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ACM TechNews
May 2, 2008

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Welcome to the May 2, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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WGBH and ACM to Launch Initiative to Reshape Image for Computing
AScribe Newswire (05/01/08)

ACM and the WGBH Educational Foundation will use a National Science Foundation grant to create messages about the field of computing that will attract more college-bound high school students from underrepresented groups. The two-year New Image for Computing project, which launches in June, is an effort to draw students from all segments of society to computing careers. "We will mobilize thousands of computer professionals to help deliver messages that illuminate the rich diversity of work in the computing field--not just in technology companies but in the many industries that rely on computing technology," says ACM executive director John R. White. "Our target is high school students, who in most cases have only a vague notion of what computer science majors actually do, even though many have grown up with computers." Latina girls and African-American boys will be a focus of the messages. The services of marketing professionals will be used to accurately portray the rewards and benefits of computing careers. ACM and WGBH plan to roll out the messages nationally via channels that are popular with teens.
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H.P. Reports Big Advance in Memory Chip Design
New York Times (05/01/08) P. C4; Markoff, John

Hewlett-Packard scientists have developed a memristor, an electrical resistor with memory properties that could be used to build very dense computer member chips that require far less power than DRAM memory chips. The memristor could also be used to create field programmable arrays. Meanwhile, memristors' ability to store and retrieve a variety of intermediate values, not just the binary 1s and 0s used in conventional chips, could enable them to function like biological synapses, which would make them ideal for artificial intelligence applications such as machine vision and understanding speech. Independent researchers say the memristor could quickly be applied to computer memory, but other applications could be more challenging. Hewlett-Packard's quantum science research group director R. Stanley Williams says the technology should be commercialized fairly quickly. The memristor was first predicted in 1971 by University of California, Berkeley electrical engineer Leon Chua, who says he had not worked on the idea for several decades and he was surprised when Hewlett-Packard contacted him a few months ago. The researchers have successfully created working circuits based on memristors that are as small as 15 nanometers, and Williams says it will eventually be possible to make memristors as small as about four nanometers. In comparison, the smallest components in today's semiconductors are 45 nanometers, and the industry does not see a way of shrinking silicon-based chips below about 20 nanometers.
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Stanford Kicks Off Parallel Programming Effort
EE Times (04/30/08) Merritt, Rick

Stanford University's new Pervasive Parallelism Lab will receive a total of $6 million from six companies to get the lab up and running. The lab will consist of about nine faculty members and as many as 30 graduate students. Advanced Micro Devices, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, NVIDIA, and Sun Microsystems are contributing to the effort, largely because of increasing concerns that software is unable to keep up with the evolution of multicore processors. "People are starting to build multicore hardware without really knowing how they can productively program it and that's becoming a huge problem," says Stanford computer science department chair Bill Dally. "The current use of threads and locks is error prone and hard to maintain, so if we don't find a new approach soon we will be saddled with some very bad legacy software." Dally says the last seven or eight years have been something of a Dark Age for parallelism research after DARPA pulled its funding for the field. Microsoft and Intel recently announced a plan to spend a total of $20 million over five years to fund parallel computing labs at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Berkeley and Stanford labs are expected to take similar approaches to solving the problem. Both labs will assign some researchers to develop next-generation applications using domain-specific languages, and both will develop new runtime environments to help automate the job of scheduling and synchronizing multiple processes running in parallel. Both labs will also research new hardware structures that could ease the parallel programming problem.
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SIGGRAPH New Technology: From Enhancing Facial Attractiveness to Virtual Maps
Business Wire (04/30/08)

The SIGGRAPH 2008 Technical Papers Program will feature 90 paper presentations, which will be included this year in the journal ACM Transactions on Graphics. Selected from an all-time high of 518 submissions, the papers come from computer graphics industry professionals from all over the world. There will be presentations on modeling, animation, rendering, and imaging, but a number of papers also focus on topics such as scientific visualization, information visualization, computer-aided design, human-computer interaction, computer vision, robotics, film special effects, and computer games. Highlights include a presentation on a technique for enhancing facial attractiveness in photographs by researchers in Israel, and a paper on an automated system for designing tourist maps by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. "These presentations give us a glimpse into a future with highly realistic computer games, stunning feature film special effects, intelligent cameras, and rich photo manipulation tools," says Greg Turk, SIGGRAPH 2008 Technical Papers Chair from the Georgia Institute of Technology. SIGGRAPH 2008 is scheduled for Aug. 11-15 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
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Experts Struggle With Cybersecurity Agenda
Government Computer News (04/28/08) Jackson, William

The Commission on Cyber Security for the 44th Presidency, established in November by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), recently held the second of five scheduled public meetings to field recommendations on issues surrounding information security, identity theft, and government leadership. CSIS established the commission to create recommendations for a comprehensive strategy to improve federal systems and critical infrastructure cybersecurity. The objective is to have a set of recommendations ready for the next president by November. Panelists at the meeting said leadership is needed from the government and industry to create a public/private partnership to create adequate security. Although they were not in complete agreement on cybersecurity priorities, they did agree that a single national data breach notification law is needed to replace the patchwork of more than 40 state laws. Other topics included creating a zero-tolerance policy for identity theft and requiring verification for online transactions with consumers, requiring the Social Security Administration to create a database linking Social Security numbers with dates of birth to prevent the misuse of Social Security numbers, and establishing an International Data Classification Standard to help identify and assess value and risk to data.
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Can CUDA Language Open Up Parallel Processing?
EE Times Europe (04/30/08) Holland, Colin

More universities ought to offer massively parallel computing programming courses while more graphic processor (GPUs) providers should consider facilitating use of NVIDIA's Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) programming language on their devices, said NVIDIA chief scientist David Kirk in a lecture at Imperial College, London. "Massively parallel computing is an enormous change and it will create drastic reductions in time-to-discovery in science because computational experimentation is a third paradigm of research--alongside theory and traditional experimentation," he said, adding that massively parallel computing also has the potential to effect a democratization of supercomputing. There must be an emphasis on massively parallel computing in education for every scientific practitioner and not just computer scientists and electrical engineers, Kirk stressed. NVIDIA created CUDA to operate on its own GPUs, and the language has gained a lot of momentum in applying those GPUs to applications in finance and other multivariant analyses. Some observers say CUDA is beginning to shape academic debates over parallel processing languages and hardware frameworks. Commercial applications associated with computational finance, oil and gas exploration, and other computational modeling efforts have employed CUDA, along with projects to enable swifter and more powerful hybrid rendering within graphics. Kirk said that CUDA parallelization offers superior linear scaling than people hand-coding for multicore architectures. "I expect that you will see products that will allow CUDA to run on multicores as well as enabling load balancing across the two types of processor because what you really want to do is use all the processors in your system," he said.
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Long Wait for Scarce Visas
Baltimore Sun (05/02/08) P. 1A; Brewington, Kelly

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service received 163,000 H-1B visa applications during the first five days of the application window this year, vastly outnumbering the 65,000 visas available. In fact, demand for H-1B visas has significantly outstripped supply for the past five years. Employers say too few American workers have the skills needed to fill high-tech jobs, forcing them to look for foreign talent. The massive number of H-1B visa applications means USCIS will use a lottery to select who receives the available visas. Immigrant advocates and high-tech companies say America must import talent to stay competitive globally. Critics argue that companies are using the visa program to displace American workers and keep wages low, and that technology companies' reliance on foreign workers has created a disincentive for American students to study math and engineering to pursue high-tech professions. Responding to the technology boom in the 1990s, the government increased the visa cap to 115,000 in 1999, and again to 195,00 in 2001, only to reduce it to 65,000 in 2004. "It's troubling because our economy now is much more dynamic, much more diverse, and much more highly skilled than during the tech boom of the 1990s," says Oracle's Robert Hoffman. "We are operating under a 1990s immigration system, and that's absurd."
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Digital Deception
Washington Post (05/01/08) P. D1; Whoriskey, Peter

Human-mimicking computers are becoming increasingly successful at solving CAPTCHA online tests intended to separate humans from computers. In April, Hotmail CAPTCHAs were broken by a computer. The computer then created numerous free Hotmail email accounts and sent out waves of spam, Websense says. Similar attacks occurred this year at Microsoft's Live Mail and Google's Gmail and Blogger. "What we're noticing over the last year is that these tests meant to tell the difference between a human and a computer are being targeted by more and more malicious groups," says Websense's Stephan Chenette. "And they are getting better at it." Solving CAPTCHAs with computers allows spammers to quickly create new email accounts to send spam, which Ferris Research estimates could cost the U.S. economy $42 billion annually. In addition to computers breaking CAPTCHAs, low-wage workers overseas are being paid to solve them. In fact, Google says it believes humans were involved in solving its CAPTCHAs. Microsoft and other Web companies say they are interested in developing human verification tests that are more difficult for computers to crack, but making the tests harder for a computer could make them harder for humans as well.
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Green Computing
Berkeley Lab Research News (04/14/08)

Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's National Energy Research Scientific Computing (NERSC) Center Kathy Yelick says the most pressing problem in modern-day computing is power, and the computer industry has attempted to address this challenge with the development of multicore chips. NERSC researchers and the lab's Computational Research Division are engaged in a coordinated series of projects to enhance the energy efficiency of scientific computations by investigating subjects in computer architecture, algorithms, and mass-storage-system designs. The projects will concentrate on performing more science while using less energy and enabling next-generation exascale computing systems. Researchers are exploring the possibility of combining a very large number of simple cores on each chip, which can allow them to lower clock rate and save power while still squeezing out high performance; the researchers also think using batteries to run the chips could vastly improve power efficiency and effective performance. Researcher Erich Strohmaier is looking at addressing the algorithmic challenges of gaining energy efficiency via massive parallelism by developing a testbed for benchmarking some of the critical algorithms across a broad range of scientific applications so that a method for algorithmically assessing system performance can be created. Another project aims to study a wide spectrum of competing multicore computer architectures and measure how efficient they are in performing sophisticated scientific computations. Project leader Jonathan Carter says the goal is "to identify candidate algorithms that map well to multicore technologies and document the steps needed to re-engineer programs, to take advantage of these architectures," and to perhaps help design an improved high-performance system by influencing design components in multicore chips.
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Malicious Hardware May Be Next Hacker Tool
New Scientist (05/01/08) Inman, Mason

Hackers could soon start using a new tactic in which they gain control of a computer by adding malicious circuits to its processor, say University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers. The malicious circuits would be able to avoid detection because they could manipulate computers at a deeper level than a virus. A University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign research team led by professor Samuel King used a field programmable gate array (FPGA) to create a replica of an existing open source processor with about 1.7 million circuits. The team added about 1,000 malicious circuits not present in the processor. The malicious circuits allowed the team to bypass security controls on the processor similar to how a virus gives control to a hacker, but without requiring a software flaw. Attaching the FPGA to another computer allowed them to steal passwords stored in its memory and install malicious software that would give them remote control of the computer's operating system. Putting malicious hardware on a chip is not as easy as installing a virus, as the hacker must have either access to a chip during its design or manufacturing, be able to build and sell those chips to a computer manufacturer, or sneak their chips into computers during assembly. However, as chips and their design processes become more complex, it becomes easier for a hacker to infiltrate.
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Beating the Codebreakers With Quantum Cryptography
ICT Results (04/28/08)

Cryptography has been an arms race, with codemakers and hackers constantly updating their arsenals, but quantum cryptography could theoretically give codemakers the upper hand. Even the absolute best in classical encryption, the 128-bit RSA, can be cracked using brute force computing power. However, quantum cryptography could make possible uncrackable code using quantum key distribution (QKD). Modern cryptography relies on the use of digital keys to encrypt data before sending it over a network so it can be decrypted by the recipient. QKD promises a theoretically uncrackable code, one that can be easily distributed and still be transparent. Additionally, the nature of quantum mechanics makes it so that if an eavesdropper tries to intercept or spy on the transmission, both the sender and the receiver will know. Any attempt to read the transmission will alert the sender and the receiver, allowing them to generate a new key to send securely. QKD had its first real-world application in Geneva, where quantum cryptography was used in the electronic voting system. Not only did QKD guarantee that the poll was secure, but it also ensured that no votes were lost in transmission, because the uncertainty principle established that there were no changes in the transmitted data. The SECOQC project, which did the work for the voting system, says the goal is to establish network-wide quantum encryption that can work over longer distances between multiple parties.
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Phantom Obama Vote Appears on NJ Voting Machine
Wired News (04/30/08) Zetter, Kim

Officials from New Jersey's Pennsauken District 6 report that 279 votes were cast during the Feb. 5, 2008, Democratic primary, but Princeton University computer scientist Ed Felten has learned that a phantom vote was cast for Barack Obama. The county clerk's report is based on information taken digitally from the memory cards inside three Sequoia voting machines. However, Felten says the summary tapes printed from the machines show that there were 280 votes, and Obama received 95 rather than 94 votes. Felten has a better chance of solving the mystery surrounding the Sequoia voting machines after a judge ruled last week that independent experts could gain access to voting machines in order to test their software and firmware. The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed in 2004 over the legality of using touch-screen voting machines in the state. Sequoia had threatened to sue the state if it allowed researchers such as Felten to review its machines.
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Engineers Harness Cell Phone Technology for Use in Medical Imaging
University of California, Berkeley (04/29/08) Yang, Sarah

University of California, Berkeley engineers are developing a system that could one day use cell phones to make medical imaging accessible to billions of people around the world. "Diagnosis and treatment of an estimated 20 percent of diseases would benefit from medical imaging, yet this advancement has been out of reach for millions of people in the world because the equipment is too costly to maintain," says UC Berkeley professor of bioengineering and mechanical engineering Boris Rubinsky, head of the cell phone application development team. "Our system would make imaging technology inexpensive and accessible for these underserved populations." Most medical imaging devices consist of three components--data acquisition hardware connected to the patient, image processing software, and a monitor to display the image. When the components are combined in one unit, there are often redundancies that increase the cost of the device. Rubinsky's team created a way of physically separating the components so the most complicated element, the processing software, can be kept at an offsite location. The cell phones would be used to relay raw data from the acquisition device to the central server, which would process the data and relay the image back to the cell phone. "This design significantly lowers the cost of medical imaging because the apparatus at the patient site is greatly simplified, and there is no need for personnel highly trained in imaging processing," says researcher Antoni Ivorra.
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Open-Source, Multitouch Display
Technology Review (05/01/08) Greene, Kate

Eyebeam engineers have created a scaled-down version of Microsoft's Surface multitouch table called Cubit that's being released as an open-source technology. Eyebeam's Addie Wagenknecht and Stefan Hechenberger say they designed Cubit in an effort to "demystify multitouch" and to prove that anyone could build a multitouch table with the right guidance and hardware. In addition to making the software available online, Wagenknecht is selling a variety of do-it-yourself kits that include parts and instructions for people with a range of engineering skills. Building a multitouch table can cost between $500 to $1,000 depending on the hardware used. Multitouch technology has been available for awhile, but only recently has it become more affordable due to the falling costs of many touch-screen components. Cubit is a box-like table with a clear surface. The device uses a Webcam inside the table with an added infrared filter, along with a small image projector that costs about $300. Wagenknecht says a user only needs to plug the Webcam into a computer, install software available on Cubit's project site, and plug in the projector to have a multitouch interface. The kit includes a tabletop with a special coating to make it easier for the camera to track objects, and strips of infrared LEDs that shine on the back of the screen.
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Rice, Methodist and TFA Receive $1.5 Million NSF Grant to Study In-Home Health Management and Next Generation Wireless Networks
Rice University (04/24/08) Boyd, Jade; Fairchild, Erin

Rice University, the Methodist Hospital Research Institute, and the nonprofit Technology for All organization have received a $1.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to explore ways of providing low-cost, personalized health monitoring to people with chronic diseases. The researchers will study how patients with chronic illness can use inexpensive handheld wireless monitoring devices called Blue Boxes to become more active in their own medical treatment. NSF will pay for the development and testing of the Blue Boxes, and for the wireless broadband network that will connect the boxes to a central hub for analysis. Methodist Hospital researcher Clifford Dacso says the Blue Box makes personalized health care much more accessible to patients with chronic illness. He says that combining the Blue Box technology with an existing wireless network will enable people with chronic illness to fine-tune their health, preventing deterioration that may result in emergency care. Patients will use the Blue Boxes to monitor several key aspects of their health status and send that information back to a central database for analysis. Rice professor Ed Knightly, the project's principal investigator, says the wireless network is a "first-of-its-kind" research platform that features a fully programmable wireless network that connects 4,000 users.
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Social Networking Applications Can Pose Security Risks
Associated Press (04/28/08) Irvine, Martha

The thousands of mini-programs designed by third-party developers for use on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace could pose a security risk for users. Such programs are risky for users in part because they can be created by anyone with a little technical know-how to gather information about the users who download them. Among those who have created a social networking application is Adrienne Felt, a Facebook user and a computer science student at the University of Virginia who wanted to research how such applications work. As part of her research, Felt polled developers of the application and found that they did not use or need the information they gleaned from users who downloaded their applications, including demographic information such as gender and age. Developers that did use the information said they only used it to display targeted ads to the person when they used the application. However, Felt found that there was nothing stopping developers from matching the information they gathered with public records. But even more worrisome for social networking users is the prospect that the information gathered by developers could be sold or stolen, which could in turn lead to identity theft. Applications are not the only threat to social networking users. Last year, researchers from Indiana University found that they were able to "scrape" information from students' social networking sites. Given these threats, social networking users should limit the information they post on their pages, said Tom Jagatic, one of the researchers involved in the Indiana University study.
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Developer 2.0: Gung-Ho or Ho Hum?
eWeek (04/28/08) Taft, Darryl K.

Software developers have long employed collaboration technology, and their attitude toward Web 2.0 technology appears to be a mix of excitement and disinterest. Programming maven Ted Neward says the discussion of developers and Web 2.0 tends to travel along two distinct avenues: Features embedded within applications that developers are creating for customers, and features developers use to build software themselves. Developers' enthusiasm about anything new and novel--such as Web 2.0--follows the first scenario, while in the second scenario anything that improves communication between developers is generally viewed as positive, but this attitude tends to consign Web 2.0 to the same level of interest as email, shared desktops, etc. "Developers will always vary in their opinions, but my impression is that they have been kind of 'ho hum' about [Web 2.0] as a general thing," says developer Chuck Esterbrook. "When they do get excited, it's about a specific site they're building and what they envision it doing down the road." Ringside Networks co-founder Bob Bickel contends that developers are generally very enthusiastic about Web 2.0 because it allows them to get a great deal of functionality with a minimum of sweat. Iona Technologies CTO Eric Newcomer observes the adoption of Web 2.0 technology by developers, while Cohesive Flexible Technologies CTO Patrick Kerpan says that "use of social and collaborative features will further enhance the capabilities of good developers by increasing the richness of the data stream they live in."
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Pay Crunch
InformationWeek (04/28/08)No. 1183, P. 28; McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

The first drop in IT professional salaries since the dot-com meltdown has been recorded by InformationWeek's annual U.S. IT Salary Survey, which found that staffers' median base pay declined from $74,000 last year to $73,000 this year while managers' median base pay dipped from $97,000 to $96,000. Among the factors that Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira thinks may be behind this trend are the economic downturn, competition with cheaper overseas talent, the replacement of retiring baby boomers by less expensive younger workers, and perhaps a skills/job title mismatch throughout the industry. Though 55 percent of IT professionals polled in the survey said outsourcing reduced job availability, just 22 percent said outsourcing caused IT salaries to fall. Moreover, two-thirds of respondents said outsourcing has not affected them personally. The stagnation of IT wages is surprising partly because of the strong growth IT employment appears to have exhibited in the last 12 months, but much of that growth is concentrated in lower-paying positions such as computer support. In comparison to last year's survey, when 63 percent of staff and 71 percent of managers expressed satisfaction with their compensation, this year's poll found those numbers reduced to 56 percent of staffers and 63 percent of managers. An 8 percent year-on-year increase in respondents who place a premium on job security is noted, although 90 percent of IT pros feel their jobs are strongly or somewhat secure, which is the same percentage recorded last year. There are worries that entry-level IT jobs are becoming harder to secure, and the number of employers who sponsor continuing education, certification programs, and additional training so IT pros can keep their skills up to date is relatively low.
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