New Texas law requires more class details online

Public colleges and universities in Texas face the cost of making more detailed class descriptions available online so students and parents can get a better idea of what they’re getting for their money, reports the Austin American-Statesman. Some administrators are scrambling to find the money to institute the new law, which takes effect this fall, as schools face potential funding cuts. The 2011 Texas Legislature must deal with a projected budget shortfall of up to $18 billion. “Higher education is one of the largest investments you’ll make in your life,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham. She hopes the additional information will make students less likely to drop classes, but Martyn Gunn, vice provost for academic affairs at Texas A&M University, said he does not think students will benefit. “We’re faced with laying off faculty in the next biennium to meet the budget cuts, and here we are spending a couple of hundred thousand dollars to implement this,” said Gunn. Kolkhorst’s bill reportedly marks the first time all public institutions in the state have been ordered to make more information available to students and anyone else. The law requires information about class assignments, the curriculum, and student evaluations of faculty, plus details on department budgets, for every undergraduate class…

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End of gay teen web site sparks privacy concerns

A now-defunct web site that catered to gay youth is now ensnared in a federal bankruptcy proceeding that its founder says could result in as many as 1 million profiles being sold to creditors, putting its former subscribers’ privacy at risk, CNET reports. XY, which billed itself as a young gay men’s magazine and could be found at XY.com, ceased publishing in 2007. Its founder filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year, which could put names, addresses, eMail addresses, unpublished personal stories, and other information about gay minors into creditors’ hands. The Federal Trade Commission recently expressed its concerns, saying in a letter to creditors and attorneys involved in the case that “any sale, transfer, or use” of XY’s personal information “raises serious privacy issues and could violate” federal law. XY’s creditors have hired a lawyer to obtain the personal information held by the magazine and web site. But because XY.com’s privacy policy said, “We never give your info to anybody,” any personal data should be “destroyed,” wrote David Vladeck, the head of the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection, in a letter this month. The question of who owns personal data collected by a failed company, and what should be done with it, is not a new question—but none of those earlier bankruptcy proceedings included information as sensitive as the customer list for a magazine and web site that targeted gay youth between 13 and 17 years old who were in the process of grappling with their sexual identity…

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iPhone 4 contains a design flaw, testers say

Consumer Reports, America’s trusted source of product reviews, said it would not recommend the iPhone 4 because of a hardware flaw with its antenna that sometimes resulted in dropped calls, reports the New York Times. The independent consumer magazine also cast doubt on Apple’s recent explanation that a software bug had caused the widely reported problem. Apple did not return requests for comment. Consumer Reports did not slap the iPhone 4 with a “don’t buy” warning, which it sometimes issues for shoddy or unsafe products. But it said that because of the design flaw, it would not recommend it as it did the previous version of the iPhone, the 3GS. The next question is, Will any of Apple’s customers even care? The various versions of the iPhone have been panned a number of times for myriad problems, real or perceived: slow network, cracked screens, dropped calls, and no support for the popular web video format Flash. But iPhone sales have surpassed even the most optimistic forecasts and helped make Apple the most valuable company in the technology industry. And despite early reports of problems with the iPhone 4 antenna, Apple sold 1.7 million units in just three days, making it the best-selling new technology gadget in Apple’s history. Still, analysts say Apple eventually could suffer from the bad publicity it had received over the antenna problems and for its seemingly contradictory responses…

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Amazon opens supercomputing service

A new option for Amazon Web Services has arrived, CNET reports: the raw computing power of supercomputing clusters now widely used in research circles. The service, called Cluster Compute, is a variation of one of the earliest services Amazon offered, EC2, or Elastic Compute Cloud. Compared to the standard EC2, it offers more processing power and faster network connections among the cluster’s computing nodes for better communications, Amazon said in a July 13 announcement. It retains the same general philosophy, though: Customers pay as they go, with more usage incurring more fees. The cluster service, which is available with Linux and a customer’s own software added into the mix, is best suited to parallel tasks that can be divided into independent pieces that run simultaneously. How fast is it? An 880-node cluster reached 41.82 teraflops, or floating-point operations per second, using the Linpack mathematical speed test. By contrast, the 145th-fastest machine on the most recent Top500 list of the fastest supercomputers reached a sustained speed of 41.88 teraflops…

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China seeks to reduce internet users’ anonymity

A leading Chinese internet regulator has vowed to reduce anonymity in China’s portion of cyberspace, calling for new rules to require people to use their real names when buying a mobile phone or going online, reports the Associated Press. In an address to the national legislature in April, Wang Chen, director of the State Council Information Office, called for perfecting the extensive system of censorship the government uses to manage the fast-evolving internet, according to a text of the speech obtained by New York-based Human Rights in China. China’s regime has a complicated relationship with the freewheeling internet, reflected in its recent standoff with Google over censorship of search results. China this week confirmed it had renewed Google’s license to operate, after Google agreed to stop automatically rerouting users to its Hong Kong site, which is not subject to China’s online censorship. The internet is China’s most open and lively forum for discussion, despite already pervasive censorship, but stricter controls could constrain users. The country’s online population has surged past 400 million, making it the world’s largest…

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Schools save money with refurbished computers

CDI employees test, clean, and upgrade each piece of equipment.

CDI employees test, clean, and upgrade each piece of equipment.

At less than half the cost of purchasing new computers, buying high-quality refurbished machines is cheaper and more efficient, some education technology directors say—and that’s a big deal with school budgets stretched so thin.

It’s also more environmentally friendly, which can be a big factor, too.

McNairy County Schools in Tennessee bought 300 used Dell laptops for its one-to-one computing initiative from CDI, Computer Dealers Inc., one of the largest computer resellers in North America. The district plans to buy 300 more from CDI when more funding comes.

“We don’t have very much money here, and I’m trying to get as many laptops in the classroom as I can,” said Terry Burns, McNairy County’s technology coordinator. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. If you get Dell refurbs with a three-year warranty, or a four-year warranty, … that’s the same thing as a new Dell to me.”

And they come at a fraction of the cost: CDI’s used computers cost one-half to one-third of the price of new computers bought directly from companies such as Dell, HP, and Lenovo.

“Whatever you would pay for one computer from Dell, you can get two, maybe three, from us,” said Saar Pikar, senior vice president and general manager of CDI, which is based in Markham, Canada, and operates as a subsidiary of U.S.-based Relational Technology Solutions.

CDI resells name-brand computer equipment—including laptops, desktops, LCDs, servers, and printers—that was leased to Fortune 500 companies and returned, or is brand-new “end-of-the-line” product inventory that computer companies never sold.

Getting over the stigma associated with buying used equipment is one of the biggest challenges—but CDI’s no-questions-asked warranty and its exceptional service have helped.

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Project lets users explore the cosmos from a PC

Terapixel enables seamless panning and zooming over the entire night sky.

Terapixel enables seamless panning and zooming over the entire night sky.

In a project that aims to pull a new generation of students toward science and technology, Microsoft and NASA have teamed up to create what they say is the largest seamless, spherical map ever made of the night sky, as well as a true-color, high-resolution map of Mars that users can explore on their computers in 3D.

The mission, Microsoft and NASA say, is to inspire today’s students and spark interest in the STEM fields, and it appears to be working: In studying photos of Mars taken by a NASA spacecraft, a group of seventh graders in California earlier this year discovered a previously unknown cave, as well as lava tubes that NASA scientists hadn’t noticed.

“What we’re trying to do at NASA is make our data more accessible,” said Chris Kemp, chief technology officer for NASA, in an interview with eSchool News, “and we’re doing that by connecting students in the classroom and at home to a user-friendly platform.”

Called Terapixel, the night sky project is now available for viewing with Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope, a free, web-based program that functions as a virtual telescope, bringing together imagery from ground and space-based telescopes to enable seamless, guided explorations of the universe. Created with Microsoft’s Visual Experience Engine, it enables seamless panning and zooming across the night sky, blending terabytes of images, data, and stories from multiple sources over the internet into an immersive experience.

The WorldWide Telescope program debuted in May 2008 and includes images from the Hubble Space Telescope, Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and many more sources. Users can browse through the galaxy at their leisure or take guided tours developed by astronomers, academics, and sometimes very smart middle schoolers.

“The U.S. really needs to get re-stimulated by science,” said Tony Hey, corporate vice president of Microsoft External Research, “and we’re trying to do that by providing full access, in a visually stunning and understandable way, to astronomers’ data and research.”

The night sky project, as well as the Mars 3D project, began 50 years ago as photos were taken of the night sky by ground-based survey telescopes. Over five decades, thousands of images were taken by NASA and stored with the Digitized Sky Survey. The challenge then became: How can scientists take these various images and make them into a single, unified image for exploring via computer?

According to Hey, that’s where Microsoft’s Project Trident came in.

Built on the Windows Workflow Foundation, Trident is a “scientific workflow workbench,” an open-source program that allows scientists to visualize and explore data; compose, run, and catalog experiments as workflows; and estimate the cost of the resources that such a workflow will require. Microsoft’s research department developed Trident as a tool for oceanographers to analyze and synthesize data coming from sensors on the ocean floor, but it became a logical choice to analyze and piece together data about the night sky, Hey said.

Using Trident and the DryadLINQ interface for Microsoft’s .NET platform, a programming environment for writing parallel data applications running on large computer clusters, scientists were able to combine thousands of images and systematically remove differences in exposure, brightness, noise floor, and color saturation—creating a “terapixel” image: a complete, spherical, seamless, panoramic rendering of the night skies that, if displayed at full size, would require 50,000 high-definition televisions to view.

Using these software tools reduced the time it took to run one iteration of the image from weeks to hours, making the creation of an image of this size and quality possible for the first time.

The entire process took only six months, said Hey, which is a breakthrough in this type of project. “Since it’s the first time we’ve done it, of course you learn a lot of things, and we’re looking forward to expanding this process,” he said.

The WorldWide Telescope’s Night Sky view is also available using Bing’s street view feature, allowing users to look up at the night sky from a particular area on the map. Inside Bing Maps, users first need to click on “Map Apps” and select WorldWide Telescope to enable the program.

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Practice the plan

HandcuffedRecently police officers moved through a Florida middle school hunting for a gunman that had opened fire on campus. There was blood everywhere. Students were lying on the floor, wounded. Fortunately, the shooter was never found…

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Student programmers solve real-world challenges

Team Skeek from Thiland took home the grand prize at this years Imagine Cup.

Team Skeek from Thailand took home the grand prize at this years Imagine Cup.

An interface that allows hearing-impaired people to communicate with others using an augmented-reality environment took home the grand prize of $25,000 in the eighth annual Imagine Cup Worldwide Finals in Poland, a prestigious international programming contest for high school and college students.

Team Skeek, a team of university students from Thailand, was responsible for the project, which also took first place in the software design category.

The winning project, eyeFeel, allows hearing-impaired people to communicate with others using an augmented-reality environment that combines speech and face recognition, converts it to English from text, and generates virtual conversation text balloons and sign language animation in real time.

“We wanted to implement something that would have a unique impression on the user and also be fun to use,” said Pichai Sodsai of team Skeek, who attends Kasetsart University. “We dared to dream and worked hard to make it come true.”

This year’s Imagine Cup, sponsored by Microsoft Corp., began with a field of more than 325,000 high school and university students representing more than 100 countries and regions and culminated with a weeklong celebration in Warsaw. During the week, students demonstrated their real-world solutions to challenges using Microsoft products and competed for cash prizes totaling $240,000 across five competition categories and six awards. This year’s projects primarily focused on solving challenges in education, health care, and the environment.

“We have a dream that all students will be equal in the classroom,” said team member Pichai Sodsai. “That’s why we built eyeFeel.

Team Skeek said they will keep working on eyeFeel to bring it to market. Currently, eyeFeel only supports English, so the team’s next step is to embed Thai-language support.

Team SmarterME from Taiwan, the winning team in the Embedded Development category, wants to help consumers keep an eye on power-hungry appliances. The team developed its Smarter Meter project after one of its members received a sky-high electricity bill, said Yi-Sheng Lai, a student at National Chiao Tung University.

“After that, we were always trying to reduce our power consumption,” he said. “We realized having a single meter would help track a power footprint. That’s how we came up with the idea for the Smarter Meter.”

Smarter Meter provides detailed power consumption information to users. At a glance, homeowners can see what appliances are responsible for the bulk of their electricity use, which team members say will help people reduce their energy use and save money. The team won $25,000.

Also winning $25,000, team By Implication from the Philippines won the Game Design category for its game, Wildfire. Wildfire is a video game about saving the world through social action and volunteerism, says Philip Cheang, a student at Ateneo de Manila University. In the game, players take on rampant poverty, gender inequality, and environmental degradation with the hope of defeating those enemies.

Weiqiu Wen, of Huazhong University of Science and Technology, won the IT Challenge and a cash award of $8,000. The IT Challenge calls on competitors to develop, deploy, and maintain their own IT systems. This year’s competition asked participants to come up with a system that kept power consumption to a minimum.

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Students, meet your new teacher, Mr. Robot

Computer scientists are developing machines that can teach people simple skills, like household tasks and vocabulary, reports the New York Times. A dark-haired 6-year-old is playing with a new companion. The two hit it off quickly—unusual for the 6-year-old, who has autism—and the boy is imitating his playmate’s every move, now nodding his head, now raising his arms. “Like Simon Says,” says the autistic boy’s mother, seated next to him on the floor. Yet soon he begins to withdraw; in a video of the session, he covers his ears and slumps against the wall. But the companion, a three-foot-tall robot being tested at the University of Southern California, maintains eye contact and performs another move, raising one arm up high. Up goes the boy’s arm—and now he is smiling at the machine. In a handful of laboratories around the world, computer scientists are developing robots like this one: highly programmed machines that can engage people and teach them simple skills. So far, the teaching has been very basic, delivered mostly in experimental settings, and the robots are still works in progress—a hackers’ gallery of moving parts that, like mechanical savants, each do some things well at the expense of others. Yet the most advanced models are fully autonomous, guided by artificial intelligence software like motion tracking and speech recognition, which can make them just engaging enough to rival humans at some teaching tasks. Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines should begin to learn as they teach, becoming the sort of infinitely patient, highly informed instructors that would be effective in subjects like foreign language or in repetitive therapies used to treat developmental problems like autism…

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