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ACM TechNews
September 26, 2008

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Welcome to the September 26, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Wall Street's Collapse May Be Computer Science's Gain
Computerworld (09/26/08) Thibodeau, Patrick; Weiss, Todd R.

The recent collapse on Wall Street may make a career in computer science or IT more attractive to students, who largely left those fields following the dot-com bust of 2001. Stanford University computer science department chairman William Dally says students are returning to computer science because they like the field and not necessarily because it can make them rich. Boston College professor John Gallaugher says he has already seen a change in student interest, with many students contacting Gallaugher and expressing an interest in switching from finance. Following the dot-com bust, computer science enrollment declined until it reached a low of 8,021 last year, down from 14,185 in 2003-2004, according to the Computer Research Association (CRA). Meanwhile, offshore outsourcing also scared students into avoiding technology careers. Now, companies are suffering from a shortage of technology professionals, and the looming baby boomer retirements will only add to the problem. CRA analyst Jay Vegso says economic conditions appear to impact the choice that students make when choosing a major, and students currently choosing majors may be looking for safer alternatives. Stevens Institute of Technology's Howe School of Technology Management associate dean Jerry Luftman says the major difference between today and the late 1990s is the type of student that businesses need. While technical skills are important, Luftman says companies also want students with management and industry training, strong communications abilities, and marketing and negotiations skills. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that IT jobs are among the fastest growing; openings for networks systems and data communications analysts are expected to reach 402,000 this year, up from 262,000 in 2006.
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Keeping Computing Compatible
ICT Results (09/25/08)

The European Union-funded Semantic Interfaces for Mobile Services (SIMS) project is designing a development toolkit for creating software for widely distributed and highly interactive devices. The researchers say the new tools will hasten the design and validation of software and services guaranteed to interact smoothly as distributed computing becomes universally prevalent. SIMS project coordinator Richard Sanders says when SIMS-inspired services are widespread, devices will interact seamlessly, update themselves automatically, and provide users with the ability to implement new services that are guaranteed to work immediately. "If you have communicating software and the communication is important, you want to make sure it works when it interacts with other software," Sanders says. "SIMS provides the tools to check those scenarios and actually guarantees compatibility." To create a fully integrated system of distribution and connectivity, the researchers created a model that uses semantic interfaces to specify what goals need to be realized and how components of the system need to behave and interact to accomplish those goals. Semantic interfaces detail what kinds of connections, exchanges, and results are meaningful and useful within a particular domain in a highly structured way. Developers can use this information to create computer code to run devices directly, ensuring that the code will work with all the components of a system. The SIMS researchers believe that using their approach and tools will prevent most of the interaction errors that plague and frustrate users today.
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Open Source Could Fix E-Voting Flaws, California Secretary of State Says
Network World (09/25/08) Brodkin, Jon

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen says open source software could help fix some of the flaws in electronic-voting systems. Bowen says e-voting software would benefit from greater scrutiny, noting that privileged information about voting software flaws is not easily examined by the public or even the county workers tasked with purchasing voting machines. She says that in many cases the people purchasing the machines cannot verify their reliability. "We're basically asking a county IT professional, who may or may not have any experience in crypto-security, to purchase a system," Bowen says. "In most cases, the person who does the purchase has no legal right to review the software, even if they knew what they were reviewing." Bowen says open source software could help design more effective ballots. A review of California's voting technology found security flaws in every voting system, including touch-screen machines and machines that scan paper ballots. Bowen wants to move away from direct-recording e-voting machines, which typically require voters to use touch screens to vote, because they lack a means to independently verify results. Instead, Bowen favors optical-scanning machines with paper ballots, which can be hand counted if necessary.
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Craig Mundie's Cloud Vision
Technology Review (09/25/08) Naone, Erica

Microsoft chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie says cloud computing will transform personal computing by shifting computer processing and storage away from desktop computers and onto Internet-based distributed computers. Mundie believes the next big platform shift will be the composite platform, in which the Internet platform is united with the evolved client platform. He says the client platform will create a uniform programming architecture that covers all areas. Many of the basic tenets of how people write programs will no longer work, as traditional procedural programming languages tend to mask or eliminate the inherent parallelism in many problems as a byproduct of the language's structure. Mundie says better tools are needed for debugging and programming proof, or verifying that a program's algorithms function as intended, to put new applications together. These applications will unite all of the intelligent clients in consumers' lives. Many consumers own cell phones, laptops, cars, TVs, game consoles, and other devices, but it is largely left up to the user to get these devices to work together and make the same content appear on all of them. Consumers want to be able to access their music or other content no matter what device they happen to pick up or be in front of. Mundie says a cloud platform that complements the evolving client or multiclient platform would provide common data services and orchestration processes.
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Grids: More Than Just an Infrastructure
AlphaGalileo (09/26/08)

Researchers from 50 countries are demonstrating how the Enabling Grids for E-sciencE (EGEE) infrastructure is being used in new ways at this week's 5th annual EGEE conference in Istanbul. Scientific research from particle physics to geology has dominated grid resources over the past four years, but this year the Italian project ArchaeoGRID has used the grid to study issues involving social science. The team studied the rise and fall of societies through history, the factors that contributed to global change, and the impact of humans on the environment. Climate change research has benefited from grid resources such as EGEE's Earth Sciences Cluster and the ArchaeoGRID. The Worldwide LHC Computing Grid (WLCG) has been key to the development of the grid, which will run up to 300,000 executed programs, or jobs, per day, for a project involving the Large Hadron Collider. The bioinformatics community is using the EGEE infrastructure for its WISDOM project, which is focused on developing new drugs to fight malaria and avian flu. Meanwhile, the medical community plans to use the technology to access medical data while patients remain anonymous.
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Art and Science, Virtual and Real, Under One Big Roof
New York Times (09/23/08) P. D2; Overbye, Dennis

The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) has unveiled the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (Empac), a $200 million facility that features 220,000 square feet of theaters, studios, and work spaces all connected to a supercomputer. Empac's virtual reality technology will enable scientists to immerse themselves in data and experience sensations such as diving through a breaking wave or closely inspecting twists in a DNA molecule. Some scientists say the new center could eventually be used to create a version of the Star Trek holodeck where people can interact with life-sized virtual people and creatures. Others scientists plan to teach surgery through virtual procedures, or take doctors on tours through models of actual hearts and circulatory systems. "Nothing can be compared to this," says RPI president Shirley Ann Jackson. "To our knowledge, there is nothing else like it." Computer scientist Jaron Lanier, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, says that while the idea of a virtual reality theater has existed since the 1990s, Empac represents a major leap in commitment and ambition. Empac will be linked to RPI's Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, which has an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer powered by 32,768 parallel processors.
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New Technologies for Better Network Management
Cellular-News (09/25/08)

The EUREKA-funded CELTIC MADEIRA project has successfully applied new ways of managing large telecommunications networks using a Web-based interface. The CELTIC project focused on developing a platform for enabling advanced network management from a central computer, and from distributed elements such as individual computers in a cooperative manner. Ericsson Ireland's Liam Fallon says the MADEIRA project resulted in two significant achievements. "The first achievement was that the project gave the participants the opportunity to try out ways of applying distributed secure network management to real telecommunication scenarios," Fallon says. "The second achievement was that project participants actually set up and worked with the management system, with running applications and a Web-based interface to communicate with the outside world." The project built a prototype management system that uses peer-to-peer technology to enable the network to configure itself. The prototype was distributed over labs in Ireland, Austria, Spain, and Sweden. Project work packages addressed network architecture, platform technology, self-aware management, and data modeling and management. The project also worked on developing prototype applications to test and demonstrate the envisage concepts, resulting in a system that enables adaptable services and managing network elements of increasing scale, heterogeneity, and transience.
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Robot Assistant Gives Surgeons a Cutting Look
New Scientist (09/24/08)No. 2674, P. 21

Researchers from the Hamlyn Center for Robotic Surgery at Imperial College London have integrated eye-tracking technology into a da Vinci surgical robot in an effort to provide surgeons with additional assistance when positioning instruments such as endoscopes or lasers. Using the technology, a surgeon would be able to control instruments with their gaze. The device shines an infrared LED on each eye, uses cameras to track the movement of the pupil, and determines where the surgeon is looking based on the "glint" of reflected light on the cornea. The data is calculated to move instruments to different positions on the patient. Surgeons would activate the device with a foot pedal. The team plans to improve on the eye-tracking technology's current accuracy rate of within 3 millimeters, and its results could be made available at the IROS 2008 conference in Nice, France, at the end of September. "It could be useful in cardiovascular or gastro-intestinal surgery, which requires lots of complex maneuvers," says researcher Guang-Zhong Yang.
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10 Future Shocks for the Next 10 Years
IDG News Service (09/23/08)

The next 10 years promise to contain many computer technology advancements and developments. As the cost of power and space continues to rise, cloud computing will play an increasingly large part in enterprise computing, as companies look to store their data in inexpensive technologies. Computing will become increasingly ubiquitous as consumers start wearing eyeglasses that superimpose a machine-enhanced view of the world and as technology is built into clothing and objects. Keyboards and traditional interfaces will become virtual, with keyboards being projected on surfaces or in the air. Computers will turn on instantly and run without delays or errors. Interfaces will be intuitive and sleek, and adapt to users based on what they are doing so they can easily access relevant features. Automation will continue to spread throughout industry, essentially eliminating the need for human-run manufacturing. Image recognition will improve to the point where a picture can be submitted to a search engine and the engine will be able to return relevant results based on the image. Smart phones will evolve into the preferred instrument for constant connectivity, with voice interaction, facial recognition, location awareness, constant video and sound input, and multitouch screens. Devices will always be connected, providing a constant stream of data on friends' activities, sports scores, and other topics without interrupting the user's current activities. Surveillance technology will improve to the point where it will be possible to track every human being, possibly through LoJack-style implants for personal safety, or through trackers in drivers' licenses and automobiles. Finally, technology will help us remember and strengthen social connections, recording every interaction to help people remember who they met and what they did.
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Technology Doesn't Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds.
New York Times (09/21/08) P. BU4; Darlin, Damon

Damon Darlin takes issue with an article by Nicholas Carr presenting the argument that Google is adversely affecting our thinking ability. He writes that Google "has largely liberated us from the time-wasting activities associated with finding information." Darlin recalls that some engineering professors prohibited the use of Hewlett-Packard's HP-35 handheld calculator in classrooms upon its introduction in 1972 out of fears that engineers would employ the device as a crutch, yet the amazing engineering progress that has ensued nearly four decades since then demonstrates that such fears were groundless. "It freed engineers from wasting time on mundane tasks so they could spend more time creating," he contends. Darlin cautions that while a lot of new technologies boost our productivity, there are others that can waste time. "In a knowledge-based society in which knowledge is free, attention becomes the valued commodity," he observes. Nevertheless, Darlin concludes that throughout history time-saving technologies have generally improved the ease of thinking and communication.
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Iowa State Researchers Part of $208 Million Supercomputer Project
Iowa State University News Service (09/18/08)

Iowa State University is participating in the National Science Foundation-backed $208 million program, led by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's (UIUC's) National Center for Supercomputing Applications, to develop the world's most powerful supercomputer. The IBM-built machine, called Blue Waters, will be based at UIUC and is expected to go online in 2011. UIUC will work with the Great Lakes Consortium for Petascale Computation, a coalition of industry and academic partners, including Iowa State, established to tackle the challenges of petascale computing. "Iowa State University is pleased to be part of the project to develop the world's most powerful supercomputer," says Iowa State president Gregory Geoffroy. "This is truly an indication of the strengths and expertise Iowa State has developed in high performance computing applications, virtual reality, and human computer interaction." Iowa State professor Srinivas Aluru has used supercomputers to help with the recently concluded effort to sequence the corn genome by developing software that uses thousands of processors to build genome assemblies in days instead of months. Aluru says he is looking forward to using petascale computing to solve large-scale problems in comparative genomics, systems biology, plant sciences, and biorenewables research.
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The A-Z of Programming Languages: Haskell
Computerworld Australia (09/19/08) Hamilton, Naomi

Microsoft researcher Simon Peyton-Jones says the Haskell programming language was created as an open standard for purely functional programming languages in the sense that the project began "as a group of people each wanting to use a common language, rather than having their own languages that were different in minor ways." Peyton-Jones says the 1998 version of Haskell was frozen to provide people with an iteration that they could cite and teach, and that developers such as himself would be able to keep maintaining. Peyton-Jones appreciates the variant languages that have branched off from Haskell, noting that they fulfill the language's specific purpose to inspire diversity. He says that a trail is being blazed for distributed programming for things such as multi-core CPUs and clusters, particularly by Haskell and generally by purely functional programming. Peyton-Jones refers to Haskell as a "lazy" language, in the sense that expressions are evaluated only when their value is actually necessary, which facilitates greater consistency in maintaining the language's purity. "The fact Haskell hasn't become a real mainstream programming language, used by millions of developers, has allowed us to become much more nimble, and from a research point of view, that's great," he says. Of all the programs written with Haskell, Peyton-Jones finds the most interesting to be Functional Reactive Animation, which enabled the description of graphical animation.
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Wikipedia Depends on Collaboration for Success
Daily Trojan (09/18/08) Huang, Annie; Little, Anita

At the Anneberg Program on Online Communities at the Anneberg School for Communication, Carnegie Mellon University professor Robert E. Kraut discussed the steps to success of online communities and his research on the coordination techniques of Wikipedia. Kraut said that defining success in online communities is multi-dimensional and can be divided into three stages. The first is the transaction, where conversations happen, questions are answered, and resources are exchanged. The second is the individual getting resources and developing a commitment. The third is the group, or how persistent it is and how it grows over time to produce a product. To be successful, online communities must overcome challenges such as losing members, posts that receive no responses, member recruitment, and socializing with newcomers, Kraut said. Kraut also presented his empirical analysis of the coordination techniques that result in high-quality articles on Wikipedia. A 2007 study found that articles with more editors were of a greater quality. "Wikipedia articles require an awful lot of substantial coordination, such as communication to plan the article, which involves content and organization, developing a neutral point of view, resolving conflicts, and integrating elements into a cohesive whole," Kraut said. Featured articles have more editors and edits than non-featured articles. Kraut found that adding editors to Wikipedia is helpful when the editors use appropriate coordination techniques. "These are the sorts of work that lead to the article itself; people write the article but they also talk to each other about it," he said. "Less than 50 percent of edits go to the articles and much of Wikipedia work is done on other pages like coordination talk and conflict resolution."
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Gestures Will Force the Mouse Into Retirement
Financial Times Digital Business (09/17/08) P. 5; Twentyman, Jessica

A growing number of human-computer interaction (HCI) specialists say the mouse is on the way out as an input device because it limits the way people can interact with computers. "In many ways, our continued reliance on the computer mouse reduces us to little more than cavemen, running around pointing at symbols and 'grunting' with each click," says Bruce Tognazzini, who joined Apple Computer in 1978 and founded the company's Human Interface Group. "A revolution is long overdue, because we need more sophisticated tools that will allow us to increase our vocabulary way beyond that caveman grunt." The latest HCI research involves enabling computers to read and understand users' movements and gestures. Real-time video interpretation and inertial sensors are already being used to recognize facial expressions and physical movements in a variety of consumer technology devices, says Garner analyst Steven Prentice. Prentice traces the roots of this change to the launch of the Nintendo Wii in 2006 and the release of the Apple iPhone in 2007. The widespread acceptance of these devices has led to a wave of other electronics manufacturers releasing motion-controlled products. Panasonic has created video displays that can recognize a user's face and present content based on individual preferences, and Accenture Technology Labs is building multi-touch, interactive display walls. Advanced Micro Devices' Richard Huddy says there will be a "strong and unstoppable" shift toward technology based on simple human gestures and away from indirect manipulation through physical objects such as the mouse.
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Eugene Spafford: Protecting the Internet From the Criminal Element
Science News (09/13/08) Vol. 174, No. 6, P. 32; Gaidos, Susan

The nature of computer security incidents has changed dramatically in the past three decades, says Eugene Spafford, executive director of Purdue University's Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security and chair of ACM's U.S. Public Policy Committee. He recalls that while most incidents in the 1990s were mainly perpetrated by people who were either adjusting to the unfamiliarity of the Internet or were "classic hackers" out for bragging rights or to demonstrate their skills to others, today's hackers are more sophisticated and committed to true criminal enterprises, including credit card fraud and the theft of information and intellectual property. The network is now global in scope, which increases its exposure to individuals with a wide spectrum of motives and ideologies, Spafford says. He says the Internet is devoid of an effective policing framework, given its lack of physical boundaries. Redressing the absence of computer security requires society to become more willing to pay for good security and less tolerant of flaws and security incidents, Spafford argues. "We have to find ways to increase accountability, authenticity, and attribution without doing away with some of the freedom of expression that is part of the benefit of having the Internet," he says. "The probable direction we're going to have to go in is to build very robust, highly protected enclaves, or protected systems of computers."
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Information of the World, Unite!
Scientific American (09/08) Vol. 299, No. 3, P. 82; Garfinkel, Simson L.

Privacy advocates are concerned about the potential ramifications of data fusion, in which databases are linked together, writes Naval Postgraduate School computer scientist Simson L. Garfinkel. However, this integration is a more challenging proposition than many people assume, and appears to be restricted to specific contexts due to a number of factors, including the high incidence of errors and meaningless coincidences in databases. Distinguishing worthless from valuable information is a formidable problem for data fusers, as is correctly identifying people and things when names are shared by multiple individuals or objects. One industry that has fueled a great deal of innovation in identity-resolution systems is Las Vegas gambling, which is striving to exclude cheaters and self-declared problem gamblers from its gaming establishments. Casinos have invested in the development of the nonobvious relationship analysis (NORA) method, which involves the combination of identity resolution with databases of credit companies, public records, and hotel stays. A NORA system is designed to construct hypotheses based on the data, and then update these hypotheses as new data becomes available. Garfinkel speculates that society may be placing unreasonable demands on data fusion, and the failure of data-fusion systems could just as easily stem from flaws in their algorithms as from a lack of data. He adds that a dearth of public information about data-fusion systems in actual use is also a source of frustration to scientists.
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