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November 9, 2007

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Welcome to the November 9, 2007 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Study Questions U.S. Shortfall in Math, Science
EE Times (11/06/07) Riley, Sheila

The common belief that U.S. students are falling behind in science, technology, and engineering, eventually leading to a worker shortage crisis, is mistaken, concludes an Urban Institute report, which says that not only are U.S. students doing well in science and technology subjects, but that the U.S. is educating a sufficient number of scientists and engineers to maintain its current global competitiveness. Urban Institute senior research associate Hal Salzman, who co-authored the report, says international tests ranking students, which frequently show that U.S. students are weak in math and science, are flawed. The study found that over the past 10 years U.S. students took more math, science, and foreign language courses than in previous decades. In 1990, only 45 percent of high school students took chemistry, but by 2004 the percentage of students taking chemistry rose to 60 percent. The percentage of students who took three years of math rose from 49 percent in 1990 to 72 percent in 2004, and the percentage of students taking four years of math rose from 29 percent to 50 percent. Salzman says the education systems in Japan, Singapore, and South Korea do lead to better test scores, but that does not necessarily lead to better jobs, a better economy, or more innovation. Salzman highlights the fact that Singapore is promoting a national "creativity initiative" because the Asian city-state's leaders realize the need to de-emphasize its narrow educational approach. Center for International Industry Competitiveness at the University of New Haven director George Haley says that testing a broad selection of countries puts the United States at a disadvantage because in the U.S. poor-performing students reduce the U.S. average, but in other countries those students would not be eligible to take the tests.
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Microsoft Puts the 'F' in Functional
eWeek (11/05/07) Taft, Darryl K.

Microsoft recently announced that it would release a commercial version of its F# functional programming language, designed specifically for developers dealing with concurrency. Functional programming treats computation as the evaluation of mathematical functions while avoiding state and mutable data. Microsoft's S. "Soma" Somasegar says that many ideas from functional languages are helping solve some of the biggest challenges in the industry, such as impedance mismatches between data and objects and the challenges of multi-core and parallel computing space. Java creator and Sun Microsystems Fellow James Gosling says the main problem with functional programming is that only a small portion of the community is interested in or able to learn functional programming. Mads Torgersen, the program manager for Microsoft's C# and a instrumental part of the F# project, says that functional languages are very much in their own world and tend not to interoperate well. F#, however, is designed to run on Microsoft's Common Language Runtime. "F# stems from the functional programming tradition and has strong roots in the ML family of languages, though also draws from C#, LINQ, and Haskell," Somasegar says. "F# runs on the CLR, embraces object-oriented programming, and has features to ensure a smooth integration with the .Net Framework." Torgersen says that F# is a very pragmatic adoption of functional programming and will serve the needs of people doing numerical, scientific, technical, and financial programming that have been forgotten about in the "traveling circus" of object-oriented programming.
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MIT Develops Lecture Search Engine to Aid Students
MIT News (11/07/07) Trafton, Anne

MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) researchers have developed a lecture search engine that could help students find a specific section of a video recording of a lecture. "Our goal is to develop a speech and language technology that will help educators provide structure to these video recordings, so it's easier for students to access the material," says James Glass, head of the CSAIL Spoken Language Systems Group and principal research scientist. More than 200 MIT lectures are currently available online. Most users are international students who access the lectures through MIT's OpenCourseWare OCW initiative. Searching through the lectures for specific topics is a difficult process, partially because there is no easy way to scan audio like there is with text files. The lecture search engine solves this problem by first creating lecture transcripts using speech recognition software. A major challenge in this process is that the lectures frequently contain technical terms that the software cannot recognize, so the researchers use textbooks, lecture notes, and abstracts to identify key terms and submit them to the computer. Once the transcript is finished, a language processing program divides the transcripts into sections by topic. Sections of text are compared to each other to determine the number of overlapping words between each section. Each word is weighted so the repetition of key words is more important than non-key words. Glass and MIT associate professor Regina Barzilay hope to add a lecture summarization feature to the language processing system, and to get users more involved in the project by adding a Wikipedia-like function that would allow users to correct errors in the lecture transcripts and to add notes.
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FBI Director Targets the Internet's Top Dangers
Network World (11/07/07)

FBI director Robert Mueller spoke on Nov. 6 about the dark side of the Internet and the army of experts working to battle the numerous online dangers. Mueller used the example of al Qaeda Web master Younis Tsouli to illustrate how infiltrated servers and scams can finance or aid terrorists. Tsouli broke into servers to steal bandwidth, mounted phishing schemes to access credit card accounts, and founded a Web site for terrorists. Mueller pointed out that the Internet is a target for attacks as well as a means for launching attacks. The "cyber blockade" of Estonia's federal and infrastructure-related Web sites in April 2007 was the example used by Mueller to illustrate this threat. Botnets and hackers continue to wreak havoc as well, from disabling power grids to stealing sensitive intelligence. However, cyber criminals are increasingly being found and prosecuted by specialists in Regional Computer Forensic Labs. But because a growing number of cyber threats are coming from abroad, more international collaboration on such investigations is essential, Mueller said. The FBI's Cyber Fusion Center is another valuable resource that lets cyber experts, federal agents, merchants such as Target and Bank of America, and others discuss security breaches and cyber threats. Finally, the FBI's InfraGard program works on the community level to let members share data about risks to their own businesses through a secure computer service. Almost 21,000 members--from small companies to Fortune 500 businesses--currently participate in this localized private sector partnership, according to Mueller.
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Giggling Robot Becomes One of the Kids
New Scientist (11/05/07) Inman, Mason

Toddlers treated a sophisticated, giggling robot much the same way they did each other during the first long-term study of interaction between kids and robots. Javier Movellan at the University of California San Diego led the project, which involved placing a two-foot-tall robot in a classroom of a dozen toddlers between the age of 18 months and two years. The QRIO robot, developed by Sony, used sensors to stay in the middle of the classroom and avoid bumping into the children, and was initially programmed to giggle when its head was touched, occasionally sit down, and lie down when its batteries died. The way the toddlers touched QRIO on the arms and hands, and gave more attention and care, including hugs, to the robot compared to an inanimate control robot, was viewed as signs of bonding. The researchers also say the quality of the interactions increased over several months, as the toddlers helped QRIO up when it fell, and covered up the robot with a blanket and said "night, night" when its batteries ran out. Although the study shows that kids will bond with robots over a long period of time, Movellan says it is too early to say the same about older children and adults. "This study opens the possibility for classroom applications," says Takayuki Kanda of the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Japan, adding that it could help autistic children.
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From Molecules to the Milky Way: Dealing With the Data Deluge
CSIRO (11/07/2007)

Researchers in Australia are developing new mathematical approaches and processes that will allow the science and business communities to handle massive amounts of data in the years to come. CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) has launched the "Terabyte Science" project with hopes of making Australia more of a global leader in science. IT experts, mathematicians and statisticians, image technologists, and other specialists at CSIRO will have a hand in the development of computer infrastructure and tools. "CSIRO recognizes that, for its science to be internationally competitive, the organization needs to be able to analyze large volumes of complex, even intermittently available, data from a broad range of scientific fields," says CSIRO program leader Dr. John Taylor. Taylor says the methods used by small data sets are not necessarily best for large data sets. "Large and complex data is emerging almost everywhere in science and industry and it will hold back Australian research and business if it isn't dealt with in a timely way," he says. The average PC is likely to have a few gigabytes of files, while astronomers working with a high-powered telescope may process 10 million gigabytes of data every hour in the next decade.
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CCNY-Led Team Receives $330,000 From NSF to Develop ‘Dynamic Tactile Interface' for Visually Impaired Computer Users
City College of New York (11/07/07) Simon, Ellis

The National Science Foundation has awarded a team of researchers from five institutions $330,000 over three years to develop a tactile surface that will allow the visually impaired to control computers. Currently, visually impaired and blind computer users are limited to Braille keyboards that cost several thousand dollars and can only process text. "We're trying to make a cheaper device that would receive information tactilely and also be able to receive graphic information," says Ilona Kretzschmar, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the City College of New York, which is leading the project. The project, titled "A Dynamic Tactile Interface for Visually Impaired and Blind People," aims to use an electronically addressable and deformable polymeric film to develop the interface device. The device will be made with three layers. The bottom will have a touch screen connected to the computer with audio feedback to tell users where they touched the screen. The middle layer will have embedded isolated electrodes to address segments of the polymer top layer, which will have an electro-active polymer film covered by a thin gold film. "In a world that increasingly depends on graphical, pictorial and multimedia technology, visually impaired and blind people have struggled to keep up," Kretzschmar says. "If we can develop a viable dynamic tactile interface that allows graphic and pictorial information to be presented in real time in tactile rather than visual space, the amount of information available to visually impaired and blind individuals will increase dramatically." The researchers expect to have a prototype tablet build by the end of the third year of the project.
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As Tech Jobs Rise, Changes Are Needed to Lure Youth to the Field, Say Experts
CBC News (CAN) (11/07/07) Montgomery, Shannon

Children are learning how to manipulate and use technology faster than ever, but grow less and less interested in how technology works. Information and Communications Technology Council President Paul Swinwood says that although children are more computer literate, their disinterest in the concepts and technologies behind a computer show children have no appreciation for the jobs and careers that make and advance computer technology. Dalhousie University professor Jacob Slonim says enrollment in computer science and computer engineering has been in freefall since 2001, and that drastic changes are needed in almost every step of the process, such as how the subjects are being taught and how new students are recruited to the field. Further complicating the problem is the fact that the number of available tech jobs continues to rise. An ICTC study predicts there will be a shortage of 100,000 skilled workers in the field by 2009, and 1 million by 2016. Reasons for the shortage include how computer science is taught, parents who encourage their children to avoid the field following the dot-com bust, and a lack of elementary and high school teachers who specialize in computers and technology. In Canada, a proposed national study that targets students as early as the sixth grade would start next spring, examining how and when attitudes about computer science careers are formed, and multidisciplinary programs, such as Dalhousie's bachelor of informatics, show that real-world applications of technology are becoming more popular. Canadian Information Processing Society president Stephen Ibaraki says that about 92 countries have signed a United Nations initiative that create an international standards body that will monitor the technology field, starting in 2009.
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Programmed for Security
Government Computer News (11/05/07) Vol. 26, No. 28, Jackson, William

The promotion of improved software development is the goal of two recently announced initiatives, including the SANS Institute's introduction of a new Secure Software Programmers certification for several programming languages. The program was organized to address the academic community's failure to adequately train software developers, according to SANS research director Alan Paller. The institute's leaders believe students' demand for software training and certification will be stimulated by an industry-recognized credential, while 23 out of 42 people who participated in the first round of exams earned Graduate Studies and Special Programs certificates. Paller notes that the certification's uniqueness resides in the fact that it represents the first instance in which SANS has begun with an exam rather than courses and curriculum to teach certification basics. The other initiative is the formation of the nonprofit Software Association Forum for Excellence in Code (SAFEcode) by EMC, Microsoft, SAP, Symantec, and Juniper Networks in October, whose focus is the development and exchange of best practices for secure software development. SAFEcode executive director Paul Kurtz reports that many companies have internal programs focused on improving code quality, but their effectiveness has been hindered by poor communications; SAFEcode's objective is to develop best practices through the recognition of commonalities between the companies' practices. Kurtz says eventually SAFEcode members will collaborate with SANS on the development of solid coding curriculums. He asserts that SAFEcode seeks to enable cooperation between companies and with government and the academic community, and its first goal is the establishment of software assurance metrics.
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Union Awarded NSF Grants to Revitalize Computing Education
Union College (11/07/07)

The National Science Foundation has awarded a total of $13 million in grants to some 50 institutions to help rejuvenate computing education in the United States and ensure that the talent needed for addressing computing challenges in the 21st century workplace will be available. Union College and Lafayette College were award $1.15 million for their joint five-year project, titled Campus Wide Computation Initiative-- A New Model for Computing Education. "Our goal is to get more students involved by creating a curriculum that works across disciplines. Students in various fields, from biology to psychology, would take a computation course and go back to their home departments prepared to do discipline-specific, computationally intensive work," says Union computer science chair Valerie Barr, who is leading the project along with Lafayette computer science department chair Chun Wai Liew. Union has interdisciplinary majors that allow students to pair Computer Science with Visual Arts, Music, Philosophy, Psychology, Economics, Biology, and Math. Union College also received another grant intended to revitalize undergraduate computer science that the school will use to build a social robotics curriculum. Social robotics typically involves elements of design, psychology, cognitive science, communication, and philosophy in addition to key computer science and engineering principles. "We are going to lay the foundation for social robotics to help bring more students into the computer science fields," says Barr.
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Soccer-Playing Robot Goal of IPFW Group
Journal Gazette (11/07/07) Soderlund, Kelly

Faculty members and students at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne and engineers from Raytheon are working to build robots that are capable of playing soccer. The IPFW group has already built one robot, but they are still working to develop an attachable leg that will enable it to kick a ball, and write a computer program that will enable it to recognize a black-and-white soccer ball. In its current form, the robot sits about one foot off the ground, uses wheels, and has a camera on its flat top to track an orange basketball. "It doesn't look like much, but it took a lot to get here," says Robert Sedlmeyer, associate professor of computer science. The IPFW group consists of four faculty members, eight students, and three engineers from Raytheon, who will develop computer software and engineering tools to build the team of six robots. Over the course of the project, freshmen will develop basic engineering skills and seniors will refine what they have learned at IPFW, while the professional engineers will pick up experience as teachers. Participants could transfer what they learn to future projects in which machines for rescue missions or assisting the elderly are developed.
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The Fly's a Spy
Economist (11/03/07) Vol. 385, No. 8553, P. 91

Remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicles or drones offer lower cost and more flexibility than conventional surveillance/reconnaissance technologies such as satellites or aircraft, but they also raise safety and privacy issues. "We have just entered a new era, and we have got to be concerned about protecting persons and property," says Nicholas Sabatini, who handles aviation safety for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. UAVs are finding use in military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn regions, and among the technologies under development is a saucer-like hovering device from Microdrones capable of automatic landings. Some drones are small and lightweight enough to enter buildings and spy on people without being detected. Such may be the case for Onera's REMANTA, a dragonfly-like drone equipped with a video camera that can send images to its operator via a remote-control unit. Meanwhile, Harvard University researchers are developing a fly-like robot that weighs less than an ounce. Eventually, UAVs will probably be used for all kinds of tasks in which the use of manned aircraft is too hazardous, costly, or impractical. The smaller UAVs are a source of concern in terms of their potential for privacy infringement, while the larger drones raise fears of the damage they could cause if they malfunction, crash, or collide with other vehicles if they are operating in "controlled" airspace.
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Grid Computing Shows Promise
Inside Binghamton University (11/01/07) Vol. 29, No. 10,

Binghamton University grid computing experts are helping researchers in bioengineering, physics, and other fields perform calculations that would have been impossible without significant computing resources. Grid computing relies on distributed and diverse resources to solve problems that require more power than a single machine or local system can generate. "Ideally," says computer science professor Kenneth Chiu, "grid computing allows scientists to test more hypotheses, which allows them to discover more stuff. This will increase the rate of scientific discovery." Binghamton University participates in four computing grids: the Open Science Grid, the New York State Grid, the PRAGMA Grid, and the TeraGrid. There is also a 64-node cluster at the school serving as a testbed for an Oakridge National Laboratory project on "checkpointing," which allows a computer to stop and resume computations so the computer can be shut down or work on a different problem. One of the projects at Binghamton is examining heart arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death. The project uses a computer program to simulate the generation of a cardiac beat, including the sequence of events that lead to life-threatening arrhythmia, in the hopes of understanding who is at risk. Running the program on the grid could lead to answers in a matter of days instead of years.
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UN Approves Resolution Related to Cyber Attacks
eGov Monitor (11/05/07)

The United Nations Disarmament and International Security Committee on Nov. 1 passed a resolution that deals with international security developments in the IT and telecommunications fields. The measure contends with concerns that information or telecommunication technology can be exploited to compromise states' security. Upon the approval of the resolution, the European Union Presidency Portugal issued a statement highlighting potential cybersecurity threats that can be traced to terrorists, organized criminals, or coordinated attacks by individuals inspired by political propaganda. Cyberattacks against the Estonian government establishment, Web pages, and media in the spring are largely responsible for the resolution, says Estonian ambassador to the UN Tiina Intelmann. "For this, an international legal framework must be created," Intelmann says, verifying that both Estonia and the EU have urged all UN member nations to participate in the Council of Europe's Convention on Cybercrime. The resolution calls for the organization of a team of government experts in 2009, and this group will have the responsibility of investigating both existing and potential threats to information security and suggesting preventive measures. The team could also study assaults on vital national information infrastructures, and consider suggestions as to how these attacks could be probed and criminalized.
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Canadian Prof Offers Model for System Management
Computerworld Canada (10/31/07) Lau, Kathleen

Carleton University professor Murray Woodside and Ph.D. student Tao Zheng are tracking IT system behavior for improved performance planning using technology that was once employed to track aircraft and spacecraft. Woodside says the concept of system performance tracking is founded on the fact that system parameters differ according to how many people may visit a site at a time, and the idea moved forward as corporate IT environments transformed to include Web-based systems whose parameters varied increasingly. Zheng says the performance model augments data center system management tools by carrying out system provisioning according to application response time and other additional variables; the tool previously executed provisioning solely via the measurement of utilization. The consideration of response times allows IT managers to anticipate system changes and be granted additional time to implement more resources, Woodside says. Zheng expects the spread of virtualization to not only help resource management, but also to get a boost from the ability to plan machine provisioning. "If virtual machines are a new trend in the IT world, then this technology is quite useful," he says. The Carleton initiative, conducted in collaboration with the IBM Center for Advanced Studies, was named the CAS Project of the year.
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Anti-Social Bot Invades Second Lifers' Personal Space
New Scientist (10/02/07) Simonite, Tom

University College London researchers are using an automated avatar in Second Life to study the psychology of Second Life users. The automated avatar, called SL-bot, has been used to see if Second Life users expect other avatars to give their avatar the same amount of personal space as is normally expected in real life. In one experiment, SL-bot searched for avatars that were alone. When an isolated avatar was found, SL-bot would approach the avatar, greet the avatar by name, wait two seconds, and then move to within the virtual equivalent of 1.2 meters. SL-bot then recorded the other avatar's reaction for 10 seconds and sent the data back to the researchers. Out of the 28 avatars approached in this manner, 12 moved away and 20 also responded with text chat. Another experiment observed pairs of avatars as they interacted and found that users are, on average, six times more likely to shift position when someone comes within 1.2 meters. The findings show that people value their virtual personal space much like people value their real personal space. During an experiment where undergraduate students with scripts interacted with subject avatars, it was found that female avatars protect their personal space less than male avatars, reflecting real world behavior. The research project replaced undergraduate student avatars with SL-bot because using human testers raised several ethical questions. The experiment on the whole raises several ethical questions regarding the use of virtual test subjects. Stanford's Nick Yee says the ethics of experimenting in virtual worlds is still largely under negotiation. "Some review boards are probably too cautious and others too liberal," Yee says. SL-bot was presented in a paper at the 7th International Conference on Intelligent Virtual Agents, in Paris, in September.
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The Diamond Age of Spintronics
Scientific American (10/07) Vol. 297, No. 4, P. 84; Awschalom, David D.; Epstein, Ryan; Hanson, Ronald

Room-temperature quantum computers fashioned from synthetic semiconducting diamond may one day be realized by radical electronic devices that exploit electron spin. Critical to making diamond viable for quantum spintronics is doping it with an impurity, specifically a nitrogen-vacancy center where two adjacent sites in diamond's carbon atom lattice are altered so that a nitrogen atom replaces a carbon atom at one site while an empty space is left at the other site. Electrons orbit in the vacant space and around the neighboring three carbon atoms and carry a spin that can be harnessed by quantum applications. Study by University of California, Santa Barbara researchers has demonstrated that spins in diamond are highly resistant to environmental disturbances, allowing the quantum state of the N-V center spin to be used to encode quantum information at room temperature. The scientists have measured an N-V center spin's interaction with another spin on an nearby nitrogen impurity with no vacancy, leading to the dependence of its splitting of its 0 and 1 states on the other nitrogen's spin state. This phenomenon makes a controlled NOT gate, in which one quantum bit (qubit) is inverted if and only if the other qubit is a 1, possible. The composition of any arbitrary quantum operation on any number of qubits can be achieved by combining CNOT gates acting on qubit pairs and rotations of individual qubits. Photons could be employed as mediators to facilitate longer distance interactions between N-V spins in diamond.
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