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February 10, 2006

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE:

 

A Plug for the Unplugged $100 Laptop Computer for Developing Nations
New York Times (02/09/06) P. C3; Varian, Hal R.

MIT Media Laboratory founder Nicholas Negroponte announced that Quanta Computer will manufacture the $100 laptop using a Linux operating system and an AMD chip during the technology sessions at Davos, Switzerland. The device will have a carrying handle, a spill-resistant keyboard, and a power-generating hand crank, as well as the ability to connect to a wireless network and a screen that is readable in direct sunlight. Negroponte said that network costs would be defrayed by managing the flow of Internet data so as not to compete with commercial data. Microsoft CTO Craig Mundie argues that a device similar to a cell phone would make more sense than a laptop, given that the wireless communications industry is growing steadily in developing countries. While Mundie and other critics have focused on the business value of cell phones, Negroponte stresses that laptops yield the strongest educational benefit. Cheap laptops have business value, too, as they could be used as cash registers for merchants, for example, or even as a sort of ATM if it was networked. Laptops could also record and store legal documents such as contracts, a fundamental element of all modern economies. Should the economies of developing nations become dependent on the laptop, it would also have the added benefit of encouraging literacy.
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Flexible Screens to Light up Market
Wall Street Journal (02/09/06) P. B4; Boslet, Mark

After decades of anticipation, the first flexible screens could actually be headed for the market by the first half of 2007, according to Philips Electronics' Polymer Vision unit. The energy-efficient screens would be made of circuits imprinted on thin pieces of plastic, enabling cell phones and other mobile devices to accommodate screens that open up to five inches. Initially, the screens will only be available in black and white, and will not have video capabilities, though enthusiasts argue that the technology could eventually revolutionize the manner in which consumers use a host of electronic devices. Xerox is also pursuing flexible display technology, eyeing retail signage as a potential market. Polymer Vision CEO Karl McGoldrick reports that his company has been approached by computer manufacturers, phone makers, and Internet companies, and that specific product announcements will be forthcoming in March. With annual sales of cell phones expected to surpass 1 billion by 2010, many of which will be smart phones, coupled with the increasing popularity of mobile gaming, the potential market for flexible displays is enormous. Despite the technology's promise, cost looms as a prohibitive factor, though Polymer Vision reports that the price of a flexible five-inch display will be on par with the liquid-crystal displays in existing mobile devices. McGoldrick expects to jump from the five-inch screen to a seven-inch model, which he sees as the ideal size for the mainstream market. He also expects to have a working color prototype by 2008.
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The 'Mother' of the Internet
Investor's Business Daily (02/09/06) P. A4; Barlas, Peter

Radia Perlman says when she proposed a solution for routing information to a group of vendors in the mid 1970s, she was largely ignored, due mainly to her gender. But Perlman, now a distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems, was not to be deterred. Though she frequently found her audiences dismissive over the years, Perlman's spanning tree algorithm, which helps direct network traffic, became so embedded in the Internet's structure that she has been dubbed the "Mother of the Internet." Any time a user searches through an engine such as Google, Perlman's algorithm forms a sort of road map to navigate the Internet. "What Radia did was to put the basic traffic rules into place so it was possible to drive from one point to another without hopelessly getting lost or driving in circles," said Sun CTO Greg Papadopoulos. Perlman attended MIT and took her first paying job teaching programming to children at one of the school's labs. She has always taken a mathematical approach to linking information among computers, describing concrete numbers as a way to cut through the syntactical denseness of computer language. A manager for Digital Equipment watched Perlman's vendor presentation, and offered her a job. Starting at Digital in 1980, she immediately solved the information exchange problem that had confounded the engineering team for months. Despite her field experience, Perlman continued her education and earned a Ph.D. in computer science from MIT in 1988. She has worked at Novell and then Sun, where she developed software that shored up the routing of simple multicast systems, keeping a site running when it is bombarded by traffic. For the past few years Perlman has also taught at the University of Washington and Harvard, as well as written articles and books. For information about ACM's Committee on Women and Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/women
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Are We Losing Our Edge?
Time (02/13/06) Vol. 167, No. 7, P. 22; Lemonick, Michael D.; Beech, Hannah; Bower, Amanda

The United States is in danger of losing its crown for scientific innovation as its faces competition from overseas and reduced federal budgets for research and development. Cutbacks in private-sector R&D investment by corporations under the gun to generate fast profits, and drop-offs in technical graduates because of the declining quality of math and science education, are also contributing factors. In the past, pressing issues such as the Second World War and the Cold War fueled a widespread public-private push to applied as well as pure science research, which led to the development of many world-changing technologies that supported America's rise as the leading technological and economic power. But the situation changed when the U.S. government and corporations began to de-emphasize long-term results in favor of more immediate returns. This helped cause a shrinkage of individual government grants to universities; Caltech provost Paul Jennings says this is having a detrimental effect on researchers, who are jumping through bureaucratic hoops to win as many grants as possible and consequently discouraging students from pursuing scientific careers. Less than stellar salaries for science graduates and teachers compared to other fields are also curtailing students' career ambitions, as is a general skepticism toward science stemming from some of the more spectacular failures, such as the Chernobyl and Space Shuttle disasters. America is losing ground to foreign competitors that have established more science-friendly cultures in an effort to copy the spirit of wide-open inquiry that so distinguished America's scientific community at its height. But intense lobbying by industry leaders, researchers, and lawmakers over the past few months finally appears to be bearing fruit with President Bush's recent launch of the American Competitiveness Initiative, a plan to dramatically increase federal funding for basic scientific research, institute a permanent R&D tax credit, and train 70,000 more high school science and math educators.
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Locking Down Our Digital Future
BBC News (02/08/06) Geist, Michael

A meeting in Rome last week sponsored jointly by the Italian government and the Organization for Economic Cooperation saw hundreds of representatives from the business, academic, and policy communities converge to discuss the state of the digital economy. Opposing sides voiced the argument for digital rights management (DRM) applications to secure content, while others highlighted the rich body of works that has come from systems that support user-generated content, such as Flickr and Creative Commons. Advocates of the user-generated DRM alternative also focused on the proliferation of blogs, with Technorati CEO David Sifry noting that 75,000 new blogs are created each day. Of the 27 million blogs that his company follows, Sifry reported that there were more written in Japanese last month than there were in English. DRM supporters noted the difficulty that users now encounter when trying to legally transfer content between devices. The popularity of Napster, for example, has suffered because the system is incompatible with Apple's iPod. Rather than questioning the licensing restrictions, DRM proponents have blamed equipment makers for the incompatibilities, arguing that they should incorporate content neutrality into their next generation of devices. Meanwhile, user-generated content faces an emerging threat from a two-tiered Internet that could restrict access to applications such as BitTorrent, a program frequently used to distribute material such as open source code and independent films. If service providers follow through on their threat to charge Web sites for bringing content to their users, the two-tiered Internet could further undermine the availability of user-generated content, as many smaller sites would be unable to pay the fees.
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US Plans Massive Data Sweep
Christian Science Monitor (02/09/06) P. 1; Clayton, Mark

The U.S. government is working to harvest and link information from such disparate sources as email and blogs to government records and intelligence data in a large computer system built to monitor for terrorist activity. While the government credits the parts of the system that are already operational with having prevented some terrorist attacks, privacy advocates warn against the latest government intrusion into daily life. In describing the care-free attitude with which most people make search and purchase decisions on the Internet, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Lee Tien says, "We have an attitude that no one will connect all those dots. But these programs are about connecting those dots--analyzing and aggregating them--in a way that we haven't thought about." At the center of the initiative is a seldom-discussed three-year-old Homeland Security project known as ADVISE (Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement). ADVISE relies heavily on data mining, an established practice that the government is applying on an unprecedented scale, mining the digital galaxy for information that is then cross-referenced with government records to be stored in files known as entities. The program demands storage for roughly 1 quadrillion entities as it aims not just to compile information, but to establish patterns that can give insight into terrorists' plans and motivations. The Starlight visualization component of the ADVISE program is already operational, helping analysts see graphical patterns in data that can elude numerical analysis. Privacy advocates are most alarmed by the secrecy of the program, however, as even legislators who oversee the DHS have only vague knowledge about the program, though the department has made assurances that privacy concerns were considered in the program's design.
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Biology Inspires Perceptive Machines
IST Results (02/09/06)

The SENSEMAKER program is attempting to create machines capable of sensing their environments by fusing streams of sensory data to endow them with a holistic conception their surroundings. Computer scientists, electronic engineers, physicists, and neuroscientists have worked together examining neural models of the brain processes that draw data from our senses, reproducing them in silicon. The scientists began with a model of human perception, trying to copy the spikes in voltage that characterize biological neurons. "The traditional model of an artificial network is quite removed from biological neurons, while the spiking neural networks we used are more faithful to what happens in the real biological brain," said SENSEMAKER coordinator Martin McGinnity. During the model's development, the researchers created hardware demonstrators, such as FPGAs, to implement hosts of spiking neural networks and simulate various elements of the sensory system, particularly sight. The FPGAs enabled the organization of synapses and neurons in large networks, allowing for flexibility and rapid implementation. The researchers also developed an ASIC device that provides better integration and more power-efficient operations. The circuits, which can be engaged through a PC, synthesize data in a similar fashion as the biological brain. The SENSEMAKER research translates easily from one sense to another, as the scientists are now moving beyond vision to explore the auditory system. While the progress is significant, McGinnity says that there is a long way to go, as intelligent systems still require reprogramming to adapt to their environment. Two other research projects are in the works to solve that issue, as well as the system's inability to react autonomously and the absence of a perception system.
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Broadband Law Rewrite Planned for 2006
CNet (02/08/06) Broache, Anne

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said his committee hopes to present a "comprehensive" plan for re-tooling U.S. telecommunications statutes later this month during a speech at an annual "state of the Net" conference on Wednesday. Both House and Senate lawmakers have been debating revisions to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which has been targeted by critics for its failure to accommodate the rapid growth of the Internet and broadband. Sens. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) have each introduced proposals that subscribe to a policy of nonintervention when it comes to broadband, while the Senate Commerce Committee has started a series of hearings that should lead to another reform bill. Barton expressed impatience for the Senate to act, noting that "We don't have that many legislative days this year, so it is time to stop talking, and it is time to start working." Last fall, Barton's committee issued a draft proposal and held a hearing that outlined rules for technology services assigned to the categories of broadband ISPs, VoIP providers, and broadband video providers. The draft was heavily criticized by technology companies such as Amazon and Google for failing to clarify a mandate for network neutrality. Barton made no mention of how that draft would be amended prior to its formal unveiling in the House, but stated his intentions to "very quickly" put out legislation for public review. He added that "it's pretty tough to determine what is right in my mind" as far as network neutrality was concerned.
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U.S. Could Fall Behind in Global 'Brain Race'
USA Today (02/09/06) P. 1D; Vergano, Dan

Though concerns over the erosion of U.S. leadership in science and technology have become a familiar refrain, President Bush's pledge to devote $136 billion to education and research marks the most significant government-led drive to boost U.S. scientific competitiveness since Sputnik. Research spending creates innovation that accounts for up to 85 percent of economic growth, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences. The report cites the far greater number of engineering graduates produced annually in India and China than in the United States, as well as a falling trade imbalance of technology goods. The report also notes that the United States is losing its historic lead in high-energy physics, as for the first time in decades the world's most powerful particle accelerator will be located outside of the United States in 2007. The report recommends increases in funding for research and education through tax credits and other measures, while also highlighting the need for a cultural change in schools that makes science more appealing to students. In response to the report's findings, legislators have introduced the PACE Act, which garnered the support of 60 senators in its first week. Critics cite the general disdain that students express for math and science as a driving force behind the United States' declining international ranking in testing scores. The American Competitiveness Initiative that Bush outlined in his State of the Union address seeks to curb this trend by training 70,000 new high school teachers and encouraging industry professionals to go into teaching--ideas that have been echoed in the PACE Act. There is also concern that foreign researchers, long a crucial part of the U.S. scientific community, are staying in their own countries, both because their governments require it and because of U.S. immigration restrictions.
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Feds Back Go Slow Approach on IPv6
Network World (02/08/06) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy

The Commerce Department's IPv6 Task Force has issued a new report which found that it is unnecessary for the federal government to make a major financial commitment to help accelerate the deployment of the new Internet protocol by the private sector. According to the report, there are "no substantial market barriers�that would prevent industry from investing in IPv6 products and services as its needs require or as consumers demand." However, the report did hint that there could be additional funding for research and development of IPv6. "The federal government will need to consider allocation of new resources and to work cooperatively with non-federal authorities and the private sector to address outstanding IPv6 research and development issues and to expedite the development of suitable deployment, coexistence and transition plans," the report says. Although the report acknowledged the benefits of IPv6--such as easier administration, tighter security, and an enhanced addressing scheme when compared to the Internet's current communications protocol, IPv4--it nonetheless recommended a go-slow approach to federal agencies and enterprises looking to migrate to the new protocol. The report concluded by detailing a four-point strategy to take towards IPv6. That strategy involves monitoring and analyzing trends in the global rollout of IPv6, conducting research on IPv6 and facilitating standardization, supporting industry with test methodologies and test beds, and deploying IPv6 to meet internal government IT needs after adequate planning.
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New Tech Stuff Protects, Organizes, Amuses
USA Today (02/06/06) P. 3B; Baig, Edward C.

This week's Demo conference in Phoenix, which witnessed the unveiling of TiVo, the PalmPilot, and Salesforce.com in years past, saw a host of new products and services poised to enter the market, including AOL's new video search engine Truveo, and an ice cream vending machine called the MooBella Ice Cream System. The downloadable Bones in Motion Active software can transform a GPS-enabled cell phone into a personal trainer, recording a runner's distance, time, location, and calories burned. Also on exhibit was the WebSecure 1.0 software, which encrypts a computer user's keystrokes to guard against keystroke logging attacks. Vizrea unveiled a camera phone application that enables users to send pictures wirelessly over a Bluetooth connection or a phone network. Blurb.com has developed a service that takes self-publishing to the next level, allowing users to create sleek, text-based hardcover books on a Mac or PC, complete with dust jacket, and order copies over the Internet. While pricing remains uncertain, Blurb.com will also allow authors to sell their books in an online marketplace. Furby inventor Caleb Chung has invented a new electronic companion called Pleo, equipped with 40 sensors to help him understand his surroundings and react to the human touch. Digislide Holdings unveiled a miniature projector that it hopes to integrate into cell phones, laptops, and portable music players by the end of the year. IGuitar has developed a guitar that can plug into a PC or Mac, recording the sound onto Garageband.com or another music studio program. A tagging application known as Riya promises to use face-recognition technology to automatically tag and search digital photos in a library, though at present the company reports that its facial recognition capability is equivalent to that of a two-year-old.
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Academics Warn of 'Significant Threat' of Spyware Epidemic
SC Magazine (02/07/06) Eazel, William

University of Washington computer science professor Hank Levy calls spyware the top download for unsuspecting Web surfers. Levy is the co-author of a new study that found that more than one in 20 executable files contained piggyback spyware, and that one in 62 Web addresses engaged in drive-by attacks or forced spyware on those who visited a Web site. The UW research team, which also included associate professor Steven Gribble and graduate students Alexander Moshchuk and Tanya Bragin, examined more than 20 million Internet addresses for the study. "We wanted to look at it from an Internet-wide perspective--what proportion of Web sites out there are trying to infect people?," says Levy. "If our numbers are even close to representative for Web areas frequented by users, then the spyware threat is extensive," says Levy. The researchers found game and celebrity Web sites to be the greatest risk for piggyback spyware, and pirate software sites to represent the foremost threat for a drive-by attack. Although most piggyback spyware was adware, about 14 percent was malicious, the kind of programs that steal passwords and financial information or even disable computers.
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IT Struggles With Climate Change
Computerworld (02/06/06) P. 27; Anthes, Gary H.

Climatologists monitoring global warming trends process more data than any one computer can handle, necessitating them to look outward to supercomputing centers throughout the country. In a recent interview, the National Center for Atmospheric Research's James Hack and MIT research scientist Patrick Heimbach described their climatologic research and the processing power that is requires. Heimbach says he would need 20,000 processors to complete his climate study, and that the processors would have to be faster than today's by two orders of magnitude. Absent such a large repository of processing power in a single location, he must scale down the scope of his activities to fit a specific computer, and must often look elsewhere for computer resources. Hack notes that while the parallel vector architectures of Cray and NEC offered the memory bandwidth to advance climate applications a decade ago, the latency and bandwidth of interconnect technologies have become the main performance bottleneck in today's commodity environment. MIT now connects to the Internet2 Abilene network, which, at speeds of 10 Gbps, far exceeds the maximum data transfer rates of 100 Mbps under which Heimbach and his colleagues at MIT labored just a year ago. Still, for transferring multiple terabytes of data, the scientists maintain that they need more bandwidth, less cluttered networks, and better transfer protocols. Hack notes that shipping tapes or disks overnight is still the fastest way to transfer large sets of data, adding that the advancement of scientific research is chronically limited by the evolution of processing power. While many scientists agree that the question of global warming is not a 'what-if' proposition, the answer to the more relevant questions of severity and location will require a twenty-five-fold increase in the level of computer processing to answer precisely.
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States' Challenge: E-Voting Interoperability
Governing.com (02/09/06) Patton, Zach

A lack of federal funding and guidance is hindering many states from setting up voter registration databases, according to Deborah Markowitz, secretary of state for Vermont. Markowitz's comments came during a panel discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 is a $4 billion mandate that requires states to update voting systems and establish statewide databases of registered voters, but it did not receive funding until a year later and still needs more than another $1 billion to be fully funded. Markowitz added that the states that have implemented new voting systems and voter registration databases have done so without specific direction from the federal government. "In all states, we've had to take some gambles," said Markowitz. Even with a revised January 2006 deadline, about half of the states still have not established voter registration databases. And questions remain over whether the federal government will attempt to fully fund HAVA and provide technical guidance for states. There are also concerns about the need to make the systems interoperable to allow for the sharing of information between states.
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Turning the Worm Secures the Computer
New Scientist (02/04/06) Vol. 189, No. 2537, P. 32; Biever, Celeste

Experts predict that computer worms are set to become a powerful force and that beneficial worms will quickly spread through networks and patch machines before a malicious worm can attack. Researchers have wanted to fight bad worms with good ones for a long time and now it appears they are finally getting their chance. "We're talking about fighting fire with fire," says Immunity's David Aitel. In the past, "patching worms" were used by virus-writing gangs to try to stop the spread of worms deployed by their competitors. Legitimate users have been cautious of releasing patching worms because they are hard to control, raising concerns that the originator would be responsible if one were to crash computers it was not designed to patch. Aitel says he has fixed this problem by programming the beneficial worms to visit only computers on a particular network. He calls the worms "nematodes," which are programmed with a map of the network that tells them the range of IP addresses of all the machines they have permission to invade. The "polite" worms can be programmed to ask a central server to grant them permission to invade. Aitel recommends using the domain name system (DNS) server to guarantee that the infected computer always has access to that central server. Every computer on the network must have access to the DNS server at all times, because they contact it every time they visit a Web page.
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Looking for a Lab-Coat Idol
Time (02/06/06) Vol. 167, No. 7, P. 26; Keegan, Rebecca Winters

The number of students in the United States pursuing the sciences continues to decline, but the $380 million in President Bush's budget for science-education programs appears to be a sign that policymakers are getting serious about the issue. Science and math scores are not necessarily falling, but they are not keeping up with the gains that foreign students continue to make. Though teachers would seem to be an ideal role model for science, there is a good chance that a science teacher at the high school level may not have majored in the particular subject he or she is teaching, and educators at the elementary level often do not like science at all. Corporate America woos many science majors who are not overly thrilled about taking a public school teaching position that starts at about $32,000. "Teachers are so frightened of these subjects that they transmit the fear to the children," says former Merck CEO P. Roy Vagelos. And teachers who have no confidence in teaching science lack the passion to get more students interested and excited about science. However, things could change soon due to No Child Left Behind, which will require testing for science in three grades starting in the 2007-2008 school year. Bush also wants to train 70,000 educators to teach AP level science and math courses, and bring 30,000 science and math professionals into the classroom.
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Cyberinfrastructure for Research
Issues in Science and Technology (01/06) Vol. 22, No. 2, P. 9; Atkins, Daniel E.

University of Michigan computer science professor Daniel E. Atkins raises the need for advanced cyberinfrastructure (CI) for research, citing an article by Mark Ellisman that spotlights his Biomedical Information Research project. CI serves as a foundation that supports research networks, grid communities, science portals, and "collaboratories," and Atkins mentions that a number of CI-augmented science communities are achieving functional completeness and not just focusing on the acceleration of past practice via automation, but also on the enablement of new things, new processes, and potentially wider involvement. "The push of technology and the pull of science for more interdisciplinary, globally distributed, and interinstitutional teams have combined to create an inflection point in the flow of information technology's impact on science and more generally on the activities of many knowledge-based communities," explains Atkins. Launching a breakthrough advanced CI program requires three types of activity to be cultivated and synergistically calibrated: Research and development on CI science's technical and social frameworks; the dependable, persistent, and evolving procurement of CI services; and transformative use via iterative adoption and assessment of CI services in science communities. "All this should be done in ways that extract and exploit commonality, interoperability, economies of scale, and best practices at the CI layer," writes Atkins. He reports that, despite the excellent work of National Science Foundation director Arden Bement to lead the CI movement, both NSF and basic research funding overall are in dire straits. "A coordinated and truly interagency approach, leveraged by our research universities, is required to establish clear leadership for the United States in the CI movement--an essential infrastructure for leadership in our increasingly competitive, global, and knowledge-based economy," the author concludes.
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