as an interface tool. "The old paradigm is breaking down," says Palm software director Paul Mercer. "It used to be that you needed to be a visionary and technologist like Michelangelo, but we're turning that corner."
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Purdue Leads Center to Simulate Behavior of Micro-Electromechanical Systems
Purdue University News (03/07/08) Venere, Emil; Fiorini, Phillip

Purdue University has launched the Center for Prediction of Reliability, Integrity and Survivability of Microsystems (PRISM) as part of a new collaborative effort with the University of New Mexico and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign to research the behavior and reliability of miniature switches. About 35 researchers, including faculty members, software professionals, and students will be involved in PRISM, which is backed by a five-year, $17 million agreement from the National Nuclear Security Administration. Mechanical engineering professor Jayathi Y. Murthy will serve as the director of the new center, which will advance the emerging field of "predictive science," or using computational simulations to predict the behavior of complex systems. PRISM is one five new centers that will develop advanced science and engineering models and software for simulations that predict the reliability and durability of microelectromechanical systems. PRISM researchers will develop miniature switches, or MEMS devices, to replace conventional switches and other electronic components. MEMS, which combine electronic and mechanical components on a microscopic scale, are far lighter and smaller than conventional technology. MEMS can also be manufactured in large quantities at low costs. The simulations will make it possible to accurately predict how MEMS devices will stand up to the rigors of varying and extreme environments, and what their lifespan will be in the field.
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IBM, Hitachi to Research Near-Atomic-Scale Chip Characteristics
EDN (03/10/08) Mutschler, Ann Steffora

IBM and Hitachi have launched a two-year agreement to pursue semiconductor metrology research. They believe their initiative will spur further investigation into next-generation semiconductor technology, which will be needed as the industry continues to strive for ways to improve the performance of computer chips. "Hitachi's cutting-edge semiconductor characterization capabilities and IBM's state-of-the-art CMOS research capabilities can help the two companies accelerate the pace of semiconductor innovation for the 32-nanometer generation and beyond," says Bernie Meyerson, CTO for IBM's systems and technology group. "By combining individual research strength and intellectual property we reduce the significant costs associated with research needed to advance the next generation of chip technology." The joint research will take place at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering's Albany NanoTech Complex.
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The Digital Home: An All-In-One Device
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (02/26/08) Rose, Matthias

Fraunhofer researchers are working on wirelessly connecting electronic devices for broadcasting and entertainment on home networks. Their project, Wireless Media and Control at Home (WiMAC(at)home), is designed to simplify home electronics by connecting HDTVs, DVD recorders, MP3 players, surround sound systems, and computers together on one network. The system centers on a specially-designed TV that can store music, videos, and photos. Broadcast television can also be distributed in a protected environment in compliance with copyright regulations. The TV can be connected to automated home systems such as heating appliances, alarm systems, and air conditioning, enabling users to control their environment through the TV. All WiMAC devices configure themselves automatically, and new components can be incorporated through Universal Plug and Play technology. The system is based on specification from the Digital Living Network Alliance, a global collaboration between computer and consumer electronics manufacturers who have established standards for home networking. WiMAC(at)home also automatically plays the music or video in whatever room the user is in, switching rooms as the user moves about the house. The user is tracked through a WLAN-enabled device such as a smart phone.
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Out of the Blue
Seed (03/03/08) Lehrer, Jonah

The Blue Brain project at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne is an initiative to precisely replicate an actual brain's neuronal activity with a supercomputer composed of thousands of microchips and capable of 22.8 trillion operations per second. Blue Brain is overseen by EPFL neuroscientist Henry Markram, who is hopeful that the conceptual models the project yields will give birth to an entirely new category of neuroscience that integrates all the data the field has accumulated over the decades. The project's feasibility phase, in which the supercomputer accurately simulated a neocortical column, is concluding, and the next phase will involve scaling it up so that an entire brain can be modeled. "Once we can model a brain, we should be able to model what every brain makes," Markram theorizes. "We should be able to experience the experiences of another mind." A key challenge of the project was the simulation of ion channels, and the Blue Brain team genetically engineers Chinese hamster ovary cells to express a particular type of channel, and then subjects the cells to various physiological conditions. A robot is utilized to record neuronal activity and generate hundreds of data points daily, which are programmed into the supercomputer to aid simulation. The virtual neocortical column modeled by Blue Brain was stimulated by simulated electrical impulses, which triggered interactions that accurately mirrored actual neural activity. The researchers then refined the software to boost its level of realism. Markram speculates that precisely simulating a human brain would require an astronomical volume of processing capacity that would consume a vast quantity of power, but he is confident that a single machine will be able to model a complete human brain in 10 years or less if computing speeds and energy efficiency continue to improve at their current rate.
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