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September 1, 2006

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Crossword Software Thrashes Human Challengers
New Scientist (08/31/06) Simonite, Tom

Two versions of the crossword-solving software program WebCrow finished first and second in a bilingual competition at the European Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Riva Del Garda, Italy. The programs bested 25 conference participants and more than 50 competitors playing online who had 90 minutes to solve five different crosswords in English and Italian. One version of WebCrow participated in the competition from the computer science department of the University of Siena, while a slimmed-down version on a smaller computer competed at the conference, displaying its work on a projection screen. Marco Ernandes, one of the creators of WebCrow, said he was especially pleased with how well the program performed on the English puzzles. "It exceeded our expectations because there were around 15 Americans in the competition," he said. "Now we'd just like to test it against more people with English as their first language." In the Italian puzzles, however, the streamlined version of WebCrow finished 21st, while the version based in the university finished 25th. Ernandes says that one of the Italian puzzles is well known for clues that require very specific human knowledge. WebCrow has four methods for searching for answers that it performs in parallel. In two of the techniques, WebCrow searches a dictionary and a database of solved puzzles for similar clues and near matches. A third technique uses established rules that work on a type of two-letter Italian clue, and the fourth is an Internet search by keywords extracted from the clue. The software uses trial and error to arrive at the combination of possible answers that best fills the crossword. "It's part of a trend to use the Web as a shallow source of human knowledge for artificial intelligence," said Tony Veale, who develops human-language software at University College in Dublin, Ireland.
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Spying With a Fly's Eyes
Science (08/29/06) Berardelli, Phil

For a century and a half, photographers have struggled to get the amount of light exposure just right, teetering between washing an image out with too much light or plunging objects in the composition into deep shadows. A team of researchers has developed a technique that aims to solve the exposure problem, an especially important challenge in security applications, where identifying the features of a human face in the shadows is critical. Drawing inspiration from nature, the technique is based on the researchers' study of the vision system of the common housefly. The researchers recorded the electrical impulses from the fly's neurons that connect with its eyes by inserting microelectrodes into living fly brains. That produced video representations of what the flies were actually seeing, which demonstrated their ability to see the details in the brightest and darkest areas. "When it comes to seeing, even a tiny insect brain can outperform any current artificial system," said Russell Brinkworth, team leader and a physiologist at the University of Adelaide. The research indicated that the way to improve a camera is not to add more pixels, Brinkworth said, but rather "to make the pixels smarter." His team developed software that quickly identifies light values for each pixel, either intensifying or diminishing the signal to preserve detail. The program, powered by a high-performance, energy-efficient very large scale integration (VLSI) device, then compresses the data in a similar fashion as a fly's brain.
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Programming Students Put Skills to the Test on Real-World Problems
Baylor University (08/31/06) Achonwa, Orie

The regional competition of the International Collegiate Programming contest in November is up next for Baylor University programming students. Earlier this week, Baylor held the first round of the International Collegiate Programming competition, which was won by Nick Soltau, a sophomore from Stephenville, Texas. Soltau and other participating students faced the challenge of writing programs that monitor student records, identify the best operating hours for a store, reduce printing costs, and manage secure communications. Soltau was able to solve the most real-world problems in the least amount of time and with the fewest penalties. "The difficulty is how to utilize a variety of competencies in computer science and get it right with the pressure of time against them," says Dr. Greg Hamerly, an assistant professor of computer science who helped organize and judge the competition. Soltau will team up with other top Baylor competitors for the regional competition, with hopes of advancing to the international contest, which, under the auspices of ACM, is sponsored by IBM. Last April, the 30th annual ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals drew 83 teams to San Antonio.
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A Look Under the Hood of Democracy's Engine
New York Times (09/01/06) Ramirez, Anthony

A recent study has found that two of the voting systems that the state of New York is considering adopting to comply with the 2002 Help America Vote Act could be confusing to voters. The study was directed by Lawrence Norden, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice. "The fundamental thing in democracy is voting," Norden said. However, when trying to boost voter participation, Norden says "every new technology presents new problems that you have to confront. Technology itself isn't going to provide a permanent solution." Norden takes issue with the digital version of what is known as the full face ballot that displays the choices for every race on a single screen. He says that voters will be overwhelmed when presented with so much information at one time. Instead, Norden advocates systems that walk voters through the process step by step, like ATMs. He also notes that poll workers are under tight budgets and usually lack a detailed understanding of the systems. In the coming weeks, the Brennan Center will conduct studies on access to voting machines for the disabled and for non-English speakers, as well as the cost issues surrounding the machines.
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Algorithms to Calculate Unusual Behavior
Computerworld Australia (09/01/06) Crawford, Michael

Researchers at National ICT Australia (NICTA) are developing sophisticated surveillance applications such as algorithms that monitor "inappropriate behavior" in public places. The Smart Applications for Emergencies (SAFE) team has already proposed a specification for a warning language that can discern and communicate threat levels. The project's goal is to deliver as much information as possible to decision makers on the front lines of an incident, with much of the work already completed having focused on improving facial-recognition algorithms. "Identifying a particular person is one thing but we are looking at unusual behavior in an open environment," said Chris Scott, research director at NICTA's Queensland laboratory. Scott says that "we are working on algorithms not just to search for a person based on facial recognition but to analyze the level of threat based on their actual behavior." Existing facial-recognition algorithms rely too much on the geometry of the face to make a comparison with the faces that are stored in memory, Scott says, adding that his team is developing algorithms to handle poor lighting and producing images from the side on. The project, which is using data from the 6,000 surveillance cameras on the network of Queensland Transport and Queensland Rail, aims to move away from the dependence on humans looking at monitors.
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Django: Python on a Plane
eWeek (08/29/06) Taft, Darryl K.

The Django Web framework, known as the framework "for perfectionists with deadlines," enables Python developers to build Web applications faster using less code, according to Adrian Holovaty, the principal developer of the open-source project. The Django framework enables developers to quickly build intensive database Web sites, and brings to Python similar benefits to those that Ruby on Rails delivers to Ruby. Django emerged from Holovaty's work at World Online, the online arm of the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper. Instead of using PHP, Holovaty decided to work in Python, but soon developed with a colleague a framework for producing Web applications under tight deadlines. Last July, World Online released the software as an open-source project. Python creator Guido van Rossum has heralded Django as the preferred Web environment for Python development, though he admits that the little Web programming that he does is fairly simple. Holovaty said the central group of Django developers came to Python because of its powerful and elegant syntax. Django aims to solve real-world problems and make it fun to create Web sites, Holovaty says, adding that he hopes for a version 1.0 release around the end of the summer, with a book following in the fall. In addition to improving development, Django is also impressively scalable, Holovaty says, noting that hardware can be added at any level.
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Size Matters, But Quantity Can Be Best Way to Supercomputing
USA Today (08/31/06) Kantor, Andrew

Last week, the University of California, Berkeley, and NASA teamed up to launch the Stardust@Home project to harness the power of distributed computing. The project aims to tap the efforts of thousands of users around the world to help locate the few dozen micron-sized stardust particles brought back from space by the Stardust mission. Participants in the Stardust@Home project receive a primer on a Web-based software application that they then use to begin searching the 1.6 million sections in the stardust collector. The trend of harnessing distributed resources to accomplish tasks that otherwise would fall to a single supercomputer is taking hold throughout the technology world. An increasing number of systems on the list of the world's top 500 supercomputers are powered by thousands of the same off-the-shelf commodity processors that can be found in individual PCs. The same principle applies to chip design, where manufacturers such as Intel and AMD are beginning to roll out multicore devices. The speed of the connections between processors is a consideration for both distributed supercomputers and multicore chips. In supercomputing, the value of having thousands or even millions of nodes included in the connection can offset the slowness that comes from the added distance of distributed resources. Grid computing projects such as SETI@Home operate under the same logic. Applications like Google's search rankings and Amazon's ratings system also take advantage of the power of the masses in the online world, using the habits and opinions of their critical mass of users to generate a useful database.
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Carnegie Mellon CyLab Researchers Create New System to Address Phishing Fraud
Carnegie Mellon News (08/31/06)

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab have developed a novel application to protect online users from phishing scams. The Phoolproof Phishing Prevention system provides mutual authentication between a user and the Web server by leveraging a cell phone, PDA, or other mobile device, even when the user makes a mistake. "Essentially, our research indicates that Internet users do not always make correct security decisions, so our new system helps them make the right decision and protects them even if they manage to make a wrong decision," said computer engineering professor Adrian Perrig. "Our new anti-phishing system, which operates with the standard secure Web protocol, ensures that the user accesses the Web site they intend to visit, instead of a phishing site that is posing as a legitimate business." The system creates a secure electronic key ring for the user to access while making transactions online. The keys are especially secure because users cannot give them away, so the user's accounts are inaccessible to phishers even if they have collected other information. Cell phones execute cryptographic operations while still concealing the secret key from the user's system, which protects against keyloggers and other threats to a user's computer. The keys remain secure even if the phone is lost.
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Solar Power May Soon Bring the Web to Remote Areas
Christian Science Monitor (08/31/06) P. 15; Islam, Ranty

While the lofty promise of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative to build and distribute hundreds of millions of inexpensive laptops for the world's poorest children has garnered headlines, it remained unclear how the devices would connect to the Internet in some of the remotest areas in the world. But a new solar-powered wireless device could change that. Many developing nations already have a thriving Internet presence, with their urban centers increasingly wired and Internet cafes springing up even in small towns. But that accessibility fails to span the so-called "last mile," stopping short of the millions of people who live in geographically removed villages and towns--the places where the Web might have its greatest impact. The absence of reliable electricity had dimmed the prospect of building wireless networks, but the cofounders of the Green Wi-Fi project, partially funded by OLPC, have built the prototype of a solar-powered wireless router--essentially a commodity router hooked up to a battery that can be recharged by a solar panel. Green Wi-Fi cofounders Marc Pomerleau and Bruce Baikie added an "intelligent charge controller" that governs the router's power consumption. In preliminary testing, the wireless node appears to be able to run for four weeks even if the sky is overcast for sustained periods of time. Theoretically, just one node connected to the Internet could provide Web access for a wireless network between villages. To create a backbone network linking the hundreds of major access points across a region, engineers could use existing Wi-Fi, WiMax, or third generation mobile network technologies. "If I had to design a backbone network from scratch, I would use all three," said Daniel Aghion, executive director of the Wireless Internet Institute.
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No-Contact Technology
Wall Street Journal (08/31/06) P. B3; Cheng, Roger

Microsoft researcher Andy Wilson has developed a technology that enables users to manipulate computer images with their hands. The technology, which Microsoft calls TouchLight, uses three cameras placed behind a large semitransparent screen. The system compares the infrared left and right cameras, which capture the depth and height of the user's hand movements, with human eyes. The middle camera remains focused on anything facing the screen. The person facing the screen can manipulate the images, which appear to be floating in space, that are projected on it. The system can also superimpose an image on both sides of the screen, and eventually multiple people might be able to work on the same design. Eon Reality, a maker of three-dimensional computer models, recently licensed the TouchLight system from Microsoft and intends to market the technology as a new mode of interactive advertising. "It's a way to interact with 2D and 3D data with your bare hands," said Eon's Dan Lejerskar. "We're trying to find a new way to define things." While Eon says the technology has drawn considerable interest, the one taker so far has been the United Kingdom's Technium CAST, a university affiliate that helps develop young technology ventures. CAST will use the system as a training tool and a method for developing visualization and communication programs. Auto mechanics could peruse virtual car diagrams without touching them with their oil-stained hands, for instance, or surgeons could flip through medical instructions in a sterile environment without touching anything.
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Most IT Pros Are Looking for a New Job, Says Survey
InformationWeek (08/30/06) McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk

A new study from the Computing Technology Industry Association reveals 60 percent of IT professionals are searching for a new job, with 27 percent adding that they are actively looking around. The results of the online survey of 1,000 IT workers also indicates that 73 percent are looking for more money, 66 percent are seeking advancement opportunities, 58 percent are searching for a new challenge, 40 percent are looking for better benefits, and 34 percent want to work in an environment where their contributions are appreciated. "Now that help-wanted ads are getting a little bulkier, many more IT workers are willing to explore other options," says a CompTIA spokesperson. Tech workers appear to be looking for new work at a time when they are down on their current position. The latest tech job confidence survey from IT professional services and outsourcing firm Hudson shows a 9.4 point decline to 103.1 in August, from the 2006 high of 112.5 in July. Nonetheless, IT workers remain more optimistic than they were a year ago, when they recorded a 97.5 reading, and more confident than workers in other industries, which had a reading of 102.9. The Hudson report also found that personal finances were "excellent" for 14 percent of IT workers in August, compared with a record 21 percent in July, and 44 percent said their financial situation was improving, down five points.
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Net Neutrality Fans Rally in 25 Cities
CNet (09/01/06) Broache, Anne

Small groups of citizens, small businesses, nonprofits, and individuals allied with the "Save the Internet" coalition staged rallies in 25 cities across the nation on Wednesday and Thursday in support of the principle of Net neutrality. The rallies were designed to build momentum for the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, a proposal sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) that was narrowly defeated by an 11-11 vote in the Senate Commerce Committee earlier this summer. The House rejected a similar proposal in June. However, the Snowe-Dorgan proposal is expected to be considered again when the Senate communications bill goes to a vote in the full Senate, though it remains unclear how soon that formal debate will resume. The Save the Internet Coalition and Internet companies such as Google and Amazon.com are pushing for enactment of the Snowe-Dorgan proposal because it includes rules that explicitly forbid broadband operators from brokering deals with content providers to speed up their services or to give them more prominent placement. Supporters claim that if the proposal is not enacted, users' ability to view all content on a level playing field would be impaired, prices would rise, and innovation would suffer. However, lobbyists from the cable and telecommunications industries say they have no intention to block or degrade any Internet content and are simply looking for new revenue sources to help defray the cost of investing in new offerings such as IP-based video. Some telecom and cable lobbyists have expressed confidence that politicians will share their point of view. "The longer this debate goes on, the more lawmakers realize that without any evidence of a problem, there is no good reason to start regulating the Internet," said U.S. Telecom Association spokeswoman Allison Remsen.
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Beating the Bullies at the Touch of a Button
Edinburgh Evening News (08/30/06) Vallely, Joanna

Schools in the United Kingdom and Germany will soon test a computer game that will have its players face off with cyber bullies, with hopes of teaching students how they should handle situations involving real-life tormentors. School children between the ages of 10 and 12 will participate in the trial of the computer game, which makes use of artificial intelligence and interactive graphics. The European Union funded the project, which drew on the expertise in these areas from researchers at nine universities across the continent. The computer game allows players to observe a five-minute scene of a bully hassling another student, then type in advice on how the victim should respond to the aggressor. The gamers get to see the victim act out the advice and a response from the bully, such as whether confidence in the victim to shove a bully would be enough to get the bully to back down. "It's like a school version of The Sims," says Ruth Aylett, professor of computing science at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. "You are the character's invisible friend and can influence him and try to help." Aylett believes the application has the potential to make a difference because of the way young children take to computer games.
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Wooing the Next-Gen Developer
eWeek (08/28/06) Vol. 23, No. 34, P. 11; Taft, Darryl K.

Platform vendors are racing to support flexible, dynamic languages that facilitate the streamlining of the software development process. The appeal of dynamic languages--so called because programs written in them can alter their structure as they run--is growing along with the complexity of systems, and the challenge of using dynamic languages practically is being met thanks to upgrades in computer speed, chip speed, and memory capacity. In dynamic languages type-checking is performed at run-time, while static languages execute type-checking at compile time; though errors can be caught earlier with static languages, dynamic languages' looser typing scheme yields smaller and simpler code that developers often prefer. The platform vendor who offers optimal dynamic-language support stands to win the hearts and minds of developers, according to observers. The two leading competitors are Sun Microsystems and Microsoft: Sun is attempting to provide stable, secure support on its Java Virtual Machine (JVR) platform, while Microsoft is pursuing the same goal with its Common Language Runtime (CLR) platform. With the ability to use a Java-supported scripting language to develop a robust application, "you get all the benefits of the Java platform as well as the ability to develop enterprise-scalable applications using a scripting language," said Java developer Bruce Snyder. CLR development leader Jim Hugunin explained that Microsoft is taking a multi-level approach to its own dynamic-language support initiative. "What we're going to try hard to do is, instead of doing a dynamic language specification, provide a dynamic language library and have guidance on how to use it," he noted.
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Paging Dr. IT
CITRIS Newsletter (08/01/06) Shreve, Jenn

Information technology has the potential to transform the medical industry, reducing doctors' errors, streamlining the healthcare process, and ultimately improving the quality of care that patients receive, but uptake has been slow. "It is clear, in terms of societal-scale problems, that we need to pull together the best technology to improve health care," said CITRIS director Shankar Sastry. Medical errors claim as many as 98,000 Americans in hospitals each year, according to the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine. One part of the Bush administration proposal to moderate the problem is to furnish most Americans with electronic medical records (EMR) that promise to eliminate common errors such as misread handwriting, thereby ensuring that a patient's complete medical history follows him into the emergency room. EMRs are also expected to stem the rising costs of health care, which is expected to account for 20 percent of GDP by 2015. Privacy and security are the two central obstacles to implementing Bush's plan. CITRIS' Team for Research in Ubiquitous Secure Technology (TRUST) is working to overcome those obstacles, and recently held a meeting on EMRs to discuss the issue. Technology implementation in the health care industry has been a slow process, with only around 20 percent of doctors' offices boasting any sort of electronic capability, according to Stephen Shortell, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. To bridge the gap between technology and medical care, CITRIS is supporting the Elder Tech research project, which examines how sensor networks, real-time embedded software systems, and other technologies can improve the quality of care for the elderly and enable them to stay at home longer.
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Chip, Heal Thyself
EE Times (08/28/06)No. 1438, P. 1; Goering, Richard

Semiconductor Research and the National Science Foundation are funding a three-year research project into "self-healing" chips based on the work of University of Michigan electrical engineering professors Todd Austin and Valeria Bertacco. "We're looking for research that will give us chips and systems that are going to work, in spite of the fact that components are going to fail," explains Semiconductor Research's Bill Joyner. Bertacco says the fault-tolerance solution her group is pursuing is much cheaper and more widely applicable than triple modular redundancy (TMR), in which three copies of the system exist. In the course of the project high-level defect models will be generated, which system designers and engineers can employ to assess a system's resiliency requirements. Initial research into self-healing chips was described in two papers co-authored by Austin and Bertacco: The first paper talks about a defect-tolerant chip multiprocessor switch architecture that offers more robustness and less cost than existing designs, and that spots data-corrupting errors via cyclic redundancy checkers at the switch's output channels. The second paper offers the Bulletproof pipeline, a specific solution for very long instruction word (VLIW) frameworks that effects repairs by tapping the natural redundancy of such architectures. Among the tradeoffs and limitations mentioned in the second paper is the performance degradation that takes place following error recovery and repair, with Austin noting that designers can "overprovision" elements that are vital for maintaining system performance. Addressing transient errors such as single-event upsets is outside the abilities of the Bulletproof VLIW pipeline, and the researchers are concentrating on a new solution that spots such errors; the 89 percent silicon defect coverage that the approach claims to achieve must also be increased.
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Too Much Information
Queue (08/06) Vol. 4, No. 6, P. 50; Christensen, Jim; Sussman, Jeremy; Levy, Stephen

Realizing context-aware computing requires meeting a number of challenges, and IBM research is focused on capturing context and passing it on to humans to determine what course of action to follow. However, IBM's attempt to apply context awareness to communications tools used regularly by IBM employees has not yet lived up to its potential. Their efforts focus on two services: IBM's Grapevine service, which is designed to help a person communicate with another individual using an aggregated and filtered set of data rendered as a business card with real-time information; and the IBM Rendezvous Service, which is supposed to help people convene in small groups and talk on plain old telephones. The Grapevine service demonstrated that the most useful piece of information provided was a person's current or last known physical location, which was applied toward the selection of an appropriate communications method as well as the person to be communicated with. Including the user's computer application activity on the e-card did not pan out as well, because users were often uncomfortable with others knowing their goings-on, while ascertaining a person's situation from studying his or her application activity was complicated by the fact that people use applications for multiple purposes. Lessons taken from the Grapevine experience include the understanding that users will not take any additional action to provide context; users' concerns about the visibility of their context information must be eased simply, powerfully, and intuitively; instant messaging is the preferred means of obtaining real-time context; and a sizable semantic gulf exists between the information detected by low-level sensors and programs and a person's high-level ability and willingness to communicate with another person. The Rendezvous project, meanwhile, uses a conference call proxy for users who can access their laptops during a call, and which visualizes how much time is remaining in the meeting, authenticated users still on the call, the meeting host, the persons speaking, those on mute, participants who have yet to arrive, and recent actions. From these examples, it can be concluded that it is critical to gain experience with implementing real applications and services at a realistic scale.
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