Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the April 20, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


H-1B Visa Use Cuts U.S. Programmer, Software Engineer Wages by Up to 6%
Computerworld (04/17/09) Thibodeau, Patrick

A new study from professors at New York University (NYU) and the University of Pennsylvania found that the use of H-1B workers by U.S. companies has decreased wages for computer programmers, system analysts, and software engineers by as much as 6 percent. The researchers studied tens of thousands of resumes provided by a leading online job search site. The job site data was combined with publicly available data sources, including H-1B hiring figures collected by the U.S. government, and studies showing the average wages for specific information technology (IT) jobs. The report's authors say their research dispels the myth that globalization generates no losers. They also say the study is unique due to its exploration of the resumes, which, when combined with other public data sources, gave them a sample number of IT workers in each firm that could be coupled with the number of H-1B workers those firms reported hiring. "Although our findings suggest that the negative effects of globalization may be substantial for some workers, it is critical that policy-makers weigh these effects carefully against the macro-level economic effects," said NYU professor Prasanna Tambe and Pennsylvania professor Lorin Hitt in the report. "Offshoring will most likely remain a necessary and important part of the global economy, and there is substantial evidence that H-1B admissions appear to directly improve levels of innovation and entrepreneurship, which in the long term should create new jobs and raise demand for technology workers in other areas."

A Computational Model Examines the Pathways of Alzheimer's That Strikes at the Young
American Physiological Society (04/17/09) Krupa, Donna

Biomedical engineers from the University of Virginia have produced a simple computational model to study the role that certain proteins play in the development of Alzheimer's. The model tested the theory that certain variables--genetic mutations in proteins and "tau" tangles--might signal the embryonic onset of the disease. The model's central hypothesis is that the protein glycogen synthase kinase (GSK3) is a bridge between amyloid beta accumulation and tau tangle development. GSK3, presenilin-1 (PS1), and amyloid beta plaque were examined to quantitatively analyze their roles in the development of Alzheimer's pathology. Existing research data was applied to the model, which was assembled from kinetic equations developed from literature searches, and studied the interactions of the proteins and complexes under various conditions. GSK3 was determined to have a sizable impact on tangle formation, but scant effect on the plaques. Activating GSK3 was not enough to induce changes in the brain to the degree seen in Alzheimer's patients, but overproduction of GSK3 may trigger those changes. A link between amyloid beta plaque and tau tangles was not found, and the model thus far concludes is that no single change to the system can cause Alzheimer's disease. However, multiple changes, such as a PS1 mutation in conjunction with GSK3 over-activation, can trigger the disease, so multi-pronged treatment may be the best course.

Saving Time - and Money - With Semantic Design
ICT Results (04/20/09)

The European Union-funded SevenPro project has developed a semantic product lifecycle management system that provides a flexible, scalable, and user-oriented way of managing design data and product lifecycle information. The project's developers say that by creating a semantic layer and enabling users to visualize products, components, and materials in virtual reality, the system could save engineers and designers significant time and reduce costs. SevenPro project leader Mikel Renteria says many companies still store information on paper files, and others store design data in obscure databases and repositories, forcing engineers to work on retrieving data that should be readily accessible to them, reducing productivity. Annotating design data semantically makes it easier to find and establish connections with other pieces of information, even if they are stored in different databases on a network. The SevenPro semantic environment features an adaptable ontology, enabling users to structure the ontology for specific products, services, and designs. SevenPro also features a virtual reality environment that makes it easier for designers and engineers to visualize products and components. Virtual reality makes it possible to graphically browse all the data associated with a product, which makes data associations easier to identify and significantly improves workflow, Renteria says.

Companion Robots Will Improve Elderly People's Quality of Life in Smart Homes
Basque Research (04/15/09)

The Companionable project is working to improve the quality of life of elderly and disabled people through robots designed to operate in intelligent homes. The project, part of the European Union 7th Framework Program, combines the use of robots in intelligent domestic environments with the objective of creating a companion capable of assisting people in their own homes and helping them live independent lives. The project is developing a tool that will provide recognition of emotional states, social and health services support, and videoconferencing with family members and professional healthcare providers. Companionable is primarily focusing on the development of technologies to create a system that is conscious of its surroundings and aware when a person is in its presence, using a network of sensors and communications, as well as the development and design of a mobile robot for therapeutic treatment and care support. The system will use several types of sensors, such as vision, sound, and distance measurement, to detect and monitor anyone nearby, and will be capable of recognizing the person's emotional state as well as normal or unusual behavior. Companionable partners are exploring techniques for the interaction that will occur between the person and the robot, including the adaptation of existing portable sensors to identify the user's state of health, designing protocols for communications, data gathering, and signal analysis, and developing interfaces for external caregivers and technical service providers. The robot will feature a touch screen with an avatar-like robot face, designed to facilitate interaction.

Netbook Chips Create a Low-Power Cloud
Technology Review (04/16/09) Mims, Christopher

Carnegie Mellon University researchers have successfully used a cluster of the same low-power processors that are used in netbooks and mobile devices to create a server architecture that uses less power than a light bulb. The architecture, called a fast array of wimpy nodes (FAWN), could decrease by an order of magnitude the amount of power consumed by the computational infrastructures at companies such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, eBay, and Facebook. FAWN's developers say the new architecture could significantly improve the capabilities of cloud computing while decreasing its environmental impact. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects that by 2011, data centers in the United States could use up to 100 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, costing a total of $7.4 billion and emitting an estimated 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. FAWN reduces energy consumption through a combination of relatively slow processors and flash memory, which creates an architecture with a performance per watt of energy ratio that is 100 times better than traditional servers. Flash memory has significantly faster random access than disk-based storage, and FAWN's slower processors require less power. FAWN is limited to problems that require random access to small bits of information, but this type of input/output-intensive task is what strains the existing infrastructure of Web-based companies. FAWN has a major advantage over traditional systems because it eliminates the memory wall, which is caused by a disparity between the speed of the central processing unit and the speed at which data can be retrieved from disk-based storage.

The A-Z of Programming Languages: Falcon
Computerworld Australia (04/09/09) Edwards, Kathryn

Falcon creator Giancarlo Niccolai says the genesis of the programming language was rooted in the concept of having pure object-oriented programming (OOP) without being OOP, having pure procedural structure while being non-procedural, and having functional constructs but not being functional. "Falcon... wasn't born for the most exotic reasons, but to address the problem of integration and empowerment of massive applications on one side and the necessity to solve complex logic and highly mutable problems on the other," he says. Falcon uses C++ in areas where it can deliver speed, code readability, and maintainability advantages while still being centered around C on several low-level aspects, Niccolai says. He says speed is important for some applications that may be addressed by some programming languages, as opposed to within programming languages. "Speed is determined by the complete 'input-processing-output' line, and what a scripting language does into that line is usually a small part," Niccolai says. He believes the future of Falcon resides in it being a good scripting language. "Our aim is to provide an ever growing potential of high-level control logic and design abstraction, at disposal of both application in need of a flexible inner variable logic engine or directly at the command of the developers; this, at an affordable cost in terms of performance (not with respect to other scripting languages, but with respect of doing things the hard-coded way)," Niccolai concludes.

UCSB Collaboration Receives $6.1 Million for Diamond-Based Quantum Information Processing and Communication
University of California, Santa Barbara (04/15/09) Gallessich, Gail; Foulsham, George

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) scientists say that diamonds could revolutionize quantum mechanics in computing by enabling ultra-secure communications, super-fast database searches, and unprecedented code-breaking capabilities. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research have provided $6.1 million for a pair of UCSB-led research projects that are focused on using diamonds for quantum computing processing. The funding will be used for a research effort that includes CNSI, Hewlett-Packard Research Labs, and a team of faculty from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Iowa, and Delft University of Technology. The projects will attempt to develop new quantum measurement techniques that manipulate and read out single electron spins in diamonds, and will focus on the on-chip integration of single electron spins with photonics for communication. The funding also will support the building of a research facility for the creation of synthetic crystal diamond and diamond heterostructure materials and devices. Diamonds fabricated by the scientists will complement several ongoing research efforts both on UCSB's campus and around the world, including efforts that focus on solid-state lighting, nanoelectronics, and atomic-level storage.

Cloud Computing: Changing the Way We Work
Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (04/08/09)

Cloud computing has the potential to create irreversible changes in how computers are used around the world, says David Carrera, director of the Cloud Computing (CC) research team at Spain's Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (UPC). Carrera says cloud computing technology's objective is to move any applications stored on a computer to a remote location, eliminating all the standard components, including operating systems and hard drives, which are necessary in today's computers and make them accessible online through a standard browser. Traditional computers will become obsolete, and instead of traveling with laptops, users will be able to rent a computer and access all of the information and programs online. Carrera says the ultimate goal of cloud computing is to mix and manage applications in an intelligent manner. For example, cloud computing could be used to create software that monitors the response of a machine or appliance in real time and controls its power supply, optimizing energy use and saving money, Carrera says. The CC team is researching systems for coordinating the thousands of terminals and nodes that compose the cloud, a major concern of technology companies. "By applying artificial intelligence to the cloud, we are hoping to develop a system through which computers can manage themselves," says UPC professor Ricard Gavalda.

Innovation: Harnessing Spammers to Advance AI
New Scientist (04/17/09) Barras, Colin

Some Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart (CAPTCHAs) security systems are already being solved by spammers, but CAPTCHA co-creator Luis von Ahn says that when a software program is written that can solve all CAPTCHAs it will be a cause for celebration as well as concern. He says that when spammers are finally able to break any CAPTCHA it will mark a major milestone in artificial intelligence (AI). Von Ahn says he has seen offers as high as $500,000 for anyone capable of writing software that can break reCAPTCHA, an improved system used by several major Web sites. The $500,000 prize is enough to attract people with the skills to accomplish such a feat, and is five times bigger than the Loebner Grand Prize that is offered to the programmer who designs a computer that passes the Turing test. Von Ahn says if spammers are able to write a program that reads distorted text they will have solved an AI problem, and security groups will be able to switch to alternative CAPTCHA systems, such as one based on pictures, which will give spammers another AI problem to solve. For example, a system Google will present at the International World Wide Web Conference asks users to correctly orient images that are randomly rotated, a task computers struggle with when an obvious horizon is unavailable. The ability to easily change security measures could make using spammers as an AI resource tool a viable option.

McAfee Looks at Spam's Damage to Environment
eWeek (04/16/09) Eddy, Nathan

The global annual energy used to transmit, process, and filter spam is 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), which is equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes, concludes McAfee's "Carbon Footprint of Spam" study. The study found that spam produces the same level of green house gas (GHG) emissions as 3.1 million passenger cars using 2 billion gallons of gasoline. The study found that an estimated 62 trillion spam emails were sent in 2008, and that most of the energy consumption related to spam, 80 percent, comes from end users deleting spam and searching for legitimate email. Spam filtering accounts for 16 percent of spam-related energy consumption. "As the world faces the growing problem of climate change, this study highlights that spam has an immense financial, personal, and environmental impact on businesses and individuals," says McAfee's Jeff Green. "Stopping spam at its source, as well investing in state-of-the-art spam filtering technology, will save time and money, and will pay dividends to the planet by reducing carbon emissions as well." The report says if state-of-the-art spam filters were used to protect every inbox, organizations and individuals could reduce spam's energy consumption by 75 percent. However, the researchers note that although spam filtering is helpful, fighting spam at its source is even better.

Student Innovations Honored at CHI Conference
The Tartan (04/13/09) Huber, Edmund

ACM's recent Computer-Human Interaction (CHI 2009) conference gave computing students an opportunity to show off the technology they are developing and how it could change the way people live. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Institute for Software Research Ph.D. student Patrick Gage Kelly won first place in the graduate student category for his work "Designing a Privacy Label: Assisting Consumer Understanding of Online Privacy Practices." Meanwhile, CMU senior Zhiquan Yeo won second place in the undergraduate category for "KTE2: An Engine for Kinetic Typography." CMU professor Sara Kiesler won the lifetime achievement award at the conference. CMU Human-Computer Interaction Institute professor Matthew Kam gave a speech at the conference on his paper "Designing Digital Games for Rural Children." Kam said there is no "magic bullet" for the poor quality of schooling in the developing world, which motivated him to study the design of educational video games for rural Indian children. Kam found that the children did not understand Western games very well, but by observing the children at play he was able to identify the principles and motivations behind their own games, which he used to design educational video games that the children found familiar and interesting.

MIT Wearable Gadget Gives You Sixth Sense, a la Minority Report
CIO (04/13/09) Daniel, Diann

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab Fluid Interfaces Group researchers have developed Sixth Sense, a gesture-controlled wearable computing device that provides information and can turn any surface into an interactive display. Sixth Sense uses object recognition to initiate different virtual devices and Web-based information in ways that are similar to the advanced interfaces in the movie "Minority Report." Sixth Sense's interface uses a Web camera and portable battery-powered projector with a small mirror to detect objects and project interfaces. The prototype device, built using off-the-shelf components, communicates with a cell phone and can be worn around the neck. Sixth Sense is intended to more seamlessly integrate online information and technology into everyday life. MIT professor Pattie Maes says the device is named Sixth Sense because it makes information available for decision-making beyond what people can access with their five senses. In addition to projecting information onto any surface, Sixth Sense can turn a hand into a virtual keypad for making calls, display a wristwatch on a bare wrist, take a photo when users hold their index fingers and thumbs up to make a frame, and project related videos onto newspaper articles being read.

Software Improves P2P Privacy By Hiding in the Crowd
Northwestern University News Center (04/08/09)

Northwestern University researchers have identified a "guilt-by-association" threat to privacy in peer-to-peer (P2P) networks that would allow an eavesdropper to accurately classify groups of users with similar download behavior. To counter this threat, the researchers released open source software that restores a user's privacy by masking their download activity to disrupt classification. Northwestern professors Fabian Bustamante, Luis Amaral, and Roger Guimera found that only the patterns of connection, and not the data itself, are sufficient to pose a serious threat to user privacy. The researchers studied connection patterns in the BitTorrent file-sharing network and found that groups of users formed communities in which each member consistently connected with other community members more than with users outside the community. Bustamante says this trend was surprising because BitTorrent was designed to create connections at random. After identifying the community behavior, the researchers demonstrated that an eavesdropper could classify users into specific communities using a relatively small number of observation points. The information could be used to launch a "guilt-by-association" attack in which a hacker only needs to determine the downloading behavior of one user to convincingly argue that all users in the community are doing the same things. The researchers released an extension to BitTorrent called SwarmScreen, which downloads randomly-selected content to prevent eavesdroppers from distinguishing that content from the content users requested.

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