Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the October 8, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

In observance of the Columbus Day holiday, ACM TechNews will not be published on Monday, Oct. 11. Publication will resume Wednesday, Oct. 13.

HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Computer Science Education Getting Short Shrift, Study Finds
Education Week (10/06/10) Erik Robelen

Despite the expanding role of computing in society and the economy, quality computer science education is being "pushed out of the K-12 education system in the United States," according to a new report from the Computing in the Core coalition. The newly formed coalition, whose members include ACM, the Computer Science Teachers Association, Microsoft, and Google, will work to make computer science a core subject at the K-12 level. "As the digital age has transformed the world and workforce, U.S. K-12 education has fallen woefully behind in preparing students with the fundamental computer science knowledge and skills they need for future success," the report says. Among the concerns the report cites are a "marked decline" in the number of schools offering introductory and Advanced Placement computer science courses, and the fact that few states allow computer science to count toward a student's graduation requirements. "The basic issue is that the nation is understanding rightfully the importance of [science, technology, engineering, and math] education, and computer science is being largely left out of the conversation," says Bobby Schnabel, who chairs ACM's education policy committee. "This report simply shows very clearly how much computer science is being neglected in our K-12 system."


Stopping Malware: BLADE Software Eliminates "Drive-By Downloads" From Malicious Websites
Georgia Tech Research News (10/06/10) Abby Vogel Robinson

Georgia Tech researchers have developed Block All Drive-By Download Exploits (BLADE), a browser-independent tool that eliminates drive-by download threats. "BLADE is an effective countermeasure against all forms of drive-by download malware installs because it is vulnerability and exploit agnostic," says Georgia Tech professor Wenke Lee. In testing, BLADE blocked all drive-by malware installation attempts from the more than 1,900 malicious Web sites tested. "BLADE monitors and analyzes everything that is downloaded to a user's hard drive to cross-check whether the user authorized the computer to open, run, or store the file on the hard drive," says Georgia Tech graduate student Long Lu. Testing found that Adobe Reader, Java, and Adobe Flash were the most frequently targeted applications. "BLADE requires a user's browser to be configured to require explicit consent before executable files are downloaded, so if this option is disabled by the user, then BLADE will not be able to protect that user's Web surfing activities," Lee notes.


Computer Scientists Cry Foul Over Data Problems in NRC Rankings
Chronicle of Higher Education (10/06/10) David Glenn

The National Research Council's (NRC's) use of a computerized methodology to rank computing research doctoral programs at the behest of the Computing Research Association has provoked a backlash by computer scientists. The NRC agreed to revise research productivity measurements by counting not just journal articles but also presentations at computer science conferences, but critics say the council's report is riddled with errors. The University of Utah's Martin Berzins says the NRC grossly miscounted the number of faculty members' journal articles and conference presentations between 2000 and 2006 when compared to his records. "This is a data-based report," says the University of Washington's Henry M. Levy. "For it to have any validity, the underlying data need to be accurate." Levy cites, for example, the NRC's practice of collecting data about major scholarly awards and honors held by faculty members from scholarly societies rather than from doctoral programs directly as a significant contributor to the report's inaccuracies. The NRC has announced a general process for assessing possible data errors in the report, but says that it will likely refrain from updating any of the program rankings except in cases that clearly trace the errors to the project's staff.


Breaking the Noise Barrier: Enter the Phonon Computer
New Scientist (10/05/10) Justin Mullins

A growing number of researchers and chip designers are exploring ways to overcome noise and instead exploit it to improve calculation performance. These developments could lead to a new generation of nanoscale devices that can manipulate noise, which could make it possible for noise to store, carry, and process information. University of Perugia physicist Luca Gammaitoni recently developed a type of switch, called a resonant tunneling diode, which uses noise to improve the performance of electronic circuits. Gammaitoni's device can tolerate noise levels that are the same as the input signal itself. Meanwhile, Boston University researcher Raj Mohanty and his team have harnessed noise using a bar of silicon just 20 micrometers long and 300 nanometers wide. Texas A&M University's Laszlo Kish and his team have been working on the theoretical properties of a large-scale random noise logic system for several years. Their research represents the zeros and ones of digital signals using the presence or absence of noise, instead of voltage levels. Earlier this year the researchers said they were able to superimpose noise signals and send them through a single wire.
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Reviewers Needed for the NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing
National Center for Women & Information Technology (10/08/10)

The National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) is seeking reviewers for its Award for Aspirations in Computing, which recognizes young women at the high-school level for their computing-related achievements and interests. Technical and business professionals and undergraduate and graduate students studying technology are needed to help grade applications and select winners for the awards. Reviewers can expect to spend approximately 3-5 hours reviewing and scoring applications. Reviewers must be over 18 years of age. Please click on the “View Full Article” link below to sign up to be a reviewer.


Keeping a Watch on the World
University of Nottingham (United Kingdom) (10/05/10) Emma Thorne

University of Nottingham researchers are leading an effort to monitor the Earth's landscape and the elemental forces that mold it. The Earth Observation Technology Cluster (EOTC) will focus on technology that can be used for a spectrum of scientific applications, including measuring volcanic gas emissions, three dimensional (3D) mapping of natural and urban environments, and monitoring the impact of climate change on Polar sea ice. The network will unite academics, industrial partners, and public research entities to promote state-of-the-art technologies. The EOTC will focus on five main themes, including low-altitude unmanned aerial vehicle observation used for monitoring crops, coastal algal blooms, and vegetation, in addition to photogrammetry and laser scanning to construct 3D computer models of landscapes and geology. The Terrestrial LIDAR Knowledge Exchange Network will be used for environmental monitoring and modeling in different environments, while field-based Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy can monitor volcanic gas emissions and identify polluted land. Hyper-temporal earth observation can monitor the effect of global climate change by looking at the change in plant life growth. Finally, circumpolar and cryospheric earth observation will study the potential effect of climate change on melting glaciers and can predict ice avalanches and other natural dangers.


Aircraft Software Puts Greener, Quieter Flights on the Horizon
University of Manchester (10/05/10) Daniel Cochlin

University of Manchester researcher Antonio Filippone has developed software that accurately predicts the amount of carbon dioxide emissions airlines release into the atmosphere. Filippone says the estimates that airlines provide do not take factors such as climb and descent, actual aircraft load, and items including on-board services and bulk cargo into account. Filippone has made the new software, called FLIGHT, available for download from a Web site for the airline industry. In addition to helping reduce carbon dioxide emissions, FLIGHT could provide a better measurement of noise during takeoffs and landings and could lead airlines to find new flight paths that reduce noise. Filippone says the software could also serve as a tool for accident investigation and prevention. He used FLIGHT to analyze the January 2008 crash of a Boeing 777 at Heathrow Airport. "The software can lead to us having better and greener aircraft," Filippone says.


Powerful Supercomputer Peers into the Origin of Life
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (10/04/10) Morgan McCorkle

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) scientists are using supercomputer simulations to reveal how nucleic acids could have played a role in the origins of life. The research team, led by ORNL's Jeremy Smith, used molecular dynamics simulations to investigate an organic chemical reaction that could have had an impact on the evolution of ribonucleic acids into early forms of life. "Computer simulations can provide insight into biological systems that you can't get any other way," Smith says. The research team found a theoretical explanation for why the Diels-Alder ribozyme requires magnesium to function. Computational simulations of the ribozyme's internal movements permitted the scientists to capture and comprehend the reaction's finer details. Smith says their calculations revealed that the ribozyme's internal dynamics included an active site that opens and closes to control the reaction. The concentration of magnesium ions directly affects the ribozyme's motions. "We found that magnesium ions bind to a special location on the ribozyme to keep the mouth open," Smith says.


Quantum Computing Research Edges Toward Practicality in UCSB Physics Laboratory
University of California, Santa Barbara (10/04/10) Gail Gallessich; George Foulsham

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) physicists are researching the entanglement of three quantum bits, or qubits. UCSB researchers Andrew Cleland and John Martinis are studying superconducting quantum circuits and their potential uses in quantum computing. "These entangled states are interesting in their own right, but they are also very important from the perspective of the larger, long-term goal of creating a quantum computer with many qubits," says UCSB graduate student Matthew Neeley. UCSB's team uses quantum circuits that are designed to behave as two-level quantum systems. The team built and operated a device with three coupled phase qubits, using them to generate entangled quantum states. Unlike the two-qubit phase, three qubits can be entangled in two different ways, known as GHZ and W. The former state exhibits a high level of entanglement but is brittle, and measuring just one of the qubits causes the other two to collapse into disentanglement. "The W state is in a certain sense less entangled, but nevertheless more robustly so--two thirds of the time, measuring one qubit will still leave the other two in an entangled state," notes Neeley. "We produced both of these states with our phase qubits, and measured their fidelity compared to the theoretical ideal states."


Your Vital Signs, On Camera
MIT News (10/04/10) David L. Chandler

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed a system that can measure health indicators, such as pulse, respiration, and blood pressure, simply by putting the patient in front of an inexpensive camera. The system quantifies slight variations in brightness produced by the flow of blood through facial blood vessels. Public domain software is employed to identify the position of the face in the image, and then the digital information from this area is deconstructed into the red, green, and blue portions of the video image. MIT grad student Ming-Zher Poh was able to adapt signal-processing methods originally developed to extract a single voice from a roomful of conversations in order to pull out the pulse signal from the "noise" of these other variations. The system can obtain accurate pulse rates from three people in the camera's view with about three beats per minute accuracy. "The exciting thing about this new method is that they identify a fixed region on the face and track it [thus improving motion artifact tolerance], plus the clever processing method," says TNO Science & Industry researcher Fokko Wieringa. Poh is focusing on extending the methodology's capabilities so that respiration and blood-oxygen levels can be measured, and suggests that noninvasive monitoring could prove useful for situations where affixing sensors to the body would be uncomfortable or problematic.


Multifunctional Smart Sensors and High-Power Devices on a Computer Chip
NCSU News (10/04/10) Matt Shipman

Researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) have developed a process for integrating gallium nitride (GaN) on silicon to create a hybrid computer chip. The breakthrough would allow GaN sensors and devices to be directly integrated into silicon-based computer chips for the first time. The semiconductor material can handle more power than conventional transistors, and can do so faster because it can be made into single crystals that are integrated into a silicon chip. "This enables the development of high-power--high-voltage and high-current--devices that are critical for the development of energy distribution devices, such as smart grid technology and high-frequency military communications," says NCSU professor Jay Narayan. His research could lead to the development of multifunctional smart sensors, high-electron mobility transistors, high-power devices, and high-voltage switches for smart grids that impact energy use and the environment. The breakthrough also could lead to a broader range of radio frequencies, and result in the development of advanced communications technologies.


Blind Inventors Revolutionize Computer Access
Queensland University of Technology (10/04/10)

A visually impaired team at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has developed NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA), an open source screen reader program. The cost of screen reader technology makes it difficult for visually-impaired students to have access to computers at a time when they most need it, says QUT graduate James Teh. NVDA has a synthetic voice read the words on a computer screen as a cursor moves over them. As users move the mouse, a beeping sound increases or decreases in pitch to let them know where the cursor is located on the screen. Volunteers have helped to translate NVDA into 27 languages so far, and the program has been downloaded more than 50,000 times. "It can also be copied to a USB stick, which can be used on any PC at school or university, with no installation required," says Teh, who worked with computer science QUT lecturer Malcolm Corney.


Innovation Mandate: Has America Lost Its Innovation Edge?
InformationWeek (10/02/10) No. 0, Rob Preston; Chris Murphy; Doug Henschen

There are worries that the U.S.'s high-tech global competitiveness is eroding because, among other things, intellectual property devised by U.S.-based companies is leaking overseas, either though the foreign outsourcing of research and development (R&D) and design work, or through outright theft by foreign companies and governments. Still, a report by the World Economic Forum ranked the United States second among 133 nations, citing strengths that include innovative companies, a first-rate university system "that collaborates with the business sector in R&D," an affordable and flexible workforce, and the scale opportunities "afforded by the sheer size of its domestic economy." The U.S. ranking was only topped by Switzerland, which was cited for factors that include its relatively high number of patents. Accenture's Gary Curtis says that U.S. leadership is "self-evident by the flow of talent that comes into America—technologists, technology innovators, entrepreneurs." Google CEO Eric Schmidt maintains that innovation now follows a bottom-up rather than a top-down model due to the Internet. "The only way to ensure it can flourish is to create the best possible environment—and then get out of the way," Schmidt says. "It's a question of learning to live with a mess."


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