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 883:  Wednesday, December 28, 2005

  • "What Tech Skills Are Hot for 2006?"
    Computerworld (12/27/05); Hoffman, Thomas

    Contrary to the widespread fear that offshoring initiatives are bleeding the U.S. IT job market dry, 2006 is shaping up to be a banner year for technology hiring. Through 2005, only 5% of U.S. IT workers had lost their jobs to offshoring, while job postings on Dice.com for developers, project managers, and help desk technicians all rose by 40% or more from January to September of 2005 compared to the same period a year earlier. A recent survey found that the four most sought-after skills in 2006 will be application development, information security, project management, and help desk skills. Most of the jobs going overseas involve basic coding, enabling U.S. companies to catch up with their backlog of projects, which has increased the demand for developers with Java and .NET skills. Employers are also looking for applicants with relationship management skills who have knowledge of a specific industry, enabling them to interact with business managers. Application development has also become more stratified, notes NStar's Eugene Zimon. "I would see the need for application developers as much more specialized in terms of developing integration components, user interfaces, and reusable components," he said. Information security skills are still very much in demand, though the recent proliferation in the number of workers who have obtained clearances has moderated compensation rates. Shortages are beginning to appear in the ranks of workers with government clearances and network security skills, however. Compliance initiatives such as HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley have thinned the pool of available project managers with specific skills in those areas. Many companies are also handicapped by their geography, as a constricted labor supply is often a factor unique to a specific location.

  • "Congress Ready to Tackle Tech Issues in 2006"
    IDG News Service (12/27/05); Gross, Grant

    Congress will face a host of technology-related issues when it reconvenes next year, including privacy concerns, updating communications law for the broadband age, patent reform, and workplace training initiatives. While technology vendors are lobbying heavily for lawmakers to address a broad range of issues, Congress is most concerned with reforming telecom law, by itself a complex undertaking, while Iraq and other issues are bound to command much of the attention of lawmakers. That it is an election year could further undermine the scope of technology legislation, as the fourth quarter could adjourn early as campaign pressure mounts. Verizon and other carriers object to the Net neutrality clause in the proposed telecom legislation that bars providers from giving their own or their partners' products preferential treatment, maintaining that it would restrict users' access to Web content and that it attempts to solve a problem that does not yet exist. Advocates of the Net neutrality measure cite the recent proposals of two large telecom providers to partition their broadband television service from other Internet use, claiming that Net neutrality would encourage online innovation and level the playing field so that small and startup companies have a more reasonable chance of competing with larger, established companies. The proposed legislation would also clear the path for telecom companies to enter the cable market by moderating franchising requirements. Congress will also consider a series of data breach notification bills introduced after several high-profile instances of compromised databases earlier this year, though congressional interest in the issue has faded in the recent absence of a significant breach. Congress will also consider bills reforming spyware laws and penalties, the patent litigation process, and an innovation agenda focusing on math and science education, H-1B visas, and research and development spending.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "The Thinkers: Data Privacy Drives CMU Expert's Work"
    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (12/26/05); Roth, Mark

    Carnegie Mellon's Data Privacy Lab, headed by Latanya Sweeney, an associate professor of computer science, has the dual focus of advancing the security of personal data and working with the government to conduct terrorist surveillance without compromising citizens' privacy. Sweeney has demonstrated the ability to identify people with only limited information, prompting her to develop the Identity Angel, software that determines how much of an individual's personal information is available on the Internet, and whether that information could be used to obtain a credit card. Many people include their name, address, and Social Security number on resumes that are posted online, and occasionally add their date of birth, which provides all the information usually required to obtain a credit card. Sweeney insists that surveillance and privacy are not mutually exclusive propositions. One tool developed at the lab changes the image of a person's face on video surveillance so that investigators must make sure that the person is engaging in suspicious activity before they seek an injunction to reveal the person's true face. To generate a new face, the program either fuses together the features of two similar faces, or creates a clown face impervious to detection with facial recognition software. Another tool is designed to track potential bioterrorism attacks by monitoring the number of people seeking treatment for a specific disease while preserving the patients' anonymity. While the government has yet to fund wide-scale development of Sweeney's research, she is convinced that it is only a matter of time. "It's inevitable for society to adopt anti-terrorism provisions," Sweeney said. "And our type of technology is the only way for society to enjoy the benefit of those increased pursuits while at the same time maintaining the civil liberties that are the cornerstone of the country."
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Shop 'Til They Lock"
    Wired News (12/27/05); Singel, Ryan

    The rapidly increasing body of entertainment content available on the Web has the music, television, and movie industries scrambling to ensure that it will not be shared across peer-to-peer networks, prompting many consumer electronics companies to strip down the features of their products. Litigation from the television industry forced ReplayTV off the market, while DVDs and CDs are coming embedded with copy-protection guards, and Sony has updated its PSP to prohibit users from running homemade games on the device. The trend is fueled by the dominance of large media companies and mainstream consumer electronics manufacturers. Many criticize the tendency of media companies to sue consumer electronics makers as short-sighted. "New technology is not always viewed rationally or with the long view," said Neuros CEO Joe Born, adding that "anything that can translate to a lack of control for big media is scary to them and they are a litigious lot and use every branch of government to maintain their position." Devices based on Intel's ViiV will debut next year, promising seamless integration between home and portable devices. TiVo and Napster have already committed to ViiV, owing principally to Intel's assurance that ViiV will only enforce existing copy protections, rather than imposing additional restrictions. Media companies are lobbying Congress to reintroduce the broadcast flag anti-copying provision and to close the analog hole that allows users to capture the analog signal of a device playing digital media, and then copy and transfer the content to another device. They are also pressuring Congress to ban satellite radio companies from manufacturing portable devices capable of storing multiple gigabytes of content and to introduce an anti-copying flag to new digital FM radio signals.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Errors Lead California Officials to Warn Voting-Machine Company"
    Associated Press (12/23/05); Williams, Juliet

    The discovery of vote count and verification errors in November's special election prompted California election officials to threaten Election Systems and Software (ES&S) with decertification if the company does not repair its software. The affected machines, used in 11 California counties in the election, reported incorrect turnout figures, resulting in a broad warning from California Assistant Secretary of State Bradley Clark that ES&S and Diebold will have to pass more thorough tests before they will be used in 2006 elections, and that ES&S should "take corrective action as soon as possible." ES&S has responded that much of the confusion was the result of operator error and that every vote was recorded accurately and that the results were not affected. Clark's letter maintained that videotape of a test voter using a touch-screen machine demonstrates that the machine recorded the wrong vote and failed to display a voter's results for verification, adding that operator error was not a factor. Touch-screen machines were only used in Merced County; the other counties used optical scan machines. ES&S claims the voter used her fingernail to make her selection, and that the machines are intended to be used with a fingertip or other soft object.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "New Breed of Cyberattack Takes Aim at Sensitive Data"
    USA Today (12/27/05) P. 1B; Swartz, Jon

    Tech-security experts are warning of a new type of cyber-attack that spies on the computers of employees with access to data such as credit-card numbers and bank account numbers. The attacks, perpetrated by Asian and Eastern European organized-crime groups, use malicious email attachments that appear to come from business associates and are difficult to spot. "These new attacks are corporate espionage," says Patrick Hinojosa of Panda Software, which, like Symantec and McAfee, is working on new product features designed to detect such attacks. Corporate spies in Israel this year put malicious code on the PCs of executives at various organizations--such as the high-tech military contractor IMC and the cable-TV company Hot--in order to steal information. Email containing suspicious code was also sent to seven research-and-development employees at a U.S. transportation company in November and December, attacks that were discovered by the email security company MessageLabs. High-tech criminals have made their information-fishing efforts much more targeted now that computer-security software and hardware has become more effective against broader virus attacks.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "GAO: Use Federal Funds to Encourage E-Recycling"
    Computerworld (12/22/05); Weiss, Todd R.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should draft federal legislation to create a "consistent, nationwide financing system that addresses the barriers to recycling and reuse" of old computers, peripherals, and consumer electronic products, according to the Government Accountability Office. In its new report, "Electronic Waste: Strengthening the Role of the Federal Government in Encouraging Recycling and Reuse," the investigative arm of Congress says the $30 to $40 fee that individuals and business have to pay to recycle electronic hardware is a barrier to proper disposal. Electronic hardware contains hazardous materials, and if placed in normal municipal trash, lead, cadmium, and mercury can leach into local groundwater supplies. The report says approximately 100 million computers, monitors, and televisions become obsolete every year. The GAO also recommends the EPA mandate that all federal agencies participate in the Federal Electronics Challenge program and buy new electronics products that at least meet the criteria for being environmentally friendly. Thomas Dunne, an acting assistant administrator at the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, took issue with the report, writing, "there is no consensus among manufacturers about what the best financing solution is to enable widespread electronics recycling." He also questioned whether participation in the year-old Federal Electronics Challenge program is needed.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "The Computer Geeks Who Saved Christmas"
    Washington Post (12/24/05) P. D1; Musgrove, Mike

    The holiday season has become a time when households turn to the tech professional in the family to address all of their computer-related issues, from connecting a printer to figuring out why email is not working. Stan King, an engineer who works on mainframe computers, says he has already been told that when he travels to Pittsburgh and then Los Angeles to visit relatives, he'll need to fix computers belonging to family in both places. He says, "I would love to run and hide, but it's very hard when you're a captive audience." The role of tech support has been doled out to tech professionals during family gatherings, similar to the tradition of a father assuming the task of putting together a new bicycle or a sister-in-law being asked to make gravy or eggnog. "It used to be that grandma wanted you to put in a new light bulb in some hard-to-reach place," says Laura Maschal, who works for a Web company in the Washington, D.C., area. "Now you have to come over to take spyware off her hard drive." Anyone who works in a technical field will be viewed as the computer fix-it person, even if they do not have any computer-related expertise. When there is no tech professional in the household, families turn to a young person who plays computer games or uses gadgets such as an iPod. And if there is not a computer or gadget-savvy young person in the family, the tech support task then falls to anyone who uses a computer at work.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Mining Biotech's Mother Lode"
    IST Results (12/20/05)

    The EU's BioGrid project has developed a host of tools to enable biotech companies to comb through mountains of scientific data in search of the few useful kernels that pertain to their project. Both pharmaceutical and biotech companies are plagued by massive amounts of raw data that must be synthesized to pin down over-expressing genes and their protein interactions, which then must be plugged into the company's intranet to search for any existing relevant work. After poring through those records, which often number in the thousands, the researchers must then search the external realm for relevant scholarship using resources such as PubMed, the world's largest repository of public literature, with 15,000,000 existing entries and more added each day. BioGrid streamlines the process by analyzing over-expressing genes and predicting the protein interactions that are likely occurring. When looking to predict interactions between one protein structure and another, a database with 20,000 known structures automatically eliminates many of them because it knows that they are inherently incompatible. BioGrid then takes the narrowed results and searches through company and journal data for relevant matches through the common language known as Gene Ontology. "The problem is researchers never use exact terms from the Gene Ontology to do their search of the literature. Our innovation was to create an algorithm that intelligently matches the terms used by researchers to the Gene Ontology," said Michael Schroeder, professor of bioinformatics at Dresden Technical University. The search generates a list of all articles relevant to a list of possible terms organized by subtopic. The tools are linked through the open source Java scripting language Prova, which the BioGrid team developed.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Computer Software That Writes Itself"
    Newsweek (12/26/05); Upson, Sandra

    Some software experts see automatic programming tools as the solution to a development process that is stifled by unexpected technical problems, and takes so long that products are almost obsolete by the time they reach the commercial market. "If a programmer can sit down, specify what you want and push a button, you end up much more productive," says Kestrel Institute researcher Doug Smith. Researchers at the nonprofit research and development center have made it easier for a computer to understand a problem, and they have used their tool to create software that schedules cargo deployment for the U.S. military. Smith still needs to test the software for reliability, but it allows for faster programming, and the scheduling program operates faster than comparable manually-developed versions. Meanwhile, SciComp has an automatic programming tool on the market for pricing financial derivatives, and Tenfold has a tool that will allow users to program corporate software in three weeks. Also, NASA is developing a tool for automatically developing programs in emergency situations to help determine, for example, the best response if a space shuttle launch needs to be aborted. Automatic programming can help eliminate the possibility of human error, programming experts say.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Japan May Create Its Own Search Engine"
    ZDNet UK (12/21/05); Wearden, Graeme

    Japan is considering launching a search engine specifically for Web users in the country. Approximately 20 Japanese electronics companies and universities are participating in an initiative to study the matter. The government has set aside about $100 million to study the feasibility of developing a search tool, and is considering contributing up to approximately $885 million on such an initiative, which could begin in early 2007, according to reports. The dominance of the U.S. and other English-speaking countries over the Internet and IT has become more of an issue of late for countries that do not speak English as their primary language. France says a new European search service similar to Google Print is needed, and is working with China on an open source software product.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "Real-Time Texting for Deaf People"
    BBC News (12/23/05); Adams-Spink, Geoff

    The Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) has developed new software that will enable deaf people to have real-time text conversations using a mobile phone. The application is designed to work with RNID's Typetalk facility, which already allows landline users to make calls. Any modern mobile handset can use the software for enabling character-by-character text communication. "It has taken innovation in the voluntary sector to deliver this software," says Guido Gybels, new technologies director for the RNID. "It's now time for operators to make sure that all their customers can access real-time text communication." RNID has called on the mobile network operators to embrace the application and offer it to their customers, but says not everyone in the industry has fulfilled their legal obligation to make their services accessible to everyone. Only Vodafone offers a relay service that uses the software, RNID adds. In a relay service, the operator turns the voice part of a deaf person's conversation into text, and relays the text replies of a deaf person into speech.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "FTC Says Computer Users Seeing Less Spam"
    IDG News Service (12/20/05); Gross, Grant

    The U.S. Federal Trade Commission says computer users have less unsolicited email messages in their inboxes since the U.S. Congress passed the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM) antispam law two years ago. The law has put more focus on the problems associated with spam, and has also given law enforcement agencies and Internet service providers (ISPs) a new weapon for fighting spam by initiating lawsuits against spammers. The FTC indicates law enforcement and ISPs have filed more than 50 lawsuits against spammers within the past two years. Industry experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of the law, but the FTC insists it's working. "We're not saying that the spam problem is solved," says director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection, Lydia Parnes. "What we're saying is that we're making progress. It's a very incremental process." MX Logic says that 68% of email traffic it scanned this year was spam, a decrease from 77% last year. FTC reports that there has been a decrease in the amount of sexually explicit spam, and legitimate emailers are following CAN-SPAM's rules, which require commercial email to include a working return email address, a valid postal address for the company, a working opt-out mechanism, and a relevant subject line. The FTC is now urging Congress to pass the U.S. SAFE WEB Act, new legislation that would allow more international cooperation between law enforcement agencies fighting spam and other computer crimes.
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "The New Alexandria"
    Newsweek (12/19/05) Vol. 146, No. 25, P. E18; Levy, Steven

    The Internet Archive, a 35-person non-profit organization led by Brewster Kahle, launched a new project that scans books under the rules of the Open Content Alliance started by Kahle himself. Microsoft and Yahoo! are funding the project, which features a large collection of books from the British Libraries and the University of California that will be digitized and available to anyone with a Web browser. Google is working on a similar project as it plans to scan collections of the New York Public Library, Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, and the University of Michigan. However, the hurdles for developing digitized libraries are legal, not technological or financial, particularly for works that are still under copyright. Many publishers and authors are upset at the idea of their book sales being diminished by an online service, but Google argues it is within its fair-use rights to scan copyrighted books without explicit permission, as long as its service is limited to searchers. The Open Content Alliance is side-stepping the dispute for now by focusing on public-domain works, mostly those books published before 1923 in which the copyright has ended. Beyond legal issues, digitizing library collections raises larger questions over the future of libraries and its affects on the future of research. British Libraries CEO Lynne Brindley says, "The environment will be horribly messy in the short term." Still, industry experts say such broad access to research will be beneficial in the long run. "Twenty or thirty years from now, interaction with a physical book will be rare," says John Wilkin of the University of Michigan libraries.

  • "The Rembrandt Code"
    Wired (12/05) Vol. 13, No. 12, P. 276; Trivedi, Bijal P.

    Dartmouth College computer science professor and mathematician Dan Rockmore is using a combination of high-resolution digital cameras and software to meticulously examine old paintings and evaluate their authenticity. His method involves digitizing the artwork, after which the software converts the image to grayscale and segments it into squares, coding each square's pixels with number between 0 and 255 to perceive distinctions caused by brushwork style. The software then scours the image for patterns indicating the artist's style, ultimately compiling 72 pieces of data that statistically summarize each square, encapsulating what Rockmore terms the artist's mathematical signature. Rockmore then converts the data to a point on a 3D grid, which is compared to points produced by other paintings. Works by the same artist are supposed to cluster together, and hopefully Rockmore will be able to work backward from his current analysis to ascertain what makes a painting authentic. Rockmore's technique has yielded promising results with a series of drawings by Bruegel. The mathematician wants to employ his method to analyze 25 paintings owned by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art that are attributed to Rembrandt van Rijn, but whose authenticity is being disputed. Rockmore says, "The fact that you can put everything on the computer means that everything is numbers. As soon as everything is numbers, it makes perfect sense to ask mathematical questions about what the numbers represent."
    Click Here to View Full Article

  • "The New Standard-Bearer"
    IEEE Spectrum (12/05) Vol. 42, No. 12, P. 48; Qu, Philip; Polley, Carl

    Markets throughout the world are being shook up by China's government-driven initiatives to develop technology standards to break its dependence on foreign products and intellectual property, and give embryonic industries a leg up. The Chinese have made inroads into the next-generation DVD arena with standards such as Enhanced Video Disk and Audio Video Coding Standard software, and are supporting the development of the TD-SCDMA standard for telecommunications networks as an alternative to the dominant CDMA and GSM standards. If excessively enforced, Chinese standards could cause China to be locked out of international markets, but the desire to nurture commerce above all other considerations has spurred the government's longstanding commitment to encourage outside investment. The authors study half-truths about China's technical standards effort: For instance, while the Chinese government is ultimately responsible for approving and enacting standards, development takes place across scores of technical and standards committees with various agendas, and the idea of a "unified front" in standards deliberations is undercut by the fact that there is much competition between domestic standard development projects. Another half-truth is China's proclivity for favoring homegrown standards over international standards, an assumption fostered by the tiny percentage of standards formulation, revision, and deliberation carried out in English; in reality, over 40% of Chinese standards across all industries reflect international standards. Some government entities in China are using the development and enforcement of standards to shield domestic industries from foreign rivals, but this is not the only driving factor. In certain areas, international players are working with China in the formulation of standards as well as creating the attendant technology in close collaboration with Chinese partners.