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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of either Thunderstone or ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 7, Issue 802: Friday, June 10, 2005

  • "Computer Viruses Become Hacker Informants"
    New Scientist (06/09/05); Marks, Paul

    Security experts have discovered an emerging class of malware called vulnerability assessment worms that keep hackers apprised of the latest computer-network vulnerabilities so they can refine their cyberattack strategies or even target individual machines. Once the worms contaminate a network, they scan for security holes and report back to hackers via an Internet chatroom; scores of computers compromised by "bot" viruses are frequently directed through a chatroom link, and are often used to distribute spam or knock out Web sites with a denial of service attack. Symantec's Kevin Hogan says new viruses are coming out of the woodwork in ever-increasing numbers because the source code for many programs is freely available online. Computer security expert Bruce Schneier notes in the June 2005 edition of the ACM's Queue magazine that over 1,000 new viruses and worms were uncovered in just the last six months, and points to the SpyBot.KEG worm as one of the most advanced forms of vulnerability assessment malware. The program informs its creator about vulnerabilities through an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel, and Schneier anticipates the emergence of even more complex IRC worms of a similar nature, as well as the use of peer-to-peer file-trading networks as launching platforms for new viruses. Hogan says the bot-hacker communication channel can be blocked with strong firewalls, while the IRC these hackers use can also be their undoing, since a hacker can be easily tracked once the authentic IP address of the IRC channel host is learned.
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  • "Still a Proud Papa"
    Mercury News (06/10/05); Langberg, Mike

    ICANN Chairman Vint Cerf and Corporation for National Research Initiatives director Robert Kahn will be honored for their pioneering work in computer-to-computer communication with ACM's A.M. Turing Award at the ACM Awards banquet in San Francisco on June 11. The Turing award has long been recognized as the computing industry's Nobel Prize. Cerf, who is widely regarded as the father of the Internet, says the Net's decentralized architecture makes it very resilient against attack, and has also nurtured rapid and sweeping innovation by encouraging experimentation with new applications. Although substantial work must be done to improve security, Cerf says the Internet "has been able to defend itself against quite a large range of attacks that go on all the time." The Internet's structure is derived from Cerf and Kahn's development of a framework that allows numerous types of machines to communicate without the need for centralized management. Cerf says the next phase in the Internet's development is the addition of many non-computing devices. He predicts that sensory systems will grow more important as tools for security as well as building maintenance and management. "They'll be used to adapt building resources to you and your special needs," Cerf projects. He also praises email, particularly for its ability to ease communication for people like him who suffer from hearing loss.
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    For more information on the ACM A.M. Turing Award and this year's recipients, visit http://www.acm.org/awards/turing_citations/cerf_kahn.html.

  • "Emotional Intelligence for Computer-Based Characters?"
    IST Results (06/10/05)

    The IST-funded ERMIS project yielded insights into linguistic and paralinguistic cues in human speech that were incorporated into a "sensitive artificial listener," a prototype computer character that can realistically express emotions in human-computer communications. Professor Stefanos Kollias of the National Technical University of Athens says the ERMIS researchers extracted emotional language cues from analysis of linguistics in English and Greek speech, paralinguistic features such as emphasis and intonation, and facial expressions. About 400 common-speech features, 20 to 25 of which were selected as the most important emotional cues, were entered into a neural network architecture that integrated all the various linguistic, paralinguistic, and facial communication elements. The analytical results were fed into a system with several on-screen characters that could respond to and replicate the emotional content in speech and facial expressions, and that were programmed to try to make the people they interacted with angry, happy, sad, and bored. The ERMIS project partners are exploring how the results of the ERMIS team's work could be incorporated into their own products: Nokia is looking into the enhancement of its multimedia phones, BT is considering how its call center technologies could benefit, and Eyetronics plans to augment the simulation of facial movements in its virtual characters. Kollias says the four-year HUMAIN (FP6) project was inspired by the ERMIS results.
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  • "The Scramble to Protect Personal Data"
    New York Times (06/09/05) P. C1; Zeller Jr., Tom

    Recent incidents of identity theft from data aggregators such as ChoicePoint and Citigroup call for the widespread institution of a holistic data security strategy, says Unisys security consultant and former FBI chief cybercrime investigator Mike Gibbons. Such an approach requires the creation of more secure online access techniques, strong customer authentication, the recruitment of dedicated security personnel, and improvements in the transfer and storage of large volumes of consumer data. Safenet CEO Anthony Caputo says Internet connections usually have insufficient capacity for handling the huge amounts of data being transmitted, which is why sensitive information is still being stored on magnetic tape and shipped by truck. Nevertheless, he expects the data to be transferred to networks in a matter of months or years, in response to growing public demand. Security expert Bruce Schneier believes data brokers must be jarred into beefing up their security through the establishment of liability and penalties for those who fail to do so, and such legislation is pending. Many people think the most likely bill to be passed is a national version of a 2003 California law requiring data brokers to notify consumers of security breaches, while a proposal from Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) calls for companies to craft written data security policies, and to be penalized for security failures. In anticipation of legislation, institutions such as the financial industry have started to bolster their defenses against identity theft. Both E*Trade and Bank of America recently started implementing stronger customer log-in measures, while the transfer of large volumes of stored consumer data is migrating to wide-area networks with encrypted, fiber-optic technology on closed systems.
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  • "Using the Next Generation of Gaming & Computer Graphics to Promote Education & Physical Activity in Children"
    dBusinessNews (06/09/05)

    ACM's SIGGRAPH 2005 Educators Program Chair Patricia Beckman-Wells says the purpose of the program this year "is to showcase the 'wonder factor' of current education products and encourage an environment of self-directed learning." Topics to be discussed include virtual instructors, educational toys, and the use of next-generation gaming and computer graphics to help promote education and physical activity in children. One panel discussion will focus on addressing the problem of "fake fun"--the lack of enjoyment in educational games--using a nonviolent educational game the Georgia Tech Research Institute adapted from a first-person shooter game engine as an example. Another panel will bring together educational game developers to debate how games can be designed to promote learning, the effect such games have on non-game learning pursuits and learning aids, and game-based learning's real-world applications. A presentation from the Colorado School of Mines will highlight research into how men and women's level of attraction to computer and video games is affected by the use of 2D and 3D graphics. Another presentation will investigate how virtual interoperable characters can function as learning companions, while a session hosted by Purdue University Calumet will discuss how an undergraduate computer graphics program can exploit current research into interactive learning games while taking the K-12 curricula into account. SIGGRAPH 2005 will also host the Incubator, a demo space for current and future interactive educational products. Live play in this space will illustrate how interactive video games can nurture new kinds of physical activity.
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    For more information on SIGGRAPH 2005, or to register, visit http://www.siggraph.org/s2005/.

  • "Consumers Suspicious of Sponsored Links"
    Penn State Live (06/08/05)

    A paper presented at the Sixth ACM Conference on E-commerce by Penn State School of Information Sciences and Technology professor Jim Jansen indicates that consumers exhibit a substantial measure of bias against sponsored links, which appears to negate their viability as a business model, at least by themselves. The report details a study in which 56 participants, ages 18 to 29, gauged the results from 330 e-commerce result queries entered into a leading search engine, and the researchers concocted a fake search engine to display one page of the results from the queries. Sponsored links and "organic" results returned automatically by the search engine's algorithmic functions were flipped on half the pages, and the researchers discovered that participants first referenced the results identified as organic on over 80 percent of the searches. In contrast, participants first viewed sponsored links just 6 percent of the time. Although both sets of results were identical, 52 percent of the organic results were rated as "relevant" by the participants, compared to 42 percent of sponsored links. "What our study shows is that even when the returned results are exactly the same, people still view what they thought of as the organic results as better," said Jansen, adding that it is the placement of the results, not the quality of the sponsored links, that makes the difference.
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  • "Study: IT Pay Rising for Hot Skills"
    Computerworld (06/08/05); Weiss, Todd R.

    The interest that employers are starting to show toward IT-savvy people who do not have certification could become a trend, says Foote Partners President David Foote. The research firm has released a new study showing that overall pay for noncertified IT workers rose 2.8 percent during the first quarter of 2005, compared with a 0.6 percent increase for workers with certification. For the year ending April 1, workers without certification had a 3.6 percent increase in pay and certified workers averaged an increase of 2.9 percent, according to the Hot Technical Skills and Certifications Pay Index, which tracks about 48,000 workers in the United States and Europe. A year ago, annual pay was down 2.1 percent for noncertified workers, but down only 0.2 percent for certified workers. "It's becoming more important what you did with your skills [for previous employers] than how you got them," explains Foote. He adds that employers are willing to pay more because the economy is improving, they must have good people to maintain legacy systems and other key technology programs, and they need special technical skills to meet federal laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley. Messaging/email/groupware, networking, and enterprise applications development are among the noncertified skills that are in demand. Employers are placing more value on certified skills involving applications development/programming languages, systems administration and engineering/network operating systems, and databases.
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  • "Innovative Asia: How Spending on Research and Development Is Opening the Way to a New Sphere of Influence"
    Financial Times (06/09/05) P. 11; Cookson, Clive

    Asian research and development is rapidly maturing, but it is still far from the level of developed Western countries, according to top experts. There is concrete evidence of a research boom in countries such as China and India, where governments are implementing plans to quickly increase their level of science and technology investment, and where a vast pool of science and engineering talent compares favorably against Europe and the United States, where interest in science and technology education is waning; Asian countries also offer lower costs than in the United States, although that advantage is narrowing. The highly competitive nature of the United States causes people to unduly view growing Asian influence as a threat: "Fears in the west about the rise of Asian science are very much exaggerated," says the Indian government's chief scientist, R.A. Mashelkar. Although China and India do not track the specific numbers of scientists and technologists who emigrate or return, a net outflow is likely. Even the growing number of Asian scientists and engineers who return to help build companies in their homelands points to the superior quality of overseas education. Samsung Electronics chief technology strategist Kim Chuljin says the quality of Korean science and engineering graduates is declining and the company spends more time for on-the-job training with Korean graduates than with overseas graduates. Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology senior official Zhou Yuan notes that most of the core technology used in the region is still developed elsewhere, and that advances to date have come from applying those fundamental technologies. The whole idea of a competitive threat may not be helpful, and Western countries should view a maturing Asian science sector as an opportunity, says European Union research commissioner Pavel Potocnik.

  • "Plugging the Mainframe Brain Drain"
    CNet (06/08/05); Miller, Bill

    BMC Software's Bill Miller says the mainframe, despite its general perception as an obsolete tool, houses more than 70 percent of the world's digital information, and warns that such data will be irretrievably lost if there are no next-generation mainframe specialists to take the reins from the retiring workforce. To prevent this from happening, Miller says IT universities worldwide must reintroduce the proper curricula for advancing mainframe knowledge. He also recommends that the mainframe community mobilize to supply academic institutions with technical and staffing resources to support mainframe education, and notes that CMG, Share, and other organizations are deep and expansive enough to help universities launch mainframe programs. Miller argues that companies must maintain their support for educational programs through academic scholarships, internal mentoring programs, and so on to cultivate new mainframe experts. In addition, companies must get a better idea of how they can offset the erosion of mainframe skills. Miller says systems that facilitate heterogeneous management across diverse environments can remove many traditional mainframe management obstacles, enabling people to work across both mainframe and distributed environments no matter how skilled they are in databases. He acknowledges that a lot of time and money must be invested in the conversion of data from these systems, and in many cases such an option is unworkable. Miller says the need for mainframe specialists could revitalize the IT workforce.
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  • "A Large Screen Is in Your Future"
    ZDNet (06/07/05); Farber, Dan

    Microsoft Research's Visualization and Interaction for Business and Entertainment (VIBE) Group, under the management of researcher Mary Czerwinski, is working on software that exploits larger display and multiple display configurations that are expected to grow in popularity among mainstream users over the next several years. A VIBE Group survey estimated that 22 percent of projected Longhorn users employed a laptop and an additional display or were operating multiple monitors on a single PC, and the group has devised software for large-screen navigation and more effective multi-screen mousing. Mouse Ether, for instance, enables users to move a mouse cursor across multiple screens without warping by providing a high-density cursor that uses additional cursor images to fill the space between the current cursor position and the previous position. Meanwhile, Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson's TouchLight system supports gesture-based navigation of large surfaces. TouchLight turns tabletops and other large surfaces into screens on which users can move objects by hand through the use of a semitransparent panel with a pair of video cameras positioned behind it. Another area of VIBE Group research is the representation of information, as illustrated by the Memex project. The project focuses on the collection and presentation of a lifetime's worth of digital information, and large screens can be used to display data in variable ways based on visualization types and filtering rules.
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  • "A Matter of Artificial Intelligence"
    Khaleej Times (06/10/05); Joshi, Anshuman

    Dr. Michael Rovatsos with the University of Edinburgh School of Informatics' Center of Intelligent Systems and their Applications attributes the appeal and importance of artificial intelligence research not only to its focus on creating "intelligent" computer systems, but also to its attempts to tackle challenges beyond the capabilities of traditional computer science techniques and refine those methods through inspiration from nature and biology. Rovatsos concedes that the "grand vision" of the AI discipline is to simulate human intelligence, but says most AI researchers concentrate on concrete sub-problems such as navigating objects in unclear surroundings or recognizing faces in data captured on video. The researcher is skeptical that human-level intelligence is an attainable goal for AI, though he is confident that the intelligence of simple animals could be simulated in the next few decades. Rovatsos says most AI scientists are more concerned with issues such as what new insights about intelligence and life-enriching technologies can be gleaned from AI research. He dismisses the idea that there are machines currently in existence whose intelligence surpasses that of the human mind: Though many machines are capable of faster calculation and greater memorization than people, they cannot perform functions that come easily to humans, such as understanding a person speaking to a machine. Looking ahead, Rovatsos thinks the Internet could significantly advance the field of AI. Enabling computers to automatically extract information residing online, for example, would remove the burden of telling the systems everything they need to know to function intelligently. Rovatsos also points to building intelligent autonomous robots for simple chores, a prospect that is becoming increasingly viable thanks to the maturation of robotic sensor and motor systems.
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  • "Shattering Myths That Women Can't Be Leaders in Science"
    Spelman College (05/27/05)

    Spelman College's all-woman SpelBot team will be one of five American teams competing in the RoboCup 2005 tournament in Osaka next month, and its successful qualification is regarded as proof that leadership in the sciences is not dictated by gender. Spelman President Beverly Tatum says the SpelBots' triumph illustrates the need for "environments [like Spelman] where those who have been historically left out are expected to succeed without the barriers often associated with gender or race, particularly in science and technology." The SpelBots made the cut for the Osaka tournament with their performance in the third annual RoboCup U.S. Open in May; the team, under the leadership of computer science professor Andrew Williams, prepared for the tournaments by writing sophisticated computer software programs that enable Sony AIBO ERS-7 robot dogs to play soccer as well as formulate their own game strategy without remote control. Spelman's AIBO soccer team will square off against other AIBO soccer teams in the RoboCup tournament as part of a larger effort to develop robots that can autonomously assist humans in both simple and complicated tasks. Spelman is the only historically African-American, all-women's, and undergraduate institution to qualify for RoboCup 2005. Williams, an expert in bioinformatics and artificial intelligence, calls this a major triumph. "In the short term, with SpelBots we want to provide role models for other young ladies, and...show them computer science and engineering can be fun, and they can do it because they are just as talented, gifted and smart," he says.
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  • "Fostering Diversity and Inclusion for Europe's IT Sector"
    IST Results (06/09/05)

    A recent Information Society Technologies project in Europe studied the factors that keep immigrants, women, and other marginalized groups from joining the science, engineering, and technology sectors. The research is expected to lead to new policy changes and integration efforts on the part of the European Commission. National Institute for Working Life lead researcher Jonathan Feldman said minority groups are key to Europe's economic future, especially as the overall population ages and the IT sector faces a skills shortage; but governments need to adopt the right policies so that social inclusion translates into private-sector innovation. Researchers specifically looked at science parks in Stockholm, Linkoping, and Cambridge, as well as the media and multimedia strongholds of Rome and Cardiff in Wales. The study found minority groups could play an important role in shaping technology; people with physical disabilities could help design more accessible systems, for example. Meanwhile, special mentoring and cultural exposure programs can introduce science and technology into students' and workers' lives, while technology pilot projects should involve public agencies, hospitals, universities, and other open institutions so that the needs of key groups can be met while they gain skills. Government and corporate family-leave policies also discourage participation of women and immigrants in IT sector jobs, and a lack of capital for minority-run ventures is also a problem.
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  • "Education Groups Urge Federal Government to Promote High-Speed Internet Access"
    Chronicle of Higher Education (06/10/05) Vol. 51, No. 40, P. A27; Kiernan, Vincent

    A higher-education coalition whose members include Educause and the Internet2 high-speed-network consortium issued a statement last week in which they argued for amendments to federal telecommunications law to expand the scope and accessibility of high-capacity broadband Internet connections throughout the country. What is needed, the group said, is a national initiative to make the Internet capable of handling billions of bits of data each second, and ensure that it remains accessible "to all persons and all lawful content." Moreover, the government has a responsibility to level the playing field for rival technologies and allow state and local governments to continue the operation of their own broadband computer networks; it must also reassume its role as a key sponsor of leading-edge networking technologies. Internet2's Gary Bachula said the group would chiefly rely on the lobbying efforts of college presidents, adding that faculty members often work from home via consumer network links while colleges are increasingly dependent on the Internet for distance education. Such services should be made available to everyone in the United States, he argued. "The main thing that we're calling for here is an advanced telecommunications policy that looks 15 years out rather than one that rearranges the deck chairs," Bachula said.
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  • "Sun's R&D Spectrum"
    Computerworld (06/06/05) P. 29; Anthes, Gary H.

    Sun Microsystems employs some 200 scientists with more than $80 million to spend annually on a wide variety of next-generation computing projects, including a possible 4-PFLOP supercomputer and a Web server the size of a quarter. Sun's Proximity I/O technology, for example, will enable computer chips to fully maximize their potential computing power so that top-tier Internet switches can be built at dimensions and costs similar to PCs; currently, Internet switches cost millions of dollars and fill entire rooms, but Proximity I/O eliminates wire interconnects and the data-transfer bottlenecks associated with them. "When processors went from 10MHz to 3GHz, they didn't become 30 times faster because the bandwidth didn't increase by 30 times; it increased by two or three times," notes Sun Labs researcher Robert Drost. Sun leveraged the potential of Proximity I/O to win a DARPA bid to design and build the next generation of supercomputer architecture. Sun, IBM, and Cray won the three $50 million contracts, and one project will be chosen for actual production by 2009. Proximity I/O would enable massively parallel computation between large numbers of processors, lifting the sustained speeds of that machine above 1PFLOP, possibly scaling to 4PFLOPS. On the other end of the computing spectrum, Sun has developed secure, coin-size Web servers that could be deployed in battlefield sensors, on personal medical devices, or RFID tags used for confidential situations, and Sun's elliptic-curve cryptography (ECC) is key to this effort because it dramatically reduces computing requirements compared to RSA cryptography while maintaining similar security.
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  • "Developers Should Carry the Banner of Software Standards"
    eWeek (06/06/05) Vol. 22, No. 23, P. D1; Coffee, Peter

    Computers and the software applications they run are no longer novelties, but critical components in people's lives and work, writes Peter Coffee; as such, commercial software developers should assume responsibility for their products in the same way electricians are held responsible for using certain grades of wire or consumer electronics makers guarantee devices are safe for use at a particular voltage. Such standards are taken for granted in industry and commerce, and ensure efficient exchange of complex products and services without requiring customers to certify and inspect every aspect of their purchase. Currently, however, the software industry hides behind end-user license agreements (EULAs) that relieve vendors from explicit or implied warranty claims, even though those disclaimers are often rendered invalid by the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act or various state laws. For their part, customers need to make clear their expectations. Software standards that allow programmers to create their own useful licenses are needed, while large corporate and public-sector customers can help foster the development of acceptable practices by understanding current standards and incorporating those into purchase orders. An example of this is Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act that requires technology in the federal government to be accessible to disabled users.
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  • "China's Tech Revolution"
    IEEE Spectrum (06/05); Kumagai, Jean; Hood, Marlowe

    China's transformation into a worldwide economic powerhouse is chiefly due to its technological awakening. The nation's prodigious and cheap workforce, aggressive industrialization, and burgeoning brainpower has helped coax multinationals to do business with or relocate to China, set up Chinese branches, or even sell off whole divisions to Chinese companies, as IBM did with its PC division. The provincial city of Chengdu is a case study of both the advantages and disadvantages of China's economic boom: Positive aspects include the city's expansive and talented population of engineers, who earn significantly less money than their Western counterparts; its numerous universities, which produce around 40,000 graduates per year; and tax breaks and land incentives that have encouraged Intel, Alcatel, and other major corporations to establish facilities for manufacturing and research and development. On the other hand, Chengdu suffers from overcrowding, power shortages, inadequate sanitation, corruption of officials and law enforcement, inveterate land-grabbing, social unrest, and labor disputes. China's remarkable economic efficiency belies the fact that competition is merciless, and that there are too many applicants for a limited number of good jobs. An overreliance on trade means that economic recession and protectionist measures in key trading partners would have a dramatic effect on the country, while the Chinese government's repressive political agenda is another sticking point. Tension is also building between China and its trading partners over such hot-button issues as Taiwan's independence, Japan's rearmament, and China's reputation as a haven for copyright infringement.
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