Association for Computing Machinery
Timely Topics for IT Professionals

About ACM TechNews

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 ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 7, Issue 807:  Wednesday, June 22, 2005

  • "Senators Question E-Voting Paper Trail"
    IDG News Service (06/21/05); Gross, Grant

    Senators Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) both expressed opposition to establishing a paper trail for election ballots by hooking printers up to direct electronic recording machines (DRE). Lott is principally concerned with the increased chance of the election day malfunction he fears the printers could cause, while Dodd's objection is based on the inherent discrimination he sees as the inevitable result of paper-only documentation. "By insisting on paper, you're denying people who cannot read because they cannot see," Dodd said. He further insists that should the paper documentation become law, audio-verification must accompany it. DRE documentation advocates contend that even if the printouts would not help everyone, they would certainly assuage fears of the majority of voters whose confidence in the accuracy of the voting process has been shaken. Stanford University computer science professor David Dill said, "It's not good enough for elections to be accurate; the public has to know that they're accurate," noting that current DREs are "totally opaque." He says, "If we want to make a trustworthy paperless machine, we don't know how to do it." Critics of the paper-trail measure argue that the current DREs are secure and accurate, and the costly introduction of paper documentation, estimated to bring a 35 percent increase to the price of DREs, could deter some states form embracing future voting innovations by endeavoring to fix something that is not broken. CalTech/MIT Voter Technology Project Chairman Ted Selker says DREs are more easily audited than other types of ballots, and argues that if hackers compromise an e-voting machine, they could also compromise any printouts. Five bills requiring voter-verified paper trails are currently pending in Congress, including a Dodd-sponsored bill that calls for either a paper, audio, or visual record.
    Click Here to View Full Article

    For information about ACM's activities involving e-voting, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm.

  • "Women's Share of IT Jobs Plunges"
    Mercury News (06/22/05); Wong, Nicole

    A new report from the Information Technology Association of America shows a severe decline in the percentage of women in the IT workforce. Women held just 32.4 percent of IT jobs in 2004, a proportion that represents a 41 percent drop since 1996. The report also highlights a disproportionately low number of African-Americans and Latinos in IT positions. The report raises broad concerns over the future of the talent pool in an industry of declining interest to students that will see a large swath of its labor force retire with the baby boomers. A variety of factors have undercut women's involvement in IT, including a decline in the flexible work schedules that were so widely offered during the dot-com boom, as well as the deep cuts sustained in the data-entry and administrative sectors of IT in which women typically hold the majority of jobs. The portion of African Americans in the IT arena during the same eight-year period dropped from 9.1 percent to 8.3 percent. While the percentage of Latinos in IT rose slightly, it is still just 6.4 percent, just less than half of their role in the rest of the workforce. Amid evidence that the IT workforce is aging, the industry is also witnessing a pattern of foreign-born workers leaving the United States to head up tech companies in their own countries. The report suggests renewed corporate dedication to diversity, refocusing on minority recruitment, and working more closely with colleges to reach young talent.
    Click Here to View Full Article
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)

    For information about ACM's Committee on Women and Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/women.

  • "9/11 Response Hurting Science, ACLU Says"
    Washington Post (06/22/05) P. A19; Weiss, Rick

    A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union, "Science Under Siege," accuses the Bush administration of developing policies in response to the 9/11 attacks that threaten U.S. scientific enterprise and the nation's technical superiority. The report notes a dramatic increase in the designation of scientific documents as "classified" or vaguely defined by new categories such as "sensitive but not classified" that keep important research out of the hands of scientists. The ACLU report also notes a tightened immigration policy enacted ostensibly to keep terrorists out of the country but which in reality has kept foreign academics, students, and researchers out. The report states that noncitizens have made up more than half of the increase in doctorates earned in the United States over the past decade and more than half of students in U.S. science and engineering programs. In 2003, the number of foreign students enrolled in U.S. institutions dropped for the first time in 30 years, most of whom were studying science or engineering. The report warns of an effort by the Commerce Department to limit the spreading of fundamental scientific research by U.S. academics who have long been exempt from such prohibitions. "Even at a time when fears of terrorism runs so high--especially at such a time--we must resist the temptation to allow the crude, excessive and questionably effective regime of secrecy that dominates our security agencies to cloud the open operation and steady progress being made under our scientific tradition," the report concludes. The Bush administration's move to restrict access to information reverses a Clinton administration effort to declassify marginally sensitive documents and greatly hampers the ability of scientists to conduct open research.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Gov't. Collected Airline Passenger Data"
    Associated Press (06/20/05); Miller, Leslie

    In direct violation of a congressional mandate, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been gathering personal information about U.S. citizens who flew commercially in June 2004. Under the guise of the program Secure Flight, designed to screen for terrorists, the TSA's collection of passenger data including names, addresses, phone numbers, and credit card information has left that embattled agency open to class-action lawsuits and criticism from rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Despite previous assurances that it would not collect customers' information and the 1974 Privacy Act prohibiting secret government databases, the TSA hired Virginia-based EagleForce to generate CD-ROMs "for use in watch list and match testing," according to documents to be published this week in the Federal Register. Bruce Schneier, a security expert appointed to the Secure Flight oversight panel, says, "They're doing what they want and they're working around any rules that exist." The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a failing grade when it evaluated Secure Flight in March, citing nine of 10 measures still unmet that Congress had outlined for the program. "TSA is losing the public's trust," said ACLU's Tim Sparapani, who is unmoved by the agency's assurances that the data is soundly protected against theft. Amidst public outcry and congressional withholding of funds, the Secure Flight program, which replaced the much-criticized CAPPS II program, will be the subject of a Department of Homeland Security investigation.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Software Patents: EU Parliamentarians Adopt Council of Ministers' Line"
    Heise Online (Germany) (06/21/05)

    The European Parliament's Committee on Legal Affairs voted Monday to propose sweeping limitations on the patentability of software. The close vote decided what will be debated and the terms that will be used to discuss it, in the July 6 plenary session concerning the Directive on the Patentability of "Computer-implemented Inventions." The vote will potentially have a broad impact, as it has defined technology as "applied natural science," language that casts a long shadow over the viability of technical patents in Europe. Former French prime minister Michel Rocard, who led the movement for the restriction of patents, made some concessions, such as omitting language that explicitly repudiates the possibility of patenting "algorithms or software." The proposal for the creation of a fund helping smaller companies to obtain patents, though meant as an olive branch to the left, disappoints delegate Eva Lichtenberger of Austria's Green Party. Of the fund, Lichtenberger says, "That would be like having someone slap you in the face first and then hand you a pain killer." An absolute majority will be required for the proposal to pass when it is next debated.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "New Supercomputers Overhaul Top Ranks"
    CNet (06/22/05); Shankland, Stephen

    IBM once again highlights the list of the 500 fastest supercomputers released this week at the International Supercomputing Conference in Heidelberg, Germany, building six of the top 10 systems and 259 of the top 500. The list ranks computers by how many trillions of algebraic calculations per second they can perform. Five of the top six used the Blue Gene design that integrates 1,024 processors into six-foot tall cabinets. Blue Gene goes for about $2 million per rack, but IBM sells partial racks and is working on a separate designed, dubbed Cyclops, aimed at life sciences research. The list is compiled twice annually by the University of Mannheim in Germany, the University of Tennessee, and the U.S. Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Turnover on the list is high, with the slowest machine on the latest list nearly as fast as the collective performance on the first ever list published in June 1993. IBM's Blue Gene/L at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the top performer on the list, is faster than the collective performance of all 500 on the list put out in November 2001. Intel's Xeon processor was used in 254 of the top 500 supercomputers.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Engineer's Tiny Chip Changed the World"
    Washington Post (06/22/05) P. A1; Sullivan, Patricia

    Jack Kilby, inventor of the integrated circuit, died Monday of cancer at the age of 81. The 2000 Nobel Prize recipient held over 60 patents, though none were more influential than the microchip technology that launched the microelectronics industry. Kilby's central innovation was the combination of all the necessary elements for a circuit onto a single surface, silicon, which solved the problem of faulty connections ruining circuits then baffling engineers. Kilby's discovery also opened the door to the exponential reduction in the size of chips. Overcoming a rivalry with Intel founder Robert Noyce, Kilby accepted his status as co-inventor of the microchip, but earned distinct credit for conceptualizing the single surface concept. Kilby took degrees from the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin before serving as an army engineer and eventually settling at Texas Instruments, where he made his famous discovery on July 24, 1958. Always thinking of himself as an engineer rather than a scientist, Kilby is credited for a wide variety of inventions, including a forerunner to the answering machine. Kilby ironically eschewed some of the latest technologies such as cell phones and calculators for his personal use, and worked at home on archaic computers. Assessing Kilby's achievement, Texas Instruments' Chairman Tom Engibos said, "In my opinion, there are only a handful of people whose works have truly transformed the world and the way we live in it--Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, and Jack Kilby."
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "HLRS Director: HPC Users Need Quality, Not Quantity"
    HPC Wire (06/17/05) Vol. 14, No. 24

    Michael M. Resch, director of the High Performance Computing Center (HLRS) in Stuttgart, outlined in an interview his belief that the best supercomputers are designed with the end product in mind, and that technologies need to be adaptable to the industries they serve. The Center is a leading advocate of supercomputer use and an access provider to universities and industry professionals in Europe. The Center currently uses the six-node NEC SX-6 and the 72-node NEC SX-8 systems because NEC offered the best match with the Center's wish list of features. Resch has found that the parallel vector NEC systems compare favorably to systems that use more processors in the measures of price and performance. As a professor of computer science, Resch noted that "people in western countries have lost interest and enthusiasm in technology in general," and that his most eager students come from Asia. But at Stuttgart, his students are immersed in sustained research projects requiring collaboration with the industry. In addressing the Grid, Resch believes its promoters overstated its potential and channeled their efforts toward unattainable goals. He also says that industry development of the Grid has outpaced the work of the computer science community. In summarizing his practical, solution-driven approach to high-performance computing, Resch says, "There is an obsession with peak performance and quantity, and ruefully little interest in quality and timely deliverance of application solutions. HPC has lost its way; it is not concerned with solutions but merely peak performance."
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "In Chess, Masters Again Fight Machines"
    New York Times (06/21/05) P. B1; McClain, Dylan Loeb

    The celebrated defeat of Garry Kasparov, world chess champion at the time, by the Deep Blue computer in 1997 will not be the final word in the battle between man and machine for preeminence in the chess world. More and more top ranked players are taking on matches against computers, such as the two-game match scheduled for Tuesday in New York between Rustam Kasimdzhanov and a tool bar-based chess program developed by Accoona Corporation. Since Kasparov's defeat, many matches between top players and computer programs have ended in draws, and the programming is only becoming more sophisticated. Many players see upcoming matches against intricate chess programs such as Hydra and the Accoona tool bar ending in a draw as the best possible scenario. The programs, some of which can calculate millions of moves per second, have an undeniable advantage, but many players such as Kasimdzhanov are not in it just for the victory: "Sports are not about reaching a result. Sport is about developing your inner qualities." England's Michael Adams, the world's sixth-ranked chess player, today begins a six-game match against Hydra, a super chess computer developed by the United Arab Emirates' Pal Group considered stronger than Deep Blue. Adams wants to prove "that it is possible to play against Hydra, and that it has weaknesses that can be exploited." Although the computers appear to have the advantage, Kasimdzhanov doubts he will lose both games, noting that the competition between human and computer in chess is more even than a man racing a car.
    Click Here to View Full Article
    (Articles published within 7 days can be accessed free of charge on this site. After 7 days, a pay-per-article option is available. First-time visitors will need to register.)

  • "Taking a Virtual View of the World"
    IST Results (06/17/05)

    Six partners from France, Germany, and Italy have developed software that enables users to browse data collected from satellites and aerial vehicles in three dimensions. "Using Vplanet Explorer, anyone can set off on a journey to discover new regions in 3D, rather than staring at a flat map and trying to picture its scenery," says IST project Vplanet coordinator Eric Martin. "With the click of a mouse, they can fluently fly through terrain in real time, on a standard PC." The software integrates data from various sources into a single 3D database using techniques such as filtering, correlation, and specially-developed algorithms. Using PC standard graphics cards reduces the cost of working with geographic information systems. Aircraft maker Airbus has already tested Vplanet Explorer in flight simulators that allowed users to fly through a simulated real landscape rather than an artificial one. The software was also used to assess flood risks in France and was showcased on the inauguration day of the country's Pont Millau, where a public presentation was made of the world's tallest road bridge combined with a virtual model of the terrain. The software package will be available this summer.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Snoozing About Security"
    CNet (06/17/05); Cooper, Charles

    The two-year-old Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cybersecurity division has gone through three cyberczars and millions of taxpayer dollars with no progress in the quest to control the increasing number of worm and virus attacks, writes CNet executive editor Charles Cooper. In an Internet poll, most Americans doubt the U.S. government is doing enough in terms of cybersecurity with just 28 percent reporting that the government is doing a good job. Pending legislation establishing an Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity and the DHS Cybersecurity Enhancement Act of 2005 increasing funding and authority are both meant to help improve cybersecurity. A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined significant structural and cultural problems among federal agencies. The GAO suggests creation of security milestones to help improve progress in cybersecurity, but the DHS rejected the recommendations and called for more "clarifications." GAO report author David Powner and other security experts fear a combined cybersecurity and physical terrorist attack due to ongoing vulnerabilities. Powner says, "If you look at the recovery plans (DHS has in place), more work needs to be done. If you look at reconstituting the Internet if there were an event that took down the network, there's still not a plan in place."
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Gadget Firms Start to Notice the Gals"
    Contra Costa Times (CA) (06/19/05); Lee, Ellen

    Consumer electronics companies are starting to recognize women as an under-appreciated audience in the packaging of their products. The Consumer Electronics Association reports that in the $100 billion per year industry, women are involved in 89% of the purchase decisions, and retailers and developers are starting to notice. In a traditionally male-dominated marketplace, women's substantial demand for gadgets that fit their needs has spurred shifts in marketing and design, such as CarryCell, which sells a line of clothing incorporating the ability to carry a cell phone into each of its fashions. The feminine shift in technology is widespread, as vibrant colors have partially supplanted the traditional black and silver design of consumer electronics. Many companies see the inherent limitations in that sort of cosmetic marketing, however, and are looking to present their products to female consumers in a way that highlights the item's daily relevance, as opposed to the more male-oriented method that trumpets the product's cutting-edge innovation on a very technical level. "We heard loud and clear from our female customers," says palmOne's Rose Rodd about her company's female-driven market research that led them to create the Zire handheld, built to be stylish, lightweight, and easy to use, and netted more than half of its sales from women. Busy professional women with families respond to gadgets that demonstrate the potential to simplify their lives, and they are being increasingly targeted in women's magazines such as Redbook and Real Simple. Companies such as Sony and Best Buy are also seeing the increased value in the female customer, and are revising their retail space as a result, offering wide aisles to accommodate strollers, and displaying graphics depicting the warm, unifying effect of technology on the family.
    Click Here to View Full Article
    (Access to this site is free; however, first-time visitors must register.)

  • "NSF Backs Next-Gen Internet Plans"
    Federal Computer Week (06/17/05); Sternstein, Aliya

    MIT senior research scientist David Clark has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to begin preliminary research on developing a new architecture for the next Internet. The NSF is funding Clark's work as the first step in a larger program of blueprinting a successor to the current Internet. While the original Internet was funded largely by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), that agency has moved more toward the field of weapons development, leaving the NSF to support projects demanding basic computer science. Clark, who has been active in the evolution of the Internet for 30 years, will focus his research on making the next Internet more secure. Clark, chairman of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, says, "I don't want to have a sudden meltdown, blackout or have the Internet used as a vector for a widespread terrorist attack." NSF expects to make an announcement about the new initiative in August.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Careers: Hiring Is Up But Salaries Are Flat"
    Enterprise Systems (06/14/05); Swoyer, Stephen

    Information technology staffing company Robert Half Technology found in a recent survey of over 1,400 company CIOs that 17 percent will make changes to their current IT staff levels in the next quarter. Of these, 82 percent intend to add more employees, while the rest expect to reduce staff levels. Robert Half Technology executive director Katherine Spencer Lee notes that CIOs are carefully considering their main mandates and adding full-time employees just when they locate a long-term need for a specific position or skill set. Meanwhile, a study done by management consultancy Janco Associates determined that total compensation for IT executives has stayed about flat in spite of a stronger job market. Janco found that overall compensation for IT professional has risen by only 0.2 percent since January, to an average of $77,249. Janco CEO Victor Janulaitis believes that outsourcing is to blame for the lackluster figure, as companies are sending out their most costly IT jobs, resulting in the eradication of certain high-paying positions. The majority of IT executives, however, still have salary and compensation that is at least equal to their experience, especially for IT professionals with a lot of productions and operations expertise.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Common Criteria or Common Confusion?"
    SD Times (06/01/05) No. 127, P. 5; de Jong, Jennifer

    The process of certifying the security of commercial software is not necessarily flawed, but the two dimensions of the Common Criteria results in some confusion, according to Mike Wolf, general manager of the advanced products engineering group at software vendor Green Hills. Common Criteria, which consists of a process for evaluating technical remedies to security threats and a set of standards for specifying the threats, is confusing because it has two dimensions to its rankings, says Wolf. While the first dimension, the Protection Profile, refers to the specific security requirements that were tested, the second dimension, the Evaluation Assurance Level, ranges from EAL1 (low) to EAL7 (high) to indicate how confident evaluators are about the product's ability to deliver on its security claims. People often focus on the second dimension, but it must be considered in relation to the first dimension. For example, Microsoft received a Common Criteria certification for Windows 2004 at the competitive EAL4 ranking, but its first dimension Controlled Access Protection Profile (CAPP) represents a minimal level of security functions. As IBM's Dan Frye explains, "you can have a high level of confidence about a minimal set of security functions." CC became an international standard in 1993 as the introduction of country-specific security initiatives fell out of favor in the United States, Canada, and European countries.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Seeing Tech's Future Now"
    CIO (06/15/05) Vol. 18, No. 17, P. 26; Worthen, Ben

    The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is taking an active role in the research and development (R&D) of future technology initiatives. Richard Russell, associate director of technology for the OSTP, says one of its main responsibilities is to track innovative technologies and coordinate their development across the government. Nanotechnology and advanced networking are two trends the office is monitoring at the moment. Russell says R&D funding has increased 45 percent over the last five years, and that the OSTP is looking at spending $132 billion on R&D in 2006. At the same time, the Bush administration has requested $269 million in funding for the Department of Education's Math and Science Partnership program. The OSTP also supports science education programs designed to spur interest in math and the sciences among K-12 students.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Technology That Imitates Nature"
    Economist Technology Quarterly (06/05) Vol. 375, No. 8430, P. 18

    Engineers are looking increasingly toward nature as an inspiration for technological innovation. The field of biomimetics will soon be more accessible to engineers, as scientists at the Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technologies at the University of Bath in England are developing a "biological patent" database, wherein natural structures with potential technological significance (like the hook and loop structure that became Velcro) are archived. That a structure exists in nature, having necessarily been tested and refined in order to survive, automatically gives it a leg up on human-generated concepts. A gecko can defy gravity and crawl on the ceiling because of a weak intermolecular attraction between hair-like setae on their feet that, if reproduced synthetically, could yield revolutionary new adhesives. Robotic engineers, especially keen observers of nature, often look to animals to create a robot's pattern of motion that would enable it to negotiate terrain such as the moon too rocky to be traversed by a robot on wheels. While nature has yielded many unlikely technical advances, the Centre's Julian Vincent believes we have only scratched the surface, and that the flow of information between the biological and engineering communities needs to be reversed, so that instead of a newly discovered structure being shopped around for potential use, "biomimetics should be providing examples of suitable technologies from biology which fulfill the requirements of a particular engineering problem." Researchers can mine the Centre's database of biological patents either by keyword search, or through the Russian method TRIZ of breaking a problem down into smaller parts, for which the database would then search for a relevant natural solution. While the database currently contains 2,500 patents, Vincent is soliciting the online community to help increase that number by tenfold.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Conversational Computers"
    Scientific American (06/05) Vol. 292, No. 6, P. 64; Aaron, Andy; Eide, Ellen; Pitrelli, John F.

    Industrial and academic researchers are attempting to better understand the elements that constitute speech in order to make synthesized speech systems capable of sounding more human; such abilities are essential as computer-generated voice transactions become commonplace. The most advanced synthesizers in use today are concatenative synthesizers that can organize sequences of recorded phonemes into any given word. IBM assembles a massive archive of sentences spoken by rigorously auditioned, carefully coached speakers, and this recorded text is sliced into phonemes and measured for prosody by software. Each recorded phoneme is associated with its text equivalent, and the database is used to construct a statistical model to automatically surmise the properties that control each person's pitch levels, timing, and loudness; these properties are in turn used to give the synthesized speech a more human-like quality. IBM's NAXPRES Synthesizer takes textual input and converts it into phonemes through the application of rules. A grammar parser is used to deal with the quirks of English pronunciation, while dynamic programming is employed to efficiently search the database for the optimal phoneme samples. The system addresses audio abnormalities by modifying pitch and other speech components accordingly. A contentious issue in machine speech research is whether speech synthesis should be refined to match human speech perfectly, a development that is likely to make people uneasy for several reasons: For one thing, neutral speech expression serves people better in certain situations, while people are likely to be discomfited with the idea that they are being deceived when they call a corporate support center.