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August 16, 2006

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Fiction-Filled Computer Code Mystery Peppered With 'Ancient' Puzzles
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (08/16/06) Templeton, David

Carnegie Mellon University's computer science department was selected this year to create the programming contest for the ACM SIGPLAN International Conference on Functional Programming (ICFP) to be held in Portland, Ore., from Sept. 18-20. Three doctoral computer science students and one undergraduate developed a movie-like plot that requires participants to find clues to solve a fictive ancient codex, or ancient language, which is in turn used to solve eight puzzles. Many teams worked around the clock for the three days they were allotted to solve the puzzles. "Like most competitions with no real point, people kill themselves to win it," said Robert Harper, the CMU computer science professor who sponsored the project. "We set the bar very high." The contest's trial was held from July 21-24, drawing wide acclaim for its sophistication and complexity. The storyline of the CMU contest had an ancient society in the Pittsburgh region dedicated to the study of programming and computing. Then, several decades ago, the construction of a local mall uncovered an indecipherable codex that participants in the contest were tasked with unlocking to open the ancient computer by solving the eight problems. Of the 900 registered teams, 364 were able to open the ancient computer, but only 150 made significant progress in solving one of the eight puzzles. "The brilliant thing the CMU group did was put together a suite of eight problems of varying degrees of difficulty, and I would say, as a bonus, about half the problems had very strong connections to functional programming that connected fairly nicely to the sponsoring organization. I'm sure the ICFP is thrilled," said Norman Ramsey, Harvard University professor of computer science. The winners will be announced at the ICFP next month. For more information about ICFP, visit http://icfp06.cs.uchicago.edu/
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SWAN System to Help Blind and Firefighters Navigate Environment
Georgia Institute of Technology (08/15/06)

A team of Georgia Tech researchers is developing a wearable computing system to help firefighters, soldiers, the visually impaired, and others navigate unfamiliar territory, particularly when visibility is limited. The System for Wearable Audio Navigation (SWAN), which includes a small laptop, a tracking chip, and bone-conduction headphones that relay auditory signals to the skull without plugging the user's ears, supplies audio clues to the wearer to help him navigate from place to place. The Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta is supplying the Georgia Tech researchers with volunteers to test the consumer feasibility of the system through focus groups and interviews. The idea for the project was born five years ago, when Frank Dellaert, assistant professor in Georgia Tech's College of Computing, met Bruce Walker, assistant professor in Georgia Tech's College of Psychology and College of Computing, and found that their work in the respective areas of robot location-tracking and audio interfaces could overlap to develop assistive technologies for the visually impaired. Their work together combines GPS-based location tracking with novel interfaces that represent data through sonification or sound. The sensors and tracking chip worn on the user's head transmit data to the laptop, which then determines the user's location and the direction he is looking. It then calculates the travel route and relays directions to the user via the bone headphones. "SWAN consists of two types of auditory displays--navigational beacons where the SWAN user walks directly toward the sound, and secondary sounds indicating nearby items of possible interest such as doors, benches, and so forth," Walker said. The next step for the researchers is to refine the computer vision system so the SWAN can work indoors, where GPS tracking is ineffectual.
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Design Automation Conference Announces Call for Papers
Business Wire (08/14/06)

Electronic design researchers and industry professionals have until Nov. 20, 2006, to submit an original paper on new research or engineering developments involving electronic design automation for the 44th Design Automation Conference (DAC). Automotive Electronics will be the special theme of DAC, and conference organizers are particularly interested in papers on design issues and challenges involving automotive electronics. "The size and complexity of automotive systems raises a full range of design issues from system level integration to analog and mixed-signal verification," says Steven P. Levitan, general chair of the 44th DAC. "We expect this topic will lead to an exciting and diverse set of technical presentations and panel sessions that will be of interest to a wide array of conference attendees." There are 18 topic categories in all areas of design automation tools and methodologies, silicon solutions, and embedded systems, and details are available on the DAC Web site. ACM's Special Interest Group on Design Automation (ACM/SIGDA) is a sponsor of the conference, which is scheduled for June 4-8, 2007, at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego. Authors will be chosen to present their papers during 44th DAC technical sessions, tutorials, and panels.
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Programmers Top Annual Salary Gains
IDG News Service (08/14/06) Weil, Nancy

The annual Enterprise Systems (ES) salary survey found across-the-board gains in base salary for all applications and systems-related IT positions, with applications programmers enjoying the largest pay increases. The tech workers with the highest salaries were based in the U.S. Northeast and on the West Coast. Leading the pack, applications programmers saw an 8.7 percent pay increase over last year, while systems administrators had the lowest gains at 2 percent, though their annual bonuses rose more than 15 percent from last year to $3,000. Last year, only four of the seven positions surveyed saw salary increases. This year, the survey reported increases in each of the eight positions it evaluated: applications systems analysts, programmer/analysts, application programmers, system programmers, network administrators, system administrators, database administrators, and storage administrators. ES attributes the turnaround to a generally stronger U.S. economy. One-quarter of the respondents are employed in government or education, 14 percent in high tech or software development, 9 percent each in finance/insurance and manufacturing, 7 percent each in services and health care, 5 percent in utilities/transportation, and 4 percent in retail. Three-quarters of the respondents work in Windows server environments, down 4 percent from last year. Twenty-one percent work with mainframes, down from 28 percent last year. Forty-one percent support at least one version of commercial Unix, and Linux environments were steady at 31 percent, up from 30 percent last year.
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Subliminal Search
Technology Review (08/15/06) Sandhana, Lakshmi

While the volume of images recorded by surveillance cameras on a daily basis far outstrips humans' capacity to analyze them all, and computer vision systems are still too primitive to be of much use, a new brain monitoring technology could take advantage of the brain's ability to subconsciously detect anomalies. The brain notices anomalies, such as a shadow where there should be none, much faster than a person can visually or verbally identify it. Columbia University bioengineer Paul Sajda is hoping to enable his cortically coupled computer vision system, or C3Vision, to tap into that ability, enabling surveillance analysts to comb through many times more images per hour than currently possible. Working under a DARPA grant, Sajda built a prototype that consists of a string of electrodes worn around the subject's head to monitor fluctuations in the brain's electrical activity. The subject watches a video at 10 times the normal speed while a computer scans the brain fluctuations for neural signatures of unusual images or events. The system then culls out any flagged images for further analysis. "We are aiming to speed up [visual] search by 300 percent," Sadha said. "The system is designed not only for finding very specific targets but also things image analysts think are 'unusual,' which is very difficult to do with a computer vision system." Law enforcement personnel could use the system to better detect terrorist activity, and radiologists could use the system to scan hundreds of mammograms very quickly, picking out those that require closer scrutiny. Photo researchers could use C3Vision to scan through images on the Web at speeds of up to 20 per second. In testing, subjects spotted the anomaly in a string of images flashing at 10 per second.
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Lawsuit Targets Pa.'s Electronic Voting Machines
Philadelphia Inquirer (08/16/06) Fitzgerald, Thomas

A group of voting-rights advocates yesterday filed suit to block Pennsylvania from using e-voting machines that do not create a paper record of each vote cast. The suit claims that machines that do not produce a paper record, which are set to be used in 58 counties, are in violation of the election code because there is no mechanism by which to audit the results. "Whatever the initial promise may have been for electronic voting, we now know...that they are simply not ready for prime time," said Lowell Finley, a lawyer for the nonprofit group Voter Action. Many of the machines that have been certified in Pennsylvania and other states have malfunctioned, according to the suit, which cites studies that show how easily security experts can alter vote totals, the plaintiffs claim. They claim that the state's testing procedures are insufficient, and want Secretary of State Pedro Cortes to decertify seven models of paperless machines. Department of State spokeswoman Leslie Amoros counters that there are numerous safeguards in place, such as training poll workers and sequestering the machines. Though there must be a physical record of ballots cast under state law, the department claims that the machines satisfy that requirement with an auditing function that recalls the voting histories. Amoros defended the legality of the machines, but said the department would be willing to implement paper trails, though that provision raises concerns that a voter's right to cast a secret ballot could be compromised.
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At Media Lab, Less Whiz, More Bang
Boston Globe (08/12/06) Weisman, Robert

MIT's Media Lab, a major axis point of the digital revolution in the 1990s, is transforming itself from a blue-sky research facility focused on multimedia and convergence to one focused on more utilitarian areas such as health care and aging. The lab has also been entering into closer partnerships with corporate sponsors under its new director, Frank Moss, who emphasizes the need for new, more pragmatic approaches. Moss also seeks to further the lab's efforts to widen access to technology for the disabled or impoverished, such as digitally controlled prosthetic limbs and $100 laptops. "If we direct our research at these kinds of problems, we're setting the stage for breakthroughs that apply to everybody," Moss said. He has launched a "buddy system" to ensure that faculty members are forging stronger connections with the business community and developing projects that will solve real problems. In an era when corporate research sponsorship has plateaued, Moss has been in discussions with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other philanthropic endeavors that might be interested in the lab's work in areas such as health care and aging. He also wants to consolidate the hundreds of independent research projects into fewer groups with a broader scope. The lab is attempting to emerge from the period following the tech bust of 2000 that saw its funding dry up and its overseas facilities in Ireland and India close in the wake of disputes with those countries' governments. Moss has yet to pull the plug on any of the lab's projects, though he has held brainstorming sessions with faculty members and students to help clarify the lab's overall direction. Currently, some researchers are hashing out the details of their health care projects with corporate sponsors, while others are still pursuing far-off work on solar cars and the future of media.
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Forget Chess. The Real Challenge Is in the Cards
Canadian Press (08/14/06) Owram, Kristine

In 1997, IBM's Deep Blue defeated world-chess champion Gerry Kasparov, but when it comes to poker, even the world's most powerful computers are still bested by top human players. Skillful poker playing requires decisions to be made based on incomplete or even inaccurate information, which computer scientists have yet to figure out how to program. "The skills that make human poker players really good are skills that don't seem to match well with what computers can do," said Jonathan Schaeffer, chair of the computer science department at the University of Alberta. "Computers aren't particularly good at learning, for example, or reasoning by analogy." Schaeffer helped design the Hyperborean poker-playing computer that went undefeated at two recent tournaments hosted by the American Association of Artificial Intelligence. In the first competition, four computers played 40,000 hands of Texas Hold 'em with a seven-second allowance to make their move. In the second, the computers had 60 seconds to make their decision, but only played 12,000 hands. The University of Alberta program bested its opponents by inferring information about their hands from their decisions, said Michael Bowling, the leader of the research group that created the computer. The program, though perhaps the best of its breed, is still a long way away from defeating the world's top players, but it has at least progressed to the point where it can give them respectable competition. Schaeffer admits that they are still a long way from developing a poker computer of the caliber of Deep Blue. "The nice thing about chess as a property of the game is what we call perfect information. You look at the board, you know where all the pieces are, you know whose turn it is--you have complete knowledge of the game," he said. "But in the real world, knowing everything is just so rare...poker's much more representative of what the real world's like, and in that sense it becomes a much harder problem."
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Games Guru Won't Walk the Line
the age (08/15/06) Karena, Cynthia

John Buchanan is adamant about taking a different approach to exploring media applications. "Let's do something interesting in the space before we're consumed by linear media," said Buchanan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center in Adelaide. "Ten years ago linear media ruled with radio, TV, and movies. There was no interaction with the media at all. Mobile phones, the Internet, and video games have now replaced linear as the king of media." Buchanan warns of the Internet becoming simply "a new way of delivering crap," and he hopes to ensure that video games are experiential, instead of simply running along a linear narrative that describes without engaging. Technology should be used to create communities, Buchanan argues, pointing to teenagers in Sweden who are creating social-networking profiles using their Bluetooth mobile phones. He is also working toward greater adoption of technology throughout the artistic community, which could require a more accessible interface. Buchanan, who has served as research head for Electronic Arts in the United States and Australia, says the success of the video game industry has stifled innovation, because there is so much now at stake when a new game is under development. "Developing games is now a high-risk endeavor. The cost of prototyping becomes expensive because of the technology needed to build it. When interacting with characters in a video game, their behavior is scripted and hard coded. Programming the behavior (by) anticipating for all possible scenarios makes it very expensive." He is exploring tools that could provide players with a reasonably priced way to test out their own ideas for video games, such as game sketching, which brings in an actor to react to the program in real time to refine the timing and realism of the game.
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E-Mail Security Hero Takes on VoIP
CNet (08/15/06) McCullagh, Declan

Phil Zimmerman, who developed free e-mail encryption software called Pretty Good Privacy more than a decade ago, has now developed software to secure VoIP phone calls. The software, called Zfone, has already met with some success. A beta version released in March works with VoIP software such as Gizmo and Free World Dialup that supports the SIP standard. But Zimmerman's efforts to popularize Zfone have placed him at the center of a growing political and technical debate about how to secure VoIP calls while at the same time making it possible for police and intelligence agencies to conduct electronic surveillance. The Bush administration, fearing that terrorists and drug criminals will use VoIP, has demanded that broadband Internet providers provide backdoors for government wiretapping, a requirement that a federal appeals court ruled was permissible under the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). Zimmerman claims his software has no backdoors--it makes use of encryption that scrambles the conversation from end-to-end. The lack of a backdoor could potentially draw the ire of the U.S. government. The FBI has drafted legislation that would require makers of networking gear to build in backdoors for eavesdropping. If the legislation is approved by Congress, it would prevent companies from using Zfone unless they include mandatory surveillance backdoors for police and spy agencies.
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Software Speeds Up the Discovery Process Worldwide
University of Queensland (08/15/06)

Bio-scientists around the world will be able to take advantage of new software that processes data in much less time. In addition to reducing the hundreds of hours biomedical researchers spend selecting high-resolution images to a fraction of that time, the rapid semi-automated single particle selection software (SwarmPS) can be handled by a less-skilled operator. Developed by researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia, SwarmPS makes use of cross-correlation and edge-detection algorithms, but what really sets the tool apart from other technologies is its incorporation of human interaction with images to enhance its processing power. "Essentially, SwarmPS has been designed to provide a user-friendly, powerful and flexible graphical interface to manage and run particle selection jobs," explains Geoffery Ericksson, a computational scientist at the Queensland Brain Institute. SwarmPS, which will work with most standard computer platforms, is designed to save researchers time and money selecting key images from thousands of other images.
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Weeklong Camp to EXITE Girls About IT
Computerworld Australia (08/14/06) Tay, Liz

The first of three IT camps in Australia for teenage girls offered by IBM began in Queensland on Wednesday. The week-long Exploring Interests in IT and Engineering (EXITE) Gold Coast Camp will attempt to show 27 secondary school girls that careers in technology are not just for boys. "Skills shortages in IT, especially the shortage of women entering IT, is a significant issue for Australia if it is to remain competitive in the global market," says Megan Dalla-Camina, strategy and marketing director for IBM Australia-New Zealand. "EXITE Camps tackle this problem at the grassroots level, aiming to challenge traditional perceptions about roles in the industry." Camp participants will build and program robots, create and design Web pages, visit Griffith University and Gold Coast Water, and gain a female mentor from IBM who will continue to provide academic assistance and career counseling as they return to school. A year ago the camp drew 30 teenage girls, and 24 are now enrolled in ICT subjects and three have worked at IBM. The company has 50 EXITE Camps worldwide scheduled for this year, including the Ballarat Camp in mid September and the Sydney Camp in early October.
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The Semantic Logger: Supporting Service Building From Personal Context
University of Southampton (ECS) (08/11/06) Tuffield, Mischa M.; Loizou, Antonis; Dupplaw, David

The Semantic Logger presented by a team of University of Southampton researchers is software that supports the importing, storage, and exploitation of personal information (metadata) through the use of Semantic Web-enabling technologies and in compliance with as many World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recommendations as possible. The Semantic Logger was designed to offer users both a public and a private knowledge base for the purpose of determining whether any information logged was to be posted for public consumption. The researchers report that the logger's development was largely fueled by people's willingness to post personal information online. The Semantic Logger system allows new services to join on an ad-hoc basis through the virtue of its service-based architecture. Important system components include the AKT Project's SPARQL-compliant resource description framework (RDF) 3store, the mSpace interface, and the Friend of a Friend (FOAF) model. The information stored in the Semantic Logger is integrated in a pair of services outlined by the researchers: A recommender system that creates recommendations by using any applicable context stored in the logger, and Photocopain, a personal photo annotation tool that blends content and context-based data. Among the information sources tapped by Photocopain are global positioning data, camera metadata, calendar data, image analysis, Flickr, and the Network Gazetteer. The success of the Semantic Logger hinges on the provision of data by users.
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Search Me?
Washington Post (08/13/06) P. D1; Thompson, Bob

Even back when Sergey Brin and Larry Page were working out of friend-of-a-friend Susan Wojcicki's Silicon Valley garage, they dreamt of one day creating the world's largest digital library. Indeed, they were supposed to be working on a digital library project when they developed the Google search engine, according to Wojcicki, who is now a vice president at Google. Now, eight years and hundreds of billions of dollars later, Brin and Page are trying to make their dream a reality. Under the Google Book Search program, Google has partnered with six libraries to digitize their collections, but five major publishers and the Authors Guild have filed copyright infringement suits seeking an injunction to halt Google's scanning. Google claims that its scanning program falls within the boundaries of "fair use," and that it will only offer searchers a snippet from the work. Stanford University head librarian Bill Keller is enthusiastic about the project because he fears an uncertain future for printed materials. Google's partner libraries deal with the copyright issue in different ways. Oxford and the New York Public Library are only allowing Google to copy works in the public domain. The University of Michigan is taking the opposite approach and opening its entire collection to Google, as is the University of California, which just signed on to the program last week. Harvard agreed to a limited test program at first, and Stanford is only allowing Google to scan out-of-print titles, at least until the lawsuits are settled. Initially, Google had negotiated with publishers for the right to scan their in-print books, but then Google announced its library partnerships and they began to get nervous. Google has long had an "opt-out" policy for content owners who do not want their books included in the database, but publishers say that is not enough, and that they should be in control and that the program should be governed by an opt-in policy. Google likens the scanning project to basic Web search, where site operators can opt out of having their page displayed in results listings. The publishers counter that books, unlike most Web sites, are not designed to be available for free.
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DNA Processors Cash in on Silicon's Weaknesses
New Scientist (08/04/06) Vol. 191, No. 2563, P. 24; Simonite, Tom

The notion that the same tools that scientists use to manipulate DNA strands could provide the computational muscle for a computer, despite having emerged with such promise, faded quickly as scientists realized that they could not control the behavior of DNA the same way they can electrons in conventional computers. "Only 90 percent of our molecules would do what they were supposed to," said University of Southern California computer scientist Leonard Adleman, who first solved a mathematics problem with DNA molecules in a test tube 12 years ago. "That was the limiting factor when it came to building bigger, faster systems." Since 2002, many scientists have been looking to DNA more for building nanostructures than for computers. Interest has not faded entirely, however, as a small group of dedicated researchers is still exploring DNA computing--not so much for crunching numbers, but for probing biological systems. Biological hardware could significantly accelerate the identification of viruses and genetic markers that point to diseases-related genes. A growing number of biologists are using microarray chips with DNA fragments to identify pathogens, though the technology is hampered by its slowness, while a DNA computer could perform the same task much faster, says Columbia University virologist Joanne Macdonald. Macdonald is using the logic gates of a DNA computer called MAYA, built by Columbia's Milan Stojanovic, to produce a computational tool that she claims can detect specific sequences within 15 minutes. Using the logic gates, Macdonald has already determined the difference between different strains of West Nile virus. Other researchers are still looking to DNA computing to perform basic biological calculations, such as processing human genes to look for disease indicators.
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What's the Greatest Software Ever Written?
InformationWeek (08/14/06)No. 1101, P. 39; Babcock, Charles

Charles Babcock evaluates what he considers to be the greatest software programs ever written based on such wide-ranging criteria as historical context, real-world adoption, and social impact. He rates Unix--specifically, Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) 4.3--as the single greatest piece of software ever created in view of its effects on the world. The software traces its roots to Bell Labs researcher Ken Thompson's Uniplexed Information and Computing System (Unics), which facilitated the simultaneous use of a computer by two people, and was rechristened Unix with the addition of text formatting. Bill Joy and other researchers would add to Unix, and their extensions were compiled into BSD, of which version 4.3 is "the single biggest undergirder of the Internet," according to Babcock. The second greatest piece of software is IBM's System R, the root architecture of the relational database, while the third greatest piece of software is the gene-sequencing software at the Institute for Genomic Research, which is credited for "accelerating the science of genomics by at least a decade," according to venture capitalist Gary Morgenthaler. Other breakthroughs cited by Babcock include the MIT Instrumentation Lab's Apollo spacecraft guidance system, which could operate on a tiny amount of available memory; Google's page-ranking search application; the Java language, which made the use of intermediate byte code fashionable; the IBM System 360 operating system, which introduced the concurrent operation of different applications on one computer system; the Morris worm, which demonstrated the hazards of increasing interconnectedness and the vulnerability of the Internet; the Mosaic browser, which brought what Babcock terms "a fresh technical synthesis" by combining address lines, mouse-based pointing and clicking, multimedia file displays, and hyperlinking in windows; and American Airlines' Sabre system, which showed that software could bridge the gap between tactical and strategic business needs.
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The Invisible Assistant
Queue (08/06) Vol. 4, No. 6, P. 44; Borriello, Gaetano

University of Washington researchers started to investigate issues facing the development of computers that can assist people by anticipating their needs with Labscape, a ubiquitous computing application/environment, writes University of Washington computer science professor Gaetano Borriello. The creation of Labscape began with the organization of a framework for assembling data associated with an experiment by specifying a flow graph that could classify all the steps of an lab experiment into eight basic categories. A researcher's location and activities during the experiment were logged through various sensors, generating context awareness. Upon completion of an experiment, the data used to document its steps and results was automatically compared to the original experiment flow graph. The application offered researchers' colleagues, who may have helped with some steps, the convenience of not having to concern themselves with transferring information. Keeping the data and experiment design in a machine-readable format allowed the greater research community to run searches on experiments based on similar samples, processes, or results, thus making it easier to duplicate the results of earlier experiments or to formulate the next steps to follow in their own experiments. Among the lessons the Labscape team took away from the experience was the need for a visible user interface that can check the system's operational performance as well as override its proactive functions; the logic of considering sensor fusion upfront in order to address ambiguity; the advantages of incremental system installation; the need to standardize data formats to develop a supporting tool infrastructure; the wisdom of keeping work practices consistent at all times, and only effecting changes within reason; and the need for fail-safes.
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