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January 16, 2008

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More Than Half of H-1B Visas Go to India Nationals
Computerworld (01/15/08) Thibodeau, Patrick

Indian nationals received 54 percent of the total number of temporary visas approved in 2006, and an increasing number of foreign workers who hold these visas, more than half, work in computer-related fields, concludes the National Science Board report, "Science and Engineering Indicators 2008." The report examines the state of science and engineering training and the ability of the U.S. to compete globally, and analyzes H-1B visa trends. The report found that although the United States spent about $340 billion in research and development in 2006, a record high, federal support for basic and applied research continued its multi-year decline. The report also cautioned that U.S. grade school students continue to fall behind other developed countries in science and math. The report's conclusions match those made by other observers. ACM, in its policy blog (see http://usacm.acm.org/usacm/weblog/index.php?p=558) recently examined federal spending earmarked for research this year and concluded that Congress is approving increases that do not match the inflation rate, as well as including earmarks for construction projects that do not fit its basic research funding mission. In the policy blog, ACM argues that Congress has "abandoned its commitment to lead in science and technology." The NSB report warns that the U.S. science and engineering workforce may decline rapidly over the next decade due to retiring baby boomers. "If this slowdown occurs, the rapid growth in R&D employment and spending that the United States has experienced since World War II may not be sustainable," the report says.
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Global Advances Challenge U.S. Dominance in Science
New York Times (01/16/08) P. A15; Dean, Cornelia

The United States is still the world leader in scientific and technological innovation, but economic development in foreign countries, particularly in Asia, is threatening America's dominance, according to a new report from the National Science Board. The report says the United States' position is especially delicate because of the country's reliance on foreign-born workers to fill technical jobs. The report recommends increasing financing for basic research and greater "intellectual interchange" between academic and industry researchers. The NSB also called for greater efforts to track the globalization of high-tech manufacturing and services and their impact on the American economy. The report says surveys of science and mathematics education are "disappointing and encouraging," with fourth- and eighth-grade students in all ethnic groups improving in math, but progress in science is far less encouraging. Many Americans remain ignorant on basic scientific principles in biology and physics, specifically the Big Bang theory and evolution, and many are unable to answer correctly when asked if the Earth moves around the Sun. "These differences probably indicate that many Americans hold religious beliefs that cause them to be skeptical of established scientific ideas," the report says, "even when they have some basic familiarity with those ideas."
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Could Post-Ballot Audits Renew Faith in U.S. Elections?
Computerworld (01/16/08) Weiss, Todd R.

Observers wonder whether ballots can be efficiently tallied while restoring Americans' confidence in the electoral process even as distrust of electronic voting mounts. A ray of hope may be offered in random, mandatory audits of cast ballots, and support for the concept may be growing. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) just passed a law mandating random audits starting later this year, and this statute will dovetail with the state's voter verifiable paper records law requiring electronic touch-screen voting machines to use a paper printout so voters can be certain that their votes were recorded correctly. Coordinator of the Electronic Privacy Information Center's National Committee for Voting Integrity Lillie Coney says her group advocates mandatory random audits, provided they are truly random. "No one should be able to know where the audits are going to be held [on specific machines]," she argues, adding that the proper performance of a random audit involves pulling the machines from the warehouse, auditing them, and then submitting a report without any early notification on what machines will be audited. Officials can then study the paper ballots and the tallies on the optical scanning machines to determine whether the audit lines up within an extremely thin degree of error to guarantee that the election was completed accurately. Such a strategy eliminates the likelihood that the results of an election can be changed by large enough error, according to Iowa e-voting activist Jerry Depew. "Every state should be required to do post-election audits to be sure the machines are counting properly, and then if there are discrepancies, they can be going to a hand count" for an accurate vote tally, says VotersUnite.org executive director John Gideon.
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High-Tech Hiring: Youth Matters
BusinessWeek (01/15/08) Wadhwa, Vivek

The engineering globalization debate generally focuses on visas, with one side arguing that there is a shortage of engineers and a need for foreign workers while the other says the push for more visas is a way of lowering salaries. However, some believe that instead of focusing on visas, the globalization debate should examine the issue of age. Tech companies prefer to hire young engineers, and engineering can be called an "up or out" profession where workers either move up the ladder of find themselves out of work. University of California professor Norm Matloff, one of the most outspoken opponents of foreign-worker visas, says that careers in programming are notoriously short-lived, and that his research into attrition rates shows that five years after finishing college only 57 percent of computer science graduates work as programmers, at 15 years the number drops to 43 percent, and after 20 years, when most graduates are around age 42, the figure drops to 19 percent. Matloff says age discrimination is widespread in the tech industry and the use of foreign workers in the United States facilitates such practices. Neopatents CEO JiNan Glasgow says she can afford to pay what is needed, but that her best hires and most productive employees are recent college graduates. Glasgow says they are generally more familiar with the latest technology, adapt readily to change, are more creative, and try new things. Middle-aged hires have not always worked out for Glasgow, who says most have dated skills and expect to be paid for experience that was not relevant to her firm. Part of the problem is that companies are increasingly locating their research and development operations closer to growth markets, particularly in Asia, adding tens of thousands of jobs in foreign markets that would otherwise go to more expensive American workers. Wadhwa says the key for aging engineers is to stay educated on new technologies.
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Semantic Web Takes a Big Step Forward
InfoWorld (01/15/08) Krill, Paul

The World Wide Web Consortium's Tuesday announcement of the publication of SPARQL query technology will be an important step forward for the Semantic Web. W3C says SPARQL allows people to concentrate on the knowledge they want rather than on the database technology or data format used to store information. SPARQL is designed to be used at Web-scale to permit queries over distributed data sources independent of format. "[SPARQL is] the query language and protocol for the Semantic Web," says Lee Feigenbaum, chair of W3C's Resource Description Framework Data Access Working Group. The SPARQL spec interoperates with other W3C Semantic Web technologies, including RDF, RDF Schema, Web Ontology Language, and Gleaning Resource Descriptions from Dialects of Languages, which is used to automatically extract Semantic Web data from documents. The consortium says the Semantic Web is supposed to facilitate the global sharing, merging, and reusing of data. "The basic idea of the Semantic Web is take the idea of the Web, which is effectively a linked set of documents around the world, and apply it to data," says Feigenbaum. The primary function of the Semantic Web is to comprise a massive set of databases that can be combined, says W3C representative Ian Jacobs.
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Who Invented the Firewall?
Dark Reading (01/15/08) Higgins, Kelly Jackson

Numerous computer experts can lay claim to inventing the firewall. Nir Zuk says he developed the technology that is used in all firewalls, and David Pensak claims to have built the first commercially successful firewall. William Cheswick and Steven Bellovin wrote a book on firewalls in 1994 at AT&T Bell labs and built a circuit-level gateway and developed packet-filtering technology, though they do not claim to have invented the firewall. Marcus Ranum says his reputation as inventor of the firewall is just a marketing trick and that David Presotto deserves the credit. Regardless, all of these security experts, along with Jeff Mogul, Paul Vixie, Brain Reid, Fred Avolio, Brent Chapman, and others were associated with the development of firewall technology. Gartner's John Pescatore says Cheswick and Bellovin were the fathers of the network firewall concepts, using packet filtering to deny everything except what is explicitly allowed, while Ranum was the father of DEC SEAL, the first firewall product. Today, some of the firewall's creators are no longer big supporters of the technology. Cheswick, a lead member of the technical staff at AT&T Research, says he has not personally used a firewall since the 1990s. "They are an economic solution to weak host security. I want to see stronger host security," says Cheswick, who adds that firewalls still have a place but are simply another network element. Steven Bellovin agrees. "The firewall as Bill and I described it in 1994 in our book is obsolete," says Bellovin, now a professor of computer science at Columbia University. He says having a guard at the front door when there are thousands of backdoors into a network does not work. "I'm not saying get rid of it at the door. It provides a low-grade access control for low-value resources," Bellovin says. "But the real access control [should be] at the host."
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Google's Answer to Wikipedia
Technology Review (01/15/08) Schrock, Andrew

Google recently announced Knol, an experimental Web site that allows individual authors to create subject pages on topics of interest or expertise. Knol is seen as a response to Wikipedia, but will differ from Wikipedia in that pages will not be open for anyone to contribute to. Knol articles will have individual authors that will list their credentials, including work history, institutional affiliation, along with references to build credibility. Individual topics may have multiple pages by different authors, allowing Web users to read multiple but possible conflicting viewpoints on a subject. Currently, participation in Knol is by invitation only, but Google may eventually make Knol open to the public. "A Knol on a particular topic is meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic will want to read," says Google's Udi Manber. Wikipedia's Mark Pellegrini sees several problems with Knol. "I think what will happen is that you'll end up with five or 10 articles," Pellegrini says, "none of which is as comprehensive as if the people who wrote them had worked together on a single article." Pellegrini says Knol authors will tend to link to other articles they have written, but ignore other people's work on the subject, and that Knol articles could end up being less complete than if they were written by a community of authors. However, Google has a major advantage in that it may pay Knol authors if the pages attract a large number of visitors and advertisers are willing to publish ads on Knol pages.
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Monkey's Thoughts Propel Robot, a Step That May Help Humans
New York Times (01/15/08) P. D3; Blakeslee, Sandra

A Duke University team led by Dr. Miguel A.L. Nicolelis has made it possible for a monkey in North Carolina to drive a robot in Kyoto, Japan, by thought. The monkey walks a treadmill while watching the robot on a video screen, and her brain signals are picked up by an electrode implant, processed by a computer, and transmitted to the robot via a high-speed Internet connection. The computer that processes the neural signals also uses a model of the monkey's leg movements captured on video to refine the accuracy of the transmitted walking pattern. Using a reward system in which the monkey got a treat when the robot's leg movements matched her own, the researchers were able to train her to keep propelling the machine even when the treadmill--and her own leg movement--was stopped. Later experiments will add tactile sensation through neuronal microstimulation so that the animal can feel the robot's feet touching the ground. Nicolelis believes this research could one day lead to a brain-machine interface that might enable paralytics to gain mobility by thought. Most experimentation will use only animals as test subjects, at least until a safe way to implant electrodes in human brains is found.
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Voters Respond Favorably to Touch Screen Voting Equipment
University of Michigan News Service (01/14/08) Wadley, Jared

New research by the University of Michigan, the University of Maryland, and the University of Rochester indicates that voters have more confidence that paperless, touch-screen systems will record their vote accurately, and that voters focus more on what affects their voting experience than on potential fraud, the opposite of what is valued by many computer scientists, voting activists, and a growing number of election administration officials. "Casting a ballot may seem simple, but the interactions between voters and voting system interfaces are complex," says University of Michigan professor Michael Traugott. "The more effort involved in voting, the less satisfied voters are with the experience." The study of voting technology examined six voting systems, including paper ballot/optical scan, manual advance touch screen, auto advance touch screen with paper, dial and buttons machine, a full-face membrane with buttons, and a zoomable touch screen prototype not available to the public. The study included responses from 1,540 voters who cast ballots on each machine. Paper ballots and standard touch screens are more accurate when people are casting multiple votes for the same race, however, paper ballots do not work well when the voter needs to change a vote or write in a candidate. "We observed that voters can get quite lost in the voting process and when they do, the chances are greater they will not recover, ultimately voting for no one or a candidate other than they intended," says University of Michigan professor Frederick Conrad.
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Brain-Controlled Computer Switches on in a Heartbeat
New Scientist (01/10/08) Simonite, Tom

Researchers at Graz University of Technology, Austria, say physically disabled people need to be able to turn on brain-computer interfaces (BCI) without assistance if the devices are to truly be useful and give them greater freedom. Graz University researcher Reinhold Scherer has started testing ideas that would allow a BCI user to turn on the device unassisted. "We want these interfaces to improve quality of life and give independence," Scherer says. "But every time you want to use them you rely on others." Slawomir Nasuto, who works on BCIs at Reading University, admits that little thought has been given to this problem, but BCIs cannot be left on indefinitely. "Without switching a BCI on and off, its operation may yield quite undesired effects," Nasuto says. "Unintended operation of a device can be tiring and de-motivational for the end user." Using brain signals to wake a BCI from a standby mode is not practical because identifying the correct signal from a stream of normal brain activity is too difficult, but Scherer believes another biological signal could be the answer. In recent experiments, Scherer and his colleagues tested if voluntary spikes in heart rates could turn on a BCI. Test subjects created spikes by breathing rapidly for a short period, while software compared the heart rate to one recorded at rest. The 10 volunteers were able to turn on the BCI, control a prosthetic hand, and turn the device off again four times. However, during 30 minutes of testing there were 2.9 false positive "on" signals.
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Tool Allows Emergency Personnel to Track Resources
Georgia Institute of Technology (01/16/08) Vogel, Abby

The Geographic Tool for Visualization and Collaboration (GTVC), a collaborative mapping tool developed by the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is helping emergency management officials better coordinate event and incident planning and response. GTRI has developed a resource database designed to identify, activate, track, and coordinate emergency response resources. "A lot of mapping systems are pretty complex to operate. Our system was deliberately designed to be easy to use for people who are not mapping experts," says Kirk Pennywitt, a senior research engineer in GTRI's Information Technology and Telecommunications Laboratory. GTVC was originally intended for military applications when development began in 2000, but it has since been redesigned for emergency management and first responders. GTVC can track chemical or smoke plumes, help plan evacuation routes during emergencies such as hurricanes, fires, or flooding, and track resources including the locations of hospitals, fire stations, schools, nursing homes, sand bags, dump trucks, water, personnel, and other supplies. The map can also track the status of those assets, such as the number of beds available in a hospital. GTVC can track resources in real time and can alert emergency personnel to new incidents.
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Software That Grades Handwritten Essays May Boost Comprehension, Too
University at Buffalo News (01/14/08) Goldbaum, Ellen

University at Buffalo computer scientists and researchers are developing a computational tool that could significantly reduce the time it takes to grade handwritten essays, as well as improve students' reading comprehension skills. The software under development is being designed to work with the standardized English Language Arts exams administered every year by the public school systems in every state, and could eventually relieve teachers of the task of grading the children's essays. Preliminary results with the software will be published in the February/March issue of Artificial Intelligence. Using handwritten essays from eighth graders in Buffalo's public schools, the software was able to grade the essays within one point of the score teachers gave the essays on a six point scale 70 percent of the time. Sargur N. Srihari, director of UB's Center of Excellence in Document Analysis and Recognition, says the software involves two significant artificial intelligence problems, handwriting recognition and an artificial neural network for automated grading. "In this method, the system 'learns' from a set of answers that were scored already by humans, associating different values or scores with different features in the essays," Srihari says. Although some teachers may doubt a computer's ability to accurately grade essays, James L. Collins, UB education professor and co-investigator, says, "Computational linguistics has made great leaps over the past decade and it turns out that for judging the overall quality of a paper, computers are indeed as reliable as human graders."
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Torvalds Breaks Down Linux
Network World (01/10/08) Fontana, John

Linux creator Linus Torvalds says Linux development is more like a social network built on trusted relationships than a democratic community dedicated to a single development process. "I have a policy that he who does the code gets to decide," Torvalds says. He has written approximately 2 percent of the Linux code since creating the operating system in 1990. Torvalds says the "Linux community" does not refer to a big, happy open source family, but rather that the development process is managed by numerous groups with different ideals and goals. "But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is actual code and the technology itself," says Torvalds, adding that anyone unwilling to step up does not have a say in the project. Torvalds also does not see Linux as a part of a greater cause. "To other people it is," Torvalds says. "I mean, it's actually one of the things I found to be interesting is how people use Linux in ways that I didn't start out designing it for and sometimes use it for things that I really don't care about personally that much." Torvalds says that companies and individuals need to build trust to be valued in the open source process. "What happens is people know," Torvalds says. "They've seen other people do work over the last months or years, in some cases decades, and they know that, 'OK, I can trust this person. When he sends me a patch, it's probably the right thing to do even if I don't understand quite why' and you kind of build up this network."
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Graphite Pencilled in to Replace Silicon Transistors
New Scientist (01/14/08)No. 2638, P. 24; Palmer, Jason

Yakov Kopelevich and Pablo Esquinazi of the State University of Campinas in Brazil believe graphite is a logical candidate to replace silicon transistors in computers, considering researchers have been optimistic about the potential of graphene. However, concerns about graphene, the hexagonal arrays of carbon atoms in sheets one atom thick, remain because the sheets tend to curl up and react with surrounding substances. Graphite has adjacent layers that prevent its multiple stacks of graphene sheets from curling up, its conductivity can be changed using a magnetic field, and current can move through it as if it was carried by the massless "particles" known as Dirac fermions. Such properties are key for quantum computing. Silicon transistors are shrinking while the number of transistors placed on computer chips grows, and will become less efficient. Still, some researchers question whether graphite offers the same properties as graphene. Millie Dresselhaus, a nano-electronics specialist at MIT, is unsure if researchers would be able to tune the electronic properties of graphite for a specific application as easily as graphene.
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Q&A: Ohio Secretary of State Looks Anew at E-Voting
Computerworld (01/14/08) Friedman, Brad

In the "Evaluation & Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards & Testing" (EVERST) report, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner made several suggestions to Ohio Governor Ted Strickland and state legislators, including eliminating direct-recording electronic (DRE) touch-screen machines and switching to a centralized ballot counting system. During a recent interview Brunner detailed various findings of the report and described some of the report's results, including potential weaknesses with optical-scan units. Brunner says that several independent, parallel tests were conducted, including tests by academic researchers and corporate scientists, and that the independent tests generated similar and sometimes identical results. Eventually, Brunner believes that voters should use a decentralized counting system, but because e-voting security is currently so weak, a centralized system should be used. Brunner says that a major problem with optical-scan machines is the ability to turn off the scanner's memory, which would cause the machine to continue to scan ballots but not record the votes. "Still, if you were to take the report and assign the numbers of risk to each component in the system, I think you're going to see that the greatest number of risks are with the DRE systems," Brunner says. Brunner says her biggest goal is restoring and ensuring voter confidence.
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MIT Gas Sensor Is Tiny, Quick
MIT News (01/10/08) Trafton, Anne

MIT professor Akintunde Ibitayo Akinwande is leading the development of tiny sensors that could be used to detect minute quantities of hazardous gases much faster than currently available devices. The researchers have taken the common gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC-MS) techniques and shrunk them to fit in a device the size of a computer mouse. Eventually, the team plans to build a detector the size of a matchbox. Akinwande says scaling down gas detectors makes them easier to use in a real-world environment, reduces the amount of power they require, and enhances their sensitivity to trace amounts of gases. Current GC-MS machines take about 15 minutes to produce results, are about the size of a full paper grocery bag, and use 10,000 joules of energy. The new device consumes about four joules and can produce results in about four seconds. Shrinking the device will also allow for precision manufacturing through microfabrication and batch-fabrication for inexpensive production. Akinwande and MIT research scientist Luis Velasquez-Garcia plan on presenting their work at the Micro Electro Mechanical Systems 2008 conference.
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Dan's Cloudy Crystal Ball
HPC Wire (01/11/08) Vol. 17, No. 2, Reed, Daniel

With research and infrastructure funding barely keeping up with inflation, computational and computer science will continue to limp along, which makes it all the more critical that advocates keep stressing the importance of science and computing as enablers of economic expansion, national innovation, and education, writes Microsoft strategist and science and technology advisor Daniel Reed. He observes that our operations and maintenance costs have grown in lockstep with our high-performance computing systems and software infrastructures, and notes that the National Science Foundation and its Office of Cyberinfrastructure are attempting to strike a balance between demands for new investments from the community and infrastructure sustenance. "Because so much of science now depends on computing, we must take a more holistic view of investment, examining scientific and technology priorities across all of the U.S. Federal agency portfolio and coordinating budgets accordingly," Reed argues, pointing out that this is one of the core recommendations of a recent President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report on computing. Reed says he discussed with the OCI advisory committee the possibility of outsourcing research infrastructure and data management to industrial partners, acknowledging that privacy, security, quality of service, and pricing issues must be considered. "All of this is part of the still ill-formed and evolving notion of cloud computing, where massive datacenters host storage farms and computing resources, with access via standard web APIs," Reed writes. "In a very real sense, this is the second coming of grids, but backed by more robust software and hardware of enormously larger scale."
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New Threshold for Network Use
Government Computer News (01/07/08) Vol. 27, No. 1, Jackson, Joab

Traditional percolation theory holds that a network is considered functional as long as one workable path is available, but in a recent paper in Physical Review Letters researchers offered a new variant of percolation theory dubbed Limited Path Percolation that takes into account how long it would take a message to get to its destination. The longer it takes the less useful the path is, says study co-author Eduardo Lopez, a researcher at the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory. "If I'm routing something and it has to go a longer route, due to localized failures, then what are the limits of this?" Lopez says. The Limited Path Percolation variant considers all of the surviving nodes, as well as how much longer it would take to traverse them. The researchers argue that the network becomes less valuable the longer it takes, and suggest that the threshold of users is determined by how tolerant they are of delays. "The interesting point is not when the percolation threshold is reached, but rather when the network stops becoming efficient," says study co-author Roni Parshani, a graduate student at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.
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Self-Powered Nanotech
Scientific American (01/08) Vol. 298, No. 1, P. 82; Wang, Zhong Lin

Extremely small nanosize machines could be driven by systems that harness waste energy--such as vibrations or the human pulse--from their surroundings, writes director of the Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for Nanostructure Characterization Zhong Lin Wang. That energy could be drawn and transmitted to nanodevices by arrays of piezoelectric nanowires. Wang and his team have conceived of a nanogenerator comprised of an array of vertical zinc oxide nanowires boasting both piezoelectric and semiconducting properties, crowned by an electrode with a ridged underside that moves laterally in response to external forces. When they bend back and forth, the nanowires build up a voltage from the compressive and tensile strains on their sides, and the alternating current is rectified and emitted as direct current by the semiconductor nanowires and the conductive electrode. Wang speculates that a biocompatible substrate would be provided by conductive polymers. The nanogenerator cannot be practically viable until its performance is dramatically improved so that the nanowires continuously and concurrently produce electricity that is effectively collected and distributed. Upcoming research challenges include growing perfectly uniform nanowire arrays that generate electricity and extending the arrays' operational life. Wang concludes that nanowire arrays can function as excellent generators for devices that only have to operate sporadically.
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