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ACM TechNews
April 11, 2008

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Welcome to the April 11, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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'Battle of the Brains' Crowns Top Computing College
Chronicle of Higher Education (04/10/08) Fischman, Josh

St. Petersburg State University of Information Technologies, Mechanics, and Optics has won the "Battle of the Brains," ACM's International Collegiate Programming Contest. The Russian team was able to write software to solve eight of 11 computer programming problems within the allotted five hours. Among the challenges faced by the teams of three students were writing code to determine the length of a city skyline, mapping the size and capacity of a new building design, and cracking an encrypted file to obtain top secret information. A team from MIT solved seven problems to finish in second place. Rounding out the top 10 schools were Izhevsk State Technical University, Lviv National University, Moscow State University, Tsinghua University, Stanford University, University of Zagreb, University of Waterloo, and Petrozavodsk State University. For more information about ICPC 2008 visit http://icpc.baylor.edu/icpc/v2/
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Many Visas Are Sought for Skilled
New York Times (04/11/08) P. A18; Preston, Julia

Federal immigration authorities received about 163,000 petitions for temporary work visas for highly skilled foreign workers, nearly twice as many as the number of visas available. Citizenship and Immigration Services closed the application period after it had been open for the five-day minimum. Petitions for the 2009 fiscal year increased by about 23 percent over 2008, but immigration officials say they had expected an even high number. A new rule penalizing companies who file multiple petitions for the same worker helped control petition numbers, says USCIS' Chris Rhatigan. The agency will now hold a lottery to choose the 85,000 foreign workers who will receive H-1B visas this year. The limited number of visas brought calls from the technology industry to raise the visa cap. A Senate bill would raise the H-1B cap to 145,000 visas each year through 2011, and would allow business to use, over a three-year period, about 150,000 visas that were available in past years but never issued. The bill also aims to address the expanding use of H-1B visas by major Indian companies that bring workers to the United States for short periods as part of outsourcing contracts. The bill would prohibit this practice by requiring companies to employ H-1B workers in offices in the United States. Critics of potential H-1B visa increases say H-1B immigrants have lowered wages for American technology workers.
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U.S. Presidential Election Can Be Hacked
IDG News Service (04/10/08) McMillan, Robert

A recent audit of the three most widely used electronic voting systems has found that the machines can be hacked, says University of California, Berkeley professor David Wagner. The audit, which was conducted as part of California's review of electronic voting, found that hackers could install a computer virus on three systems from Diebold Electronic Systems, Hart InterCivic, and Sequoia Voting Systems. The virus could then spread to machines throughout the county and alter the vote count. "The three systems we looked at are three of the most widely used around the nation," Wagner said during an e-voting panel discussion at the RSA Conference on Thursday. "They're going to be using them in the 2008 elections; they're still going to have the same vulnerabilities we found. He says the problems uncovered in the audit affect not only California counties, but counties across the country. Yet despite the pervasiveness of the problem, academics such as Wagner will find it difficult to approach voting system vendors because of the deep mistrust that exists between the communities, says Florida State University professor Alec Yasinsac. He says vendors feel that if they talk to security researchers, it could be tantamount to admitting that they have bugs.
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Microsoft Introduces Tool for Avoiding Traffic Jams
New York Times (04/10/08) P. C3; Markoff, John

Microsoft artificial intelligence researchers have developed Clearflow, a Web-based service for driving directions that uses complex software models to help drivers avoid traffic jams. The five-year project is an attempt to apply machine-learning techniques to traffic congestion, and is intended to reflect the complex traffic patterns that occur as traffic builds on highways and overflows onto city streets. Clearflow will be a free service on Microsoft's Live search service. Analyst Greg Sterling says there is growing consumer demand for online traffic information, particularly among mobile device users. However, he says "this is a sophisticated layer of technology that will not be easily understood by the average person." Microsoft AI researcher Eric Horvitz developed the idea in 2003 after his car's navigation device failed to help him avoid a traffic jam in Seattle. Horvitz determined that the solution required mapping all the side streets in order to understand the entire city. Microsoft research approached the problem by building software algorithms that modeled traffic behavior by collecting trip data from volunteers carrying GPS units. The researchers were able to create a model for predicting traffic based on four years of data and 16,500 trips covering 125,000 miles. The models developed in Seattle were then transferred to other cities and combined with live data generated by networks of highway sensors. "I consider this to be the moon mission of our machine-learning research," Horvitz says.
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UCI Study Sheds New Light on Habits, Roles of Blog Readers
University of California, Irvine (04/09/08) Mednick, Jason

A new University of California, Irvine study examined the blog-reading habits of 15 participants of various ages to determine how they consume content and interact with blogs and blog writers. Some readers frequently posted comments, while others "lurked," or visited and read blogs without commenting. The study also found that readers have diverse opinions of what makes a blog. Study participants used a wide variety of characteristics to define what constitutes a blog, including technical aspects such as RSS feeds and trackback links, and social aspects such as the presence of conversation or personal content. The study also found that blog reading can become ingrained in a user's online routine, similar to email checking, making blog reading habitual and less content oriented. Blog readers often feel a responsibility to make insightful contributions, and while past research suggests that readers expect bloggers to deliver frequent, high-quality posts, the study found readers also place pressure on themselves to produce worthwhile comments. The UC Irvine researchers hope their work will encourage more research into the roles of blog readers and how blog features such as commenting and linking create new ways of interacting with authors and text. The researchers presented their study at ACM's CHI 2008 conference in Florence, Italy.
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IBM Races to Make Hi-Tech Memory
BBC News (04/10/08)

IBM researchers are working on racetrack memory, a technology that uses tiny magnetic boundaries to store data. Racetrack memory could increase the capacity of electronic devices to 100 times current levels, though the IBM researchers say the technology is still seven to eight years away from commercial use. IBM fellow Stuart Parkin says racetrack memory is inexpensive, durable, and fast, and could replace both flash and hard drives in computers and other gadgets. Racetrack memory stores data in boundaries, known as domain walls, between magnetic regions in nanowires. The memory technology is called racetrack because data races around the wire or track as it is being written or read. The domain walls are read by exploiting the weak magnetic fields generated by the spin of electrons. Racetrack memory also generates far less heat than existing devices because very little power is needed to exploit the magnetic fields. "We have demonstrated the physics and materials underlying racetrack memory," Parkin says. "It's now possible to build a racetrack memory though we've not built one yet."
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Where Did All the Girl Geeks Go?
eWeek (04/10/08) Perelman, Deb

The proportion of computer science bachelor's degrees awarded to women has fallen from 36 percent to 21 percent between 1983 and 2006, and fewer women are working in IT this year than in 2000, says the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Many experts say computer science suffers from a bad public image. For example, many students, and many parents, feel that technology-related jobs are uninteresting and require employees to sit in front of computers all day. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that computer and mathematical science jobs will grow at a faster pace than any other occupation through 2016, many people still believe that technology is not a secure field. "In 2001, the dot-com bubble burst and everyone decided there were no jobs in this field," says Adelphi University professor Stephen Bloch. "Maybe the female students have been more sensitive to this." Webgrrls International CTO Nelly Yusupova says even if pure programming jobs are outsourced, there will still be opportunities within companies for people to bridge the relationship between the outsourced IT vendors and the business. "These roles would probably be ideal for women who prefer to be in communication-focused roles, if they know computer science and can communicate to all parties involved," Yusupova says. NCWIT CEO Lucy Sanders says the best way to get more girls interested in IT may be to show them that they can make a difference. "If we don't have women at the design table, then the technology is not all that it could be," she says. "Are we inventing all that we could be inventing? I don't think so."
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IST Researchers Classify Web Searches
Penn State Live (04/02/08) Spinelle, Jenna; DuBois, Charles

Researchers have shown that most Internet search engine queries can be classified into one of three categories using relatively simple methods. Penn State University professor Jim Jansen, undergraduate student Danielle Booth, and Queensland University of Technology professor Amanda Spink discovered that Web search engine users are primarily doing either informational, navigational, or transactional searching. The researchers examined more than 1.5 million searches from hundreds of thousands of users. They found that about 80 percent of queries are informational searches, and navigational and transactional searches account for 10 percent each. Jansen and his colleagues reached this conclusion by selecting random samples of records and analyzing query length, the order of the query in the search session, and the search results. The team then developed an algorithm that can classify searches with a 74 percent accuracy rate. "Our findings have broad implications for search engines and e-commerce if they can classify the user intent of queries in real time," Jansen says. He plans to continue the research with a more complex algorithm that will yield a 90 percent accuracy rate.
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Supercomputer Beats Go Master
HPC Wire (04/09/08)

The MoGo artificial intelligence engine defeated professional 5th DAN Catalin Taranu in a 9x9 game of Go during the Go Tournament in Paris in late March. The victory, the first officially sanctioned "non blitz" victory for a machine over a Go Master, is considered a significant achievement because the game is patterned more after human thought than chess and its possible combinations exceed the number of particles in the universe. Taranu says the system was close to reaching the level of DAN in performance. The computer did lose to Taranu in a 19x19 configuration with a nine-stone handicap. The French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA) developed the artificial intelligence engine. "The software used in this victory--the result of a collaboration between INRIA, the CNRS(1), LRI(2) and CMAP(3)--is based on innovative technologies that can be used in numerous different areas, particularly in the conservation of resources which is such a vital issue when it comes to tackling environmental problems," says INRIA researcher Olivier Teytaud, who led the MoGo team.
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U.S. Cyber Readiness Lagging, Panel Says
Network World (04/09/08) Weinberg, Neal

Cybercriminals are becoming more sophisticated, more organized, and more dangerous while federal funding for cybersecurity is lagging, legislation intended to toughen laws against cybercrime has stalled, and cooperation between private and public sectors needs improvement, said cybersecurity experts during a panel at this week's RSA Conference. Business Software Alliance CEO Robert Holleyman said an estimated 250,000 computers are compromised everyday by bot-herders, the number of exploits is seven times higher than it was a year ago, and the cyber threat is "growing exponentially." U.S. Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), chairman of the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Cybersecurity, said cybersecurity has largely been ignored by government until recently. However, he said meaningful legislation will probably not happen this year. Langevin said that two major priorities for federal government are securing its own networks and securing the nation's critical infrastructure. The Homeland Security Department's Greg Garcia said the big challenge facing Homeland Security is strengthening federal networks. Garcia also said the department is working to build a worldwide network of protectors.
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Software Kills Squealing Gig Feedback
New Scientist (04/05/08) Margottini, Laura

Researchers at the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary, University of London, have developed a system that enables bands without sound engineers to give feedback-free performances. Feedback occurs when a specific frequency reaches a critical volume and is re-captured by microphones enough times that the audio system becomes saturated and a squealing sound occurs. A sound check before a performance can reveal which frequencies will lead to feedback, and during performances a sound engineer can adjust volumes to prevent feedback, but the tedious task distracts the engineer from concentrating on the quality of the mix. Automatic software filters can help, but they tend to remove some non-feedback sounds and allow feedback to slip through. The researchers developed software that prevents feedback from occurring, instead of trying to remove it or cancel it out. A sound check is still required to determine which frequencies cause feedback, but during the performance the software automatically lowers frequency volume before it reaches critical volume while maintaining a good sound balance.
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Google, UN Team Up for Refugee Mapping Project
Computerworld (04/09/08) Haverstein, Heather

The Google Earth Outreach program combines Google Earth, Google Maps, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in an effort to highlight refugee work done by various humanitarian agencies. Participating groups can upload text, audio, and video information to Google Earth to highlight challenges faced by workers on the ground and how they intend to solve them. The new Google Earth program is divided into three layers. The first layer highlights three major areas where displaced persons are housed. The second layer explores issues such as refugee health, education, water, and sanitation through pop-up windows that explain the specific needs of each location. The third level explains issues at the local level, such as problems with schools and other infrastructure needs. UNHCR says the project will eventually allow the agency to build a geographic record of ground efforts to aid refugees that could be used for future logistical planning. Last year, Google partnered with the U.S. Holocaust Museum to launch the Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative, an online site to help educate Web users about genocide. The site includes photographs, data, and eyewitness testimony from numerous sources about the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region.
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McCormick Researchers Take Step Toward Creating Quantum Computers
Northwestern University (04/04/08)

Northwestern University researchers have demonstrated one of the basic building blocks for distributed quantum computing using entangled photons generated in optical fibers. "Because it is done with fiber and the technology that is already globally deployed, we think that it is a significant step in harnessing the power of quantum computers," says Northwestern professor Prem Kumar. The superposition of a quantum bit, or qubit, would allow a quantum computer to process significantly more information than a traditional computer. Kumar's group, which uses photons as qubits, found that they can entangle two indistinguishable photons in an optical fiber by using the fiber's inherent nonlinear response. The researchers also found that no matter how far the two photons are separated in standard transmission fibers, they remain entangled and "mysteriously" connected to each other's quantum state. Kumar and his team used the fiber-generated indistinguishable photons to implement the most basic quantum computer task, a controlled-NOT gate, which allows two photonic qubits to interact. DARPA has funded the group's next research effort, which will study how to implement a quantum network for physically demonstrating efficient public goods strategies, such as government contract auctions that would be able to find the most inexpensive contract arrangements by pairing contractors that have previous experience working together.
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My Life in a Video Game (Batteries Not Included)
New York Times (04/09/08) P. T6; Wayner, Peter

Computer designers are working to develop and incorporate new technology into people's daily lives that will be nearly invisible to them but offer significant enhancements. For example, doctoral student Rafael Balagas developed a "magic wand" using cell phone technology that can give people a guided tour of Regensburg, Germany, a project that landed him a job at Nokia's research lab in Palo Alto, Calif. Intel's Digital Health Group director of research and innovation Eric Dishman says his group is focusing on preventing falls, social health, and cognitive assistance. "People with Alzheimer's stop answering the front door or answering the phone," Dishman says. "It's really embarrassing not to know the difference between a stranger or a spouse at the front door." Intel developed a phone with advanced caller ID that provides users with a picture of the person calling along with a sentence about the last thing the caller talked about with them. Dishman's group is also using embedded sensors to track the movement of patients to prevent falls by incorporating sensors into their clothing and carpets. A hidden computer tracks a person's progress and warn the person to slow down if any aberrations in stride are detected, or calls for help if necessary. Meanwhile, Botanicalls, developed at New York University, monitors soil moisture levels and sends a message when the soil is too dry. NYU researcher Tom Igoe says his students are becoming more critical about when embedded computing is worthwhile, and adds that the goal of embedded computing is not communication but the quality of life communication affords.
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Robots Seen Doing Work of 3.5 Million in Japan
Reuters (04/08/08) Kubota, Yoko

Robots could fill 3.5 million jobs in Japan by 2025, concludes a new Machine Industry Memorial Foundation report. The report says robots have the potential to save $21 billion on health care costs for the elderly by 2025. Robots could help caregivers with children or older people by reading books out loud or helping bathe the elderly, and they also could do some housework. People would be able to focus on more important things, including caregivers, who could gain more than an extra hour a day as a result of such assistance. The robots could range from micro-sized capsules that detect lesions to high-tech vacuum cleaners, but it could take more time before they have a big impact in Japan. "There's the expensive price tag, the functions of the robots still need to improve, and then there are the mindsets of people," says Takao Kobayashi, who worked on the study. "People need to have the will to use the robots."
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New Technology is a Sign of the Times
Daily Free Press (Boston University) (04/07/08) Landry, Cassandra

Boston University's ASL Linguistic Research project is researching ways to make it easier to learn and analyze American Sign Language (ASL) data. The project, backed by a $900,000 National Science Foundation grant, will spend the next three years collecting and analyzing raw data of people signing in front of video cameras that capture signs and entire sentences in ASL from multiple angles. ASL Linguistic Research project director Carol Neidle says the researchers are exploring the possibility of creating an online tool that would enable people to see a thorough analysis of sign motions. Neidle's group is researching ASL structure using SignStream, a program that allows users to see multiple angles of signing onscreen. Neidle says SignStream has been very useful for computer-based work on sign language recognition, and has provided a way for researchers to test and refine computer vision and algorithms. Stanley Sclaroff, co-director of BU's Image and Computing Group says the online dictionary is a long-term goal, but notes that there are several computer science challenges that need to be solved first.
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National Institute of Standards and Technology Shows On-Card Fingerprint Match Is Secure, Speedy
NIST Tech Beat (04/01/08) Brown, Evelyn

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology say a new fingerprint identification technology for use in personal identification verification (PIV) cards is both fast and secure. As part of the authentication process for the technology, the cardholder enters a personal identification number to authorize the reading of fingerprint data from the card, and a card reader matches the stored data against the newly scanned image of the cardholder's fingerprints. In one model, biometric data on the card would travel across a secure wireless interface, which would eliminate the need to insert the card into a reader. In a second model, biometric data from the fingerprint scanner would be sent to the PIV smart card for matching by a processor chip embedded in the card, and the stored data would never leave the card. "If your card is lost and then found in the street, your fingerprint template cannot be copied," says computer scientist Patrick Grother. Ten cards with a standard 128-byte-long key and seven cards that use a more secure 256-byte key passed the security and timing test using wireless, but only one of three teams met NIST's criteria for accuracy. A new round of tests on the technology, which offers an improvement in protection against identity theft, will begin shortly.
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The Rise of the Emotional Robot
New Scientist (04/05/08)No. 2650, P. 24; Marks, Paul

People are making an emotional connection to robots such as the Roomba automated vacuum cleaner, going so far as to dress up and/or name the machines and consider them to be unofficial family members, according to the results of a survey that Georgia Research Institute of Technology researchers disclosed at the Human-Robot Interaction conference in Amsterdam. Soldiers in Iraq also displayed affection for bomb- and landmine-disposal robots, and even expressed sadness when such devices were destroyed by explosions. Figuring out the extremes to which humans are willing to go in terms of accepting robots as partners and not just devices will help designers determine robot-suitable functions and tasks, and Georgia Tech researcher Ja-Young Sung says that "engineers will need to identify the positive robot design factors that yield good emotions and not bad ones--and try to design robots that promote them." Stanford University psychologist Herbert Clark says the sooner roboticists acknowledge that robots will never achieve human-like levels of interaction, the sooner a realistic perception of people's expectations of robots will emerge. Brains of people interacting with robots are being scanned by researchers at Germany's Bielefeld University to figure out what types of machines are more likely to elicit emotional responses from humans. The experiments involve putting the subjects in a competitive game with a series of opponents that include a computer program, a pair of robot arms, a robot with humanoid features, and an actual person. The team has learned that neurons related to having a theory of mind exhibit more activity when the subjects are playing more human-like opponents. Other studies indicate that people refuse to attribute intentions to robots regardless of their level of sophistication, and that a person's gender and nationality play a role in the degree to which the person socializes with and trusts robots.
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