Welcome to the September 24, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
'One App for All' Effort Launches
BBC News (09/22/10)
Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (Fokus) is leading a Europe-wide project to develop a common application environment for Internet-connected devices. The Webinos project aims to provide a Web-based approach to applications and bypass operating systems. The plan would enable a given app to work on any Web-ready device, regardless of the manufacturer. The Webinos project has the support of 22 organizations, including several mobile operators and manufacturers, as well as the World Wide Web Consortium. "That's what we want to address--to provide a system that runs on all these platforms and domains, where the developer comes up with one application for one platform and lets you run it on all these devices--mobiles, automotive, gaming, and so on," says Fokus researcher Stephan Steglich. "The greatest common denominator among all these devices is the Web browser--that's the only thing people can use to accept the same content," Steglich says.
Report: Poor Science Education Impairs U.S. Economy
USA Today (09/23/10) Dan Vergano
"Rising Above the Gathering Storm," a new report released before a U.S. Congressional committee, found little improvement in U.S. elementary and secondary technical education since 2005, when an earlier report spurred moves to double federal research funding. The report says that stagnant scientific education imperils U.S. economic leadership. "The current economic crisis makes the link between education and employment very clear," says the National Center for Science Education's Steven Newton. The report notes that U.S. K-12 education in mathematics and science ranks 48th worldwide, and that China has replaced the United States as the world's top high-technology exporter. The report says that if U.S. students matched Finland's in math and science achievement, the U.S. economy could grow as much as 16 percent. "The real point is that we have to have a well-educated workforce to create opportunities for young people," says the National Academy of Engineering's Charles Vast.
F.C.C. Opens Unused TV Airwaves to Broadband
New York Times (09/23/10) Edward Wyatt
The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has passed a proposal to make vast swaths of idle TV broadcast airwaves available for high-speed wireless broadband networks and other unlicensed applications. The move follows the FCC's approval of a similar measure two years ago, which was forced into a redraft by objections from 17 companies or groups over the technical requirements for unlicensed devices. TV broadcasters were concerned about potential interference, so the new draft removes a mandate that devices scan the airwaves for available signals. Instead they can depend on a regularly updated digital signal database for use in locating an available channel on which to transmit. Advocates say the airwaves will support faster and stronger "super Wi-Fi" networks and make the Internet accessible to rural regions. However, unused spectrum can be in short supply in urban areas with numerous operating broadcast TV stations. The FCC also passed revisions to the E-Rate program, which allocates federal funding to establish Internet connections at schools and libraries. The new rules will permit connections that employ currently unused fiber-optic lines, which could lower the cost of Internet service.
Sen. Reid Proposes Tax Break for U.S. Hires
Computerworld (09/22/10) Patrick Thibodeau
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has introduced the Creating American Jobs and Ending Offshoring Act, legislation that gives tax breaks to companies that hire U.S. workers to replace offshore workers. The bill exempts employers from paying its share of the Social Security payroll tax on wages paid to new U.S. employees performing services in the United States, according to Reid's office. Under the proposed law, a business must certify that a U.S. worker is replacing an employee who had been performing similar duties overseas. The legislation also would end a federal tax subsidy "that rewards U.S. firms that move their production overseas," says Reid's office. The bill "would be a common sense and practical use of the tax code to help slow offshoring and potentially reverse some that has already occurred," says Rochester Institute of Technology professor Ron Hira. Pace University professor Surendra Kaushik says the bill could help smaller firms writing software for specialized activities, but is unlikely to dissuade larger firms from moving offshore as part of a long-term structural change.
Black Computer Scientists in Academe: An Endangered Species?
Chronicle of Higher Education (09/19/10) M. Brian Blake
; Juan E. Gilbert
African-Americans account for just 1.3 percent of computer science faculty at U.S. colleges and universities, according to the Computing Research Association's Taulbee Survey Report. In addition, only 1.6 percent of computer science doctorate degrees went to blacks in 2008-2009, while federal data estimates that 3.7 percent of nearly 700 doctorate recipients in computer and information sciences in 2008 were black U.S. citizens or permanent residents. One argument for this shortfall is that black students are not being inspired to study computer science because there are few black computer scientists to engage them, note University of Notre Dame professor M. Brian Blake and Clemson University professor Juan E. Gilbert. Among their recommendations for boosting the number of black computer scientists is giving students greater access to information about computing careers and more exposure to role models. They say interventions to grow the black computer scientist population must span the entire educational spectrum, from elementary school to graduate school. For example, Blake leads a project that has created several computing technique introduction modules for 12- to 16-year-olds. Blake and Gilbert also recommend including undergraduates in efforts to raise the number of computer scientists, and to act as mentors and providers of balanced advice.
Stuxnet Worm Causes Worldwide Alarm
Financial Times (09/23/10) Joseph Menn
; Mary Watkins
The Stuxnet computer worm has triggered global anxiety by infiltrating an unknown number of industrial controls. The malware can secretly give false instructions to industrial machines and false readings to operators, and it is uncertain whether it can be effectively removed. Stuxnet is a validation of warnings by private experts and some former government officials that the electrical grid and other critical industries are susceptible to malevolent hacking, and that a new epoch of computerized attacks has commenced. Previous cyberattacks have focused on inhibiting communications in countries such as Georgia or Estonia, but Stuxnet is the first piece of malicious software with a physically destructive purpose. Experts suggest that Stuxnet is most likely affiliated with a national government and may be a tool for terrorism, ideological motivation, or even extortion. Fighting the worm is difficult due to poor communication between industry officials and computer experts. The malware would be especially threatening if its target is the electrical grid or nuclear power, as countries have invested in smart grid infrastructure designed to interweave more industrial operations with the Internet.
Study: Servers Run Well Around Zero Degrees
Helsinki Institute for Information Technology (09/22/10) Visa Noronen
Researchers are studying the use of outdoor air to cool data centers in northern climates. Researchers at the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology and the University of Helsinki have been running servers in a tent on a roof terrace in Finland for six months, which enabled them to cover a wide range of temperatures and humidity. The servers are only protected from direct snow, water, and sunshine. Professor Jussi Kangasharju and researcher Mikko Pervila report that when outdoor temperatures fell to -22 Celsius, the computers warmed the temperature in the tent to about -5 Celsius. "We are surprised at how well the servers have run compared to computers indoors," Kangasharju says. "This means that data centers can be cooled in northern Europe and Northern America with outside air efficiently without energy-consuming cooling and without computers functioning in a less stable manner due to changes in temperature and humidity."
Paper-Thin Supercapacitor Has Higher Capacitance When Twisted Than Any Non-Twisted Supercapacitor
PhysOrg.com (09/21/10) Lisa Zyga
Tsinghua University researchers have designed a flexible, ultra-thin supercapacitor that has a capacitance that is six times higher than commercially available supercapacitors. The researchers say their supercapacitor could be used to develop wearable electronics. The researchers used two slightly separated electrodes made of polyaniline and carbon nanotubes, and by solidifying them in a gel polymer solid-state electrolyte, they were able to make a highly flexible supercapacitor that was as thin as a sheet of paper. "We innovatively designed the microstructure and optimized the configuration of our supercapacitors so as to effectively make full use of each necessary component," says Tsinghua researcher Changhong Liu. "We think that this lightweight and flexible energy storage device will have great application potential in future wearable electronics."
Progress Toward Terabit-Rate High-Density Recording
American Institute of Physics (09/21/10)
Laser-assisted ultrafast magnetization reversal dynamics could allow data to be written quickly to the next-generation of ultra-high-density magneto-optical storage devices. Researchers at China's Sun Yat-Sen University have developed a technique that used time-resolved polar Kerr spectroscopy combined with an alternating magnetic field strong enough to reinitialize the magnetization state of gadolinium-iron-cobalt thin films. Tianshu Lai and colleagues demonstrated laser-assisted magnetic recording could occur in a sub-nanosecond time scale, under a saturated external magnetic field, which would allow for higher recording densities as well as ultrafast data writing of up to a gigahertz. Such speed is at least 30 times faster than that of existing computer hard disks. "We found that the rate of magnetization reversal is proportional to the external magnetic field, and the genuine thermo-magnetic recording should happen within several tens to hundreds of picoseconds when we apply a smaller magnetic field than the coercivity of the recording films," Lai says.
Turning Thoughts Into Words
Technology Review (09/23/10) Duncan Graham-Rowe
University of Utah researchers are developing a brain-computer interface that provides a way to communicate for people who are unable to talk or move but are awake and aware. The Utah researchers recently demonstrated a method for determining which of 10 distinct words a person is thinking by recording the electrical activity from the surface of the brain. The technique involves creating algorithms that can recognize specific brain signals picked up by an array of electrodes placed over the language centers of the brain, an approach known as electrocorticography, says Utah's Spencer Kellis. However, the technique currently can only produce results with about 48 percent accuracy, a rate that Kellis says must be improved. "I don't think even 60 percent or 70 percent accuracy is going to work for patients who cannot communicate in any other way and where there is no other margin for verification," he says.
Innovation: What's the Right Path for Indoor Satnav?
New Scientist (09/21/10) Paul Marks
European engineers recently met at the Indoor Positioning and Indoor Navigation conference to discuss ways to copy the success of satellite navigation technology for use indoors. BMW is developing an indoor positioning system (IPS) that guides drivers to empty parking spaces in garages and later helps them find their car again using the car's anti-roll inertial sensors and a cell phone mapping application. The two most promising technologies for indoor navigation are received signal strength (RSS) and time of arrival (ToA). RSS relies on knowing the strength of a radio signal at its source and monitoring the drop-off with respect to distance. ToA involves reading time stamps sent from transmitters in known positions and calculating a position. Nokia's researchers demonstrated a system that features an internal sensor, enabling dead reckoning of the user's motion between IPS fixes. "I don't think there is ever going to be one particular technology for indoor location sensing," says CSR's Kanwar Chopra. "Radio signals are just not designed for location sensing in all environments. It's always going to be a fusion of multiple signal types."
Scientists Work Together to Move Robotics Forward
ASU News (09/21/10) Christopher Vaughan
Arizona State University (ASU) researchers are developing next-generation robotic devices with greater intelligence and autonomy. ASU professor Srikanth Saripalli is developing ways to enable autonomous vehicles to know where they are and to be able to quickly determine what they need to do based on that information. "The biggest problem is that vision is a really rich sense, and while humans do a lot of the processing automatically, computers really don't know how to incorporate all that data into something meaningful," Saripalli says. The researchers are working to understand how to combine data from different sources, such as video cameras and inertial guidance systems, to create positional awareness. Meanwhile, ASU researchers Thomas Sugar and Veronica Santos are working on robotic solutions for prosthetic devices that replace missing body parts. Sugar has developed a mechanical ankle that can store and release energy in the joint using artificial intelligence, making walking more efficient. Santos is developing an artificial hand that has a fully developed sense of touch. "If you could stimulate the nervous system to produce a conscious sensation of tactile feedback ... you could have an artificial hand and feel what you are touching," Santos says.
A Q&A With a PARC Pioneer Reflecting on 'The Office of the Future' 40 Years Later
Scientific American (09/18/10) Larry Greenemeier
The way we work and live has been transformed by innovations pioneered by a cadre of researchers put together at Silicon Valley's Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) four decades ago to create "the office of the future." One of those researchers was PARC research fellow David Biegelsen, who has been at the research lab from the beginning. Although PARC invented such modern-day conveniences as the personal computer, laser printing, and the graphical user interface, it was less motivated and thus less successful in commercializing its own technology. Biegelsen considers the Alto, the first truly modern PC, to be PARC's greatest societal contribution, because it marked the beginning of personal computing. "More important than the physical platform was allowing the interpersonal collaborations to occur that led to new tools," he says. Biegelsen acknowledges that PARC's failure to capitalize on many of its inventions owed a lot to the developers' naivete, in that the innovations were very expensive and bringing down costs is no simple matter. He also recalls a certain disconnect in communication between the PARC researchers and the Xerox corporate management in Rochester, N.Y., which he attributes to "different visions for the future and about how to commercialize the things we developed."
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