Welcome to the July 26, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
UK Seeks Next Generation of Cyber Security Specialists
BBC News (07/26/10) Westcott, Richard
The United Kingdom has launched a new strategy to attract more people to the computer security profession. The Cyber Security Challenge will consist of two competitions that will enable officials to assess entrants' security skills. The national challenge will include an online competition in which participants will look for flaws on a dummy Web site and answer questions on what they found. The challenge also will include a face-to-face component in which entrants will have to work in teams, take over a simulated network, and defend it from attacks carried out by security professionals. The winners of the competitions will move on to the U.K. Masterclass, and will work in teams to defend a different simulated network. Prizes will include cash, financial assistance for university computer security courses, and placement in top training programs. "We are really suffering quite a major challenge at the moment," says Kevin Streater, from the Open University, which is a partner in the Challenge. "A lot of people that came in through to 2000 have moved on, they moved up into different roles and people that came in during the 60s and 70s are retiring."
New Languages, and Why We Need Them
Technology Review (07/26/10) Pavlus, John
The creators of 24 new programming languages, including hobbyists, academics, and corporate researchers, recently presented their work at the Emerging Languages Camp. "There's a renaissance in language design at the moment, and the biggest reason for it is that the existing mainstream languages just aren't solving the problems people want solved," says Google's Rob Pike. Google's Go language was designed to manage the complexity of distributed, multicore computing platforms such as data centers and cloud networks. Go reduces redundancies in the compiling process, which means that "programs can be ready to execute in a matter of seconds," Pike says. Vrije Universiteit Brussel's researcher Tim Van Cutsem presented AmbientTalk, an experimental language based on ambient-oriented programming, which departs from traditional computing by not relying on central infrastructure and by assuming that network connections are volatile and unpredictable. "AmbientTalk is smart enough to buffer messages so that when the connection drops, they're not lost, and when the connection is restored, it sends the messages through as if nothing happened," Van Cutsem says. Microsoft's Matt MacLaurin developed Kodu, a language designed to get young people interested in programming. "Our working theory is that programming is intrinsically fascinating and fun, like crosswords or sudoku," MacLaurin says.
World's Cheapest Laptop Unveiled in India
ITPro (07/26/10) Doyle, Eric
Students at the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science have designed the Sakshat, a touch-screen laptop computer for students that is expected to cost about $35. The Sakshat offers basic features such as Web browsing, PDF viewing, and videoconferencing. However, the design allows for future customization and development. "We have reached a stage that, today, the motherboard, its chip, the processing, connectivity, all of them cumulatively, cost around [$35], including memory, display--everything," says India's Human Resource Development minister Kapil Sibal. India has called on entrepreneurs and manufacturers to produce the Sakshat, which will go on sale next year. The cost of the complete production cycle is included in the target price of the Sakshat. However, economies of scale could reduce the device's price to $20 and eventually to as low as $10.
Laughter's Secrets: How to Make a Computer Laugh
New Scientist (07/23/10) Cox, Trevor
Acousticians are adding laughter to synthesized speech to make it sound more convincing when coming from a robot. Making laughter sound more natural is a difficult task, considering how much human laughter and giggling can vary. Humans can change the vowel sound of their laughs, vary the prosody within and between laughs, and make "unvoiced" sounds when they laugh. University of Saarland's Jurgen Trouvain and colleagues have modeled the movements of the vocal tract and air flow. Meanwhile, Marie Curie University's Gregory Beller has taken an algorithm that turns text into speech and then alters the prosody to try and convey different emotions. Deutsche Telekom's Shiva Sundaram has used a technique called linear predictive speech coding to generate individual laughs, and a simple algorithm to work out their timing. And the University of Mons' Jerome Urbain has mixed and manipulated single laughs drawn from real laughter.
Gut Movements in Caterpillars Have Impact on Robotic Design
Virginia Tech News (07/22/10) Nystrom, Lynn
Researchers at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University studying the internal soft-tissue movements of caterpillars to design maneuverable and orientation-independent soft material robots. The researchers found that crawling caterpillars have internal soft-tissue movements that are out of sync with their external body movements. The internal gut movements are locally decoupled from visible translations of the body. "This type of two-body mechanical system has never been seen before, and is probably unique to soft, squishy animals," says Virginia Tech professor Jake Socha. The internal movement enables the abdomen to advance a step forward before the body wall catches up, a finding that has potential uses in soft-bodied robots, dubbed softbots. The researchers say that softbot technology could be used to create shape-changing robots capable of engaging in search-and-rescue missions, in space applications for which a gravity agnostic crawler would be very valuable, and for medical applications in which a biocompatible soft robot would reduce incidental tissue damage and discomfort for the patient.
Saving Lives at Rail Crossings
La Trobe University (07/23/10)
La Trobe University (LTU) researchers have developed a wireless system that enables cars and trains to communicate with each other and avoid collisions at rail crossings. The researchers say the system could save an average of 37 lives a year and an estimated $100 million by eliminating rail crossing collisions. "The outcome promises to benefit greatly driving safety in Australia, with the added potential of being able to export leading-edge Australian technology design and expertise," says LTU professor Paul Johnson. The system uses dedicated wireless networks integrated with global positioning systems. "By using the latest in wireless technology we can create 360-degree driver awareness over a longer range at far cheaper costs--and at vehicle speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour," says LTU professor Jack Singh. He says the project is part of a worldwide effort to develop intelligent transportation systems and smart cars.
XML Pioneer Pitches Functional Programming for Concurrency
InfoWorld (07/26/10) Krill, Paul
XML co-inventor Tim Bray says that functional programming, rather than threads, is the best option for programmers developing code for multicore processors. Programming for multicore chips requires developers to deal with concurrency, which presents its own issues, Bray says. "It involves a lot of problems that are very difficult to think about and reason about and understand," he says. However, functional programming, made possible with languages such as Erlang and Clojure, offers a way to handle concurrency. Erlang was originally designed for programming massive telephone switches with thousands of processors. Bray says that although it has no classes, objects, or variables, it is "bulletproof and reasonably high-performance." Clojure is a Lisp, runs on the Java Virtual Machine, and compiles to straight Java bytecode, which makes it very fast, Bray notes. "This is a super, super high-performance language," he says.
Nanowick at Heart of New System to Cool 'Power Electronics'
Purdue University News (07/22/10) Venere, Emil
Purdue University researchers have developed an advanced cooling technology that can handle about 10 times the heat generated by conventional computer chips. The technology consists of a miniature, lightweight device made of tiny copper spheres and carbon nanotubes that passively wick a coolant toward hot electronics, says Purdue professor Suresh V. Garimella. The wicking technology is part an ultrathin thermal ground plane--a flat, hollow plate containing water. The Purdue team is working to create heat pipes about one-fifth the thickness of commercial heat pipes and covering a larger area than the conventional devices, which would enable them to provide far greater heat dissipation. The cooling system could be used to prevent the overheating of devices called insulated gate bipolar transistors, which are used in hybrid and electric vehicles. The system works by circulating water through a boiling, evaporating, and condensing process. Allowing a liquid to boil significantly increases how much heat can be removed compared with heating a liquid to temperatures below its boiling point.
Joke-Generating Computer Goes Global
University of Aberdeen (07/21/10) Potts, Kelly
University of Aberdeen researchers have developed software that can create millions of different jokes using a large dictionary of language and simple language rules. The Joking Computer program was originally created to help children with disabilities develop language skills. "The aim of the Joking Computer is to help children and adults alike to explore language in a unique and fun way," says Aberdeen researcher Judith Masthoff. The program has since been developed into an interactive online exhibit geared toward the general public, enabling them to explore different language rules involved in the development of humor, Masthoff says. The Joking Computer technology also has led to other projects involving speech development. "These projects include the development of a device which enables children with limited or no speech to communicate the story of what they did at school that day, and artificial intelligence technology which can provide road maintenance teams with up-to-date and accurate information on which roads need to be gritted and when," she says.
Supercomputer Reproduces a Cyclone's Birth, May Boost Forecasting
NASA News (07/21/10) Cook-Anderson, Gretchen
University of Maryland (UMD) research scientist Bo-wen Shen used the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Pleiades supercomputer and atmospheric data to create the first computer model to replicate the formation of a tropical cyclone five days in advance. Shen's computer model could improve the understanding of the predictability of tropical cyclones. "To do hurricane forecasting, what's really needed is a model that can represent the initial weather conditions--air movements and temperatures, and precipitation--and simulate how they evolve and interact globally and locally to set a cyclone in motion," Shen says. He used actual data from the 2008 tropical cyclone Nargis, along with the new model to develop insights into the dynamics of weather conditions over time and across different areas that generate storms. "In the last few years, high-resolution global modeling has evolved our understanding of the physics behind storms and its interaction with atmospheric conditions more rapidly than in the past several decades combined," Shen says.
Super Alice Ushers in a New Wonderland of Green Computing
University of Leicester (07/20/10) Mirza, Ather
The University of Leicester recently launched Alice, a new green supercomputer that is 10 times more powerful than the system it replaces. Researchers will use the high-performance computer to help find the answers to questions ranging from the effects of different government policies on the financial markets to the future of the galaxy. The new Leicester system will use an advanced water-cooling system, similar to a car radiator. The cooling system will save an estimated 130,000 pounds and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 800 tons annually compared to the previous technology. "The amount of data produced is going up by around 50 percent a year, so we need to get much cleverer about how we manage it, make it searchable, and decide what to keep for the next generation," says Leicester's Mary Visser. "That is a massive challenge for the whole sector--one that calls for new kinds of support and training for researchers at every stage of their careers."
Autism Has Unique Vocal Signature, New Technology Reveals
University of Kansas News (07/19/10) Henry, Karen
University of Kansas researchers have developed Language Environment Analysis (LENA), a system that automatically labels and analyzes infant and child vocalizations from recordings. The research shows that pre-verbal vocalizations of very young children with autism are distinctly different from those of normally developing children. LENA also differentiates children with autism from children with language delay. The researchers say the findings are a proof of concept that automated analysis of massive samples of vocalizations can be included in the scientific resources for research on vocal development. LENA could significantly impact the screening, assessment, and treatment of autism and the behavioral sciences in general, says Kansas professor Steven F. Warren. "This technology could help pediatricians screen children for [autism spectrum disorders] to determine if a referral to a specialist for a full diagnosis is required and get those children into earlier and more effective treatments," Warren says. The system features a processor that fits into the pocket of the child's clothing and records everything the child vocalizes.
The Trouble With Multicore
IEEE Spectrum (07/10) Patterson, David
Chipmakers switched to a multicore architecture without a clear idea of how such devices would be programmed because they had little choice, as the shrinkage and growing density of transistors meant that chips would eventually come up against a power wall, writes University of California, Berkeley professor David Patterson. The challenge for programmers will be finding ways to write applications that leverage the growing number of processors on a chip without adding to software development time or sacrificing quality. Intel CEO Paul S. Otellini has said that future software applications will run faster only if programmers can craft parallel programs for multicore microprocessors. Signs of hope for multicore programming reside in the fact that the entire computer industry is now focusing on the problem, while the migration to parallelism is starting small and growing slowly. The synergism between multicore processing and cloud computing also provides another potential reason for success. However, there are still strong odds against the chip industry inventing a single model for converting every piece of software to run on numerous parallel processors. A group of researchers is instead attempting to create key multicore-exploiting apps in the hope that the resulting hardware and software will feature major advancements needed to ease parallel programming into a straightforward paradigm.
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