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August 9, 2006

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Microsoft Shows Off Improved Search
CNet (08/07/06) Lombardi, Candace

Microsoft researchers believe analyzing the manner in which Web users browse and click through content from a search results page could help search engines rank and retrieve results. The researchers will present two papers at the 29th Annual International Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval (ACM SIGIR 2006), which got underway in Seattle on Aug. 6. Eugene Agichtein, an expert in the company's Mining, Search, and Navigation Group, says most search engines are two-dimensional in that they match queries with content and link the structure of a Web page to return the results. "Using the 'wisdom of crowds' can give us an accurate interpretation of user interactions, even in the inherently noisy Web search setting," the researchers say in one paper. "Our techniques allow us to automatically predict relevance preferences for Web search results with accuracy greater than the previously published methods." The second paper details how such user information can boost algorithms used to rank search results by 31 percent. Thirteen groups are scheduled to present papers at ACM SIGIR, which runs through Aug. 11, on topics ranging from making vast amounts of content more digestible to improving the presentation of news summaries for mobile devices.
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Anita Borg Institute Announces Speakers for Grace Hopper Celebration
Business Wire (08/08/06)

The Anita Borg Institute (ABI) for Women and Technology has unveiled its roster of speakers for the upcoming Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing Conference, sponsored jointly by ACM and ACI. The GHC, inspired by the legacy of Admiral Grace Hopper, is the world's largest technical conference for women in the profession of computer science. The keynote speakers will be iRobot co-founder and Chairman Helen Greiner, Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman, and Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman to travel in outer space. "We are honored to welcome this remarkable group of technical women to this year's GHC program. Each of them is an extraordinary role model and a positive example of how technical women are seizing opportunity and changing the face of technology," said Telle Whitney, president and CEO of ABI. This year's event, open to all women from the collegiate to professional levels, is expected to draw more than 1,200 attendees. Participants will present technical papers and hold workshops, and the winners of the Anita Borg Technical Leadership and Social Impact Awards will be announced. The NSF and numerous universities and businesses, including Microsoft, Google, and Intel, have provided funding for a record number of attendance scholarships. The conference will be held in San Diego from Oct. 4-7.
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Scratch-and-Vote System Could Help Eliminate Election Fraud
Technology Review (08/09/06) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

A new lottery-style scratch-and-vote card that voters could verify might put to rest the security concerns that have long plagued electronic voting systems. With current touch-screen systems, "there is no way for an individual voter to know that his or her vote has been properly counted," said Microsoft's Josh Bernaloh. "Even election officials cannot be certain that the systems are free of errors." Even with paper receipts, voters are still relying on other people and procedures to count their votes. While encryption-based systems can be audited to verify their accuracy, it is important to ensure that voting remains anonymous, says Ben Adida of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Paper-based systems produce a unique number that can be traced back to identify a voter's name. S&V schemes can be used with existing election systems, including one recently developed by University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne cryptographer Peter Ryan. Ryan's system places candidates' names on one side of the ballot in random order, with the tick boxes on the other. The voter tears the ticket in half after placing his vote, and a cryptographic code then matches the sequence of candidates on each side of the ballot. The challenge that Ryan's system faces is verifying that the encrypted information accurately correlates the order of candidates' names, but the S&V approach would secure the auditing process because it furnishes a paper ballot that would not pass through an election official's hands. A voter could simply scratch off the surface of the ticket to reveal a number that, when combined with a number that corresponds with the sequence of candidates and a public encryption key, would determine whether a ballot has been rigged. Voters could also use S&V cards to check to make sure that their votes have been counted after the election by verifying that the ballot code on their paper receipt matches the encryption code. Though new systems like these will be difficult to adopt on a widespread basis, they could represent a significant step forward in ensuring voting security, says Michael Shamos, co-director of Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for eCommerce.
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Researchers Take the Blur out of Shaky Photos
CNet (08/09/06) Shankland, Stephen

Researchers at the University of Toronto and MIT have developed a new image-processing technique that could prevent the blurriness that results from photographs taken with an unsteady hand. Their method is based on an algorithm that calculates the path taken by a shaky camera when the picture was shot, and then traces that path back to reverse the blurring. "This is the first time that the natural image statistics have been used successfully in deblurring images," said MIT's Rob Fergus, the project's lead researcher who demonstrated the technology at ACM's SIGGRAPH conference last week. Each image takes 10 to 15 minutes to process using the technique, which employs a universal statistical property that characterizes transitions from light to dark. There are numerous products currently available that aim to counteract the effects of photos taken with unsteady hands, but they only eliminate blurriness to a limited degree, while the researchers' work addresses more complex patterns of motion. The statistical property that Fergus' technique uses is a combined measurement of the variations in brightness between neighboring pixels. Real images have a similar distribution of gradients, while randomly generated computer images vary widely, Fergus says. Blurry images have contrasting gradients, which Fergus' technique uses to estimate how the camera moved. The process generates what is called a blur kernel, which reveals where the camera was shooting when the image was taken.
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IU Informatics Researchers Throttle the Notion of Search Engine Dominance
Indiana University (08/07/06)

Search engines contain no inherent bias toward popular Web sites, researchers at Indiana University claim. Their study contends that search engines actually have an egalitarian effect on the Web, disputing the "Googlearchy" theory that search engines funnel traffic to the best-known sites, creating an effective monopoly over their smaller competitors. "Empirical data do not support the idea of a vicious cycle amplifying the rich-get-richer dynamic of the Web," said Filippo Menczer, associate professor of informatics and computer science at IU. "Our study demonstrates that popular sites receive on average far less traffic than predicted by the Googlearchy theory and that the playing field is more even." Drawing on their collective expertise in Web mining and networks, the Indiana researchers set up experiments where users alternately browsed the Web by clicking only on random links or by visiting only pages in the results listings produced by search engines. In explaining the general impact of search engines on the Internet, the researchers describe a "long-tail structure" where the vast majority of connections come from a few nodes. The rich-get-richer notion that is commonly invoked to explain this phenomenon is errant because it requires advanced knowledge of the prestige of each network node, a characteristic of Web sites that is often unknown, the researchers claim. All that is required to create the long tail, the researchers claim, is that the nodes are sorted by any measure of prestige, regardless of whether the precise values are known. "By sorting results, search engines give us a simple mechanism to interpret how the Web grows and how traffic is distributed among Web sites," Menczer said.
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University of Pennsylvania Researcher Reports JitterBugs Could Turn Your Keyboard Against You, Steal Data
Penn News (08/07/06) Lester, Greg

Peripheral devices such as keyboards, microphones, and mice could pose an entirely new computer vulnerability, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found. Using a device known as a JitterBug, the researchers found that a hacker could physically bug a peripheral device and steal chunks of data by creating an all-but-imperceptible processing delay after a keystroke. The researchers built a functional JitterBug keyboard as proof of concept. "This is spy stuff. Someone would need physical access to your keyboard to place a JitterBug device, but it could be quite easy to hide such a bug in plain sight among cables or even replace a keyboard with a bugged version," said Gaurav Shah, a graduate student in Penn's Department of Computers and Information Science. "Although we do not have evidence that anyone has actually been using JitterBugs, our message is that if we were able to build one, so could other, less scrupulous people." Unlike keystroke loggers, which have to be physically installed and then retrieved to collect data, the JitterBug needs only to be installed. The device can use any interactive network-related software application such as email or instant messaging to relay the data, leaking it through split-second keystroke delays. Limited storage space on the device would prevent the JitterBug from recording every keystroke, but could be trained to record a certain type of activity prompted by a specific keystroke. "For example, one could pre-program a JitterBug with the user name of the target as a trigger on the assumption that the following keystrokes would include the user's password," Shah said. In one particularly alarming scenario, a manufacturer of peripheral devices could be compromised, inundating the market with JitterBugged devices. Shah's initial research suggests that cryptography could be used to protect against JitterBugged devices.
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Inventors Object to New Patent Reform Bill
IDG News Service (08/08/06) Gross, Grant

Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have introduced a bill that would have the United States determine who should receive a patent based on who files a patent first. The Patent Reform Act would bring the nation in line with the first-to-file patent systems of most other countries, but advocates of small inventors say the patent reform bill would hurt individuals who are unable to afford the patent process. Although an inventor can file a patent for as little as $100, fees and legal representation associated with a patent application cost on average about $15,000. Moreover, a legal dispute over who invented something first can cost at least $100,000. "Weakening patent protection at a time when America's incredible inventiveness is the one edge we have in a low-wage global economy is incredibly poor public policy," says Ronald Riley, president of the Professional Inventors Alliance. Also under the patent reform proposal, judges making patent infringement awards would have to consider the value of the patented item in relation to the entire product, and patents would be challenged in a post-patent review process. The Hatch-Leahy bill differs from legislation Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) unveiled in the House last year, in that injunctions against patent infringing-companies would not be restricted.
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Pitt Awarded $2.4 Million by U.S. Department of Homeland Security to Develop Computing Technology
University of Pittsburgh News Bureau (08/07/06)

The University of Pittsburgh will serve as a University Affiliate Center (UAC) that will aid the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in its effort to gain the information analysis capability to analyze free text for potential terrorist activity. DHS will provide Pitt with $2.4 million over the next three years to develop advanced computing technology that can find common patterns in a wide range of information sources. "The goals of the work will be to identify facts and entities, as well as beliefs and motivations, expressed in text, and to create new methods for linking events and beliefs across documents, and tracking them over time," explains Janyce Wiebe, lead researcher and a computer science professor at Pitt. Cornell University and the University of Utah will participate in the Pitt UAC, which will work closely with the Institute for Discrete Science, the joint initiative of DHS and several National Laboratories that is working to improve the software algorithms and architectures used in a variety of computing applications. "The biggest challenge facing this critical area is the need for improved methods to quickly and accurately analyze, organize, and make sense of vast amounts of changing data," adds Jeffrey W. Runge, acting under secretary for Science and Technology. Rutgers University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Southern California are also serving as UACs, with each focusing on a specific area of research identified by Congress.
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Pass the Virtual Scalpel, Nurse
Wired News (08/09/06) Sandhana, Lakshmi

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are developing technology that simulates surgery based on sophisticated, tactile computer-generated models of organs, inviting the possibility that surgeons could eventually train in virtual reality. The surgery simulator, which enables surgeons to work with virtual organs in real time, is similar to the flight simulators that pilots use to train. Ultimately, Rensselaer researcher Suvranu De and his team are working toward the goal of developing a virtual human--an expansive database of human anatomy that would appear in every sense exactly like a flesh-and-blood human that surgeons could manipulate with various types of haptic interfaces. "A virtual human can be pushed and prodded pretty much as you would a real human," De says. Most existing simulators are unpopular because they are not realistic enough and the haptic technology is not developed to the point where doctors can feel how tissue reacts when it is prodded or cut. In current simulators, haptic interfaces convert the movement of a surgeon's hands into the motions of computer tools that interact with virtual organs. Computer monitors render the scene, and no existing application can realistically render the behavior of soft tissues. If the entire body remains still or appears like a cartoon, students are unlikely to feel immersed in the experience, says Dan Morris, a student at Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Discovering how human tissue responds to direct contact with surgical instruments is an essential part of the learning process. De and his team believe they have a solution in their point-associated field approach, which uses complex software to produce real-time simulations of any form of matter.
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Searching for a Mobile Interface
BBC News (08/04/06) Kelly, Spencer

As mobile phone makers work to cram more features into their devices, usability is becoming an increasingly important issue, as almost a quarter of all phones returned as defective work fine, according to a recent survey. The problem is that people have a hard time getting them to work. The operating experience is complicated by the increasing depth of menus and lists, and more and more befuddled users are only looking at the top few items. One popular solution that developers are exploring to simplify the experience is animation. "Some people think animation is just for eye candy, to make things look good, but it can actually enhance usability," said Next Device's Geoff Kendall. Some applications are building menu options around the keypad, while other manufacturers are considering redesigns of the keypad altogether. Of all the variations of swiveling and sliding keyboards that manufacturers have developed, the wheel on Apple's iPod is one of the few interface innovations that both looks cool and simplifies the user's experience. The iPod has become the benchmark for successful interface innovation, and many other manufacturers are developing products under the premise that the controls must be round, and some are leaving all the functions up to the scroll wheel. But the scroll wheel alone is not the answer to every design problem, Kendall says. "The problem with mobile phones, for example, is that they do much more than just show lists of albums and artists and so on--we have to take pictures, send messages, take calls, etc." The future could lie in embedding all the controls in a touch-sensitive LCD screen, a sort of virtual keypad that could include the functionality of a scroll wheel, a joystick, or any number of keys. Some users have had difficulties with virtual keypads because they cannot feel what they are doing, though it might be possible to simulate the feeling of pressing a button through audible clicks and a highly sensitive vibrate function.
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Unis Revamp IT Courses to Lure Students
Computerworld Australia (08/02/06) Tay, Liz

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and RMIT University have added more flexibility to their IT undergraduate programs for 2007 that could encourage more students in Australia to pursue a career in IT. At UTS, the Bachelor of Science in Information Technology (BScIT) program will offer a major in Business Information Systems Management for students looking for work in technology implementation and governance; Enterprise Systems Development that emphasizes technology building; and Internetworking and Applications and Computing and Data Analytics, two degrees that could lead to a career in technology servicing. More electives will be available, and students will be able to combine their major with a number of other disciplines. RMIT is also offering students the opportunity to pursue combined degrees, and to obtain an IT degree with a minor in a subject not related to technology. Industry needs IT professionals who have some background in other areas, says RMIT senior lecturer Saied Tahaghoghi, adding that many people are unaware that there remains a great demand for IT professionals. "The fact is business needs IT more than ever and only a limited set of operations can be outsourced overseas," says Tahaghoghi. "I believe the flexibility of the program will attract students who would previously have not considered doing much study in IT."
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Senate Appropriators Target Cognitive Computing, IT Research Again
CRA Bulletin (08/07/06) Harsha, Peter

The Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) has approved its version of the Defense Appropriations bill for fiscal 2007, with deep cuts to DARPA's Cognitive Computing program for the second year in a row. Senate-wide debate on the bill will resume in September after the August recess. SAC also approved reductions in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) account and the activities of DARPA's Computer Science Study Group. The House had granted the president's request for a $47 million funding increase for ICT, bringing its total allotment to $243 million, but the Senate cut $13.4 million from the request for an approved total of $229 million. Similarly, the House approved the $220 million allotment for Cognitive Computing Systems that the president had requested, but SAC only approved $149 million. Targeted programs included "Integrated Cognitive Systems," "Learning Locomotion and Navigation," and "Improved Warfighter Information Processing." SAC also cut funding for DARPA's Computer Science Study Group, which was created this year to introduce young faculty to computer science problems that affect the Defense Department. While the ICT cut simply scales back the rate of increase, the other cuts are real losses to the affected programs.
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If It Only Had a Brain
Red Herring (08/07/06) Vol. 3, No. 29, P. 40; Cubarrubia, Eydie

The dream of cognitive computing is to enable machines to learn as people do and respond to unanticipated events instead of tapping existing knowledge or employing preprogrammed logical threads. Advocates say this will nurture reasoning abilities, and perhaps intelligence and consciousness, that can be harnessed to generate profits. It is theorized that cognitive computing could exceed the goals of research into artificial intelligence thanks to our growing knowledge of the human brain and the advent of supercomputers and other tools that can model and eventually replicate the brain. In keeping with current neuroscience reasoning, a brain-like computer must be capable of constructing neural nets that store past experiences. This goal may not be so elusive: Swiss researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne's Brain Institute have used supercomputing systems to build neocortical columns. Cognitive computing technologies are expected to soon make a splash in such markets as automotive systems, medical devices, and personal robots. In fact, belief in the technology is so strong that James Albus, a senior fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, says the agency has plans for a new project called "Decade of the Mind" that calls for awarding $4 billion in funding to researchers working on mind-based computing. Albus says the project could get underway next year. Although some scientists still believe that traditional AI concepts using software-based systems are the best ways to achieve smart computers, others say that only machines that attempt to mimic the way the brain works can ultimately replicate the human brain. IBM cognitive computing leader Dharmendra Modha says, "The brain is a machine. It's biological hardware. If a program is not biologically feasible, it's not consistent with the brain."
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Photos Transformed Into 3D Model
BBC News (08/02/06)

Working with a pair of researchers from the University of Washington, Microsoft's Richard Szeliski has developed technology that converts digital images into 3D models, enabling users to create the effect of walking or flying through a scene from any angle. Due to be presented at ACM's SIGGRAPH conference in Boston, Photosynth compiles unique features from different photographs and cross-references them against other images, looking for similarities. That enables it to isolate a specific 3D position and then calculate the camera's location when the picture would have been taken. "Then basically, it is just a geometry problem," Szeliski said. "You are simultaneously adjusting the position of the camera and where those little pieces of images are until everything basically snaps together." The system can be used with as few as two images, though it is much more interesting when several dozen images are combined, Szeliski said. The technology will facilitate a higher level of interaction with photographs, as users will be able to able to look at them from any angle, zoom in on specific features, and identify where one image was shot in relation to another. Photo-sharing sites will likely be early adopters of the technology, Szeliski says. Cities or tourism boards could also use the technology to provide a virtual tour.
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DOE Raises Bar on Supercomputing
Federal Computer Week (08/07/06) Vol. 20, No. 26, P. 48; Sternstein, Aliya

The Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory is partnering with Cray in a $200 million project to develop the world's most powerful supercomputer by 2008, with a peak speed of 1 petaflop. Researchers at IBM and the DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have announced that they have created the world's most powerful software code for Blue Gene, the world's most powerful supercomputer, that will run complex simulations critical to national security. The race among the DOE labs for ever-faster supercomputing creates a healthy atmosphere of intellectual competition, researchers say. The DOE's weapons research demands considerable computing capacity to develop large, detailed models. Other, unclassified programs include climate modeling, quantum chemistry and physics, and materials science. Software for high-performance computing has been slow to develop, however, allowing supercomputers only to perform calculations at a fraction of their peak capacity. Petascale systems will broaden the horizons for research possibilities, though creating systems that can sustain performance at that level is still a challenge, according to Dan Reed, director of the Renaissance Computing Institute. The Cray computer will support Oak Ridge scientists' research activities in biology, energy, and nanotechnology, and corporate and academic researchers working under a DOE program will also get some time on the system. "There's an almost insatiable demand for computing power," said Cray's Steve Conway. "The more they can get, the better off the science is going to be." Running Lawrence Livermore's Qbox code, meanwhile, the classified Blue Gene is helping the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) develop predictive simulations of nuclear weapons and ensure the safety and reliability of the United States' existing nuclear stockpile.
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The Laptop Crusade
Wired (08/06) Vol. 14, No. 8, P. 158; McGray, Douglas

In January 2005 MIT Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte unveiled the One Laptop Per Child project, an initiative to design and distribute an ultracheap, lightweight, and intuitive portable PC to poor children throughout the world, at the World Economic Forum. The project called for a highly ruggedized machine equipped with radio antennas for networking in the absence of satellites or towers; a dual-mode display that shifts to monochrome in bright light; and a way for generating power that facilitates indefinite operation without an electrical outlet. Among those invited to design the laptop was fuseproject owner Yves Behar, who suggested a compact and sealable form factor that, in his words, "shouldn't look like something for business that's been colored for kids." An earlier version of the laptop featured a handcrank to generate power, but this was eliminated after it was determined that gripping the crank with one hand and the laptop with the other would cause the machine to shake, placing excessive strain on the hardware. The latest version of the laptop, priced at about $140, features a kid-friendly design and colors that deter theft; a hollow handle that holds a shoulder strap; built-in VoIP and Skype; 802.11b/g antennas with a range of half a mile; custom batteries with a five-year lifespan; LEDs in place of a fluorescent backlight; a rubberized plastic shell to absorb shocks; 512 MB of flash memory and 200 GB of storage through a mesh-networked server; a 366 MHz processor and 128 MB of RAM; a bare-bones version of Redhat Linux; a seamless touchpad that allows handwriting and drawing; and the ability to swivel to ebook mode. Behar designed every laptop component to be multifunctional: For instance, the computer's antennas are movable "ears" that can swivel down to shield the laptop's ports.
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The Semicolon Wars
American Scientist (08/06) Vol. 94, No. 4, P. 299; Hayes, Brian

The proliferation of programming languages stems from the desire to improve the language rather than create a wholly new language for the sake of doing so, but while many programmers subscribe to the idea of a true programming language, few can agree on what that language is, writes Brian Hayes. Among the petty feuds associated with programming languages is what role the semicolon should play: In Algol and Pascal, semicolons are used to separate program statements, while in C they terminate statements. Though nearly every programming language is built atop a platform of context-free grammar, there are several families into which languages can be categorized, with different appearances, audiences, and areas of application for each category. Imperative or command-based languages are languages in which the commands act on stored data and tweak the general state of the system; functional languages modeled after the concept of a mathematical function use arguments as input and values as output; in object-oriented languages, imperative commands and the data they act on are tied together into encapsulated objects, and the data structure can be "taught" to perform operations on itself; and logic, rational, or declarative languages distinguish themselves by having the statement of facts or relations be paramount. Languages can also be labeled as "low-level" or "high-level," with the former notable for permitting more direct access to pieces of the underlying hardware, and the latter offering a protective abstraction layer. Supporters of specific languages are less inclined nowadays to bad-mouth other languages, and more focused on "converting" users of rival languages over to their language.
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