Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the January 23, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Worm Infects Millions of Computers Worldwide
New York Times (01/23/09) Markoff, John

A computer worm is infecting millions of computers in what could be the first part of a multi-stage attack. The worm, known as Conflicker or Downadup, has spread by exploiting a recently discovered Microsoft Windows vulnerability that involves guessing network passwords and using portable devices such as USBs to spread. Experts say the worm has led to the worst infection since the Slammer worm in January 2003, and it may have infected as many as 9 million PCs worldwide. Many computer users may not notice that their machines have been infected, and computer security researchers say they were waiting for infected computers to receive instructions so they can determine the intended purpose of the botnet. Infected computers may run programs in the background to send spam, infect other computers, or steal personal information. Microsoft released an emergency patch to eliminate the vulnerability in October, but the worm has continued to spread. Security researchers at the Qualys security firm estimate that about 30 percent of Windows-based computers attached to the Internet remain vulnerable because they have not been updated with the patch. "I don't know why people aren't more afraid of these programs," says Georgia Institute of Technology professor Merrick L. Furst. "This is like having a mole in your organization that can do things like send out any information it finds on machines it infects."

A More Attractive European Research Area But Stagnating EU R&D Intensity
European Research Area (01/22/09)

The European Research Area's new 2008 Science, Technology and Competitiveness report provides an overview of progress made from 2000 to 2006 in European Union (EU) research and development (R&D) investments. The report says the number of researchers in Europe is growing, as the EU has become a more attractive place for foreign researchers and private R&D investment from the United States. However, the report says that R&D expenditure as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) has stagnated at 1.84 percent. Even with bigger investments from many EU member states and a more efficient research system, the EU is still well short of its target of investing 3 percent GDP in R&D. Both the Science, Technology and Competitiveness report and the 2008 Innovation Scoreboard say the EU must change its industrial structure, focus on innovation, and ensure more and better use of R&D. "In a time of crisis, it is not the moment to take a break in research investments and in innovation," said EU commissioner for science and research Janez Potocnik and vice president Gunter Verheugen in a statement released with the report. "The commission's initiatives to improve the EU's research efficiency, to stimulate innovation, and to develop high tech markets are putting the EU on the right tracks."

SIGGRAPH Asia 2008 a Convergence of Different Media
Asia Pacific Broadcasting (01/23/09)

One of the major features of the first ACM SIGGRAPH Asia Conference and Exhibition, which ran from Dec. 10-13, 2008, at Suntec Singapore, was the convergence of different media capitalizing on computer graphics. The conference's Art Gallery featured digital media artwork created using a variety of formats. ACM says half of the material displayed at the gallery was developed in Asia. ACM says that Asian submissions to the SIGGRAPH Technical Papers program increased 300 percent between 1998 and 2005. "Asia is fast making its mark globally in the field of computer graphics and interactive techniques, and SIGGRAPH Asia has the numbers to support this," ACM said. Animation fans were able to view special effects screenings at the Computer Animation Festival, where China, Japan, and South Korea contributed close to half of the 685 submissions. Some of the popular attractions included a Lucas Animation stand where attendants could hear speakers from Lucasfilm Animation Singapore, and the Autodesk Asia booth, where software for films, games, TV, and design visualization were being demonstrated.

New Administration, Congress Aim to Boost Federal R&D
HPC Wire (01/21/09) Feldman, Michael

The Obama administration and the U.S. Congress want to provide significant new funding for science and technology research and development. The America COMPETES Act, ratified in 2007, supported doubling the funding for basic research programs in nanotechnology, alternative energy, and supercomputing, but the funding never reached the levels stipulated by the legislation. U.S. government spending on physical sciences R&D has generally declined since the 1990s and President Obama has repeatedly urged a doubling of federal funding for basic research over 10 years. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, currently before Congress, would provide $10 billion toward science facilities, research, and instrumentation. The National Science Foundation would receive $3 billion, including $2 billion for expanding employment opportunities in fundamental science and engineering. It also would receive $400 million to build major research facilities for cutting-edge science, $300 million for major research equipment for institutions of higher education and other scientists, $200 million to repair and modernize science and engineering facilities, and $100 million to improve science, math, and engineering education. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology would receive $300 million for competitive construction grants for research science buildings at colleges, universities, and other organizations and to coordinate research efforts between laboratories and national research facilities by setting interoperability standards. The Advanced Research Project Agency would receive $400 million of the Energy Department's $1.9 billion to support high-risk, high-payoff research into energy sources and energy efficiency.

IT Professionals See Salary Increase But Job Security Remains Top Concern
eWeek (01/22/09) Ferguson, Scott

The average IT salary rose 4.6 percent to an average of $78,035 in 2008, and by more than 5 percent to an average of $87,257 for IT professionals working in the banking and financial services industry, according to Dice. IT professionals with an IT management title earned the most with an average of $111,998. The 2008-09 Annual Salary Survey found that salaries increased significantly in major technology centers such as New York, Silicon Valley, and Washington, D.C., as well as in nontraditional tech areas such as Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis. Dice conducted the survey between August and November, and also asked more than 19,000 technology workers about their concerns heading into the new year. Updating their skills was cited by some 22 percent, followed by layoffs at 20 percent, lower salary increases at 14 percent, canceled projects at 12 percent, and an increased workload due to staffing cuts at 10 percent. Dice also says there was a 67 percent increase in new resumes posted to its site in the fourth quarter of 2008, but adds that most job searches were "passive."

Overseas Tech Student Numbers Up
Australian IT (01/20/09) Bingemann, Mitchell

International demand for IT-related degrees continue to grow, and enrollments in IT-related fields has remained strong in Australia, with several universities recording significant increases. Queensland University of Technology (QUT) says it recorded a 65 percent increase in acceptances from international students looking to enroll in IT-related degrees this year. "Generally, when there are recessions, universities do well because people want to become more employable by attaining more knowledge and qualifications," says QUT science and technology dean Simon Kaplan. Griffith University School of Information and Communication Technology head Michael Blumenstein also expects to see a growth in foreign student enrollment. Local enrollment in IT-related courses also is strong at QUT and Griffith University. "When the economy was strong last year we experienced a 27 percent increase in IT enrollments," Blumenstein says. "At the very least we will maintain those numbers." However, James Thom, head of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology's School of Computer Science says the school is expecting a slight drop from 2008 enrollment figures. "There is still not enough students choosing IT as a career and once the economy picks up there will be a big shortage of IT graduates to take up the work," Thom says.

Crowd-Sourcing the World
Technology Review (01/21/09) Greene, Kate

Santa Fe Institute research fellow Nathan Eagle is launching txteagle, a project that will distribute tasks using cell phones in an effort to leverage an underused workforce in some of the poorest parts of the world. Eagle says using text messages or audio clips to distribute questions to participants in developing countries could make some tasks, such as translating documents into other languages or rating the local relevance of search results, more economical while providing a source of income for those in need. Nokia has partnered with Eagle on the txteagle project, which Eagle says will demonstrate how companies can benefit from this strategy. For example, Kenya has more than 60 fundamentally different languages. Nokia wants to provide phones to everyone in their native language, but has no idea how to translate words, such as "address book," into each language, which could be done by the phones' users. Another application could be audio transcription. By sending users a short audio message, and having them transcribe that message and send the transcription back as a text message, audio could be transcribed for about $3 an hour, which is 60 percent cheaper than current transcription rates.

Managing an Ocean of Data
Dalhousie University (Canada) (01/20/09) Comeau, Billy

The Platform Ocean Knowledge Management (POKM) network enables scientists to combine research from multiple institutions to better understand issues such as coastal flooding and marine animal behavior. POKM is a partnership between the Dalhousie University Faculty of Computer Science and the Ocean Tracking Network (OTN). The Web-based platform will enable researchers to share scientific work and collaborate in real time regardless of their location. "The platform is ubiquitous to the worldwide community," says Dalhousie professor Raza Abidi. "Now information is not only accessible, but can be shared and moved from anywhere in the world in real time." OTN research director Mike Stokesbury says all end users will now have the same response and turnaround time regardless of their location or the location of the data. "We expect to discover relationships between marine life and their physical environments that no one has expected, let alone been able to test," Stokesbury says. Abidi says POKM's architecture provides a series of Web services divided into self-contained steps with unique functions to allow researchers to arrange them into any order to produce different outcomes.

Searching for Pervasive Computing's Middleware Middleman
Missouri University of Science and Technology (01/15/09)

The middleware concept could be the key to pervasive computing, says Missouri University of Science and Technology (S&T) professor Ali Hurson. Hurson says that a middleware solution could be used to connect devices that would take on a greater role in the daily affairs of humans. Hurson is currently involved in an airport security project that would have a middleware application serve as the intermediary for cameras, chemical-sniffing devices, and motion sensors. The middleware program would be connected to the databases and information networks of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Administration, and local police, and would warn law enforcement agencies of any suspicious activity at airports. Hurson says sensors are capable of adapting to different uses because of their flexible design, and software agents could potentially be used to spread throughout a network and remotely reprogram nodes. "These networks have been created in isolation," he says. "Now we want to establish interoperability to serve future applications." Hurson also wants to create a pervasive computing laboratory at Missouri S&T.

New Report Reveals That Girls Have the Edge in New Technologies
University of Hertfordshire (01/20/09) Murphy, Helene

More girls are using computers at home than boys, and mothers are usually assisting their children with the technology, according to the new Learning in the Family report. In the survey of thousands of children aged six to 14, 94 percent of the girls said that they used a computer or laptop compared with only 88 percent of the boys. Fifty percent of children chose their mothers to help them use the computer, compared with 22 percent who chose their fathers. "Overall, mothers are more likely to engage with their children using new technologies especially when it comes to formal learning or research," says University of Hertfordshire professor and study co-author Karen Pine. Robert Hart of Intuitive Media Research Services, which commissioned the report, adds that "fathers join in to a lesser extent but encourage children with the fun aspects and help them with their hobbies." The study also found that 40 percent of children want their parents to help them more with computers.

Tests That Show Machines Closing in on Human Abilities
New Scientist (01/22/09) Barras, Colin

Tests indicate that machines are coming closer and closer to mimicking human abilities to such a degree that people may mistake them for human. Computer animation and robotics have made strides in traversing the "uncanny valley"--the point where people are repulsed by objects that look close, but not close enough, to being human. University of Southern California researcher Paul Debevec developed an artificial character modeled after an actual person, and overlaid the character's face onto video of the person's body. Meanwhile, Osaka University roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro has developed androids that can replicate micro-movements produced subconsciously by humans, which adds to the illusion that they are real people. Some advances focus on emulating human skills, with one example being Continuator, a robot that can duet with live musicians in real time by "listening" to a musical phrase and then calculating a complementary phrase with the same playing style. Two years ago, University of California, San Diego researcher Lindsay Oberman and colleagues analyzed the brain activity of students watching video footage of a five-fingered robot hand and control footage of static noise, and discovered that the observation of the hand sparked activity in the students' mirror neurons, which are roused when they see someone performing a physical action they might perform themselves. "If we want humanoid robots to teach or have other social functions, we need them to trigger mirror neurons," Oberman says.

Human Face of the Human Interface (01/19/09) Grossman, Wendy M.

John M. Carroll, founder of the User Interface Institute at IBM's Watson Research lab and a professor at Pennsylvania State University, says the ability to pick up a new device and start using it without having to read a manual is a result of the hard work of human factors researchers. Technology interfaces have improved significantly over the years, Carroll says, who notes that the Web is well crafted in many ways for designing easy software. However, he says there are still several areas where designers miss. Too often, creating an "intuitive" interface means recreating something the user is accustomed too, but humans are constantly evolving and changing. "I think people think of help systems and user interface agents by constructing a theory of mind, and the problem is that if the theory of mind is very simple and boring then it might actually be useful--predictable, understandable," Carroll says. "But if you try to get beyond that, and especially if you lie--and by lying I mean cases where designers have gone to some effort to project intelligence that their software does not have in any serious sense--it may have it in an idealistic sense but it doesn't do anything intelligent, creative, human--you get a breakdown."

HP Grants Aim to Redesign College Engineering
eSchool News (01/20/09)

Hewlett-Packard has made more than $2.4 million in cash and equipment available for its "HP Innovations in Education" effort, which aims to reinvent undergraduate computer science and engineering programs through the use of technology. HP is asking for proposals from two- and four-year colleges and universities that offer degrees in engineering, computer science, or information technology. Grant projects must explore the potential for innovation through the intersection of teaching, learning, and technology, with the ultimate goal of "re-imagining undergraduate engineering education." HP plans to award about 10 grants to public or private colleges or universities in the United States. Each grant will include more than $240,000 in HP technology, cash, and professional development. Proposals should describe how the technology will enable innovation in four areas: Leadership Capacity, or creating a global network of administrators and faculty to implement innovative approaches; Digital Learning Environments, or using technology to fundamentally redesign the learning experience in ways that increase student engagement in academic success; the Undergraduate Design and Research Experience, to make engineering real and relevant by involving engineering undergraduate students in design and research challenges that address the needs of society; and Pre-College Outreach, to encourage administrators, faculty, and undergraduate students to work with secondary-school teachers and students to increase student awareness and interest in high-tech programs.

K-State Computer Engineers Working on System That Can Use the Internet to Track Human and Animal Diseases by Extracting Information From Web Sites
Kansas State University News (01/13/09) Hsu, William

Kansas State University (KSU) researchers are developing a system capable of searching the Internet for information pertaining to disease outbreaks. The system can scour news stories and other public online information sources to find clues about where diseases have started, how many animals were involved, and how the diseases spread. This information could be used to plot outbreaks and governmental responses. KSU professor William Hsu says that developing the proper tools could allow such information to be presented as timelines or maps. A major challenge for the project, which is backed by a U.S. Defense Department grant, is that valuable pieces of information are often imbedded in the text of news stories and not in an easily read database. Many Web pages also have banner ads, making it difficult for computers to determine where the text begins and ends. Hsu says his system includes software that will clip text more accurately. Research on the system was presented at the International Conference on Artificial Neural Networks in Engineering in St. Louis in November, and at the International Conference on Database and Expert Systems Applications in Turin, Italy, in September. Hsu also is working with professor Doina Caragea to create networks that link proteins to one another and genes to one another in an organism, which could be used to understand gene function.

How Google Is Making Us Smarter
Discover (01/15/09) Zimmer, Carl

Various articles have recently appeared that question whether blogs, text messaging, and the Internet are making people less intelligent. "As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence," wrote Nicholas Carr in a recent Atlantic article. However, others say that few of the threats and warnings addressed in these articles are based in fact. For example, English linguist David Crystal disputes the idea that texting is ruining people's spelling by arguing that texting actually improves literacy as it provides more opportunities to practice writing and reading. Other warnings are based on popular misconceptions of how the mind works. Some argue that the Internet and technology are blocking the natural world from reaching the mind, but in fact that mind appears to be adapted for reaching out and making the world, including technology, an extension of itself. Two philosophers, Andy Clark and David Chalmers, explain the idea of the expanding mind by providing two examples--a women capable of remembering the address of the Museum of Modern Art after hearing about a specific display, and a man with Alzheimer's who must look up the address in his notebook after hearing about the display. Clark and Chalmers argue that the woman's brain and the man's notebook, and now technology, are fundamentally the same. The woman is capable of recalling information offhand while the man uses his notebook, a part of his extended mind, to recall information.

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