Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the March 11, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Barbara Liskov Wins Turing Award
MIT News (03/10/09) Richards, Patti

ACM has named Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Barbara Liskov the winner of its 2008 ACM A.M. Turing Award for her groundbreaking work in the design of computer programming languages, which has provided a basis for nearly every modern computing-related convenience in people's daily lives. "Every time you exchange email with a friend, check your bank statement online, or run a Google search, you are riding the momentum of her research," says MIT Provost L. Rafael Reif. Liskov pioneered the use of data abstraction to ease the construction, modification, and maintenance of software. She also was the designer of CLU, an object-oriented programming language that provides coherent, systematic handling of abstract data types through the incorporation of clusters. A follow-up distributed programming language, Argus, spurred further developments in distributed system design that could scale to network-linked systems, which helped establish the foundation for modern search engines. Liskov's most recent research focus is on methods that enable a system to keep functioning properly should some of its components malfunction. Liskov is the director of the Programming Methodology Group at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and is the second woman to ever receive the Turing Award. The award, widely considered the computing industry's Nobel Prize, carries a $250,000 cash prize, with financial support provided by Intel and Google. Liskov will formally receive the Turing Award at the ACM Awards Banquet on June 27 in San Diego.

Tech Education Will Get Some Funding From Stimulus Effort
Investor's Business Daily (03/11/09) P. A5; Riley, Sheila

Part of the U.S. federal stimulus package will go toward improving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education in K-12 classrooms, though details still have to be resolved. "We're very keen to see increasing investment and improvement in anything that's basically the hard subjects--math and science," says Society for Information Management (SIM) president Peter Whatnell. SIM wants the money to be put into programs that promote STEM paths, such as student competitions and college scholarships that reward technology innovations, as well as advanced placement courses in high schools. The National Science Foundation (NSF) already knows that it will receive $100 million for education, $60 million of which will go to scholarships for math and science teachers, says NSF's Myles Boylan. Another $25 million of the NSF funding will go to universities that work with K-12 science and math teachers, and $15 million will be used in professional science master's programs that move graduates into ready-made jobs. Some education professionals believe that funding should go toward creating more rigorous curriculum and enrichment programs, such as increasing the number of schools that offer high school algebra in the eighth grade, which increases the opportunity to take more advanced math in high school. A greater investment also is needed in training and recruiting quality science and math teachers. Currently, approximately 80 percent of fifth- and sixth-grade math and science teachers are not trained in those areas, says Siemens Foundation president Jim Whaley.

Wolfram Alpha: Next Major Search Breakthrough?
CNet (03/08/09) Farber, Dan

Mathematica founder Stephen Wolfram is developing a natural search engine dubbed Wolfram Alpha designed to return specific answers to search queries. "All one needs to be able to do is to take questions people ask in natural language, and represent them in a precise form that fits into the computations one can do," Wolfram says. "I'm happy to say that with a mixture of many clever algorithms and heuristics, lots of linguistic discovery and linguistic curation, and what probably amount to some serious theoretical breakthroughs, we're actually managing to make it work." Wolfram will use this new search engine to launch a Web site,, in May. Wolfram says the site will present a simple input field that will provide access to a huge system with trillions of pieces of curated data and millions of lines of algorithms. Radar Networks CEO Nova Spivack says Wolfram Alpha may be as important to the Web as Google, but for a different purpose. "Wolfram Alpha is like plugging into a vast electronic brain," Spivack says. "It provides extremely impressive and thorough answers to a wide range of questions asked in many different ways, and it computes answers, it doesn't merely look them up in a big database." He says Wolfram Alpha enables users to ask questions in plain language, and the software's built-in models of knowledge, data, and algorithms can form detailed answers. Spivack says Wolfram Alpha will not replace Google and other search engines for consumer-oriented searches, but it will be used to "compute a factual answer to some set of questions about factual data."

Achieving Grid Interoperation Through Standardization
Enabling Grids for E-sciencE (03/04/09) O'Neil, Neasan

The Open Grid Forum (OGF) has endorsed the GLUE 2.0 specification as a proposed standard, which would establish a common information model for grid entities. The GLUE 2.0 specification includes contributions from the largest grid infrastructure projects and middleware providers, including Enabling Grids for E-sciencE, Open Science Grid, TeraGrid, NorduGrid, NAREGI, and practical experiences from the collaborations involved in the Large Hadron Collider. "During the recent years the grid community has been working very hard to reach convergence on how grid entities are modeled and described," says NorduGrid technical coordinator Balazs Konya, co-chair of the GLUE Working Group. "The release of the GLUE 2.0 specification as an OGF proposed standard is a major achievement of the grid community." In early March, the 25th Open Grid Forum will feature session on defining, discussing, and debating the standards that need to be established to support future grid growth. Sessions will include the lessons learned from the high-throughput computing community, the benefits of grid standards to other computing infrastructures such as volunteer projects based on BOINC, and discussions on what path to take in different areas of grid technology, including workload management and metadata.

Save Bletchley Park: Why I'm Ashamed to Be British (02/16/09) Black, Sue

The British government should preserve Bletchley Park, the complex north of London that was used to intercept messages between Hitler and the German high command, writes Sue Black, head of the Department of Information and Software Systems at the University of Westminster. The code-breaking center is said to have helped shorten World War II by two years and save roughly 22 million lives. British code-breakers used Colossus, which automated a key part of the process of deciphering the encrypted messages. Colossus was the first programmable, digital, electronic computer, and it was designed and built by Tommy Flowers and his team at Bletchley Park and Dollis Hill during the war. The government should fund the preservation of the birthplace of the computer, and could look to the efforts of Australia to build the Australian War Memorial to recognize its contributions to the war or even the Computer History Museum in the United States, Black argues. There is a need for sustained funding, but Bletchley Park could use 10 million pounds in the short term.

An Upgrade for the Web
Technology Review (03/10/09) Naone, Erica

HTML 5 will make the latest high-bandwidth Internet applications run even better, and could help lead the way to an application-enabled Web. Currently, Web applications are limited because Web browsers were not designed to run full desktop-style programs. For example, most browsers can only run a single piece of JavaScript code at a time, which limits the functionality of Web applications. Furthermore, different browsers react differently to existing Web standards. HTML 5 is designed to solve these problems. "We're trying to find ways for people to be able to take the live, programmable documents that make up the Web and start integrating them with all these other pieces outside the scope of the browser," says the Mozilla Foundation's Christopher Blizzard. World Wide Web Consortium HTML working group member Michael Smith says the most important part of HTML 5 has been creating specifications to ensure that different browsers perform more tasks in the same manner. To help browsers run demanding Web applications, HTML 5 has a feature called worker threads, which allows a browser to manage heavier computations by running JavaScript in the background while the user interacts with the application. HTML 5 also features new video and audio capabilities. The Canvas feature enables developers to create HTML graphics that mach graphics built using Adobe's Flash software. HTML 5 also places a greater emphasis on enabling Web applications to work offline.

Students Need More IT Challenges
ITPro (03/04/09) Kobie, Nicole

Britain's primary level students are showing progress in computer learning, but secondary students are scoring low rates in spreadsheets, databases, and programming. The new report by the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services, and Skills says secondary students, especially girls, are not learning new computer skills. City University London's Andrew Tuson believes students are not being challenged, and says that computer training at this level discourages many from pursuing IT degrees. Tuson says schools focus on showing young students how to use computer technology rather than treating information technology (IT) as a subject. "They're not introduced to what IT professionals actually do," he says. Schools can show primary level students how to use computers, but they should teach about programming and databases at the secondary level, Tuson says. "Computers and IT could easily be the most interesting thing we teach students in school," he says.

A Struggle Over U.S. Cybersecurity
Washington Post (03/10/09) P. A11; Krebs, Brian

Rod A. Beckstrom, the U.S. federal government's cybersecurity coordinator, has resigned after less than a year on the job, citing a lack of funding and the National Security Agency's (NSA's) growing control over government cybersecurity measures. Beckstrom was director of the National Cyber Security Center, which was launched last March to help coordinate cybersecurity efforts between intelligence communities. However, he says recently there have been efforts to fold the National Cyber Security Center into the NSA. Beckstrom says the center was created to coordinate the various agencies' efforts and not to be controlled by NSA. "This is a coordination body and it resides alongside or above the other centers, but certainly not below them," he says. "In my view, it is very important that there be independence for the [center], and that it be able to carry out its role." The Obama administration is currently in the middle of a 60-day review of the government's cybersecurity initiative, and is expected to release recommendations sometime next month. Last month, director of national intelligence Adm. Dennis C. Blair told the House Intelligence Committee that NSA was the proper agency to preside over protecting military and government networks. The National Cyber Security Center was part of the Bush administration's comprehensive national cybersecurity initiative to protect the government against online attacks.

Rise of the Robogeeks
New Scientist (03/09/09) No. 2697, P. 34; Brooks, Michael

University of Birmingham artificial intelligence expert Aaron Sloman believes he has identified a key element of how humans cultivate mathematical skill, and thinks that a machine can be programmed to be at least equal to humans in mathematical proficiency. Although his goal is to utilize such a machine to improve our comprehension of where human's mathematical ability originates, this milestone might give rise to a race of machines that can invent completely novel mathematical forms. In keeping with his belief that the primary roots of mathematical skills are set down in childhood, Sloman thinks a robot with a child-like brain should be constructed so that its mathematical talent can develop organically. He is convinced that the answer to this conundrum resides in the spatial awareness capabilities that children must obtain in order to negotiate their environment. "A lot of abstract maths has its roots in our ability to think about space and time, processes, and interactions between processes and structures," Sloman says. He is compiling an archive of observations of children carrying out pseudo-mathematical tasks. Sloman thinks the concept of machines doing mathematics is not far-fetched, and cites as an example evolutionary algorithms that enable a computer to evolve its own programs by producing many, testing them against a goal criteria, and then choosing and "interbreeding" the best ones. "Our big discovery would be how do we do mathematics, rather than how do we write a program that can generate really new mathematics," says the University of Edinburgh's Allison Pease. "But hopefully one would lead on from the other."

Bathrooms Become Smarter With Touch Screens
IDG News Service (03/05/09) Kirk, Jeremy

Researchers at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Microelectronic Circuits and Systems have developed a touch screen mirror that can remind people when to take their medicine, wash their hands, or brush their teeth. Developers hope that the mirror, which was on display at the recent Cebit IT trade show, will help elderly people with conditions such as dementia live more independently. The mirror displays icons to remind people to perform certain actions, including washing hands and face, brushing teeth, washing dentures, and applying moisturizer. When the medicine cabinet is opened, a large icon with a pill in the middle shows how many pills the person should take. The mirror also could be linked to a care provider to enable them to remotely monitor patients to make sure they are accomplishing basic hygiene tasks. The mirror also can be used to control water temperature or raise the entire sink basin and toilet for those with limited mobility. The system also could work with a radio frequency identification device worn be each household member to automatically know and adjust the bathroom to each person's preferences.

Quantum Doughnuts Slow and Freeze Light at Will
University of Warwick (03/09/09) Dunn, Peter

University of Warwick researchers have discovered a way to use doughnut-shaped by-products of quantum dots to slow and even freeze light, which could lead to the development of light-based computing. The key to the discovery is the "exciton," which describes the pairing of an electron that has been elevated to a higher energy state by a photon, which creates a hole in the shell or orbit around the nucleus of an atom. When an electron's high energy state decays it is drawn back to the hole it is linked to and a photon is emitted again. The cycle normally takes place very quickly, but being able to freeze or hold an exciton in place could delay the reemitting of a photon and effectively slow or even freeze light. The researchers examined tiny rings of matter accidentally made during the manufacturing of quantum dots. When creating extremely small quantum dots, physicists sometimes cause the material to splash when depositing it onto a surface, creating a doughnut-shaped ring of material. The researchers found that if a combination of magnetic and electric fields is applied to these rings they can tune the electric field to freeze an exciton in place, or allow the ring to collapse and re-emit a photon. This is the first time a technique has been found that completely freezes and releases individual photons at will. "This has significant implications for the development of light-based computing, which would require an effective and reliable mechanism such as this to manipulate light," says Warwick's Rudolf A. Roemer.

Video Game Everquest 2 Provides New Way to Study Human Behavior, Says U of M Researcher
University of Minnesota News (02/27/09) Mathre, Ryan

University of Minnesota (UM) researchers are using online video games to learn more about human behavior. UM computer science professor Jaideep Srivastava participated in an interdisciplinary research project that studied the behavior of the more than 300,000 people who play the popular PC game EverQuest 2. More than 60 terabytes of data from the complete server logs and clickstreams of EverQuest 2 show that the huge online, interactive gaming community is in many ways similar to a traditional community. The researchers modeled the social and behavioral dynamics of individuals, groups, and networks within the multi-player environment. The study also found other ways multiplayer online games and virtual worlds can impact social, behavioral, and computational science. The team recently participated in the American Association for the Advancement of Science's symposium "Analyzing Virtual Worlds: Next Step in the Evolution of Social Science Research," and presented its findings.

Information Architect Alex Wright Talks About the Lessons of IT History
Computerworld (03/02/09) Anthes, Gary

New York Times information architect Alex Wright says in an interview that there is a tendency to concentrate on information technology's future at the expense of its past. He points out, for example, that many promising concepts about hypertext that preceded the Web were jettisoned, and says that "if you look at the work of people like Ted Nelson or Doug Engelbart or Andries van Dam, you'll find some really interesting alternate ways of thinking about how networked information systems could work." Wright mentions Nelson's Xanadu project, which presented key notions such as the idea that all hyperlinks should be two-way. He observes that many people dismiss top-down information categorization methods prior to the advent of the Web as anachronistic and no longer relevant in a world of billions of documents. However, Wright believes there is a part for ontologies and taxonomies to play, although they will be produced by machines and will extract meaning from large corpora of data. He cites linguist Walter J. Ong's argument that oral culture is experiencing a resurgence due to the emergence of electronic media, and challenging a lot of the old premises about literacy. "If you look at the way people interact on social networking sites, blogs, email, IM, Twitter and so on, they have more in common with oral communications than with traditional [written] communications," Wright says.

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