Welcome to the February 11, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Digital Information Saved for Future Generations
University of Portsmouth (02/11/09)
The University of Portsmouth's Keeping Emulation Environments Portable (KEEP) project is working to record and preserve the massive amounts of digital technology and cultural information that is rapidly disappearing. The KEEP project is developing methods of safeguarding digital objects such as text, sound and image files, multimedia documents, Web sites, databases, and video games. Part of the project will include building software that can recognize and open all previous types of computer files. Other emulators exist for certain platforms and types of media, but the new emulator will be able to work with media in any format. "Every digital file risks being either lost by degrading or by the technology used to 'read' it disappearing altogether," says Janet Delve, a computer historian at the University of Portsmouth. "Former generations have left a rich supply of books, letters, and documents which tell us who they were, how they lived, and what they discovered. There's a very real risk that we could bequeath a blank spot in history." The project plans to protect software for the future so that every piece of data and software created can be encoded to be read by future devices. Britain's National Archive already holds the equivalent of 580,000 encyclopedias of information in file formats that are no longer commercially available, and the British Library reports that Europe loses 2.7 billion British pounds each year in business value due to problems preserving and accessing old digital files.
Researcher Calls for New Approach in Computer Education
AME Info (UAE) (02/11/09)
A paper that proposes a new approach to teaching computer science in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was the top presentation at the Seventh Worldwide Conference on Education and Culture, held recently in Rome, Italy. Uma Gunasilan of Middlesex University Dubai wrote the paper, which discusses the challenges in teaching computer programming in the Middle East. The study also addresses the key factors that play a role in teaching and learning in the UAE, such as the number of international students and educators from various backgrounds at local non-government universities, the social-cultural setting of the region, and the strain of using a foreign curriculum. Students would be better served by allowing them to "construct knowledge," rather than have educators provide knowledge for them to acquire, apply, and retain, Gunasilan says in the paper. The approach has not worked as well in computer science as it has in science and mathematics. "It is more apparent in Dubai where the background of students and socio-cultural setting of the classroom influence the teaching and learning process," Gunasilan says.
Obama Taps Bush Aide Melissa Hathaway to Review Federal Cybersecurity Efforts
Computerworld (02/09/09) Vijayan, Jaikumar
President Barack Obama has tapped Bush administration official Melissa Hathaway, architect of a multi-billion dollar project aimed at better securing federal infrastructure against network threats, to head a 60-day audit of the government's cybersecurity initiatives. As the Homeland Security Council and the National Security Council's acting senior director for cyberspace, Hathaway will be in charge of leading a systemwide review of the government's cybersecurity programs and drafting recommendations to ensure they are meeting their objectives in the public and private sectors. Sources say Hathaway also is the top choice to become the White House cybersecurity secretary once the review is finished. Hathaway chaired the National Cyber Study Group, a multi-agency group that spearheaded the development of the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (CNCI), which was approved by former President George W. Bush last year. "She has been really charging and moving forward with CNCI for the past 24 months," says former U.S. cybersecurity director Amit Yoran, who says Hathaway is well known within the federal cybersecurity community. Gartner analyst John Pescatore praises Hathaway's appointment, but says the CNCI is behind the private sector in dealing with intrusion prevention and detection. "I don't think it's a very good model for how the government should move forward," he says.
How to Beat the Recession Using Underutilized Technology
Computer Weekly (02/10/09) Pincher, Michael
Experts say there are underutilized digital applications that could be tapped to pull the world out of the economic recession. Several categories of corporate innovation--customer-oriented innovation, product innovation, process innovation, and strategic innovation--are frequently overlooked. "Hype cycles," as described by Gartner, are cycles in technology innovation marked initially by over enthusiasm and disenchantment, and then followed by acceptance and productivity when the innovations pass beyond hype. Green information technology, social computing platforms, microblogging, cloud computing, and video telepresence are current technologies that are expected to have a transformative impact over the next several years. There also are various emerging technologies that could offer organizations insight into the marketplace's business and innovation potential. These technologies include enterprise portals, data management, content management, automotive electronics, consumer technologies, compliance technologies, human-computer interaction, enterprise speech technologies, XML technologies, nanotechnology, infrastructure protection, identity and access management, virtualization, information security, risk management, print management, networks and collaboration, wireless networking, Web technologies, and storage management.
Computer Scientist Tapped for Multimedia Expertise
University of Texas at Dallas (02/10/09) Moore, David
ACM's Special Interest Group on Multimedia has appointed University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) computer scientist Balakrishnan Prabhakaran to its executive council and has named him editor-in-chief of its online magazine. Prabhakaran says the magazine could bring multimedia experts in the burgeoning academic field closer together. Prabhakaran's research interests at the university's Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science include content-based retrieval of three-dimensional (3D) models and motion sequences, streaming of 3D animations and deformable 3D models, and quality-of-service guarantees for streaming in wireless ad-hoc and mesh networks. "This is a great honor and certainly shows Dr. Prabhakaran's leadership in his field," says UTD professor D.T. Huynh. This year's ACM International Conference on Multimedia will be held in Beijing, China, from October 19-24, 2009.
Smart Companies Still Looking for Smart IT People
InformationWeek (02/10/09) McGee, Marianne Kolbasuk
Several information technology (IT) skills are still in high demand despite the economic downturn, reveals employment figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and an IT pay trends study from Foote Partners. The BLS says the U.S. added 11,000 management and technical consulting service jobs in January, in addition to the 9,000 management and consulting service jobs that were added in October and November. Foote Partners CEO David Foote says that IT professionals with specific skill sets have been receiving pay increases and perks despite the recession. He says the pressure to decrease costs has generated new interest in automation, automation software, and business process improvements, improving pay for professionals with noncertified management, methodology, and process skills. IT professionals with related skills have seen average pay premiums rise 5.6 percent over the last three months, and professionals with those specific skills saw an average increase of 10.3 percent. Other highly desirable skills include IT architects and project managers with various certifications. "Architecture's key to running a good solid business, and there aren't enough architecture skills out there," Foote says. Database, security, and storage skills also are in demand, he says.
Road to Grid Computing Remains Difficult
Computerworld New Zealand (02/11/09) Bell, Stephen
Grid computing pioneer Ian Foster says that grid and cloud computing have not yet reached their full potential. Foster says the reliable infrastructure management that is needed for remote applications and data is still difficult to establish, creating an "energy barrier" between the providers of utility computing services and potential users. Nevertheless, he says progress is being made. "If you look at what people are doing with computing... they're not simply invoking programs that may run locally or remotely--they're often performing very complex activities that may involve data from one location, software from another," he says. Providing services capable of supporting such workloads in an on-demand way is a complex task that could involve multiple grids. For example, researchers could use the Social Informatics Grid, which lets researchers search a large resource of social sciences data, to find appropriate data and then analyze that data on the Open Science Grid, which provides tools and computing power. Foster says the goal of utility computing should be to provide computer power and access to data and software that can be expanded for unforeseen peaks in demand. Over the past few years, businesses have started to reduce the energy barrier by providing simple services that meet the demands of large groups of people. These software-as-a-service efforts are the best-known use of cloud computing, but reliable, available infrastructure also could be provided as a service mode or platform, Foster says.
Lack of Diversity Part of Equation in STEM Fields
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (02/10/09) Chute, Eleanor
Tonya Groover, a computer science Master's student at the University of Pittsburgh, founded and directs the Technology Leadership Institute at Pitt, which features a six-week academic-enrichment program for high school students designed to teach technical skills. The institute's purpose is to get more women and underrepresented minorities interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Many colleges and universities have similar programs that include tutoring, mentoring, and research opportunities. Blacks account for about 15 percent of the population between 20 and 24 years old, but receive only about 8 percent of STEM degrees, and Hispanics have a similar percentage, according to the National Science Foundation (NSF). The number of STEM bachelor's degrees is about evenly split between men and women, but women earn more bachelor's degrees overall, which means a smaller percentage of the total degrees awarded to women are in STEM fields. NSF also notes that computer and information sciences are less popular among women, black, and Hispanic students. Men accounted for three-fourths of the 2005 graduates nationwide. Approximately 55 percent of graduates were white, 12 percent Asian, 10 percent black, and 6 percent Hispanic. "Women are attracted to areas or fields [in which] they feel they're making a difference," Groover says. "Computer science is not presented in such a manner. Computer science is a field that will make a difference in the lives of hungry people or sick people."
Researchers Learn Why Robots Get Stuck in the Sand
Georgia Institute of Technology (02/09/09) Toon, John
Georgia Institute of Technology researchers recently studied robot locomotion over granular surfaces and provided recommendations on how to traverse these environments, including having robots on sandy terrain move their legs more slowly. "We have discovered that when a robot rotates its legs too fast or the sand is packed loosely enough, the robot transitions from a rapid walking motion to a much slower swimming motion," says Georgia Tech professor Daniel Goldman. Goldman and his team investigated the performance of a small six-legged robot called SandBot, which was designed by Haldun Komsuoglu and Daniel Koditschek at the University of Pennsylvania. To test the robot in a controlled environment, Georgia Tech graduate student Chen Li built a track for SandBot to navigate that included an eight-foot-long container filled with poppy seeds, which are large enough not to get into SandBot's motors but light enough to be manipulated by air. The researchers found that the problem was the rotational motion of the robot's limbs. SandBot moves its limbs in an alternating tripod gait, with each limb moving fast in the air and slow on the ground. By adjusting the rotation frequency, including changing the durations of the slow and fast phrases and the angle at which the limbs change speed, the robot was able to quickly walk across the granular terrain at one body length per second. Faster speeds caused the robot to step on an area that was already disturbed by the previous step, which caused the robot to try to swim through the seeds instead of walk on top of them.
Software Analyzes Medical Images While 'Thinking' Like a Doctor
Waterloo Record (Canada) (02/07/09) Walcoff, Matt
University of Waterloo researchers led by professor Hamid Tizhoosh have developed Segasist, software that can analyze medical images to identify tumors, lesions, and other objects. Tizhoosh says his team merged years of research on artificial intelligence with the field of medical imaging to create a program that can learn from a doctor's biases and preferences until it can think like that doctor when analyzing an image. The medical-imaging program can identify organs, lesions, and tumors on MRIs, CT scans, ultrasounds, and other medical images. Tizhoosh says that existing computer programs do a poor job of detecting such objects, so doctors often have to find the objects themselves using programs such as Adobe Photoshop, which can be time-consuming when sorting through numerous images. "You see highly qualified surgeons sitting in their offices using the mouse and manually clicking point by point where is the tumor for those images," he says. "The way doctors do this cannot be put into equations. The information was ambiguous or vague."
Cognitive Computing Project Aims to Reverse-Engineer the Mind
Wired News (02/06/09) Ganapati, Priya
IBM Almaden Research Center cognitive computing project manager Dharmendra Modha has a plan to engineer the mind by reverse-engineering the brain. Neuroscientists, computer engineers, and psychologists are working together to create a new computing architecture that simulates the brain's perception, interaction, and cognitive abilities. The researchers hope to first simulate a human brain on a supercomputer, and then use new nano-materials to create logic gates and transistor-based equivalents of neurons and synapses to build a hardware-based, brain-like system. The effort has received a $5 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is enough to run the first phase of the project. The researchers say if the project is successful it could lead to a new computing system within the next decade. "The idea is to do software simulations and build hardware chips that would be based on what we know about how the brain and how neural circuits work," say University of California-Merced professor and project participant Christopher Kello. The researchers started by building a real-time simulation of a small cerebral cortex, which has the same structure in all mammals. The simulation required 8 terabytes of memory on an IBM BlueGene/L supercomputer. Modha says the simulation, although not complete, offered insights into the brain's high-level computational principles. A human cerebral cortex is about 400 times larger than the small mammal simulation and would require a supercomputer with a memory capacity of 3.2 petabytes and a computational capacity of 36.8 petaflops. While waiting for supercomputing technology to improve, the researchers are working on implementing neural architectures in silicon.
Unnatural Selection: Robots Start to Evolve
New Scientist (02/04/09) No. 2694, P. 20; Marks, Paul
Existing robots typically require a complete overhaul of their control software in order to adjust to physical alternations. Artificial intelligence expert Christopher MacLeod and colleagues at England's Robert Gordon University sought a way around this problem by developing a robot that mimics biological evolution. MacLeod's robot brain adapts to physical changes through the assignment of new "neurons" via an incremental evolutionary algorithm (IEA). The IEA is programmed to freeze the neural network it has evolved when it realizes that its evolutions are no longer enhancing the robot's execution of its primary command. After physical modifications are made and the IEA notes that these changes are inhibiting the robot from fulfilling its primary command, it automatically adds new neurons to form another neural network programmed to cope with the changes, freezing it when its performance reaches its upper limit. This process is repeated for every new component or function added to the robot. The University of Reading's Kevin Warwick is skeptical of MacLeod's method, arguing that "[MacLeod's] approach will result in many more neurons being needed to do the job badly, when a smaller number of neurons would have done well." However, Macleod is confident that his approach will lead to more advanced robots. He says the software "can build layer-upon-layer of complexity to fulfill tasks in an open-ended way."
Wireless at WARP Speed
Rice University (01/29/09) Boyd, Jade
Ashutosh Sabharwal, director of Rice University's Center for Multimedia Communication (CMC), has developed a wireless open-access research platform (WARP) that enables scientists to conduct wireless research without having to build test platforms. The turnkey, open-source platform includes a collection of circuit boards and the transmitters and devices needed for high-end wireless communications. Sabharwal says that WARP's flexibility makes it particularly effective. When researchers need to test a variety of radio transmitters, wireless routers, and network access points, they can write a few software programs that allow WARP to serve as each of those devices. Sabharwal says Motorola is using WARP to test an entirely new, low-cost architecture for wireless Internet access in rural India, which he says is the type of research that would have too low a profit margin to be pursued without WARP. NASA is using WARP to find ways of reducing the weight, cost, and complexity in the wiring systems in spacecraft. CMC's Patrick Murphy is working with graduate students to use WARP in proof-of-concept technologies for "cognitive wireless," which is based on the fact that half of the nation's wireless spectrum is unused at any given time. Sabharwal says researchers are pursuing smart, "cognitive" networks that can change frequencies on the fly to open up unused spectrum for customer use.
Prepare for Truly Mobile Wi-Fi
Discover (01/28/09) Cass, Stephen
Microsoft Research's Vehicle Wi-Fi (Vi-Fi) project is working to enhance mobile Wi-Fi's effectiveness by modifying the software rules that determine how Wi-Fi works. Some wireless technologies are available that allow for seamless Internet connections when traveling at high speeds, but these technologies are either more expensive than Wi-Fi or transmit at slow speeds. Vi-Fi is based on the fact that in many places Wi-Fi is so ubiquitous that users are within range of multiple base stations at any given time. By connecting to multiple base stations simultaneously, users can request data through one base station and have it sent through another base station when they move out of range of the first station. The technology uses standard Wi-Fi hardware, which allows it to be easily and inexpensively deployed in urban areas or on highways. Microsoft is testing the technology on its campus by connecting two shuttle buses to the Internet through 11 base stations.
P2P Networks Rife With Sensitive Health Care Data, Researcher Warns
Computerworld (01/30/09) Vijayan, Jaikumar
Sensitive medical data is easily available through peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks, reveals a study by researchers at Dartmouth College. During the study, the researchers used search terms related to the top 10 publicly traded U.S. healthcare organizations to see if they could find medical data on P2P networks such as Gnutella, FastTrack, Aries, and e-Donkey. Dartmouth professor Eric Johnson says the searches yielded a plethora of information from healthcare companies, suppliers, and patients. For example, Johnson says he was able to find a 1,718-page document containing Social Security numbers, dates of birth, insurance information, treatment codes, and other sensitive data belonging to roughly 9,000 patients at a medical testing laboratory. Johnson and the other researchers were able to obtain the information because employees at healthcare providers installed P2P networks on their computers, which allow users to download and share music and videos from shared folders but also can allow users to obtain other types of files if care is not taken to control which folders users have access to. Johnson says the study underscores the need for hospitals and other healthcare providers to be aware of the dangers of inadvertent data leakage as well as the need to put improved controls in place to monitor, detect, and stop them.
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