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.

Meteor girl one in a billion

The odds of getting hit by a meteorite are pretty slim. Say, one in several billion. But a Yorkshire girl looks to have been that lucky loner, and best of all, she wasn’t killed or maimed in the process. As reported by the BBC, 14-year-old Siobhan Cowton was getting into the family car outside her home last Thursday when a stone fell on her foot from the sky. The stone, which was “quite hot, ? looked very unusual, with a bubbled surface and tiny indentations like volcanic lava,” the teen said. She showed it to her dad, who was likewise taken by the heavenly descender. According to Dr. Benny Peiser, of Liverpool John Moores University, the stone could have come from Mars. After some testing, the Cowtons plan to have the rock mounted in a glass case so Siobhan can keep it for the rest of her life. “After all,” says poppa, “it is not every day you get hit by a meteorite.”

Reefs in trouble

Today a program called Reef Check at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment released the results of a massive, five-year volunteer-run survey of the planet’s coral reefs — what may be the world’s most comprehensive ecological study to date. Unfortunately the study reveals that the reefs around the world are in serious decline, and that the
“>situation is only getting worse
. Overfishing has affected 95 percent of the more than 1,107 coral reefs monitored since 1997; at least four species of reef fish, hunted as food or for aquariums, face extinction, according to the study. So how do you monitor the coral reefs, which make up less than .09% of the area of the world’s oceans and are spread around the globe? Volunteers, lots of them. Reef Check scientists taught teams of sea-worthy volunteers — from recreational divers to village fisherman — about reef ecology and scientific monitoring. About 5,000 scientists and volunteers contributed. According to Reef Check’s founder, Gregor Hodgson, of the reefs surveyed, just one, near Madagascar, could be considered pristine. “What we have seen is coral reefs have been damaged more in the last 20 years than they have in the last 1,000,” Hodgson said. “Suddenly, the pressures of overfishing and damaging types of fishing — dynamiting fish and poisoning fish, particularly in Southeast Asia — have taken off.”

Sexy beast

Long, dark manes on male lions are more more attractive to females than shorter, lighter manes, researchers reported in today’s issue of the journal Science. Peyton West and Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota set up dummy lions with different mane types at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. While males were more inclined to approach dummies with lighter, shorter manes, females were drawn to the dummies with big, dark hair. There’s good reason for this: blood tests revealed that males with darker manes tend to have higher levels of testosterone. But the most-wanted males pay a price for their looks: the dark hairs make the lions hotter, literally, and this extra heat results in a good deal of abnormal sperm.

Brain tumors for early adopters

Something to think about tonight, in bed, alone. A Swedish study has found that users of early mobile phones face an 80 percent greater chance of developing brain tumors than those who did not use them. Granted, the phones in question ran on something called the Analog Nordic Mobile Telephone standard, popular in northern Europe, Russia and the Baltics. But the system is still in place in 40 countries. So let’s hope on that trip to Norway last summer you didn’t borrow your pal’s handset for a quick call to mom. By the way, is that your head pounding, or mine?

No ‘Fear Factor’ for Thai goverment

Government officials in Thailand have been whining about the new trend of adopting giant African roaches as pets. Because they make lousy pets? No. Because they’re supposedly filthy. The people of Bangkok — like children in classrooms and museums the world over — are quite taken with the large Madagascar hissing cockroach, and are snapping them up at the popular Chatuchak market. But the goverment is worried that escaped roaches could become a health risk and is asking vendors to stop selling them. The Madagascar hissing cockroach is a docile, slow-paced creature that can grow to 3 inches and live for more than 3 years; its name derives from the fact that it can force air through a pair of breathing pores in its abdomen to make a hissing noise. It has not been established that roaches actually do spread disease, though some people are allergic to the feces of certain species. The hissing roach lives outdoors in the jungles of Madagascar with the lemurs and chameleons, and like 99 percent of roach species is not a household pest. (And check out the roach cam.)

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.

Intel’s latest: Two brains, one chip

Apple in recent years has sought to close the megahertz gap with Intel and Advanced Micro Devices by selling high-end machines that come with two processors instead of one. Thus, a dual-processor 1.2GHz G4 can reasonably claim to compete with a 2.5GHz Intel box. But Intel reckons there’s more than one way to build a two-brained beast and is experimenting with putting two processor cores on a single piece of silicon. It’s a process that CNET’s News.com says over the next decade will improve performance and reduce power consumption. One advantage is the ability to better dissipate heat. When a series of calculations has Core A chugging along at full steam, its transistors can hit temperatures that start to degrade performance. When that happens, the chip can “hop” some of the work over to Core B for an overall performance improvement. Another approach is to have Core A and Core B specialize in different things, similarly spreading the number-crunching responsibility around.