Skip to Content

CSE News

  • CSE Alumna and Ph.D. Student Launch Kickstarter Campaign for Game to Teach Coding

    CSE students and colleagues who set up a company to help teach kids how to code have turned to the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform to raise funds. On September 2, the startup company ThoughtSTEM launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 for further development of the CodeSpells educational videogame, and within a few hours, it had already topped $7,500. CodeSpells was originally built by recent CSE Ph.D. graduate Sarah Esper (far right) and CSE Ph.D. student Stephen Foster (near right) as a vehicle to teach software programming to young children. Foster and Esper later teamed with UCSD Ph.D. bioengineering student Lindsey Handler to create the company ThoughtSTEM to provide after-school programs and summer camps where they used an early prototype of CodeSpells to teach coding.

    CodeSpells – which began originally as a research project under CSE Prof. Bill Griswold – allows players to craft their own magic spells in what ThoughtSTEM calls "the ultimate spellcrafting sandbox." The program uses an intuitive drag-and-drop language that even children can use. Students can learn to code, syntax-error free, using a Blockly spell-crafting interface that has all the tools available in Javascript. When they've learned all the programming concepts from Blockly, students can move on to typing Javascript code.

    If the Kickstarter campaign raises the minimum $50,000 by early October, ThoughtSTEM will undertake a makeover of CodeSpells' look and feel, gameplay, and coding interface. The game will eventually allow student wizards to master each of five elements – earth, fire, water, air, and life – but initially only one element of gameplay, earth, is available (pictured at left). The Kickstarter funding would allow ThoughtSTEM to develop three more elements, and to enhance the overall game. On Christmas Day 2014, the alpha version of CodeSpells will be released to anyone providing $80 or more in backing, followed by the beta release in June 2014 to backers at the $30-and-up level. Feedback from those early users will help the team improve the gameplay, and if funding is available beyond 2015, ThoughtSTEM will release the 'life' element of the game, featuring creatures, plants and non-player characters, in 2016.

    Visit the Kickstarter campaign for CodeSpells: Express Yourself with Magic.

  • CSE Professor Elected to Academia Europaea

    CSE Prof. Victor Vianu is one of only 16 new members elected to the Informatics section of the Academia Europaea, the Academy of Europe, which is their version of the combined U.S. National Academies. The Academy has 3000 members of which 229 elected this year across all areas. "It was indeed a nice surprise," says Vianu, "especially since very few non-Europeans are elected." In announcing the honor, the Academia noted Vianu's fields of scholarship in database systems and theory, computational logic, and automatic verification. While he has been a professor at UC San Diego since 1983, since then he has also taken sabbaticals at INRIA, France's public research institution dedicated to computater science. Through November 2018, Vianu also holds a five-year INRIA International Chair at INRIA-Saclay, just southwest of Paris. Vianu's past honors include being elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2013, the 2010 ACM PODS Alberto O. Mendelzon Test-of-Time Award, and being elected Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery in 2006.

  • Ph.D. Student Wins Science Policy Fellowship

    CSE graduate student Natalie Larson recently received a three-year Department of Defense SMART fellowship to finish her Ph.D. Now she has been selected as one of three inaugural IR/PS Science Policy Fellows, a program launched for the 2014-'15 academic year by the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. Applicants had to be graduate students enrolled in UC San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, or School of Medicine. In addition to a $1,000 stipend (which Larson will spend on policy-related research and travel), the fellowship gives awardees access to IR/PS personnel to explore the policy implications of their work. In Larson's case, her Ph.D. work is in the area of Internet measurement.  "It has a strong policy component because traffic management practices of network service providers, transit providers and content distributors can heavily influence Internet topology and performance.  Policymakers are still trying to learn enough about the Internet ecosystem to develop regulations regarding such entities that will protect consumers and innovation without hindering investment," explains Larson.  "The IR/PS Science Policy Fellows Program will allow me to work directly and closely with policy experts."

    Last week Larson also learned that she was selected to receive a Student Travel Grant to the 2014 Internet Measurement Conference, set to take place in Vancouver, Canada in November. While she doesn't have a paper at IMC, she expects to be working on topics that may come up at the conference, including tomographic techniques to localize Internet congestion and infer its causes.

    Read more about the IR/PS Science Policy Fellows Program.

  • Best Industry Paper Awarded to CSE Alumna at KDD 2014

    Over 2,000 people attended the 20th ACM SIG International Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (KDD 2014), a premier interdisciplilnary conference that brings together researchers and practitioners from data science, data mining, knowledge discovery, large-scale data analytics, and big data.

    Best paper awards were handed out to academic and industry papers, and this year's Industry & Government award went to CSE alumna Diane Hu (pictured far right, receiving the award). Hu and her co-authors were cited for their paper, "Style in the Long Tail: Discovering Unique Interests with Latent Variable Models in Large Scale Social E-commerce." The CSE alumna (M.S. '09, Ph.D. '12 under CSE Prof. Lawrence Saul, her advisor) and her co-authors, Rob Hall and Josh Attenberg, all work at Etsy, Inc., the e-commerce website that bills itself as "the world's most vibrant" marketplace for handmade or vintage items and supplies. Etsy attracts developers with its slogan, "We believe in code as craft."

    In the award-winning paper, Etsy data scientist Hu and her colleagues tackle the challenge of matching buyers to products "as the size and diversity of the marketplace increases." With over 30 million diverse listings, Etsy must deal with the problem of capturing shoppers' aesthetic preferences in order to steer them to items that fit their eclectic styles. In her talk, Hu described the methods and experiments underlying two new style-based recommendation systems on the Etsy site. One is called Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA). LDA discovers trending categories and styles on Etsy, which are then used to describe a user's "style" profile. Hu and her colleagues also explored hashing methods to perform fast nearest neighbor search on a map-reduce framework, in order to efficiently obtain recommendations. "These techniques have been implemented successfully at very large scale," concluded Hu, "substantially improving many key business metrics."

    Knock It Off

    Current CSE faculty and students were also represented on the KDD program. 5th-year Ph.D. student Matthew Der (M.S. '13, Ph.D. '15 expected) collaborated on a paper with his three advisors – Lawrence Saul, Stefan Savage and Geoffrey Voelker – called, "Knock It Off: Profiling the Online Storefronts of Counterfeit Merchandise." The team developed an automated system for classifying illegal online storefronts according to which "affiliate program" (or business) runs the store. Their approach was to extract features from the HTML source code of the Web pages; these features capture the similar underlying structure of storefronts that link to the same affiliate program. Experiments showed that the system is highly accurate in classifying the storefronts of "44 distinct affiliate programs that account, collectively, for hundreds of millions of dollars in illicit e-commerce," according to the paper.

  • From Flash Memory Security to Machine Consciousness

    The 20th anniversary of the Neuromorphic Cognition Engineering Workshop took place last month, and participants spent three weeks in Telluride, CO, working on ambitious projects in neuromorphic engineering. Stephen Deiss was a participant in the first Telluride workshop in 1994 and he was back at the 2014 workshop, this time as a staff engineer from CSE's Non-Volatile Systems Laboratory (NVSL). Working under CSE Prof. and NVSL Director Steven Swanson, Deiss supports projects characterizing flash memory security and new user tools for building simple electronic devices.

    "The early workshops focused on bringing people up to speed on the neuroscience of sensory and motor systems, as well as analog VLSI designs to mimic those neural circuits," recalls Deiss, who previously developed the 'Silicon Cortex' board, one of the first neuromorphic hardware platforms for testing analog VLSI neuromorphic chips. "That component is still very much alive at Telluride today, but in recent years the field has started to focus much more on capturing all aspects of cognition." 

    Participants in the 2014 workshop covered areas ranging from EEG capture and interpretation, robotics from biological, dynamical systems and neuroengineering perspectives, wearable navigation aids, vision systems, and fundamental neuroscience from synapses to cortical integration processes. CSE's Deiss also participated in the "Neuromorphic Olympics," a competition involving small 'pushbots' and a Sumo wrestling-type game in which the robots compete to push each other out of a circle. Deiss finished in third place.

  • CSE Alumnus and New Faculty Member Picks Up Award in Scotland

    One of CSE's newest teaching professors, Leo Porter, has just received a best-paper award that recognizes his work as a researcher in the field of peer instruction. The Chair's Award at the annual ICER meeting recognizes the paper that best illustrates "the highest standards of empirical computing education research." At ICER 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland, the award honored Porter's paper on "predicting student success using fine grain clicker data."

    Porter (far right) was on hand to receive the award from conference chair Quintin Cutts, on behalf of himself and his two co-authors from Canada (Daniel Zingaro from the University of Toronto Misssissauga) and Australia (Raymond Lister from the University of Technology, Sydney).

    CSE alumnus Porter (M.S. '07, Ph.D. '11) and his colleagues used data derived from the use of clickers in the classroom, and they reported that clicker data can help predict which students are likely to succeed, or fail, on the final exam in an introductory computer science class. "Our results identify performance during the first three weeks of the term as a significant predictor of their success," notes Porter, who joined the CSE faculty at UC San Diego as of July 1, from Skidmore College. "It also allows us to identify which individual questions were most meaningful." Specifically, the paper found that the predictive nature of the questions in the study applied to code-writing questions, multiple-choice questions, and the final exam as a whole.

  • Computer Engineering Ph.D. Student Receives ARCS Fellowship

    CSE Ph.D. student Dustin Richmond will be an ARCS Scholar for the 2014-15 academic year. ARCS stands for Achievement Rewards for College Scientists, and the one-year award carries with it a $7,500 stipend. Richmond joined the Ph.D. program at UC San Diego in 2012 after finishing his electrical and computer engineering undergraduate degrees at the University of Washington.

    Richmond (at right) first learned about the ARCS program from his Ph.D. advisor, CSE Prof. Ryan Kastner. The student believes that a key to landing the ARCS fellowship was his involvement in CSE activities. "I've been active in a variety of capacities, including as chair of the Graduate Community Council, as lead for graduate student visit day, and various other opportunities," observes Richmond. "These volunteer experience have helped me meet all sorts of people in the department, and in return, they were willing to nominate me for the award." In his first year, Richmond worked with Cognex to design an ultra-high-speed image processing pipeline for active 3D scanners using a system based on field-programmable gate arrays, or FPGAs, to decompress and process 20,000+ images per second. Richmond has also participated in the Engineers for Exploration program, most recently joining an expedition to Guatemala to survey Mayan ruins using state-of-the-art LIDAR scanners.

  • Caught Between Theory, Practice and Peer Review

    The CRYPTO 2014 conference attracted nearly 400 experts to UC Santa Barbara recently, where one of the highlights was the Aug. 18 International Association for Cryptologic Research (IACR) Distinguished Lecture by CSE Prof. Mihir Bellare from UC San Diego.

    While he presented for an audience with specific interests in cryptology and cryptography, Bellare covered what he called (with characteristic understatement) "topics of quite broad interest" -- namely, being "caught between theory, practice, and peer review," the title of his talk (first slide pictured at right). The broad sweep of his remarks reflected Bellare's early interests in literature and history. Having come relatively late to science, Bellare told his audience, "In the company of theoreticians I feel liked a practitioner, while in the company of practitioners, I feel like a theoretician. It's not just me: our research community is caught between theory and practice."

    In the second part of his talk, Bellare focused on peer review, asking "how well does the process work?" and answering his own question bluntly: "Not very well." He went on to explore how "our culture incentivizes and perpetuates rejection." "Peer review is a broken, dark ages system," he added, "because it is fundamentally at odds with human nature and history." Bellare exhorted his colleagues to treat the peer review system as a research problem. "Think, write, talk, experiment," he said. "Our community is creative and imaginative. We have never shied away from hard problems. We have solved many. This is another." Bellare favors trying out new reviewing systems, and creating experimental publication venues. He also thinks academe could look elsewhere for ideas: discarding highest and lowest scores is used by the Olympics, so why not in the peer review process?

    Download Mihir Bellare's 90-slide IACR Distinguished Lecture presentation, now available from the CRYPTO 2014 website.

  • Larry Smarr Advises 23andMe on IBD Study

    In launching a new research initiative to study Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), the group 23andMe turned to CSE Prof. Larry Smarr and four other scientific advisors to assist 23andMe in analyzing data and developing surveys for the study. In announcing the IBD initiative, 23andMe quoted Smarr as saying that the study could illustrate the power of the 23andMe research model.  “I believe that a more accurate stratification of IBD disease states will result from classifying based on combinations of (genetic markers) than on symptoms,” said Smarr, director of Calit2, who has been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. “23andme is the best way to quickly get a large number of people classified to test this hypothesis.” The goal of the IBD study is to enlist 10,000 people in the effort.

    IBD is an umbrella diagnosis covering an estimated 1.4 million people in the U.S. with serious digestive conditions such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. 23andMe is collaborating with Pfizer, Inc., to “learn more about what role genetics and environment play in the development of IBD as well as how the condition progresses” – hopefully giving scientists and physicians new insights into the disease. 23andMe pointed out that Smarr has, over the last decade, “tracked everything from his weight, to his sleep patterns to his caloric intake and even the microbes in his stool to learn about his own health. But what had started as a simple effort to track weight loss soon became a focused effort to apply all his scientific skills to manage his own health and his own struggle with what he later learned was IBD.”

  • CSE Researchers Report Security Flaws in Backscatter X-ray Scanners

    A team of researchers from UC San Diego's Computer Science and Engineering department and co-authors from the University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins University have discovered several security vulnerabilities in full-body backscatter X-ray scanners deployed to U.S. airports between 2009 and 2013.

    In laboratory tests, the team was able to successfully conceal firearms and plastic explosive simulants from the Rapiscan Secure 1000 scanner.  The team was also able to modify the scanner operating software so it presents an “all-clear” image to the operator even when contraband was detected.  “Frankly, we were shocked by what we found,” said J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan. “A clever attacker can smuggle contraband past the machines using surprisingly low-tech techniques.”

    The researchers attribute these shortcomings to the process by which the machines were designed and evaluated before their introduction at airports.  “The system’s designers seem to have assumed that attackers would not have access to a Secure 1000 to test and refine their attacks,” said Hovav Shacham (above right, with CSE Ph.D. student Keaton Mowery), a professor of computer science at UC San Diego.  However, the researchers were able to purchase a government-surplus machine found on eBay and subject it to laboratory testing.

    Many physical security systems that protect critical infrastructure are evaluated in secret, without input from the public or independent experts, the researchers said.  In the case of the Secure 1000, that secrecy did not produce a system that can resist attackers who study and adapt to new security measures.  “Secret testing should be replaced or augmented by rigorous, public, independent testing of the sort common in computer security,” said Shacham (at left, in front of the backscatter x-ray scanner as during a security check).

    Secure 1000 scanners were removed from airports in 2013 due to privacy concerns, and are now being repurposed to jails, courthouses, and other government facilities.  The researchers have suggested changes to screening procedures that can reduce, but not eliminate, the scanners’ blind spots.  However, “any screening process that uses these machines has to take into account their limitations,” said Shacham.

    The researchers shared their findings with the Department of Homeland Security and Rapiscan, the scanner’s manufacturer, in May.  The team will present their findings publicly at the USENIX Security conference, Thursday Aug. 21, in San Diego.  (Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications)

    View details of the results at
    To contact the research team, e-mail
    Read more about CSE faculty, student and alumni participation in USENIX Security 2014.

about seo