Dude, computer science is so sophomoric

The Washington Post takes a look at what effect the tech industry downturn has had on enrollment in undergraduate computer science programs. The short answer is that growth has ground to a halt. In 2001, CS enrollment dropped 1 percent, according to a report from the Computing Research Association. “And educators in the field say the trend seems to be accelerating, with some colleges seeing much greater drops as the new academic year begins,” the paper says. In its own backyard the Post found that at Virginia Tech, enrollment of undergraduates in the computer science department will drop 25 percent this year, to 300. At George Washington University, the number of incoming freshmen who planned to study computer science fell by more than half. Ironically, the Post notes, while near-term prospects may be a little dim, the U.S. Labor Department projects that software engineering will be the fastest-growing occupation between 2000 and 2010, with other computer-related industries trailing close behind.

When to pull the cyber trigger

The Washington Post, which built its reputation covering the federal government, has in the last year or two carved out a respectable niche in the tech sector. The two come together in stories like this, in which reporters Ariana Eunjung Cha and Jonathan Krim delve into the debate underway in the Bush administration on the proper rules of engagement for cyberwarfare. Bush’s point man on the topic, Richard Clarke, says it’s still nation-states that pose the biggest threat in the cyber arena, not terrorist groups. The administration has traced break-ins back to foreign governments and even reckons a state may have been involved in developing last year’s damaging Code Red virus. The prospect of more attacks has led the government to explore how far it is willing to go to counter such incidents. The Geneva Convention prohibits attacks on civilians, and given the interconnectedness of computers around the world, any campaign against an enemy military network could seep into computers at large — and even back to the U.S. itself. It’s a fun, thought-provoking read. So go read it.

Long-life contact lenses

A Texas scientist has discovered that a special metal coating could allow contact lens wearers to keep their lenses in for longer periods of time. Coating contacts with a one-molecule-thick layer of selenium, an antibacterial metal, keeps them bacteria-free for at least two months, says Ted Reid of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock. Although selenium can be toxic to humans in large quantities, these lenses would apparently be safe, with less selenium than you’d find in an average lunch. Reid hopes the coating could be used on other internal devices, like heart valves and catheters, and even suggests selenium-coated molecules could be used to keep people exposed to HIV from becoming infected. In other eye news, new eye-tracking software developed by scientists at Cambridge University could help computer users with disabilities write more quickly, accurately, and comfortably than before.

A lean green computing machine

PCs aren’t known for being great friends of the environment. Chip making uses toxic chemicals, wastes water, and pollutes both water and air. Computers and components fill up landfills and add heavy doses of lead to the solid waste stream. NEC Solutions America says it’s taking a step toward a more environmentally friendly computer with the PowerMate eco — the first all-in-one, fanless ecological PC. The PowerMate eco has a 15-inch flat panel screen that contain none of the boron found in traditional CRT monitors and radiates less heat than its tubular counterparts; its motherboard is made with lead-free solder; it uses laptop components and has a “boxless” design; it has no fan; and it is made of a 100 percent recyclable plastic. The desktop is targeted at high density computing locations where noise, heat and desktop real estate are big concerns — like call centers, hospitals, reception desks and financial trading rooms.

NASA, Northwest team on mind-reading tech

This is something that’s been talked about for years, though before Sept. 11 it was always in the context of a bank or high-security government facility, not Northwest Airlines. The upshot of this Washington Times article is that NASA and Northwest are teaming to see if mind-reading technology is feasible, and if so, can it be used to mass-screen airline passengers. Opinion is mixed, and no one in this article addresses the pharmaceutical countermeasures that could potentially be employed to calm a guilt- or panic-ridden brain and heart. Still, plenty creepy.

Mice in the news

It has been a big week for the common lab mouse. Tests in mice showed that the deadly botulism toxin could be neutralized with an experimental drug. The drug, fashioned from two antibodies from mice and one from a human, could be mass-produced and thus could be used as a deterrent to the use of botulism toxin as a weapon. In other mouse news, scientists at the Universiy of Pennsylania have figured out that they can turn mice into goat and pig sperm “factories” by grafting testes onto their backs. The technique could be used in the future to make sperm for young cancer patients left infertile after treatment, to help human couples struggling with male fertility problems, and to preserve species close to extinction. The most amazing mouse news of the week? Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston created a transgenic mouse with Lance Armstrong-like capabilities, able to endure hard exercise for extended periods of time.

U.S. got its e-bomb on

New Scientist says that a military attack on Iraq could see the first use of an e-bomb designed to destroy electronics but not harm people. U.S. intelligence reports that Iraq has moved much of its military infrastructure underground or beneath civilian buildings like hospitals. As such, the magazine says, the role of non-lethal and precision weapons would be a critical factor in any conflict. The U.S. reportedly has in its arsenal High Power Microwave (HPM) devices that produce an electromagnetic field so strong they can destroy electronic equipment in hardened command, control, communications and computer targets. One mechanism for achieving this sounds like something out of “Back to the Future”: An explosive pumped flux generator. That device is essentially a bomb which with a combination of explosives and electronics, sends out an electromagnetic wave of up to tens of millions of Amps. By comparison, a typical lightning strike — which can wreak plenty of damage on its own — carries just 30,000 Amps.

Edsger Wybe Dijkstra: 1930-2002

John Mahoney writes: “Noted computer scientist Edsger Wybe Dijkstra died on August 6, 2002.” Here’s a link to what looks like a university obituary on Dijkstra and here’s part of what CNET’s News.com had to say about him: “Dijkstra was on the committee that created Algol, the first block-structured programming language and one that introduced many ideas behind Pascal, Basic and C. His practical skills, especially in discerning and coding algorithms, were also remarkable–he wrote the first Algol 60 compiler. Other ideas he invented or helped define include structured programming, stacks, vectors, semaphores, synchronized processes and the notorious deadly embrace–feared by multitasking programmers the world over–where two processes both stop while they wait for each other to continue.”

Silicon storage: That’s a lot of data!

Richard Feynman once said that all the information in all the books in the world could theoretically fit in a cube 1/200th of an inch on a side. Looks like he got it right, says Technology Research News. Reporting on advances in data storage, the magazine says researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison have demonstrated the successful use of single silicon atoms to represent the ones and zeroes that are modern data storage. The result, in theory, is the ability to store the equivalent of 7,800 DVDs in one square inch of material. Engineering limitations mean writing atomic bits is impractically slow at the moment. But the Madison work is a realistic analysis of bit stability and recording density, says one scientist who has examined the work.

Europe warns — correctly — of hack attack

The U.S. government Tuesday morning was monitoring attacks against U.S. Internet providers, hours after European authorities warned the FBI that such an onslaught was likely. A spike of data seven times larger than normal was aimed at East Coast ISPs and Web sites beginning about 2 a.m., the Associated Press reports. The attack then shifted to West Coast facilities. Because the campaign emanated from a relatively small number of computers, the targets were generally able to withstand the barrage by filtering data from the offending machines. Just before the data flood began, the FBI issued an extraordinary warning citing “credible but non-specific information that wide-scale hacker attacks” were planned against U.S. Web sites and Internet providers, the AP said. The European tip-off came from Italian authorities. No word on how they knew it was coming.

IBM (hearts) NY

IBM Wednesday opened a sophisticated semiconductor plant in East Fishkill, NY. The $2.5 billion facility is the single biggest capital investment the company has ever made, and presumably reflects an optimism that things will improve for the tech sector generally, and the beleaguered chip business in particular.

The new factory will make processors for everything from videogames and cell phone to mainframe computers. “The plant also will be the first to mass produce circuits thinner than 0.1 micron, or 1,000 times thinner than a human hair,” the Associated Press reports. “The old standard was 0.25 microns, with some chips now at 0.18 microns. The thinner lines, or conduits, allow chips to run faster and use less electricity.”

When it begins normal production next year, the factory is expected to employ about 1,000 East Fishkillers.

Powell to Congress: UUNET could shut down

FCC Chairman Michael Powell sent a good strong scare into lawmakers Tuesday when he testified that WorldCom might be able to shut down its UUNET subsidiary’s Internet backbone without government approval. UUNET is a major component on the Internet, and its loss could potentially have devastating effects, particularly on corporate and government clients.

“Mr. Powell said he was confident in the long-term health of the telecom industry,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “But in the short term, ‘there are question marks’ about whether the FCC can order a bankrupt company’s Internet subsidiary to keep its backbone operational. ‘I could hypothesize that (the company) would refuse to comply.'”

After Powell’s shake-em-up, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, said he would introduce legislation to clarify the agency’s authority over Internet-backbone companies like UUNET. The Journal notes that the panel reacted positively to Powell’s request for Congress to strengthen the FCC’s jurisdiction over telecom companies that file for bankruptcy protection, to ensure it can stop them from shutting down essential services.