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ACM TechNews
April 2, 2008

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ACM Committee on Women Honors Worldwide Leader in Cryptography Research
AScribe Newswire (04/01/08)

ACM's Committee on Women in Computing (ACM-W) has named Shafi Goldwasser the winner of the 2008-2009 Athena Lecturer Award. Goldwasser is known for her outstanding research in cryptography, complexity theory, and number theory. For example, Goldwasser teamed up with Silvio Micali and Charles Rackoff for research on interactive and zero-knowledge proofs that have helped provide the foundation for the secure transmission of information over the Internet. Her work with Uriel Feige, Laslo Lovasz, Shmuel Safra, and Mario Szegedi in the area of complexity theory led the way to the modern approach for showing the difficulty of approximating the solution of NP-complete problems. Goldwasser is the RSA Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, and she also is a professor of computer science and applied mathematics at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Goldwasser is scheduled to address the ACM Symposium on Theory of Computing, sponsored by the ACM Special Interest Group on Algorithms and Computation Theory (SIGACT), in Washington, D.C., in May 2009. ACM will honor Goldwasser with the award, which includes a $10,000 honorarium provided by Google, at the ACM Annual Awards Banquet on June 21, in San Francisco, Calif.
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Does Computing Add Up in the Classroom?
New York Times (04/01/08) Lohr, Steve

A recent report by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel calls for computer-based instruction to address the "mediocre level" of math achievement by American students. Computer activists say the report suggests that computing should be seen as a valuable tool in mainstream education, and should play a part in education from kindergarten through high school. "There is a real battle going on to determine the role that computing is going to play in K-12 education," says Indiana University computer scientist Robert B. Schnabel, chairman of ACM's education policy committee. "Is it going to be integrated into math and science curriculums or is it going to be more like shop?" In higher education, computing is considered a science of its own. However, below the university level computing's status has not reached that stature. The math panel report recommends well-designed computer instruction as a way to develop greater fluency in math and understanding math concepts, with practice coming from programming with visual languages such as LOGO. Progress is likely to be slow, as math and computer science are still seen as two separate worlds in most of the education community, and high school curriculums reflect that divide, with most computer courses focusing on competency in applications such as word processing and spreadsheets.
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Centers Tap Into Personal Databases
Washington Post (04/02/08) P. A1; O'Harrow, Robert Jr.

Fusion intelligence centers created by states following the 9/11 terrorist attacks have access to personal information on millions of Americans, and one even has access to top-secret data systems at the CIA, according to a document obtained by the Washington Post. The centers were established to identify potential threats and improve how information is shared. The centers use law enforcement analysts and computer systems to collect and combine otherwise separate pieces of information. A document that lists resources used by fusion centers shows how a dozen of the centers in the northeast United States have more access to commercial and government databases than previously disclosed. The centers use a variety of data resources and software programs that find patterns and display connections between people. Most of the centers subscribe to Web-based information brokers that deliver instant access to billions of records on individuals' homes, cars, phone numbers, and other information. Some of the fusion centers draw from records of currency transactions and almost 5 million suspicious-activity reports filed by financial institutions with the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. "Fusion centers have grown, really, off the radar screen of public accountability," says the Center for Democracy and Technology's Jim Dempsey. "Congress and the state legislatures need to get a handle over what is going on at all these fusion centers."
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CHI 2008 Offers Hands-On Experience Between People and Computers
AScribe Newswire (03/31/08)

CHI 2008 will offer attendees many opportunities to experience prototypes and systems for interacting with computers. The international conference on human-computer interaction features a schedule of interactivity presentations that includes iCandy: a Tangible User Interface for iTunes; Gamelunch: Forging a Dining Experience through Sound; Dynamic Knobs: Shape Change as a Means of Interaction on Mobile Phones; and SnapAndGrab: Accessing and Sharing Contextual Multi-Media Content Using Bluetooth-Enable Camera Phones. Participants will be able to view the film "Late Fragment," use a remote device to discover the backgrounds of the characters in a non-linear manner, and determine how the story unfolds. A live audience will get to experience a theatrical piece that uses interactivity in the Design Theater. CHI 2008 also features a Student Design Competition and a Student Research Competition. CHI 2008, sponsored by ACM's Special Interest Group on Computer Human Interaction (SIGCHI), takes place April 5-10, 2008, in Florence, Italy.
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Computers to Merge With Humans
BBC News (04/02/08)

A Microsoft-backed report that draws from discussions with 45 academics from computing, science, sociology, and psychology predicts that by 2020 fundamental changes in the field of human-computer interaction will increasingly integrate humans with machines, and machines will be able to anticipate what we want from them. The keyboard, mouse, and monitor will be replaced by more intuitive forms of interaction and display such as tablet computers, speech recognition, and touch-operated surfaces. Devices will be embedded in everyday objects, clothing, and our bodies. Our digital footprint will increase as we share more and more aspects of our lives through digital photography, podcasting, blogging, and video, raising questions about how much information we should share and store about ourselves. An always-on network will channel mass-market information directly to us while analyzing our personal information. The report calls this the era of hyper-connectivity and predicts that it will lead to a growth in "techno-dependency." The report compares the widespread introduction of the calculator, widely blamed for a fall in mental arithmetic abilities, with what may happen as computers become more intelligent and take on new responsibilities. "Without proper consideration and control it is possible that we---both individually and collectively--may no longer be in control of ourselves or the world around us," the report warns. The report, "Being Human: Human Computer Interaction in the Year 2020," is available at http://research.microsoft.com/hci2020/download.html.
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US Tech Companies Roll the Dice for Worker Visas
Reuters (04/01/08) Wutkowski, Karey

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received an estimated 200,000 visa applications for the 65,000 H-1B visas that became available on April 1. Last year, USCIS received 120,000 applications on the first day, and closed the application window after only two days. This year, USCIS will continue the practice of selecting H-1B recipients with a computerized lottery system, which the agency says gives each applicant the same chance of being selected. An applicant's odds of being selected this year may be even slimmer than they were last year, partly because of the greater number of applicants and partly because USCIS says it will not close the application window for five business days. Applicants have repeatedly expressed frustration over the fact that their ability to work in the United States is essentially determined by luck, and tech companies say the huge demand for the visas shows that the industry is forced to rely on foreign sources for talent because of a lack of homegrown talent. Cisco Systems' Heather Dickinson says the inability to access the best and brightest workers leaves U.S. companies at a severe disadvantage.
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Voters Trust Touch-Screen Machines, Studies Show
IDG News Service (03/26/08) Weiss, Todd R.; Gross, Grant

American voters are becoming more comfortable with electronic-voting methods, reveals two new studies. A study by the Brookings Institution found that voters are generally more comfortable with some models of touch-screen machines than with paper ballots that use buttons and dials. Another study, "Trends in American Trust in Voting Technology," by InfoSentry Services, found that public trust in direct recording electronic (DRE) machines is about the same as in 2004. Two-thirds of the 1,000 respondents to the telephone survey said they trust DREs, while 68 percent trusted DREs in 2004. The Brookings researchers tested five DRE systems and found that the error rate of the worst-performing machines could reach 3 percent during a presidential race, and in more complex races the voting error rate was even higher. University of Maryland professor Paul Herrnson, lead author of the Brookings study, notes that a 3 percent error rate is enough to change the outcome of an election. Voters generally approved of verification systems such as printouts that come with some DRE machines, even though the verification systems did not significantly improve the error rate, and often caused confusion, prompting voters to seek help from poll workers. University of Rochester professor and study co-author Richard Niemi says he expected voters who participated in the study to favor paper ballots because they are more familiar with those systems, but people generally gave DRE machines higher marks because of ease of use and confidence that their votes would be recorded as cast.
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Smartphones Will Soon Turn Computing on Its Head
CNet (03/31/08) Krazit, Tom

An estimated 115 million smart phones were purchased last year, and although it is unlikely they will replace PCs, analysts say the sheer number of the devices could seriously alter how we approach computing. In Europe, phones with Web access have been available for some time, but in the United States consumers are only just becoming aware of the possibilities presented by having the Internet accessible at all times. Analysts say that three trends in particular are driving smart phone interest among ordinary consumers. First is the increasing amount of time people spend on social networks and similar sites. Second, people are no longer willing to wait until they are home or find a hotspot to check messages or update their status. Third, the sleek and attractive design of many smart phones make them a must-have consumer item. Deustche Bank senior analyst Jonathan Goldberg says eventually we will be able to retire the term smart phone because all phones will be smart. Meanwhile, Intel and ARM are in a race to develop more and more powerful chips for mobile devices. In developing parts of the world, where PC adoption is still in the early stages, many people may skip the PC completely and start using a powerful phone that gives them the Internet at broadband speeds, lasts all day, and can fit in their pocket.
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Music File Compressed 1,000 Times Smaller Than MP3
University of Rochester News (04/01/08) Sherwood, Jonathan

University of Rochester researchers have encoded a 20-second clarinet solo in a music file smaller than 1 kilobyte, or almost 1,000 times smaller than a MP3 file. The file was generated by recreating in a computer the real-world physics of a clarinet and clarinet player. "This is essentially a human-scale system of reproducing music," says professor Mark Bocko. "I think we may have found the absolute least amount of data needed to reproduce a piece of music." When replaying the music, the computer reproduces the original performance based on information it has on clarinets and clarinet playing. The researchers recorded every aspect of clarinet playing, such as the backpressure in the mouthpiece, fingering, and how sound radiates from the instrument, to build a computer model of a clarinet. The result is a virtual instrument based on real-world acoustical measurements. The researchers then modeled how a clarinet player interacts with the instrument. Bocko says the next step was allowing the computer to "listen" to a real clarinet performance to infer and record the various actions required to create specific sounds. The original sound is reproduced by feeding the record of the musician's actions into the computer model, instead of recording the actual music. So far, the method can only handle a single instrument at a time, but Bocko says eventually it could be applied to vocals.
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Who Will Write Tomorrow's Code?
BBC News (04/01/08) Thompson, Bill

Most people today are only users of the information technology systems provided, making changes only when prompted, using "creativity" tools that stifle innovation, and accepting failures, disappointments, and crashes as inevitable and expected, writes Bill Thompson. In general, he says users accept the lack of programming tools or encouragement to engage in writing code, possibly because of the increasing complexity of modern computer systems. With so many users completely ignorant on how to program, it becomes difficult to have a serious debate about the core technical issues that affect the development and deployment of IT systems in our lives. The applications that support all aspects of society are all built by programmers, and there is a startling lack of programmers entering the software industry. Universities have seen applications for computer science degrees drop off, and computing is considered a non-essential subject in high school. Thompson says children need to see that programming is a useful skill that can be applied to a variety of careers. He says if more children were provided with suitable languages and tools for programming at school or at home, there would be at least some chance that those with an aptitude for coding would discover it early enough to become interested in the field.
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HTML5 Jumps Off the Drawing Board
InformationWeek (03/29/08) Lee, Mike

The first public working draft of the HTML5 specification was announced by the World Wide Web Consortium in mid January, although this does not mean the W3C has abandoned XHTML 2.0, which is still being developed. "The HTML5 specification is a good step because it's a fairly realistic one," says Opera Software's Charles McCathie Nevile. "It doesn't aim to change the world in a radical way." Among HTML5's revisions are updates to simplify interactive Web development; header, footer, section, article, nav, and dialogue capabilities to more clearly split page sections; and a "canvas" with a corresponding 2D drawing application programming interface that supports dynamic graphics and animation on the spur of the moment. Components that HTML5 removes to eliminate usability problems include frames and framesets and most presentational attributes. HTML5 includes APIs that support direct provisions for audio and video, client-side persistent storage with both key/value and SQL database support, cross-document messaging, and offline-application, editing, drag-and-drop, and network APIs. HTML5 design principles focus on the support of existing content, compatibility, interoperability, universal access, and utility. The W3C expects the ratification of the full HTML5 recommendation in the third quarter of 2010, but Firefox, Opera, Internet Explorer, and Safari already offer pieces of support for the specification.
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Internet Has a Trash Problem, Researcher Says
IDG News Service (04/01/08) McMillan, Robert

Meaningless packets of information used in distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS) to knock Web sites offline account for up to 3 percent of all Internet traffic, concludes a new Arbor Networks report. The finding is based on a study of traffic flowing between more than 68 ISPs and approximately 1,300 routers over 18 months. "The thing that's surprising is it's consistently 1 percent to 3 percent," says Arbor's Danny McPherson. "It's pretty significant." The bandwidth for the DDoS attacks cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per month, he adds. The SYN or ICMP packets used in DDoS attacks rarely account for less than 1 percent of all traffic, and attacks tend to decline during Christmas and New Year's, but they could easily rise to 6 percent during peak periods. Internet Relay Chat servers, where hackers often meet and chat, are the most common targets of DDoS attacks. Most email traffic is spam, and McPherson believes trash could account for up to 10 percent of Internet traffic.
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An Interview With Bjarne Stroustrup
Dr. Dobb's Journal (03/27/08) Buchanan, James

C++ creator Bjarne Stroustrup says in an interview that next-generation programmers need a thorough education that covers training and understanding of algorithms, data structures, machine architecture, operating systems, and networking. "I think what should give is the idea that four years is enough to produce a well-rounded software developer: Let's aim to make a five- or six-year masters the first degree considered sufficient," he says. Before writing a software program, Stroustrup recommends that a programmer consult with peers and potential users to get a clear perspective of the problem domain, and then attempt to build a streamlined system to test the design's basic ideas. Stroustrup says he was inspired to create a first programming course to address what he perceived as a lack of basic skills for designing and implementing quality software among computer science students, such as the organization of code to ensure it is correct. "In my course I heavily emphasize structure, correctness, and define the purpose of the course as 'becoming able to produce code good enough for the use of others,'" he says. Stroustrup thinks programming can be vastly improved, especially by never losing sight of how important it is to produce correct, practical, and well-performing code. He describes a four-year undergraduate university course in computer science he helped design as having a fairly classical CS program with a slightly larger than usual software development project component in the first two years of study. Courses would cover hardware and software, discrete math, algorithms and data structures, operating and network systems, and programming languages, while a "programming studio" would be set up to expose students to group projects and project management.
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Robotic Minds Think Alike?
ICT Results (03/27/08)

European researchers led by Linkoping University in Sweden have developed COSPAL, an artificial cognitive system that learns from experience and observation instead of relying on predefined rules and models. COSPAL robots can recognize, identify, and interact with objects in random, unforeseen situations, and can perform tasks based on their own experiences and observations of humans. COSPAL coordinator Michael Felsberg says children reach an understanding of cause and effect by testing and trying everything. When applied to an artificial cognitive system, this approach helps create robots that learn very similarly to how humans do, and can even learn from humans, allowing the robots to continue to perform tasks even when their environment changes or when objects they are not pre-programmed to recognize are put in front of them. A COSPAL robot with no pre-programmed geometric knowledge was able to recognize objects simply from experience, even when the surroundings and the position of the robot's camera was changed. The robot was able to solve a shape-shorting puzzle similar to ones used to teach small children. Through trial and error, the robot was able to place cubes in square holes and cylinders in round holes, proving that it is possible to solve geometric problems without knowing geometry, Felsberg says. The robot also learned to identify colors by sight, instead of by assigning a number to correspond with the colors.
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Collaborative Art in 3D
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (03/27/08) Cosby, Renata

The blue-c project at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich was an interdisciplinary initiative that attracted participants from architecture, computer vision, computer graphics, and mechanical engineering. The goal was to develop collaborative telepresence systems that would allow viewers to experience being at an event while actually being located at a remote site. "By rendering a fully three-dimensional, live representation of the remote user, we would create the illusion of everybody being in the same locale," says Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich graduate Dr. Martin Naef. "This would enable a much more natural mode of interaction than previous means, such as videoconferencing." Eight years after the start of the blue-c project, the Living Canvas project is extending blue-c's concepts even further. For example, while intended for entertainment, the Living Canvas project has significantly more potential, particularly in motion tracking, and enables performers to interact with recorded visuals. "Living Canvas frees the artist from such restrictions by following the performer on stage using very fast machine-vision technology and adapting the projected video according to the position and pose of the moment," Naef says. He says the audience should be immersed in the story and leave remembering the beautiful scenes and not pondering the high-tech projection system.
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Cybercrime Is in a State of Flux
Guardian Unlimited (UK) (03/27/08) Knight, Gavin

Cybercriminals are increasingly using a technique known as fast flux to hide the location of phishing sites, spamming sites, botnets, and illegal malware. Fast flux enables a machine on a botnet to frequently change the DNS records of a phishing or spamming site. When the DNS records of a phishing or spamming site are changed, the machine on which the site is hosted also changes. As a result, shutting down the phishing or spamming site requires shutting down every single machine on the botnet, since each of these machines hosts the same site. In addition, the constant changing of the DNS records means that the botnet's Command & Control server cannot be found. The use of this technique is a growing problem, says Robert McArdle at TrendLabs EMEA. "Normally the DNS servers will be hosted on networks that are infamous for being difficult to shut down, such as the networks offered by the Russian Business Network," he says. "In the past we had only one malicious Web server to clean up before the threat would be neutralized, now we need to shut down thousands--most of which are home PCs." Several organizations have proposed solutions to help solve this problem. For instance, the Anti-Phishing Working Group has proposed introducing a policy that would shut down a site across the Internet, instead of simply shutting it down on an Internet service provider's servers. Meanwhile, ICANN has proposed that registrars uniformly authenticate any requests for configuration changes to name servers and establish a minimum "time-to-live" threshold for a name server record.
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Virtual Pets Can Learn Just Like Babies
New Scientist (03/28/08)No. 2649, P. 24; Biever, Celeste

Autonomous artificial intelligence programs that can learn behavior by observing the actions of human-controlled avatars, like human infants learn from parents, will function as pets in the virtual realm when they are released to Second Life and other virtual worlds later this year. The use of virtual characters that can be taught is expected to greatly enhance computer games, with the Electric Sheep Company's Sibley Verbek noting that virtual pets could be trained by owners to aid them in battles in adventure games. Novamente's virtual pets require direct communication from human controllers, who could tell them that they are about to teach them a task, and then demonstrate the physical action to be performed, such as sitting down. The pets are preprogrammed to seek praise from their owners by performing the action correctly, but they also have other basic desires such as hunger, along with random movement and exploration of the environment. Their "memory" records their observations as they explore, and then the pets perform statistical analysis to find combinations of sequences and actions that appear to predict fulfillment of their goals, applying that knowledge to guide future behavior. Thus more sophisticated behavior can be nurtured. Novamente's Ben Goertzel thinks learning gestures could serve as a foundation for virtual pets to learn language.
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People Who Read This Article Also Read...
IEEE Spectrum (03/08) Vol. 45, No. 3, P. 46; Linden, Greg

Personalized news will soon be delivered by recommendation systems that suggest items based on user behavior for services such as Netflix, TiVo, and Amazon, writes Findory.com founder Greg Linden. Already the ball has started rolling with innovations such as Google News, which employs software to automate the prioritization and laying out of stories. But news sites could be vastly improved by automatically learning what stories each reader desires and using that knowledge to provide scores of personalized virtual newspapers. Among the challenges inherent in achieving this breakthrough is the cold-start problem, which is rooted in the difficulty of rating any item that either has yet to attract the notice of recommenders or has attracted only those about whom no knowledge exists. The job of clustering news stories on the same event is also highly complex, and Google News' solution is to use hierarchical agglomerative clustering to distinctly stack together news articles with similar phrasing. Google News could not use traditional clustering methods because of the immense numbers of users and articles, so Google tested a series of algorithms including covisitation, a collaborative filtering algorithm that studies everyone who has read a given article and then computes the chances that they will also have viewed other articles. Meanwhile, Findory worked on a system for implicit news personalization that aggregated articles and determined each reader's interests from past behavior, automating the routing of articles to individual readers so that unique front pages could be produced. Findory used a hybrid collaborative filtering algorithm combining statistical analysis of what people read with examination of article content.
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