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May 21, 2008

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Welcome to the May 21, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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2007 ACM Turing Award Winners to Speak at 45th Design Automation Conference
Business Wire (05/20/08)

The winners of the 2007 ACM A.M. Turing Award will be guest speakers in a session on the first day of the 45th Design Automation Conference (DAC), on June 9, 2008. ACM honored Edmund M. Clarke, E. Allen Emerson, and Joseph Sifakis with the award because of their contributions to the development of model checking as a very effective verification technology, which is widely used today. Clarke is the FORE Systems professor of computer science and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University; Emerson is an endowed professor in computer sciences at the University of Texas at Austin; and Sifakis is the founder of Verimag Laboratory in Grenoble, France. "We are thrilled to have these three distinguished individuals as speakers at DAC this year," says Limor Fix, general chair, 45th DAC Executive Committee. "It's sure to be a memorable highlight of the conference." The winners will be introduced by ACM President Stuart Feldman, Jasper Design Automation CEO Kathryn Kranen, and Intel director of research Andrew Chien. DAC is scheduled for June 8-13, at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif. ACM will present the Turing Award to Clarke, Emerson, and Sifakis at the annual ACM Awards Banquet on June 21, in San Francisco.
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Alarming Open-Source Security Holes
Technology Review (05/20/08) Garfinkel, Simson

An open-source programming error made in May 2006 that reduced the amount of randomness used to create cryptographic keys in the widely used OpenSSL library have created serious security vulnerabilities in at least four open-source operating systems, 25 applications programs, and millions of computer systems. Although the vulnerability was discovered on May 13 and a patch has been distributed, installing the patch does not repair damage to the compromised systems and some computers may be compromised even though they are not running the code. Modern computer systems use large numbers to generate keys that are used to encrypt and decrypt data sent over a network. The error reduces the number of different keys that Linux computers can generate to 32,767, making it significantly easier for hackers to guess the key. Moreover, keys created by the computers with the error are not fixed when the patch is installed. It's impossible to know how many computers are affected because vulnerable keys could have been transferred to non-open source systems if a file encrypted by the flawed system was transferred to another system. The error was made when programmers incorrectly used a tool that was intended to catch programming bugs that lead to security vulnerabilities. Programs that use OpenSSL include the Apache Web server, the SSH remote access program, the IPsec Virtual Private Network, secure email programs, and many others.
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Proponents, Critics Give No Ground in Tussle Over E-voting
Computerworld (05/19/08) Vol. 42, No. 21, P. 12; Weiss, Todd R.; Gross, Grant; McMillan, Robert

Advocates and critics of touch-screen voting systems are refusing to budge on their opposing views about the technology's reliability, with the former continuing to testify to its accuracy and security while the latter maintain their position that susceptibility to hacking and miscounts are among the risks users of e-voting systems run. Two studies released in March from The Brookings Institution and InfoSentry Services conclude that most voters are comfortable with touch-screen systems, while Gary Bartlett with the North Carolina State Board of Elections says "the routine voter has not expressed any dissatisfaction with or distrust of any type of e-voting equipment." Skeptics counter that such studies are irrelevant because they are based on people's beliefs and feelings rather than on hard facts. Experts such as Johns Hopkins University professor Avi Rubin say the chief problem with e-voting systems is the absence of any way for voters to assuredly know that their votes are being counted properly. Election Technology Council executive director David Beirne contends that many e-voting opponents "are only focusing on the perceptions" of problems. In some cases election officials are the ones doubting the technology's reliability, while e-voting vendors and other supporters are quick to say that human rather than technical error is usually the cause of problems with e-voting machines.
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Design Revamp for '$100 Laptop'
BBC News (05/21/08)

The new version of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) XO laptop looks like an e-book and costs just $75. Instead of having a rubbery keyboard like the first model, the XO2 has two touch screens divided by a hinge that allows the device to be oriented either as a laptop and keyboard or like the pages of a book. The design change combines the functions of a laptop, electronic book, and electronic board and allow several children to use the device simultaneously. The XO2 is also more energy efficient, half the size of the first device, and lighter and easier to carry. OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte says the XO2 is a totally new concept for learning devices. Initially the new device will be promoted as an e-book reader with the ability to store more than 500 e-books. OLPC says the price tag for the new devices will be achievable because of falling flat-panel screen prices, which is the most expensive of the new laptop components. Negroponte also recently announced the resumption of the Get-One-Give-One program that allows people in wealthy nations to buy two XO laptops and donate one to a child in a developing nation.
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The H-1B Visa Dilemma, Part 2: What to Do?
TechNewsWorld (05/20/08) Burger, Andrew K.

Google's Keith Wolfe says Google and other American companies are in a fierce competition with foreign companies for the world's top talent, and if U.S. employers are unable to hire the best candidates due to H-1B visa restrictions, many of whom already study at American universities, foreign companies will. Meanwhile, H-1B opponents say the national economy and U.S. programmers, particularly those over 30, suffer when American companies hire foreign workers. Although the high-tech industry claims that it needs to import workers because there is a shortage of qualified people in the U.S., University of California, Davis professor Norman Matloff says that argument "flies in the face of the economic data." Matloff says companies are using visa programs to avoid hiring older workers, giving the example of one of his students that held several patents but was forced to leave the field after he turned 30 because he found it difficult to get engineering work, even though his former employers were hiring workers with H-1B visas. Part of the problem is that the legal definition of prevailing wage, which companies must pay H-1B employees, is filled with gaping loopholes, according to a 2003 Congressional report. Matloff says that Congress added even more loopholes in 2004 legislation. "The advocates of globalization are right about one thing: Globalization is here to stay," Matloff wrote in the November 2004 issue of Communications of the ACM. "But their claims of its benefits are misleading, and their remedies will not work, leading only to frustration and disappointment by U.S. IT workers and missed opportunities by U.S. businesses. Genuinely thoughtful, realistic solutions to the problems are imperative."
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Homeland Security Helps Reduce Open Source Flaws
InternetNews.com (05/20/08) Kerner, Sean Michael

A Department of Homeland Security multi-year initiative intended to improve open source code quality, launched over two years ago, has reduced the defect density in 250 open source projects by 16 percent, essentially eliminating over 8,500 defects, Coverity reports. The report comes at a time when open source software is becoming an increasingly integral part of critical infrastructure in government and private enterprise. Coverity runs scanning tools on the open source projects included in the initiative to find coding errors. While many of the projects have benefited from running Coverity's scans, not every project has managed to reduce errors, primarily because they have not been actively using the results from the scan. Projects working in Perl, PHP, Python, Postfix, Samba, and TCL have been able to reduce their code defect densities by using data from the Coverity scans. Coverity found a clear pattern indicating that certain errors occur more often, specifically Null Point Dereferences, which occurred 28 percent of the time. The Coverity report says this error often occurs when one code path initializes a pointer before its use, but another code path bypasses the initialization process. The second most common defect is resource leaks, at 26 percent of all defects, which often involve failure to release resources when the initial allocation succeeds.
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I, Computer: Engineered Bacteria Become the First Living Computers
Science News (05/19/08) Barry, Patrick

Scientists have genetically engineered the bacterium E. coli so that its DNA computes a classic mathematical puzzle known as the burned pancake problem. The new research is the first to achieve DNA computation in living cells. "Imagine having the parallel processing power of a million computers all in the space of a drop of water," says Davidson College biologist Karmella Haynes. "It's possible to do that because cells are so tiny and DNA is so tiny." The potential computational power of programmed bacteria is immense, but the DNA-computation system created by Haynes and her colleagues can only handle a limited set of mathematical problems. Meanwhile, researchers in Israel recently designed DNA molecules that can compute games of tic tac toe. "I liken this to where video games were when Pong first came out," says Missouri Western State University mathematician Jeffrey Poet. The burned pancake problem that Haynes's E. coli DNA solves is a metaphor for sorting large amounts of data into the right order by repeatedly flipping chunks of data. Knowing the minimum number of flips to solve the problem allows programmers to know when their software has been fully optimized to sort data as quickly as possible. The flipping is done by an enzyme taken from the salmonella bacterium. The enzyme flipped segments of E. coli's DNA marked by genetic flags until the DNA was sorted into the correct order and it spelled out a code for a gene that gives the bacterium resistance to an antibiotic.
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Researchers Find New Ways to Steal Data
IDG News Service (05/19/08) McMillan, Robert

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Saarland University in Saarbrucken, Germany, have found unconventional ways of stealing data. In Saarbrucken, the researchers have been able to read computer screens using reflections on objects such as glasses and teapots. Meanwhile, UCSB researchers have created Clear Shot, software that analyzes a video of hands typing on a keyboard to determine what was being written. Clear Shot was inspired by the movie "Sneakers," in which Robert Redford's character obtains a video of his potential victim typing in his password and says he is going to get a "clear shot." Clear Shot can analyze video of hand movements on a computer keyboard and transcribe them into text. UCSB graduate student Marco Cova says Clear Shot is accurate about 40 percent of the time. The software also suggests alternative words that may have been typed. Saarland University professor Michael Backes says his research began as a fun project to see if he could tell what other people were working on by watching windows near computer monitors. The researchers soon found that using a $500 telescope focused on a reflective object in front of a monitor could create readable images of Word documents. The researchers are now working on new image analysis algorithms and using astronomical cameras in the hopes of getting better images from more difficult surfaces such as the human eye.
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USF Profs' Robots Arrive as Rescuers
St. Petersburg Times (05/16/08) Sickler, Shannon Colavecchio-Van

University of South Florida (USF) professor Robin Murphy and Stanford University professor Clifford Nass have received a $500,000 Microsoft grant to develop the Survivor Buddy, an emergency robot companion for people stuck in dangerous situations. Murphy envisions the robot playing soothing music to trapped victims while displaying images of loved ones or rescuers trying to reach them. The robot will also be able to give the victim water and relay vital signs to doctors. Murphy, as director of the USF's Institute for Safety Security Rescue Technology, works to create robots designed for disaster rescue. The first test of Murphy's robots came after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. Murphy's robots could go deeper into the wreckage than rescue workers and dogs, and while the rubble was still burning. Murphy's robots were also used to respond to hurricanes Charley, Wilma, and Katrina. Murphy spent her 50th birthday and 25th wedding anniversary at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah last year, trying to get a robot outfitted with cameras and other equipment to find the six trapped workers. "My dream is that one day you'll see rescuers and dogs at a disaster site, but if you don't see a robot you'll say, 'Where are they?' because they'll have become so commonplace," Murphy says. "They'll do things dogs and people can't."
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A Baseball Cap That Reads Your Mind
PhysOrg.com (05/16/08) Zyga, Lisa

Researchers at Taiwan's National Chiao-Tung University and National Cheng-Kung University and the University of California, San Diego have designed a new bio-signal monitoring system that fits inside a baseball cap and detects and analyzes electroencephalogram (EEG) signals from the wearer's brain. The cap is capable of determining if someone is getting too tired to drive based on brain-wave patterns and could be configured to control TVs, computers, and other electronic devices. The wireless system can process and provide feedback in real time. The researchers say that measuring EEG signals enables the brain-computer interface system to monitor an individual's physiological and cognitive states. The system capitalizes on recent advancements in sensor and information technology to reduce power consumption and production costs. It can run on a lithium-ion battery for about two days before needing charging, and the researchers hope to increase the device's efficiency. The cap includes five embedded dry electrodes for the wearer's forehead and one electrode for behind the ear to read EEG signals. The system includes Bluetooth transmissions for distances up to 10 meters and RF transmissions for distances up to 600 meters.
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Video Search Engine Watches and Learns
New Scientist (05/19/08) Reilly, Michael

Researchers led by Adrian Ulges at Germany's University of Kaiserslautern have developed TubeTagger, a Web video categorization program that learns how to add keyword tags to videos by watching YouTube. After being given a keyword such as "soccer," TubeTagger automatically downloads 50 YouTube videos that humans have labeled with that word and examines the color and motion content of each video. The researchers repeated this learning process 22 times using words associated with common sports and words such as "riot" or "interview." After the training, TubeTagger was shown a series of videos that it had never seen before, after which it came up with three possible tags for each video as well as a confidence level for each tag. TubeTagger chose the most appropriate tag 37 percent of the time, but the success rate dropped when the system was tested using videos from other sources. The program also scored better with some words than with others. Ulges says these results prove the concept and suggest that TubeTagger's ability to learn from "real world" video makes the program more scalable than other systems.
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Inside Lockheed Martin's Wireless Security Lab
Network World (05/19/08) Reed, Brad

Lockheed Martin's Wireless Cyber Security Lab is engaged in a race with hackers to catch flaws and vulnerabilities in wireless security in the hopes of correcting them before they are exploited. "We're trying to ensure that something similar [to 9/11] doesn't happen in the realm of wireless communications," says lab director John Morrison. Lockheed Martin's Perri Nijeb says the biggest nascent wireless security threat is the blurring of the boundary between home and the office, as employees increasingly access company data via corporate VPNs from their residences. To address this problem, the company has been testing numerous types of consumer technology, including cell phones, which have been moving to enterprise networks, and the spread of Wi-Fi hot spots has been of particular concern because of the technology's growing ubiquity in urban areas. Nijeb cites "connection hijacking, deliberate or inadvertent denial of service, the creation of security holes in corporate or government networks, and difficulty in attributing network actions to specific IP addresses, due to the ease of hijacking" as major issues with Wi-Fi, which Morrison says can add up to immense burdens for corporate IT departments that fail to educate their users about security matters. Lockheed Martin R&D investigator Jason Crawford says the proliferation of Bluetooth technology is also a worrying trend, as products capable of picking up Bluetooth signals outside their transmission range could theoretically be used to track people. The problems that Lockheed Martin's wireless security lab is focusing on are also challenges for the U.S. military, particularly as they relate to the security of its battlefield communications networks. Morrison says soldiers' vulnerability is highest when they use wireless communications in crowded urban settings, which parallels the risk corporate users run when they link to enterprise networks using home-based Wi-Fi connections.
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Wanted: More Hispanics in STEM Fields
eSchool News (05/06/08) Devaney, Laura

An increasing number of businesses and education groups are launching, funding, and supporting efforts to increase the number of minorities, particularly Hispanics, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. A Public Agenda study, titled "A Matter of Trust," found that nearly half of Hispanic parents say it is a serious problem that students are not taught enough math and science, and that they are more likely to support making sure U.S. standards match those in Japan. The study also found that less than half of young Hispanic adults believe that qualified students can find a way to pay for college. Study authors Paul Gasbarra and Jean Johnson of Public Agenda say education, and higher education in particular, is highly prized and respected among Hispanic parents, more so than parents in general, despite erroneous conventional wisdom that would suggest otherwise. The authors also say that far too many Hispanic families are underserved by public education, to a significantly higher degree than the general population. A TRPI report, titled "STEM Professions: Opportunities and Challenges for Latinos," found that Hispanics also suffer from a larger gender gap in STEM careers, when compared with Asians and African-Americans. However, the report also said that as the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, Latinos have a unique opportunity to aim high and strive for STEM careers, given the high demand for talent in those fields. A recently released NACME report, "Confronting the New American Dilemma, Underrepresented Minorities in Engineering: A Data-Based Look at Diversity," calls for K-12 educators to infuse STEM education throughout the K-12 curriculum through active, hands-on, project-based learning, and to introduce students to STEM careers, starting with preschool awareness activities.
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Turning Conventional Video Coding Wisdom on Its Head
ICT Results (05/19/08)

European researchers have inverted the traditional video coding model with an alternative model proposed through the Discover distributed video coding (DVC) research project. Project coordinator Luis Torres says the effort yielded a software algorithm or codec that was already "very competitive" with those created in the United States. By the end of last year, Discover could exhibit the best rate distortion performance of any DVC codec in the world, although Torres acknowledges that a lot of work must be carried out before the Discover codec can generate picture quality comparable to television. "I am quite sure, in the future, new projects will see DVC quality catch up with current mainstream broadcast technology and become indistinguishable from it," he says. Once this milestone is reached, existing and planned DVC applications such as the provision of high-quality, real-time video feed by wireless video transmission and wireless surveillance networks can be optimized, Torres says. Other concepts under development include a new multi-view image acquisition standard entailing the generation of a 3D effect using several unconnected cameras viewing the same scene from different angles and positions, and transmission of camera imagery from inside the human body for medical purposes. The Discover software is freely available to the recording community and other interested parties on the project Web site.
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Commercialising the Semantic Web
ZDNet (05/15/08) Miller, Paul

Commercializing the Semantic Web was discussed in a final session of a track at this year's World Wide Web Conference in Beijing. Giovanni Tummarello addressed the commercial momentum involving DERI's Sindice research project; and Nigel Shadbolt discussed how Garlik made use of university research, built a consumer user-base, and moved toward a monetary position with major banks. Shadbolt acknowledged how the Semantic Web allowed Garlik to work faster on the DataPatrol product and made programming easier. "Unpredictable data is hard to work with, without the Semantic Web," Shadbolt said. Tim Berners-Lee stressed that Semantic Web technologies can help facilitate the "unexpected re-use" of data, and the panelists went on to discuss how their own projects led to new opportunities to use data in other ways. When it comes to users and investors, the industry will have to push the applications and solutions built on the platform, rather than the Semantic Web itself, the panelists agreed.
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Geography as IT Job Destiny
eWeek (05/16/08) Perelman, Deb

New data from IT job board Sapphire Technology reveals significant patterns in the availability of technology jobs in different regions in the United States. For example, more than 58 percent of all available tech jobs in Austin, Texas, were in software development, primarily due to the large number of startup companies in Austin. In Chicago, project management positions accounted for more than 52 percent of job listings, which Sapphire's Mike Giglio attributes to the large number of mergers that have occurred in recent years. Software development skills were also in high demand in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the D.C. metropolitan area, and Sacramento, Calif. Meanwhile, one-third of available IT job listings for the Los Angeles area were for desktop support. In fact, there were more listings for help desk jobs than for any other type of technology work in Los Angeles. Giglio says that companies in the Los Angeles area are so fast-paced that if anything happens to the systems they are working on they need it fixed right away and they staff their companies accordingly.
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Supercomputing's Pied Piper
Government Computer News (05/19/08) Vol. 27, No. 11, Jackson, Joab

The 2008 Government Computer News Technology Leadership Award recipient Charles Holland, deputy director of the Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has had a huge impact on the direction of government high-performance computing. Before others in the military and industry realized there was a problem, Holland warned the United States was falling dangerously behind other countries in supercomputing power. At IPTO, Holland oversees development of cognitive systems, language processing, sensors, and other advanced computing challenges. Holland is also the program manager of the High Productivity Computing Systems (HPCS) project, which aims to advance supercomputing to the petascale era. In 2000, Holland was lead writer on a report that described how the United States was losing its superiority in supercomputing and could consequently lose tactical advantages. After presenting the report to Congress, Holland was asked to commission a program to get the United States back to the cutting-edge of technology. Five years later, Holland joined DARPA and became manager of the HPCS program. Cray CEO Peter Ungaro says the program is the largest supercomputing research-and-development program ever and is the driving force in shaping the future of high-performance computing.
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Pflops Here; Now What?
EE Times (05/19/08)No. 1527, P. 1; Merritt, Rick

The IBM Roadrunner is expected to be the first supercomputer in the world to benchmark at a sustained rate of 1 petaflops, but the larger issue surrounding this breakthrough may be the insights into science and parallel computing applications that users of petaflops-scale machines could gain. "What it really accomplishes is giving scientists an ability to do more science than they could before," says Oak Ridge National Laboratory supercomputer center project director Buddy Bland, whose lab has a 263 teraflops system that has been used to run global climate simulations and to design a fusion reactor. Oak Ridge researchers have been testing new parallel programming languages in preparation for the deployment of a 100,000-core petaflops system. Meanwhile, Bill Thigpen with NASA's Ames Research Center says he has seen a widening gap between the rate at which benchmark performance is increasing and the gains in actual work delivered by new systems, and the problem lies in giving software the scalability to accommodate a growing number of cores. Among the areas driving NASA's own plans to implement a petaflops-scale machine is the agency's computing requirements for spacecraft design and research into ways to address global warming and other pressing environmental problems, Thigpen says. IBM Roadrunner's use of heterogeneous processor cores may ultimately be of greater value to scientists than the reaching of the petaflops milestone. "Once you get people to think about building algorithms for systems that are memory-constrained, using heterogeneous cores is not a problem," says Roadrunner project chief engineer Don Grice.
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