Welcome to the June 5, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Gene Expression: Origami at the Molecular Level
Wall Street Journal (06/05/09) P. A11; Hotz, Robert Lee
Researchers in dozens of laboratories are building complex shapes and structures out of DNA by folding the molecules like origami. A box assembled out of helices with a lockable lid and keys was constructed via DNA origami by scientists at the Danish National Research Foundation. California Institute of Technology researcher Paul Rothemund and colleagues used similar techniques to build a smiley face, a snowflake, and other fanciful devices that are only visible under electron microscopes. "The way we are using DNA is very different than the way biology uses DNA," notes Duke University biomolecular engineer Thomas LaBean. "It is a little weird that we use it as a structural material, instead of a genetic material." Scientists can theoretically program DNA to fold into almost any conceivable pattern by manipulating the rules governing how the molecule's four chemical base units bind to each other. Moreover, the programmed DNA will duplicate its new form indefinitely. "We stick with the DNA double helix and treat it like Lego bricks," says Harvard University chemist William Shih. Researchers believe DNA origami methods have the potential to revolutionize manufacturing, medicine, and computing. Rothemund says that one of the challenges of DNA nanotechnology is integrating DNA-assembled devices with man-made structures, which is complicated by a lack of control.
Grid Enables Vector Supercomputing Environment
HPC Wire (06/04/09)
Tohoku University's Cyberscience Center, Osaka University's Cybermedia Center, Japan's National Institute of Informatics, and NEC Corp. recently announced the successful demonstration of one of the world's fastest vector supercomputing environments. The researchers created a single virtual system using a connection between two separately located vector supercomputers on Japan's National Research Grid Initiative (NAREGI) software. The NAREGI middleware enables large-scale computing resources as separate research and development centers to be closely interconnected through high-speed networks. The network connections can be viewed as a single massive virtual computer capable of implementing large-scale parallel simulations, which were once difficult for even a single computer system to handle. A new grid middleware component, the GridVM for the SX Vector Computer, was developed by enhancing the current capabilities on the NAREGI middleware, including job management, information provision, and resource allocation. The enhanced middleware component maintains high compatibility with the local job scheduler on the SX-9 computer at Osaka University, which enables the efficient use of vector computer resources even in a grid environment. The enhanced middleware also allows for the co-existence of conventional, or non-grid, tasks and grid tasks, enabling the computing center to provide cloud-computing services.
Is Internet Voting Safe? Vote Here
Wired News (06/04/09) Poulsen, Kevin
Arizona election officials demonstrated their Internet voting system at ACM's recent Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference in Washington, D.C. For the 2008 U.S. national election, all of Arizona's overseas military and civilian families were able to vote using a central Web site. Arizona allowed voters to request an early ballot online and receive it through regular mail, or obtain a PDF of the ballot via email. Voters had to print out the ballot, use a scanner to scan the completed and signed ballot back onto their PCs, and then upload the scanned ballot to a system that used SSL. "It's run over a secured system using industry standard encryption," says state CIO Craig Stender. "We had many users from over 50 countries using the system in that election." County election officials logged on and retrieved the ballots through a backend system, and printed them out in the home counties, treating them like any other absentee ballot. Kevin Poulsen writes that Internet voting is susceptible to malware writers, and at the conference computer scientist Avi Rubin warned that voters could be lured to a fake election Web site in phishing attacks. In an email, former ACM president and e-voting expert Barbara Simons noted that "Democrats Abroad allowed people to vote in their 2008 primary using an unbelievably insecure system."
The Display That Watches You
Technology Review (06/05/09) Greene, Kate
Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems researchers have developed a new screen technology that uses interlacing photodetector cells and display pixels to simultaneously display a moving image while detecting movement directly in front of the system. Tracking a person's eye movements while looking at the screen could allow for eye-tracking control, instead of hand controls or another input method, enabling users to scroll through menu options on screen by looking at the edge of the screen. The researchers also say this technology could eventually be incorporated into augmented-reality systems. "We can present an image and, at the same time, track the movement of the user's eye," says Fraunhofer's Michael Scholles. "This is of great interest for all kinds of applications where your hands are needed for something else, like a pilot flying an aircraft or a surgeon wanting to access vital parameters while performing a surgery." The researchers developed the system by first designing a light-sensing chip that features a pattern of evenly spaced photodetectors. A wafer containing several of the chips was placed in a deposition chamber, where layers of organic material were deposited between the photodetectors. The layers compose the organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) that create the display. The current version features a monochromatic display with a resolution of 320 by 240 pixels. Scholles says full-color displays are possible but more difficult because it would involve adding color filters to white OLEDs, which are hard to make and somewhat unreliable.
Software Engineers Honor Nico Habermann With Inaugural Influential Educator Award
Carnegie Mellon News (06/01/09) Spice, Byron
ACM's Special Interest Group on Software Engineering (SIGSOFT) has honored the late A. Nico Habermann, the founding dean of Carnegie Mellon University's (CMU's) School of Computer Science, with the inaugural Influential Educator Award. Habermann is being recognized for his "for significant and lasting contributions to the field of software engineering as a teacher and mentor." Habermann's widow, Marta Habermann, accepted the award from SIGSOFT chair William Griswold at the recent International Conference on Software Engineering. Marta Habermann says the Influential Educator Award is the most appropriate award Habermann has ever received because he was always a teacher. "Nico had amazing impact on his profession, the computer science community, and our university," says CMU School of Computer Science dean Randal E. Bryant. "His impact on software engineering has been profound, not only through his technical contributions, but also in establishing the Software Engineering Institute and in the many students who have followed in his footsteps." This year marks the first Influential Educator Award, which is intended to recognize contributions to education that are vital to the advancement of software engineering that frequently go unnoticed. North Carolina State University associate professor Laurie Williams also received the award.
Predictive Powers: A Robot That Reads Your Intention?
ICT Results (06/05/09)
The European Union-funded JAST project has developed a robot capable of predicting the intentions of a human partner, which could make human-robot interactions more natural. The JAST project examined how a robot can anticipate or predict the actions and intentions of a human partner as the two collaboratively work on a single objective. A major element of the project was conducting studies on human-human collaboration to establish a model for more natural robotic behavior. Previous research has shown that a set of "mirror neurons" are activated when people observe an activity. These neurons resonate as if they were mimicking the action, and the brain learns about an activity by effectively copying what it observes. In the JAST project, a similar resonance was discovered when people worked collaboratively on a task, with people observing their partners and their brains copying the actions. The JAST researchers have developed a system that incorporates that capacity for observation and mirroring. JASP researcher Wolfram Erlhagen says the JAST robot observes its partner's behavior to quickly learn to anticipate partner actions or spot errors where the human does not follow the correct or expected procedure. The robot was tested in several settings. In one setting the robot acted as a teacher and worked with a human to build a complicated model toy. In another test, the human and robot had equal knowledge of the task.
London Guardian (UK) (06/02/09) Lipsett, Anthea
Dame Wendy Hall, president of ACM, is one of the world's leading computer scientists and a fervent advocate for women in science. She notes that although women face less difficulty in pursuing a science and technology career than they did three decades ago, there are still challenges. "Generally speaking, it's much harder for women to put in the 24/7 effort that you still seem to have to put in," Hall says. "It's not so much the day-to-day stuff of going into work and juggling childcare, it's the traveling." Hall also says that women's suggestions are still being generally ignored in a primarily male venue, and women are often not credited even when their ideas are eventually implemented. She observes that women still generally shun computer science because computers were initially marketed to fathers and their sons, and this stigma has not been eliminated. Hall helped launch the Web Science Research Initiative at Southampton University as an interdisciplinary effort to get more women into computing by examining the evolution of technology and its social impact. She says the university will have many Ph.D. students carrying out interdisciplinary work using social science methodologies to study the interconnection between the rate of change of technology and the things people do with it.
Strategies to Rein in Epidemics Need to Be Retooled for Rural Populations, Say K-State Engineers Using Computers to Model Disease Outbreaks in Rural
Kansas State University News (06/02/09)
The National Science Foundation is funding an effort by a team of Kansas State University engineers to study epidemics in rural areas using academic models in order that optimal strategies to predict and control disease outbreaks can be identified. The initiative is being led by professor Caterina Scoglio, who says that mitigation strategies used in cities will be less effective in rural areas, because urban residents are less likely to interact with ill neighbors and therefore less likely to contract or spread a disease. Another researcher, professor Walter Schumm, observed that 35 percent of rural residents would be willing to visit other people in the community during a major outbreak. A computer simulation of a hypothetical epidemic in a rural town determined that 100 percent of the town's populace would be infected within 20 days of the first infection. The engineers' research demonstrates that not only might rural residents be more likely to maintain normal levels of social contact than urban residents, but that reduced access to hospitals and doctors also makes rural areas particularly susceptible during an epidemic. The computer models suggest that vaccines should be given to people who interact with the largest network of friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers, while Scoglio says that it would be just as vital to vaccinate individuals who do not have many contacts themselves but who function as a common link between two well-connected communities. The researchers also see significant differences between urban and rural residents in the way that technology such as cell phones and Web calling reduces person-to-person contact during an outbreak. One researcher notes that rural populations tend to be older and may not have taken up some technologies as rapidly, while broadband Internet connections and cell phone service can be limited in rural areas, encouraging more interpersonal interactions in the event of a major epidemic.
Computing Association Swayed by Open Source for New Site
BtoB (05/28/09) Griffin, Marie
ACM started the process for designing and building its new companion Web site for the Communications of the ACM magazine last summer. "We put together a pretty detailed request for proposals, a document of about 20 pages," says Scott Delman, group publisher of ACM Media. The request for proposals was sent to about a dozen vendors, half of which had expertise working with open source systems. "ACM is a membership organization, and a large percentage of our members are working in the software industry," Delman says. "So we have an open source orientation so as not to show favoritism toward one commercial entity over another." Following a requirements-gathering process, ACM selected Radiant for the content management system and Ruby on Rails for the distribution platform. "With open source, we are able to tap into a large community of software developers who are constantly upgrading the systems and adding new features," Delman says. "Over time, we can pick and choose which of those we want to integrate into our site, so the total cost of development and maintenance is significantly lower as compared to a proprietary system." Two key requirements were the ability to update content daily and to have content automatically fed from third-party sites. ACM also needed to create social and community features. "Our association is a network of people working in the fields of computing and IT in a global environment," Delman says. "It was very important for users to be able to comment and to share content on third-party sites."
Better and Faster Search Engines
Swedish Research Council (06/02/09)
Ola Agren, a Ph.D. candidate at Umea University in Sweden, has developed an algorithm that will make search engines faster and return more relevant results. Search engines on the Internet often use an algorithm that assigns higher or lower values to features of Web pages based on a search of all pages available on the Internet, while Agren's algorithm ranks pages based on each relevant starting page, including those directly or indirectly linked to by the starting page. A normalized mean value of the relevance of the various pages is calculated, with those linked from several different pages receiving a higher value than those found only once. Agren says that pages are found faster this way. He says the algorithm can go through a database and rank Web pages in 158 seconds, compared with more than seven days for ordinary standard algorithms. Agren also studied the relevance of hits in the top 10 lists for his algorithm and two variants of the algorithm used by Google, and although there was some overlapping, they were never completely identical. "The users in the study found that the search engine I developed is better than the others in more than 60 percent of cases," Agren says.
Minorities, Women Underrepresented in IT
InformationWeek (06/01/09) Jones, K.C.
Just 6.1 percent of men and 8.2 percent of women holding technical positions in Silicon Valley are minorities, with less than 2 percent of women of color holding high-level technical positions, according to "Obstacles and Solutions for Underrepresented Minorities in Technology," a new report from the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology (ABI). The report examines the hurdles faced by minorities and provides recommendations on how companies can help them hold more prominent positions in the technology industry. The level of underrepresentation of minorities in technical positions "is likely to limit companies' ability to innovate and create new products for a significant portion of the user population," says ABI's Caroline Simard, author of the report. "Such low numbers suggest that underrepresented employees are likely to suffer from significant isolation and a lack of access to mentors." The study found that more than 40 percent of underrepresented minority employees plan to leave their job, and 51 percent of women of color plan on leaving within the next 12 months. Simard says diverse teams make better decisions and are more innovative, and a lack of diversity is hurting the U.S.'s competitiveness in science and technology.
Endless Original, Copyright-Free Music
Plataforma SINC (06/01/09)
University of Granada (UGR) researchers have developed Inmamusys, software that is capable of creating original music in response to emotions felt by the listener. Using artificial intelligence, the program creates music that can be played indefinitely and could be used to replace the repetitive, generic music played in public places such as stores. UGR researcher Miguel Molina says the repertoire of such canned music is limited, but the new software could be used to create a pleasant, non-repetitive musical environment. Inmamusys has the knowledge to compose emotive music using artificial intelligence techniques. When designing and developing the system, the researchers focused on the abstract representation of the concepts needed to deal with emotions and feelings. Molina says that objective was accomplished by designing a modular system that includes a two-level mutiagent architecture, among other technologies. A survey was used to evaluate the system, with respondents acknowledging that they could recognize the type of music being composed by the computer. The researchers say a person with no musical knowledge could use Inmamusys to compose because the only input needed is the type of music desired.
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