Welcome to the February 13, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
Please note: In observance of President's Day, TechNews will not publish on Monday, February 16. Publication will resume on Wednesday, February 18.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Computer Science Ranks High in UK Research Survey
AScribe Newswire (02/11/09)
The computational thinking that drives computer science is crucial to solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior in a variety of disciplines, concluded the Research Assessment Exercise 2008 project, a panel of computer science and informatics (CS&I) experts that included ACM President Dame Wendy Hall. The project's report found that computer science is having an increased level of influence on other disciplines, and that more computer science research uses mathematics to quantify the complexity and accuracy of calculations. "Computer science is uniquely positioned to help with the economic recovery because the innovation it fosters underpins the information technology sector, which is a significant contributor to economic output," says ACM CEO John White says. The project, which was conducted in collaboration with several governmental organizations in the United Kingdom (UK) that distribute funds to institutions of higher learning, found that CS&I is more rigorous, interdisciplinary, experimental, and user-oriented than ever. Hall says the results are evidence that investment in technology research produces significant economic results. "The vitality of the computing field, which is due in large measure to increased investment in research, is directly related to the degree of innovation that emerges from UK research institutions," she says. "The resulting level of economic activity crosses into all industries, even creating new sectors that provide career opportunities in the computing and information technology field."
Sensors Help Keep the Elderly Safe, and at Home
New York Times (02/13/09) P. A1; Leland, John
Sensors and other monitoring technologies offer senior citizens more freedom to live independently and at less risk within the home. Motion sensors, medication reminder systems linked to mobile phones, pill compliance detectors, and wireless devices that transmit data on blood pressure and other physiological indicators are just some of the tools being used. These systems can be less costly than assisted living and nursing home care. One objective of personal health monitoring is to spur people to enhance their health by changing their behavior with the knowledge that they are being observed. However, the technologies are largely untested and are not usually covered by the government or private insurance plans. Moreover, there is the danger that the technologies could substitute for one-on-one interaction between seniors and their physicians, nurses, and relatives. "It's not that we need new technologies," says Dr. Jeffrey Kaye with the Oregon Health and Science University. "We need to use what we have more creatively." Monitoring technologies can gather terabytes of data, and researchers are working on ways of analyzing that information to help the well-being of users. For example, Kaye is working with Intel on a program that analyzes the motion data of seniors for patterns that would point to the onset of dementia well before it could be diagnosed with cognitive tests.
Microsoft Announces $250,000 Conficker Worm Bounty
Network World (02/12/09) Messmer, Ellen
In an effort to stop the spread of the Conficker/Downadup worm, which is believed to have infected at least 10 million PCs around the world since November, Microsoft is offering a $250,000 reward for anyone who has information that leads to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for spreading the malicious code. In addition to offering the reward, Microsoft has partnered with security vendors, Internet registries and DNS providers such as ICANN, ORG, and NeuStar, to stop the Conficker worm from spreading further. Despite the efforts by Microsoft and others, the Conficker worm is set to wreak greater havoc on the world's PCs, security experts say. Experts say the worm connects to more than 250 command-and-control servers around the world every day as it awaits instructions on future downloads or actions. But the coalition formed by Microsoft is planning to take action to target the worm's update mechanism, including taking out the unique domain names for servers used for Conficker control, says Symantec's Gerry Egan. Microsoft says the coalition has already disabled a significant number of domains targeted by Conficker in an effort to disrupt the use of the worm and prevent attacks.
EU Spending on R&D Slips Further Behind US
The European Union's (EU's) laggard pace behind the United States in terms of research and development (R&D) funding is increasing, according to a new study by European Investment Bank economist Kristian Uppenberg. The report concludes that the EU will probably come up short in reaching the Lisbon Strategy goal of committing 3 percent of gross domestic product to research by next year. "It appears that if Europe cannot close its R&D gap with the U.S. in services, the overall R&D gap is likely to widen rather than narrow as the share of services in total value added grows," Uppenberg warns. He contends that Europe's attempts to catch up with long-term rivals should not ignore large companies and innovative clusters, and points out that investments tend to yield better value for companies sited near other firms with high levels of R&D intensity. The ramifications are that diffusing investment across member states for the purpose of regional parity can prove profligate in terms of optimizing return on investment. Uppenberg's report cites Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data to demonstrate that small- and medium-sized enterprises tend to account for a relatively small portion of total business R&D spending in nations with high aggregate R&D intensities such as the United States, Japan, Britain, Finland, Germany, and Sweden.
Number of Paper Submissions Up for 46th DAC
Business Wire (02/10/09)
ACM's Design Automation Conference (DAC) has received 796 submissions for this year's technical program, which will be held from July 26-31, 2009, at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. The 46th DAC received a total of 681 regular paper submissions, a 10 percent increase from last year. Topics including power analysis, physical design and manufacturability, circuit simulation and interconnect, signal integrity and reliability, and system level design experienced a noticeable increase in regular paper submissions. DAC also received 115 submissions for the User Track, which is new to DAC's technical program this year. User Track will focus on contributions from engineers using electronic design automation tools on real designs and highlight best practices in methodologies and the use of tool flows. "This year's strong turnout of DAC paper submissions reflects the wide-ranging work being done across industry and academia to solve emerging design issues," says Patrick Groeneveld, the Technical Program co-chair of the 46th DAC executive committee.
Sniffing Out Illicit BitTorrent Files
Technology Review (02/12/09) Graham-Rowe, Duncan
Illegal content transferred using the BitTorrent file-trading protocol can be detected and tracked though a new method that monitors networks without disrupting the data stream, according to its creators. When the tool spots an illicit file, it retains a record of the network addresses involved for analysis, says the Air Force Institute of Technology's Karl Schrader. Peer-to-peer transfers now account for the majority of Web traffic for many Internet service providers, which are generally only interested in this kind of traffic for the purpose of controlling or "throttling" it to liberate bandwidth for other uses. Schrader says this method does not reveal anything about the contents of each transfer, and while a small number of network-monitoring tools can identify specific BitTorrent files, it is generally a slow process. "Our system differs in that it is completely passive, meaning that it does not change any information entering or leaving a network," he says. The system first detects files that exhibit the signs of the BitTorrent protocol by analyzing the first 32 bits of the files' header data, and then examines the files' hash. If a hash matches any stored in a database of banned hashes, then the system will record the transfer and store the network addresses involved. The speediness of the method is partly explained by the presence of a specially configured field programmable gate array chip and a flash-memory card that stores a log of the illegal activity, allowing file contents to be scanned directly by tapping into an Ethernet controller buffer without interfering with network traffic. Schrader says the network monitoring cannot be detected by users.
Update on CCC Robotics
Computing Community Consortium (02/11/09) McCallum, Andrew
The Computing Community Consortium (CCC) initiative in robotics has finished its workshops and developed a roadmap, and will provide selected portions of the roadmap to the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The CCC robotics initiative also is organizing a U.S. Congressional caucus on robotics that will take place in March. In early 2008, the initiative organized four workshops, with each one specializing in a specific area of robotics. The manufacturing and logistics workshop found that robotics has significant potential in processes such as logistics and material handling but that little attention has been given to these applications. The workshop concluded that new methods for easily programming robots are needed, as are ways to integrate sensory information to create safe robotic operations. The medical robotics conference determined that a wider adoption of healthcare robotics will require new methods in machine learning, human and robot interaction, and flexible mechanisms for physical interaction with humans. The service robotics conference emphasized that service robotics fall into categories--the professional and the domestic. The emerging technologies conference presented several opportunities that may arise as sensing becomes ubiquitous, more flexible mechanisms are designed, and new technologies such as nanotechnology become available. The use of machine learning, and new types of interfaces with high connectivity, could create entirely new opportunities for robotics.
Berkeley Releases Cloud Computing Study
HPC Wire (02/12/09)
University of California, Berkeley professors David Patterson and Armando Fox, researchers at Berkeley's Reliable Adaptive Distributed Systems Laboratory, have co-authored "Above the Clouds," a paper that analyzes the emerging cloud computing model. In this interview, the professors discuss the impact that cloud computing will have on high-performance computing (HPC). Fox says the presence of massive data centers comprised of tens of thousands of commodity computers is the single most important technological element supporting the viability of cloud computing. Patterson says this and other innovations are accompanied by a business model that delivers the semblance of unlimited computing resources available on demand, the removal of an up-front commitment by cloud users, and the ability to pay for using computing resources on a short-term basis as needed and to let them go when not needed. Fox acknowledges that the adoption of cloud computing could be potentially hindered by the uncertainty of having one's data and applications "locked in the cloud," and Patterson notes that dependence on a single cloud computing provider carries a risk to business continuity. Fox says the provision of standardized application programming interfaces with cross-vendor functionality would help solve two challenges to cloud computing--the prevention of data lock-in and the maintenance of high availability. "In general, the HPC community has not had to go through the process of re-architecting software that the Web community went through in the 90s," Fox says. "We think there are plenty of opportunities for innovation if HPC steps up to the plate, and an early demonstration would go a long way toward jump-starting that area." He says that imbuing software with horizontal scalability will help it exploit the cloud computing model, while Patterson recommends that hardware systems be designed at the scale of at least 12 racks, as that will be the minimum purchase size.
IBM Blue Gene Supercomputer Looks to Break the Petaflop Mark in Europe
eWeek (02/10/09) Ferguson, Scott
IBM and the German research center Forschungszentrum Juelich will build a Blue Gene/P supercomputer in Germany later this year that could set a new supercomputing record for Europe. The water-cooled supercomputer could become the first machine in Europe to break the petaflop barrier. Currently, the only two supercomputers capable of petaflop performance are in the United States. IBM's Roadrunner system, at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, was the first to officially break the petaflop barrier. The second machine is the Cray XT Jaguar supercomputer at the DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. IBM recently announced plans to build a supercomputer for the DOE dubbed Sequoia with a top speed of 20 petaflops. Sequoia is expected to go online in 2012. The Blue Gene family of supercomputers uses processors based on IBM's Power Architecture. The IBM supercomputer in Germany will contain 72 racks with 294,912 processors and will have 144 terabytes of memory and have 6 petabytes of hard disk storage.
Personalising the European Classroom
ICT Results (02/12/09)
The iClass learner-centric technology platform, which enables students to have more control over the learning process, is generating great interest across Europe. "IClass really is the largest Europe-wide R&D project of its kind focusing on primary and secondary education," says Ali Turker with SEBIT Education and Information Technologies. He says that information and communication technologies platforms can help embed personalization within formal education and bring structural value to informal learning. IClass offers a blend of formal and informal learning styles and environments that helps ready learners for independent inquiry. The iClass system conditions users to cover three cyclical stages of self-regulation--planning, learning, and reflection--via a semiotic-based user interface and context-sensitive tips and advisories. The system enables students to tailor assignments to individual learning needs by adding or updating learning objectives and by managing task activities, while teachers can adjust certain parameters, add hints, and observe and comment on students' progress. IClass also provides a "personal space" to compile learning history and outcomes in order to give students an overview of their attitudes and accomplishments in tasks and goals. Users can tap a corpus of professionally developed content from SEBIT, user-generated content, and European resources.
Software Speeds Up Molecular Simulations
Stanford News (02/04/09) Ku, Joy P.; Bergeron, Louis
Stanford University's Open Molecular Mechanics (OpenMM) project has developed open source software that enables researchers to perform complex simulations of molecular motion on desktop computers far faster than previously possible. "Simulations that used to take three years can now be completed in a few days," says OpenMM project principal investigator and Stanford professor Vijay Pande. "With this first release of OpenMM, we focused on small molecular systems simulated and saw speedups of 100 times faster than before." OpenMM features a set of advanced hardware and software technologies that graphics processing units (GPUs), working with a computer's central processing unit, use to accelerate applications beyond just creating or manipulating graphics. OpenMM will enable molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to run on most high-end GPUs currently used in laptop and desktop computers and uses specially designed algorithms that allow molecular dynamics software to fully capitalize on the GPU architecture. "OpenMM will be a tool that unifies the MD community," says Russ Altman, chair of the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford. "Instead of difficult, disparate efforts to recode existing MD packages to enjoy the speedups provided by GPUs, OpenMM will bring GPUs to existing packages and allow researchers to focus on discovery."
Japanese Robot/Humanoid Innovations Update: Mankind's Best New Friend is Getting Better
PhysOrg.com (02/05/09) Simpson, Mary Anne
Japan's Information and Robot Technology Research Technology Initiative is working on the Home Assistant Robot Project, an effort to create a robot capable of serving as a housekeeper and caregiver. Such a robot would need fine motor skills, be able to balance on one foot, and lift objects. The project has created Assistant Robot, which features a wide-angle stereo camera, a telephoto stereo camera, and ultra-sensitive sensors. The robot operates on a two-wheel drive base with balancing wheels, and is capable of sweeping the floor, picking up a tray of dishes, moving the dishes to the sink, loading the dishwasher, moving chairs, and putting dirty clothes in the washer. Another research effort at Tokyo's Waseda University recently unveiled a humanoid robot named Twenty-One, which is equipped with manual dexterity capable of picking up a drinking straw, placing the straw in a tumbler, and handing the drink to a human. Twenty-One has voice recognition capabilities and three soft fingers with opposable thumbs. The researchers say Twenty-One is strong enough to support disabled patients to help them move around.
Professors Regard Online Instructions as Less Effective Than Classroom Learning
Chronicle of Higher Education (02/10/09) Shieh, David
Many education professionals believe that online courses are less effective than classroom courses, concludes two surveys conducted by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. The surveys also found "widespread concern" that budget constrictions would hinder online learning programs. The surveys, which polled faculty members and administrators on their opinions of distance-learning programs, indicate that a majority of faculty members acknowledge that distance education offers students increased access and flexibility, but that developing and teaching online courses is difficult. Instructors are not rewarded financially or professionally for the extra time and effort they spend on online classes, and most feel that online education does not create better learning outcomes. Only 30 percent of the 10,000 faculty members surveyed said that online courses provided equal or superior learning outcomes compared to face-to-face classes, while 70 percent said that learning outcomes were inferior. Among faculty members who taught an online course, 48 percent said that online classes create inferior learning outcomes. A majority of faculty members said that institutions provide inadequate compensation for the additional responsibilities of teaching an online course, and many also said that students need more discipline to benefit from online education. Administrators emphasized the need for schools to incorporate online learning into their mission statements, create a single office to oversee online-learning programs, and foster institution-wide discussions on online learning.
Setting the Stage for Agile Development
SD Times (02/01/09) No. 215, P. 5; Feinman, Jeff
Corporate trainers are increasingly applying methods from acting, improvisation, and other art forms to agile development training so that software developers can be better prepared for changing requirements and other unanticipated events across the agile development cycle. The result is better teamwork among developers. Corporate trainer Matt Smith says that actors often must overcome their anxieties, a situation that parallels that of software developers. "If we're going to do Scrum and agile, we have to come to terms with that feeling and stop perceiving it as something to run from," he says. Certified Scrum trainer Stacia Broderick says the key to successful collaboration is a lack of inhibition, combined with frankness and a willingness to propose any concept. Trainers run agile workshops in which participants are asked to leave their comfort zone so they can learn how to deal with the unexpected when developing software. Smith notes that many developers, whose work is usually solitary, are unaccustomed to the social interaction agile development entails. Through improvisational training, developers can learn the value of giving up control by letting go of their agendas, judgment, control, and anticipation in order to advance projects through transparency and receptivity. Smith's exercises place people in non-work situations and encourage them to perform tasks that are more effective when carried out by individuals rather than teams.
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