Welcome to the December 2, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
DNA Sequencing Caught in Deluge of Data
New York Times (11/30/11) Andrew Pollack
The ability to determine DNA sequences is starting to overtake researchers' data storage, transmission, and analysis capabilities, and the backlog of data generated by gene sequencing could delay the realization of its routine medical use. The cost of sequencing has fallen more than 800-fold over four years with the introduction of new methods, while a massive increase in speed has supported an immense boost in the volume of data generated. The journal Nature reports that there will likely be 30,000 human genomes sequenced by the end of 2011, while Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory professor Michael Schatz says global sequencing data capacity is now 13 quadrillion DNA bases annually. Such data challenges are helping stoke demand for bioinformatics specialists and creating opportunities for companies that offer data analysis software and services. "We believe the field of bioinformatics for genetic analysis will be one of the biggest areas of disruptive innovation in life science tools over the next few years," says Goldman Sachs analyst Isaac Ro. Google and DNAnexus are planning to host a copy of a federal sequence archive, while the deluge of raw data is so big that researchers will increasingly store only the final results.
GCHQ Challenges Codebreakers via Social Networks
BBC News (11/30/11)
The United Kingdom intelligence agency GCHQ has created a code-breaking challenge designed to raise its profile and attract new talent. The agency has posted a visual code on an unbranded, standalone Web site, and people also can participate via social media sites, blogs, and forums. The competition runs through Dec. 12, and individuals who crack the code will be given a keyword to use to access the agency's recruitment Web site. "The target audience for this particular campaign is one that may not typically be attracted to traditional advertising methods and may be unaware that GCHQ is recruiting for these kinds of roles," says an agency spokesperson. "Their skills may be ideally suited to our work and yet they may not understand how they could apply them to a working environment, particularly one where they have the opportunity to contribute so much." British officials are concerned about the government's ability to find Internet specialists who have the skills to respond to cyberthreats and see annual cybersecurity competitions and events as a way to promote careers in cybersecurity.
EU Project Develops Advanced Data Management System
CORDIS News (12/01/11)
Researchers working on the European Union (EU)-funded EXIOPOL project are developing an accounting framework that uses sophisticated tools for policy analysis. EXIOPOL will feature tools that support the need to understand the complex pattern between cause and effect, and to understand the trade and competitiveness implications for policies. The researchers have developed a detailed global input-output database that impacts all countries, in which 43 countries represent 95 percent of the global economy and 160 countries make up the remaining five percent. EXIOPOL also updated and detailed external costs by type of emissions, industry sector, and country for a range of themes, including health, agriculture, biodiversity, forestry, and wastes. The EXIOPOL researchers plan to develop estimates of the external costs of key environmental impacts for Europe. In addition, they want to establish an operational output table for all 25 EU members, and assess the value and effect of past research in external costs on policymaking.
IT's Most Wanted: Mainframe Programmers
InfoWorld (12/01/11) Paul Krill
Although mainframes have remained a key component of enterprises and the global economy for decades, many mainframe personnel are getting ready to retire and there are not enough students interested in learning how these systems work, which could lead to a skills shortage for managing and maintaining them. "The mainframe is turning into a giant data server to be able to provide cloud applications with information they need," says Compuware's Paul Vallely. However, Compuware predicts that 40 percent of today's 2 million COBOL programmers will retire in the next few years. "The pioneers of the mainframe are the Baby Boomers," says CA Technologies' Dayton Semerjian. "Starting this year, the Baby Boomers are going into retirement." A recent Compuware survey of 520 CIOs found that 71 percent are concerned that this looming skills shortage will hurt their businesses, with applications and productivity at risk. Programming skills, in addition to system skills, are vital to the mainframe's continued use. CA Technologies, Compuware, and IBM are all seeking to address the skills gap with educational programs and new tools.
STEM Literacy Beyond STEM Occupations
Diverse Online (11/30/11) Loreele L. Espinosa
A new report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce defines why science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM) literacy is important both inside and outside STEM fields, and shows how those who seek to enter STEM fields may eventually move in other directions. The researchers used data from the Occupational Information Network, which holds information on more than 965 occupations, both STEM and non-STEM. The researchers then cross-examined this information with occupational data from the U.S. Department of Census' Current Population Survey to determine skills vital to STEM jobs. The researchers found that abilities such as deductive reasoning, mathematical reasoning, and problem solving are in high demand among employers inside and outside of STEM fields. Meanwhile, the American Association of Colleges and Universities' Project Kaleidoscope (PKal) has launched the What Works in Facilitating Interdisciplinary Learning in Science and Mathematics initiative, which aims to take on the issue of interdisciplinary STEM education. PKal taps into the excitement of students who have the interest and skills to enter a STEM major but also have humanitarian or social science leanings. The Georgetown report also examines the movement of STEM students into non-STEM careers. STEM diversion is especially prevalent among women.
At a Crossroads
MIT News (11/30/11) Caroline McCall
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed an algorithm that predicts when an oncoming car is likely to run a red light, which aims to reduce the number of accidents at intersections. The algorithm uses data on the vehicle's deceleration and its distance from a light to identify potential red light runners. The researchers tested the algorithm on data collected from an intersection in Virginia and found that it accurately identified potential violators within a couple of seconds of reaching a red light. "If you had some type of heads-up display for the driver, it might be something where the algorithms are analyzing and saying, 'We're concerned,'" says MIT professor Jonathan How. He says that to implement such warning systems, vehicles would need to be able to use vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication, wirelessly sending and receiving information such as a car’s speed and position data. The U.S. Department of Transportation and several major car manufacturers are currently studying V2V technology. MIT's Georges Aoude recently designed a V2V algorithm that can capture a vehicle's motion in multiple dimensions in less than five milliseconds. The researchers are now designing a closed loop system, as well as adapting the existing algorithm for air traffic control.
Inside the Race to Crack the World's Hardest Puzzle
New Scientist (11/30/11) Jacob Aron
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Shredder Challenge consists of five increasingly difficult puzzles that involve piecing together shredded documents. To win the challenge, contestants must answer questions based on the contents of the reconstructed documents. Former U.S. National Security Agency code breaker Craig Landrum is using a commercial image editor to solve the puzzles, manually sorting them into categories based on ink color or the number of lines. A University of California, San Diego (UCSD) team, led by Manuel Cebrian, is using computational number-crunching, as well as an army of puzzle-solvers brought together through crowdsourcing, to win the challenge. "The combinatorial nature of the problem makes it much more difficult," Cebrian says. The UCSD team plans to use cluster analysis algorithms to group similar pieces together, then enlist a crowdsourced group of more than 3,000 people to assemble the pieces. Another competitor is attempting to sabotage the UCSD team because they claim the crowdsourcing method is cheating. A Google research team also is using a crowdsourcing approach, but they have not entered the competition and instead have put their software online for anyone to use.
Researchers Find Some Smartphone Models More Vulnerable to Attack
NCSU News (11/30/11) Matt Shipman
The preloaded applications of some smartphones specifically designed to support the Android mobile platform could make the devices more vulnerable to hackers, according to North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers. In tests of eight smartphone models, the researchers found that hackers could use the features as a backdoor to record phone calls, send text messages to premium numbers that will charge an account, or clear all settings. "Some of these preloaded applications, or features, are designed to make the smartphones more user-friendly, such as features that notify you of missed calls or text messages," says NCSU professor Xuxian Jiang. "The problem is that these preloaded apps are built on top of the existing Android architecture in such a way as to create potential 'backdoors' that can be used to give third-parties direct access to personal information or other phone features." The smartphone models that showed significant vulnerabilities were HTC's Legend, EVO 4G, and Wildfire S, Motorola's Droid X, and Samsung's Epic 4G. The researchers also plan to test other smartphone models.
Will Microsoft's 'Minority Report' UI Leap-Frog Apple?
Computerworld (11/29/11) Mike Elgan
Although Apple has pioneered the mainstream multitouch user interface (UI) through innovations such as the iPhone and iPad, Microsoft could provide the next major UI breakthrough by combining voice, touch, and gesture-based commands, writes Mike Elgan. Microsoft's Kinect for Windows project, slated for launch early next year, will differ from its Kinect motion-detection gesture control for the Xbox 360 gaming platform by controlling a PC and registering gestures that are in closer proximity to the screen. Elgan notes that Microsoft also seeks to take advantage of third-party developers by rolling out the Kinect for Windows PC development kit, and by funding and mentoring Kinect-related initiatives. These programs and advancements mean that a Kinect-like gesture UI for Windows PCs should become available in 2012, as well as applications that exploit the interface. Elgan is particularly intrigued by the possibility of body language-interpreting software that can deduce what the user is doing. "Best of all, we can all look forward to a computing environment that's controllable by touch, voice, and in-air gestures," he writes. "This will eventually appear on all of the major platforms. But Microsoft just might get there first."
Programming Language Can't Be Copyrighted: EU Court
Agence France-Presse (11/29/11)
Yves Bot, advocate general of the European Union (EU), says programming languages such as Java and HTML should be regarded the same as language used by a novelist and thus cannot be protected by copyright. Although Bot says programming languages and the functionalities of a computer program cannot be protected by copyright, he notes that copyright can cover "the means for achieving the concrete expression" of the functionalities. "The way in which formulae and algorithms are arranged--like the style in which the computer program is written--will be likely to reflect the authors own intellectual creation and therefore be eligible for protection," Bot says. However, Bot says that the holder of a program license can reproduce or translate a source code without the author's authorization, under certain conditions, to ensure various elements of a program work together. Bot's opinion was given in relation to a case involving SAS Institute, which provides business analytics software and services, and software firm World Programming Ltd. The U.K.'s High Court of Justice requested EU judges to issue a preliminary ruling to clarify the scope of EU legal protection for computer programs.
Millions of Printers Open to Devastating Hack Attack, Researchers Say
MSNBC (11/29/11) Bob Sullivan
Columbia University researchers have found a new class of computer security flaws involving printers that could impact millions of businesses, consumers, and government agencies. The researchers say that certain Hewlett-Packard (HP) LaserJet printers can be remotely controlled over the Internet, enabling computer hackers to steal personal information, attack normally secure networks, and cause physical damage to hardware. HP's Keith Moore says the initial research suggests the likelihood that the vulnerability can be exploited in the real world is low. However, the Columbia researchers claim the security vulnerability is so fundamental that it could affect tens of millions of printers and other hardware that use flawed firmware. The firmware flaw runs embedded systems such as computer printers, which increasingly include functions that make them operate more like computers. "These devices are completely open and available to be exploited," says Columbia professor Salvatore Stolfo. For example, the researchers showed how a hijacked computer could be given a command to continuously heat up the printer's fuser, eventually causing the paper to turn brown and smoke. The researchers also found that printers automatically accept software updates from unknown sources, making them vulnerable to viruses that can be remotely installed.
Pitt Researchers Invent a Switch That Could Improve Electronics
University of Pittsburgh News (11/28/11)
University of Pittsburgh researchers have developed a type of electronic switch that performs electronic logic functions within a single molecule, an invention they say could lead to smaller, faster, and more energy-efficient electronics. "We are learning how to reduce electronic circuit elements to single molecules for a new generation of enhanced and more sustainable technologies," says Pittsburgh professor Hrvoje Petek. The switch was developed by studying the rotation of a triangular cluster of three metal atoms, bound by a nitrogen atom and enclosed within a carbon cage. The metal clusters rotate between several structures under the stimulation of electrons. The rotation changes the molecule's ability to conduct an electric current, enabling the molecule to switch between different logic states without changing the shape of the carbon cage. The researchers say that due to the consistent spherical shape, the prototype molecular switch can be integrated as an atom-like building block into massively parallel computing systems.
WalkSafe App Shields Smartphone Pedestrians
PhysOrg.com (11/28/11) Nancy Owano
Researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Bologna have developed WalkSafe, a smartphone application that uses a phone's built-in camera to detect oncoming traffic and help keep pedestrians safe. The researchers used a Nexus One phone to show that the WalkSafe app can detect oncoming cars as far as 50 meters away. The app uses machine-learning and image-recognition algorithms to identify the fronts and backs of cars, as well as accounting for varying light conditions, phone tilt, and blur. The phone produces a loud vibration to warn the user of oncoming traffic. "Smartphones are open and programmable and come with a growing number of powerful embedded sensors, such as an accelerometer, digital compass, gyroscope, [global positioning system], microphone, and camera, which are enabling new sensing applications across a wide variety of domains such as social networks, mobile health, gaming, entertainment, education, and transportation," says Dartmouth's Smart Sensing Group, which is led by professor Andrew T. Campbell.
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