Welcome to the December 29, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Stimulus Could Boost IT Job Prospects
Computerworld (12/29/08) Thibodeau, Patrick
The overall outlook for IT employment in 2009 is mixed, but some analysts say the U.S. federal economic stimulus package could add IT positions. Compared to jobs in general, IT jobs are relatively safe from the economic crisis, says analyst David Foote. Although 853,000 jobs were lost in all industries in October and November, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 9,000 jobs were gained in the "Computer Systems Design and Related Services" and "Management and Technical Consulting Services" categories, Foote says. JobFox CEO Robert J. McGovern says that hundreds of thousands of tech jobs will be created by the federal stimulus. Major portions of the stimulus package will be used to build infrastructure such as bridges and roads, and to expand broadband availability, so IT professionals should focus on demonstrating to employers how their skills can be applied in these areas. Construction companies and engineering firms will likely seek proficiency in computer-aided design and telecommunications, while alternative energy and healthcare modernization companies will need IT professionals with skills in bioinformatics, information security, and software development. McGovern says regulatory compliance also may become an area with more jobs. The Obama administration is expected to quickly expand regulatory controls, particularly in financial services. Foote says some of the hottest areas over the next two years will be business analysis, financial and human resources applications, program management, and applications development.
Artificial Intelligence to Detect Heart Attacks?
ZDNet (12/23/08) Piquepaille, Roland
Greek researchers are using online analytical processing (OLAP) statistical analysis techniques to develop a heart attack calculator. The calculator incorporates lifestyle factors such as depression, education, smoking, diet, and obesity to determine the risk for cardiovascular disease. The researchers say the OLAP system works much faster than conventional statistical analysis. Lead scientist Hara Kostakis, from the Technological Educational Institute Piraeus Research Centre in Greece, says the system will enable physicians to identify high-risk patients using only personal data. The effort started by collecting data from almost 1,000 patients enrolled in the CARDIO 2000 study. The patients, who had been hospitalized after experiencing the first symptoms of acute coronary syndrome, were compared to healthy individuals. Then, instead of using statistical methods, the researchers used OLAP, which provides a multidimensional view of data that enables patterns to be found in large datasets that would otherwise remain hidden in ordinary spreadsheets. The researchers say they have created a computational algorithm that effectively addresses and optimizes computational time and risk assessment. They say the research will benefit the health sector by providing a better understanding, and treatment and prevention, of cardiovascular disease.
NIST Report Identifies Security Threats, Possible Controls for Overseas Voting
NIST Tech Beat (12/23/08)
A new report by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) says email and the Web could be used to distribute ballots to U.S. citizens living abroad. However, it would be "difficult to overcome" the security threats to electronic technology to allow voters to transmit completed ballot via email and the Web, the report adds. Voting authorities would have to verify that a completed ballot has come from the registered voter, preserve the privacy of the voter, and also make sure that the ballot has not been tampered with while in transit. The NIST report addresses the threats to using the telephone, fax, email, and Web sites to register overseas voters, distribute blank ballots, and return voted ballots. Cryptography and back-up communication lines are cited as potential measures for controlling security threats. Guidelines for distributing ballots via fax, email, or the Web could help states develop methods for transmitting ballots using electronic technology, the report adds. Some states already distribute blank ballots by fax or email.
Multicore Doesn't Mean Equal Core
Government Computer News (12/22/08) Jackson, Joab
Virginia Tech researchers recently found that the speed at which code is executed on multicore processors can vary by as much as 10 percent depending on how the code is distributed on identical cores. "The solution to this is to dynamically map processes to the right cores," says Virginia Tech graduate student Thomas Scogland, who summarized his work at the recent SC08 supercomputing conference. Scogland, along with fellow researchers and help from the Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, developed software that helps balance chip performance more equally on every core. Scogland says that several factors contribute to uneven chip performance. One factor is how the CPU hardware manages interrupts, which could be directed to a single core, slowing other applications on that core. However, if interrupts were distributed on multiple cores, there is no guarantee that the core handling each interrupt will be the same one running the program that interrupt is intended for, requiring additional communication time between cores. Memory also is a factor. On some processors, each core gets its own cache. While that approach increases data-fetching rates if the data is in the core's cache, it will increase retrieval time if the data is in another core's cache. Multiple cores also can create situations in which data is blocked from one core while being used on another. Programming also affects performance. The researchers developed the Systems Mapping Manager (SyMMer), a prototype performance management library that uses heuristic tools to identify distribution problems. SyMMer improved the run times of scientific applications by 10 percent to 15 percent.
Unlocking the Dynamic Web
ICT Results (12/24/08)
The European Union-funded OpenKnowledge project is developing a Web-searching toolkit that accesses data stored in cloud-computing networks. "More and more companies are pushing much of what they do out into the cloud," says OpenKnowledge coordinator Dave Robertson. "If that's the way things are going, and if it's going to be very large, then society needs some way to be able to take control of how that gets coordinated." The OpenKnowledge solution includes a new language, called Lightweight Coordination Calculus (LCC), for specifying the kind of processes that enable different systems to interact with each other. LCC accounts for the fact that the same step in a process is often labeled in different ways by different parts of each system. For example, a handheld device could use an asterisk to indicate that it is about to send out a number, while a database waiting to receive that number may expect to receive an input labeled as "price." OpenKnowledge will take advantage of existing ontologies, and will search for and use pre-existing rules of interaction. However, if none are available, OpenKnowledge also can use statistical regularities to build a smaller ontology that defines only the steps that are needed for the task at hand. An open source OpenKnowledge kernel gives users the ability to discover and interpret interactions, match ontologies, and check reputations.
Tech Workers Confirm UK Skills Gap Still a Problem
ZDNet UK (12/24/08) Lomas, Natasha
A survey of U.K. technology workers found that 56 percent of respondents believe there is a skills shortage in the U.K. tech sector, and 72 percent said the skills gap is growing year-on-year. The IT Job Board also found that 55 percent believe the rapid change within the IT sector is the reason for the skills shortage, and the same percentage said the market does not have enough technology professionals. According to e-skills U.K., the United Kingdom produces about 12,000 computer science graduates annually, but the tech sector needs to fill about 140,000 jobs each year. Better training in the workplace would help ease the skills gap, according to 70 percent of respondents, while 44 percent said offshoring would help. "The IT sector is a rapidly evolving one, and it is down to employers to invest in their staff, both via systems and training, to ensure they stay up-to-speed with the changes," says the IT Job Board's Alex Farrell.
Feds May Mine Blogs for Terrorism Clues
USA Today (12/24/08) P. 3A; Frank, Thomas
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wants to use data-mining technology to search blogs and Internet message boards to find those used by terrorists to plan attacks. "Blogging and message boards have played a substantial role in allowing communication among those who would do the United States harm," DHS said in a recent notice. DHS is looking for companies to develop technology to search the Internet for postings "in near to real time which precede" an attack. University of Arizona's Artificial Intelligence Lab director Hsinchun Chen says terrorists provide a lot of bomb-making information on Web sites and forums, as well as through Internet messaging systems. However, Chen and others are uncertain of how useful that information will be in preventing terrorist attacks. Terrorism analyst Matt Devost says that many postings about attacks are simply fantasy or role-playing. The Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism's Chip Ellis says the government already uses search methods similar to a Google query, and that the search can be helpful in uncovering the latest bomb-making technology. Federation of American Scientists intelligence expert Steven Aftergood praises DHS for trying to find innovative approaches, and says the department's efforts will not jeopardize privacy because it will be searching public Web sites.
High Hopes at Yahoo, Intel for Internet-Enabled TV
CNet (12/29/08) Shankland, Stephen
Intel and Yahoo! are working with several manufacturing and content partners in an effort to create new levels of TV interactivity. In August, Intel and Yahoo demonstrated Internet-enabled TV prototypes, and a more polished form of the technology will be demonstrated at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show. Yahoo! wants to incorporate its Widget Channel into TVs, which would give users access to a software foundation that can house programs for viewing photos, accessing socially connected services, watching YouTube videos, or exploring TV shows more thoroughly. Yahoo! will support these services through advertisements. Yahoo!'s Connected TV initiative vice president Patrick Barry says the company has set very low licensing requirements in an effort to stimulate the initiative. "We do not see it as a niche offering in a few high-end models. We see this as moving into the mainstream. In 2009 we're going to see good penetration into the product lineups of the consumer electronics companies," Barry says. "Beginning in 2010, I think, you're going to see Internet-connected consumer electronics devices dominating the lineup." The Internet-TV would be able to deliver relevant information in real time, such as a weather forecast before attending a sporting event. The technology also will enable programs to connect users to other people, and offer features that allow them to participate more with the programming they are watching, such as tools that help viewers determine what other shows or movies actors have been in, or allowing them to rate and sort content.
Dream of Quantum Computing Closer to Reality as Mathematicians Chase Key Breakthrough
European Science Foundation (12/20/08)
A recent conference on quantum operator theory and analysis, organized by the European Science Foundation (ESF), the European Mathematical Society, and the Mathematical Research and Conference Center in Poland, focused on mathematical analysis challenges and prospects for progress. Conference co-chair Pavel Kurasov, from the Lund Institute of Technology in Sweden, said that a major challenge is extending current operator theory to describe and analyze quantum transport in wires, which is necessary to create a new generation of quantum computers. The operator theory required for quantum information processing and transmission has already been developed for so-called self-adjoint operators, which are used to describe the different quantum states of ideal systems, but cannot be used in systems such as a communications network where dissipation occurs. "So far only self-adjoint models have been considered, but in order to describe systems with dissipation even non-self-adjoint operators should be used," Kurasov says. The goal of the ESF conference was to extend theory to non self-adjoint operations, which could be used to analyze real systems. "These operators may be used to describe quantum transport in wires and waveguides and therefore will be used in design of the new generation of computers," Kurasov says. He says a breakthrough could occur within the next two years.
Santa Cruz-Based Computer Scientist Builds Tools to Detect Digital Hoaxes, Fakes and Child Porn
Mercury News (12/19/08) Krieger, Lisa M.
Dartmouth College professor Hany Farid has developed software tools that reveal the minute flaws hidden in fake digital photos, identifying statistical differences in an image's lighting, patterns, geometries, and other features. Farid's tools could be used to determine if DNA patterns used to verify cancer research findings have been altered or whether recent photos proving Kim Jong-il's health are legitimate, for example. Farid's software has been used in a variety of tasks, including ending intellectual property disputes, verifying the size of fish in photographs for a biggest fish contest, confirming the authenticity of drawings by Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel, and assisting in the conviction of child pornographers. Digital forensics will never eliminate photographic forgery, but it will make creating a convincing fake significantly harder and more time-consuming, Farid says. To detect digital fakes, Farid and his team start by understanding what statistical or geometric properties of an image are distributed by a particular kind of tampering and then develop an algorithm to expose those irregularities. For example, a vanishing point could be incorrect, shadows cast by different objects could contradict one another, or the number of pixels could vary. Farid and his team have developed algorithms that search for a dozen types of photo alterations, with each one providing its own data pattern. Farid is now working to use pattern recognition software to detect child pornography as it travels over the Internet, and to find ways of detecting tampering in heavily compressed images.
Google Brings Cross-Language Translation to Search Appliance
eWeek (12/18/08) Boulton, Clint
Google wants to create greater international interest in a new experimental feature that enables Google Search Appliance (GSA) to translate documents between 34 languages. The feature instantly translates search queries for internal company documents, sent from a user's PC to the GSA in any of 34 languages, says Google's Cyrus Mistry. The GSA also contains a Cross-Language Search feature. "This is analogous to giving every employee in a business 34 translators sitting at their desk and translating everything they want to look for within a 10th of a second," Mistry says. "It would take a massive investment for companies to have translation servers on-site." He says the feature would enable an English-speaking worker to find and translate a document in French from an office in Paris easily and quickly. The PC sends the request to the GSA, which contains Google's machine translation software and renders the file in English in real time. The program also will help non-English-speaking employees translate documents from the U.S. into their native language. Mistry acknowledges that rival platforms offer enterprise search in multiple languages, but they generally do not have machine translation experts to create such features, while Google has the benefit of having experts to improve consumer search offerings.
Researchers Craft Thin, Dense Memory
Computerworld (12/18/08) Mearian, Lucas
Rice University researchers have developed a new storage medium constructed from a layer of graphite only 10 atoms thick, which could provide significantly greater storage potential than existing flash memory devices while also being able to withstand temperatures of 200 degrees Celsius and radiation that would obliterate solid-state disk memory. The researchers were able to grow graphene, which is 10 or fewer layers of graphite, on top of silicon to store data. The graphene sheets were only about 5 nanometers in diameter. The new solid-state memory, along with other next-generation technologies such as race-track memory and phase-change memory, could eventually replace 20-nanometer-node NAND flash memory. Currently, NAND flash memory can be as small as 45nm, but projections show that the technology will reach its limit of 20nm by 2012. Rice University professor James Tour says the graphene memory could be used to make bits smaller than 10nm. Graphene memory would work similar to flash memory, and would require virtually no power to keep data intact. Tour says that graphene also generates little heat and has a lower power loss ratio when turned off than other memory forms. The researchers have yet to demonstrate that it is possible to lay down multiple bits on a single layer of graphene, but Tour is confident that this is achievable.
MIT's Huggable Robot Teddy Enhances Human Relationships
PhysOrg.com (12/17/08) Zyga, Lisa
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab have created Huggable, a robotic Teddy bear they say could be used in healthcare, education and social communications applications. Huggable was designed to improve human relationships by serving as a tool for long-distance communication. Huggable has more than 1,500 sensors on its skin, quiet actuators, video cameras for eyes, microphones for ears, a speaker in its mouth, and an embedded PC with 802.11g wireless networking. The robot's neural network can recognize nine different classes of touch and can generate an appropriate response for each one. A soft silicon-based skin covers its internal components, giving it a more life-like feel. The robot connects to a Web interface that enables a remote user to view the person with the bear and view the robot's behaviors through streaming audio and video. The remote user also can control the robot through a variety of features. A user could enter text for the robot to speak using speech synthesis, or make various sounds or laugh. The user could then watch Huggable's owner react and listen to their response, or watch a three-dimensional virtual model of the robot. Huggable also can operate in either a fully or semi-autonomous mode, and can be programmed to recognize the faces of specific people and track those faces without external control.
Mobile College App: Turning iPhones Into 'Super-Clickers' for Classroom Feedback
Chronicle of Higher Education (12/15/08) Young, Jeffrey R.
Abilene Christian University researchers have developed NANOtools, an iPhone and iPod Touch program that enables students to simultaneously answer questions posed by a professor. NANOtools allows professors to create instant polls in a variety of formats, including true-or-false, multiple choice, and free-form questions. Students answer on an iPhone or iPod Touch, and the software sorts and displays the answers submitted. The professor can view responses privately or share them with the class by projecting them on a screen. Several companies sell similar classroom-response systems, known as clickers, which use small wireless gadgets similar to a TV remote control. Most clickers enable students to answer true-or-false and multiple choice questions, but do not allow open-ended feedback like the iPhone system. Many colleges have experimented with clickers, but they can be problematic. First, every student must have a device, and they also must remember to bring them to class. Using a cell phone instead of a clicker solves these problems, says Abilene professor William Rankin. Some clicker companies also are developing software to turn smart phones into student-feedback systems.
An Internet of Senses
RFID Journal (12/08) Kim, Daeyoung; Sung, Jongwoo
The Auto-ID Lab Korea expects to have a first prototype EPC sensor network for proof of concept by the end of 2009. An EPC sensor network would bring together the EPCglobal network and a sensor network in the form of a ubiquitous infrastructure with standardized architecture that operates on a global scale. An EPC sensor network also would allow information about physical environments, such as temperature, humidity, and pressure, to be collected, configured, filtered, accessed, and shared among heterogeneous sensing sources. Researchers at Auto-ID Lab Korea say the network for tracking goods in the supply chain could serve as the infrastructure for an integrated sensor network, and that radio frequency identification and wireless sensor network technology could complement each other. Since 2005, the researchers have been working to resolve the challenges of building an EPC sensor network, such as the EPCglobal network's lack of sensor support, the unique features of sensor networks, and the customized standards of the EPCglobal network. The researchers envision an EPC sensor network enabling end users with the appropriate authority to access sensor data using standard Internet interfaces.
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