Welcome to the August 10, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Supercomputer Visuals Without Graphics Chip
Technology Review (08/10/09) Mims, Christopher
The obsolescence of graphics-processing clusters is being hastened by the rapidly accelerating data processing speed of supercomputers. Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory are crafting software that permits visualization by the thousands of processors within a supercomputer. Argonne researcher Tom Peterka has written software for the Intrepid supercomputer that he says "allows us to [visualize experiments] in a place that's closer to where data reside--on the same machine." Visualization and post-processing of data produced by Intrepid normally requires a separate graphics-processing cluster, but Peterka observes that storage capacity and storage bandwidth upgrades are not keeping pace with processing speed. This means that separate graphics-processing units (GPUs) may be unaffordable for future supercomputing facilities. Los Alamos National Laboratory researcher Pat McCormick says that Peterka's direct data visualization effort is important because "these machines are getting so big that you really don't have a choice." Peterka, McCormick, and Hank Childs with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory anticipate a future where supercomputers execute in-situ processing, which entails the visualization of simulations as they are running via a circumvention of input/output. Peterka envisions a migration away from processors specialized for specific functions as desktops follow supercomputers and GPUs into the domain of multicore and massively parallel processing.
Planning English Football Fixtures
University of Nottingham (08/06/09) Brooke, Lindsay
University of Nottingham professor Graham Kendall believes computers can be used to solve the problem of planning English football schedules. "The biggest difficulties occur at Christmas and New Year when the top clubs play at least twice over the holiday period," Kendall says. "As well as coordinating 92 teams and 46 fixtures I have captured many other real-world problems, such as avoiding local derbies, ensuring that teams do not play each other twice over the Christmas period, and trying to limit the travel that has to be undertaken by the supporters." Kendall has developed software for the Christmas and New Year schedules that automatically accounts for a variety of criteria established by football officials, including reducing travel distances for players and fans and reducing strain on policing and transportation networks. The software is capable of recognizing local pairings so certain teams do not play at home on the same day, ensuring that each club plays at least one away game and one home game over Boxing Day and New Year's Day, and limiting the number of London clubs that play at home on a particular day, among other criteria. Kendall is currently discussing the results with the football league, and plans to extend his system to create schedules for the entire season, which involves a total of 2,036 games. Kendall's work will be discussed at the 2009 Multidisciplinary International Conference on Scheduling: Theory and Applications.
To Teach Computing, a New Tool Calls on The Sims
Chronicle of Higher Education (08/10/09) Beja, Marc
The newest version of Alice, a three-dimensional programming environment designed to teach introductory computing concepts, enables students to create animated movies and games with characters from The Sims video games and teaches advanced users the Java programming language. Earlier versions of Alice, originally created by Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Randy Pausch, made it much easier for students to create virtual worlds by eliminating the need to use a programming language. However, although students found creating the worlds more enjoyable, they still had difficultly switching from Alice to a programming language such as C++ or Java. The newest version of Alice aims to make that transition easier by allowing students to see the Java code behind the drag-and-drop functionality and to open Alice-created videos in Java and alter the code. Drexel University computer science instructor Adelaida Alban Medlock says the new version of Alice will help students understand programming language concepts much faster as they will be able to see the Java code, including difficult variations of punctuation marks. "That's going to make their lives a lot easier," she says. "They can see this is how it's going to look next term. It's terrific."
Girls Encouraged to Enter Technology Field
Washington Times (08/10/09) Anderson, Elise
Microsoft's DigiGirlz High Tech Camp and other efforts aim to open young girls to the potential of pursuing careers in science and technology partly to address the steep dive in the graduation rates of women with degrees in computer science and similar fields during the last several decades. "This is our third year doing the DigiGirlz technology camp, and the objective for Microsoft doing these camps is to address the growing need of young women to participate in science, technology, engineering and math," says Microsoft's Donna Woodall. Last year, women represented just 18 percent of computer and information sciences undergraduate degree recipients--versus 37 percent in 1985, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Studies have outlined a trend among females to move away from technology-related activities by the time they reach their teens. Margaret Lim, director of the Digital Media Academy's (DMA's) youth programs, has observed flagging interest among girls in technology as they get older because many girls perceive the industry as dominated by males. "It's important to encourage teachers and parents to get these girls engaged early on, because of the stigma attached to programming being a boys' thing," she says. DMA holds technology camps across the United States to spark interest in technology opportunities among girls ages 8 to 17. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Digital Sisters program was set up to support younger girls' pursuit of technology interests through a network of women, and founder Shireen Mitchell points to a lack of female role models and tech speakers for young girls as a trend that needs to be reversed.
Special Feature: Healthcare, the Road to Robotic Helpers
ICT Results (08/05/09)
Arjan Rensma with the Dutch Innovation agency TNO says the healthcare industry is particularly ripe for a robotics revolution. Rensma says that surgical robots show that advanced, human-care robots are possible, but Europe needs a clear road map to transform current research and development efforts into a leading robotics for healthcare (R4H) industry. A WTEC technology report says there is a disconnect between research and development prototypes and potential commercial products. Rensma says one of the biggest hurdles preventing the commercialization of R4H is how the healthcare system is currently funded, a complex challenge that requires more effort to find a solution. Rensma says it is not a matter of providing more money for robotics applications, but rather a matter of building greater user involvement to develop the "right" robotic applications. Rensma led a group of research organizations, including Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, VTT technical research, Vilans, and EuroAct Japan, in mapping a way forward for European robotics in medical and healthcare. The group predicts growth in smart medical capsules that can travel through the body to administer medicine in specific areas. The group also says that intelligent "natural limb" prosthetics controlled by thought have significant potential, as does using robots to assist stroke patients and others with limited motor coordination in rehabilitation. The group identified robotized patient monitoring systems as an area of great potential, particularly in homecare and elder care in countries with aging populations and overworked healthcare systems.
NIST Demonstrates Sustained Quantum Processing in Step Toward Building Quantum Computers
National Institute of Standards and Technology (08/06/09) Ost, Laura
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) physicists have demonstrated sustained, reliable information processing operations on electrically charged atoms, or ions, a significant step toward building a quantum computer. NIST researchers repeatedly performed a combined sequence of five quantum logic operations and 10 transport operations while reliably maintaining the 0s and 1s of the binary data, or qubits, stored in the ions. The researchers also were able to subsequently manipulate that information. Before this demonstration, researchers were unable to get any qubit technology to perform a complete set of quantum logic operations while transporting information without disturbances degrading the later process. "The significant advance is that we can keep on computing, despite the fact we're doing a lot of qubit transport," says NIST researcher Jonathan Home. NIST researchers have now demonstrated on a small scale all the generally recognized requirements for a large-scale, ion-based quantum processor. Previously, the researchers could perform these processes one at a time, but now they are capable of performing them together and repeatedly. The most recent demonstration includes two key innovations. First, the researchers used two partner magnesium ions to cool the beryllium ions used as qubits after transporting them, allowing logic operations to continue without any additional errors due to heating caused by the transport. Second, the researchers used three different pairs of energy states within the beryllium ions to hold information during different processing steps, allowing information to be held in ion states that were not altered by magnetic field fluctuations during ion storage and transport.
Research Findings Contradict Myth of High Engineering Dropout Rate
Purdue University News (08/04/09) Venere, Emil
Research indicates that engineering does not have a higher dropout rate than other majors and women's persistence in the discipline is equal to men's, according to professor Matthew Ohland with Purdue University's School of Engineering Education. "Engineering programs, on average, retain just as many students as other programs do, and once women get to college they're just as likely to stick around in engineering as are their male counterparts," he says. Nevertheless, Ohland acknowledges that more must be done to draw students to engineering programs, and he notes that "the road is narrow for students to migrate into engineering from other majors." The research hints at a two-pronged strategy that educators should follow to boost the number of engineering graduates. This strategy involves identifying which programs are most successful at retaining students and the underlying reasons for their effectiveness, and creating programs and policies that let students transfer into engineering from other majors with greater ease. Ohland maintains that recruitment rather than retention is the key problem behind the low percentage of women in engineering. "A critical step in attracting more women to engineering is to accept women as they are and to be excited about how the engineering profession might be different if it were more gender balanced," he says.
San Diego Supercomputer Center Launches 'Triton Resource'
University of California, San Diego (08/05/09) Zverina, Jan
The University of California, San Diego's (UCSD's) San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) recently launched the Triton Resource, an integrated, data-intensive computing system. Triton Resource was primarily designed to support UCSD and University of California (UC) researchers, although it also will be available to researchers throughout the larger academic community and to private industry and government-funded research organizations. "The Triton Resource will play a large role in keeping UC San Diego at the forefront of scientific research and discovery, while doing so in an energy-efficient and sustainable manner," says UCSD vice chancellor Arthur B. Ellis. "Its unique configuration is specifically intended to promote collaborative research across the entire campus and the UC system, serving as a catalyst for new ideas, innovation, and interdisciplinary research." SDSC interim director Michael Norman says the Triton Resource is a one-of-a-kind system. "The entire Triton Resource was collaboratively configured from the ground up by a team of scientists and data specialists from across the UC system, with the goal of accelerating research and discovery across a wide range of scientific domains to help transform science and society," Norman says. Triton's scalable cluster is configured to operate either in a standard batch mode, or be set up so users can run customized software stacks at scale, with full connectivity to large-scale storage.
Computer Science Courses on the Decline
T.H.E. Journal (08/04/09) Nagel, David
A decline in U.S. high school computer science (CS) courses is indicated by the Computer Science Teachers Association's (CSTA's) 2009 National Secondary Computer Science Survey. Only 65 percent of about 1,100 high school CS teachers polled this spring said their schools offer introductory or pre-Advanced Placement (AP) CS classes, versus 73 percent in 2007 and 78 percent in 2005. Just 27 percent said AP CS is offered by their schools, compared to 32 percent in 2007 and 40 percent in 2005. About three-quarters of respondents said their schools offer CS content in courses other than introductory or AP computer science classes, down from 85 percent in 2007. "The continuing drop in students taking AP CS is a serious warning sign about the state of computing in this country, as a student taking AP typically indicates his or her interest in majoring in that field in college or pursuing a career in that area," says CSTA executive director Chris Stephenson. "Our innovation economy requires that students take an interest in computing, but a host of factors point in the other direction." Twenty-three percent of survey participants whose schools offer CS courses reported that CS course enrollments have increased during the last three years, while 22 percent said CS enrollments have shrunk, and 55 percent saw no real change in enrollments. However, 70 percent noted that there are qualified students who are not enrolling in CS courses offered by their schools. Thirty-one percent of respondents said the No Child Left Behind mandate adversely affected their CS programs, while 62 percent said it had no effect. The three leading reasons cited for the decline in CS were, in descending order, rapidly changing technology, a dearth of staff support or interest, and a lack of curriculum resources. "Computer science teachers are calling out for more effective professional development opportunities, such as workshops, conferences, and networking opportunities, to keep up with the state of the field and offer rigorous and challenging courses that engage students," Stephenson says.
After the Boom, Is Wikipedia Heading for Bust?
New Scientist (08/04/09) Giles, Jim
The explosive growth of the Wikipedia online encyclopedia is petering out, while a less welcoming attitude toward new contributors could negatively affect the archive's quality in the long term, according to a team of Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) researchers. The number of articles added to the Web site per month reached a plateau at 60,000 three years ago and has since fallen by about one-third, while the number of edits made every month and the number of active editors both stopped expanding in 2007. Occasional editors' power has thinned as more active and established editors come to dominate, and infrequent contributors have a greater percentage of their additions deleted or reverted by other editors than they did before. "This is evidence of growing resistance from the Wikipedia community to new content," says the PARC team. PARC researcher Ed Chi cautions that this resistance could hurt Wikipedia in the longer term by discouraging participation by new editors, thus reducing the number of editors available to identify and repair vandalism. "Over time the quality may degrade," Chi says. The PARC researchers will present their findings at the International Symposium on Wikis and Open Collaboration in October. Blue Oxen Associates' Eugene Eric Kim, who is helping to lead a review of Wikipedia launched by the Wikimedia Foundation, says there are several possible reasons for the changes Wikipedia has undergone. He posits, for example, that the increasing use of spam software that embeds promotional text in articles may actually be responsible for the high number of reverts.
Napolitano: Cybersecurity Issues Remain Unresolved
CongressDaily (08/04/09) Strohm, Chris
U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano recently affirmed that her staff is still weighing options about how best to assimilate the public and private sectors in responding to security threats, saying a number of decisive factors remain foggy. "We need to be thinking outside our traditional boxes. We need to be thinking ahead," she says, adding that her staff was not sufficiently prepared to handle cybersecurity when she took over the department earlier this year. "We need to be recruiting and training investigators who only do this kind of work. That is where we are headed within the Department of Homeland Security and, indeed, within the United States Secret Service." Napolitano says she is open to new ways of cultivating interaction between the White House and the Pentagon's new cybercommand, preferably through a joint committee or middlemen. But she immediately voiced privacy concerns generated by having the armed forces involved in securing U.S. civilian infrastructure. "That's why I haven't really come to a conclusion about how do we share without raising the specter that the Department of Defense is somehow going to be spying on civilian computers in the United States," Napolitano says.
What Will Communication Devices Look Like in 2033?
Design World (07/09) Vol. 4, No. 7, P. 16; Langnau, Leslie
Motorola's Consumer Xperience Design (CXD) teams have speculated possible evolutionary paths that communication devices may take during the next 25 years. They project that by 2033 the cell phone could be an extension of the human body and senses, where universal gestures could be the mechanism through which information can be shared and communication facilitated. The teams hypothesize greater acceptance of embedded technologies, more design variegation, and the emergence of multipurpose devices with shape-shifting capability. Engineers in Seoul have imagined a gel-type phone that sticks to the skin, with a display worn around the eye area and an interface worn on the arm. The devices function as a connector and sensor with engagement between the two permitting communication and expression of personal style. The CXD teams envision ambient, always-on communication by 2033, along with the incorporation of computers and mobile devices in everyday objects. Natural, predictive, and fluid device interaction is theorized, as are objects capable of accessing the computing cloud at will. U.K. engineers have conceived of a device called a MEM that saves experiences and enables the sharing of memories with others throughout life. Another U.K. design is Second Sight, a technology that uses holographic projection and gesture detection with an added virtual layer of information and avatars so that users can view the world via touch screens and holographic displays to boost the interactivity of the communications experience.
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