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September 18, 2006

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A Chip That Can Move Data at the Speed of Laser Light
New York Times (09/18/06) P. C1; Markoff, John

A team of researchers from Intel and the University of California, Santa Barbara, is expected to announce today that they have developed a silicon-based chip capable of producing laser beams. By using laser light instead of wires to send data between chips, the research could solve the principal bottleneck in computing design, though the technology may not see commercial applications before the end of the decade. Nevertheless, the prospect of placing hundreds or thousands of light beams that carry data on a conventional chip could bring the increasing speeds and diminishing costs spelled out in Moore's law to the high-speed data communications industry. Lasers already relay heavy volumes of data over great distances with optic cables. In computer chips, however, data passes through the wires at great speeds, but slows to a crawl when moving from one chip to another inside a computer. Chips that produce lasers could lead to more densely packed systems using a more powerful and less expensive infrastructure. The technology could greatly accelerate the distribution of data in neighborhoods with conventional wire-based communications equipment, and even lead to a new breed of supercomputer that could internally share data at unprecedented speeds. "This is a field that has just begun exploding in the past 18 months," said Eli Yablonovitch, a physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "There is going to be a lot more optical communications in computing than people have thought." To achieve the breakthrough, the researchers bonded a layer of indium phosphate onto a conventional silicon chip etched with channels that serve as guides for the light waves. Japanese researchers chasing a similar goal are experimenting with the element erbium.
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Major Problems at Polls Feared
Washington Post (09/17/06) P. A1; Balz, Dan; Goldfarb, Zachary A.

The revamping of how state and local elections are conducted set in motion by the debacle in Florida six years ago could see the same problems that plagued Election Day in Maryland last week play out on a national scale, election experts warn. In that election, some computers failed to relay data to the state's central election office and incorrectly identified the party affiliation of some voters. More than 80 percent of voters will cast their ballots electronically in the Nov. 7 election, with a third of the precincts rolling out the technology for the first time. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 called for the replacement of old punchcard machines with new electronic systems, and the creation of centralized databases for registered voters. In last Tuesday's election in Maryland, human errors and technological glitches conspired to form long lines at the polls and delay vote counts. Similar problems in earlier elections in Ohio, Illinois, and other states have fueled concern among experts about the reliability of the systems and the ability of election officials to use them. In a time of tense political polarization, when elections often end up mired in litigation and charges of incompetent administration or even tampering, some observers are worried that the Florida scenario could play out anew in November. "What we know is, these technologies require significant testing and debugging to make them work," said Richard Celeste, the former governor of Ohio who is now president of Colorado College. "Our concern--particularly as we look to the November election, when there is a lot of pressure on--is that election officials consider what kinds of fallbacks they can put in place." Among the central challenges in the upcoming election are ensuring the accuracy of electronic counts with paper audit trails, and the standards used to keep registration rolls current. In addition to technical bugs, computer scientists have long warned that e-voting machines could be vulnerable to hackers who could access the systems and manipulate vote totals. For information about ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Competitiveness Can't Compete With Politics
Los Angeles Times (09/18/06) Puzzanghera, Jim

Election-year political wrangling has effectively derailed the ambitious American Competitiveness Initiative unveiled by President Bush in his January State of the Union address. The tech industry, which has agitated for political action to meet the competitive threat posed by the swelling ranks of scientists and engineers in India and China since 2004, greeted Bush's agenda with an enthusiastic response, only to see it languish amid debates on the estate tax and illegal immigration. "These CEOs aren't Washington guys, and in their minds, when everybody agrees that something's necessary...they just can't see why action is so difficult," said Bruce Mehlman of the Technology CEO Council. The plan called for increased federal spending on science and education, along with tax breaks for research and greater access to highly skilled foreign workers. Despite bipartisan support, very few components of the initiative have been approved. The illegal immigration debate has stalled the proposal to increase the number of specialized visas available to skilled foreigners, and the research tax credit was shot down when Republican leaders lumped it in with their controversial plan to reduce the estate tax. Tech executives have warned that the United States is in danger of falling behind foreign competitors if Congress does not move quickly to pass the measure. With lawmakers soon heading for the campaign trail, they appear resigned to tabling the issue until next year. Two spending bills have passed the House, however, including one which provides an additional $439 million for the NSF, and the Senate version of those bills is expected to be passed before the end of the year. The spending focuses on university-level basic research, while the Senate immigration bill calls for increasing the number of H-1B visas from 65,000 to 115,000, but there is no increase in the House bill. Meanwhile, the R&D tax break has expired, and a permanent extension is no longer even up for debate.
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Sessions Announced for Grace Hopper Celebration
HPC Wire (09/15/06)

The sixth Grace Hopper Celebration will offer a number of sessions that address the issues and challenges of African-American, Latina, Asian, lesbian, and bisexual women, as well as others in developing countries. Inclusion and community have always been a focus of the Grace Hopper Celebration, according to the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI), which believes solutions to problems can emerge when women discuss their various experiences. Sessions will include the Birds of a Feather presentations "Embrace Your Duality as an Asian Woman to Lead" and "Latinas in Engineering," in addition to the panel "Anatomy of a Nationwide, Three-year, Multidisciplinary Study of Diversity on the Computing Disciplines," which will encourage women to contribute information to the study and pursue similar research. "Ripple Effects: Increasing the Diversity of Creators and Consumers of Computing Technology" will focus on the need to make applications and devices more useful for developing communities, and "Closing the Achievement Gap: Tools for 21st Century Learning" will present the efforts of the Technology Access Foundation. Other sessions include "SpelBots: Women Making Waves in Robotics Research and Education," and "Typing Lavender: LGBT Women in Computer Science." The Grace Hopper Celebration will take place in San Diego, Calif., on Oct. 4-7, 2006. For more information about the Grace Hopper Celebration or to register visit http://gracehopper.org/
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OSDL Patent Project Under Attack
eWeek (09/15/06) Galli, Peter

The Open Source as Prior Art (OSAPA) initiative launched by the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) to improve the quality and reduce the number of software patents has become the subject of intense controversy, as Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman has charged that the project toadies to large corporate patent holders. The project aims to reduce the number of patents that can be used as legal weapons against software developers, leading ultimately to increased innovation, according to Diane Peters, general counsel for the OSDL. "We also want to help people defend themselves against bad patents. Our strategy to achieve this involves helping the USPTO to improve the quality of software patents using open source as prior art," she said. Stallman meanwhile has charged that the project neglects the needs of software developers and general users, instead focusing on "absurd software patents." The OSDL is conducting a workshop for open-source developers, users, and repositories to help create a distributed "Social Tagging" tool to describe the software, making the characteristics of the code easily searchable. The OSDL has developed a pre-beta version of the OSSTag software-marking system. The objective of the system is to identify how tags could be applied and the necessary hierarchical structures to ensure that developers could later retrieve the code. The workshop participants have also discussed better ways to provide the U.S. Patent and Trade Office with access to the code published on Google, SourceForge, and Apache, Peters said. Stallman claims that while the project's goals may sound admirable, it does not recognize that software patents with no prior art are the real problem, adding that it tacitly acknowledges the legitimacy of patents for software based on original ideas. Peters said the OSDL is in favor of patent reform, but stopped short of calling for the complete abolition of software patents.
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IBM-Led Alliance Rethinks Networks
Chicago Tribune (09/18/06) Van, Jon

IBM is due to unveil a collaborative project today that will essentially rebuild networked computing and communications from the ground up, including the exploration of networked systems that could imitate biological processes, such as the way that the human immune system fights off viruses. Drawing on more than $135 million in funding from U.S. and British military agencies, the IBM-led International Technology Alliance will include scientists from private industry, universities, and government. Though geared for military applications, the fundamental research will be available to other government agencies and private corporations. "We will look at how things work and how they may work better, starting from scratch," said IBM's Dinesha Verma. The project will have psychologists advising computer scientists on how to design more intuitive systems. Though social scientists often help computer scientists make systems more usable, they are rarely on board with a project from the outset. The researchers anticipate that most of the project's activities will fail, but if even a few of the high-risk endeavors succeed, the payoff could be substantial, Verma says.
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Grant to Fund Fight Against Digital Crime
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (09/17/06) Crompton, Janice

The U.S. Justice Department wants to develop a national standard for investigating and preventing electronic and digital crime, and has awarded a $500,000 grant to Waynesburg College to take a leading role in this effort. Waynesburg will be called on to review current training practices, which is uneven and sometimes nonexistent at military agencies and police departments across the country, develop national standards, and create training modules that work with computers, the Internet, PDAs, and other forms of digital media. The training program would focus on collecting and preserving digital evidence, and provide techniques for managing digital equipment and data sources. Waynesburg will also use the money to buy equipment and software for a computer forensics lab, and with data collecting from government databases likely to begin in January officials hope to complete the project in a year and a half. "We're going to teach [investigators] how to handle evidence and investigations in digital form," says Richard Leipold, a professor of computer science who chairs the mathematics and computer science department. In a statement, U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), adds "these same techniques can be helpful in detecting and tracking terrorist activity."
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Where'd the Whiz Kids Go?
Pacific Northwest (09/17/06) Perry, Nick

Demand for a fresh crop of computer scientists has overtaken supply, reflecting the poor job the state of Washington, once vaunted as a center of innovation, is doing to cultivate next-generation whiz kids. Computer-science enrollment at the University of Washington has remained unchanged for seven years, while other universities have experienced precipitous declines since 2000; only 160 UW seniors graduate in computer science or computer engineering annually, while another 90 complete graduate degrees. Among the hot computer science areas sparking students' interest is computer animation and computer vision. The slackening of local interest in computer science is attributed by high-tech industry and higher education experts to a number of reasons, including UW's inability to hire more top computer professors because per-student state funds and tuition are inadequate to pay their salaries; a small number of physically remote research institutions; and a thin pipeline of higher-education students and even thinner pipeline of math and science students. Additional contributing factors include the difficulty students encounter in learning the discipline, which requires a lot of hard, sometimes tedious work. Furthermore, computer science professionals are often stereotypically--and incorrectly--perceived as socially maladjusted nerds slaving away at computer code. Other states and countries are moving forward in the technology race, which may increase Seattle's difficulties in drawing top talent.
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AI Prize Award for British Firm
BBC News (09/18/06)

Icogno has won the 2006 Loebner Prize Bronze Medal, marking the second straight year in which the British tech company has taken home the influential artificial intelligence award. Contest officials rated the Icogno AI Joan more human than the other computer programs, after holding conversations with the entries. Rollo Carpenter created Joan, a "26-year-old budding writer" that is actually a Jabberwacky bot that exists only on a set of computer servers. Joan's speaking skills consist of more than 5 million lines of conversation, including some 16,000 lines that were learned while participating in online chats with English writer Ariadne Tampion. Icogno uses a dual-core with a significant amount of memory to power Joan, and Carpenter believes devoting more computer power to Joan will only raise its level of sophistication. "If I had Google's hardware behind it and more hits than Google receives, the AI's range of utterances could grow by a million every single day," says Carpenter. Icogno's AI technology has potential applications in marketing and entertainment, such as in use for call centers, support services, and sales.
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IT Futurist Gazes Into Market's Crystal Ball
Computerworld Canada (09/15/06) Jedras, Jeff

Simulation modeling and prediction technologies will be the next big thing in information technology, according to Jeff Wacker, an IT futurist for EDS. Now that IT processing has become increasingly automated, Wacker says there is a need for complex simulation modeling technology to help uncover problems that could lead to IT failure. Most companies have not made the transition from focusing on the cause and the effect of an IT problem to sensing something is wrong and responding to it. Wacker says the next-generation architecture of multicore processors with parallel processing capabilities will help ensure that there will be enough computing power to operate such robust simulation programs, adding that the focus will be on gathering contextual information more so than historical information. He expects venture capitalists will target the middle of 2007 as the time for introducing new technologies, with 2008 appearing to be the start of the cycle for the next groundbreaking technology. Wacker also believes the emergence of utility computing will lead to a delivery model in which brokers serve as the middlemen between users and IT service providers. "You'll go to a broker, and a broker will find you [enough] computing power for the next 13 seconds," says Wacker.
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Computers Sought to Perform Petaflops
Associated Press (09/13/06) Paul, Jim

The National Science Foundation plans to fund the development of a petaflop computer, which would be able to perform at least 1 quadrillion computations per second. The NSF wants the computer to operate consistently between 1 to 2 petaflops, and occasionally ramp up to speeds of 10 times that amount. A computer that operates at 1 petaflop would be three times as fast as today's top supercomputer, the 367-teraflop BlueGene/L at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore nuclear facility. Such a computer would demand half a million to a million processors, compared to the one processor in a PC, notes Thom Dunning, director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. Solutions to problems in medicine, biology, economics, and engineering could be tested in seconds, instead of days, at such speeds. Entities interested in building the petaflop computer would need to find a way to keep such a system cool, rewrite software to work with the computer, and make sure it is durable. "If you don't pay close attention to that, you can get a machine that is really powerful but will only stay up for an hour," says Dunning.
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Django: Python on a Plane
eWeek (09/11/06) Vol. 23, No. 36, P. 29; Taft, Daryl K.

Version 1.0 of Django, which Python creator Guido van Rossum recently heralded as the preferred Web-application framework for Python developers, will be released soon, says principal Python developer Adrian Holovaty. "If I were to need a Web framework today, I'd use Django unless it was clear that Django isn't right for the task," van Rossum said at last month's SciPy conference. "I like the way its authors run their project. They really 'get' open-source development." Python developers using Django can build Web applications more quickly and easily than with other frameworks. Django, which reduces the amount of code required to build Web applications, offers benefits to Python developers similar to what Ruby on Rails has done for Ruby developers. Holovaty and colleague Simon Willison began developing Django while at work at World Online, the online organ of the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper, as a tool to help journalists working under deadline. They began applying the framework to World Online's sites in the fall of 2003. Then, last July, World Online released the software that would become known as Django to the open-source community. "Our goal is to solve the real-world problems that Web developers face every day and to make it fun to build Web sites," Holovaty said. "We're hoping to reach version 1.0 toward the end of the summer, and we're working on a Django book to be released in the fall." Django has a greater emphasis on high-level abstraction and automation than Ruby on Rails, offering, for instance, the ability to automatically create an "administration" Web site. Django, which is designed to be infinitely scalable, also allows hardware to be added at any level.
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Lawmakers Question DHS Preparedness for Fighting Cyberattacks
IDG News Service (09/13/06) Vijayan, Jaikumar

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff announced last October that he was creating a position for an assistant secretary for cybersecurity and telecommunications, but the position has yet to be filled, to the dismay of lawmakers who say the delay may be harmful to the agency. During a recent hearing on cybersecurity for the national infrastructure, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said DHS' failure to fill the position "conveys a lack of appreciation" for U.S. cybersecurity threats. Dingell warned DHS against waiting for an attack before a plan is implemented. David Powner at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed and said terrorists, criminals, and foreign intelligence services have already launched cyberattacks. Powner called the DHS' effort to work with private industry to develop an attack response initiative "immature," and noted that they do not even have a deadline. A recent GAO report found that the government is not equipped to recover from a major cyberattack. Cybersecurity issues were previously handled by a director-level position within DHS before Chertoff decided to create a new vacancy. The House Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet conducted the hearing.
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The Smartest Machines on Earth
Fortune (09/18/06) Vol. 154, No. 6, P. 129; Ryan, Oliver

Supercomputers comprise the fastest growing IT segment with a 25 percent gain in sales to $9.2 billion in 2005, according to IDC. "Supercomputers are about a trillion times faster than they were 30 years ago," notes IBM's chief Blue Gene architect Alan Gara. "And the cost hasn't changed that much. In other words, they are now a trillion times cheaper." IBM's BlueGene/L, which is used to help manage the U.S. nuclear arsenal, is currently the world's fastest supercomputer with a peak processing speed of 367 teraflops. BlueGene/L was built at a cost of more than $100 million, and the machine resides in a 2,500-square-foot air-conditioned space at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The primary advantage of massively parallel supercomputers is their simulation capabilities, which can split formidable problems into smaller, more manageable bits that are distributed among scores of processors. Supercomputers' applications range from brain simulation research to automotive design to financial investment strategy testing. Switzerland researcher Henry Markram, who leads a project that uses Blue Brain, a cousin of BlueGene/L, notes that as powerful as today's supercomputers are, the human brain is still likely a million times more powerful than the most powerful current computer.
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Puppy Smoothies: Improving the Reliability of Open, Collaborative Wikis
First Monday (09/06) Vol. 11, No. 9, Cross, Tom

MemeStreams co-founder Tom Cross uses the theory that good information is more likely to survive a collaborative, community-driven editing process as the basis of his proposal to enhance user confidence in the accuracy of wiki information by assigning colors to an article's text, according to the text's age. "Visual cues would improve users' confidence in the information they are gleaning while making it harder to mislead them with bad information," Cross argues. He contends that his system--indeed, any visualization system--should use a concept of age that can adapt to the article's popularity, and he has tweaked a version of MediaWiki as a deployment of his colorization proposal. Cross has made it possible for users to view a colorized version of an article through the addition of a reliability tab; the text is rendered in red, yellow, green, or black depending on its maturity, with red representing the youngest and least reliable age grade and black indicating full maturity. The author says several constants must be established for the system to be practical, including the number of edits an article's text must survive before it is thought to be mature (E-mature); the upper bound for the amount of time an article can go without editing before the contents are assigned maturity (T-venerable); and the lower bound for the amount of time an article's text must wait before being considered mature (T-fresh). Cross acknowledges that this technique has yet to address various challenges, such as accommodating blind and color blind users, with one possible modification being rendering text in different shades to reflect different maturity levels. There must also be a better method for handling deleted text, while appropriate E-mature, T-venerable, and T-fresh values should be established.
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The Future of Engineering
Test & Measurement World (09/06) P. 30; Rowe, Martin; Laskowski, Amy

The future of engineering hinges on young people's enthusiasm, and often this enthusiasm is nurtured by a parent or relative who is in the engineering profession. On the other hand, a lack of knowledge as to what an engineer does is frequently why talented students avoid the field. Proficiency in math and science is a good starting point for prospective engineers, but Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Richard Vaz says a keenness for problem-solving is also important, while UCSB professor Steve Long credits "the willingness to do critical thinking" as a vital part of an engineer's makeup. A Test & Measurement World study of engineering students, professors, and professionals finds that an aptitude for communications is the most highly prized non-technical skill desired of engineering graduates. Experts say promising students are often derailed from pursuing a career in engineering by advice from others; Drexel University's Moshe Kam learned that high school counselors may subconsciously discourage skilled women from becoming engineers because they stereotypically perceive the field as unsuited for females, while Georgia Institute of Technology professor Gary May says increasing the field's appeal to women as well as minorities depends on showing "that engineers are normal people with normal lives with the same sorts of concerns as everyone." Other factors that may dampen students' desire to be engineers include the media's emphasis on outsourcing, which gives rise to concerns that engineering has no future as a career choice, and a "boot camp" mentality at engineering schools that can quash a student's passion. Among the advantages that educators are trying to communicate to students is the wide, multidisciplinary applicability of an electrical engineering degree. There has been a relative flatness to graduates' pursuit of master's degrees, and Long attributes this to less demand for PhDs by companies because of a lack of facilities or an unwillingness to pay the higher wage. Kam would like to see greater industry participation in the educational process, contending that such a trend would ensure that schools keep producing the engineers best qualified to maintain companies' competitiveness.
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Imagining the City: The Cultural Dimensions of Urban Computing
Computer (09/06) Vol. 39, No. 9, P. 38; Williams, Amanda; Dourish, Paul

By perceiving cities as the end result of historically and culturally situated practices and flows instead of generic settings and centers of action, urban computing researchers can gain an insight into the close integration of infrastructure and practice, and thus determine ways to employ pervasive computing technologies more effectively, write University of California, Irvine, researchers Amanda Williams and Paul Dourish. When taking an approach to urban space that focuses on familiarity or access, analysts will portray cities as either alienating or socially friendly, but these perspectives only serve as one aspect of the intricate relationship between urban space and information technology. A common element in most urban computing research is the notion of unrestricted discretionary mobility, where city dwellers have the opportunity and freedom to travel throughout and between cities as they wish; but such a concept is not universally applicable to all residents, whose mobility may be limited--or forced upon them--by physical handicap, employment, immigration status, economic status, or other factors. The individual experiences of modern city dwellers are informed by local knowledge, time of day, and other sensory information, and this comprises the concept of legibility, which is closely interwoven with mobility and the city's inhabitants. Location-correlated personal data delivered through programs such as Enhanced 911 is seen as a way to increase legibility, while others view such technology as a means for redefining the urban landscape. Williams and Dourish believe urban pervasive computing initiatives should consider three variables: First, "We need to see spatial distance, regional familiarity, and personal contact not simply as instrumental aspects of cityscapes to be 'overcome' by new technologies, but also as contexts within which new technologies must operate," the researchers explain. "Second, we should adopt a broader view of the city's occupants, their activities, and the conditions in which they conduct those activities." The third recommendation Williams and Dourish offer is "to make a figure-ground reversal between the city and the practices that happen within it."
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