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August 17, 2007

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Welcome to the August 17, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Inventor Forges Fresh Approach to Writing Software
EE Times (08/15/07) Merritt, Rick

Computer architect Gordon Morrison claims to have created a new approach to software development that could make writing parallel programs for multicore processors easier and establish a new level of uniformity and discipline for writing code. Morrison's approach, dubbed the Coherent Object Software Architecture (COSA), defines a set of rules applied to a table-drive state machine, using a tree data structure to create behaviors and interact with each other, and is capable of altering the system's state. Morrison claims COSA could establish a more structured approach to software development that relies more on mathematical formulas and eliminates the need for conventional programming languages such as C++ and Java. "Ten programmers could not produce the same program to solve a problem because programming is an artful approach," Morrison says. "I want to eliminate the art and make it an engineering approach." He says a state machine approach would allow for smaller development teams, shorter development periods, and reduced maintenance costs. Parallel programming expert and government researcher James McGraw, who reviewed COSA about a year ago, says he is not as excited about it as Morrison, and that COSA's state-machine architecture does not appear suited to the supercomputer-class problems involving hundreds of thousands of processes. Aynur Unal, an electronics executive who has worked on a variety of startup companies, is more optimistic about COSA. "Gordon's work represents a very generalized way of writing programs that could be very useful in software engineering," Unal says.
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Computing Breakthrough Could Elevate Security to Unprecedented Levels
University of Michigan News Service (08/16/07) Rabuck, Carol; Moore, Nicole

University of Michigan researchers have found that pulses of light can be used to dramatically accelerate quantum computers, a breakthrough that could lead to stronger information security and the ability to quickly decipher hacker encryption codes. Working with researchers from the University of California-San Diego and the Naval Research Laboratory, the researchers used short, coherent pulses of light to create light-matter interactions in quantum dots, particles so small that their properties can be altered by adding or removing electrons. University of Michigan professor Duncan Steel says the researchers found they could control the frequency and phase shifts in the optical network, a crucial aspect of powering an optically-driven quantum computer. Such a computer would take only a few seconds to crack highly encrypted codes that would take today's fastest desktop computers about 20 years to crack. "Quantum computers are capable of massive parallel computations," Steel says. An equally significant aspect of the research is that the technology used by the researchers is relatively inexpensive. "We're particularly excited about our findings because they show that we can achieve these results by using quantum dots and readily available, relatively inexpensive optical telecommunications technology to drive quantum computers," Steel says.
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MIT Aims to Optimize Chip Designs
MIT News (08/16/07) Trafton, Anne

MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science Duane Boning says computer chips for high-speed communication devices have become so small that the production process creates tiny variations in the chip that can cause fluctuations in circuit speed and power, lowering overall performance. Boning and his research team are working to predict variations in circuit performance and maximize the number of chips that meet specifications. The researchers have developed a model that could be used to estimate manufacturers' ability to make a circuit early in the design and development stages, which would help optimize chip design and lower costs. "We're getting closer and closer to some of the limits on size, and variations are increasing in importance," says Boning. "It's becoming much more difficult to reduce variation in the manufacturing process, so we need to be able to deal with variation and compensate for it or correct it in the design." The researchers specifically looked at radio frequency integrated circuits (RFICs), which are used in many high-speed communication and imaging devices. The model the researchers developed examines three different properties of circuits--capacitance, resistance, and transistor turn-on voltage. Variations cannot be measured directly, so by measuring the speed of the chip's circuits under different amounts of applied current the researchers could use a mathematical model to estimate the electrical parameters of the circuits.
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Chairwoman of IGDA Education SIG to Speak at GC Asia Conference
Game News (08/16/07)

The inaugural GC Asia Conference will feature a lecture by Susan Gold on establishing a career in the gaming industry. In a talk entitled "Entering the Video Game Industry," Gold will discuss everything from crafting a resume and portfolio to preparing for interviews, so prospective job seekers can improve their chances of securing positions. She will also discuss building a network that will enable them to maintain employment in the competitive business. Gold is the chairwoman of the IGDA Education SIG. An artist, educator, and activist who focuses on digital art, new media, and video games, Gold also sits on the ACM SIGGRAPH Education Curriculum Committee for Computer Graphics. The GC Asia Conference is scheduled for Sept. 6-7, 2007, in Singapore, and will bring together gaming industry leaders and provide a forum for international developers and publishers.
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Why Virtual Copies of You Could Be a Reality
Life Style Extra (08/16/07)

Researchers at the French national research lab INRIA have developed a new system called GrImage that could enable users to insert a remarkably life-like digital version of themselves into video games or onto the Web. The ability to create photo-realistic computerized versions of people meant the researchers had to find a way to capture a person and their movement in three dimensions and render them in real time, a long-standing problem in computer graphics. Most motion-capture methods use highly visible markers placed on a person's body so a camera can capture the person's relative position and the movement of body parts. Instead, the INRIA team used between six and 14 video cameras to record the person from multiple angles. Software was developed to identify and extract the person's silhouettes, combine them into a rough 3D model, and add color and texture. The next step was achieving a realistic level of interaction between the avatar and the virtual environment. Normally, programs that simulate interactions with hard objects and programs that simulate interactions with soft object and fluids are not combined because the two use different mathematics, but GrImage switches between mathematics to allow for interactions with both types of objects. A small version of GrImage was on display at the recent ACM SIGGRAPH conference where users were allowed to place their hand in a "recording space" lined with cameras and play with a virtual jack-in-the-box and some soft objects.
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Hollywood Blamed for Scientific Ignorance
InformationWeek (08/15/07) Claburn, Thomas

Hollywood's disregard for the laws of physics has contributed to a general misunderstanding of science among Americans, according to a paper written by two University of Central Florida professors. The paper, "Hollywood Blockbusters: Unlimited Fun But Limited Science Literacy," written by UCF professor Costas J. Efthimiou and former UCF physics chair R.A. Llewellyn, does not try to argue that watching impossible physics makes people believe the real world works the same way, but that it does lead to general ignorance. The authors say the purpose of the paper is not to get Hollywood to respect the laws of physics more, but to highlight a general concern that the United States is not teaching physics, math, and other sciences effectively. ACM echoed those concerns in its 2006 report on globalization, which said "the United States educational system is still trying to understand how to change its curriculum to address application domain knowledge, a global workplace, and maintaining its innovative edge. In addition, the United States faces long-term challenges from falling interest and skills in math and science programs in its primary education system." However, Kevin Scott, a member of ACM's education board, is not concerned about the effects movies have on scientific understanding, and thinks they may even help get kids interested. "From my perspective, I think movies are helpful and encouraging to make kids think about science and technology in good ways," Scott says. "This was the way I got interested in computing and chose it as a career. I really wanted to understand from an entertainment perspective how these things are done." To read "Globalization and Offshoring of Software: A Report of the ACM Job Migration Task Force," visit http://www.acm.org/globalizationreport
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U of A Women Lagging Behind in Male-Dominated Sciences
Edmonton Journal (Alberta, Canada) (08/16/07) Ferguson, Amanda

At the University of Alberta women account for slightly more than half of all university students enrolled in science-based programs, but are still significantly outnumbered by men in subjects such as computer science and mechanical engineering. The University of Alberta reports that only 10 percent of students enrolled in computer science and 20 percent of students in engineering are women. "We still have a lot of work to do," says Grace Ennis, coordinator of the Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology (WISEST) program. "The numbers may be high in some subjects, but if you look at the number of women in subjects like computing sciences and electrical engineering, those numbers are dropping every year." WISEST is a summer program intended to encourage women to enter non-traditional science fields. "The need is evident in the gender proportions but also in the industry at large," says chemical engineer and WISEST vice-chairwoman Gail Powley. Ennis says convincing women to continue their studies beyond the undergraduate level is one of the biggest challenges. Some call the tendency for women in science to leave after each level of study at a greater rate than men do the "leaky pipe" phenomenon, and say reasons include feelings of isolation, self-doubt, competing loyalties, a lack of scholarship opportunities, and a lack of role models.
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New Grant Boosts Work on Small-Scale Systems
Georgia Institute of Technology (08/12/07) Robinson, Rick

The Georgia Institute of Technology will participate in a new multi-university research center funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a computer-aided design environment for micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and nano-electromechanical systems (NEMS). The Investigate Multi-physics Modeling and Performance Assessment-driven Characterization and Computation Technology (IMPACT) Center for Advancement of MEMS/NEMS VLSI will be lead by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and will include teams from Purdue University, Lehigh University, Georgia Tech, and several companies. The researchers will try to develop CAD systems that use physical models to conclusively predict the behavior of MEMS devices, including electrical effects of MEMS usage and thermal, mechanical, and reliability behaviors. Georgia Tech associate professor John Papapolymerou says Georgia Tech researchers will focus on the fundamental physics behind MEMS devices, specifically the dielectric charging of MEMS switches. Papapolymerou says MEMS-enabled microsystems could revolutionize communications, sensors, and signal-processing, but that their capabilities are limited by a lack of understanding of how physical phenomena govern MEMS-device functionality, particularly how performance degrades when MEMS devices are exposed to the operating conditions of an integrated circuit.
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Nominations Sought for Tapia Achievement Award
HPC Wire (08/10/07)

Interested parties in the computing industry have until Friday, Aug. 31, 2007, to submit nominations for the Richard A. Tapia Achievement Award for Scientific Scholarship, Civic Science, and Diversifying Computing. The award was created to honor individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to equity in theory and practice, as well as displayed leadership in finding creative solutions to bring greater diversity to computing. Nomination letters should include the nominee's name and affiliation; 300-word summaries each for the nominee's scientific, civic, and diversity achievements; and the name, affiliation, email address, and contact phone number of the nominator. They should be emailed to Monica Martinez-Canalez of Sandia National Laboratories, who is the general chair of the Tapia Conference 2007, and Bryant York of Portland State University, awards chair, at tapiaaward@richardtapia.org. The award winner will be honored at the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing Conference, which is scheduled for Oct. 14-17, at the Disney Hilton Hotel in Orlando, Fla. ACM is a co-sponsor of the event, which is organized by the Coalition to Diversify Computing.
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Project Aims to Give U.S. Programmers Edge in Global Job Market
Purdue University News (08/07/07) Venere, Emil

Purdue University is testing a new computer science program for undergraduate students that places a greater emphasis on programming for parallel processors. "It is generally understood that there are problems in computing education on a nationwide basis," says assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering Vijay Pai, the principal investigator of the project. "On one hand, student interest is waning in the United States compared to the days of the dot.com boom. On the other hand, systems coming out today are much more complex than they were before, so graduates need to know more in order to be prepared for the job market." The project, which has received a three-year, $920,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will strengthen education in parallel programming for computers with multicore chips. The project is based on "concurrency," or teaching students how to design software and hardware that can complete a single job by running multiple applications at the same time. "Traditionally, universities have taught parallel programming as an afterthought on the senior or graduate level," Pai says. "We teach sequential programming, and then we say, 'By the way, after three of four years of sequential programming we are going to expose you to a little bit of parallel programming just to let you know that this thing really exists.'" Parallel computing is now an optional supplement to a sophomore-level programming class, but it will eventually become a mandatory requirement for students. Pai says the objective of the project is to create a template that can be used to improve undergraduate computer science curricula at all U.S. colleges and universities.
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Shadow Lamps to Connect Friends
BBC News (08/08/07) Ward, Mark

ACM's SIGGRAPH computer graphics convention in San Diego featured new research on a shadow presence system that is designed to give friends some privacy while they stay in touch online. Teleshadow presents a shadow outline of what someone is doing. Shunpei Yasuda, a post-graduate student in Media Design at Keio University in Japan, says he was inspired by Japanese culture, in which Shoji or paper walls have been used to divide some rooms. The shadows cast as someone moves about in privacy reminds you of the presence of the other person, Yasuda says. Teleshadow makes use of a lamp to project video input on the inside of its walls, a video camera that users have in their homes, and software processing to transform the video into an outline. "As this is a new media that fits our daily life, it was important to make it as a piece of furniture," Yasuda says. The prototypes also make use of touch screens that enable users to touch a shadow to set up a voice call to that person.
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DARPA Wants Software Teachers, Learning Computers
Wired News (08/15/07) Shachtman, Noah

"Bootstrapped Learning," one of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's far out projects, is developing new machine learning algorithms in an effort to have computers learn on their own and eventually to think. Today, you still need new programming every time you encounter a new problem, says Daniel Oblinger, DARPA program manager. DARPA is focusing on machine teaching programs that would be configured to teach by example, through feedback, or by explaining failures, with code that would enable the digital instructor to tutor almost anything. Oblinger wants the programmers to freeze their code in place after the second phase of the project, which is when they will be told what their algorithms will teach. There are plans to have the machine teaching program teach another program how to run diagnostic tests on a simulated version of the Space Station, and teach a simulated unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to search for a truckload of weapons, even if it does not know what a truck looks like. Oblinger envisions the agency pursuing the development of a "general-purpose learning machine" that would not need an instructor.
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IBM Develops Speech Recognition in Indian Language
InfoWorld (08/16/07) Ribeiro, John

IBM's India Research Laboratory (IRL) has developed speech recognition software that recognizes Hindi, one of the primary languages in India. The speech recognition software could be used for a wide variety of commercial and social applications because speech recognition would be simpler than the variety of Devnagri script keyboards currently available. The speech recognition system would also make computing more accessible to the large number of Indians who are semi-literate and not familiar with a computer keyboard. The speech recognition dictionary developed by IRL has over 75,000 words in Hindi, and has a provision to add new words, according to IRL senior researcher Ashish Verma. A major challenge for the development of a Hindi speech recognition system is that words in the language are often pronounced very differently in different areas of the country, so multiple pronunciations for each word had to be included in the dictionary and understood by the system. The software recognizes words 90 percent to 95 percent of the time with speaker adaptations, and 80 percent to 90 percent without speaker adaptation. Command and control applications such as operating ATMs and kiosks have an accuracy rate close to 100 percent because vocabulary is limited for such applications. The software is being integrated into the Indian government run research organization the Center for Development of Advanced Computing.
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TACC Launches Global Academic Supercomputing Consortium to Work Toward Solving Global Science Problems
University of Texas at Austin (08/14/07) Singer-Villalobos, Faith

The Texas Advanced Computer Center (TACC) at the University of Texas at Austin has announced the formation of the Global Academic Supercomputer Consortium (GASC) to support the use of advanced computational technology to solve the most challenging science and engineering problems. GASC will build strategic alliances that create and strengthen global research and development, and promote educational collaborations in advanced computing. "Advanced computing technologies are crucial in advancing science, and increasingly, in improving the quality of life," says TACC director Jay Boisseau. "By sharing the best ideas and developments in advanced computing as rapidly as possible, GASC will help leading academic supercomputing centers achieve even greater impact in addressing the most important computationally challenging problems in science." High performance computing systems, scientific visualization resources, massive data collection and storage systems, applications software, and advanced network systems are among the advanced computational technologies that GASC will help develop, deploy, and utilize to enable researchers to solve challenging computational problems. GASC, which includes supercomputer centers from Germany, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Spain, Venezuela, and the United Kingdom, will use collaborative computer environments that enable the coordinated, concurrent use of multiple resources and systems, leading to new methods of computing and cooperation.
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Ultrafast Quantum Computer Uses Optically Controlled Electrons
PhysOrg.com (08/15/07) Zyga, Lisa

The creation of an ultrafast quantum computer could be supported by a scheme devised by Stanford University scientists in which light pulses are used to rotate electron spins, thus improving the computer's overall clock rate. The computer employs a semiconductor chip with a loop of cavities filled with quantum dots. The electron spins within the dots are rotated and the state of the bit is changed by focusing optical pulses at individual dots. With the light pulses, distant electron spins can be coupled so that the phase of one qubit can rely on the phase of another qubit. The coupled qubits' spin states cohere into a qubus, which serves as the foundation of a two-qubit gate. Stanford researcher Thaddeus Ladd says the proposed framework offers much faster computing speed than other quantum computing schemes. The Stanford scheme also boasts advantages in terms of manufacturing potential and scalability. "In terms of building this computer, we are working on that one step at a time," says Stanford scientist Susan Clark. "We are starting by putting the quantum dot qubits in cavities, performing rotations on those qubits, and then coupling them via qubus."
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The Healing Power of Video Games
Philadelphia Inquirer (07/31/07) P. A1; Giordano, Rita

The use of virtual reality as a therapeutic tool is quickly gaining interest and widespread use, says James Westwood, a program coordinator at the annual Medicine Meets Virtual Reality conference. Most virtual reality development is happening at universities and systems are generally too expensive to be available to clinical patients, but researchers say that will likely change over time. The Rutgers Ankle Rehabilitation System, partially developed by the Research in Virtual Environments and Rehabilitation Science Lab at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, helps stroke victims recover movement in their feet by having them navigate through an airscape and a seascape virtual world. "We find they try longer. They improved more," says Judith Deutsch, director of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey virtual research lab. "They actually walked faster than the group that didn't use the virtual reality." Virtual reality trials have also indicated that the technology can act as a diversion to help patients forget about their pain. At the University of Washington's Virtual Reality Analgesia Research Center, burn victims were asked to play a game where they glided through a virtual canyon and threw snowballs at objects. Patients who were medicated as usual reported less pain and tests showed less pain-related activity in their brains. Most agree that virtual reality as a therapeutic tool needs to be studied more, and some say it can only act as an addition to conventional therapy, not as a replacement.
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The Grill: MIT Professor Hal Abelson on the Hot Seat
Computerworld (08/06/07) Vol. 41, No. 32, P. 23; Anthes, Gary

MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science Hal Abelson, along with five others, started Creative Commons, a movement dedicated to offering users and creators of intellectual property, specifically on the Internet, new rights and options. Abelson says the Internet has become a place for people to share, mix, redesign, and build on each other's ideas and work, but the fear of violating copyrighted material has limited creativity and collaboration. "Since 1986, in the U.S., if you create stuff, at that moment, it's actually copyrighted," he says. "What should be a shared thing that people can use and contribute to ends up being an IP minefield." Creative Commons has established a standard set of licenses that allows Web users to look at material and see what rights they have, as a contributor or a user. So far, 140 million documents on the Web have a Creative Commons license, and search engines have functions that allow users to limit search results to only things they can reuse. Abelson also helped launch OpenCourseWare, which offers free online access to MIT courses. About 1,600 MIT courses are currently available, and about 1,800 courses, almost all of MIT's courses, will be available next fall. The OpenCourseWare Consortium now has more than 100 member universities contributing open educational resources and more than 1.2 million users visit every month. Abelson says that computer science has reached a fossilized and myopic state, arguing that people are still thinking about things that happened 10, 15, and 20 years ago and that everyone is still thinking "inside the box." Abelson believes that computer scientists should spend more time and energy exploring computing links with biology and the "science of the Web," or the consequences of have large shared-information spaces and what mix of technology and policy makes these spaces work.
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Not Enough U.S. Engineers?
Issues in Science and Technology (08/07) Vol. 23, No. 4, P. 5; Simon, Denis Fred; Cao, Cong; Hira, Ron

State University of New York researcher Cong Cao and Provost Denis Fred Simon take issue with Duke University researchers' assessment of engineering education in India, China, and the United States in their article "Where the Engineers Are" by pointing to their failure to correctly interpret the Chinese data, noting among other things the flaw in the statement that "Chinese yearbooks generally are not permitted to leave China." Cao and Simon also point out that neither official policy pronouncements nor wage data bear out the Duke researchers' contention that large Chinese enrollments in science and engineering education are being carried out for the simple purpose of depressing engineering salaries. "It is clear that these types of studies cannot be conducted without a fuller in-depth understanding of the actual Chinese situation--with all of its achievements and shortcomings, especially with respect to the broad array of statistical materials that exists regarding higher education, the S&T workforce, and population demographics," Cao and Simon conclude. A more positive spin on the Duke researchers' article is relayed by Rochester Institute of Technology's Ron Hira, who offers praise on their decision to solicit objective metrics from hiring managers in their analysis of U.S. engineer hiring statistics; the study contradicts the argument that there is a persistent shortfall of American engineers. "The lesson is that objective data-gathering needs to be extended to the multiple dimensions that influence domestic engineering labor markets: Supply, demand, incentives, career durability, pipeline capabilities, wages, employment relations, cost of entry, foreign labor substitution and complements, public mission, etc.," Hira writes. Microsoft research executive Rick Rashid says the article misses several important points, including the fact that enrollment into engineering programs has slackened, which invites skepticism of the authors' suggestion that the current U.S. engineering crop is sufficient. He maintains that the four- to five-year pipeline between enrollment and degree production escaped the notice of the authors, and concludes that the United States must move immediately on the domestic front to get more people enrolled in engineering courses. Green card reform, an increase in research funding and H-1B visas, and attempts to boost the appeal of science and engineering to young undergraduates are strategies Rashid cites. To read "Globalization and Offshoring of Software: A Report of the ACM Job Migration Task Force," visit http://www.acm.org/globalizationreport
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