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ACM TechNews
July 16, 2008

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Welcome to the July 16, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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'Spoken Web' Can Bridge India's Digital Divide
ZDNet Asia (07/15/08) Prasad, Swati

Since it was launched, IBM's 10-year-old India Research Laboratory (IRL) has been dedicated "to advance state-of-the-art breakthroughs in IT through research in software and services," says IRL director Gurudath Banavar in an interview. He says the lab's researchers are unique in their drive to develop globally relevant advancements that impact business and society in a positive way, and among the lab's standout features are a rich well of talent, a novel innovative culture that permits ideas from a broad spectrum of scientific fields to cross-pollinate, and a thorough comprehension of end-user technology. IRL is where the IBM Mobile Web initiative began, and Banavar says the initiative's Spoken Web, or voice-enabled mobile commerce technologies, could potentially cross the chasm between India's digital haves and have-nots by setting up a global telecom Web of sites that are accessible over voice and established on a telephony network instead of the Internet. The Spoken Web will allow anyone to create a Web site through the use of a voice interface, which Banavar believes "will enable the creation of significant new content in the voice-enabled Web portal that will help village communities offer their services and products to the world at large." Among IRL societal innovations the lab director cites is the IBM Desktop Hindi Speech Recognition technology, which can facilitate understanding and transcription of human speech with minimal use of keyboards, and can be advantageous to people who lack computer literacy. The technology has allowed IRL and the Center for Development of Advanced Computing to create a continuous speech-recognition system that is Hindi speaker-independent. Banavar says mobile phones are a more likely technology for bridging the digital divide than PCs or laptops because of their portability, their extended battery life, and their inexpensiveness.
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A New Frontier for Title IX: Science
New York Times (07/15/08) P. D1; Tierney, John

The Title IX law, which forbids sexual discrimination in education, has primarily applied to sports, but new pressure from Congress has some federal agencies focusing Title IX toward science. The National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Energy Department have established programs to detect sexual discrimination at universities receiving federal grants. Investigators have been taking lab inventories and interviewing faculty members and students in physics and engineering departments at schools such as Columbia University, the University of Wisconsin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Maryland. So far, the Title IX compliance reviews have only served to upset faculty members, with Columbia University physicist Amber Miller calling her interview "a complete waste of time." Some critics fear the process could lead to a quota system that could significantly hurt scientific research and only damage the role of women in science. However, the members of Congress and women's groups pushing for the application of Title IX to science say there is evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences. Critics of the new effort say there is better research showing that, on average, women's interest in some fields of science is just not the same as men's. Neither side argues that women cannot excel in all fields of science, and the increasing number of women in formerly male-dominated positions is a chief arguing point against intervention. "Colleges already practice affirmative action for women in science, but now they’ll be so intimidated by the Title IX legal hammer that they may institute quota systems," says American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Christina Hoff Sommers. "It'll be devastating to American science if every male-dominated field has to be calibrated to women's level of interest."
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Limits on Web Tracking Sought
Wall Street Journal (07/15/08) P. B11; Johnson, Fawn

Lawmakers are investigating a new online tactic used by advertising companies working with Internet service providers (ISPs) to track Internet users' activities. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, says Internet tracking across different Web sites should take place only with customers' consent, and the Internet should be governed by the same privacy regulations as those that apply to telephone and cable services. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) agrees, saying, "I understand the need to collate information. I just don't think it should be done without my permission." Although Internet companies have been tracking users' searches for years to match advertisements to their interests, the practice of third-party companies collaborating with ISPs to track users' online activities across the Web is new. Privacy advocates and some lawmakers argue the practice should be regulated because it gives ad companies unprecedented access to Internet users' movements. Although ad companies say they do not collect personally identifiable information, critics worry that companies retain data on individuals, even if it masks their identities.
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ReCaptcha: Reusing Your 'Wasted' Time Online
CNet (07/16/08) Olsen, Stefanie

The goal of the ReCaptcha project is to use captcha technology--distorted word puzzles that humans can successfully solve but machines such as spam bots cannot--to improve machines' identification of scanned text that a computer has trouble recognizing optically due to faded ink or blurriness, so that print archives can be more effectively mined by search engines. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) professor and ReCaptcha creator Luis von Ahn says up to 600 million people have completed at least one ReCaptcha on sites that use the technology in the last year, and such activity is aiding and expediting ambitious text-scanning initiatives such as the New York Times digitization project. Von Ahn debuted the ReCaptcha free antispam system with a double-word test in 2007, and this test allows the system to formulate a confidence rating for the human by presenting one word the computer does not know with another it does know. People type 200 million captchas globally every day by von Ahn's calculations, while the incredible amount of time people spend playing games drove the CMU professor to initiate a project to tap this pastime to tackle major computational challenges. One game borne from that project, the ESP Game, was designed to enhance Web search using image labeling by asking two randomly paired people on different systems to describe the same image without any communication, and to predict the same word for the image within a time limit. Von Ahn and a group of CMU computer scientists have rolled out four new games to address different challenges in the field of artificial intelligence partly due to the success of the ESP Game.
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Computer Science Enrollments: The Real News
Computing Community Consortium (07/11/08) Lazowska, Ed

Computing Community Consortium Chairman Ed Lazowska cites CRA Taulbee Survey data indicating an upward trend in freshmen interest and enrollments in computer science, and points to people's perceptions of the job market and the degree of "buzz" associated with the field of computer science as the most critical factors underlying fluctuations in enrollments. He notes that the number of annually granted computer science PhDs has ballooned in the past two years, and he attributes this trend to the collapse of many startups in 2001 and the consequential influx of top bachelors graduates into the job market. Lazowska says interest in bachelors programs experienced a similar decline sparked by the tech implosion, a lack of abundance of and sexiness about tech jobs, and media-promulgated fear about offshoring. However, since then tech has reacquired its cool factor and startups and jobs are plentiful. "Computer science degrees ... [are] heading back up, and it's important to keep things in perspective relative to other fields," Lazowska writes. Lazowska notes that a background in computer science can be applicable to many kinds of careers in disciplines as diverse as law, medicine, business, and biotechnology. He points to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections show that 70 percent of all newly-created jobs between now and 2016 will be in computer science, while 62 percent of all job openings will be in that field. The author concludes that companies and individuals should put pressure on the federal government to create policies to support education and research in order to boost the population of computer science grads as well as the field's allure.
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The Virtual World as Web Browser
Technology Review (07/15/08) Naone, Erica

Virtual world developers are working to make using the Internet and existing in a virtual world a more uniform experience. Second Life developer Linden Lab previously developed a Web link embedded in Second Life that opens an outside browser window, but Linden Lab is now adjusting the technology to make it easier to bring data into its virtual world from the Web and from users' desktops. Second Life's Joe Miller says the company is trying to create a rich way of experiencing a variety of media types that generally need to be seen or read on the Web in two dimensions. For example, Linden Lab's new system will enable Second Life users to create business cards in the virtual world that link to external Web pages, or virtual MP3 players that connect to Web radio services. Linden Lab is also working to make it easier to share data such as Microsoft Word files or PowerPoint presentations with others inside the virtual world. Miller says these new features should be delivered by the end of the year as part of Linden Lab's Web Media Initiative. Linden Lab is also developing the open source uBrowser project, a system that can superimpose any Web content on a three-dimensional surface that can be embedded in Second Life. For example, a Second Life user could use uBrowser to create a wall that is constantly being updated with posts from a blog or Twitter.
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Robot Chef Gets a Boost From Wireless Kitchen
New Scientist (07/14/08) Palmer, Jason

Researchers at the Technical University of Munich have developed a robot that uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) to recognize dishes and other kitchen items. Research leader Michael Beetz says RFID enables the robot to recognize nearby objects and know what to do with them without having to process massive amounts of visual information. The robot can also use RFID to learn the movement patterns of objects. "Setting the table is very easily recognized from cups and plates disappearing from the cupboard and appearing on the table, and cleaning up later is characterized by the same objects disappearing from the table and appearing in the dishwasher," Beetz says. The researchers are also working to integrate several open source software packages into the robot's core architecture to allow it to get instructions from the Internet, which could be used to optimize the algorithms, such as teaching the robot to carry four plates at once instead of one plate four times. "If you have sensors just on the robot, the range of things the robot can perceive is very limited," says Stanford University roboticist Andrew Ng. "If it is able to use sensors embedded in an intelligent environment, it's as if the robot has many more eyes and sensors and can immediately act much more intelligently in a new environment."
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The Next Big Thing in Humanities, Arts and Social Science Computing: Zotero
HPC Wire (07/09/08) Franklin, Kevin D.; Rodriguez'G, Karen

Zotero is a freely available research collection, management, and citation system developed by George Mason University's Center for History and New Media (CHNM) and underwritten by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation. CHNM director and Zotero co-developer Daniel Cohen says Zotero was conceived as a tool that resides in the Web browser with a high degree of awareness of the operations transpiring within the browser, and capable of engaging with elements both on the browser and the desktop. Cohen says the tool "uses Semantic Web principles in an utterly pragmatic and invisible fashion; indeed, the user experience is so seamless and the use of semantic metadata so inconspicuous that Zotero is often not mentioned in discussions of the next generation of the Web." The project's next step is Zotero's employment as a digital research platform as well as a mechanism for the networked sharing of semantic and computational information, and Cohen says the Zotero Server, once linked to the client, will facilitate data-mining of aggregated collections and new openings for collaboration. He says scholars who use the Internet are challenged by a vast body of digitized objects that cannot be easily managed or analyzed, and it is his hope that Zotero will "bring digital research--from basic to advanced processes like HPC--to the average scholar through its easy-to-use interface and its ability to communicate with software and services wherever they may be." Cohen says the problems of digital object abundance, management, and analysis exist for many people outside the humanities and social science disciplines, so Zotero ought to be applicable to them as well.
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Many Processors Make Light Work of Calculations
ICT Results (07/14/08)

The European Union-funded Interactive European Grid (Int.eu.grid) project is enabling researchers in a variety of fields to process their data through a network of computers at 10 sites in seven European countries. The Int.eu.grid connects computers locally and across Europe through the existing high-speed Geant research network. The project focused on providing a transparent way to simulate, process, and store large amounts of data. Int.eu.grid coordinator Jesus Marco says the grid exploits the fact that local users do not use all their power at the same time, allowing researchers access to more resources than they could normally obtain. Int.eu.grid provides researchers access to the aggregation of processing power from the networked centers to achieve a processing speed of up to 10,000 megabytes per second. Researchers can interactively guide their calculations and receive help at all stages of the process, from initial setup to the final discussion of the results. Marco says the ability to process data faster is already helping doctors detect breast cancer, while physicists have used the grid to visualize the trajectory of particles, and environmental scientists have used the grid to gain additional insight into the operations of watersheds in Spain.
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Report: US Behind in Doubling Science Grads
Associated Press (07/15/08) Pope, Justin

An effort to double the number of U.S. bachelor's degrees awarded in science, math, engineering, and technology (STEM) by 2015 is significantly behind schedule, according to a new report from Tapping America's Potential, a group formed by 15 prominent business groups in 2005. The group warned that a lack of STEM workers and teachers threatened U.S. competitiveness and predicted that the U.S. would need 400,000 new STEM graduates by 2015. The new report says the number of degrees in STEM fields increased slightly earlier in the decade, but has since stalled at around 225,000 per year. Although the group says there has been substantial bipartisan support for increasing science training, including last year's passage of the "America Competes Act," there has been insufficient follow-through with funding to support the programs, and other countries are doing more. Critics say the concerns from business about the number of science graduates are overblown and self-serving, but Accenture CEO William Green says such criticisms are "nonsense." He notes that the entire country benefits from competitive companies, and says increasing the number of STEM professionals is one of the top three items on CEO agendas of every company he knows. The report also argues that the inability of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform has hurt U.S. competitiveness by making it difficult to retain highly-skilled workers who study at American universities.
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Super Computer Proves to Be a Real Chatter Box
Laboratory News (07/01/2008)

The University of Manchester will use its Brain Box supercomputer project to support research on the speech and language function of the brain. The project will develop a new supercomputer that will use biological principles to perform highly complex functions in a manner similar to the human brain. "The Brain Box computer is being built using simple microprocessors that are designed to interact like the networks of neurons in the brain allowing it to replicate sophisticated functions such as speech," says Manchester professor Steve Furber. The university plans to use the Brain Box supercomputer in its five-year Chatter Box project. Chatter Box is an effort to build a model of human language capable of understanding basic words in English, validate the model, use it to predict the results of speech therapy strategies, and test the predictions on stroke patients who have speech problems.
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Developer Fixes 33-Year-Old Unix Bug
ITWorld.com (07/10/08) Broersma, Matthew

A bug in a standard part of Unix dating back to the 1970s has been fixed by Otto Moerbeek, an OpenBSD developer. The bug affected the yacc parser generator, which was developed by Stephen C. Johnson at AT&T, and is only triggered on Sparc64 systems. "Funny thing is that I traced this back to Sixth Edition Unix, released in 1975," Moerbeek says in a note about the bug. A user tipped off Moerbeek that compiling large C++ projects sometimes fails with an internal compiler error on the Sparc64 hardware platform when using a new malloc. Moerbeek found the bug while testing the general purpose memory allocator, which has new features that improve the prospects of catching buffer overflows. In May, Swiss developer Marc Balmer found a flaw in the open source Berkeley Software Distribution operating system that was 25 years old.
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Berners-Lee and Friends Promote Web Science Study
silicon.com (07/14/08) Ferguson, Tim

Sir Tim Berners-Lee and colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Southampton University in the United Kingdom say their plan for creating a Web science discipline is gaining momentum, and they are now looking for corporate involvement. The group of leading academics announced the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) at MIT in November 2006, and the response has been positive because the industry recognizes the magnitude of the Web. "It's now so big... that we need methods to understand it and as you understand it you might think of ways of improving it," says professor Nigel Shadbolt, co-director of WSRI. The institute plans to coordinate an examination of the economic, social, and political aspects of the Web to better understand its development and why people use it. "[Students] need to be taught something about techniques for looking at structures, tracking data through complex networks, how to understand the basic economics and social psychology of interaction so they've got some appreciation of how the Web phenomena work on the whole," Shadbolt says. WSRI will address the blogosphere, Wikipedia, and other Web phenomena, and the future of linked data, the semantic Web, and other concepts.
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EU Project NEMSIC Targets Better Sensor Detection Technology
Nanotechwire.com (07/11/08)

European researchers working on the nano-electro-mechanical-system-integrated-circuits (NEMSIC) project aim to launch the world's smallest, high performance, low-power silicon-based sensor. The sensor features the co-integration of single-electron transistors (SETs) and nano-electro-mechanical (NEM) systems on a common silicon technology platform. University of Southampton professor Hiroshi Mizuta says the current focus is on power consumption because devices use power whether they are actively running or not. "The single-electron transistor combined with the NEM device technology reduces power consumption at both ON and OFF states of the sensor," says Mizuta, adding that the ability to create a full "sleep" with the NEM when it switches to off will help stand-by power consumption fall to zero. The researchers are developing the single-electron transistor with a suspended silicon nanobridge that will have the capability to detect biological and chemical molecules. "This is the first time that anyone has combined these two nanotechnologies to develop a smart sensor," Mizuta says.
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The Web Development Skills Crisis
InfoWorld (07/10/08) McAllister, Neil

Web developers face a difficult challenge maintaining their skill sets in an environment where the latest technologies are constantly changing, writes Neil McAllister. Writing a traditional, standards-based Web application means writing JavaScript code, which, unlike traditional programming languages such as C and Java, does not have a standard function library, giving developers a dozen AJAX libraries to choose from. There are also tools that attempt to eliminate the JavaScript dilemma, such as Google's Web Toolkit, which allows developers to write applications in Java and compile them down to JavaScript for execution in the browser. Proprietary platforms based on plug-ins, such as Curl, Flash, and Silverlight, offer developers more consistency and stability. However, each of these platforms has a unique development methodology and familiarity with one does not necessarily translate to the others. McAllister says that the current market fragmentation creates a skills crisis, with no single Web developer being able to excel at all of the technologies, particularly when the development methodologies behind some of the technologies are virtual opposites. He says the most agile developers are those who approach programming with a solid background in computer science.
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3D Graphics Can Geometrically Guide Your Attention
PhysOrg.com (07/11/08) Zyga, Lisa

University of Maryland computer scientists have developed a method that sharpens or smoothes edges to make an area or object stand out in three-dimensional (3D) images. The technique could be used by artists designing 3D graphics, creating virtual scenes that are better at helping viewers understand a variety of images, or to create a more rewarding interactive experience. Computer scientist Amitabh Varshney says the technique shows that geometry alterations can persuade visual attention in a meaningful way. "Until now, the only channels of modification available to a visual attention persuader were the same ones that have been used for centuries--color, illumination, and detail contrasts," Varshney says. "Our work shows that one can now add geometry to that mix." Graphic artists can select an area that they want to catch the viewer's attention, and use a mesh filter to sharpen, or emphasize, the centermost points of the area. The more pronounced the original topography, the greater the effect. Eye-tracking tests show that there is a subtle persuasion toward the selected region of interest, with subjects spending significantly more time gazing at the geometrically altered regions in various 3D scenes. An advantage of geometry-based alterations is that they can be used in addition to other principles of visual persuasion, such as contrasts in color, luminance, and texture.
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One for All
The Engineer (07/13/08) Vol. 293, No. 7751, P. 42; Clarkson, John; Goodman-Deane, Joy; Waller, Sam

Product designers often overlook the needs of older and disabled users, and recent design research has established a number of strategies to help companies create mainstream products that boast greater accessibility, writes John Clarkson, director of Cambridge University's Engineering Design Center (EDC). The implementation of these strategies has been spotty for reasons that include a dearth of practical knowledge and tools to support more inclusive design; not enough time, budget, or resources; and the perceived absence of a justifiable business case. An inclusive design toolkit developed by the EDC and freely available online outlines a business case and communicates how it can be promoted within an organization and incorporated into a typical commercial product development process based on an understanding of business and user needs. Clarkson notes that the Web site also features a series of tools to help designers comprehend and interact with users, especially those with limited faculties. Another component allows designers to gain insights into the limitations of users with disabilities by experiencing their disabilities through special eyewear, gloves, and other equipment. "Simulation software demonstrates the main functional effects of common vision and hearing impairments on image and sound files, thus helping designers understand how these impairments affect the use of everyday products," Clarkson says. "Designers can also view photographs of their own concepts with simulated impairment, to help identify difficulties and potential improvements."
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