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April 9, 2008

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Welcome to the April 9, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Study Gives High Marks to U.S. Internet
New York Times (04/09/08) P. C9; Markoff, John

The Internet infrastructure in the United States is one of the world's best, and is improving, concludes the latest Global Information Technology Report, contradicting previous studies. The report, done by European researchers at Insead and commissioned by the World Economic Forum, found that the United States ranks fourth in the world, behind only Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland. Last year the United States came in seventh. The study uses an index generated from 68 variables, including market factors, political and regulatory environment, and technology infrastructure, instead of just bandwidth capacity and data transmission speeds. Some experts are skeptical of the report's findings, arguing that the U.S. does not have the same type of deployment as other countries. "If you are looking at broadband, we have a lot of problems," says Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor David J. Farber. "We are slow as molasses in deploying the next generation." Other studies have shown that the U.S. is lagging and declining in the broadband boom. Last year, a variety of statistics on global bandwidth use showed that the U.S. was falling behind other industrial nations in broadband network consumption and penetration as a percentage of population. However, those statistics fail to capture the true impact of the Internet when viewed in a cultural, economic, and political context, says Insead professor Soumitra Dutta, director of the study. "What the U.S. has is a number of strengths along a number of dimensions," Dutta says. "It is not just a question of technology. Political and economic factors become extremely important."
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US Moots System for Data Sharing on Cyber Threats
Financial Times (04/09/08) P. 2; Allison, Kevin

Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday outlined plans for a "Manhattan project" for cybersecurity that would increase the sharing of information on potential threats between government and industry. U.S. authorities already share some threat information with a few companies, but there is no centralized system for sharing information about online security threats. Chertoff says closer coordination between government and industry is essential because a successful large-scale attack online would have a widescale impact on the country and the world. "The federal government does not own the Internet ... and it does not own the nation's cyber networks," Chertoff says. "We can't be serious about national security or national cybersecurity without engaging private industry." Chertoff says the government is working to develop capabilities to detect cyber attacks before they damage computer systems and that information will be shared with IT groups, financial services companies, and utilities to help them protect their networks, he says. Chertoff says the cybersecurity project is not a stepping stone to government control over the Internet. "We have no interest or intention of duplicating a system where the government tries to sit over the Internet and prevent things coming in they don't like," he says.
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U of M Study Finds You Get What You Pay for With Online Q&A Sites
University of Minnesota News (04/08/08)

University of Minnesota researchers presented "Predictors of Answer Quality in Online Q&A Sites," a paper on the answer quality provided by online question-and-answer Web sites at ACM's 2008 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2008) in Florence, Italy. How much people pay and how many online community members contribute to answers ultimately determine the quality of answers. The study found that the now-closed Google Answers site provided the best answers when it was paid $10 or more. The Google Answers site provided long and detailed answers as well as links to source material. Although Yahoo Answers is a free service, its responses were comparable to answers provided by Google Answers when the fee was low ($3) and were better than those offered by reference librarians and an "ask-an-expert" site. "Solutions that simply direct questions to a single individual don't achieve results as well as those that open the question and answers to a larger community," says professor Joseph Konstan.
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Vote Device May Get Push
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (04/07/08) Johnson, Annysa

Wisconsin is considering forgoing federal certification of a new vote-counting device and may test the device itself in an effort to simplify and quicken the tallying of votes in November, says Kevin Kennedy, director of the state's Government Accountability Board. The device, the Hybrid Accumulator Activator Transmitter (HAAT), consolidates totals from electronic touch-screen voting machines and optical scanners, creating a single tally, which local election officials say could significantly speed voter returns on election night. Kennedy's comments are in response to concerns from local officials that advances in technology and regulations intended to ensure the integrity of elections are actually slowing tallies at a time when voters expect near instantaneous results. Doug Chapin, who directs the Pew Center for the States' electionline.org, says that such conflicts are a constant undercurrent across the country, and the slower results are because districts are both learning new equipment and making sure the results are correct. "With each new technology or rule, we see the value in terms of the integrity of the election," says Milwaukee Election Commission deputy director Neil Albrecht. "But it almost always requires additional resources and time." Kennedy says that because Wisconsin's requirement for federal testing is a rule, and not a law, it may be easier to amend than in other states. Chapin says Wisconsin's decision will be watch closely across the country as many states tire of the slow pace of federal testing.
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In Storing 1's and 0's, the Question Is $
New York Times (04/09/08) P. H1; Schwartz, John

The deterioration and loss of digital data is an enormous problem as data formats and storage systems become outdated in a relatively short amount of time, but data preservation faces a number of formidable challenges, not the least of which is financing. "You can have the most elegant technological solution to the digital-preservation problem, but if there's no economics underpinning it, then there's no solution at all," says Online Computer Library Center research scientist Brian Lavoie. He says the missing ingredient is the articulation of a "full menu of models" to encourage the development of a digital preservation market similar to the way the computer-security market evolved. "One of the things that's changing, finally, is people in places like the National Science Foundation are paying enough attention to this problem and understand its scale to start making investments that can make a difference," says Margaret Hedstrom of the University of Michigan's School of Information. The development of "open, extensible, and evolvable" techniques and technologies to preserve science and engineering data is the goal of DataNet, a five-year, $100 million program the NSF has initiated. Another NSF-supported project is focused on economic and sustainable ways to employ digital preservation in diverse scenarios. Hedstrom says maintaining the accessibility of data is only part of the job, when what is also called for is the preservation of the right information. She adds that the falling cost of data storage is encouraging the mistaken assumption that all data can be preserved. "But that's based on a naive view of what 'everything' actually is," Hedstrom says.
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Old Tech Skills Again in Demand
Chicago Tribune (04/05/08) Wong, Wailin

Computer scientists say mainframes are unfairly regarded as historical curiosities when in reality they are vital to corporations, and demand for new mainframe professionals is creating an opportunity for students who are entering an uncertain economy with a rising unemployment rate. Illinois IT Association President Fred Hoch says skills that were once considered old are becoming new again. Companies such as IBM are seeing a shortage of mainframe-skilled graduates and have reached out to the academic community. About two years ago, a group of companies including IBM and State Farm asked Illinois State University to start teaching mainframe computing. IBM lent ISU a system for the mainframe program and provided the university with course materials and faculty training. Professor Chu Jong says he regularly receives phone calls and emails from companies asking if students are available for internships. ISU professors say graduates have gotten six or seven job offers each. Michael Carton, a member of ISU's inaugural class of mainframe-trained students, says running a mainframe offers more challenging and varied work than other IT jobs. Mainframe professionals say they help form corporate strategy because they find ways of making companies' operations more efficient.
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Hubble Maps the Changing Constellation of Internet 'Black Holes'
UW News (04/08/08) Hickey, Hannah

The University of Washington's Hubble system monitors Web traffic for lost messages such as emails or Web site requests, dubbed Internet "black holes," and maps them on a Web site, providing a constantly changing representation of the Internet's weak points. The Hubble map allows Web users to view a global map with trouble spots highlighted, or to check on an individual network or Web page. The project will be presented at the Usenix Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation in San Francisco. "There's an assumption that if you have a working Internet connection then you have access to the entire Internet," says UW doctoral student Ethan Katz-Basset. "We found that's not the case." UW researchers sent test messages around the world to find computers that were reachable from some but not all of the Internet, a situation known as partial reachability. The Hubble map is updated every 15 minutes, marking problem locations with a flag and listing the numerical address for the group of computers affected. A test last fall found that more than 7 percent of computers worldwide experienced partial reachability at least once during a three-week period. Each marked address usually represents a few hundred to a few thousand individual computers. The Hubble project uses PlanetLab, a shared worldwide network of academic, industrial, and government computers. The researchers use about 100 PlanetLab computers in about 40 countries to send virtual probes to computers around the world, reaching about 90 percent of the Internet.
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Researcher: Computer Science Job Market Improving
Daily Reveille (Louisiana State University) (04/07/08) Barbazon, Angelle

Although computer science enrollment fell during the early 2000s, some scholars say interest in the major will jump again soon. Stu Zweben, an associate dean at Ohio State University and chairman of the Computing Research Association's surveys committee, says the crash of several large startup companies in the early 2000s and rumors of instability and downsizing alarmed many high school graduates entering colleges nationwide. "What happens in situations like this is there's an initial shock in the market place and it has to sort itself out," he says. Zweben says the job market has already turned around, but most people interested in computer science have not noticed yet because the word had not gotten out to the students and parents of the next generation. At Louisiana State University, Computer Science Department Chairman S.S. Iyengar says LSU experienced a dip in enrollment four or five years ago, but enrollment is now increasing. Iyengar says the opportunities for computer science majors are growing every day, and notes that computer science can be applied to a wide variety of industries, including entertainment, coastal science, and cyber security.
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Microsoft Creates 'Instant Backing Band' for Singers
New Scientist (04/07/08) Marks, Paul

Microsoft Research has developed MySong, software that takes a sung vocal and generates a file containing the sequence of sung notes, a process known as "pitch tracking," and uses that sequence to create backup music using a technique called "chord probability computation." The software was developed by Microsoft Research's Dan Morris and Sumit Basu and the University of Washington's Ian Simon. "The idea is to let a creative but musically untrained individual get a taste of song writing and music creation," Morris says. "There was nothing out there that could take a sung vocal melody as an input and then generate appropriate chords to accompany it." MySong compares the sung melody to the 12 standard musical notes and then feeds an approximate sequence of notes to the system's chord probability computation algorithm, which uses an analysis of 300 songs to recognize fragments of melody and chords that complement each other. To choose the best accompaniment, the user slides an on-screen bar to set the musical tone, choosing between options such as "happy factor" and "jazz factor." MIT researcher and composer Tod Machover says he is impressed with the system and notes that voice remains under-exploited in interactive systems. Machover says the software will need to be very forgiving for those who are not perfectly in-tune or accurate singers to be useful to untrained singers. Morris says the software is simple enough to run on a cell phone.
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Engelbart's Usability Dilemma: Efficiency vs Ease-of-Use
SYS-CON (04/08/08) Monson-Haefel, Richard

In "Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework," Doug Engelbart, head of the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute, presented a philosophy that favored efficiency over ease-of-use in human-computer interaction, notes Richard Monson-Haefel. In essence, Engelbart felt that basing computer interactions on the most efficient systems was the best way to achieve an optimal human-computer symbiosis. Monson-Haefel thinks the best embodiment of Engelbart's views is his five-finger keyboard, which is designed for use with one hand and carries out very rapid data entry and computer interactions when combined with a computer mouse, which Engelbart also conceived of. The keyboard-mouse combination was very tough to learn, which points to the crux of Engelbart's dilemma: More efficient and potentially more powerful human-computer interfaces have a very steep learning curve. Monson-Haefel says the modern approach to human-computer interaction stresses ease-of-use and usability without training, which runs counter to Engelbart's philosophy, which led to some of the most exceptional computer technologies in use today. The author does not think Engelbart's preference for efficiency is a completely unsound notion, and he reasons that "perhaps, like the violin, people could reach a new level of synergy with computers if they followed Engelbart's philosophy and focused on efficiency over ease-of-use."
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Inside Intel's New Chip
Technology Review (04/07/08) Greene, Kate

Intel's Atom is a new line of small, low-power chips designed to work well with Web sites and to run media. Atom has 45 million transistors in less than one-tenth the size of a penny and will enable designers to create small Internet devices in novel shapes and sizes. Intel says the Atom is four to six times faster than the ARM chips used in many cell phones, including the iPhone, which will allow for faster downloads and smoother video watching. Intel's Vijay Krishnan says the Intel chip is also compatible with many Web programming languages and applications. A device with an Atom chip would give a user access to all of the Internet without any errors, Krishnan says. Intel focused largely on power consumption when designing the new chips. Dual-core chips in laptops use up to 35 watts, while the Atom line, which offers roughly the same performance as a typical chip in a four-year-old laptop, uses three watts or less. Krishnan says this was accomplished by creating six separate power states for the chip. Depending on how the device is being used, the voltage the processor uses and clock speed can be varied, and certain components, such as the memory cache, can be turned off when not needed. Intel also streamlined the chip's instructions to use hyperthreading technology, which simulates multicore functions on a single-core chip.
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Emotional Machines
ICT Results (04/03/08)

The European Union-funded Humaine project has brought together specialists from a variety of disciplines in an effort to create the foundation needed to give machines "soft" skills. Project coordinator Roddy Cowie says such technology is often developed by skilled programmers and engineers who understand how to write and record computer programs, but have little understanding about how to define and capture human emotion. "When they developed databases, the recordings were nothing like the way emotion appears in everyday action and interaction, and the codes they used to describe the recording would not fit the things that happen in everyday life," Cowie says. The Humaine project established teams from disciplines as varied as philosophy, psychology, and computer animation. The psychologists studied and interpreted signals that people expressed, and collaborated with IT professionals on a database that would enable machines to interpret and react to emotions. The project may not reach fruition for another 20 or 30 years, though there are already concrete results and applications for some of the technologies the project developed. "We've developed systems for recognizing emotion using multiple modalities and this puts us very much at the leading edge of recognition technology," Cowie says. "And we've identified the different types of signal which need to be given by an agent--normally a screen representation of a person--if it is going to react in an emotionally convincing way."
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Coming Soon: Superfast Internet
Times Online (UK) (04/06/08) Leake, Jonathan

Scientists at Cern have developed the grid, technology they say is 10,000 times faster than a typical broadband connection. The grid could be used to transmit holographic images, allow instant online gaming with hundreds of players, or provide high-definition video telephony for the price of a local call. The grid will be able to download feature films within seconds or send the entire back catalog of the Rolling Stones from Britain to Japan in less than two seconds. Grid project member Glasgow University physics professor David Britton believes grid technologies could revolutionize society and enable future generations to collaborate and communicate in new ways. The grid technology will be tested when the Large Hadron Collider is turned on this summer. The grid will be needed to capture the massive amounts of data the collider generates. The grid was built with dedicated fiber-optic cables and modern routing centers. The grid's 55,000 servers is expected to increase to 200,000 within two years. Ian Bird, project leader for Cern's high-speed computing project, says grid technology could make the Internet so fast that people will stop using their desktop computers to store information and everything will be kept on the Internet. Although the grid itself is unlikely to be available to domestic Internet users, many telecom providers and businesses are already incorporating grid technology into their networks.
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The Not-So-Digital Future of Digital Signal Processing
Northwestern University (04/04/08) Ayshford, Emily

The use of organic and chemical materials to perform digital signal processing without electrical currents could be the next major technological revolution, say Northwestern professors Sotirios Tsaftaris and Aggelos Katsaggelos. Their research includes studying the use of DNA for digital signal processing, as DNA strands can be used to input and process elements, and DNA is an excellent medium for data storage. Digital samples can be recorded in DNA, which can be kept in a liquid form in test tubes to save space. DNA can also be easily replicated using common laboratory techniques, creating a database that could be easily searched, no matter how large. Over the past 10 years scientists and engineers have experimented with different materials for performing signal processing, possibly leading to a "not-so-electric future" of digital signal processing, according to Tsaftaris and Katsaggelos. For example, artist and scientist Cameron Jones discovered that fungi grown on CDs causes the optically recorded sound to be distorted by the fungi, and that the fungi growth patterns were dependent on the optical grooves recorded on the CD. Meanwhile, in 2005, a group of E. coli cells were modified to react to light and were able to perform edge detection of an image, a basic processing task.
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Hybrid Computer Materials May Lead to Faster, Cheaper Technology
University of Missouri (04/03/08)

A multi-university research team is working to combine magnetic components and semiconductor components in a single hybrid material that would allow for the integration of memory and logical functions. The material is expected to lead to devices that operate at much higher speeds and use considerably less power than current devices. University of Missouri professor Giovanni Vignale says the research's primary goal is to explore new ways of integrating magnetic materials with emerging electronic materials such as organic semiconductors. The research, backed by a $6.5 million grant from the Defense Department, may lead to more compact and energy-efficient devices, and the hybrid materials developed are expected to be much less expensive to process than traditional semiconductor chips. "In this approach, the coupling between magnetic and non-magnetic components would occur via a magnetic field or flow of electron spin, which is the fundamental property of an electron and is responsible for most magnetic phenomena," Vignale says. "The hybrid devices that we target would allow seamless integration of memory and logical function, high-speed optical communication and switching, and new sensor capabilities." Universities participating in the research effort include the University of Iowa, New York University, University of California Berkeley, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Missouri.
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MIT Nexi Robot Expresses Emotions
Technovelgy.com (04/06/08) Christensen, Bill

The MIT Nexi robot can express a wide range of emotions with its face. Designed by Xitome Design with MIT, Nexi has a neck mechanism that takes advantage of 4 degrees of freedom at the base, in addition to the pan-tilt-yaw capabilities of its head. Nexi can express different emotions with its gaze, eyebrows, eyelids, and an articulate mandible. The range of emotions expressed are comparable to those of the South Korean EveR2-Muse Robot, which has a more human face. The robot has a color CCD in each eye, an indoor Active 3D infrared camera in its head, and four microphones to support sound localization. Modeled after the uBot5 mobile manipulator developed by the Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics at UMASS Amherst, Nexi has a Segway-style chassis that can detect human touch, a mobile base that can balance dynamically on two wheels, and arms that can carry up to 10 pounds. The robot still needs to be taught how to respond emotionally.
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Senators Target Visa 'Loopholes'
BusinessWeek (04/01/08) Herbst, Moira

U.S. tech companies are urging Congress to raise the annual cap on visas, but two outspoken critics of the program are working to accomplish just the opposite. On April 1, the first day of the annual application period, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent letters to 25 Indian outsourcing firms, which were responsible for 20,000 H-1B visas in 2007, about one-third of the annual cap, asking them to explain how they use the H-1B visa program. "We'll hear arguments all day as to why the cap on H-1B visas should be raised, but nobody should be fooled," Grassley says. "There are highly skilled American workers being left behind, searching for jobs that are being filled by H-1B visa holders." Critics of the H-1B program say outsourcers abuse the program by replacing U.S. employees with cheaper foreign workers, who are cycled into new jobs in their home countries. Critics also argue that the L-1 visa, which allows for intra-company transfers, is also being abused. U.S. government data shows that over the past several years, the list of top 10 companies receiving both H-1B and L-1 visas has been dominated by Indian outsourcing firms, not by U.S. tech firms such as Microsoft and Google. For the past two years, Wipro and Infosys have been the top two recipients of the visas, and Indian outsourcers account for nearly 80 percent of the visa petitions approved last year among top 10 recipients. Offshore outsourcers deny they are abusing the program and argue they are actually helping U.S. companies in industries such as insurance and financial services stay competitive by reducing costs for work such as computer programming.
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The Limits of Quantum Computers
Scientific American (03/08) Vol. 298, No. 3, P. 62; Aaronson, Scott

Quantum computers would be able to process information in ways that standard computers cannot by tapping the unusual properties of quantum mechanics, but an analysis suggests that quantum computers would outclass conventional machines only by a slight degree for most computing problems, writes MIT professor Scott Aaronson. Evidence now indicates that quantum machines would be susceptible to many of the same algorithmic restrictions as classical computers, and these restrictions are totally independent of the practical problems of constructing quantum computers. A solid quantum computer algorithm would guarantee that computational paths leading to an incorrect answer neutralize while paths reading to a right answer reinforce, Aaronson says. The discovery of an efficient quantum algorithm to solve NP-complete problems remains elusive despite much effort, but one definite finding is that such an algorithm would have to efficiently take advantage of the problems' structure in a manner that is outside the capabilities of present-day methods. Aaronson points out that physicists have yet to come up with a final theory of physics, which gives rise to the possibility that a physical way to efficiently solve NP-complete problems may one day be revealed by a future theory. "People speculate about yet more powerful kinds of computers, some of which would make quantum computers look as pedestrian as vending machines," he notes. "All of them, however, would rely on speculative changes to the laws of physics." Aaronson projects that the difficulty of NP-complete problems will someday be perceived as a basic principle that describes part of the universe's fundamental nature.
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