Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the October 25, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Engineering, Computer-Science Pay More Than Liberal Arts
Wall Street Journal (10/25/10) Joe Light

Computer science and engineering graduates generally have significantly higher starting salaries than liberal arts majors, according to a Wall Street Journal and study. Graduates with computer science degrees had average starting salaries of $50,000 in their first full-time jobs out of college, while communications and English majors earned $34,000 in their first jobs, the study found. Engineering graduates' $56,000 average was the highest among the 11,000 graduates polled by the study. Technical majors even have an advantage in fields that are typically reserved for liberal arts majors, says career counselor Katy Plotrowski. "Technical degrees are valued in all fields," Plotrowski says. "I've a seen a [company] communications department actually prefer that someone have an engineering degree rather than a communications degree." She also notes that the pay advantage of graduates with technical degrees persists throughout their careers.

Carnegie Mellon Researchers Break Speed Barrier in Solving Important Class of Linear Systems
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (10/21/10) Byron Spice

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) computer scientists have developed an algorithm that can solve systems of linear equations related to real-world problems in image processing, logistics and scheduling, and recommendation systems. The algorithm, developed by CMU professor Gary Miller, systems scientist Ioannis Koutis, and Ph.D. student Richard Peng, uses new tools from graph theory, randomized algorithms, and linear algebra to make solving real-world problems much faster. The algorithm applies to a class of problems called symmetric diagonally dominant (SSD) systems. "The fast SDD solvers developed by Koutis, Miller, and Peng represent a real breakthrough in this domain, and I expect them to have a major impact on the work that we do," says Microsoft researcher Richard Szeliski. The CMU team's approach to solving SDD systems is to first solve a simplified system that can be done rapidly and serve as a preconditioner to guide future steps to an ultimate solution.

D.C. Hacking Raises Questions About Future of Online Voting (10/22/10) Sean Greene

Washington, D.C.'s failure to prevent a team of University of Michigan computer scientists from taking control of its online voting Web site has called into the question the future of electronic voting. Michigan professor J. Alex Halderman noted that his team had taken complete control over the elections board's server. Although some experts say the incident proves that the Internet, in its current state, cannot support secure online voting, others still see potential in the technology. For example, Arizona and eight counties in West Virginia are planning to go ahead with online voting experiments on November 2. "All an attacker has to find is one hole in a system to mount a serious attack," warns University of California, Berkeley researcher Joe Hall. Washington D.C. used a system based on open source software, believing that it provides the transparency necessary for elections. The West Virginia counties are using proprietary software that officials say should be more resistant to hackers. Rokey Suleman, executive director of the D.C. board of elections, says the hacking incident is an opportunity to improve the technology. "We are not disappointed that this occurred," Suleman says. "It is an opportunity for the computer science community to work with us."

TSSG Research Cloud Potential for eGovernment
Waterford Institute of Technology (10/22/10)

Researchers at the Waterford Institute of Technology's Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) are participating in the PASSIVE project, which is investigating the security and data protection issues posed by cloud computing in e-government. "Shifting to cloud computing offers massive savings for the public purse but there are real concerns regarding data protection, security, and regulatory compliance, especially as sensitive citizen data would no longer physically reside in an organization's headquarters," says TSSG's Patrick Phelan. "Working with collaborators, TSSG is looking for ways to mitigate risks so national and local governments, civic authorities, and enterprises can comply with [European Union] data and security laws," Phelan says. The project uses a policy-based approach in which administrators set rules that state who has access to what information. PASSIVE will provide separation of data to make sure that personal data, such as tax returns and social security details, are securely collected, stored, and managed. "We will also be involved in designing and building the technology that controls and monitors the use of resources that hold sensitive data," Phelan says.

China Launches Own Version of Google Earth
Agence France-Presse (10/22/10)

China has launched Map World, a free, government-backed online mapping service that allows users to search for two- and three-dimensional images across the globe. Although Map World is still "at a preliminary stage" in terms of its technology and Web site construction, its geological data will likely be updated twice a year, says Jiang Jie, an official at the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping. By comparison, Google Earth is updated every couple of minutes. "In the near future, Map World will grow to be a famous Chinese brand for online map services with proven reliability," says Xu Deming, director of the surveying and mapping bureau. Chinese authorities say 31 companies have been granted licenses to Map World so far, although Google is not of them. Google has tried to establish its own mapping service in China, but its plans stalled after the Chinese government issued new rules in May that require all firms providing Internet mapping and location services to work with local firms and maintain their servers on China's mainland.

RIM BlackBerry Data Studied Amid Government Pressure
Bloomberg (10/21/10) Hugo Miller

Computer scientists at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab will study how Research in Motion handles BlackBerry data traffic in countries that want to monitor the data. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and India have threatened to block BlackBerry data due to concerns that terrorists and criminals could exploit the smartphone's encrypted services. RIM was able to avert bans in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but has until the end of the year to devise a solution to allow BlackBerry data monitoring by Indian security agencies. There is a need to monitor the activities of companies that "own and operate cyberspace, particularly as they come under increasing pressure to cooperate with governments on national surveillance and censorship laws, policies and requests," says a Citizen Lab statement. "Decisions taken by private-sector actors, often at the behest of governments seeking access to their data or assistance blocking Web sites, can have major consequences for human rights." The project hopes to bring transparency and public accountability to such decisions. The Citizen Lab will work with Information Warfare Monitor, a joint venture between the university and SecDev Group, a think tank on security issues.

Agencies Hard Hit By Shortage of Cybersecurity Pros
Government Computer News (10/21/10) William Jackson

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is struggling to meet its need for cybersecurity personnel. Although DHS tripled the number of professionals working in the National Cybersecurity Division in fiscal 2009, and doubled that number again last year, it still needs more workers. "We just don't have enough people yet," says National Protection and Programs Directorate deputy undersecretary Philip Reitinger. The problem is there are not enough trained professionals coming into the field to meet demand. Several public-private initiatives have been launched to identify potential students and provide educational opportunities and career paths. In addition, various high school and collegiate cybersecurity programs are underway. However, it could take a decade for these new pipelines to begin supplying significant numbers of new workers. The DHS has obtained waivers to give it more flexibility in its hiring processes, but experts say a greater focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) educational programs is needed. "This is a glaring weakness here in the United States," says U.S. Senate counsel Jake Olcott. "Our STEM educational system is not working well right now."

The Robot That Reads Your Mind to Train Itself
BBC News (10/24/10) Lakshmi Sandhana

University of Washington researchers are developing brain-computer interface (BCI) technology by teaching robots new skills using only brain signals. The researchers, led by Washington professor Rajesh Rao, began by programming a humanoid robot with simple behaviors that users could select with a wearable electroencephalogram (EEG) cap, which detects brain activity. The researchers are developing a hierarchical BCI for controlling the robot to emulate human thought and decision making. "The resulting system is both adaptive and hierarchical--adaptive because it learns from the user and hierarchical because new commands can be composed as sequences of previously learned commands," Rao says. Other research groups also are developing thought-controlled robots. Honda researchers recently demonstrated a robot that can lift an arm or a leg through signals sent wirelessly from a system operated by a user wearing an EEG cap. University of Zaragoza scientists are working on creating robotic wheelchairs that can be manipulated by thought. "It does make good sense to teach the robot a growing set of higher-level tasks and then be able to call upon them without having to describe them in detail every time," says Tufts University professor Robert Jacob.

Bendable Memory Made From Nanowire Transistors
Technology Review (10/20/10) Prachi Patel

University of Cambridge researchers have developed a nanoscale memory component that stores data using the conductance of nanoscale transistors made from zinc oxide. The technology has the potential to hold more data than flash memory devices. Although it cannot hold data for as long as flash, it could be made smaller and packed together more densely. The main advantage of the new memory device is that it can be made using simple processes at room temperature, which means it can be deposited on top of flexible plastic materials, says Cambridge's Jung Inn Sohn. The nanowire device can store four values as different levels of conductance. Rice University professor James Tour says the researchers still need to demonstrate that the memory device is fast. So far, the researchers have shown that it has a writing speed of one second, compared to a writing speed of microseconds for flash memory. Nevertheless, Georgia Tech's Zhong Lin Wang says the research "demonstrates an exciting application of zinc oxide nanowires as nonvolatile memory, which is a key component for future flexible electronics."

Model Describes Web Page Popularity (10/20/10) Lisa Zyga

Web page popularity is characterized by bursts similar to features of critical systems, such as stock market crashes and natural phenomena, according to an Indiana University study. The study's researchers developed a model that captures the critical features of online popularity. "We see that Internet popularity behaves in unpredictable ways, with big shifts in attention causing changes which have statistical signatures, like those seen in earthquakes and avalanches," says Indiana University's Jacob Ratkiewicz. A Web page's popularity is expressed by the number of clicks to that page and the number of external links to that page. Almost all pages experience a burst of popularity near the beginning of their lives. Then, some pages maintain a constant exponential growth, while others receive intermittent popularity bursts. "We hope that deeper understanding of how popularity evolves could lead to methods for predicting things that will become popular before they actually do," Ratkiewicz says.

New Equation Could Advance Research in Solar Cell Materials
University of Michigan News Service (10/20/10) Nicole Casal Moore

University of Michigan researchers have developed a new equation that could lead to the wider adoption of organic semiconductors. The new equation describes the relationship of current to voltage at the junctions of organic semiconductors. "Our new equation gives us fundamental insights into how charge moves in this class of materials," says Michigan professor Steve Forrest. He says the equation will allow researchers to describe and predict the properties of different organic semiconductors, enabling them to choose the best material for a specific device. Forrest notes that understanding the exact relationship of current and voltage is a key to making more complicated circuits out of organic semiconductors. "People have been investigating organic semiconductors for 70 or 80 years, but we're just entering the world of applications," he says. "This work will help advance the field forward."

Researchers Gain New Perspective in the CAVE
Idaho National Laboratory (10/19/10) Brett Stone

Researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and the Center for Advanced Energy Studies are using a new three-dimensional (3D) computer-assisted virtual environment (CAVE) to manipulate data and examine it from different angles. "This allows them to enter their data and look at it in ways they can't on traditional computers," says INL director Patrick O'Leary. The CAVE features projectors mounted behind the walls and on the ceiling that create 3D images. Users wear specialized 3D goggles and use a handheld controller to interact with data while in the CAVE, which can track the movement of a user's head and the controller so the images react accordingly. Since the CAVE became operational in June, scientists have used it for a variety of projects. Engineering teams have toured a virtual model of the Advanced Test Reactor facility in the CAVE to train staff, orient subcontractors, and consider new designs. Some scientists have used the CAVE to determine whether a location could be a suitable long-term storage site for carbon dioxide, says INL researcher Travis McLing.

AFOSR-Supported YIP Research Leads to Algorithms That Deflect Network Attackers
Air Force Print News (10/18/10) Maria Callier

The U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research's Young Investigator Researcher Program (YIP), which encourages exceptional young engineers to explore basic research, has led to the development of algorithms that improve the security of the Air Force's global information grid. "The new technology will not only accurately block the known existing attacks, but will also defeat future possible attacks on networks, including wireless ones," says Northwestern University's Yan Chen, who helped develop the technology along with Binghamton University's Scott Craver. The researchers identified potential vulnerabilities in the emerging wireless network protocols and devised new algorithms to stop attackers. "Our project generated the first network-based intrusion detection and prevention system that is both highly accurate and fast, up to tens of gigabits per second," Chen says. "Our vision is to significantly improve the current network defense technology, not only against the existing known attacks, but also for unknown attacks, while still being able to match the high-speed network environment."

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