Welcome to the January 9, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Get Them While They're Young: Tomorrow's IT Pros
Computerworld Canada (01/08/09) Smith, Briony
The Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow's ICT Skills (CCICT) is hoping to increase the number of students studying information technology through its new National ICT Week event. "We need to get the word out as to how the world is changing, and change people's attitudes toward IT as a career plan," says CCICT executive director David Ticoll. The National ICT Week events will be split over several days in the late fall across five Canadian cities, and will contain different parts for specific audiences, including educators, employers, and students. Half of the event will focus on seminars, meet-and-greet sessions, and contests and awards, and the other half will feature demonstrations of innovative IT technologies in various industries. "In addition to being afraid of the dot-com crash fall-out and offshoring, [students] don't really think an IT career is competitive," Ticoll says. "But the reality is that the demand profile is changing: around 25 per cent of IT workers are business analysts, and those are the most in demand." Info-Tech Research Group analyst Jennifer Perrier-Knox says it is important to emphasize that IT careers are a good fit for the millennial worker because they offer job flexibility, interesting work, and the opportunity for advancement. Technology Association of Canada president Bernard Courtois says another strong approach is to show how IT relates to interests that people already have, and how those interested in improving the healthcare system or the environment, for example, can do so through IT.
US Security Experts Fear 'Cybergeddon'
Agence France Presse (01/07/09)
Shawn Henry, cyber division assistant director at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), says that beyond weapons of mass destruction, cyberattacks pose the greatest threat to the United States. U.S. experts warn of a "cybergeddon" in which an advanced society that has most of its major infrastructure systems linked to or completely controlled by computers is sabotaged by hackers. Henry says terrorist groups are working to create a virtual 9/11 that would inflict the same kind of damage to the U.S. as the 9/11 attacks did. Last year, Russian hackers allegedly launched a major offensive against Internet networks in Estonia and Georgia, and Palestinian sympathizers have coordinated attacks against hundreds of Israeli Web sites over the past few days. "We're seeing that the folks on the cutting edge of this tend to be the bad guys," says the FBI's Donald Codling. "It's extraordinarily difficult for us to catch them." The FBI's Christopher Painter says cyberattacks are particularly dangerous because the threat is largely invisible and not always taken seriously as a result. "It's hard to get your head around the threat," Painter says. "We often discover a company has been attacked and we tell them that and they don't know."
Billion-Point Computing for Computers
UC Davis News and Information (01/08/09) Greensfelder, Liese
Researchers at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have developed an algorithm that will enable scientists to extract features and patterns from extremely large data sets. The algorithm has already been used to analyze and create images of flame surfaces, search for clusters and voids in a virtual universe experiment, and identify and track pockets of fluid in a simulated mixing of two fluids, which generated more than a billion data points on a three-dimensional grid. "What we've developed is a workable system of handling any data in any dimension," says UC Davis computer scientist Attila Gyulassy, who led the five-year development effort. "We expect this algorithm will become an integral part of a scientist's toolbox to answer questions about data." As scientific simulations have become increasingly complex, the data generated by these experiments has grown exponentially, making analyzing the data more challenging. One mathematical tool to extract and visualize useful features in data sets, called the Morse-Smale complex, has existed for nearly 40 years. The Morse-Smale complex partitions sets by similarity of features and encodes them into mathematical terms, but using it for practical applications is extremely difficult, Gyulassy says. The new algorithm divides data sets into parcels of cells and analyzes each parcel separately using the Morse-Smale complex. The results are then merged together, and as new parcels are created from merged parcels, they are analyzed and merged again. With each step, data that does not need to be stored in memory can be discarded, significantly reducing the computational power needed to run the calculations.
Schools Tap '21st-Century Skills'
Christian Science Monitor (01/08/09) P. 3; Khadaroo, Stacy Teicher
As the economy becomes more knowledge-oriented, so will the need become more pressing for students to possess "21st-century skills" such as problem solving, critical thinking, innovation, and cross-cultural collaboration. Schools will have to cultivate these skills without short-changing students in terms of reading, writing, and math. West Virginia state superintendent Steven Paine observes that 21st-century learning has the potential to integrate academic and real-world training, if education can overcome its tendency to avoid applying knowledge "in real, contextual situations." West Virginia is revising teacher-preparation courses and offering professional development for educators already within the system. Such offerings include a comprehensive Web site and workshops hosted by technology businesses. Many schools want to confer technological literacy, which frequently demands a computer upgrade or improved coaching for teachers. Ann Flynn with the National School Boards Association says lessons employing technology must focus beyond the "wow" factor. Ken Kay with the Partnership for 21st Century Skills argues that the United States needs "a system built around the idea that every kid needs to be able to critically think and problem-solve."
Hi, Robot: How the Future of Robotics Means Making Friends With Machines
Silicon Republic (01/08/09) Boran, Marie
The concept of intelligent machines that can interact with humans is a driving force in robotics research. Robot designer and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Cynthia Breazeal says future robots could have a broad range of human characteristics. She says many people find it easy to project human qualities and characteristics onto the technology they interact with. "Take the Roomba vacuum cleaner," she says. "Some people name these robots and like to think of them as little mice running around because humans are primarily social and have a whole way of thinking about the living world in relation to themselves." Breazeal's research focuses on designing robots that people can relate to and that can relate to people. She says the ultimate goal for robotics is to improve the human condition. Creating successful human-robot social interactions requires research into neuroscience, psychology, physiology, and other fields to learn how humans understand and react to eye contact, gestures, body language, tone, and voice inflection. "From a scientific standpoint, a significant goal of advancing robotics is what we learn about ourselves, and, on the other side, can we design robots that are more capable than people, or human-centric ones that have compatibility with everyone?" Breazeal says. "The nuance is not trying to build robots that are identical to people, because while you would like the robot to be as flexible and capable as a person, you would like it to be, above all else, compatible."
New E-Paper Technology Speeds Up
Technology Review (01/08/09) Patel-Preed, Prachi
University of Toronto researchers have improved their electronic paper technology by increasing the speed of a newly developed color-changing material. The material uses photonic crystals to reflect bright, intense light to create any color based on the voltage applied to the crystals. The technology could lead to brighter, flexible color displays for electronic readers and billboards. Increasing the speed of the crystals brings the technology closer to practical applications. In addition to making the colors change more rapidly, the material can now create a wider spectrum of color. Toronto professor Geoffrey Ozin says the crystals can create colors from ultraviolet to near infrared, and is the only known material capable of such a range. Previous versions were made using stacks of hundreds of silica nanospheres embedded in a polymer, which were sandwiched with an electrolyte. The new version does not contain silica. The silica nanospheres are dissolved using an acid solution, which leaves behind a porous web-like polymer structure that acts as the photonic crystal. The major advantage of the new technology is that the photonic crystals contained in each pixel can be tuned to emit different colors. "In principle, they should be able to get good brightness more similar to printed paper, compared to current e-paper technology," says Nemoptic's Jacques Angele.
Recognize This Image?
ICT Results (01/07/09)
European researchers have developed MOBVIS, an image-recognition system that can recognize images of buildings taken on a mobile phone and provide hyperlinks to pertinent information. The system has performed well in demonstrations, but the MOBVIS project is winding down and participants are looking for commercial applications of the technology. MOBVIS partner Tele Atlas plans to use the MOBVIS technology to interpret mobile mapping images. The technology would be used to detect roads, people, cars, signs text, and other details collected through video sequences. "This is not a mass-market application; it is an industrial application that could immeasurably improve the quality of mapping data, by including qualitative information, while at the same time making it more accurate and economic," says MOBVIS coordinator Lucas Paletta. Other partners are looking to find applications in advertising, image analysis, and various indoor and outdoor applications. The major benefit of the MOBVIS technology is that it is already usable with other mobile device technology, such as global positioning systems and inertial sensors, Paletta says.
Major Funding Boost for Learning Societies Lab
University of Southampton (ECS) (01/08/09)
The University of Southampton's Learning Societies Lab (LSL) will use a grant from the United Kingdom's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) to pursue several projects that would improve the learning experience of students. LSL will develop lightweight YouTube-type repositories that will give students easier access to learning materials. "As a university, we have a major interest in improving the e-learning environment and setting up systems so that students can have more access to materials from which they can learn more independently," says Hugh Davis, head of the LSL. "As customers, they expect to get their materials quickly and a YouTube-like repository is an easy way to access them." The JISC grant will be used to help fund the e-Assessment in Higher Education project, which is an effort to accelerate the electronic assessment process.
Even the Most Sophisticated Computers Can't Tell a Dog From a Cat
The Independent (London) (01/06/09) Bishop, Chris
Chris Bishop, chief research scientist for Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England, says there is still much that needs to be explored about digital intelligence. Bishop says that it is still very difficult for computers to recognize structures or objects in data. Scientists tried to solve the pattern recognition problem by using artificial intelligence in the 1970s, but the fact that there are always exceptions to handcrafted rules ultimately led them to abandon the expert systems idea. Researchers are now focusing on having computers learn from experience similar to humans, by programming them to learn from data and then training them to solve the problem. A supercomputer is no match for even a toddler when it comes to recognizing variations in size, color, shapes, lighting, and background. Still, researchers have made some advances, and the resulting practical applications now enable robots in factories to see what they are assembling, and allow tumors to be detected in medical images. Bishop says he is looking forward to developments in the years to come.
UW Med Students Prepare With Cutting Edge Technology
Seattle Post-Intelligencer (01/04/09) Paulson, Tom
The University of Washington (UW) is increasingly requiring all medical, nursing, and pharmacology students, and those in similar fields, to perfect their skills in simulated environments before interacting with a human patient. UW has been using a simulated environment in various forms for some time, but it was only recently reconfigured into a comprehensive institute. The simulation tools enable students to practice surgeries and provide feedback to tell students if they are grabbing too hard and causing tissue damage or placing a cut poorly. Many medical schools still have residents perform their first procedure on actual patients, which Brain Ross, executive director of the UW's Institute for Simulation and Interprofessional Studies, believes is a mistake. Ross says an increasing number of studies show that error rates and operating times can be significantly reduced when surgeons practice their skills using virtual reality simulations before operating on a patient. UW now is trying to get Microsoft to adapt its Xbox console for use as a regional telemedicine tool for teaching students at remote locations.
MIT Professor Creates Software to Organize the Details of Everyday Life
Campus Technology (01/05/09) Schaffhauser, Dian
The computer can be a better tool for creating to-do lists and jotting down other information, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor David Karger. Karger, a member of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, has created List.it, Web-based note-taking software that makes it easier for people to write down short notes and find them later. People ultimately will spend less time entering, storing, and retrieving information, whether email addresses, Web URLs, or shopping lists, using List.it, Karger says. List.it is available on the Firefox browser sidebar. Users can enter information on the fly via the quick input box. A synching feature provides back up for notes, and installing List.it on multiple computers mirrors notes to all of the machines. "I would never make the claim that we're trying to replace Post-its," says Michael Bernstein, a graduate student in Karger's lab. "We want to understand the classes of things people do with Post-its and see if we can help users do more of what they wanted to do in the first place."
Energy Drain by Computers Stifles Efforts at Cost Control
Chronicle of Higher Education (01/09/09) Vol. 55, No. 18, P. A1; Keller, Josh
Higher-education institutions are having a hard time keeping computing costs under control because of power-thirsty data centers. Experts say colleges and universities have been slow to realize the value of energy-saving methods due to their decentralized structure and researchers' resistance to centralization. "Folks in data-center organizations like mine who are consuming energy, we don't have a meter on the data center," says Mark S. Askren at the University of California at Irvine. "We don't even know how much we're consuming." In an effort to save energy and money, Stanford University is building a more environmentally friendly data center off campus that will cool servers with circulated outside air rather than with chilled water, while also expelling hot air emitted by the servers. Data-center experts recommend that colleges conduct an energy audit to determine how much power their data centers are devouring as a first step toward boosting efficiency. APC's Jesse Hanz says colleges can save substantial amounts of energy by improving their cooling systems incrementally, while Stanford consulting professor Jonathan Koomey stresses the need to establish incentives so that IT departments and faculty are encouraged to become more energy efficient. Experts are projecting a long-term trend in which many colleges will outsource their data-center operations so that they can save money and concentrate on their primary proficiencies. Gregory Ganger with Carnegie Mellon University's Parallel Data Laboratory says the need for a centralized data center for research is gaining importance, and that virtualization has been sufficiently refined to accommodate a wide diversity of situations.
What Will Change Everything? Ask a Computer Scientist
ITworldcanada.com (01/06/09) Schick, Shane
John Brockman's Edge.org Web site recently posed the question "What will change everything?" to a group of academics. The answer for computer scientist Roger Schank is a machine that provides knowledge as needed. Schank says information in enterprise databases or on personal computers should find us, rather than having people constantly search for it. Schank views information as stories rather than content, and envisions a future of just-in-time storytelling. "To put this another way, an archive of key strategic ideas about how to achieve goals under certain conditions is just the right resource to be interacting with enabling a good story to pop up when you need it," Schank says. He says goal-directed indexing is about organizing information so that it can be cross-referenced the next time an example of what users need comes up, and in the context of a story that users will understand or remember. Schank says researchers should begin to focus on how to monitor user behavior so that machines can understand their goals and index information appropriately. "We will all become much more likely to profit from humanity's collective wisdom by having a computer at the ready to help us think," he says.
NSF Rethinks Its Digital Library
Science (01/02/09) Vol. 323, No. 5910, P. 54`; Mervis, Jeffrey
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has spent roughly $175 million over the last nine years "to provide organized access to high quality resources and tools that support innovations in teaching and learning at all levels" as part of its National Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education Digital Library (NSDL) program. The program includes the creation and maintenance of a Web site with an immense diversity of peer-vetted content. It also supports many disciplinary and sector-based portals that offer appropriate material to NSDL, and finances individual projects to help educators and researchers more fully utilize e-learning. When NSDL was launched, it was envisioned as a means to help the United States use cyberspace to facilitate economic growth in the education sector by improving student performance, raising student interest in science, and making high-quality material widely accessible to students, parents, and teachers. NSF saw the need for an administrative infrastructure to make potentially useful Web content easy to find and classroom-customizable. NSF funded "core integration" groups at Columbia University, Cornell University, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research to run the main portal. The agency then invited the community to compile collections that would connect with NSDL, and 13 Pathway portals have been funded by NSF to serve both user communities and individual scientific disciplines. To investigate why rank-and-file academic researchers contribute to digital libraries so infrequently, NSF commissioned the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to conduct a survey. The survey found that scientists are inclined to perform their own searches and ascribe equal importance to speed and quality. Study co-author Alan Wolf notes the researchers are heavy Google users. Cognitive scientist Tamara Sumner at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is disappointed that NSDL could be better known but is not.
How to Foil 'Phishing' Scams
Scientific American (12/08) Vol. 299, No. 6, P. 104; Cranor, Lorrie Faith
Billions of dollars are lost each year to phishing emails that trick people into exposing personal or corporate information to criminals by posing as legitimate communications from trusted companies and institutions. Carnegie Mellon University's Lorrie Faith Cranor says her research group is focused on the best ways to teach people to identify and avoid such scams. She says that "this research, in turn, is informing our design of anti-phishing software so people are more likely to use it correctly." A study of existing anti-phishing training efforts discovered that they were largely ineffective due to a number of factors, including an overreliance on technical jargon, a lack of actionable advice on protection strategies, and widespread ignorance of corporate phishing attack advisories by employees and customers. Cranor says her team kept these observations in mind throughout the development of the PhishGuru training system, which provides anti-phishing information to users after they have been scammed. The system uses informative cartoons to deliver actionable advice, while a member of Cranor's team devised an online training game designed to educate players about the phishing threat and avoidance strategies. Both projects have helped reduce the likelihood that users will fall victim to phishers. However, Cranor says individual users cannot be expected to combat phishing on their own, so her group is engaged in the development of automatic filters that can spot likely phishing attacks. Research has determined that the effectiveness of these filter warnings depends on their clarity, accuracy, and timeliness, and Cranor says her group is developing programs capable of identifying phishing email through the use of machine-learning methods. One such effort is a tool called PhishPatrol that analyzes emails for possible phishing telltales, and also is trained to recognize phishing indicators using a large collection of authentic and fraudulent messages.
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