Welcome to the May 11, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
EC Wants Software Makers Held Liable for Code
ZDNet UK (05/08/09) Espiner, Tom
The European Commission is proposing that the European Union's consumer protections for physical products also cover software. Commissioners Viviane Reding and Meglena Kuneva say making software companies responsible for the security and efficacy of their products would ultimately improve consumer choice. "If we want consumers to shop around and exploit the potential of digital communications, then we need to give them confidence that their rights are guaranteed," Kuneva says. "That means putting in place and enforcing clear consumer rights that meet the high standards already existing in the main street." The Business Software Alliance's Francisco Mingorance says the proposed regulatory extension would guarantee all software, including both proprietary and open-source software and beta products, for two years. Mingorance says that forcing software makers to guarantee their products for two years would limit consumer choice. He says software is different from tangible products in that its performance depends on its environment, whether the code is updated, whether the software can adapt and be modified, and whether the code is attacked. "Unlike tangible goods, creators of digital content cannot predict with a high degree of certainty both the product's anticipated uses and its potential performance," Mingorance says. "Extending the scope would force the businesses to maintain update services for such contracts beyond the contractual term and ultimately limit the choice of offers." The proposal also could reduce interoperability between software products, he says.
Cadets Trade the Trenches for Firewalls
New York Times (05/11/09) P. A1; Kilgannon, Corey; Cohen, Noam
Throughout the U.S. military there is heightened awareness that the threat of a computer attack is just as urgent as a physical attack, and that military units must be trained to counter it. In April, cadets at West Point and other military academies participated in annual cyberwar games in which teams had to set up secure computer networks and defend them against attacks engineered by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Last year, the Army set up the Network Warfare Battalion, which many of the cadets in the cyberwar games hope to be assigned to. Meanwhile, Nellis Air Force base in Nevada is home to the 57th Information Aggressor Squadron, a group of hackers who use the latest offensive software--some of which was developed by NSF cryptologists--to probe military computer networks for chinks in their armor. Only 80 students graduate each year from the Defense Department's cyberwar schools, but the current Pentagon budget proposals seek to boost the number of students cycled through the schools by 400 percent in the next two years. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates says the Pentagon is "desperately short of people who have [cyberdefense] capabilities in this area in all the services, and we have to address it." Establishing a secure Internet link is an early priority for military units when they deploy in combat zones or during a domestic emergency.
Slowing the Exodus of Skilled Foreigners
Investor's Business Daily (05/11/09) P. A7; Deagon, Brian
U.S. businesses could be hurt by a reverse brain drain as skilled foreigners with temporary H-1B work visas depart the country and set up competing companies in their homelands, warns Duke University professor Vivek Wadhwa. "We are shipping off our economic stimulus and arming our competition," he says. Companies such as Google and Microsoft prefer that foreign workers stay, because the United States does not turn out enough citizens with specialized degrees for posts that require a high level of skills. However, competition for the limited number of available H-1B visas is fierce and their supply is limited. A recent study from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation found that businesses want the H-1B cap lifted out of concern that the United States is losing its competitive edge. Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy says the cap on H-1Bs forces businesses to reject up to 75 percent of potential hires. The National Science Foundation estimates that foreign students receive approximately 60 percent of all engineering doctorates awarded each year and more than 50 percent of doctorates awarded in math, computer science, physics, and economics. Anderson's foundation says that each H-1B filled position in technology firms with less than 5,000 employees produces 7.5 new U.S. hires thanks to the new products and programs they create, while Compete America estimates that immigrants have founded a quarter of U.S. venture capital-backed public companies in the last 15 years. "I'd say in the next five years we'll see about 100,000 [skilled foreigners] return to India and China," Wadhwa says. "We educate them, train them, and teach them about our markets. They'll be going home with lots of money, where they'll innovate and file patents."
Technology Review (05/11/09) Patel, Prachi
A team of University of Tokyo researchers led by professor Takao Someya has engineered a stretchable display by linking organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) and organic transistors with a printable elastic conductor. "Printing is cheap, and it allows you to cover large-area substrate," says the University of Cambridge's Stephanie Lacour. The researchers previously used their conductor, composed of a blend of carbon nanotubes and rubber, to make a stretchable electronic circuit. The conductor is fabricated by combining the nanotubes with an ionic liquid and a liquid polymer to produce a nanotube-rubber paste. A high-pressure jet then spreads the nanotubes in the rubber. The jet can thin the nanotube bundles without shortening them and disperse the bundles uniformly in the polymer. "The longer and finer bundles of nanotubes can form well-developed conducting networks in rubbers, thus significantly improved conductivity and stretchability," Someya says. Extremely thin lines of the conductor are deposited on a rubber substrate with a printing mask. The lines function as a wire grid to connect organic transistors and OLEDs into a display that can stretch by up to 50 percent of its original shape. The display can perform without impedance when spread over a curved surface and can be folded in half or crumpled up without sustaining damage. Stretchable electronics offer an advantage over their rollup counterparts in that they can be wrapped around complex three-dimensional objects.
New Videoconferencing Technology Possible for Cell Phones, PDAs
UVA Today (05/07/09) Samarrai, Fariss
Computer programmers at the University of Virginia collaborated with psychologists to develop an inexpensive high-frame-rate videoconferencing system for small, portable communication devices. The new videoconferencing system makes use of motion parallax to create three-dimensional (3D) simulations by rotating a 3D model of a user's face based on the angle of the person viewing the image. A person's face is tracked and reconstructed using statistical representations of the face. The technology offers the appearance of three-dimensionality and a sense of co-presence without using costly motion-tracking devices or multicamera arrays. People with cell phones, laptop computers, and personal digital assistants would be able to converse in near real time and make direct eye contact in a more life-like conversation in which they can observe the normal nuances of facial expression. "This method makes possible near-photorealistic videoconferencing for small devices, and it has the potential to revolutionize online gaming industry animation technology, as well as other media applications," says Timothy Brick, a graduate student who participated in the project. The technology could be available for small portable devices within two to three years.
Mobile Apps Open Source Middleware
European Media Laboratory (05/07/09) Flynn, Tom
The MUSIC Consortium has released a preliminary version of a language tool and middleware environment for developing next-generation mobile applications and services. The MUSIC platform would facilitate the development of applications that automatically adapt to PCs, laptops, or mobile phones that support at least Java 1.4 and have OSGi available at run time. Such devices can be from different manufacturers and use any underlying operating system that provides a virtual machine (VM) for Java 1.3. The application would run in one VM with MUSIC and have to adhere to its restrictions. "The stronger requirements for the development environment will not cause a problem, because the developer is usually furnished with a standard PC, which easily fulfills all needs," says MUSIC project technical leader Svein Hallsteinsen. The MUSIC middleware would help software developers produce self-adaptive software, communications infrastructure operators optimize their resources, and service providers boost the market for their products. The consortium will present a tutorial and a demonstration at the Fifth International Conference on Open Source Systems in early June in Stockholm, Sweden. The final version will be released in the second quarter of 2010.
NYU's Rob Faludi Wants Your Toaster to Befriend Your Smoke Alarm
Computerworld (05/04/09) Forrest, Sara
New York University professor Rob Faludi envisions a world of sociable objects that share information with each other and with people. He offers as an example of a sociable object a smoke detector that can communicate with a toaster when it detects the presence of particulate matter in the air, checking to see if the toaster is activated before sounding the alarm. Faludi says that this scenario is achievable thanks to the cost of low-power radio networking and the funding of smart home energy networks. He describes a mesh network as "a collection of devices that are all connected to each other both directly and indirectly. Any one device can act as both a node and a router for other nodes. Together, the devices create a robust communications structure, one that adapts fluidly when a new device enters the network or another one is removed or fails." Faludi says the mesh networking scheme is outstanding for assembling flexible and robust local networks, and it is a key component of a pilot project that seeks to examine how customers of the Cape Light Compact energy services organization respond to real-time information about electricity consumption and how their conservation actions are affected by being part of a community network. "This is a great example of how objects and networks can have a real impact on not just individuals' lives, but on the way we impact the world as a whole," he says.
Students Build Hand-Gestural PC Interface
InformationWeek (05/04/09) Gonsalves, Antone
Controlling applications with hand gestures is a more natural way to communicate with computers, according to a team of engineering students at Northeastern University. With a PC interface developed by the team, users move a hand back and forth or up and down over several rows of copper plates to communicate with a computer. The "electric-field sensing device" locks on to the static electricity of the user. The team has created an "interactive space" in which communication occurs without the user wearing sensors. The copper plates track the hand movements, then pass the coordinates through circuitry that is attached to a PC via a USB port. The team used the device to control a three-dimensional model on a computer screen in a video demonstration.
Does Anti-Piracy Software on Video Games Open Security Risks on Users' Computers
University of Michigan News Service (05/04/09) Moore, Nicole Casal
University of Michigan professor Alex Halderman wants to research whether the anti-piracy software built into computer games makes computers more vulnerable to hackers. Halderman will ask the U.S. Copyright Office for a three-year exemption from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to study the question. He says the DMCA prohibits tampering with copy protection, which means researchers could violate the law if they investigate and suggest repairs for any problems, potentially exposing themselves to lawsuits. In 2003, SunnComm Technologies threatened to sue Halderman after he discovered that the company's new digital rights management (DRM) software was defective and easy to bypass. The software was designed to prevent CD owners from copying songs and uploading them to the Internet, but Halderman found that holding down the shift key when inserting the CD prevented the software from running, giving users access to the audio files. In 2005, Halderman and other researchers found that copy-protected music CDs sold by Sony BMG installed software that created major security holes in users' computers. Sony released a patch to fix the problem, but Halderman discovered that the patch created another vulnerability hackers could exploit. If the Copyright Office grants Halderman's request, he plans to study the anti-piracy software on the game Spore, which installs a DRM program called SecuROM, which some users claim disables critical security measures, including firewalls and antivirus software.
Report Examines Limits of National Power Grid Simulations
Argonne National Laboratory (05/04/09) Taylor, Eleanor
The changing energy needs of the United States has forced scientists and engineers to rethink the national power grid's operations, efficiency, and security, and a key component in the creation of a more secure and efficient national power grid is substantial advancement in electricity transmission and usage monitoring. Argonne National Laboratory hosted a workshop that convened power system and modeling experts from federal agencies, national laboratories, and academia to focus on the need for new grid simulation techniques that model the generation and flow of electricity along with the grid's ties to other critical infrastructures. "Implementing smart grid technologies on a large scale will not be trivial," says Argonne researcher and workshop organizer Mark Petri. "The challenges go beyond technical and economic issues. The smart grid technologies could fundamentally change how national power grid systems operate and respond to disruptions." Petri says that an operational plan for a national power grid simulation capability that spurs industry to better comprehend its requirements, capabilities, and concerns would support a more secure and dependable electric power grid system. The creation of reliable models of large power networks is complicated by the wide variety of electricity generation, distribution, and utilization methods. Engineers' challenges include contending with the intermittent nature of some of the sources, optimizing the transmission of power, and balancing economic, security, and environmental priorities when looking for solutions. Petri says the simulations could help develop ways to address grid congestion in the short term.
Researchers Are Pioneering the Use of 'Smart Cameras' to Help Monitor Elderly People Who Live Alone
Yale University (05/03/09) Emanuel, Janet Rettig
Yale University researchers Eugenio Culurciello and Andreas Savvides are developing smart camera technology to help monitor older adults who live alone. "Approximately one third of individuals who are 65 and older fall each year," Culurciello says. "While many falls do not result in injury, nearly 50 percent of non-injured fallers cannot get up without assistance, and the period of time they spend immobile often affects their health outcome." Culurciello and Savvides developed a surveillance system that recognizes falls and automatically calls for help. The system uses a high-speed smart camera with a microprocessor that analyzes rough outline images and distinguishes between patterns of motion. The camera is programmed to recognize the difference between someone who is sitting, bending, kneeling, walking, or falling. Culurciello says videos made from the fall detector information also can distinguish between a person falling and an object or pet falling or jumping off a raised surface. When a fall occurs, the device can contact support systems such as professional care givers or family members.
British Council (05/09)
Research teams from York University and Warwick University, along with experts from the universities of Bangor, Bedford, and Brighton, are working to create new virtual reality systems. The researchers are currently working on a headset-based virtual reality system called the Virtual Cocoon, which simulates all five senses. "Smell and taste are probably the hardest things to do," says York professor David Howard. Howard and Warwick's Alan Chalmers believe that if they present smells in very small doses by releasing them very close to the nose via a tube under the nose, smell could be fairly tightly controlled. Howard says smell is important because the majority of taste is based on smell, though the Virtual Cocoon may also use some form of tongue stimulator to provide textual information on whether virtual food is hard, soft, or crunchy. The Virtual Cocoon could be used for a variety of applications, including training simulations, educational trips to remote destinations, or medical consultations. Howard says the lack of reality in many current training simulators means that they cannot produce the sensory overload often experienced in moments of danger or extreme stress.
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