Welcome to the September 19, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Schoolchildren to Be Taught How to Write Software
Computerworld UK (09/16/11) Anh Nguyen
The British government has decided to start teaching pre-General Certificate of Secondary Education students how to write software as part of its effort to transform information technology (IT) education in schools. The decision follows years of criticism of the computer science curriculum in United Kingdom (U.K.) schools. A report from the U.K.'s Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills said the current IT curriculum was failing students by not making a clear distinction between the use of IT and IT as a career. "There's going to be a live pilot over two terms in schools of a program that will transform the IT curriculum away from computer literacy, which we believe many young people can do earlier, towards instead how they develop software and computational principles; how they can create their own programs," says UK science minister David Willetts. The initiative will be launched at 20 schools in England in November and run until June 2012.
Penn Researchers Work to Make Federal Agents' Radios More Secure
Philadelphia Inquirer (09/19/11) Tom Avril
University of Pennsylvania computer scientists have found that the radios that U.S. federal agents use to communicate with each other do not use encrypted data for a small but significant amount of time, revealing the identities of undercover agents and informants, the locations of surveillance targets, and other sensitive information. The researchers are currently working with law enforcement agencies to solve the problem using software changes and training. The biggest security problems were caused by using the radios incorrectly, according to the researchers, who presented their findings at the recent USENIX Security Symposium. However, they say the problem lies with the needlessly complex design of the radio system. The radios are made by a variety of manufacturers, but they all use a system of protocols known as P25. On some of the models, the encrypted mode was easy to turn off accidentally when performing other tasks, such as changing channels. One solution the researchers developed for handling the unencrypted messages is to program the radios so that a certain channel is always secure, while another channel is always unprotected.
Monitoring Patients Using Intelligent T-Shirts
Universidad de Carlos III de Madrid (09/19/11)
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) researchers have developed an intelligent t-shirt that monitors human vital signs, such as body temperature and heart rate, and can locate patients within a hospital. "The information gathered by an intelligent t-shirt using e-textile technology is sent, without using wires, to an information management system, which then shows the patient's location and vital signs in real time," according to the UC3M researchers. The system, which consists of a fixed infrastructure that is pre-installed and mobile units that move with the patients, is designed to be used in hospitals and medical centers. The intelligent t-shirt is washable and includes electrodes that detect bioelectric power through which an electrocardiogram can be taken. The t-shirt also is equipped with a removable device that includes a thermometer and an accelerometer. The system was tested 24 hours a day, with five patients being monitored simultaneously. The system is equipped with a series of alarms that are programmed to go off if certain body signs reach predetermined levels. In addition, the system can be applied to applications involving early diagnosis of cardiac anomalies or for telemedicine to monitor patients in their homes. The information management system stores all of the patient's data for use in later studies.
Catching a Breath--Wirelessly
University of Utah News (09/19/11) Lee J. Siegel
University of Utah researchers are using BreathTaking, a wireless network technology, to noninvasively measure the breathing of surgery patients, adults with sleep apnea, and babies at risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The system uses off-the-shelf wireless transceivers, making the system's cost less expensive than existing methods of monitoring breathing, according to Utah professor Neal Patwari. The network of wireless sensors are placed around a patient's bed, measuring the breathing rates and alerting nurses if breathing stops. With the new method, "the patient or the baby doesn't have to be connected to tubes or wired to other sensors, so they can be more comfortable while sleeping," Patwari says. The system can estimate breathing rates to within two-fifths of a breath per minute based on 30 seconds of data. Each of the 20 transceivers sends and receives information from the other 19, which means that there can be up to 380 measurements taken in a very short period of time. The system uses an algorithm to square the amplitude of the signal on each link between nodes, then averages it over all 380 links.
Carriers May Be Handicapping Cell Phone Networks
CNet (09/15/11) Marguerite Reardon
Researchers at the University of Michigan and Microsoft Research found that wireless operators may unknowingly be degrading performance on their networks as the technology they use to move traffic gets more complex. The researchers found that middleboxes, network hardware that performs functions such as firewalling, deep packet inspection, and intrusion detection, may be slowing down network connections and exposing wireless subscribers to security vulnerabilities. The researchers say they have observed a 50 percent performance drop on one of the four major U.S. carrier networks. "The behavior and effects of middleboxes in wireless networks is not well understood," says Michigan professor Zhuoqing Morley Mao. The researchers found that at least one major U.S. wireless operator was buffering data traffic to slow down retransmission of data when the network was overly congested, which caused the sending device to wait a long time before trying to retransmit the data. The researchers also note that some middleboxes allow for IP spoofing, which could enable attackers to disguise their devices to launch attacks on other devices and the network.
Smartphone Battery Life Could Dramatically Improve With New Invention
University of Michigan News Service (09/15/11)
University of Michigan researchers have developed the Energy-Minimizing Idle Listening (E-MiLi) system, which features a subconscious mode for smartphones and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices that could extend battery life by more than 50 percent. The researchers found that even when smartphones are in power-saving modes they still can use about 80 percent of the battery life while conducting idle listening. "This idle listening often consumes as much power as actively sending and receiving messages all day," says Michigan professor Kang Shin. E-MiLi slows down the Wi-Fi card's clock by up to 1/16 its normal frequency, and then switches it back to full speed when the phone identifies an incoming message. "Usually, messages come with a header, and we thought the phone could be enabled to detect this, as you can recognize that someone is calling your name even if you're 90 percent asleep," Shin says. When E-MiLi is used with the power-saving mode, the system is capable of reducing energy consumption from as little as 44 percent to as much as 92 percent, based on the overall network traffic. However, E-MiLi requires new firmware for phones and computers that would be sending messages because they need the ability to encode the message header in a new and detectable way.
Federal Fellowship Program Seeks IT Talent
InformationWeek (09/14/11) Elizabeth Montalbano
The U.S. federal government has launched the Technology Fellows program to help it compete with the private sector for top information technology (IT) talent. People with undergraduate degrees in computer science, computational mathematics, IT, or information science, and a graduate degree or relevant work experience in an IT-related field, can apply at USAjobs.gov until Sept. 25. Technology fellows will serve two years in one agency of the Chief Information Officers Council (CIOC), and then have the opportunity to decide whether to continue to work for the federal government. Fellows will work on critical problems in the federal IT portfolio. They also will receive training in managing large IT programs. The CIOC launched the program in collaboration with the Office of Personnel Management. The Obama administration also has launched several student-oriented initiatives designed to improve technology education and boost the U.S.'s competitiveness.
'Internet of Things' Is Set to Come
Financial Times (09/14/11) Clive Cookson
Oxfam charity shops will use technology developed by a U.K. consortium to create an Internet of things this fall. The technology will enable 20 shops to combine information such as geographical location, stories about previous owners, video clips, and tweets to form a social network for objects, says the University College London's Andy Hudson-Smith. The plan is to label objects with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags or quick response (QR) codes, and link each tag with a special Web site for that object. Mobile phone users will be able to scan the tag and access the information from the Web site or add their own information. For a pilot project, an Oxfam shop in Manchester tagged clothes with QR codes to provide stories from previous owners and their geographical location. "In 20 years' time, it may well be possible to enter a shop where each object is able to offer up its own history--what sort of person owned the object before, where they got it from, and what memories are associated with it," Hudson-Smith says. In a trial of the technology in Norway, people can scan tags at bus stops and receive tweets on when the next bus will arrive and leave a message or video clip.
5 Game-Changing Ideas for Federal Cyber R&D
Government Computer News (09/14/11)
The Leap-Ahead R&D & Coordination program is one of 12 initiatives included in the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative (CNCI), which consists of several mutually reinforcing efforts to help secure the United States in cyberspace. The Leap-Ahead initiative aims to develop strategies and programs to enhance the U.S. government's research and development (R&D) portfolio by involving public, private, and academic research communities to help solve difficult problems. Leap-Ahead started by asking the research community for technical proposals of potential changes to the current cybersecurity industry, and the responses were synthesized and splint into five categories--digital provenance, moving-target defense, hardware-enabled trust, health-inspired network defense, and cybereconomics. Digital provenance seeks to reduce the energy expended in discovering whether to trust digital objects for any intended purpose. The moving-target defense involves making systems more random, thereby decreasing their predictability and making them safer. Hardware-enabled trust would allow cybersecurity professionals to constantly monitor assets for changes in trustworthiness by embedding tamper-resistant roots of trust in the architecture. Health-inspired network defenses would allow network components to have a heightened ability to observe and record what is happening, and cybereconomics aims to make cybermalefactors take more risk at a lower rate of return.
ORNL Invention Unravels Mystery of Protein Folding
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (09/14/11) Ron Walli
Researchers at the U.S.'s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have developed a method for quickly predicting the three-dimensional structure of proteins, which could have major impacts on drug discovery and human health. The method also determines the possible intermediate states in the protein-folding process, providing a clearer view that could lead to new designs for medicines. "We expect this approach to have many industrial applications through protein engineering, for example, where we expect to be able to design more efficient enzymes," says ORNL's Pratul Agarwal. The ORNL method involves a computational methodology that explores the conformational energy landscape of a protein. "One of the main advantages of this approach is that it follows the natural intrinsic dynamics of the protein and by promoting the relevant dynamical modes allows rapid exploration of the folding pathway and prediction of the protein structure," Agarwal says.
Caring, Empathetic Robots the Goal of OU Professor's Research
Oklahoma Daily (09/14/11) Kathleen Evans
University of Oklahoma professor Dean Hougen is studying whether robots can learn to care for one another, and possibly humans. "I am hoping one of the things we will evolve is the capacity for empathy, to look at another individual and say, 'I see what this person needs. I am going to respond to it,'" Hougen says. The researchers realized that most organisms have parents that exhibit nurturing behaviors toward their young, teaching them how to survive in the world. The researchers taught the robots to learn by placing a computer-simulated robot in the middle of a circle with a light switch and a light bulb. The goal was to manipulate the robot to turn on the switch, then sit under the bulb to charge itself. The researchers then changed the experiment to have two robots in the circle, one acting as a parent and one as a child, Hougen says. Both robots were equipped with algorithms that gave them the ability to turn on the switch, but only the child robot would benefit from sitting under the light. "Over time, the parent learned to go to the light switch while the child went to the light," Hougen says. He says the results show that robots, acting as parents, could learn to be nurturers and child robots could learn to be nurtured.
An Intelligent Approach to Mobile News
Innovations (09/11) Vol. 5, No. 7, Rachel Shafer
University of California, Berkeley students Taylor Berg-Kirkpatrick and Mohit Bansal have developed Automatic Summarization of Mobile Search, a computer model that scans hundreds of documents online and automatically compiles a short abstract derived from the text. The tool involves the application of artificial intelligence methodologies to the job of a human researcher or editor. The model employs the cutting-plane algorithm, and constructs a democratic summary by scanning the document for intersections--repeated phrases, sentences, or series of words--and extracts the common points. Mathematical features, or qualities such as the frequency with which an idea appears across the document collection, are then added. A programmer designs the features to show the system which aspects of a summary may be key, while the valuation of the features is the algorithm's job. Berg-Kirkpatrick and Bansal use machine learning to train the model by feeding it sample article sets and human-written abstracts. The model learns how to optimally set the feature values based on the samples, and when given a new article set it produces generalizations from the examples and puts together a new summary.
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