Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the April 15, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Computational Thinking 'Vital for Child's Analytical Ability'
Gulf Times (Qatar) (04/15/11)

Computational thinking ought to be embedded within educational programs in order to cultivate children's analytical ability, says Carnegie Mellon University professor Jeannette M. Wing. "Computational thinking helps us figure out how to solve problems through reduction, embedding, transformation, decomposition, or simulation," Wing told attendees at Carnegie Mellon Qatar's Computer Science Distinguished Lecture Series. Everyday skills such as planning, learning, scheduling, searching, and making trade-offs come into play with computational thinking, she says. "Teaching computational thinking cannot only inspire future generations to enter the field of computer science because of its intellectual adventure, but will benefit people in all fields," Wing says. Everyone is capable of learning computational thinking concepts, according to Wing, and she says the tech-savvy generation should be exploited to teach more people computer science. Carnegie Mellon Qatar professor Kemal Oflazer notes that a discussion on how computer science needed to be perceived in an educational context was started by Wing's 2006 opinion paper in the Communications of the ACM. She persuasively contended that computer scientists' wide-ranging skills represent a universally applicable attitude and skill set required for everyone.


Mobile App Talent Pool Is Shallow
Wall Street Journal (04/15/11) Joe Light

Many companies increasingly want to hire mobile application engineers, but there are not enough developers for all the available positions. The increased demand is forcing companies to increase wages, retrain software engineers, outsource work to third-party developers, and set up offshore development labs. The number of mobile development jobs offered on Elance.com, a freelancer Web site, doubled between the first quarters of last year and this year, twice as fast as job growth overall. Some companies are trying to attract new developers by holding recruitment drives at college campuses and public technology seminars, while others are choosing to retrain software engineers in mobile development. Meanwhile, 31 percent of companies reported that the average salary among mobile software developers increased at a higher rate than normal, according to a Dice.com survey. The survey also found that the average mobile salary was about $76,000, but many companies pay as much as $150,000 a year.


Programming Regret for Google
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (04/13/11)

Tel Aviv University researchers recently launched a project aimed at developing new algorithms that will help computers minimize the distance between a desired outcome and the actual outcome, or what Tel Aviv professor Yishay Mansour calls regret. Google plans to fund the research, which is on the cutting edge of computer science and game theory. "If the servers and routing systems of the Internet could see and evaluate all the relevant variables in advance, they could more efficiently prioritize server resource requests, load documents, and route visitors to an Internet site, for instance," Mansour says. His algorithm, which is based on machine learning, minimizes the amount of virtual regret a computer might experience. "Compared to human beings, help systems can much more quickly process all the available information to estimate the future as events unfold--whether it's a bidding war on an online auction site, a sudden spike of traffic to a media Web site, or demand for an online product," Mansour says.


Researchers Advance Toward Hybrid Spintronic Computer Chips
OSU News (04/13/11) Pam Frost Gorder

Ohio State University researchers have developed an electronic circuit made with both conventional inorganic semiconductors and organic spintronics. The researchers used a unique plastic material combined with a gallium arsenide-based circuit. The researchers were able to transmit a spin-polarized electrical current from the plastic material, through the gallium arsenide, and into a light-emitting diode (LED), proving that the organic and inorganic components were working together. "Hybrid structures promise functionality that no other materials, neither organic nor inorganic, can currently achieve alone," says Ohio State professor Ezekiel Johnston-Halperin. Spintronic inorganic semiconductors must be kept at extremely low temperatures to be magnetic, while a practical spintronic device must be semiconducting and magnetic at room temperature, which is the key feature that the organic materials possess, Johnston-Halperin says. In addition, conventional inorganic devices are made at high temperatures with harsh chemicals that organic materials cannot tolerate. The Ohio State researchers solved this problem by building the inorganic components in a cleanroom, and then adding an organic layer in a customized organics lab. "If we can just get organic and inorganic materials to work together, then we can take advantage of that existing infrastructure to move spintronics forward right away," Johnston-Halperin says.


Software Creates Privacy Mode to Help Secure Android Smartphones
NCSU News (04/13/11) Matt Shipman

North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have developed Taming Information-Stealing Smartphone Applications (TISSA), privacy software designed to help Android smartphone users prevent their personal information from being stolen by hackers. "We have developed software that creates a privacy mode for Android systems, giving users flexible control over what personal information is available to various applications," says NCSU professor Xuxian Jiang. TISSA creates a privacy setting manager that enables users to have more control over the level of information that is available to each application. TISSA has four possible privacy settings--Trusted, Anonymized, Bogus, and Empty. The Trusted setting does not impose additional information access restrictions, while the Anonymized setting provides generalized information that allows the application to run. The Bogus setting gives the application fake answers when it requests personal information, and the Empty setting responds to information requests by saying that the information is not available. TISSA also can be modified to add additional settings that would create a more specific privacy environment. "These settings may be further specialized for different types of information, such as your contact list or your location," Jiang says.


Senators Propose Data Privacy Law
InformationWeek (04/13/11) Mathew J. Schwartz

The Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011 introduced by U.S. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) seeks to shield people's personal information. The proposal urges reasonable procedures to guarantee that personally identifiable and sensitive data is accurate and securely stored. Kerry and McCain released a statement saying that the legislation "would require robust and clear notice to an individual of his or her ability to opt-out of the collection of information for the purpose of transferring it to third parties for behavioral advertising." Personally identifiable information is defined in the bill as a first name or initial plus last name, postal address, email address, telephone or cell phone number, social security or other government-issued identification number, credit card account number, biometric data, or any unique identifier that could be used to identify a particular individual. Among the bill's supporters are eBay, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Microsoft. "We have long advocated for comprehensive federal privacy legislation, which we believe will support business growth, promote innovation, and ensure consumer trust in the use of technology," note the companies in a joint statement. McCain says the bill outlines a framework for companies to develop an environment that is respectful of consumers' personal information, while also allowing businesses to continue to market and advertise to consumers.


IBM Driver Tool Predicts Traffic Jams
Agence France-Presse (04/13/11) Glenn Chapman

IBM is testing software that will enable smartphone users to receive customized alerts of traffic problems before they take to the roads. IBM's pilot project is using location-sensing capabilities in smartphones to automatically track where and when motorists drive, and is feeding the information through the Internet to computers that identify patterns such as commutes to and from work. The goal is to analyze data collected from roadway sensors commonly used for traffic maps and determine conditions that lead to traffic jams and then combine the results to form personalized predictions for when a driver is likely to find backed-up roads. IBM, which is collaborating on the project with California state highway authorities and the Mobile Millennium project at the University of California, Berkeley, has developed an advanced learning and predictive analytics tool that powers the service. The Traffic Prediction Tool is designed to continuously analyze congestion data, commuter locations, and expected travel start times in a metro area that can affect all commuters. "The predictive capabilities are head and shoulders above what exists today," says IBM's John Day. "Everything out there is showing you traffic as reported five or 10 minutes ago." IBM wants to integrate real-time data from bus and train systems into a service that can work worldwide.


Dialing With Your Thoughts
Technology Review (04/12/11) Duncan Graham-Rowe

Severely disabled people would be able to place a call on a cell phone with just their thoughts using a new brain-computer interface developed by researchers at the University of California, San Diego's (UCSD's) Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience. UCSD's Tzyy-Ping Jung and colleagues developed a system that uses electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes on the scalp to analyze electrical activity in the brain. The team hooked up an EEG headband to a Bluetooth module to wirelessly send the signals to a cell phone, which used algorithms to process the signals. The researchers trained users on the system via a visual feedback system that showed images on a computer screen flashing on and off almost imperceptibly at different speeds. A part of the brain called the midline occipital can detect the oscillations, and the team exploited this by displaying a keypad on a large screen with each number flashing at a slightly different frequency. The frequency can be detected through the EEG, which makes it possible to tell which number the subject is looking at. In tests involving 10 subjects, seven were able to input a 10-digit phone number with 100 percent accuracy. The researchers say the system also could be used to provide a hands-free experience to cell phone users or to detect drowsiness in drivers and air traffic controllers.


IBM's Watson Not as Smart as You Think
Computerworld (04/12/11) Lucas Mearian

IBM's Watson supercomputer may excel at outperforming human Jeopardy! champions, but it comes up short in other areas of intelligence, according to artificial intelligence (AI) experts who spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) Computation and the Transformation of Practically Everything symposium. Watson is capable of answering natural language questions in near real time, but MIT professor Patrick Henry Winston says it cannot connect life experiences to structure cohesive thoughts. Still, Watson's appearance on Jeopardy! signaled a shift in AI facilitated by multicore processors, clustered computing, and refined computer management software. University of Washington professor Ed Lazowska says the Internet has dramatically impacted our lives thanks to the exponential power underlying computing, and he predicts that that power will be channeled into the creation of smart homes, smart healthcare, smart robots, and smart automobiles with reactive decision-making capability over the next several years. The key to future computer development resides in system building, in which technologists work in multidisciplinary teams, Lazowska says.


Constant Connection
MIT News (04/12/11) Larry Hardesty

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers recently presented a set of communications protocols that use information about a portable device's movement to improve wireless connection handoffs. The researchers found that the new protocols could improve network throughput by roughly 50 percent. One version of the protocol enabled a moving cell phone to switch transmitters 40 percent less frequently than with current protocols. A second protocol controls a phone's selection of bit rate. A device using MIT's protocol had gains in throughput from bit rate selection averaging about 50 percent. Another protocol manages the behavior of the wireless base stations instead of the devices. The protocol enables the base station to make an educated guess about when it is about to lose contact with the device.


New KDE Project Aims at Tablets, Mixed UIs
CIO Australia (04/12/11) Rodney Gedda

KDE is developing two open source projects designed to provide a consistent user interface across a variety of touchscreen interfaces and to advance data integration. KDE says the goal of its Plasma Active and Contour projects is to create a "data-centric user interface which is not concerned with applications but rather offers intelligently combined data through a context-sensitive recommendation manager." The concepts would deliver a new user experience for tablets, smartphones, and set-top boxes. Plasma Active, which is still under development, runs on a Linux desktop stack, including the kernel, Qt, and KDE's Plasma framework. Plasma is an umbrella for many components, including Contour. A working prototype of Contour has already been demonstrated, and MeeGo will be an initial target platform for the interface. Contour is being designed to integrate what a user is doing on a device, what "resources" such as files and contacts are open, how they are relevant to running tasks, and what applications might be relevant to a running task.


Can Supercomputers Help Japan Predict Earthquakes?
Business Week (04/07/11) Rachael King

Dell Computer and several U.S. universities have provided Japanese researchers with supercomputing capacity following the March 11 earthquake, as rolling blackouts have made it difficult for them to use their supercomputers to run simulations on the earthquake's effects. For example, six Japanese researchers used 117,000 computing hours in about two weeks at the University of Texas Advanced Computing Center. After the initial earthquake, Dell computers at the U.S. National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration lab calculated where the tsunami waves would hit. "It correctly calculated wave height and distance of where those waves would actually hit, but it took roughly 12 hours to do the total computation, which means they got the answer right, but if we'd been able to do the computation faster it might have been useful to the people on the ground," says Dell's Tim Carroll. The Dell supercomputers also are being used for seismic analysis of nuclear reactors and other buildings, as well as the radiation dissipation rates from sea water, ground water, and the atmosphere, Carroll says.


New Mobile App Aims to Make Social Media Your Friend
Bournemouth University (United Kingdom) (04/11/11)

Bournemouth University's Andy Pulman has developed the Social Media Friend, a mobile application designed to serve as a guide to the interactive world of social media. The app provides an introduction to Web 2.0, as well as advice on using Twitter, social bookmarking, and other forms of social media. It also includes a social media glossary for understanding key terms and keeping people up-to-date with new social media words and phenomena. "There are daily incidences of people and organizations using social media in the wrong way or accidentally without knowing the potential consequences, which can then cause problems for both businesses and individuals," Pulman says. "The Social Media Friend is a quick and easy-to-use application designed to give you brief and informative information and tips on a range of Social Media and how you can get the best out of using it." Pulman also is maintaining a Social Media Friend blog to further support people who are looking to improve their social media skills.


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