Welcome to the January 16, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
Please note: In observance of Martin Luther King Day, TechNews will not publish on Monday, January 19. Publication will resume on Wednesday, January 21.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
ACM Names 44 Fellows for Contributions to Computing and Information Technology
AScribe Newswire (01/15/09)
ACM has named 44 of its members as 2008 ACM Fellows for their contributions to computing technology. ACM says their work has led to a variety of innovations in industry, commerce, entertainment, and education and will play a crucial role in forming the foundation for sustained economic growth in an information-based society. "These men and women are the inventors of technology that impact the way people live and work throughout the world," says ACM President Dame Wendy Hall. "Their selection as 2008 ACM Fellows offers us an opportunity to recognize their dedicated leadership in this dynamic field, and to honor their contributions to solving complex problems, expanding the impact of technology, and advancing the quality of life for people everywhere." Fellows from Microsoft Research were honored for their contributions in computer security and verification, human-computer interaction, computational photography, and distributed computing. IBM Almaden and Thomas J. Watson Research Center Fellows were awarded for their work in query-processing language and computational geometry. Researchers at Intel, Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, and Palo Alto Research Center also were named as Fellows. The list of Fellows also included many academic researchers at universities throughout the United States and Canada. Outside of North America, Fellows were named from the City University of Hong Kong in China, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich in Switzerland, the University of Cambridge and Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, and Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.
Dame Wendy Hall Leads New Engineering Diversity Campaign
University of Southampton (ECS) (01/15/09) Lewis, Joyce
The Royal Academy of Engineering has launched an initiative to make engineering a more diverse profession in the United Kingdom. The Diversity in Engineering Campaign, led by Dame Wendy Hall, hopes to increase the participation of women, ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities in engineering. Women account for more than 45 percent of the U.K. labor market, but hold just 6 percent of engineering jobs. "It is vital for the U.K. that we recruit the brightest young people into engineering and science, including new talent from families and schools who might never have thought about engineering as a career," says Hall, president of ACM and a professor at the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science. "The financial turmoil and the recession actually give us a huge opportunity to entice people who have studied engineering and science away from the city and back into innovating for the future, which is where they are badly needed."
U.S. Plots Major Upgrade to Internet Router Security
Network World (01/15/09) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans to quadruple its investment in research dedicated to securing the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) by adding digital signatures to router communications. DHS says the research initiative, dubbed BGPSEC, will prevent routing hijackings and accidental misconfigurations of routing data. DHS expects BGPSEC to take several years to develop prototypes and standards and at least four years before deployment. Experts have praised the accelerated effort, as BGP is one of the Internet's most vulnerable faults. "The reason BGP problems are so serious is that they attack the Internet infrastructure, rather than particular hosts," says Columbia University professor of computer science Steve Bellovin. "This is why it is a DHS-type of problem." Arbor Networks' Danny McPherson says BGP is one of the largest threats on the Internet. "There doesn't exist a formally verifiable source for who owns what address space on the Internet, and absent that you can't really validate the routing system," McPherson says. The extra funding should enable the DHS to develop ways of authenticating Internet Protocol (IP) address allocations and router announcements on how to reach blocks of IP addresses. DHS funding for router security will rise to approximately $2.5 million per year beginning this year, up from about $600,000 per year over the last three years, says Douglas Maughan, DHS program manager for cybersecurity research and development.
More Chip Cores Can Mean Slower Supercomputing, Sandia Simulation Shows
Sandia National Laboratories (01/13/09) Singer, Neal
Simulations at Sandia National Laboratory have shown that increasing the number of processor cores on individual chips may actually worsen the performance of many complex applications. The Sandia researchers simulated key algorithms for deriving knowledge from large data sets, which revealed a significant increase in speed when switching from two to four multicores, an insignificant increase from four to eight multicores, and a decrease in speed when using more than eight multicores. The researchers found that 16 multicores were barely able to perform as well as two multicores, and using more than 16 multicores caused a sharp decline as additional cores were added. The drop in performance is caused by a lack of memory bandwidth and a contention between processors over the memory bus available to each processor. The lack of immediate access to individualized memory caches slows the process down once the number of cores exceeds eight, according to the simulation of high-performance computing by Sandia researchers Richard Murphy, Arun Rodrigues, and Megan Vance. "The bottleneck now is getting the data off the chip to or from memory or the network," Rodrigues says. The challenge of boosting chip performance while limiting power consumption and excessive heat continues to vex researchers. Sandia and Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers are attempting to solve the problem using message-passage programs. Their joint effort, the Institute for Advanced Architectures, is working toward exaflop computing and may help solve the multichip problem.
Girls and Gadgets Computer Conference Held at University of Teesside
Evening Gazette (UK) (01/15/09) Desira, Joanna
The University of Teesside's recent Girls and Gadgets Computer Conference attracted about 200 teenage girls in the United Kingdom. Organized by Alison Brown, a senior lecturer in the School of Computing, the conference gave the young girls an opportunity to learn more about computers and improve their multimedia skills. The conference featured sessions on computer games, digital music, multimedia, animation, and electronic journalism. In a session called Cover Girl, the girls learned about image manipulation by taking photographs of themselves and manipulating them electronically. "We aim to offer the girls an understanding of the vast range of opportunities available to them in the field of computing," Brown says. "The conference can help to encourage them to consider computer science as a serious career choice." Guest speakers at the conference included Microsoft UK's Eileen Brown and Teesside senior lecturer Siobhan Fenton.
U.S. Science Is Lagging Internationally -- But How, Exactly?
Inside Higher Ed (01/15/09) Lederman, Doug
The decreasing number of scientists and engineers produced in the United States is regularly cited to demonstrate the decline of higher education in America and the country's inability to compete in the global economy. However, a new report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) suggests that the numbers may have a different meaning. The report acknowledges that by 2005, most of the 23 developed countries had surpassed the United States in the ratio of degrees in natural sciences and engineering being awarded to 20- to 24-year-old graduates. However, NSF researchers say the disparity is more attributable to growth in the number of university graduates in those countries and not because of a greater emphasis on science and engineering. The researchers found that between 1975 to 1990, nine of the 21 countries studied saw increases solely because of increases to the total number of university degrees awarded, while in 11 cases both the expansion of all degrees and a greater percentage of degrees in natural science and engineering were responsible. From 1990 to 2005, 19 of the 21 countries had higher population ratios of first university degrees in science and engineering than the United States. In 10 of those 19 countries, the change could be attributed to the growth in overall completion of degrees.
Smart Bridges Under Development With New Federal Grant
University of Michigan News Service (01/14/09) Moore, Nicol Casal
A $19 million project led by the University of Michigan is working to create "smart" bridges capable of providing autonomous, thorough descriptions of their condition to inspectors. The five-year project is developing an infrastructure monitoring system that will include four types of surface and penetrating sensors to detect cracks, corrosion, and other signs of weakness. The system will use enhanced antennas and Internet connections to wirelessly send information to an inspector, either on site or in an office. The project involves researchers from the College of Engineering and the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan, as well as engineers from five private firms. University of Michigan professor Victor Li has developed a new type of concrete that conducts electricity, which will allow researchers, engineers, and inspectors to measure changes in conductivity, indicating a weakness in a bridge. Meanwhile, University of Michigan professor Jerome Lynch is leading an effort to develop a carbon nanotube-based "sensing skin" that would be glued or painted onto "hot spots" to detect cracks and corrosion invisible to the human eye. The skin's perimeter is lined with electrodes that carry a current over the skin to detect what is occurring underneath. Low-power, low-cost wireless nodes will be used to detect traditional damage indicators such as strain and changes in vibration. Finally, sensors housed in vehicles that travel on the bridges could be used to measure a bridge's reaction to the strain a vehicle imposes. The system also will feature a human-infrastructure interaction component, led by University of Michigan professor Vineet Kamat, which will organize the sensor data into meaningful displays before it is sent to inspectors.
How We Are Tricked Into Giving Away Our Personal Information
Swedish Research Council (01/15/09)
Organizations are poorly equipped to prevent attacks that target human error and weaknesses, says Stockholm University's Marcus Nohlberg, who says social engineering attacks have received little attention from researchers. Nohlberg's research has led to a more thorough understanding of the methods attackers use and what makes people and organizations vulnerable. He says the biggest problem is that information and proper training is not an effective deterrent. "There will always be a small group of people who do not do as they were taught," Nohlberg says. "The best thing is practical training, and it's probable that organizations will need to start running internal checks where they in fact create fictitious attacks in order to identify weaknesses." Social engineering is more expensive to the attacker, as it requires commitment and time, but software and technologies already exist that can interact with people automatically. Nohlberg warns of a time when programs target victims through digital forums such as Facebook, making social engineering attacks as easy and inexpensive as sending spam.
Low-Cost Strategy Developed for Curbing Computer Worms
UC Davis News & Information (01/14/09) Greensfelder, Liese
A new strategy for guarding against computer worms has network computers share data about the probability that an attack is taking place. "One suspicious activity in a network with 100 computers can't tell you much," says Senthil Cheetancheri, who developed the strategy when he was a graduate student in the Computer Security Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. "But when you see half a dozen activities and counting, you know that something's happening." The strategy uses an algorithm to compare the cost of disconnecting a computer from the network to the cost of having an infected machine, based on the probability of an attack and what the computer is used for. A toggle would be triggered to disconnect a computer if an infection costs more than staying online. For example, a copy writer might be moved offline even if there is a low probability of an attack, but someone in online sales might not be disconnected until it is almost certain that the activity is malicious.
Putting Heads (and Computers) Together to Solve Global Problems
MIT News (01/13/09) Trafton, Anne
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Center for Collective Intelligence (CCI) want to unite the world's greatest minds with powerful computers to solve some of the world's toughest problems. Collective intelligence applications such as Wikipedia and Linux only hint at the concept's true potential, says CCI director and MIT professor Thomas Malone. Malone envisions pooling brainpower through computing advances to enable experts and others to find solutions to difficult problems such as global climate change. He says CCI's goal is to discover how people and computers can be connected so they act more intelligently than a single person, computer, or group can on their own. One CCI venture, the Climate Collaboration project, is developing an online deliberation tool to allow experts from a variety of fields to share ideas collaboratively. The Climate Collaboration project requires users to catalog their contributions and connect them to points that were previously made, creating "argument maps" to eliminate repetitive, unhelpful comments and tangents that derail most online forums. The deliberation tool is connected to computer-based climate models, so suggestions about different parts of the problem can be combined and tested. CCI also has proposed a project that would consolidate patient data, clinical practices, and medical research to create a worldwide network that could use the information to precisely identify the type of cancer patients have and predict the treatment best suited to them.
Morphing Gel Display Puts Images at Your Fingertips
New Scientist (01/14/09) Evans, Jon
Engineers at Germany's Technical University of Dresden have developed a tactile display made from hydrogel, a watery gel that can change shape to show objects on its surface. The engineers used hydrogel's ability to swell or shrink when exposed to changing conditions to create a new tactile display for blind people. The display is a square array of 4,225 drops of hydrogel, each drop approximately 330 microns across. A single square centimeter contains 297 gel "pixels." The pixels are on a black polyester backing that can be heated by beams of light that are narrow enough to warm individual pixels. Below 29 degrees Celsius the pixels are 0.5 millimeters tall, but when heated to 35 degrees Celsius they expel some of their water and shrink to half their height and become opaque and significantly harder. Rapidly scanning the light beam across the backing allows the device to display high-resolution tactile images that can be changed twice a second. Dresden engineer Andreas Richter says the system could be used to make tactile displays that communicate information through touch, which could be used by blind people or incorporated into the interfaces of robotic surgery equipment to give surgeons a better feel.
Digital Rights War Looms Ahead
BBC News (01/13/09) Shiels, Maggie
The Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) consortium, a coalition of entertainment, retail, and IT companies, is developing a new digital rights management (DRM) standard without the participation of Apple Computer. By not participating in DECE, Apple devices will likely be unable to play content created by DECE members, and DECE member content will not be made available by Apple. Apple recently dropped DRM restrictions on the 10 million songs in its iTunes store. More than 25 major companies, including Sony, Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate, Microsoft, Best Buy, Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, and Intel have joined DECE, which plans to create new DRM standards and specifications for phones, DVD players, streaming services, and computers. "All of the companies in this consortium realize if we can do this and do this right we have the potential for a very large market," says DECE president Mitch Singer, the chief technology officer at Sony Pictures. Singer says DECE wants to create a centralized "virtual locker" that consumers can use to buy from multiple storefronts and access content from anywhere on any device.
Carnegie Mellon Mechanical Engineering Researchers Develop New Software to Improve Design Tools
Carnegie Mellon News (01/13/09) Swaney, Chriss
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) engineers have developed SketchCAD, software that enables engineers to design new products by sketching ideas on a tablet computer. "The idea is to empower engineers and designers with tools that are already familiar to them and are the most natural for the task," says CMU professor Levent Burak Kara. SketchCAD is a pen-based computer system that can be used to design three-dimensional products. Kara says the program gives engineers more freedom to be creative, and has a shorter learning curve for use. CMU researchers say the software already is being used by Honda to design new cars, and they say it could eventually be used by physicians for planning surgeries, or by professors to teach basic engineering design methods. The researchers also are developing another software system called SimuSketch that can recognize and simulate engineers' hand-drawn diagrams and mechanical systems. SimuSketch enables engineers to quickly implement their ideas as diagrammatic sketches and test their feasibility in real-time simulations. Kara says the software could significantly enhance engineering by allowing users to design and analyze complex engineered system using only sketches.
Digital Communication Technology Helps Clear Path to Personalized Therapies
Burnham Institute for Medical Research (01/09/09) Baxt, Josh
Researchers at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research have demonstrated that digital communications algorithms can be used to identify effective multi-drug treatments. A stack sequential algorithm, originally developed for digital communications, has been used by scientists to find optimal drug combinations. The algorithm can be used to integrate information from a variety of sources, including biological measurements and model simulations. Combination therapies can be effective treatments in diseases such as cancer and hypertension, but it is difficult to find effective combinations using only trial and error, says study leader Giovanni Paternostro. Current methods for finding effective combination therapies involve extensive testing, and the ever-expanding possibilities eliminate the option for exploring large combinations. In the study, a small subset of the possible drug combinations identified by using the algorithm was tested in two biological model systems. One system explored improving the physiological decline associated with aging in fruit flies, and the other tested for the selective killing of cancer cells. In both systems, effective drug combinations were found by combining the algorithm with biological tests.
Let the Cracking Begin
Government Computer News (01/12/09) Jackson, William
Analysts have started the process of testing new Secure Hash Algorithm (SHA) candidates for flaws as part of the first round of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST's) competition to select the next government standard for cryptographic tools. So far, three of the initial 51 submissions have been eliminated. NIST's Bill Burr says there are probably more than three or four more broken algorithms that have not been withdrawn from consideration yet. The winning submission will become SHA-3, and will augment and eventually replace the algorithms currently specified in Federal Information Processing Standard 180-2, which uses SHA-1 and SHA-2. Officials decided to create a competition to design SHA-3 in 2007 after weaknesses were discovered in the existing algorithms. The final selection of a new standard is expected to take place in 2012. Candidates for SHA-3 must be publicly disclosed and available without royalties, work on a wide variety of hardware and software platforms, and support 224-, 256-, and 512-bit encryption. NIST will hold several public workshops to continue to narrow the field, and expects to reduce the number of submissions to 15 by late summer, with the final five being selected in 2010.
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