Welcome to the March 19, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
In Crosswords, It's Man Over Machine, for Now
New York Times (03/18/12) Steve Lohr
A crossword-solving computer program named Dr. Fill recently competed in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament against 600 of the U.S.'s best human players. Although the Dr. Fill program finished 141st in the tournament, Matthew Ginsberg, who created the software, was pleased with the result and intends to have Dr. Fill compete again next year. He says the program is literal-minded, and struggles on puzzles with humor or those with unusual themes or letter arrangements. One of the puzzles included several words that had to be spelled backward, and another puzzle had words arrayed diagonally. However, in simulations of 15 past tournaments, Ginsberg says Dr. Fill finished in first place three times. Despite speculation that the puzzles were made especially difficult to stump Dr. Fill, tournament director Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times, says he did not choose the puzzles with the computer program in mind.
21 Colleges Win Grants to Study What Helps Minority Ph.D. Students in Sciences Succeed
Chronicle of Higher Education (03/15/12) Stacey Patton
The Council of Graduate Students is awarding $30,000 grants to 21 U.S. universities to participate in an investigation of minority graduate students' experiences in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields to reach a better understanding about contributing factors to the students' completion or non-completion of their doctoral degrees. The project seeks to quantify the completion and attrition rates of minorities at the participating institutions, determine whether the rates vary by field of study, gender, race, and ethnicity, and whether the rates have changed over time. Since 2000, minority students' shares of STEM field doctorates have made only modest gains, while experts say many qualified minority students are opting not to pursue STEM doctorates. The U.S. National Science Foundation's Jessie A. DeAro hopes the project will yield insight on this trend's underlying reasons and what interventions should be followed. "We're trying to get at the factors that negatively impact student outcomes to mitigate or remove them," she says. "We also want to identify the positive factors and share those with others so that the impact can be multiplied."
NSA Wants to Inject More Science Into Computer Security
NextGov.com (03/15/12) Aliya Sternstein
Tom Longstaff, technical director of the U.S. National Security Agency's systems behavior group, believes computer security would benefit from the scientific method, and he wants more information security professionals to pursue research. Longstaff is organizing the program for a June symposium on moving target research into dynamic defenses intended to constantly confuse intruders. Longstaff says the time required to publish results capable of being replicated, a dearth of peer reviewers in the emerging field, and accurate data capture are obstacles to applying scientific principles to cybersecurity research. He also says the failure to train information security specialists to critically review their work is the reason why cybersecurity peer reviewers are scarce. Longstaff wants to address the issue by having the U.S. government fund textbooks and document the knowledge of cyberprofessionals who know how to practice the scientific approach. He also believes cybersecurity students should be trained in the scientific method.
Using Virtual Worlds to 'Soft Control' People's Movements in the Real One
Northwestern University Newscenter (03/16/12) Sarah Ostman
Northwestern University researchers have found they can influence smartphone users' movements by creating mobile games that have incentives designed to steer people toward specific locations. "We can rely on good luck to get the data that we need, or we can 'soft control' users with gaming or social network incentives to drive them where we want them," says Northwestern professor Fabian Bustamante. The researchers developed Ghost Hunter, a game that offers points if a player visits a certain location in the real world. The researchers tested Ghost Hunter on the Northwestern University campus using student volunteers. The game instructed them to follow ghosts around the campus and take pictures of them using the smartphone camera. However, the researchers actually used the pictures to analyze photos of Northwestern's Charles Deering Library from numerous angles and directions. "Playing the game seemed to be a good enough vehicle to get people to go to these places," says Northwestern graduate student John P. Rula. The researchers say the program could be used on a wide scale to collect data for monitoring noise pollution and air quality, although Bustamante says users would need to be notified that their data was being collected.
Pi Day: How the 'Irrational' Number Pushed the Limits of Computing
Government Computer News (03/14/12) William Jackson
The challenge of determining the value of Pi has helped push the envelope of computing. "It has played a role in computer programming and memory allocation and has led to ingenious algorithms that allow you to calculate this with high precision," says mathematician Daniel W. Lozier, retired head of the mathematical software group in the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology's Applied and Computational Mathematics Division. "It's a way of pushing computing machinery to its limits." Memory is crucial in executing calculations, as are techniques for calculating efficiently, given the large strings of numbers involved. The calculation of Pi to longer and longer number strings has improved along with the advancement of computers, and the current record-holder is Japan's T2K Supercomputer, which calculated the value to 2.6 trillion digits in about 73 hours and 36 minutes. That marks a considerable upgrade from the ENIAC computer's 1949 estimation of Pi to 2,037 digits, which took 70 hours. Ten years later an IBM 704 was able to calculate Pi to 16,157 places in four hours and 20 minutes. "Pi serves as a test case for mathematical studies in the area of number theory," Lozier notes.
Bypassing the Password
New York Times (03/17/12) Randall Stross
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to confirm a user's identity by the way they type on a keyboard instead of using passwords. "What I’d like to do is move to a world where you sit down at a console, you identify yourself, and you just start working, and the authentication happens in the background, invisible to you, while you continue to do your work without interruptions," says DARPA's Richard Guidorizzi. Various research efforts are underway to authenticate users by the way they operate a computer. For example, Carnegie Mellon University professor Roy Maxion is researching keystroke dynamics, including the length of time a user holds down a given key and moves from one particular key to another. Pace University professor Charles Tappert has developed software that analyzes the distinctive patterns of keyboard pressure and can accurately confirm the identity of a test taker in 99.5 percent of cases. Columbia University professor Salvatore J. Stolfo has developed software that uses a decoy document designed to lure and catch intruders. When a decoy file is opened, the system software checks to see whether the user has conducted file searches on the computer that fit the expected search pattern. If there is no close match, the system sets off an alarm and asks the user for an identity confirmation.
Software Automatically Transforms Movie Clips Into Comic Strips
PhysOrg.com (03/14/12) Lisa Zyga
Hefei University of Technology researchers have developed Movie2Comics, software that can automatically transform movie scenes into comic strips, without the need for human intervention. "Professionals can directly use the software to generate comics (or integrate their interaction to achieve more impressive results); hobbyists may have interests to try it to see what will be generated from different movie clips," says Hefei professor Meng Wang. Although previous programs have been developed to help cartoonists convert movies into comics, Wang says Movie2Comics is the first fully automated approach. The program features an automatic script-face mapping algorithm that identifies the speaking character in scenes with multiple characters, automatic generation of comic panels of different sizes, positioning word balloons, and rendering movie frames in a cartoon style. The researchers used the program to transform 15 movie clips into comic strips with 85 percent accuracy, which the researchers hope to improve. Although the method can perform all of the steps automatically, the researchers found that some human effort could lead to better results.
Brain Drain: Where Cobol Systems Go From Here
Computerworld (03/14/12) Robert L. Mitchell
In the more than 50 years since Cobol was released, the language is still widely used by corporations, where it excels at executing large-scale batch and transaction processing operations on mainframes. However, a recent Computerworld survey of 357 information technology (IT) professionals found that 46 percent of respondents are noticing a shortage of Cobol programmers, and 50 percent said the average age of their Cobol staff is 45 or older and 22 percent said the age is 55 or older. Meanwhile, organizations are migrating off of mainframes and away from Cobol for non-core applications and smaller workloads, preferring Linux or Windows servers. Cobol also is not considered as agile as object-oriented languages for modern programming needs such as mobile apps and the Web. Almost half of the survey respondents who do not use Cobol say the reason is the language is outdated. Many companies are attempting to right-size some non-core applications off the mainframe where there is a business benefit. Other functions, such as general ledger and reporting, are moving to distributed computing platforms. Meanwhile, some vendors have established processes for analyzing and extracting the business rules embedded in Cobol code.
CU and NIST Scientists Reveal Inner Workings of Magnets, a Finding That Could Lead to Faster Computers
University of Colorado (03/14/12) Margaret Murnane
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) used specialized X-ray lasers to reveal the inner workings of magnets, a breakthrough they say could lead to faster and smarter computers. Using a light source that creates X-ray pulses one quadrillionth of a second in length, the researchers were able to observe how magnetism in nickel and iron atoms works, and found that each metal behaves differently. "The discovery that iron and nickel are fundamentally different in their interaction with light at ultrafast time scales suggests that the magnetic alloys in hard drives could be engineered to enhance the delivery of the optical energy to the spin system," says NIST's Tom Silva. The researchers found that different kinds of magnetic spins in metal scramble on different time scales. "What we have seen for the first time is that the iron spins and the nickel spins react to light in different ways, with the iron spins being mixed up by light much more readily than the nickel spins," Silva says. The discovery could help researchers develop a magnetic system optimized for maximum disk drive performance.
Mario Is Hard, and That's Mathematically Official
New Scientist (03/14/12) Jacob Aron
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers recently analyzed the computational complexity of video games and found that many of them belong to a class of mathematical problems called NP-hard. The implication is that for a given game level, it can be very tough to determine whether it is possible for a player to reach the end. The results suggest that some hard problems could be solved by playing a game. The researchers, led by MIT's Erik Demaine, converted each game into a Boolean satisfiability problem, which asks whether the variables in a collection of logical statements can be chosen to make all the statements true, or whether the statements inevitably contradict each other. For each game, the team built sections of a level that force players to choose one of two paths, which are equal to assigning variables in the Boolean satisfiability problem. If they permit the completion of a level, that is equivalent to all of the statements in the Boolean problem being true. However, if they make completion impossible, it is equal to a contradiction. Many of the games proved to be NP-hard, which means that deciding whether a player can complete them is at least as difficult as the hardest problems in NP.
Cryptography Pioneer: We Need Good Code
IDG News Service (03/14/12) Loek Essers
Whitfield Diffie, in the opening keynote of the recent Black Hat Europe conference, says a good plan to secure software is needed in the age of the Internet. Diffie, one of the pioneers of public-key cryptography, notes that developers should know exactly what the purpose of an application will be. He says programmers need to write good code, but believes the state of the current programming languages is an obstacle. Diffie also says more money should be spent on writing good code in order to secure applications. The rate of Internet technology development also is a hurdle, considering people often download software without thinking about security issues. Although browser sandboxes are created to confine code, Diffie says this way of working is not adequate for a lot of applications. He cites three challenges that need to be met, and the first is to learn good programming. The second challenge is to fix human interfaces so every Internet user can understand what is happening. The third challenge is to address liability issues. Diffie admits the third challenge is difficult, because correcting liability issues should go hand in hand with the technologies that system producers require.
Data Glove Could Help Diagnosis and Treatment of Arthritis
Wired.co.uk (03/12/12) Katie Scott
University of Ulster researchers Kevin Curran and Joan Condell have developed a data glove that measures hand stiffness and movement for signs of arthritis. The glove is equipped with pressure rotation sensors on the thumb, single pressure sensors on each fingertip, and bend sensors on the finger joints. "The rate of movement of joints at different times of the day can be measured offline from the clinic," Condell says. "This will help quantify and better understand 'early morning stiffness,' which is almost universal in patients with inflammatory arthritis." Curran says the system also will produce a live three-dimensional simulation of joint movement programmed with finger exercises to help with rehabilitation, which will help clinicians evaluate the exercise program's measurable advantages. The researchers say the glove could replace existing labor-intensive methods for recording patients' progress. "If patients are to receive the care needed to manage their condition and doctors the time to assess their condition thoroughly, more accurate and less laborious methods to record joint movements are needed," Curran says.
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