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ACM TechNews
March 3, 2008

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Welcome to the March 3, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Study Finds Sharp Math, Science Skills Help Expand Economy
Wall Street Journal (03/03/08) P. A2; Murray, Sara

Raising U.S. students' math and science skills to the level of the world's leaders would increase the gross domestic product by about two-thirds of a percentage point, concludes an Education Next study. Stanford University professor and study co-author Eric Hanushek says studies that tie economic growth to the number of years of education are faulty because a year of schooling in some countries is not equal to what a student in the United States learns. The National Governors Association made a similar call about two decades ago, estimating that sharply improving math and science skills by 2000 would have boosted GDP two percentage points today and 4.5 percentage points by 2015. "Had we figured out some way to improve our schools, or do what we could to improve the learning of our students, we would be a lot better off today," Hanushek says. Although states develop their own curriculum, math is more likely to be standardized than science. Some observers believe student performance can be improved by creating national standards for math and science, but add that classes should not be based on passing a test.
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Enrollments and Degree Production at US CS Departments Drop Further in 2006/2007
CRA Bulletin (03/01/08) Vegso, Jay

The number of students choosing computer science and related fields as a course of study is declining, with the percentage of incoming students among all degree-granting institutions who indicated they would major in computer science falling 70 percent between the fall of 2000 and 2005. Between the 2005/2006 and 2006/2007 academic years, enrollments fell 18 percent. The total number of bachelor's degrees granted by Ph.D.-granting computer science departments dropped 43 percent to 8,021 between 2003/2004 and 2006/2007. The consistently low numbers in total enrollments and student interest in computer science as a major indicates that degree production will continue to fall over the next few years. Still, computer science enrollment is historically uneven. The National Science Foundation reports that from 1980 to 1986 undergraduate computer science graduates quadrupled to more than 42,000, which was followed by a swift decline and plateau during the 1990s. The economic downturn and slow job growth during the early 2000s likely contributed to the recent decline in computer science graduates.
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Photo Industry Braces for Another Revolution
CNet (03/03/08) Shankland, Stephen

The exploitation of how computers can use sensor data either within the camera or on a PC forms the basis of the next photo industry revolution, which researchers are calling computational photography. One notable research area is the use of a computer to stitch together multiple photos into a single composite image of the same scene. MotionDSP software combines multiple images by exploiting the fact that multiple frames of a video record the same subject matter, and processing that can generate an image whose fidelity is superior to that of any individual frame. MIT's Rob Fergus has been developing software to eliminate blur in photos distorted by camera shake, examine photos to deduce how the camera shook when the picture was taken, then facilitate those changes. Another area of research involves the employment of computational processing to render a scene in three dimensions, and potential applications of this technology include not only 3D hologram images, but making the camera capable of optimizing focus and exposure for each individual shot. Stanford University researchers have devised a camera that can gauge depth through the use of hundreds of minuscule lenses over the sensor pixels, while Refocus Imaging has created a technology that produces data files that can be processed to focus the camera after the shot has been taken. The foundation of Refocus Imaging's technology is the light field concept, and Adobe Systems' Kevin Connor thinks light field technology will be a built-in component of cameras. Adobe has developed a prototype camera with a plenoptic lens that can help produce a 3D representation of a scene via the processing of the subimages captured by the lens' constituent lenses.
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Japan Looks to a Robot Future
Associated Press (03/02/08) Tabuchi, Hiroko

Engineering students at Meiji University in Japan are programming a rubbery robotic face to respond to different words with different expressions, including anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and disgust. "To live among people, robots need to handle complex social tasks," says project leader Junichi Takeno. "Robots will need to work with emotions, to understand and eventually feel them." In Japan, robots can make sushi, plant rice and tend paddies, serve as receptionists, vacuum office hallways, serve tea, feed the elderly, and greet company guests and tourists in public areas. The need for advanced robotics in Japan is critical as more than a fifth of the population is already 65 or older, and the country is counting on robots to replenish the workforce and care for the elderly. Over the past few years, the Japanese government has funded a variety of robotics-related projects, and the government estimates that the industry could surge from about $5.2 billion in 2006 to $26 billion in 2010 and nearly $70 billion by 2025. In addition to financial and technological advantages, Japanese culture is more accepting of robotic assistants than other countries, viewing robots as friendly helpers instead of the rebellious and violent machines often seen in Western science fiction.
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IBM Promises Blazing Fast, Efficient Optical Net
TechNewsWorld (02/28/07) Noyes, Katherine

Transmitting immense files at high speed while consuming very little power is the goal of a prototype optical network technology from IBM. The company says the system could enable the wireless transmission of information at 8 terabits per second using the power of just one 100-watt light bulb, thus delivering massive volumes of energy-efficient bandwidth to a broad spectrum of devices and revolutionizing the access, usage, and exchange of information. The technology bundles optical chips and optical data buses in one package with standard components, and it complies with the bandwidth criteria for peta- and exa-flop supercomputing. IBM's optically enhanced circuit boards (Optocards) use a series of low-loss polymer optical waveguides to carry light transmitters and receivers, and the databus built with Optocards uses a large number of high-speed waveguide channels whose extremely small size allows for incredibly dense packing. IBM says this breakthrough comes from a program funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that sought to demonstrate high-bandwidth chip-to-chip interconnects via polymer waveguides integrated on a printed circuit board. With this technology, mobile phones could be equipped for high definition, supercomputers could operate with a much higher level of energy efficiency, and numerous projects and services involving the sharing of large data sets could proceed, IBM says.
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US Seeks Terrorists in Web Worlds
BBC News (03/03/08) Vallance, Chris

The U.S. government is performing observational studies on normal behavior in online worlds in hopes of eventually developing techniques and tools for uncovering the anomalous activity of terrorist groups. The recent report that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) sent to Congress mentions the project, which is codenamed Reynard. The report describes Reynard as "a seedling effort to study the emerging phenomenon of social [particularly terrorist] dynamics in virtual worlds and large-scale online games and their implications for the intelligence community." After the baseline normative behaviors are identified, Reynard will "then apply the lessons learned to determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world." The project is still in its early stages, and will be for research and not operational purposes. ODNI did not reveal which online worlds it will study, and Second Life and World of Warcraft are viewed as not offering the level of security that would attract terrorists. Experts tracking terrorist groups say it is only a matter of time before Jihad worlds emerge online for educating recruits about their techniques.
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Wireless Worms Will Follow Influenza's Example
New Scientist (02/26/08) Knight, Will

The outbreak of a wireless computer worm that spreads among portable devices like a flu epidemic is a possibility, according to a new mathematical model developed by Imperial College London researcher Christopher Rhodes and BT researcher Maziar Nekovee. Their model considers a group of people carrying Bluetooth-enabled smartphones, each of which has a fixed range for linking to other phones in the crowd. Each member of the crowd moves in a straight line and at a fixed speed, giving a phone that is contaminated by a worm a fixed likelihood of infecting other devices while they are within range. Rhodes and Nekovee's work demonstrates that a wireless worm could most efficiently proliferate in a crowded environment and also jump between geographically scattered locations, just like a real virus. "Knowledge that person-to-person contact, or rather device-to-device contact, represents a major factor in how a Bluetooth worm spreads is definitely important," says Symantec Security Response researcher Eric Chien. He adds that the disablement of non-essential Bluetooth communications during an outbreak "reduces the contact occurrences and would be analogous to wearing a surgical mask in areas of potential infection."
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Team-Based E-Learning Turns a New Page
ICT Results (02/26/08)

Collaboration between geographically dispersed student teams is the focus of a European project that has devised an online platform that combines e-learning, social networking, and project management components to help virtual teams fully leverage their practical experience. "Collaborative learning through teamwork projects need an entire project management system, but with e-learning functionality built in," says Germany L3S Research Center researcher Xuan Zhou, who is a member of the COOPER project. The project's platform delivers a virtual environment that far-flung teams can use to converse, get in touch with tutors, establish project workflows, and submit documents. The COOPER platform's flexibility is facilitated by a method known as Dynamic Process, which is mated with the WebML modeling language to allow project teams to construct their own, specially tailored project management system and workflows. The platform also integrates voice over IP and videoconferencing systems, enabling team members to speak with one another, conduct virtual meetings, or leave messages for tutors or other team members. To address the impact assessment problem inherent in project-based learning, the COOPER project's research partners are devising tools that follow a system from the Central Institute for Test Development and the Open University of the Netherlands, which includes long-term evaluation schemes. COOPER invests project results with additional value by analyzing and archiving all project output to compile a "project memory bank" that can be utilized to augment study programs and for institutions to supply public information about their curricula and innovative initiatives. Most of the COOPER platform will be freely downloadable over the Web once the project concludes in March.
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Supercomputer Unleashes Virtual 9.0 Megaquake in Pacific Northwest
University of California, San Diego (02/26/08) Tooby, Paul

Researchers led by San Diego State University seismologist Kim Olsen are using a supercomputer-powered "virtual earthquake" to create realistic, three-dimensional simulations that demonstrate the possible impacts of megathrust events on the Pacific Northwest region. The Sand Diego Supercomputing Center at UC Sand Diego and the U.S. Geological Survey are also participating in the study. During a simulation of a rupture beginning in the north and moving south along the 600-mile Cascadia Subduction Zone, the ground moved about 1.5 feet per second in Seattle, nearly six inches per second in Tacoma, Olympia, and Vancouver, and three inches per second in Portland. Additional simulations, particularly when earthquakes start in the southern part of the rupture zone, show that the ground motion under some conditions could be twice as large. The calculations required first preparing the initial conditions on the SDSC's DataStar supercomputer and then transferring the resulting information to the center's Blue Gene Data supercomputer. Olsen says the simulations show that the area could benefit from an early warning system that would allow time for protective actions before the worst shaking starts. He hopes the study will raise awareness of the possibility of a megathrust occurring at anytime in the Pacific Northwest.
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Choice of Robot Companion Depends on Personality Type
University of Hertfordshire (02/27/08)

University of Hertfordshire researchers say that people with more extroverted personalities prefer to be in the company of more humanoid robots, while introverts like to be around mechanical-looking robots. Hertfordshire's School of Computer Science brought a robot to a nearby house last year to observe how humans respond to it. "Our research allowed us to identify two broad demographics of people who have preferences," says Dr. Mick Walters, who conducted his Ph.D. project on human and robot interaction. "It seems that there are those who prefer an unobtrusive robot and then others who want a cheerier presence." Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn, who headed the team, says the researchers also sought feedback from people as it developed the People Bots. KASPAR, a humanoid robot child, will be on display at the Hertfordshire Science and Technology Research Institute Showcase.
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Facial Expression Recognition Software
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (02/25/08)

Artificial intelligence researchers at the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid have developed an algorithm capable of recognizing facial expressions in real time and categorizing them as one of six prototype expressions. The algorithm is able to process a sequence of frontal images of mocking faces, up to 30 images per second, to recognize a face's expression. The software can be applied to video sequences in realistic situations. The system analyzes facial expressions through several boxes, with each box "attached" to a part of the user's face. The boxes monitor the person's facial movements until it determines what the facial expression is by comparing captured information to different people from the Cohn-Kanade database. The system has a success rate of 89 percent and can work in adverse conditions where ambient lighting, frontal facial movements, or camera displacements create major changes in facial appearance.
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Wi-Fi Cloud Hovers Over Salt Lake City
IEEE Spectrum (02/28/08) Hsu, Jeremy

Arizona State University geographer Paul Torrens recently completed the first Wi-Fi coverage maps of Salt Lake City, an accomplishment that could help other cities establish municipal Wi-Fi systems by piggybacking on the residential and business hotspots that already exist in most cities. Torrens' maps show that private businesses and homes already cover Salt Lake City in a dense Wi-Fi cloud that could provide the foundation for integrated citywide wireless coverage without a massive investment in new infrastructure. More than 175 U.S. cities have already tried to establish citywide or partial systems, but few have succeeded in providing the coverage they promised. Using GPS, Torrens mapped 1,739 unique access points in Salt Lake City from 500,000 data samples. The information shows access points clustering around dense areas of houses and offices, as well as around the dorms at the University of Utah. Still, converting the city's wireless access points into an integrated network presents security and privacy challenges. Computer scientists at Cambridge and MIT have developed one possible solution. Using "tunnels," guests entering a public Internet gateway would be routed through the host's network to their own home IP address and back, which would slow access speeds but ensure that users sign onto the network as themselves.
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$1.8 Million Grant to Expand IU School of Education Professor's Immersive Learning Project Worldwide
Indiana University (02/25/08)

The Indiana University School of Education has been awarded a three-year, $1.8 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to expand the reach of professor Sasha Barab's Quest Atlantis project, which offers students between the ages of 9 and 12 a 3D multiuser immersive learning environment. Barab's system allows players to employ tactics they might also use in commercial games on lessons from educational research on learning and motivation, and travel to virtual destinations to conduct educational activities, where they can communicate with other users and mentors and construct virtual personas. Quest Atlantis is currently used in the United States, China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Malaysia, Turkey, and Singapore, and at the end of three years Barab expects tens of thousands of people worldwide to be using the environment, compared to 5,000 now. Barab says in an interview that the MacArthur grant "allows us ... to kind of enter that game, to bring up the quality of our software, to bring up the quality of our storylines, and then ultimately to show to the commercial industry that you can actually develop a space that will not be used by five or 600 because no budget's going to allow that, but by 30 to 40,000 kids worldwide." He points out that Quest Atlantis does not operate separately from the educator, and that the teacher's role is to collect data and make decisions on how to function in virtual environments. Barab says that Quest Atlantis' expansion to many more students throughout the world can help facilitate a transformation in learning acquisition techniques, so that children can "become critical creators, not just simply consumers of information that they're taught not to question."
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Researchers Hack 'Tamper-Proof' PIN Terminals
ZDNet UK (02/26/08) Espiner, Tom

Cambridge University researchers have successfully hacked the Ingenico i3300 and Dione Xtreme PIN terminals, which are widely used in Britain and are touted as tamper-proof. Cambridge's Saar Drimer and Steven Murdoch say the devices' anti-tampering measures can be bypassed by tapping the line of the PIN Entry Device/smartcard interface, where the data is unencrypted, using conductors linked to a logic board with a field programmable gate array through a thin wire. The Ingenico device features a user-accessible compartment to insert SIM cards that is not designed with tamper-proofing in mind. The researchers employed a paper clip as a conductor, which they inserted into the serial data line through a hole in the PCB and thus were able to capture both the PIN and card details. They also drilled into the Dione Xtreme from the rear without being detected, and tapped the data through the insertion of a 4-centimeter needle into a flat ribbon connector socket. Both terminals were certified by Visa as secure, but the researchers found that neither device complied with security standards. "What this shows is that PIN entry devices in the U.K. are very insecure," says Cambridge professor Ross Anderson. "What's more, the [device] certification process is completely defective."
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Gesture-Driven Computers
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (02/08) Chojecki, Paul; Hardzeyeu, Valiantsin

At the CeBit conference in Hannover, Germany, Fraunhofer Institute researchers will present new human-computer interfaces that demonstrate how computers can be operated by gesturing or pointing a finger. The iPoint Presenter uses a series of cameras to observe a person standing in front of a projection screen. When users start moving their hands, the computer reacts without being touched. Users can point to buttons or use gestures to manipulate virtual objects. Multipointing interaction enables users to issue commands using multiple fingers for tasks such as rotating, enlarging, or minimizing objects. Fraunhofer scientist Paul Chojecki says the iPoint Presenter is unique because it is entirely contact-free, making it ideal for use in an operating theater or during a presentation in a large auditorium. Meanwhile, researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT) are teaching computers to understand human gestures and are developing a method for automatically recognizing different hand signals. "Our work is based on optical pattern recognition," says IDMT project manager Valiantsin Hardzeyeu. "This technique mimics the way in which humans see things." A prototype containing an intelligent camera connected to a computer running IDMT pattern recognition software will be at the conference where it will record and analyze visitors' gestures, converting the hand signals into machine commands.
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An Upstart Web Catalog Challenges an Academic-Library Giant
Chronicle of Higher Education (02/22/08) Vol. 54, No. 24, P. A11; Foster, Andrea L.

Aaron Swartz's Open Library project, a free online book catalog that anyone can update, could challenge the subscription-based WorldCat, the world's largest bibliographic database. Many academic librarians are wary of the Open Library project because it will allow nonlibrarians to catalog books. However, others say the Open Library could make their collections more visible on the Web. "It really provides the potential for libraries to leap forward in terms of working with electronic books and collections of electronic books," says Oregon State University emerging technologies and services director Jeremy A. Frumkin. Swartz, only 21, already has helped write the popular RSS Web tool and helped build Reddit, a Web site that lets users rank news and other electronic content. "I saw all these great books locked up in the stacks of libraries," Swartz says. "But nobody ever found out about them, because they didn't have a spot on the Web, and people weren't browsing the stacks anymore." Open Library will go live in early March with records on 20 million books. The goal is to create a comprehensive Web page about any book ever published. Each book page will include basic information such as the author, title, and publisher, as well as links to the nearest library with a copy. There will also be links to related books, user review areas, and places to buy the book online. Following the Wikipedia model, the pages can be created or updated by anyone.
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Computing Curricula for the 21st Century
IEEE Distributed Systems Online (02/08) Vol. 9, No. 2, Kornecki, Andrew J.

As the role of software and computing grows in all areas of technology and human endeavor, it is vital that engineers are trained to understand systems holistically and take into account software, hardware, and their mutual interaction, writes Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University computer science professor Andrew J. Kornecki. The majority of computing-education programs emphasize theoretical foundations and programming skills, while placing little if any concentration on practical facets of hardware-software interactions and the real-time dependable-systems development methods that the industry demands. Therefore, software engineering practices should be incorporated into undergraduate computing programs, and complement the education of conventional computer science courses. Modern computing must involve the comprehension of complex real-world interactions and systems integration; the enforcement of engineering discipline when developing, verifying, and validating complex software-intensive systems; and understanding the real world's multidisciplinary demeanor by mixing disciplines that include control, electrical, computer, and software engineering. The close interconnections between hardware and software must be reflected in modern SE curricula, and Edsger Dijikstra wrote that computer specialists have to apply a more systems-based approach that stresses the system's functionality as a whole and the interrelation of its constituent elements. The argument that SE conventions and strategies may need to be applied to the hardware domain is supported by rapid technological advancements in areas that include microelectronics, and it is critical that software developers achieve an understanding of the fundamental real-time concepts of timing, concurrency, interprocess communication, resource sharing, hardware-interrupt handling, and external-device interfaces.
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