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


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Volume 7, Issue 859:  Wednesday, October 26, 2005

  • "New Rules On Internet Wiretapping Challenged"
    Washington Post (10/26/05) P. D1; Mohammed, Arshad

    Privacy, high-tech, and telecommunications groups argued against new FCC wiretapping regulations in federal court yesterday, claiming the rules would force broadband ISPs to pay for redesigning their networks in order to make it easier for law enforcement to monitor Internet-based phone calls and emails, in accordance with the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994. The groups also said civil liberties and Internet innovation could suffer because of the pressures the new rules would put on developers. "It's simply a very bad idea for privacy and for free speech for the government to design any technology, much less the Internet, to be surveillance-friendly," stated Electronic Frontier Foundation counsel Lee Tien. John Morris with the Center for Democracy and Technology said the Internet's continued evolution depends on scores of innovators developing new concepts, a practice that new CALEA rules threatens to stifle. He added that his group does not oppose court-ordered wiretapping per se, but is against its application through the 1994 law, which is unsuitable for the Internet era. Morris suggested the matter should be put before Congress, which "can tailor the obligations to the Internet context as opposed to importing the very clumsy [telephone system] obligations and imposing them on the Internet." The American Council on Education made a separate request for the federal court to review the rules, which senior vice president Terry Hartle warned could add up to billions in upgrade costs for colleges and universities.
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  • "A Morass That Immobilizes Europe's IT Workers"
    International Herald Tribune (10/25/05); O'Brien, Kevin J.

    While the European Union was built to level the barriers between nations, Europe's IT labor market is still a bewildering labyrinth of regulations and country-specific certifications. Within the EU, there are more than 100 distinct IT specialist certification programs, and companies frequently do not pay for employees' training. While Europe's technology economy shows signs of revival, many feel that worker immobility and the failure of universities to produce qualified graduates will undermine its long-term success. Europe does not have an effective system to train IT workers and assist them with job placement, and many employers have developed their own certification programs based narrowly on their specific needs, while universities have been slow to emerge from their emphasis on theoretical learning. While everyone involved can assume a portion of the blame for Europe's problem, efforts to eliminate the national restrictions have stalled, exposing the conflicting interests of large and small businesses. Education is difficult to standardize across the EU, as many member states view it as an inextricable element of their national culture. The agencies created by the EU, such as the European Commission, typically draw their support from large companies, and by themselves lack the clout to bring about a consensus among nations. There is disagreement about the most fundamental issues in Europe, such as the question of whether an IT worker shortage even exists, despite Cisco's warning that Europe could be short by as many as 500,000 workers with specialized training by 2008. The European Commission says there is no significant worker shortage, as demonstrated by the aggressive hiring practices of companies such as SAP, which has already brought on 2,700 new software engineers, and intends to add another 1,800 by the end of the year.
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  • "Old Software Weakening Net's Backbone, Survey Says"
    CNet (10/25/05); Espiner, Tom

    The BIND software used for domain-name resolution is out of date or incorrectly configured on a fifth of DNS servers, leaving them exposed to possible hacker attacks, according to a new survey from the Measurement Factory. The company said DNS servers that run versions of BIND earlier than version 9 are opening the door to pharming attacks through DNS cache poisoning, which involves hacking into DNS servers and replacing the numeric IP addresses of legitimate Web sites with those of malicious sites. Internet users are then taken to bogus Web pages where they may be asked for information such as bank account details or unknowingly have spyware installed on their computer. In addition, the Measurement Factory warned against the practice of allowing recursive name service for arbitrary queries, or unspecified machines, rather than just for trusted users; this could open up a name server to a malicious attack. In theory, once a malicious hacker has compromised one DNS server, the recursive name service could be used to force other DNS servers to contact the compromised server to resolve a request. Over time, this would allow the hacker to poison the caches of a large number of DNS servers, via the cache of one compromised machine. Recursive name services should only be enabled on a DNS server for a restricted list of trusted requestors, according to Inblox, the infrastructure developer that commissioned the survey.
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  • "Google Supports Open Source Initiatives With Oregon Universities"
    LinuxElectrons (10/26/05)

    Google has contributed a $350,000 grant to an open source initiative sponsored jointly by Oregon State University and Portland State University. Through the grant, the two universities will develop curricula and offer the computing infrastructure to support open source efforts. Google's grant is the latest of many efforts to promote the development of open source software, which it uses regularly in its own projects. Under the grant, the two universities will create a shared open source technology center to coordinate the curricula throughout the Oregon University system, as well as offer internships and encourage integration between public and private organizations in Oregon. Heading up the coordination of the program are Oregon State University Open Source Lab associate director Scott Kveton and Bart Massey, an assistant professor of computer science at Portland State, both of whom have extensive open source experience.
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  • "Smart, Robotic Toys May One Day Diagnose Autism at Early Age"
    Wall Street Journal (10/26/05) P. B1; Gomes, Lee

    A team of Yale researchers is exploring the application of robotic toys to help diagnose autism, a mental illness whose escalating numbers have raised questions over whether doctors' understanding of the disease has actually improved, or whether it is being diagnosed more liberally due to pressure from parents who see it as a ticket to special programs and services for troubled children. Yale robotics researcher Brian Scassellati has built robotic heads that interact with autistic and nonautistic children. The robots can be programmed to carry on a logical conversation or to veer into nonsensical speech, which can be used as a litmus test for autism; unafflicted children disengage from a conversation when it loses its thread, while the autistic are interested in communicating with the robot whether it makes sense or not. Measuring eye gaze is also instructive, as nonautistic children will move their eyes between the two speakers in conversation in a movie, focusing on their eyes, while autistic children are more likely to fix their gaze on a feature of the background where there is no activity. The Yale group is seeking to quantify these indicators to determine how accurately they can diagnose autism. While Scassellati and his team remain focused on diagnosis, he also wonders what applications his robots could have in the treatment of autism. Unlike people, robots would not tire when working with autistic children to teach them social skills. While robots possess the technical tools to interact with a child for a sustained period of time, it remains uncertain if they will be able to improve on the diagnostic skill of people, though Scassellati believes that robots will be better able to see through children who may have been coached by their parents.

  • "Futurists Pick Top Tech Trends"
    Wired News (10/25/05); Glasner, Joanna

    While predicting which technologies emerging today will have the staying power to revolutionize the future can at times be a fool's errand, futurists believe that it can be instructive to identify prevailing trends that could lead to the creation of individual devices. Simplicity is one of those trends, as companies are moving away from the feature-driven development mode as they recognize that most consumers purchase a product for its one intended use, and that the great majority of the added functionalities are unnecessary and go unused. Apple's iPod falls into this category, as it performs one function extremely well and has enjoyed overwhelming popularity. Futurists also predict an increase in mobile services as portable devices move beyond simply allowing us to communicate with each other to offer features such as instant maps and restaurant reviews. Advances in voice recognition technology will be at the core of expanded mobile device functionality, as some predict that cell phones that allow users to compose email while driving simply by speaking the message are not long in the offing. British Telecommunications' Ian Pearson believes that the future will witness many advances converging at once, fusing together to create the "2006 IT explosion," which will consist of improved screens, enhanced location technology, and advanced gaming consoles that can host a variety of home entertainment applications.
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  • "Machines Are Catching Up With Human Intelligence"
    Knight-Ridder Wire Services (10/25/05); Boyd, Robert S.

    Artificial intelligence is woven into almost every fiber of human endeavor, including communication, banking, and transportation, and it shows no signs of abating. AI powers information retrieval technologies such as Google, and is in use among pharmaceutical companies in developing new drug therapies. The evolutionary principles, or genetic algorithms, that power AI technology also informed NASA's design of three satellites that it will launch to examine magnetic fields in the atmosphere of the Earth. AI also powers unmanned aircraft that patrol over Afghanistan, though many developers feel that the true ingenuity behind AI is often lost when people begin to take the product for granted. AI has historically been a field characterized by towering expectations and stagnant progress, as the period from the 1980s through the early 1990s is referred to as the AI Winter. Futurist Ray Kurzweil declares that period as long over, and predicts that computers will become so intelligent that they will blur the line between human and machine intelligence, and that by 2045, the amount of machine intelligence could exceed the aggregate of all human intelligence. Others are more cautious, particularly in light of the machine's inability to exhibit the cognitive skills or resourcefulness of a small child. The Defense Department-sponsored race of robot-operated vehicles earlier this month gave many AI enthusiasts cause to celebrate, however, as the winning entry demonstrated its sophisticated positioning abilities that integrated signals from a camera, GPS, and lasers that sensed obstacles to navigate a winding and rugged 132-mile course. The NSF has also called for AI researchers to produce new intelligence systems that can create goals and assess their environment.
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  • "Automated Analysis of Security-Sensitive Protocols"
    IST Results (10/25/05)

    To address the uncertainties inherent in the vast array of available security services, the AVISPA software tool allows security protocol designers to plug in the desired protocol and learn of any weaknesses it may have when deployed in a given language. AVISPA's developers, led by professor Alessandro Armando of the University of Genoa's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, tout the device as the first to automate the design of security protocols, which are critical to the execution of safe online interactions between a user's browser and a company's server. Ensuring that a protocol is impervious to bugs and weaknesses is complicated, and the AVISPA project, completed in July, aims to reduce that process to the push of a button in an application that can run either on a PC or through a Web interface. AVISPA's developers, working on the IST-sponsored Future and Emerging Technologies project, say the software tool could lead to next-generation security protocols.
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  • "Making Signatures More Secure"
    San Francisco Chronicle (10/24/05) P. F1; Pimentel, Benjamin

    IBM researchers in San Jose have come up with new software that uses the unique ways individuals sign their names, such as their hand strokes and pressure exerted on the writing pad, to determine the validity of signatures and to detect forgery. If a signature is a 95 percent match of the one stored by the software, a green check mark appears, but one that is rated only 1 percent or 2 percent gets a red "x" and is rejected as a forgery. The software, dubbed Sign and Go, will be marketed to retail outlets looking for better ways of detecting identity fraud and will allow retailers to set their own policies on how closely a signature must match the data stored in its network, says IBM researcher Thomas Zimmerman. For example, he says a store may tolerate just 50 percent accuracy for a lower priced item, but require 80 percent accuracy for more expensive items such as washing machines. However, Zimmerman says, "If you require a very high threshold--95 percent--you'll get a lot of unhappy customers." Analyst James Van Dyke says it is still unclear to IBM just how big the market will be for this kind of verification software, since a growing number of consumers are shifting to debit card sales based on consumers' personal identification numbers. Still, Zimmerman says signature verification technology is likely more socially acceptable than such biometric systems as fingerprint verification, and many stores already have electronic touchpads as well as the necessary hardware and software to support the new technology.
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  • SC|05 Brings Conference to the Desktop ACM (10/20/05) Gold, Virginia

    SC|05, the International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking and Storage, will introduce the first opportunity to "attend" the conference from either a desktop or a local Access Grid node. Delegates unable to go to the conference in Seattle Nov. 12-18, can attend SC|05 in a virtual visit. Indeed, they will be able to view presentations and ask questions via Web-based question management software. This initiative, known as SC Desktop, will provide streams of the Plenary, Masterworks, and Technical Program via client software based on Access Grid technology. Virtual attendance for the desktop or conference room "node" is offered for a reduced registration fee. The deadline for registration is Oct. 29. For more information on registration and technical requirements, visit
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  • "US Keeps R&D Lead as Europeans Fall Further Behind Target"
    Financial Times (10/24/05) P. 2; Cookson, Clive

    U.S. companies increased their investment in R&D by 7 percent from 2004 to 2005, while their European counterparts registered an increase of only 2 percent, according to the International Research and Development Scoreboard. South Korea experienced the largest increase--40 percent--fueled largely by companies such as Samsung and Hyundai, while Japan posted a comparatively modest increase of 4 percent. On average, U.S. companies have outspent their European competitors by 12 percent over the last four years. IT hardware and software and pharmaceuticals are among the most intensive industries in their spending on R&D, which helped the United States remain at the top, even as spending falls off at embattled auto makers Ford and GM. The goal articulated in the 2002 Lisbon agenda of European R&D spending reaching 3 percent of GDP by 2010 appears to be dashed by the scoreboard's report. Europe is expected to lean on private industry to shoulder more of the spending burden, as the proportion of private R&D spending in Europe lags behind that in the United States and Japan. Europe fears falling behind emerging technology powerhouses such as China, which is witnessing double-digit increases in R&D spending. Many of the industries that drive the European economy are not prone to excessive spending on R&D, however, such as food manufacturing and utilities.

  • "PC as Personal Companion for Computer Studies"
    Chicago Flame (10/24/05)

    The National Science Foundation has awarded a three-year, $520,000 grant to support the development of a personal computer that will act like a student and assist students in solving problems. University of Illinois at Chicago associate computer science professor Barbara Di Eugenio will develop a "dialog agent" along with Pamela Jordan and Sandra Katz, research associates at the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to developing a dialog agent that can think, respond, and speak like a college student, the researchers have to design a unit that college students, including female undergraduates, would want to use. The researchers will also work with David Allbritton, a psychology professor at DePaul University. The computer has to be able to answer questions if it is to interact with students, says Di Eugenio.
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  • "Overseer of Net Addresses Ends Dispute With VeriSign"
    New York Times (10/25/05) P. C11; Markoff, John

    ICANN and VeriSign have settled their dispute centering around the allocation of network addresses, dating back to ICANN's challenge of VeriSign's search service, Sitefinder, claiming that it redirected users who mistyped addresses to VeriSign-controlled sites. After a groundswell of protest among Internet users who alleged that it tampered with spam filters and gave VeriSign an unfair competitive advantage, VeriSign shut down the service. VeriSign countered with a suit charging ICANN with improperly restricting competition, though the matter is now settled with ICANN agreeing to create a process for VeriSign to offer a new service, as well as extending VeriSign's contract to operate the .com domain. The agreement should expedite the security enhancements the domain name system is expecting to help reduce fraud and other cyber crimes. Meanwhile, the matter of Internet governance will be taken up globally at next month's World Summit of the Information Society in Tunis, addressing such issues as the role of governments in managing the Internet.
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  • "Google's Battle Over Library Books"
    CNet (10/24/05); Mills, Elinor

    Google's Print Program seeks to bring all the books in the world into a searchable repository that will offer full-text versions whenever possible, though the search company has found itself the target of a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement on a massive scale. Google has offered an opt-out clause to copyright holders, and has extended the deadline to participate until November, though the five major publishers who filed the suit are still not satisfied. The Association of American Publishers, which filed the suit on behalf of McGraw-Hill, Simon & Schuster, John Wiley & Sons, Pearson Education, and the Penguin Group, alleges that Google is undertaking a profit-driven initiative under the guise of educational value. Google is seeking the cooperation of book publishers to make their titles searchable in its Publisher Program, and it will offer the option of placing advertisements on the search pages, with most of the revenue to go to the publishers. The more controversial program is Google's Print Library Project, under which it is scanning the collections of Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Michigan, and the New York Public Library. The books it scans will be readable on the Web, but users will be unable to download or print them. The publishers' lawsuit, which follows one filed by the Authors Guild in September, charges that Google's scanning activities are not protected by the fair use clause, which typically pertains to education, research, and news reporting. Google likens its scanning to recording a television program or the indexing of Web pages to be navigated by a search engine. The relevance of fair use depends on the ultimate application of the content, which will be difficult for Google to define as non-commercial, even though it reports no intentions of placing ads on the pages of library results. Although the court's decision could set a landmark precedent by defining the position of copyright holders in the digital age, it is likely that the underlying issue will only be resolved over time and through ongoing conflict.
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  • "Starting Your PC in a Flash"
    Technology Review (10/21/05); Hellweg, Eric

    Bill Gates is urging engineers to create faster hardware to reduce the long-lamented bootup time as computers begin to take over more facets of our life. Gates' vision has computers serving as the locus of audio, video, and other entertainment functions, but the lag time required to make a PC operational could prevent that vision from becoming a reality. Intel's Robson technology has recently emerged to address the bootup time in laptops, as well as the time it takes to launch an application. While Intel remains cagey about the specifics of Robson, it is powered by the Flash memory known as NAND. The time it takes for a hard drive to start spinning and relay instructions has been prohibitive to accelerating the startup process, though Flash cards that could hold an entire operating system would enable the CPU to access functions while the hard drive warms up. The unique advantage of Flash memory is its ability to hold onto data when the power is off, making it ideal for USB key drives and digital cameras. Flash chips are enjoying broader appeal since their prices have dropped; a gigabyte of NAND RAM fetched around $1,900 in 2000, while it costs just $50 today. As a consequence, many companies are exploring Flash-powered RAM, and Samsung and Microsoft are developing a hybrid drive that infuses a conventional hard drive with Flash technology. The hybrid drive should be available toward the end of next year, and promises to extend a typical laptop battery's runtime by 36 minutes, as well as shortening the startup time.
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  • "Little-Fe: A Portable, Educational PC Cluster"
    HPC Wire (10/21/05) Vol. 14, No. 42; Murphy, Tom; Peck, Charlie; Gray, Paul

    Little-Fe technology combines the Bootable Cluster CD (BCCD) distribution project with an 8-node mobile computational cluster to offer an easy-to-use high-performance computing resource that is affordable for many K-16 schools. The authors say their goal is "to advance the amount of quality computational science woven into the classroom, into laboratory explorations, and into student projects." Little-Fe is a relatively lightweight machine that can easily and safely travel via checked baggage on airlines, and which can be quickly deployed as long as a 110V outlet and a flat surface for projecting an image are near. The use of standardized hardware and software keeps ongoing maintenance to a minimum. The advantages of the BCCD environment include it being ready-to-run with a full complement of system and scientific software tools to support a broad spectrum of computational science education, and its ability to customize the running environment via dynamic package installation. Little-Fe's motherboard cage is stored in a ruggedized Pelican case, and shifting within the box is prevented by foam padding and a cage base that fits snugly in the bottom. The flow of air to specific locations on the motherboards during computer-intensive loads presents a challenge to cooling Little-Fe, and improvements have been made by using miniature fans. Upgrades that Little-Fe's developers are currently pursuing include a standardized motherboard cage design for commercial manufacture, step-by-step plans for hardware assembly and software installation, and standalone usage through solar power or some other non-external energy supply.
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  • "Salary Survey: Are Skimpy Raises the New Normal?"
    Computerworld (10/24/05) P. 41; Collett, Stacy

    The average pay of IT workers increased just 3 percent in 2005, the same amount as last year, and the fourth straight year of only marginal increases. A recent survey found that 31 percent of IT workers experienced either no increase or a decline in their base salary in 2004. In contrast to the tepid increases in salaries, bonuses increased 2.8 percent in 2005, up from the 1 percent increase a year earlier. Job satisfaction remains high, though, as just 18 percent reported to be unhappy with their jobs. The aftermath of the dot-com era and increased outsourcing efforts have kept salaries stagnant and trained many workers to be thankful simply to be employed. Almost half of the respondents said their companies outsource jobs, which has been a major factor in the relative absence of vocal employee discontent, as many are afraid to voice complaints for fear of losing their own position. Offshoring initiatives have cooled slightly as employers have begun to see that poor quality work is often the price of inexpensive labor. Bonuses offer businesses a convenient vehicle to satisfy their employees' compensation requirements while still adhering to fixed-cost budgetary restrictions. IT workers also reported that their jobs were less stressful this year, and they expressed greater job security. As massive layoffs are becoming a memory, more workers are feeling that their employers need them and value their services.
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  • "Tools Gain Wider 'Customer' Base"
    eWeek (10/17/05) Vol. 22, No. 41, P. D5; Coffee, Peter

    As the needs of business processes relentlessly change, nondevelopers represent one of the most enduring markets for developer tools, as it has long been the promise of toolmakers to bring application development to within the reach of those outside the programming process. Unified Modeling Language (UML) and other tools can help bridge the gap by offering an easily discernable notation while still allowing developers to carry a project through to completion. Microsoft is joining the competition to improve the performance of a team with its Windows Workflow Foundation (WWF) at a time when SOAs are enjoying rising popularity for their use in enterprise application portfolios. SOAs should provide easy maintenance and refinement of services in a modular format owing to the relative absence of implementation coupling. Charged with the goal of bringing process experts closer to the code, these tools should format the structure and function of applications so they are comprehensible to nonprogrammers. WWF poses a mounting challenge to UML, as it exhibited seamless integration of process and code at last month's Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles. Microsoft has announced that it will treat WWF as a core technology, rather than as a feature bolted onto its Visual Studio. By making its interfaces accessible to other custom tools, Microsoft is leveling the barriers between programmers and process personnel, though there is some concern that integrating applications invites unwarranted tinkering with the environment, as Microsoft has already seen with Word and Outlook.
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  • "Is VoIP Ripe for Attack?"
    InfoWorld (10/17/05) Vol. 27, No. 42, P. 31; Erlanger, Leon

    Enterprise voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems are as vulnerable to exploitation as other data applications, at least in theory. Typical enterprise VoIP systems consist of call control servers that usually run on a popular operating system, softphone or handset client devices, and VoIP gateways--all of which employ a relatively standard protocol; the bulk of VoIP systems also rely on common routers and switches for voice packet transport and, under ideal circumstances, connect with other data applications. But despite these vulnerabilities and a wealth of potential exploits running the gamut from DoS attacks to toll fraud, no major, widely publicized attacks on enterprise VoIP systems have occurred. "Typically you don't see widespread threats until a technology is widely deployed and tools are made available to the masses to automate attacks," says SecureLogix CEO Mark Collier. There are numerous VoIP security strategies, such as preferring IP telephony handsets to softphones, as the latter can effectively thwart the separation of voice and data. But skeptics note that many of these suggestions lack practicability and are not widely employed. Another deterrent to VoIP-targeted attacks is the closed nature of most newer corporate VoIP deployments, but this safeguard must be eliminated if enterprises wish to enjoy international call cost savings and link their VoIP systems to the Internet. Still, VoIP and security vendors are not laggards in tackling the technology's security challenges.
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