Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the March 14, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Workshop on Experimental Support for Computer Science Yields Valuable Report
Indiana University (03/13/12) Gregory Moore

Indiana University's FutureGrid project helped host the Workshop on Experimental Support for Computer Science during the SC11 conference in November 2011. The workshop brought together many scientists involved in building and operating infrastructures dedicated to supporting computer science experiments. The "Supporting Experimental Computer Science" report outlines the discussion from that workshop into a statement on the state of the field and directions moving forward. "This report will be of great interest to scientists and researchers in experimental computer science," says FutureGrid principal investigator Geoffrey C. Fox. The report describes the experimental culture and existing methodology in computer science, as well as the properties of the experimental testbeds, whose representatives have participated in the workshop--Grid'5000 in France and FutureGrid and Open Cirrus in the United States. "The report is effectively a reference guide for students on experimental methodology in computer science," says FutureGrid co-principal investigator Kate Keahey. "It also explains how to turn principle into practice on experimental testbeds such as FutureGrid, Grid'5000, and OpenStack."

Stanford Students, Apple iPad Apps Just Go Together
USA Today (03/14/12) Jefferson Graham

Application development is ingrained in the culture of Stanford University, which helped give birth to Google, Yahoo!, Sun Microsystems, and Hewlett-Packard. Developing apps and launching companies "is just really kind of emblazoned into the culture here," says Stanford student Zach Weiner, who developed Storytree with fellow student Matt Sullivan. Storytree is a finalist in the South by Southwest Interactive Awards. "Everybody sits around their dorm rooms, late at night, talking about their next project," Weiner says. Unlike many universities, Stanford teaches a course on how to create apps for the iPhone and iPad. Although the class is primarily only available to computer science students, it also is available online for free as part of Apple's iTunes U, and has been downloaded more than 10 million times. The students see their peers succeeding and they get very motivated to create their own tech startups, says Stanford professor Ge Wang. "Students get really excited when they realize they can really make it happen," he says. Sullivan says the school's culture makes everyone want to be an entrepreneur. "Everyone is building a Web site, starting an app, forming a company," he says.

Scientists Tap the Genius of Babies and Youngsters to Make Computers Smarter
UC Berkeley News Center (03/12/12) Yasmin Anwar

University of California, Berkeley researchers are studying how babies, toddlers, and preschoolers learn in order to program computers to think more like humans. The researchers say computational models based on the brainpower of young children could give a major boost to artificial intelligence research. "Children are the greatest learning machines in the universe," says Berkeley's Alison Gopnik. "Imagine if computers could learn as much and as quickly as they do." The researchers have found that children test hypotheses, detect statistical patterns, and form conclusions while constantly adapting to changes. “Young children are capable of solving problems that still pose a challenge for computers, such as learning languages and figuring out causal relationships,” says Berkeley's Tom Griffiths. The researchers say computers programmed with children's cognitive abilities could interact more intelligently and responsively with humans in applications such as computer tutoring programs and phone-answering robots. They are planning to launch a multidisciplinary center at the campus' Institute of Human Development to pursue their research. The researchers note that the exploratory and probabilistic reasoning demonstrated by young children could make computers smarter and more adaptable.

A Georeferenced Digital 'Comic' to Improve Emergency Management
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (03/12/12)

Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) researchers have developed eStorys, software the enables georeferenced images that have been uploaded to social networks to be recovered, located on maps, and organized like a comic to create a visual perspective of a crisis situation. The system facilitates the search for photos related to a specific theme, time, or place that users post on social networks. The program then permits those images to be placed on maps based on their geographic coordinates, and filtered to include only those images the user is most interested in. "This is a tool for exploring and studying emergency situations during the mitigation phase, in order to learn from them and improve the contingency plans or to establish better preparation mechanisms for citizens," says UC3M professor Paloma Diaz. She says the program can help professionals involved in emergency management to collect data and images to understand how citizens perceive these situations or to detect flaws and areas that can be improved. "The results suggest that governmental agencies prefer to approach the social networks through more restricted communities, practice communities, or special interest communities, so that the credibility of the information can guaranteed," Diaz says.

The Hidden Risk of a Meltdown in the Cloud
Technology Review (03/13/12)

Despite the rising popularity of cloud-based computing, the risks of a full-scale cloud migration have yet to be properly explored, says Yale University professor Bryan Ford. He notes that in the worst-case scenario, a cloud could experience a full meltdown that could seriously threaten any business that relies on it. "This simplistic example might be unlikely to occur in exactly this form on real systems--or might be quickly detected and 'fixed' during development and testing--but it suggests a general risk," Ford says. He notes, for example, that a lack of transparency between different cloud providers could lead to conflicting internal control loop cycles. "Non-transparent layering structures ... may create unexpected and potentially catastrophic failure correlations, reminiscent of financial industry crashes," Ford warns. A more general risk occurs when systems are complex because unrelated parts become intertwined in unexpected ways. He notes that only recently have industry experts begun to realize that bizarre and unpredictable behavior often occurs in systems consisting of networks of networks. "We should study [these unrecognized risks] before our socioeconomic fabric becomes inextricably dependent on a convenient but potentially unstable computing model," Ford says.

Tracking Pedestrians Indoors Using Their Smart Phones (03/09/12)

The embedded inertial sensors in many smartphones could be used to track the movement of smartphone users when indoors, even without global positioning systems. Lancaster University's Shahid Ayub led a research effort that determined the embedded inertial sensors can be used for localization and tracking applications. Inertial navigation provides the necessary information relative to a specified starting point. People who are indoors could be positioned using a combination of the smartphone accelerometer and a built-in digital compass, which will become available in future smartphones. Ayub's team investigated the potential of three different smartphone placement modes--idle, handheld, and listening--for use with pedestrian dead reckoning techniques to allow users to record the path they follow or different kinds of workplace and other monitoring requirements. "The technique could be used in underground tube stations, airports, [and] train stations where there is no infrastructure installed for tracking or navigation," Ayub says. He notes that it also can be used for location-based service applications. "In big shopping malls it becomes easier to navigate to a target shop or meeting place, while in large offices and across industry it could be used to track employees and control movements of workers in restricted areas," Ayub says.

Visualization Technologies for Human-Environment Interactions
CCC Blog (03/08/12) Erwin Gianchandani

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), a national fusion center funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, has invited computational and domain scientists to participate in a workshop on visualization technologies that support research on human-environment interactions. The workshop will focus on the visualization and use of spatial datasets from the social and environmental sciences. Domain scientists will have an opportunity to learn about visualization tools and resources available for their work, and computational scientists will get a chance to learn about the as-yet unmet visualization needs in the domain sciences. The workshop will address some of the visualization challenges in using spatio-temporal datasets, recommend possible collaborative information technology efforts that could be supported by SESYNC's programs or through other funding mechanisms, and establish a network of researchers to share information and exchange ideas on a regular basis. SESYNC will accept abstracts related to the main topics of the workshop until April 20. The workshop is scheduled for July 23-24 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Facebook Message: Girls, Too, Can Do Computers
Seattle Times (03/11/12) Brier Dudley

Facebook is working to draw more women into the information technology industry. "I am quite hopeful that Facebook can do something to turn the tide--that we have enough cultural influence at this point that we can influence the next generation of teenage girls to consider computer science," says Facebook's Jocelyn Goldfein, who is working on features such as news feeds and photo and video services. Goldfein says she is an example of what women can achieve in today's tech industry, being one of about a dozen directors, including two women, who collectively handle engineering for Facebook. "I think the biggest thing you need to do for all girls ... is have role models out there," she says. "Teenage girls are using Facebook, and so I think it's meaningful for them to hear about women engineers working at Facebook." Although Goldfein says it could take generations for women to make up 50 percent of computer science majors, it is possible. "Considering that women are 60 percent of undergrad degrees these days, I'm really looking for a 60-40 representation to be proportional," she says.

Avatars Set to Shape Real-World Habits
New Scientist (03/12/12) Celeste Biever

Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory is at the cutting edge of virtual reality research, but director Jeremy Bailenson says the million-dollar lab could be rendered completely obsolete by the development of inexpensive devices that make interaction in virtual environments as natural as the physical world. One of these devices is Microsoft's Kinect controller, which has been adapted for other uses, such as trying on virtual clothes and jewelry, and videoconferencing. Bailenson says a world in which virtual experiences are common could have far-reaching effects. "We think virtual reality is a way to change very entrenched behavior," he says. For example, University of Georgia in Athens researcher Sun Joo Ahn recently conducted an experiment to find out if behavior in a virtual world can translate to the physical world. Ahn randomly assigned 47 people to either inhabit a lumberjack avatar and cut down virtual trees with a chainsaw, or to imagine doing so while reading a story about lumberjacking. Those who participated in the virtual environment used fewer napkins to clean up a spill, showing that the task had made them more concerned about the environment.

Making Computer Animation More Human
University of Auckland (New Zealand) (03/08/12)

The University of Auckland is launching a new laboratory that will work to make computer animation more human. The Laboratory for Animate Technologies will create interactive autonomously animated systems that "will help define the next generation of human-computer interaction and facial animation," says Mark Sagar, who will head the lab. He says the lab will develop technology that will simulate life-like qualities and the observable natural reflexes and behavior of someone engaging with another person. Advanced computer-vision techniques for tracking facial expression and behavior will be developed to enable a smart machine to sense its world. "Imagine a machine that can not only express what is on its mind, but also allows you to glimpse the mental imagery that it is constantly changing in its mind," Sagar says. The lab will be developed with state-of-the-art projective computer graphics and brain-based computational models. "Our computational models of emotion, perception, learning, and memory will generate highly expressive realistic--or fantastic--imagery, which engages the user on a visceral, emotional level," he says.

UMass Amherst Computer Scientists Design Virtual Tutors for Learning Mathematics
University of Massachusetts Amherst (03/07/12) Janet Lathrop

University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) researchers Beverly Woolf and Ivon Arroyo developed Wayang Outpost, an intelligent and emotionally perceptive mathematics-tutoring program for grade school children. The software features a friendly tutor and other animated characters who work one-on-one with students. The software uses artificial intelligence to evaluate pupils' skills and knowledge in real time. The researchers say Wayang Outpost has improved student performance on standardized test scores by an average of 10 percent. One long-term goal of the research is to reduce training time and instructor costs while improving the technical skills of U.S. Navy personnel. For the Navy research, the UMass researchers will partner with Worcester Polytechnic Institute researchers to integrate the Wayang program with another mathematics tutor called ASSISTments. The combined software will be tested by Maine high school students to help the researchers understand how to improve the design of future versions.

At Least 1 Woman Should be Interviewed for Every IT Job Opening, Advocacy Group Says
Network World (03/06/12) Ellen Messmer

Recruiters for high-tech jobs should make sure there is at least one woman candidate for every job opening in information technology (IT), according to a recent Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology report, which says the extra effort will increase the chances that the high-tech industry sees growing numbers of female technical specialists and managers. There are blind spots in how recruitment largely takes place that can be overcome with specific efforts to bring about greater diversity in terms of women in IT, says report co-author Denise Gammal. The report also suggests building a gender-balanced internship program for technical positions, using social networks to increase the number of female candidates, and revising job descriptions to reduce gender stereotypes. Additional recommendations include instituting a blind resume-screening process to lower the potential for unconscious bias, deploying dual-career support mechanisms when relocation is involved, holding executives and managers accountable for reaching diversity goals and targets, and quantifying initiatives to increase the representation of women. The study found that many companies and government agencies want to broaden their IT workforce to include more women.

Simulations and Mathematics Suggest That There Always Be a Facebook
National Center for Nuclear Research (03/02/12)

National Center for Nuclear Research (NCBJ) scientists are conducting research that could lead to the development of a field of mathematics focused on the theory of minority games. Minority games can be used to model social behavior patterns and reactions to financial markets, to optimize utilization of power distribution networks, and to analyze and manage road traffic. "Results obtained in many computer simulations done by us are not just interesting; we have also found some analytical expression to describe them," says NCBJ professor Wojciech Wislicki. Contrary to classical games, in minority games players do not know everything about the game and are reasoning inductively on the basis of their experience, a situation that more closely resembles reality. "The rules seem simple, but behavior of many agents governed by the rules exhibits very complex dynamics," notes NCBJ researcher Karol Wawrzyniak. The researchers also demonstrated how to use minority games theory to forecast winning moves by investigating the dependency of forecast accuracy on the number of participating players. They say groups in which players have transferred their individual strategies to one leader achieve the largest success.

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