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Welcome to the May 9, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Long-Prized Tech Visas Lose Cachet
Wall Street Journal (05/07/11) Miriam Jordan

The number of H-1B visas has fallen by about 50 percent in the last year and by about 80 percent since 2009, mostly due to the struggling economy, better opportunities in other countries, and higher visa fees. In 2008 companies claimed all 65,000 available H-1B visas on the first day they became available, but this year just 8,000 H-1B petitions were received by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service in the first month they were available. "It's baffling that H-1Bs aren't picking up if the economy is stronger," says attorney Steve Miller. Some attorneys say that companies are in no rush to file for H-1B petitions because they believe that the 65,000 quota will not be met anytime soon and due to the increased costs for applications that Congress passed last year. University of California, Berkeley visiting scholar Vivek Wadhwa says that an anti-immigrant climate has made it "a liability to hire H-1Bs," which he says is a threat to global competitiveness. Wadhwa also notes that many foreign nationals are finding better opportunities in their own countries. A recent survey of more than 250 Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs found that most H-1B visa holders who returned to their native countries did so because they believed they had better opportunities than in the United States.


Graphene Optical Modulators Could Lead to Ultrafast Communications
UC Berkeley News Center (05/08/11) Sarah Yang

University of California, Berkeley researchers have developed graphene-based technology that could revolutionize digital communications. The researchers, led by Berkeley professors Xiang Zhang and Feng Wang, built a tiny optical device using graphene that can switch light on and off, a fundamental aspect of a network modulator. The researchers say that graphene-based modulators could enable consumers to stream full-length high-definition movies onto a smartphone in just a few seconds. "This new technology will significantly enhance our capabilities in ultrafast optical communication and computing," Zhang says. The researchers achieved a modulation speed of one gigahertz, but theorized that speeds as high as 500 gigahertz on a single modulator are possible. Graphene can absorb a broad spectrum of light, which allows the material to carry more data than conventional modulators, which only operate at a bandwidth of up to 10 nanometers. "What we see here and going forward with graphene-based modulators are tremendous improvements, not only in consumer electronics, but in any field that is now limited by data transmission speeds, including bioinformatics and weather forecasting," Zhang says.


Pentagonal Tiles Pave the Way Towards Organic Electronics
University of Cambridge (05/06/11)

Researchers at Cambridge and Rutgers universities have developed new types of organic thin films on surfaces that could lead to molecular-sized organic-electronic devices. "With the semiconductor industry currently worth an estimated $249 billion per year there is a clear motivation towards a molecular-scale understanding of innovative technologies that could come to replace those we use today," says Cambridge's Holly Hedgeland. The new organic thin films consist of cyclopentadienyl molecules that can diffuse electrical charge across the surface and show weak interactions with each other. "The key to the unique behavior of cyclopentadienyl lies in its pentagonal (five-fold) symmetry, which prevents it [from] latching onto any one site within the triangular (three-fold) symmetry of the copper surface through directional covalent bonds, leaving it free to move easily from site to site," says Cambridge's Marco Sacchi. "At the same time, its internal electronic structure is just one electron short of an extremely stable 'aromatic' configuration, encouraging a high degree of charge transfer from the surface and creating a strong non-directional ionic bond."


Face Recognition Software Could Detect Pain in Patients
Binghamton Pipe Dream (05/06/11) Daniel Shemesh

Binghamton University (BU) professor Lijun Yin is developing facial-recognition technologies that enable computers to identify specific human emotions. The U.S. National Science Foundation, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, and the New York State Office of Science, Technology, and Academic Research are sponsoring the project. "Different people display emotions differently, and a computer can only understand a certain pattern," Yin says. He describes his technology as unique due to its three-dimensional approach. "We have developed several different things in the past few years regarding a camera's ability to analyze the human face," Yin says. "Working with [BU psychology professor] Peter Gerhardstein, we are trying to get the computer to distinguish between basic human emotions consistently and reliably." Yin's lab uses six standard cameras and an array of software to analyze a human face. One test examined operating a computer without the use of a mouse or keyboard. Yin says the technology could be used by hospitals to detect pain in patients.


Agents Help Schedule Efficient Charging of Electric Cars
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (05/06/11) Joyce Lewis

University of Southampton researchers have designed a new pricing mechanism that could change the way in which electric vehicles are charged. The system is based on an online auction protocol that makes it possible to charge electric vehicles without overloading the local electricity network. Electric vehicle owners would employ computerized agents to bid for the power to charge the vehicles and also structure time slots when a vehicle is available for charging. The system enables vehicle owners to specify their requirements, such as how often and how far they typically drive, and automatically schedules the time for battery charging. "The mechanism leaves some available units of electricity unallocated," says Southampton's Enrico Gerding. "This is counter-intuitive since it seems to be inefficient but it turns out to be essential to ensure that the vehicle owners don't have to delay plugging-in or misreport their requirements, in an attempt to get a better deal." During testing, the pricing mechanism boosted the number of electric vehicles that can be charged overnight within a neighborhood of 200 homes by up to 40 percent.


Scientists Afflict Computers With Schizophrenia to Better Understand the Human Brain
University of Texas at Austin (05/05/11) Daniel Oppenheimer

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) and Yale University recently conducted a study using a neural network to simulate the excessive release of dopamine in the brain, a key symptom of schizophrenia. "When there's too much dopamine, it leads to exaggerated salience, and the brain ends up learning from things that it shouldn't be learning from," says UT's Uli Grasemann. The results support a schizophrenia hypothesis which states that people suffering from schizophrenia have brains that lose the ability to forget or ignore as much as they normally would. The researchers used a neural network called DISCERN, which learns natural language and then simulates what happens to that language in eight different types of neurological dysfunction. For one of the tests the researchers simulated an increased release of dopamine by boosting the system's learning rate. "What we found is that if you crank up the learning rate in DISCERN high enough, it produces language abnormalities that suggest schizophrenia," Grasemann says. After being exposed to increased dopamine, DISCERN began putting itself at the center of fantastical, delusional stories that incorporated elements from other stories it had been told to recall.


Automated Umpire Keeps Cricket Matches Moving
New Scientist (05/05/11) Jacob Aron

Preventing the disruption of cricket matches by umpires trying to decide whether a player has been run out by watching a video replay is one of the applications of A-Eye, an inexpensive computer vision system developed by Tariq Mahmood of the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences. A-Eye can automate such decisions by integrating a video camera positioned at ground level with the open source AForge.NET software, which scans a video feed for objects in motion. The system automatically identifies the position of the crease and the wicket and tracks the bat's movement. It designates the batsman as run out if it spots any movement of the wicket while the bat is outside the crease. Testing A-Eye on a series of video clips demonstrated that the system, although slightly less accurate than a human umpire, could make judgments in less than a second. Mahmood says that a human umpire could become redundant with the addition of a high-quality camera to boost A-Eye's accuracy. He also says the system can be combined with the HawkEye, which uses four elevated cameras to replicate the ball's path in three dimensions and help umpires make leg before wicket decisions.


Evolutionary Lessons for Wind Farm Efficiency
University of Adelaide (05/04/11)

University of Adelaide researchers are using evolutionary algorithms to optimize wind turbine placement, taking into account factors such as wake effects, the minimum amount of land needed, wind speeds, and wind turbine aerodynamics. "Renewable energy is playing an increasing role in the supply of energy worldwide and will help mitigate climate change," says Adelaide's Frank Neumann. "To further increase the productivity of wind farms, we need to exploit methods that help to optimize their performance." The researchers used evolutionary algorithms to demonstrate the efficient placement for as many as 1,000 turbines. Neumann is developing the algorithms in collaboration with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Current approaches to solving this placement optimization can only deal with a small number of turbines," he says. "We have demonstrated an accurate and efficient algorithm for as many as 1,000 turbines." Neumann says the next step is fine-tuning the algorithms using different models of wake effect and complex aerodynamic factors.


Targeting Leftover Land Mines
Harvard Gazette (05/04/11) Rebecca Hersher

Harvard University researchers have developed the pattern enhancement tool for assisting land mine sensing (PETALS), a smartphone-based system for metal detectors designed to make it easier to locate land mines. "Without changing their sweeping style, without giving them new procedures, this technology allows them to better visualize what they are detecting," says Harvard's Lahiru Jayatilaka. The system displays a red dot for every object found by the metal detector. Each time the detector passes over an object, a more detailed image of what the object might be appears. The system also was designed to help de-miners become better at their task. In initial tests of the PETALS system, novice de-miners performed 80 percent better using the system's visual aids. "Improving the de-miner rather than the equipment is a novel way to think about land mine removal technology," Jayatilaka says. "It is a new direction for the field."


Green GPS Calculates Most Fuel-Efficient Route
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (05/03/11) Kim Gudeman

Computer scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed a software interface that works like general global positioning system (GPS) navigation but also projects the most fuel-efficient route. During testing, Green GPS's suggestions saved 13 percent more fuel over the fastest route and 6 percent over the shortest. The technology is designed to run on cell phones, which then use an off-the-shelf wireless adapter to link to a car's computer. The onboard diagnostic system uploads information about engine performance and fuel efficiency to the phone, which uses the data to calculate the most fuel-efficient route. The university plans to install the technology on up to 200 vehicles in its fleet. A grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation is funding the deployment, and the U.S. Office of Naval Research is funding research related to the networking component. The researchers also are collaborating with IBM through its Smarter Planet initiative to test Green GPS in more urban areas.


Congress to ICANN: No You Can't
National Journal (05/04/11) David Hatch

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee's Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet Subcommittee recently held a hearing on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers' (ICANN's) plan to create potentially thousands of new domain extensions. ICANN says the plan will result in more choices and increased innovation. However, companies and nonprofits are concerned that they will have to defensively register domain names with the new extensions to protect their trademarks. During the hearing, several members of the subcommittee called on ICANN to delay its plans to introduce the new domains until concerns about trademark infringement, identity theft, and increased costs for businesses are resolved. ICANN's Kurt Pritz responded by saying that there would be several mechanisms in place to protect trademark owners, including a system that enables them to file objections to the creation of new domain extensions. However, subcommittee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said that ICANN has not taken the necessary steps to protect businesses and nonprofits from having their trademarks infringed upon once the new domain extensions are introduced.


'The Ascent' Art Installation/Ride at Rensselaer Links EEG Headset and Theatrical Flying Rig
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (05/03/11) Mary L. Martialay

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students have developed a thought-controlled art installation/ride that couples an electroencephalogram headset and a three-dimensional flying harness so that participants can rise into the air and activate light, sound, and video effects as they interact with the system. Ten computer programs operating simultaneously connect the headset to the computer-controlled harness and various theater systems, says Rensselaer's Michael Todd. "We've built a software system on top of the rigging control board and now have control of it through an iPad, and since we have the iPad control, we can have anything control it," notes creative director Yehuda Duenyas. He says the platform can support virtually any kind of experience that entails rigging, video, sound, and light. In the installation, the platform is programmed to respond to relaxation. "We're measuring two brain states--alpha and theta--waking consciousness and everyday brain computational processing," Duenyas says. "If you close your eyes and take a deep breath, that processing power decreases," and when that power falls below a certain threshold, the elevation of the participant in the installation is triggered.


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