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January 25, 2008

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Welcome to the January 25, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Frances Allen: A Pioneer in High-Performance Computing
University of California, Berkeley (01/23/08) Bronstein, Nancy

Frances Allen's career spans most of the history of computer science, and Allen's work has helped shape the field in numerous ways. Allen was the first woman to be named an IBM Fellow in 1989, and in 2006 she became the first woman to receive the ACM A.M. Turing Award. Allen started her career as a high-school math teacher, but stayed only two years before joining IBM to teach the new Fortran language to scientists. "To do that I had to learn the language and convince the scientists to learn it too, because, like it or not, they would have to use it that next September," Allen says. "I became my own best student, totally intrigued by language, compiler, and computer systems." Much of Allen's early work was in compiler optimization, which is considered by some to be an arcane specialty now. Allen says she was inspired by her experience teaching Fortran and by the two goals for the Fortran project laid out by John Backus, who led that project. "The first was that Fortran had to enable users to be more productive by spending less time writing and debugging programs," Allen says. "The second was that Fortran programs had to run almost as fast as hand-coded programs, and do so nearly every time. His goals became my career goals." Allen says computers are becoming increasingly parallel machines, with groups of processors connected in parallel using software that divides tasks between processors. "Parallelism is no longer specialized to big scientific problems, so from the technological point of view, it's where we must work," she says. When asked what her greatest adventure was, Allen, who has explored several uncharted areas of the Arctic and the Chinese/Tibetan border, responded, "Beyond a doubt, it's my 50 years in computing." For more on Frances Allen, or to view her Turing Award lecture, visit: http://awards.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1012327&srt=all&aw=140&ao=AMTURING
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Tech Vacancies Languish on Immigration Snag
The Politico (01/21/08) Frates, Chris

A coalition of trade groups, educators, companies, and researchers want to increase the number of visas available to highly-skilled foreign workers, as companies, particularly in the tech sector, have thousands of job openings that they have been unable to fill, says Oracle's Robert Hoffman. Hoffman, co-chairman of the Compete America coalition, says there is a false choice between bringing in foreign workers and not hiring American workers. "We like to hire the most talented U.S.-born workers we can find and the most talented foreign workers we can find," Hoffman says, "and we think that helps us as an American company." Hoffman and Compete America is urging lawmakers to reissue the roughly 300,000 highly-skilled worker visas and 140,000 green cards granted between 2001 and 2003 that were approved but never used. The coalition would also like to increase the number of highly-skilled worker visas available to those with master's and doctorate degrees from American universities, which is currently limited to 20,000. "Immigration is kind of like the common cold," Hoffman says. "It's clear we're not going to cure it, but we can at least deal with its effects this year."
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No, the Tech Skills Shortage Doesn't Exist
InformationWeek (01/14/08)No. 1168, P. 37; Hira, Ron

Numerous executives in the technology industry, including Microsoft's Bill Gates and Intel's Craig Barrett, claim there is a severe shortage of IT workers in the United States, but they may be misrepresenting IT labor market conditions to support their efforts to hire foreign workers, writes Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira. By definition, exceptional talent and skills in emerging technologies will always be in short supply, as newer technology has fewer experts. A better indicator of the tightness in any labor market is wages, Hira says, specifically whether wages are rising significantly faster than normal. Department of Labor data compiled by the Commission on Professionals in Science & Technology shows that IT worker wages grew by a modest 2.9 percent in constant dollar terms from 2003 to 2005. Although that increase is larger than the average 0.6 percent growth in all professional occupations, the gains for IT workers do not indicate significant employee shortages. The National Association for Colleges & Employers reports that salaries for entry-level jobs in IT rose from $50,774 in 2006 to $53,051 in 2007, an increase of 4.5 percent, but that increase is almost completely consumed by inflation, which was about 4.3 percent in 2007. Employer practices have shifted dramatically as well, Hira says. He says companies today do not think twice about outsourcing IT work or bringing in lower-cost foreign labor, often asking current employees to train their replacements. Intel's Barrett recently wrote an op-ed piece on the shortage of U.S. workers when his own company has had major layoffs in recent years, cutting 14 percent of its workforce over the past two years. Hira's article was part of a editorial debate on the state of the IT job market. To read his remarks in their entirety, visit: http://www.informationweek.com/story/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=205601556. To read the counterargument, visit: http://www.informationweek.com/story/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=205601557
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All-Mail Vote in Colorado Isn't Needed, Governor Says
New York Times (01/24/08) P. A18; Johnson, Kirk

Coloradans will be able to cast paper ballots at regular polling places in November, under a bill that Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. (D) expects to introduce in the next few days in the state's Democrat-controlled General Assembly. Ritter's one-year emergency repair plan for the state's voting system has bipartisan sponsors. Uncertainty began to surround the election when concerns about the accuracy or security of electronic voting prompted Secretary of State Mike Coffman (R) to decertify many of the state's e-voting machines. The General Assembly is also considering other legislation that focuses on recertifying the e-voting machines for the purpose of offering access to disabled voters, and for getting ballot-scanning devices back up and running in time for the election. Ritter says the state will not move to an all-mail system, which has been an option for Colorado voters since 1992. He says developing an all-mail system would be like "building an airplane in the air."
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Computer Vision May Not Be as Good as Thought, According to MIT Study
MIT News (01/24/08) Delude, Cathryn M.

Recent advancements in computer vision may not be as successful as originally believed because the tests being used are inadvertently stacked in favor of computers, concludes a new MIT study. Recent computational models of computer vision show seemingly impressive progress, with success rates as high as 60 percent when classifying natural photographic image sets, including the widely used Caltech101 database, which tests computer vision algorithms against a variety of images seen in the real world. However, researchers at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research say these image sets have design flaws that enable computers to succeed when they would fail with more authentically varied images. "The ease with which we recognize visual objects belies the computational difficulty of this feat," says James DiCarlo, a neuroscientist at the Institute. "The core challenge is image variation." The researchers exposed the flaws in current computer object recognition tests by using a simple "toy" computer model inspired by the earliest steps in the brain's visual pathway. The researchers expected the toy model to fail, as a way to establish a baseline, but it actually performed surprisingly well on the Caltech101 images. Following a second test the model failed despite needing to identify only two objects. The researchers concluded that the model did well not because it is a good model but because Caltech101's "natural" images fail to capture real-world variability. The researchers suggest revamping current standards and images used by the computer vision community.
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New Website Advances the Science of Turning 2-D Into 3-D
Stanford Report (01/23/08) Orenstein, David

Stanford University computer scientists have developed Make3d, an algorithm that can take any two-dimensional image and create a three-dimensional "fly around" model of the image, allowing people to view an image from a variety of perspectives. "The algorithm uses a variety of visual cues that humans use for estimating the 3D aspects of a scene," says Stanford computer science doctoral student Ashutosh Saxena, who developed the Make3d Web site computer science professor Andrew Ng. The researchers say the technology could be used for enhancing pictures on online real estate sites to rapidly creating environments for video games and improving the vision and dexterity of mobile robots. Make3d uses "machine learning" to create accurate and smooth 3D models and can render objects on planes at any angle. To "teach" the algorithm about depth, the researchers fed the algorithm still images of campus scenes along with 3D information of the same scenes collected with laser scanners. The algorithm combined the two pieces of information to establish trends and patterns associated with depth. To create 3D images, the algorithm breaks an image into "superpixels," which are within the image and have very uniform color, brightness, and other attributes. By comparing a superpixel to its neighbors, the algorithm can determine how far the object is from the viewer and what its orientation in space is.
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Robotics Competition Seeks to Mentor High Schoolers
EE Times (01/24/08) Mokhoff, Nicolas

Segway inventor Dean Kamen is looking to the next generation of students to help develop the "next big thing" through the 17th annual First (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics competition, which takes place at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta from April 17-19. The competition is designed to help high schoolers discover the rewards of science, engineering, and technology. This year, over 37,500 students on more than 1,500 teams from every state, as well as Brazil, Canada, Chile, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom will participate in the competition. The teams were shown this year's challenge in January and given a common kit that includes motors, batteries, a control system, and various automation parts. Students receive no instructions, but are allowed to work with mentors to design, build, and test their robots. The teams then compete in regional competitions that measure the effectiveness of each robot. This year's competition requires students to design robots that can race around a track and knock down 40-inch inflated trackballs, or move them around the track with an overpass. "We need technology professionals to show kids they have more options," Kamen says. "They need to help young people discover the excitement and rewards of education and careers in science and technology."
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Profs Push for Major Uniting Computers, Art
Yale Daily News (01/25/08) Torbati, June

Yale computer science professors Julie Dorsey, Paul Hudak, and Holly Rushmeier are working with Yale arts professors to create a Computing in the Arts major, which would use the tools of computer science to develop software for and solve problems in five different arts fields. "There are all sorts of examples of combinations of technology and art and architecture," Hudak says. "Many of these jobs require skills in both areas." Hudak, Dorsey, and Rushmeier say their proposal, which could be approved as early as Feb. 7, has been met by "universal enthusiasm" from administrators. Music department professor Daniel Harrison says he immediately saw the potential benefits of such a major. "It's a great way to build bridges between artistic creation and computational methods and techniques," Harrison says. According to the proposal, few new courses would be needed to create the major. Students would be required to take 14 courses, seven in computer science and seven in one of the arts disciplines. The major would include a senior project in which students combine both fields. Although many schools offer digital media majors, the computer science classes in these majors are often "watered down," Dorsey says. Yale's major would require all students to take standard computer science classes.
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Louisiana University Research Team Receives Grant to Develop CyberTools
Supercomputing Online (01/23/08)

Faculty researchers from nine Louisiana universities has been awarded a $9 million National Science Foundation grant, along with matching funds of $3 million from the Board of Regents Support Fund and $3.2 million from participating institutions, to develop new cyber tools that will enable significant advances in science and engineering. "This grant will allow Louisiana university researchers to capitalize on the state's recent investments in cyberinfrastructure," says Joseph Savoie, the Commissioner of Higher Education. "The project will take full advantage of the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative (LONI), the high-speed optic network that connects supercomputers at our major universities and research centers and links Louisiana to the National Lambda Rail, one of the nation's most advanced grid-based, distributing and computing infrastructures." The grant is the third consecutive $9 million Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) award Louisiana has received from the NSF's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). Louisiana EPSCoR program project director Michael Khonsari says the RII project will develop new cyber tools for high-performance computing, advanced networking, and data management that will advance the capabilities of Louisiana's university researchers. "It will give the investigators greater access to an advanced research tool that will allow them to conduct many more tests in a much shorter period of time and with better results than traditional screening techniques," Khonsari says.
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IT Jobs Coalition to Lobby for Immigration Changes
Computerworld Canada (01/22/08) Schick, Shane

Every IT manager position that goes unfilled costs the Canadian economy more than $160,000 a year, while the monetary loss of most vacant IT jobs averages about $100,000, with open software engineering positions costing more than $150,000, and network operations staff positions costing about $106,000, concludes a new Conference Board of Canada report. The report calculated the economic impact of skill shortages in 15 technology-related positions using wages, profit-per-employee, and other indirect effects such as how IT professionals spend their money. A coalition of firms formed last month will use the study to lobby for changes in foreign immigration policy. The coalition, spearheaded by Bell Canada, was working with universities and schools to change perceptions of IT as a profession and to develop better curricula, but immigration policy is key to filling new jobs and jobs that will become vacant from retiring baby boomers in a few years. The coalition has yet to outline specific immigration policy changes, but say the first step is to make people understand how bad the problem is. Bell is also working on its own program, call First Jobs, which will attempt to streamline the hiring process for immigrants with suitable qualifications. The Conference Board's Michael Bloom notes that IT jobs pay about 45 more than other Canadian jobs, and suggests that computer science would be more appealing to students if it were combined with other popular majors such as environmental science.
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Computer Learns to Out-Munch Humans at Pac-Man
New Scientist (01/22/08) Mullins, Justin

A computer program that has developed its own tactics for playing Ms. Pac-Man slightly outperforms average human players. Andras Lorincz and Istvan Szita at Eotvos University in Budapest, Hungary, are behind the Ms. Pac-Man program, which was given a selection of possible scenarios, such as "if ghost nearby," and possible actions, such as "move away." The program came up with rules by randomly combining scenarios with actions, then played Ms. Pac-Mac with the random combinations to determine the effectiveness of the rules. The program went on to set priorities for handling conflicting rules, and it decided that the most important rule was not to get eaten by the ghosts, with the next being to track down edible ghosts. The researchers are using the Ms. Pac-Man program to analyze the weaknesses of artificial intelligence compared to human intelligence for video games. "Games are interesting and challenging for human intelligence and therefore an ideal means to explore what artificial intelligence is still missing," the researchers say. For example, the program did not evolve the common human tactic of waiting for ghosts to approach before eating a power dot, with hopes of eating as many edible ghosts as possible.
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Palpable Computing: A Taste of Things to Come
ICT Results (01/21/08)

"Palpable computing," a term coined by University of Aarhus researcher Morten Kyng, refers to pervasive computer technology that is also tangible and comprehensible to users, in contrast to "ubiquitous computing," which is based on the idea of making computers invisible. "The problem is that when the technology is invisible you can't see what it is doing, how it functions, or comprehend it," Kyng says. He says the invisibility of ubiquitous computing can be a serious, even life-threatening problem in some cases. Communication failures during emergencies that are not easily fixed can cost lives, as can interoperability failures in hospital equipment. Palpable computing aims to make the technology visible when it needs to be, and understandable all the time, reducing the complications associated with using technology and making it easier for developers to create new applications. Over the last four years, Kyng and a group of more than 100 researchers from across Europe have developed a software architecture for palpable computing systems and a toolbox for developers to create applications that has been made available under an open source license. The researchers also developed several test platforms. "The potential uses for palpable computing are diverse, although initially I think the key markets will be in areas, such as emergency response and health care, where there is an urgent need for increasingly more efficient and effective technology," Kyng says.
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A 'Swift' Kick to the Secure Development Process
Dark Reading (01/18/08) Spande, Nathan

Developers will be able to easily create secure, robust, and high-performance Web applications using a new system called Swift. Developed by a group at Cornell University, Swift allows developers to write code using a variant of Java, applying sensitivity labels to variables. Developers then feed the code into a series of programs that use the labels to determine which code is to reside on the server, on the client, and in both places. The code handles synchronization, and translates the requisite client code into JavaScript. The resulting application will not be as fast as an optimally designed system, but the performance cost should be minimal. Client code is generated using the Google Web Toolkit with fixes transparently adopted by a simple recompilation, and although the code is exposed to any bugs in the toolkit, developers are able to use a suitable client-side framework due to the loose coupling of the front end. Swift was the subject of a paper at the 2007 ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles.
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Computer-Based Tool Aids Research, Helps Thwart Questionable Publication Practices
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (01/23/08)

University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center researchers have developed eTBLAST, a computer-based text-searching tool that can rapidly compare multiple documents in a database, providing a more efficient way of executing literature searches, and helping scientific journal editors catch and prevent questionable publication practices. ETBLAST automatically finds and marks publications that are highly similar, says UT Southwestern professor Harold Garner, who developed the computer code along with his colleagues. ETBLAST can identify the duplication of key words as well as word proximity and order, along with other variables. The tool can be used to analyze unpublished abstracts or project ideas to find previous publications on the topic or to identify possible collaborators, or to help journal editors find potentially plagiarized or duplicate articles submitted for publication. In the first phase of study, eTBLAST analyzed more than 62,000 abstracts from the past 12 years from the Medline database Medline. The program found that 0.04 percent of papers with no shared authors were highly similar and could represent potential plagiarism. That percentage, when extrapolated to the 17 million scientific papers currently cited in the database, could mean there are as many as 7,000 cases of potential plagiarism. "Our objective in this research is to make a significant impact on how scientific publications may be handled in the future," Garner says.
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English as You've Never Seen It Before
Sky News (01/17/08) Tyldesley, Hazel

MIT computer scientists Antonio Torralba, Rob Fergus, and William T. Freeman used a computer program to find the visual that best represents each of the 53,463 nouns in the English language, after entering each word into various image search engines. Each noun generated an average of 140 pictures, and the researchers collected approximately 80 million pictures in all. The researchers have produced a detailed map, with each word represented by a colored square. "For some, the average turns out to be a recognizable image; for others the average is a colored blob," say the researchers. Related nouns were grouped together, and viewers will see the words "cantaloupe" and "pumpkin" near each other, represented as a blurry circular orange image. The project is another example of how people can recognize objects and scenes when the quality of the pictures is poor, the researchers say.
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Interview: OLPC's Michail Bletsas
Gearlog (01/21/08)

Despite the initial, nearly universal praise of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, critics have been quick to point out what they perceive to be flaws in the organization, and the project has seen a fair amount of problems, including a lawsuit filed by the patent holders of a Nigerian keyboard, the exit of the company's chief technology officer, the end of the successful Give One, Get One program, and a public falling out with one-time supporter Intel. OLPC chief connectivity officer Michail Bletsas says the Nigerian keyboard lawsuit has no basis. He notes that OLPC uses X Window on the laptop, which has its own keyboard-mapping technology, so OLPC did not reverse-engineer the keyboard controller firmware as the patent holder claims. When asked about competition in the industry, Bletsas responded, "I think to us it's very clear. We're trying to get laptops in the hands of kids, with the lowest cost possible. If somebody can beat us, fine. But don't treat the kids as a market. Treat them as a mission," he says. "We would like to focus more on how to improve education using those PCs, but, in order to get to that step, we have to get those PCs into the hands of kids, and that's what we're trying to enable, right now."
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Ben Schneiderman: Visualize Data
Government Computer News (01/21/08) Vol. 27, No. 2, Walsh, Trudy

University of Maryland computer science professor Ben Schneiderman says in an interview that the visual nature of the computer and the Web has exciting possibilities for the presentation and dissemination of information. He agrees that the Web is changing people's visual thinking, noting the way that filmmaking skills have spread and advanced thanks to innovations such as Flickr and YouTube. Schneiderman says U.S. government agencies' mapping efforts are good examples of information visualization applications, and cites housing prices and changes over time as key areas where the government could apply information visualization further. He says government Web sites could be improved through the use of compact visual design that displays a lot of information in a well-organized way; ceding control of visual displays such as bar charts, graphs, and maps to users; and the consideration of universal usability issues. Schneiderman says social networks also hold great potential for information visualization, pointing to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terror (START) center's retention of a global terror database as an important resource. Schneiderman says information visualization could help combat information overload in the event of a terror attack, disaster, or other emergency. "You have to find scalable approaches, and visual or graphical displays can give you a handle on what's happening," he says. "At the START center, we're working on a project that shows on a map where people are when they hit *9 on their cell phones, which sends a geolocated, time-stamped message to university security."
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New Answers for E-Learning
U.S. News & World Report (01/21/08) Vol. 144, No. 2, P. 46; Clark, Kim

The shortcomings of e-learning courses include tedium, less emphasis on education, and higher dropout rates, but some professors and schools are revamping their courses to exploit the Internet's visual and interactive potential, adopting wikis, avatars, and other Web tools to enhance the e-learning experience. Researchers say students greatly lessen their chances of dropping out of courses that offer several of the e-learning field's best practices. Among the e-learning course traits they say students should research are accreditation by approved organizations, transferability, a solid reputation, scheduling, guidance for technology, detailed syllabi, and logical grading criteria. "The evidence shows the more access, more interaction, and more opportunities for feedback learners have from instructors, the better they do," notes executive director of Michigan State's Global Online Connection Christine Geith. Easy accessibility is a key characteristic of the best online teachers. Another indicator of excellent online teachers is their ability to present information in multiple formats, and to take advantage of the Web's opportunities for interactivity and flashy graphics. Good e-learning courses cultivate student communities, which some colleges support by requiring students to post personal information on a class blog, Facebook, or Web page.
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