Welcome to the March 23, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Education Woes Linked to National Security
Associated Press (03/20/12) Kimberly Hefling
A report furnished by a U.S. task force warned that unless the American educational system improves, national security and economic prosperity will be threatened. The task force, organized by the Council on Foreign Relations, says the State Department and the U.S. intelligence community are facing severe shortages in foreign language speakers, while disciplines such as science, defense, and aerospace are especially vulnerable because a shortfall of skilled workers is expected to get worse with the imminent retirement of baby boomers. Leading the task force are former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former New York City School System chancellor Joel Klein, who say they are heartened by educational reform efforts such as the adoption of common core standards for reading and math in most states. Still, they say the rate at which U.S. schools must improve needs to accelerate. The task force's recommendations include adopting and expanding the common core initiative to include skill sets vital to national security such as science, technology, and foreign languages, as well as a restructuring to provide students with more options for where they can attend school, so many students are not stuck in underperforming institutions.
Twitter Data Scientist Takes on McDonald's Entire Menu, Survives
Technology Review (03/22/12) Christopher Mims
Twitter data scientist Edwin Chen recently used Twitter data to analyze the menu of McDonald's, dividing it into clusters of similar foods. He says the data clusters showed that the only food on the McDonald's menu that is remotely healthy is the Fruit & Maple Oatmeal. Chen says Twitter's data scientists work on everything from building machine-learning models and improving large-scale data processing frameworks, to creating data visualizations, running statistical analyses, and finding better ways to understand users. "At any given time, for example, I'm likely to be experimenting with new ad targeting algorithms, writing MapReduce jobs to mine terabytes of tweets (using Scalding, our in-house MapReduce language), building interactive visualizations to surface insights in all the data we gather, writing a report to explain some new findings, running an experiment on Mechanical Turk, and lots more," he says. According to Chen, data scientists should be skilled in statistics and machine learning in order to extract relevant data from noise. They also should have general programming ability, plus knowledge of specific areas such as MapReduce/Hadoop and databases. In addition, he says data scientists should be skilled in Web programming and data visualization so they can help other people interact with the data.
Scale-Out Processors: Bridging the Efficiency Gap Between Servers and Emerging Cloud Workloads
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) professor Babak Falsafi recently presented "Clearing the Clouds: A Study of Emerging Workloads on Modern Hardware," which received the best paper award at ASPLOS 2012. "While we have been studying and tuning conventional server workloads (such as transaction processing and decision support) on hardware for over a decade, we really wanted to see how emerging scale-out workloads in modern data centers behave,” Falsafi says. "To our surprise, we found that much of a modern server processor's hardware resources, including the cores, caches, and off-chip connectivity, are overprovisioned when running scale-out workloads leading to huge inefficiencies." Efficiently executing scale-out workloads requires optimizing the instruction-fetch path for up to a few megabytes of program instructions, reducing the core complexity while increasing core counts, and shrinking the capacity of on-die caches to reduce area and power overheads, says EPFL Ph.D. student Mike Ferdman. The research was partially funded by the EuroCloud Server project. "Our goal is a 10-fold increase in overall server power efficiency through mobile processors and [three-dimensional] memory stacking," says EuroCloud Server project coordinator Emre Ozer.
Computer Model of Spread of Dementia Can Predict Future Disease Patterns Years Before They Occur in a Patient
Cornell News (03/21/12) Richard Pietzak
Weill Cornell Medical College researchers have developed software that tracks the manner in which different forms of dementia spread within a human brain. The model can be used to predict where and when a person's brain will suffer from the spread of toxic proteins, a process that underlies all forms of dementia. The findings could help patients and their families confirm a diagnosis of dementia and prepare in advance for future cognitive declines over time. "Our model, when applied to the baseline magnetic resonance imaging scan of an individual brain, can similarly produce a future map of degeneration in that person over the next few years or decades," says Cornell's Ashish Raj. The computational model validates the idea that dementia is caused by proteins that spread through the brain along networks of neurons. Raj says the program models the same process by which any gas diffuses in air, except that in the case of dementia, the diffusion process occurs along connected neural fiber tracts in the brain. "While the classic patterns of dementia are well known, this is the first model to relate brain network properties to the patterns and explain them in a deterministic and predictive manner," he says.
Momentum Builds in Campaign to Honor Alan Turing on 10-Pound Note
V3.co.uk (03/22/12) Gareth Morgan
More than 7,000 people have signed an electronic petition to get Alan Turning's portrait on the back of the United Kingdom's (U.K.'s) 10-pound notes. Proponents say Turing's contributions to computer science and the impact they have had on today’s world is worthy of recognition. "The ripple-effect of his theories on modern life continues to grow and may never stop," says Thomas Thurman, who launched the campaign. The 10-pound note currently features Charles Darwin. However, as the petition states, the Darwin note is part of the E-series design. Other bank notes have already been upgraded to F-series, and the 10-pound note is in line for an overhaul. Turing led British wartime efforts to crack German encryption codes and is often considered the father of computer science. The U.K. government is committed to holding parliamentary debates for any petitions that garner at least 100,000 signatures.
NSF's Most Powerful Computing Resource Has Opened Its Doors to Six Science Teams
National Science Foundation (03/21/12) Lisa-Joy Zgorski
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) recently selected six teams to use the Blue Waters' Early Science System before the full supercomputing system is deployed later this year. "It began as an idea, and now thanks to sustained collaborative efforts by the entire project team, the vendor, and researchers, this computational tool is beginning to advance fundamental understanding in a wide range of scientific topics," says NSF's Irene Qualters. NSF and NCSA awarded more than 24 research teams with time to use Blue Waters on compelling research queries. A smaller group of six teams was chosen to use the Early Science System. The six teams will pursue research in modeling high-temperature plasmas, simulating the formation and evolution of the Milky Way's distant past, examining the protein that encases the HIV-1 genome, exploring explosive burning in Type 1a supernovae, and simulating the end of both the 20th and 21st centuries to explore changes in frequency and intensity of extreme events. Once fully deployed, Blue Waters is expected to make arithmetic calculations at a sustained rate of more than 1 petaflop per second.
Researchers Revolutionize Closed Captioning
PhysOrg.com (03/22/12) Lisa Zyga
Hefei University of Technology researchers led by Meng Wang have developed a closed-captioning technique in which the text appears in translucent talk bubbles next to the speaker. The researchers say their approach offers several advantages over existing static-captioning technology for improving the viewing experience for hearing-impaired people. Their technique is known as dynamic captioning because the text appears in different locations and styles to better reflect the speaker's identity and vocal dynamics. The researchers developed algorithms to automatically identify the speaker using the video's script file and lip motion detection technology. The technology uses visual saliency analysis to automatically find the optimal position for the talk bubble so there is as little interference as possible with the visual scene. During testing, 60 hearing-impaired people viewed films using the new technology. The study found that 53 of the testers preferred dynamic captioning over static captioning. “The whole technique was motivated by solving the difficulties of hearing-impaired viewers in watching videos,” Wang says. “These viewers have difficulty in recognizing who is speaking, so we put scripts around the speaker's face; they have difficulty in tracking scripts, so we synchronously highlight the scripts.”
Feds Fund Research for Breakthrough Microprocessors
InformationWeek (03/21/12) Elizabeth Montalbano
Semiconductor researchers have until April 16 to submit proposals to develop next-generation computer chip technology to the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The federal government is initially offering a $2.6 million grant for chip ideas that go beyond existing complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology. Industry and the federal government expect CMOS technology to outlive its usefulness in 10 to 15 years, as components shrink in size, making it more difficult to increase the density of components on a chip and achieve low-power operation. The U.S. government is interested in nanoscale electronics that leverage nanotechnology to achieve power, density, performance, or cost benefits over CMOS. NIST also is interested in devices that use alternative state vectors such as collective effects, spin, and magnetics for manipulating information. Of additional interest to NIST are devices with higher computational density, chip architectures that can exploit nonconventional device behavior that manages information flow, new interconnect approaches, and non-equilibrium systems that are more immune to noise and can achieve low-energy operation. Researchers could potentially receive $2.4 million to $2.6 million a year for five years. NIST will likely make the first awards in October.
In Search for Alien Life, Researchers Enlist Human Minds
New York Times (03/20/12) John Markoff
The Center for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research is using new Web-based software called SETILive to enable volunteer citizen-scientists to help with the hunt for unusual signals from outer space. More than 40,000 volunteers have signed up to use SETILive since it was released two weeks ago, and they are now analyzing more than 1 million radio samples. SETI's array of 42 high-power antennas move electronically from one target to the next, capturing samples of what the watchers hope could be evidence of alien life. The SETI researchers are hoping that human pattern recognition can fine-tune software algorithms that are used to find signals hidden among fields of natural stellar radiation and human-made sources of interference. “We have software that finds narrow-band signals much better than your eye can,” says SETI director Jill Tarter. “Basically what we’re doing with humans is to see how well they do. We are giving them marking tools and learning how they extract features.” Tarter notes that new experiments have begun to take place at optical frequencies as well. She says that optical experiments will soon begin to look in the infrared portion of the spectrum for signs of alien life.
DuQu Mystery Language Solved With the Help of Crowdsourcing
Wired News (03/19/12) Kim Zetter
Kaspersky Lab researchers have determined the programming language used to generate the code for the DuQu virus' communications functions. Most of the code for DuQu was written in C++ and compiled with Microsoft's Visual C++ 2008, although the code for a component that communicates with command-and-control servers and downloads and executes additional payload modules does not. That part of DuQu was so mysterious the researchers published a blog post asking programmers to help them determine what language was used to write the communications component. Two people responded to the posting by saying the code seemed to be generated from a custom object-oriented C dialect and that special extensions were used. The researchers then tested a number of combinations of compiler and source codes and found that C code compiled with Microsoft Visual Studio Compiler 2008 using options 01 and Ob1 in the compiler produced binary that was the same style as what was used in DuQu. Kaspersky's researchers say the discovery tells them the people behind DuQu were coders who preferred to use older programming techniques and the use of C instead of C++ indicates the programmers wanted to ensure that DuQu would run on servers, mobile phones, or other devices.
DARPA: Dump Passwords for Always-on Biometrics
Government Computer News (03/21/12) Kathleen Hickey
The typing style and other behavioral traits of a computer user could be used for authentication or to replace passwords, according to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). However, DARPA does not want to limit behavior-based verification only to when a user is logging in. It issued a solicitation in January for its Active Authentication program, and responses were due March 6. "Just as when you touch something [with] your finger you leave behind a fingerprint, when you interact with technology you do so in a pattern based on how your mind processes information, leaving behind a 'cognitive fingerprint,'" DARPA notes. The first phase of the Active Authentication program involves researching biometrics that do not require additional hardware sensors, such as mouse and keystroke dynamics, with an eye toward identifying how fast a person types or reads, uses words when creating documents and sending email message, and moves the mouse across a page. The project's later phases would combine the biometrics with a new authentication program for standard Defense Department desktop or laptop PCs. The program would combine the identification techniques in a continuous authentication process.
How to Engineer Intelligence
University of Cambridge (03/19/12)
University College London academic David Barber says the biological inspiration for computing can help humans interact with machines. Barber says the challenge is getting computers to process information in ways that would enable more natural interaction with humans. "There are already research programs that attempt to gauge the emotion in someone's voice or face but I'm more interested in a machine that could recognize the emotional significance of an event for a human," he says. Although these types of machines might never look like the robots seen in movies, Barber says the challenge is to build machines that are able to understand what people say in the pure semantic sense as well as in an emotional sense. Such a machine would need to grasp what it really means to be human, so a fundamental challenge would be to create a large database of information about humans and the human world. He says the initial step to reverse-engineer intelligence might be to understand the theoretical aspects of information processing in the brain, which could enable researchers to study how an artificial brain would be able to process or store information in the same way.
Harnessing Mobile Tech and Students to Promote Development in Kenya
Stanford University (03/19/12)
Stanford University professors Joshua Cohen and Terry Winograd teach a course that brings interdisciplinary teams of Stanford students together with students from the University of Nairobi and local nongovernmental organizations to design new uses for mobile platforms that promote human development in Nairobi's informal settlements. Cohen says the course, called Designing Liberation Technologies, is premised on the idea that mobile tech is a promising means for providing jumpstarts in human welfare. He says the reason the class focuses on using mobile applications in areas of health, education, and economic development is because mobile is the most rapidly growing technology, especially in the developing world. The students use a problem-solving process that involves starting with the potential users themselves, and then developing insights about how their needs can be solved with mobile applications, Cohen notes. The projects have involved locating malaria drugs and checking them for counterfeiting, helping health workers collect patient information and control patient workflow, and helping pregnant women save money for prenatal care. The group is readying the launch of a six-month pilot for the M-Maji project in five villages in Kibera, which is designed to help people find clean water, especially during water shortages.
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