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ACM TechNews is published every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.


ACM TechNews is intended as an objective news digest for busy IT Professionals. Views expressed are not necessarily those of either Thunderstone or ACM. To send comments, please write to technews@hq.acm.org.
Volume 7, Issue 868: Friday, November 18 2005

  • "Silicon Valley's Call: Smarten Up, America!"
    BusinessWeek (11/17/05); Hof, Robert

    Technology leaders gathered Wednesday in San Jose for a summit hosted by TechNet and called for a change in government policies to encourage innovation, citing the widespread concern that the United States is falling behind its international competitors. Venture capitalist John Doerr identified six problems that are eroding the United States' competitive advantage: anemic research and development funding, an underdeveloped educational system, mismanaged health care, a disorganized thrust for high-speed Internet access, hostility to free trade, and the absence of any indication that the United States will wean itself away from dependence on foreign energy. Doerr was sharply critical of politicians for not treating universal broadband access as a matter of urgency, and Yahoo! Chairman Jerry Yang noted that Asian nations such as Korea and Japan are far ahead of the United States in that area. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the United States will not enter into the next phase of the Internet until speeds of 10 Mbps are affordable, which will be required to support the viewing of online video, though he notes that that mark is some three to six years in the offing. A declining emphasis on open-ended research at organizations such as DARPA and stricter immigration laws are threatening to drain the talent pool in the United States. While the panel was most critical about education, they had few concrete solutions to address the system's shortcomings; Doerr called for a goal to be set of adding 100,000 scientists and engineers over the next four years, though he did not elaborate on the details. The panelists issued pointed criticism at an American people who they claim has abandoned innovation and "outsourced the intellect to other countries," as Release 1.0 editor Esther Dyson put it, and they identified Google as the singular example of how companies should approach research.
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  • "Politicos Wary of Changes to Copyright Law"
    CNet (11/16/05); Broache, Anne

    Members of a House subcommittee on trade, commerce, and consumer protection expressed their reluctance to revise the copy restrictions on software and CDs spelled out in the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act for the sake of fair use. The debate pits consumer advocates, who argue that the right to fair use is undermined by the act, against the entertainment industry, which maintains that the copy restrictions protect against widespread piracy. The proposed revisions were introduced by Rep. Rick Boucher (D.-Va.) as the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act. Consumer advocates say the legislation is more important than ever with the pending broadcast flag and analog hole copy protection proposals. The panelists arguing on behalf of the legislation included representatives from the Consumer Electronics Association, the Library Copyright Alliance, and Public Knowledge. Their presentation met with opposition from many members of the subcommittee, who argued that the solution should come from technology, rather than legislation. While the panelists agreed that software could be written to restrict the number of copies without impinging on fair use, they cautioned that any new technology would inevitably be met with new security threats. "If you build a smarter mousetrap," said Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro, "you do get smarter mice." The legislators countered that it would be preferable to allow the market forces to determine the evolution of digital rights management.
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  • "Top Researchers, Projects in High Performance Computing Honored at SC/05"
    Business Wire (11/17/05)

    Researchers were recognized for their achievements this week at the SC05 conference, sponsored jointly by ACM and IEEE. The rewards are an annual event to honor innovation among participants at the conference, and include the Gordon Bell Prize, the Bandwidth Challenge, and the HPC Analytics Challenge. A team of researchers from the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and IBM took the Gordon Bell Prize for their entry, "100+ TFlop Solidification Simulations on BlueGene/L." There was a tie for the award for the best technical paper between "High Resolution Aerospace Applications Using the NASA Columbia Supercomputer," written by the University of Wyoming's Dimitri Mavriplis, NASA's Michael Aftosmis, and the Courant Institute's Marsha Berger, and "Full Electron Calculation Beyond 20,000 Atoms: Ground Electronic State of Photosynthetic Proteins," submitted by a team of eight researchers from the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. The University of Maryland's Lorin Hochstein won the award for best student paper with her entry entitled, "Programmer Productivity: A Case Study of Novice Parallel Programmers." The best research poster award went to a team of researchers from Columbia University, Georgia Tech, and the Laboratory of Physical Science for their entry, "Ultra-low Latency Optical Networks for Next Generation Supercomputers." The HPC Analytics Challenge Award was given jointly to "SPICE: Simulated Pore Interactive Computing Experiment," and "Real Time Change Detection and Alerts From Highway Traffic Data." The StorCloud Award went to Kevin Regimbal and Ryan Mooney of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Evan Felix for "PNNL Computational Chemistry Simulation." The entry entitled "Distributed Terabyte Particle Physics Data Sample Analysis" won the Bandwidth Challenge.
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  • "Negroponte: Laptop for Every Kid"
    Wired News (11/17/05); Poulsen, Kevin

    MIT Media Lab's Nicholas Negroponte unveiled a prototype of the $100 laptop at the U.N. World Summit on the Information Society this week in Tunisia. The Linux-based laptop features a swiveling seven-inch screen and a hand crank that will power the machine for 40 minutes from one minute of turning. Powered by a 500 MHz AMD processor, the laptop has Wi-Fi and mesh networking support built into it, and features a microphone, speaker, and a headset jack, enabling it to function as a node in a VoIP system. Due for mass production at the end of next year, the laptop was the toast of the conference, creating a buzz among previously skeptical manufacturers. Negroponte attributes the popularity of the device to its cost, which currently hovers around $110, though he notes that even that price could strain the education budgets of some countries. New technologies such as electronic ink and mesh networking were instrumental in the development of the laptop, which Negroponte says has come from 30 years of work in computers and education. Negroponte notes that the emphasis on open source is designed to encourage children to write software, and that the computers will be shipped with development tools already installed. Half of the world's servers run Linux or some Unix variant, and Negroponte believes the laptops will bring open source further into the mainstream. A programming environment will encourage children to learn the fundamental elements of problem solving and algorithms by building and experimenting--what Negroponte believes to be the purest way to learn. He hopes that the laptop will create legions of programmers who otherwise would never have even had access to a computer. Negroponte is also working to ensure that the laptops will have virus protections built in, and is currently shopping for a manufacturer.
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  • "A Tough Code to Crack the Market"
    Financial Times (11/18/05) P. 10; Bradbury, Danny

    While quantum cryptography shows the greatest promise of meeting the emerging security needs for government and enterprise, commercial development of the technology has been fraught with setbacks. Current security techniques use keys for the encryption and decryption of information, and are frequently repeated because of security concerns that arise when new keys are issued. Quantum key distribution (QKD) allows cryptographers to send new keys that are completely secure through light signals. The security comes from the fundamental law of quantum physics where an object's value changes if it is examined at the subatomic level, which means that any attempt by an eavesdropper to intercept data would be useless. The military has been the principal early adopter of QKD, having been attracted to the technology because, unlike current cryptography techniques, it is theoretically unbreakable. Commercial endeavors, such as banks, have been slower to embrace QKD, as they believe current security techniques are good enough, and more urgent problems, such as identity theft, are not addressed by QKD. Quantum cryptography is still a new technology that has yet to be certified, and remains largely the province of small companies spun off from academic institutions. As questions persist about how QKD will be worked into the telecommunications infrastructure, companies such as MagiQ Technologies are not waiting for the standardization process. MagiQ is marketing QVD to telecom providers as a proprietary technology, though technical obstacles remain, such as the distance at which quantum cryptography can be transmitted, a problem which will ultimately need satellites to resolve, casting a doubt over the immediacy of commercial adoption.

  • "Supercomputers Wasted Without Trained Users"
    Globe and Mail (CAN) (11/17/05); Schick, Shane

    A host of commercial applications has helped supercomputing to emerge from the lab as a field with viable practical applications, such as simulating the motion of a golf swing and the effects of the impact with the ball when designing a golf club. Enterprise applications include sophisticated billing systems and Web farms that place a premium on the speed at which a system operates. Supercomputing, the focus of an ACM-sponsored conference this week in Seattle, has also had a substantial impact on animation, aerospace, and library sciences. Developing talent and expertise is critical to the evolution of the supercomputing industry, however, as Adga CEO Jacques Lyrette noted recently in a proposal calling on the Canadian government to invest in supercomputer facilities and education. As supercomputers transform the operations of the business community, there will be a growing need for skilled professionals trained to operate and maintain the systems. Supercomputing has been a consistent source of innovation, and there are no signs of demand falling off for new devices such as the swing dancing robot developed by MIT graduate student Sommer Gentry to build on our understanding of human motor control. The commoditization of supercomputing components has also brought them within the financial reach of many enterprises, which will generally raise the expectations of a system's performance at every level of industry.
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  • "Online Learning's Frontier"
    Florida State University (11/15/05); Ray, Barry

    Florida State University associate professor of instructional systems Amy Baylor is working to humanize computers to make them more useful educators. The educational ability of PCs has historically been limited by the absence of human features, and Baylor's research has shown that humanizing machines improves their ability to teach and train users of all ages. Baylor is the director of FSU's Center for Research of Innovative Technologies for Learning (RITL), which is dedicated to using technology to enhance education. Baylor has created animated, three-dimensional characters known as pedagogical agents that function as the face of a computer, imitating human emotions and unspoken modes of communication to closely simulate the experience of having a real teacher. Pedagogical agents play to a user's strengths and weaknesses in a fashion that improves on the Microsoft Word paperclip, which Baylor describes as "annoying and intrusive." Since pedagogical agents are human creations, features such as age, gender, and ethnicity can be designed to pair well with the user, so as to maximize the value of the interaction. Baylor also sees the pedagogical agents as a way to attack stereotypes that undermine female participation in engineering by creating an interface that more women can relate to.
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  • "'Tagging' Gives Web a Human Meaning"
    CNet (11/16/05); Terdiman, Daniel

    An increasing number of Web services are being defined by tags--the searchable keywords that describe the images of Yahoo's Flickr photo sharing network and the content of many other online applications. Sometimes referred to as folksonomies, tagging systems greatly simplify the search process that had long been dominated by labor-intensive and inaccurate automated algorithms. Because tags are created by users rather than administrators, they bring a profoundly social dimension to Web content such as photography, blogs, and books. Given the emergence of tagging as a means of indexing Web content, some analysts predict that it could one day pose a competitive challenge to search companies such as Google when tag clouds that address large clusters of information appear. The popularity of tagging has created the concern that corporate interests could overtake the system and undermine its central purpose. That fear was realized when Yahoo bought Flickr and announced that every user must create a Yahoo account, drawing protest from its fiercely independent community of users. As the amount of content on the Web has proliferated with the advent of blogs and community sites, tagging has been recognized as the most effective way of managing the vast amounts of information. While some predict that tagging will become the province of large commercial search companies, others question the business value of a loosely federated system based on the voluntary participation of a community of users.
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  • "Tokyo Prof: All the World's a Computer"
    Electronic Engineering Times--Asia (11/16/05); Hara, Yoshiko

    Since his creation of the Real-time Operating System Nucleus (TRON), University of Tokyo professor Ken Sakamura has been involved in numerous projects to expand the applications of the technology, such as the T-Engine Forum, which Sakamura established in 2002 to encourage TRON-based embedded development. In a recent interview, Sakamura described the history of TRON and the Micro Ubiquitous Communicator, his latest invention that functions as a door key, electronic money, and authentication for a PC and is no larger than a matchbox. Sakamura began developing TRON out of his interest in applying embedded computing to consumer products. He has been consistently committed to open source, and notes that TRON is similar to Linux in its scalability that enables it to be applied to large and small systems. Sakamura credits open source with TRON's popularity, as the system is now in use in mobile phones, automobile engines, and digital cameras, and powers 60 percent of embedded systems in Japan. The T-Kernel was introduced to offer better networking capacity, and the T-Engine was developed to help standardize hardware boards. The T-Engine Forum has worked to ensure that software remains compatible with changing cores. Sakamura believes that open platforms will be critical for the success of a company as embedded systems take hold. The Ubiquitous ID Center was created to authorize a variety of RFID specifications and to ensure that the RFID space remains open, as opposed to EPCglobal, which Sakamura believes is working toward creating one standard format, which he maintains is impractical. The T-Engine Forum and the Ubiquitous ID Center are moving into other markets in Asia, and will soon expand to Europe and the United States.
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  • "US 'Relying on Private Companies to Counter Cyber-Terrorism'"
    Financial Times (11/16/05) P. 4; Nuttall, Chris; Morrison, Scott

    Many experts say the government is not doing enough to fight cyber-terrorism, which has become a major responsibility for the private sector. Dan Verton, executive editor of Homeland Defense Media in the United States and author of "Black Ice: The Invisible Threat of Cyber-Terrorism," says he is unsatisfied with federal efforts. CIA veteran and Boston University teacher Arthur Hulnick says the Department of Homeland Security does not have the funds to fight cyber-terrorism because it is not a priority for them, but Verton thinks it should be. "We have an unprecedented situation where a greater part of our national security interest is in the hands of private companies, whose mission is not to protect the U.S. but to make money and provide shareholder value," Verton said. "And the government has been unwilling to increase regulation that would improve cyber security." Mark Rasch, former head of the U.S. Department of Justice's computer crime unit, argues that limited funds have caused more important threats to the infrastructure to take top priority over cyber-terrorism. Despite criticism, the government has taken some action. Last month at the American Society for Industrial Security conference, one-fourth of the sessions were devoted to homeland security issues such as terrorism, counter-espionage, and new technology. There remains concern that the United States is still vulnerable to an attack similar to Sept. 11, 2001, that could target the electronic infrastructure.
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  • "Home Sweat Home"
    Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (11/12/05); Manktelow, Nicole

    Microsoft has taken more than just a hands-on approach to research: They are actually going inside customer's homes to make observations that will benefit modern technology. Anthropologist Anne Kirah performs field research for Microsoft in Australia by traveling to different families' homes that include parents, children and retirees, and taking notes on their daily use of technology such as ironing, childcare, and dieting, in hopes the study will lead to a greater personalization of Microsoft products. There are already over 25.7 million downloads to the company's Web site, ilovemessenger.msn.com, that allows users to choose characters that are a representation of themselves. This new method of fieldwork has critics saying Microsoft is getting a little too close for comfort, but others argue human-computer interaction is a vital tool for research. "There's no point going into people's homes and asking them about the products, the point is not to find out whether technology fits in, but to see what drives people," Kirah says. Peter Brawn of Access Testing, which uses an eye-tracking system to evaluate consumers, agrees with the new method. "We're measuring where people are looking," he says. It can help us to see how effectively they find information." Microsoft has high hopes the study will have a lasting impact on the development of upcoming products.
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  • "Velocity Java Engine Picks Up Speed"
    InfoWorld (11/14/05); Krill, Paul

    A new version of the open source Java solution for the Velocity template engine is now available for download from Apache Jakarta Velocity. The ability to configure tool parameters via the toolbox definition file is one of the major improvements in infrastructure offered in VelocityTools 1.2, which developers can use as a substitute for JavaServer Pages (JSP) Web development and the PHP scripting language. "There are also many new tools available for simplifying template development, including tools for working with lists and arrays transparently, sorting lists, alternating over value sets, and more," adds Nathan Bubna, leader of the VelocityTools project. Velocity is designed "to provide a simple, easy-to-use, cross platform, Java-friendly template engine useful in many types of software applications [and] to not evolve into a full-fledged scripting language," says Bubna. He says the application is easy to learn and use, and makes good use of the Model View Controller model, which will allow designers to focus on creating good-looking Web sites and enable programmers to devote their attention to writing high quality code.
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  • "Machines and Objects to Overtake Humans on the Internet: ITU"
    Agence France Presse (11/17/05)

    Machines and objects will one day overtake human beings as the biggest users of the Internet through a pervasive network that can provide connectivity "anytime, anywhere, by anyone and anything," predicts a new report from the U.N. International Telecommunications Union. The ITU envisions this network supporting such breakthroughs as independent communication between fridges and grocery stores, washing machines and clothing, and vehicles and stationary or moving objects. "Even particles and 'dust' might be tagged and networked," the report noted. "In this way the virtual world would map the real world, given that everything in our physical environment would have its own identity (a passport of sorts) in virtual cyberspace." Innovations such as miniature radio frequency identification tags, new sensor technology, nanotechnology, and smart devices are paving the way for this vision of all-encompassing connectivity. However, the report finds that privacy issues and other factors are likely to challenge this "Internet of Things." "In a world increasingly mediated by technology, we must ensure that the human core of our activities remains untouched," the ITU asserted.
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  • "Esperanto for Toasters"
    Technology Review (11/10/05); Tweney, Dylan

    Electronic manufacturers involved in the ZigBee Alliance believe they have a home networking standard that will enable a swarm of sensors to communicate with each other and turn the sensors into an intelligent network for the home that home automation advocates have fantasized about for years. The ZigBee wireless standard would allow someone to transmit a signal in their cell phone to open the door to their home, while transmitters in the door could cut on the lights, turn up the heat, warm up the hot tub, and turn on the stereo and computer. Compatible devices would be able to communicate regardless of the manufacturer, and the specification would form mesh or cluster networks automatically. "When they're being put together by people who don't know beans about networking, these devices have to be intelligent enough that they organize themselves into a network and maintain the network if something breaks," says alliance Chairman Bob Heile. ZigBee is based on the IEEE radio standard 812.15.4, and facilitates digital transmissions of up to 1 Mbps in the 2.4 GHz or 915 MHz frequency ranges. Inexpensive sensors will usher in a world in which intelligent, interconnected devices will quietly fulfill key roles in the background, says Institute for the Future director Paul Saffo.
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  • "Kramer Spearheads Impressive SC05 Showing"
    HPC Wire (11/11/05)

    The SC05 conference, sponsored jointly by ACM and IEEE, generated an impressive turnout this week, said William Kramer, who is chairing the event. Kramer noted that the strong showing among vendors is reflective of the thriving technology industry, though government participation has also been higher than expected. The conference has expanded its focus from previous years, having especially broadened its educational program that now draws scores of educators from high schools and colleges. This year's conference appears to have shaken off rumors of the ebbing relevance of high-performance computing, as evidenced by a record attendance mark owed in no small way to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates giving the keynote address. This year's conference also boasts SC Desktop, a platform for remotely viewing events at the conference. SC Desktop is designed to expand the participation of the conference as part of the broader initiative to increase interest in supercomputing, which Kramer believes will be critical to the sustained success of the industry. The conference is also filming a video to document the events and further expand its popularity. Microsoft and Boeing will both have an expanded presence at the conference, which is due partially to the close proximity to their corporate headquarters, but is also indicative of the expanding interest in supercomputing among the private sector.
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  • "It Takes a Hacker to Catch One"
    InformationWeek (11/14/05) No. 1064, P. 70; Greenemeier, Larry

    Thinking like a criminal may actually lead to catching one, according to several companies that are now training IT professionals to take a hands-on approach to learning security in the fight against hackers. Several commonly used hacking tools include using a reverse shell, which tricks a program into sending the attacker a command prompt for log in, and stealing other hackers' "fuzzer" codes that can be used to look for weak spots in that program's code. Prime View has implemented "Hacking-Defined Training," a 10-day class designed to teach laid-off IT workers how to write exploit code and hack computers. "Technology itself will not stop a hacker," says Mati Aharoni, lead penetration tester for See Security Technologies, and instructor for the class. "Instead, you have to use induction to understand what it takes to secure a network." Aharoni teaches students how to search for bugs, the components of a basic hack, and how to use exploit code. Bessalel Yarjovski, a student in the class, hopes the course will provide an edge to getting a job as a chief information security officer. "The class is opening my eyes not to new technology but to how easy it is to do these exploits and how many there are," says Yarjovski. Aharoni suggests network security can be improved by writing programs that control the type and amount of data that users input, so hackers cannot add too many characters, and improving QA testing after a program is written by applying hacking-defined methods to the code.
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  • "Driven by Design"
    Chronicle of Higher Education (11/18/05) Vol. 52, No. 13, P. A34; Read, Brock

    DARPA's Grand Challenge is an open invitation to college research teams and others to develop unmanned, self-navigating robotic vehicles that compete against each other in a race, and this year's competition was won by a modified Volkswagen Touareg designed by a Stanford University team led by computer science professor Sebastian Thrun. Contestants ranged from teams with strong corporate backing to scrappy contenders with the grit to qualify, while the majority of robots were SUVs or trucks equipped with computers, sensors, and global-positioning systems. Entrants faced sharp turns, rough terrain, narrow roads, and manmade impediments throughout the 132-mile Mohave Desert course, and it was the Stanford team's vehicle that crossed the finish line first. Vehicles competing in the previous Grand Challenge failed to finish the course or even get very far, so the successful completion of this year's contest was a justification of sorts for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) director Anthony Tether, who touted the event as the key driver of the Pentagon's initiative to develop robot military vehicle technology. The goal is to automate one-third of the U.S. military's ground vehicles by 2015, in accordance with a congressional mandate. The Grand Challenge demonstrated the feasibility of robotic vehicle navigation, and Thrun says it is now up to DARPA to fund further research. American robotics students do not have a wide range of high-profile projects to choose from, which is one reason why the United States is losing its global lead in this field, and why the Grand Challenge has acquired such enormous distinction. Race officials and researchers such as Thrun hope the 2005 Grand Challenge will help boost awareness of robotics' practical uses as well as improve public perception of robotics research.

  • "Smart Houses Close to Reality With New Wireless Sensors"
    Nikkei Weekly (11/07/05) Vol. 43, No. 2208, P. 16; Takatsuki, Takehisa

    Researchers in Japan are starting to focus more on sophisticated applications for sensing technology that could finally lead to the emergence of the smart house. The use of sensors to open doors as people approach them or turn on lights when someone enters a room is already a reality, but new wireless technology and software has researchers looking to take sensor technology to the next level. The Aizenen care facility in Tokyo is already taking advantage of ultrasonic tags fixed to wheelchairs to monitor and analyze behavior patterns of residents, such as the time and frequency of use of the bathroom, to aid its caregivers. The 24-hour monitoring systems is based on the research of Yoshifumi Nishida from the Digital Human Research Center of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, who is currently involved in developing software that uses ultrasonic tags to prevent indoor accidents involving infants. "The program can be used to help design safer buildings for kids," says Nishida. Meanwhile, the construction firm Ando has thrown its support behind a research effort to develop a system that would rely on sensors to warn condo owners when they have created enough noise to disturb people living beneath them. The cost of installing a large number of sensors in a room is still an issue, but Waseda University's Hitoshi Watanabe sees the use of affordable radio-frequency identity tags as a potential solution.

  • "Talent Exodus"
    Red Herring (11/14/05) Vol. 2, No. 43, P. 14

    The United States is losing intelligent foreigners in droves to their home countries, according to former Citigroup executive David Heenan, whose recent book, "Flight Capital," details the importing and exporting of international scholars that are needed for science and technology jobs in an ever-changing global society such as the United States. "The lesson for all public policy makers is that given the outsourcing phenomenon, the country needs to be moving up the value-added chain on the intellectual level," Heenan says. "If the U.S. doesn't target at the state or nation level, specific new opportunities, the marketplace by itself can't do it." A former teacher at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and Columbia University, Heenan interviewed several citizens in eight different countries who loved the United States but viewed their education system as "dumbing down teaching." In his book Heenan notes that 1,000 people leave the United States every day to go back to their home countries. Heenan's research showed eight of the 11 Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry in the last three years were born in other countries, and almost 40 percent of MIT graduate students are from overseas. Heenan says if these graduates go back to their home countries, it makes it difficult for America to find the next Bill Gates.