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March 21, 2007

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Father of Fortran Programming Language Dies
IDG News Service (03/20/07) Martens, China

John Backus, who led the IBM team that developed the Fortran programming language, died at his home in Ashland, Ore., on Saturday. Backus joined IBM as a programmer in 1950, and his interest in making computer programming easier resulted in the debut of Fortran, the first widely-used programming language, in 1957. "Fortran changed how people wrote programs on machines and also changed the way compilers were built," says Frances Allen, fellow emerita at IBM who taught the Fortran programming language to the company's scientists when she joined IBM Research in 1957. "It was a giant step at the time." ACM honored Backus for his pioneering work with the Fortran programming language by awarding him the 1977 A.M. Turing Award. He also received a National Medal of Science in 1975. After working on Fortran, Backus teamed up with Danish computer scientist Peter Naur to develop the Backus-Naur form, the notation for describing the structure of programming languages. For more information about John Backus, or to read his Turing Award lecture, visit http://awards.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=0703524&srt=all&aw=140&ao=AMTURING
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2007 ACM Federated Computing Research Conference
Association for Computing Machinery (03/21/07)

Registration is now open for the 2007 ACM Federated Computing Research Conference (FCRC), which will be held June 8-16, 2007, in San Diego, Calif. FCRC will bring together an array of affiliated research conferences and workshops into a week-long coordinated meeting that provides the benefit of smaller conferences while allowing communication across different fields in computer science and engineering. Each morning will include discussions that apply to the entire computing research community. The conferences include the 20th Annual Conference on Learning Theory; the CRAW Mentoring Workshop; the Workshop on Experimental Computer Science; the ACM SIGPLAN History of Programming Languages Conference; the IEEE Conference on Complexity; the International Symposium on Computer Architecture; the ACM SIGPLAN/SIGBED Conference on Languages, Compilers, and Tools for Embedded Systems; the Principles of Advanced and Distributed Simulation Workshop; the ACM SIGPLAN-SIGSOFT Workshop on Program Analysis for Software Tools and Engineering; a special session on research ethics, and several others. The conference will also host the ACM Student Research Competition, which gives students the chance to interact with researchers and learn of current research. Keynote Speakers for the conference include ACM 2007 A.M. Turing Award winner Frances Allen. Complete information about FCRC 2007 can be found at www.acm.org/fcrc.
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Florida Officials Warned of E-Voting Glitch Prior to Election
Computerworld (03/20/07) Songini, Marc L.

Florida election officials knew of problems in voting machines prior to November's election and failed to take action, according to a memo cited by Christine Jennings in the latest stages of her attempt to appeal an election in which 18,000 people who voted in other races did not register a vote. The memo from Election Systems & Software, dated August 15, tells election officials that machines had been "exhibiting slow response times" between the screen being touched and a candidate's name being highlighted, due to a problem with the "smoothing filter" on some models, and that poll workers should be prepared for "slightly delayed" response times for the machines. The smoothing filter is software embedded in the machine's hardware that waits for several consistent reads from the touch screen before highlighting a candidate's name in preparation for casting a vote. Both the voting machine manufacturer and states officials claim that this flaw, which was reported by many on election day, could not have influenced election results. Jennings believes the slow response times could have influenced results. "It's a slap in the face to Florida voters that they [the officials] knew about a problem with our voting machines and did not do everything within their power to fix it," Jennings says. ES&S says a software upgrade was available but had not been certified by the state in time for the election. For information about ACM's e-voting activities, visit http://www.acm.org/usacm
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Girls Ask Alice for Programming Skills
eWeek (03/19/07) Taft, Darryl K.

A program called Alice, originally conceived by Carnegie Mellon's Stage 3 Research lab, has proved effective in getting young women excited about computer programming. Alice allows those who do not have high-level programming abilities to try their hand at creating 3D computer animated stories, using characters, scripting tools, and pre-existing graphic elements. Originally designed to help build virtual environments, Alice was eventually given a drag-and-drop interface, which has made it an effective tool in introducing both women and minorities to computer programming, according to CMU. A study was conducted to see what impact a version of Alice with storytelling support had on girls, compared to a version without storytelling support, and the "Results of the study suggest that girls are more motivated to learn programming using Storytelling Alice; study participants who used Storytelling Alice spent 42 percent more time programming and were more than three times as likely to sneak extra time to work on their programs as users of Generic Alice--16 percent of Generic Alice users and 51 percent of Storytelling Alice users snuck extra time," says CMU graduate student Caitlin Kelleher, who developed Storytelling Alice. Using Alice in middle school, where many girls are found to lose interest in math and science, provides students with positive exposure to programming. The program has also been used in colleges and high schools. The program "really seems to be hitting its stride this year," said IBM Rational division chief scientist Grady Booch, after attending the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education's (SIGCSE) 2007 symposium in Covington, Ky. To learn about ACM's Committee on Women and Computing, visit http://www.acm.org/women.acm.org
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Pentagon Preps Mind Field
Wired News (03/21/07) Shachtman, Noah

DARPA is developing Augmented Cognition (AugCog) technologies that could understand and adjust to the thoughts of human operators. "Computers today, you have to learn how they work," says Navy Commander Dylan Schmorrow. "We want the computer to learn you, adapt to you." These systems would detect if an area of a person's mind is being overloaded; for example, if someone was presented with too much text to read, a chart or map would appear. The core concept is that people have separate working memories for things heard, things read, and things seen. A Boeing project aims to allow pilots to control entire groups of armed robotic planes using an fMRI that knows how overloaded a person's visual and verbal memories are and places the most important images in the middle of the cockpit screen, suggests targets, or eventually takes over once the pilot has become totally overwhelmed. Other systems have been developed that can slow down the incoming transmission of messages when an EEG shows a person becoming overwhelmed by messages. DARPA first created a working, yet very basic, AugCog system in 2003, and while progress has been somewhat slow, the basic necessities, sensors that can monitor brain activity and algorithms that can make a computer respond to brain activity, have been established. A new DARPA program is developing a system that maps unconscious neural spikes occurring milliseconds after a target is spotted by on a satellite image by intelligence officers. These spikes can occur even if a person does not realize that they have seen something, so by mapping where the person is looking when they occur, accuracy could be improved by 600 percent.
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Computer Speakers for Your Ears Only
Technology Review (03/21/07) Greene, Kate

Microsoft researchers are working on a system that could allow inexpensive computer speakers to send sound to a user as they walk around a room without the sound being heard even inches away. When speakers in an array experience microsecond delays, the sound waves can overlap in such a way that the sound is cancelled out in some parts of space, while growing louder in other spaces. This technology, known as beamforming, is used in ultrasound and radar, but beamforming with audible sound like speech and music is far more difficult to achieve since the range of frequencies is much greater. Project leader Ivan Tashev explains that hardware peripherals could track a person's movements so the virtual headphones could follow them in real time. To localize the sound, an array of microphones would measure the slight time differences between the arrival of sound at each speaker. The most complicated part of beamforming is calibrating the system for specific speakers and rooms, since all speakers have slight variations that can potentially cause large distortions. Tashev's team hopes to continue tweaking known algorithms to work with any speakers and require a minimum amount of calibration. They developed a piece of a signal-processing algorithm, known as a filter, that accommodates a variety of manufacturing tolerances, the data that describes how speakers perform at different frequencies. In order for the algorithm to be effective, Tashev expects that it will have to account for sound reflection off the walls and windows of a room. He predicts that it will take as long as three years for the technology to reach the market.
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Advancing How Computers and Electronics Work
Virginia Commonwealth University News Center (03/19/07)

Virginia Commonwealth University and University of Cincinnati researchers have made an important advancement in the use of organic structures in spintronics, which could lead to faster and more capable computers and electronics. They have found that the "spin relaxation time," the time it takes an electron to "relax" and therefore to lose the information encoded in it, can be as long as one second in organic nanowires. Previous research using other materials had been unable to find a "spin relaxation time" of more than a few microseconds. Longer relaxation time is crucial for storing and processing information, since it determines the time for which an electron can act as a magnet. The researchers also discovered that spin relaxation is caused by the electron colliding with another electron or other obstacle, which could allow them to increase relaxation time. The nanostructures used in the study were the first spintronics materials tested to be composed of organic molecules containing carbon and hydrogen atoms, and were designed to keep spin separate from the disturbances that cause relaxation. "The organic spin valves we developed are based on self-assembled structures grown on flexible substrates which could have a tremendous impact on the rapidly developing field of plastic electronics, such as flexible panel displays," says University of Cincinnati electrical and computing engineer Marc Cahay. If biomaterials could be used instead of organic materials, the technology could be used for pioneering work in biomedicine and bioengineering, such as extremely sensitive sensors that could be used for early detection of diseases.
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Technology Report from Europe: R&D Paradigm Shifting
Electronic Business (03/20/07) Wilson, Drew

The European Institute of Technology [EIT] is intended to strengthen Europe's research efforts, but a larger change will be needed to accomplish this goal. A 2006 Battelle Memorial study showed that over a 12-year period Europe had increased R&D spending by approximately 5 percent, while China had increased spending by 17 percent. The study also showed that 28 percent of companies in Europe planned to increase R&D spending in 2007, but 48 percent did not; in China, 65 percent planned to increase R&D spending, and only 10 percent did not. "Europe is moving too slowly, and this can lead to a crisis when we are hit by a demographic revolution and its consequences," says former Finish Prime Minister Esko Aho. The EIT would bring together researchers from all 27 EU member states and would serve to keep talent in the EU. Despite having world-class research institutes, Europe has not excelled in bringing the results to market. "Europe has a lot of publications but very few patents and startups," says Aho. The EIT would serve as a center for these various pockets of research. Europe's "Lisbon Strategy," established in 2000, aimed to make the EU into the "most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world" by 2010, but spending targets for R&D were not met. European culture needs to shift away from its aversion to risk, which limits entrepreneurship and mobility within and between organizations. Europe's struggle is a sign of a gradual but very large shift in global technology dominance caused by the rise of Asia, according to the Battelle report's author, Jules Duga: "Countries will have to determine their strengths, rearrange resources, and adjust over a period of time to a changing position in R&D on a global basis."
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Put on a Happy Face
Ohio State Research News (03/19/07) Mosher, Dave

An Ohio State communications researcher has found that online customers respond better to avatars that appear happy than to those that appear sad, regardless of the product being sold. Today's avatars are unable to understand emotion from the text they turn into speech, so the study could help advertisers program avatars for maximum effectiveness. In an experiment, a "sad" version of a text-to-speech avatar named Baldi frowned and spoke slower, in a lower tone, and with less change in pitch while reading both happy and sad book reviews. A "happy" version of Baldi spoke quickly and in a higher voice while reading the same reviews. Participants in the study said they were more likely to read a book described by the "happy" Baldi rather than the "sad" Baldi, and they trusted the "happy" Baldi more. "When a digital character can't pick up emotional cues in text, it's better to be happy," says project leader Li Gong, an assistant professor of communication. Baldi "looks quite strange" says Gong, which may explain people's feelings toward him, and could provide evidence that an avatar's face plays a role in how it is perceived. Further research indicated that matching a human face with an avatar voice or vice versa made participants less likely to share personal information, as opposed to an avatar with an avatar voice or a human with a human voice. The research could also have an impact on gaming, since players appreciate characters that show emotion. Gong plans to extend his research into the field of race, using avatars to gain insight into racial beliefs and attitudes. The study appears in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies.
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Now Beauty Is in the Eye of the Computer
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (03/18/07) Dasey, Daniel

After spending several years refining computer software designed to rate the attractiveness of women, Australian computer scientists Hatice Gunes and Massimo Piccardi at the University of Technology, Sydney, are now looking for commercial partners. The software is designed to quickly analyze a photograph of a women's face, and immediately produce a beauty rating on the scale of 1 to 10. "Potential applications exist in the entertainment industry, cosmetic industry, virtual media, and plastic surgery," the researchers write in a paper in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies. Piccardi is especially excited about the idea of having doctors use the facial analysis technology to ensure that modifications for plastic surgery patients improve their attractiveness. The program can predict how beautiful humans would consider a female face to be plus or minus 1.5 marks, and the researchers say the margin of error could be reduced with continued development. The beauty quotient of the software is based on 14 facial measurements, 13 related ratios, and images of supermodels, actresses, and more than 200 other women.
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IT Industry Is Losing the Feminine Touch
IT Week (03/14/07) P. 22; Bennett, Madeline

The European Commission has called on the business sector to focus more on women if it wants to avoid an IT skills shortage in the next few years. According to the EC, Europe is likely to have a shortfall of 300,000 qualified IT workers by 2010. The projection for a shortfall comes at a time when women represented only 22 percent of IT graduates last year, down from 25 percent in 1998, and when females only fill about 15 percent of IT positions. Carrie Hartnell, program manager with IT trade association Intellect, believes cooperative programs between the government and business will have the most success in attracting more women to IT. "We have concerns that there have been numerous programs and pieces of legislation to encourage more women--and people in general--into computer science but at the moment they don't seem to be making a difference," says Hartnell. "As an industry, we're also not very good at talking about all the different jobs and areas technology is involved in, such as climate-change initiatives and IT marketing roles, which could help attract less technical people." BT introduced a campaign this month with hopes of boosting female engineer apprenticeship participation from 8 percent to 25 percent.
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A Student-Hacker Rematch and the Second Annual Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition
InformIT (03/16/07) Fogie, Seth

The annual Mid-Atlantic Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC) is a contest between students tasked with locking down unfamiliar systems and securing their networks, and hackers dedicated to commandeering those networks and pilfering sensitive data. Expectations were high that the hacker team participating in this year's CCDC would have a tougher go of it than last year, as most of the student teams were veterans of last year's competition and would likely be better prepared. Each team was assigned a duplicate system with identical services, service packs, operating systems, and applications, and then left on their own in locking down their assets; all updates and patches had to be downloaded from a separate part of the CCDC network. The students also had to contend with several "unknowns," including a rough access point installed behind the firewall in the 10.10.20.x range and a pre-installed rootkit/keylogger residing on the server. The SANS Institute provided the hacker team, and as anticipated the main intrusion technique was not default passwords and configurations (as it was in last year's CCDC), but the exploitation of a dearth of proper security updates and the use of insecure passwords. The CCDC makes a point to increase students' familiarity with basic incident handling procedures via the incorporation of an Incident Reporting feature into the games and the enlistment of two U.S. Secret Service agents as advisors. The CCDC's chief goal is to offer students the experience of real-world IT business situations, and this is partly fulfilled through the inclusion of Business Injects that mimic the types of requests a typical IT department must regularly contend with. Among the lessons taken away from this year's competition is that an unpatched and unprotected system should not be put online for any reason; reporting procedures require unimpeachable proof that an intrusion took place; and an IT employee's continued employment hinges on how well he pays attention to customers' needs and performs the tasks he is given.
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Researcher Speeds Up Transfers of Data
Chicago Tribune (03/19/07) Goldfayn, Alex L.

Northwestern University doctoral student Jack Lange is developing a framework that allows researchers to use supercomputers from their remote Dell workstations. His Web site describes the innovation as "an overlay system that provides arbitrarily large and transparent system environments for ordinary users." The system, known as the virtual traffic layer (VTL), compresses terabytes of data into smaller files that can be sent across the Internet and automatically decompressed when they reach their destination. "My vision for the future is a fully abstracted system that presents a virtual machine interface and runs on top of highly distributed grid services," Lange says. The protocol could be used in corporate networks, according to Symantec, who Lange is currently working with as the result of a fellowship awarded to him. "Large companies have hundreds of servers being massively connected," says the company's university research manager Darren Shoe. "What Jack's doing is optimizing all these pathways to make data move faster and with less energy." For the home users, VTL could dynamically compress Internet video. "With all that video flying around, we can throttle it," says Lange.
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Students Staying Away From IT Majors
Providence Business News (RI) (03/19/07) Dionne, Nicole

Despite the growing availability of high-paying computing jobs, there is still a perception among students and educators that offshoring has caused computer science to be an obsolete course of study for U.S. students. Many schools have experienced a 50 percent decline in computer science enrollment since the dot-com bust, and some have even shut down. The Higher Education Institute found that between 2000 and 2005, enrollment in computer science degree programs dropped 70 percent, although this decrease seemed to be slowing from 2005 to 2006. Salve Regina University eliminated its computer science major because "it's all outsourced to India and China," says the school's business studies and economics chair Ronald Atkins. "No one takes computers apart and puts them back together again anymore" in the United States. However, Atrion Networking CEO Tim Herbert says that Atkins' belief is a simply a "myth," and that "We have to make people aware that there are viable careers available ... Some of the entry-level jobs are disappearing. But information technology still requires hands-on work. If I had another 20 kids, I could place them this week." Statistics are on Herbert's side, showing both jobs and internships to be widely available. Many companies have had to actively recruit students due to low enrollment levels. Atkins explains that Salve changed its emphasis from IT to information systems management, with "a very strong management component," but Herbert says that such a trend could lead to a loss of America's role as a leader in innovation. He says that people think computing jobs will be offshored until none are left, "but information is tied to everything, and it's not going away."
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Internet Research, Uncensored
Chronicle of Higher Education (03/23/07) Vol. 53, No. 29, P. A29; Kean, Sam

Repressive governments use Web filters to censor scholars' access to Internet content, but these filters can be bypassed by open-source software such as Psiphon and Tor, developed by Western computer scientists. Users of Psiphon, which was designed by the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, must rely on trusted parties to be on hand in free countries to give them access, while Tor promotes anonymity by routing information through a web of computers so tangled that snoops lose the scent. "You would use Tor if you didn't know anyone," notes sometime security consultant for the University of Toronto Dmitri Vitaliev. "You would use Psiphon if you had someone to trust." Unlike Tor, the Web-based Psiphon does not require any files to be downloaded, which means snoops have no clues to latch on to. Psiphon is very popular with Iranian, Burmese, and Vietnamese diaspora groups, according to Citizen Lab director Ronald J. Deibert, who is a member of the Open Net Initiative. The initiative was established to monitor Internet censorship by Harvard University Law School and the Universities of Toronto, Cambridge, and Oxford. Academics in the United States teach Tor in computer security classes, and Psiphon is used to give students a glimpse of oppressive regimes' censorship practices.
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Certification on the Ballot
Government Computer News (03/19/07) Vol. 26, No. 6, Dizard, Wilson P. III

NIST and the Election Assistance Commission are developing a reformed version of federal guidelines for voting systems and new standard testing suites for use by accredited testing laboratories. The new guidelines for voting systems would require software-independent technology that would create internal audit trails separate from the paper trail systems that allow voters to verify the accurate recording of their votes. NIST will most likely present the new version of the guidelines this summer, but it will take the EAC until next year to approve them. The public, uniform test suite being developed is intended to "build on the credibility of the labs," explains EAC chair Donetta Donaldson. Before recommending a lab for accreditation, NIST evaluates the lab's procedures for ensuring that voting systems create activity logs and perform other specific functions. Each lab must be re-evaluated every two years. Testing voting systems is different from testing other types of IT due to "the secrecy of the ballot," says Carolyn Coggins of iBeta Quality Assurance, a recently accredited testing lab. "In other types of IT auditing situations, you don't remove the identity of [the person entering data into the system]. But in testing voting systems, you have to pull your audit trail apart." The EAC is also working with states to develop secure processes for removing names from the statewide voter registration databases that were to be completed by January 2006, a deadline that was missed by nearly half of all states. "Now, the public sees not only updates on the voting system guidelines, and additional security built in, but for the first time we have a federal government voting-system certification process," said Donaldson.
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Watching the Web Grow Up
Economist Technology Quarterly (03/07)

Though many people hail the Web 2.0 movement--the explosion of easy-to-use tools and user-generated content--as the next major stage in the Internet's development, World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee is more excited about the Web's expanding presence via mobile phones and handhelds, the "semantic" Web, and the rising interest in the technology's social and political influence. The World Wide Web Consortium Berners-Lee heads has launched a mobile-Web effort to modify Web standards so that mobile devices can access the Web with less difficulty, in the hopes that such standards will make the Web's rich content available to billions of users, thus extending the Web's advantages to more of the global population. With this communications upgrade, cultural barriers can be overcome, commerce can expand, and scientific progress can be accelerated. Berners-Lee had a hand in the establishment of the Web Science Research Initiative, a joint venture between the University of Southampton and MIT. "Web science looks at the Web as a large system which depends on the laws of behavior between people, like copyright law, as well as the protocols that govern how computers communicate with each other," he explains. His view is that this study of the Web will yield insights that in turn will be converted into technical proposals that can spark and manage new social trends. Berners-Lee's semantic Web project aims to give computers the ability to squeeze useful information from Internet-accessible data, and progress toward this goal has been made with the creation of the Resource Description Framework and the Web Ontology Language. Basic standards for the semantic Web have been set down, a query language is on the verge of being rolled out, and prototype semantic-Web browsers are under development.
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The Controversy Over GPL 3
InformationWeek (03/19/07)No. 1130, P. 36; Babcock, Charles

Companies' future use of open source software could be affected by a schism developing over the next version of the highly popular General Public License (GPL), with major figures in the open source community, including Linux creator Linus Torvalds, threatening to reject GPL version 3 unless it is drastically rethought. A fragmentation of the license threatens to bog down open source adoption with even more licensing and compatibility issues, since products developed under GPLv3 and GPLv2 will be incompatible. GPLv2 encompasses nearly three-quarters of close to 144,000 projects under development on the open source hosting site SourceForge, and three highly successful open source applications--the Linux operating system, the MySQL database, and the Samba file sharing system--are governed by GPLv2. The license's "giveback" provision, which requires anyone who changes a free software program's source code and distributes the altered version to release those changes into the community, is considered by many to be open source software's most beneficial feature. GPLv3 ignited controversy with its proposed ban against the use of digital rights management technology in relation to GPLv3 licensed code, which threatens to limit adopters' uses for the code. Another provocative issue is GPLv3's intent to block all threats from software patents via sanctions against company behavior. Objections were also raised to GPLv3's mandate that Web service providers such as Google and Yahoo, who modify GPL code but are excused from the giveback provision under GPLv2 because they do not distribute products based on that code, should no longer be exempt. GPLv3 writers responded to the objections by remodeling the requirement after the Affero provision, which only refers to GPL code used to construct a Web service in which the source code is automatically downloaded as part of the application, if requested.
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