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Welcome to the April 23, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Obama to Target Foreign Nationals' Use of New Technologies in Human Rights Abuses
Washington Post (04/22/12) Scott Wilson

President Barack Obama will issue an executive order calling for the imposition of sanctions against foreign nationals who have helped commit human rights abuses using new technologies such as Internet monitoring and mobile phone tracking. Authoritarian regimes in countries such as Syria and Iran have demonstrated that their security services can tap technology to suppress dissent through surveillance technologies, blocking Internet access, or tracking the movements of opposition leaders. For example, in February Syrian officials may have located a group of journalists covering the siege of Homs via satellite phone and computer access tracking. The executive order says "the same [global positioning system], satellite communications, mobile phone, and Internet technology employed by democracy activists across the Middle East and North Africa is being used against them by the regimes in Syria and Iran." Obama also will announce a series of development "challenge" grants designed to encourage technology companies to help people in nations susceptible to mass killings to better identify and rapidly alert others of impending threats. Senior administration officials say the new executive order ought to spur all companies to think more deeply about how the technologies they supply to other countries might be used.


U. of Florida Dean Proposes to Save Money by Revising Faculty Jobs to Focus on Teaching, Not Research
Chronicle of Higher Education (04/19/12) Michael Stratford

The University of Florida College of Engineering is proposing to revise the assignments of some of its tenured faculty in the computer science department to focus more on teaching and advising and less on research in an attempt to save money in the face of state budget cuts. The plan calls for faculty to take on the responsibilities of graduate teaching assistants and about half of the department's 30 tenured and tenure-track faculty would be required to refocus their efforts on teaching. However, the plan is receiving opposition from faculty, students, alumni, and some outside groups. "Without strong research programs, undergraduate research becomes undergraduate projects," says the Computing Research Association's Eric Grimson. More than 5,000 people have signed an online petition denouncing the proposal. "The unprecedented conversion of a research department to a teaching department will seriously impact the University of Florida's ability to recruit faculty," says Georgia Tech dean of the College of Computing Zvi Galil. State budget cuts are responsible for the College of Engineering having to trim more than $4 million, according to dean Cammy R. Abernathy. Although normally the cuts would be spread across the board, Abernathy says that strategy will drive the department down a path of mediocrity.
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Innovative Nanosat Will Test Space Software
European Space Agency (04/20/12)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has developed the Operations Satellite (Ops-Sat), which is designed to allow controlled testing and validation of critical onboard and ground software. Software used in satellites typically does not run state-of-the-art operating systems, languages, or interfaces. "Space software is generally older because it is selected for its proven, rock-solid reliability, rather than its use of the latest and newest programming technologies," notes ESA researcher Dave Evans. He says one of the major hurdles to providing updated software for use in space is the lack of opportunities to test new tools, systems, and procedures. It is difficult and expensive to replicate in-orbit conditions using an Earth-bound simulator. "The secret behind the Ops-Sat design is that the satellite is easily recoverable from the effects of ‘buggy’ software and we use commercial, off-the-shelf processors to provide increased computing power compared to normal spacecraft," Evans says. Ops-Sat software could be ready to launch by early 2015, says ESA researcher Mario Merri.


Proof-of-Concept Android Trojan Uses Motion Sensor to Determine Tapped Keys
IDG News Service (04/20/12) Lucian Constantin

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University and IBM have developed TapLogger, a proof-of-concept Android Trojan app that can steal passwords and other sensitive information by using the smartphone's motion sensors to determine what keys users tap on their touchscreens. The researchers developed TapLogger to demonstrate how data from a smartphone's accelerometer and orientation sensors can be abused by applications to compromise privacy. The researchers note that accelerometer and orientation sensor data are not protected under Android's security model, which exposes that data to any application regardless of its permissions on the system. TapLogger functions as an icon-matching game, but has several background components that capture and use data from the motion sensors to infer touchscreen-based user input. After the data is collected, the application builds tap event patterns and uses them to infer user input during targeted operations. "While the applications relying on mobile sensing are booming, the security and privacy issues related to such applications are not well understood yet," the researchers say.


Researchers Boost Efficiency of Multi-Hop Wireless Networks
NCSU News (04/19/12) Matt Shipman

North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have developed centrality-based power control technology, which they say is a more efficient data transmission approach that can boost the amount of data networks can transmit by as much as 80 percent. "Our approach increases the average amount of data that can be transmitted significantly. "Our approach increases the average amount of data that can be transmitted within the network by at least 20 percent for networks with randomly placed nodes--and up to 80 percent if the nodes are positioned in clusters within the network," says NCSU professor Rudra Dutta. The approach also makes the network more energy efficient, which can extend the lifetime of the network. In addition, the researchers say the approach solves the problem of hot spots--points in the network where multiple wireless transmissions can interfere with each other--that are usually associated with multi-hop wireless networks. Dutta says the approach uses an algorithm that instructs each node in the network on how much power to use for each transmission depending on its final destination. The algorithm optimizes system efficiency by determining when a powerful transmission is worth the added signal disruption, and when less powerful transmissions are required.


New Institute to Tackle "Data Tsunami" Challenge
Argonne National Laboratory (04/18/12) Louise Lerner

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory researchers recently received part of a $25 million grant to address the problem of extracting knowledge from massive data sets. The research is part of the DOE's Scalable Data Management, Analysis, and Visualization (SDAV) Institute. "The SDAV teams will develop the necessary tools and software so that scientists can use their time more effectively for scientific investigation and discovery," says SDAV's Robert Ross. The new institute will tackle challenges associated with data management, data analysis, and data visualization. The SDAV Institute is part of a new $200 million Big Data Research and Development Initiative. In addition to Argonne, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, four other national laboratories, seven universities, and one visualization software company are participating in the collaboration. "To make all this possible, we will actively work with applications teams, assisting them with the tools and ensuring that our efforts meet the high standards needed to ensure correctness and performance of the scientists’ codes," Ross says. The SDAV researchers plan to hold tutorials and workshops to gather information from other researchers and train future users.


Fast-Switching Plastic Circuit Mimics CMOS Function
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (04/18/12) Andrew Czyzewski

A plastic electronic circuit developed by researchers in Cambridge offers the functionality of a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) silicon ship. Polymers and small molecules are the two classes of materials in the field of plastic electronics, and the two broad types of operation are positive charge material with holes (p-type) and negative charge with electrons (n-type). "We have a material now that operates as both p-type and n-type, which gives you a number of options for making complementary circuits--or CMOS-type structures," says Cambridge University professor Henning Sirringhaus, chief scientist of Plastic Logic, which took part in the research. The team used a new class of ambipolar organic materials developed by researchers at Imperial College London. They say the printed circuit may be the fastest operating and lowest power plastic logic oscillator created to date. The carrier mobility level of the device should allow for the integration of flexible robust plastic electronics with advanced functionality across large distributed surfaces. The fast-switching plastic circuit has the potential to be used to create interactive packaging for medicines, which could help ensure that correct doses are taken at the right time.


A New Breed of Heterogeneous Computing
HPC Wire (04/18/12) Michael Feldman

The foundation of high-performance computing (HPC) is undergoing a revolution, with the introduction of add-on accelerators such as graphic processing units, Intel's MIC chip, and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), writes Michael Feldman. However, he says an emerging variant of this heterogeneous computing approach could replace the current accelerator model in the near future. ARM recently announced its big.LITTLE design, a chip architecture that integrates large, performant ARM cores with small, power-efficient ones. This approach aims to minimize the power draw in order to extend the battery life of mobile devices. The big core/little core model was developed by researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and Hewlett-Packard Labs in 2003. "The key insight was that even if you map an application to a little core, it's not going to perform much worse than running it on a big core," says UCSD researcher Rakesh Kumar. The big/little model has both types of cores on the same die and it consolidates on a homogeneous instruction set. Feldman says assigning tasks to cores would be more static for HPC, because maximizing throughput is the overall goal. The most likely architectures to adopt the big/little model are x86 and ARM.


Using Foursquare Data to Redefine a Neighborhood
Technology Review (04/18/12) Rachel Metz

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) researchers have launched the Livehoods project, which aims to determine how people inhabit their cities by mapping data collected from 18 million Foursquare check-ins. The project assembles check-ins by physical location and measures social proximity by how often people check into similar kinds of places. The resulting areas are called livehoods. The researchers already have developed livehood maps of Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and New York City, and they plan to add more cities soon. Social media can help define an urban space's characteristics because it "really speaks at such a finer level than the data people have been relying on in the past," such as census data, says CMU professor Norman Sadeh. Each livehood is assigned a number, and has details about the most popular destinations and activities in that livehood. There also is information about when people most frequently check in and where. Many people check in on weekends, and restaurant check-ins are very popular. "It's a really interesting way to see a snapshot of the structure of the city," says CMU graduate student Justin Cranshaw. CMU professor Jason Hong says Livehoods may eventually crowdsource the names of the livehoods.


Georgia Tech Researchers Address Bus Bunching
Georgia Tech News (04/18/12) Liz Klipp

Georgia Institute of Technology researchers have developed a solution for bus bunching that they say provides better service to riders, simplifies the job for drivers, and reduces work for management. The researchers developed a computing method that self-equalizes the gaps between buses and built a system of tablet computers to control the buses on the Georgia Tech campus. "Because of its simplicity, our scheme is easy to implement and easy to adapt," says Georgia Tech professor John Bartholdi, who developed the solution with Georgia Tech alumnus Don Eisenstein. The researchers say the first step toward reliable bus service is to abandon the fixed schedule and have drivers go with the flow of traffic. In their system each bus is equipped with a global positioning system (GPS) and a cell phone. The GPS constantly reports the bus' location to a central server. When a bus reaches a stop, the server sends a text message to the cell phone telling the driver how long to wait and when to proceed based on the location of the other buses. "The equation computes a wait time for each bus arriving at a control point in such a way that gaps between buses tend to equalize," Bartholdi says.


This Supercomputer Is Rethinking the Future of Software
Tech Republic (04/18/12) Nick Heath

The International Center of Excellence for Computational Science and Engineering's Daresbury lab recently installed an IBM BlueGene/Q supercomputer in order to help re-engineer software to run on future computers with millions of cores. Daresbury lab director Adrian Wander says that most existing software will not run on future machines with millions of cores because of the different hardware architecture. "There's a whole bunch of technical issues around the application software that we need to address now if we are going to have applications that will run on these systems in five years' time," Wander notes. He says the rapid increase in the number of cores means that the conventional x86 computer architecture is not an option for supercomputers of the future. "Today, the Blue Gene/Q has 16 GB of memory per core, if we are going to 1 GB or 0.5 GB per core [in future machines] we're going to have to do a major redesign of the code," Wander says. Future central processing units also will include additional circuitry to aid processing and new software to take advantage of the more diverse range of processing units. Wander notes the additional cores also will give business access to much more processing power.


Bloated Website Code Drains Your Smartphone's Battery
New Scientist (04/17/12) Jacob Aron

Research from Stanford University and Deutsche Telekom found that bloated Web site code drains the batteries of smartphones. The researchers used an Android phone connected to a multimeter to measure the energy used in downloading and rendering popular Web sites. For example, more than 1 percent of the phone's battery was consumed when the mobile version of Wikipedia was loaded over a 3G connection, and 1.4 percent was used while browsing Apple.com, which does not offer a mobile version. The researchers repeated the measurements with locally saved versions of the Web sites, allowing them to separate out the energy required to render a page from that need to download it, and they found that many Web sites were loading large files that were not being used in the page. For example, Wikipedia uses a custom Javascript file along with a generic library to collapse and expand the various sections on a page, but much of the library goes unused. The team rewrote the site's Javascript to only perform the required function and was able to reduce the energy used from 15 Joules to 9.5 Joules. The researchers made similar changes to the CSS files and images and reduced the total energy used by 29 percent.


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