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

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


A Computer Interface That Takes a Load Off Your Mind
Technology Review (05/14/12) Kate Greene

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tufts University have developed Brainput, a system designed to recognize when a user has an excessive workload and then automatically modify a computer interface to make it easier. The researchers used a portable brain-monitoring technology, known as a functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which determines when a user is multitasking. "Brainput tries to get closer to the source, by looking directly at brain activity," says MIT postdoctoral researcher Erin Treacy Solovey. The researchers incorporated Brainput into virtual robots designed to adapt to the mental state of their human controller. The experiment aimed to guide two robots through a maze to find a location where a Wi-Fi signal was strong enough to send a message. As the researchers drove the robots toward the strongest Wi-Fi signal, the fNIRS sensors transmitted information about their mental states to the robots. The researchers found that when the robots' autonomous mode started, the overall performance of the human-robot team improved. "This work is a wonderful first step toward understanding our changing mental state and designing interfaces that dynamically tailor themselves so that the human-computer system can be as effective as possible," says Microsoft researcher Desney Tan.


AI Branding Automates the Brainstorm
New Scientist (05/10/12) Jim Giles

Bruno Kessler Foundation researchers Carlo Strapparava and Gozde Ozbal have developed artificial intelligence-based branding software that can mimic the process of naming companies with effective brand names. The process starts with a series of words that describe the product to be named. The system then retrieves related words from an open source database called ConceptNet, which contains information on the meaning of words. The software forms a name by analyzing the words and combining them to produce a new word that contains some of the sounds of one of the original words. The system is designed to be used for brainstorming ideas, rather than as a replacement for human namers. The researchers plan on enhancing the system by adding the ability to use rhymes. Strapparava and Ozbal also want to make the system available to the public to get feedback. "A name doesn't come out of the blue," Strapparava says. "There is a technique, and when there is a technique it is possible to think computationally."
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Now You See Me, Now You Don't
Kansas State University News (05/10/12) Greg Tammen

Kansas State University researchers are developing a computer network that could protect itself against online attackers by automatically changing its setup and configuration. The study will be the first to document if this type of adaptive cybersecurity, known as moving-target defense, can be effective. The researchers also will develop a set of analytical models to determine the effectiveness of a moving-target defense system, as well as a proof-of-concept system that can be used to experiment in a concrete setting. "It's important to investigate any scientific evidence that shows that this approach does work so it can be fully researched and developed," says Kansas State professor Scott DeLoach. The goal in developing moving-target defense systems is to create a network that automatically randomizes its configuration by changing the addresses of software applications on the network, switching between instances of the application, and changing the location of critical system data. Kansas State professor Xinming Ou says creating a computer network that could automatically detect and defend itself against cyberattacks would increase the security of online data for universities, government departments, corporations, and businesses. He also notes a moving-target defense system would shift the power imbalance from hackers back to network administrators.


Research Quantifies Literary Trends
Dartmouth Online (NH) (05/09/12) Ester Khachatryan

Dartmouth University researchers studied the evolution of literary styles using mathematical and statistical analysis of English-language literature. The researchers found that the literary styles of modern authors vary from their predecessors more than the authors of previous eras. "The study confirms the possibility of computations and quantitative techniques as another way to look at cultural artifacts," says Dartmouth professor Daniel Rockmore. The researchers focused on content-free words, such as prepositions, conjunctions, articles, and numbers, to study similarities in the structure of literary styles since the year 1550. The research involved data from 7,733 books written by 537 authors. As the number of works increased over time, authors were influenced by subsets of available literature, which produced increasingly diverse works in the future. By the 20th century, authors were more strongly influenced by their contemporaries than predecessors, according to the researchers. "In interpreting what the numbers mean, you have to bring in all the knowledge of literary genres, history, literary history, institutions, authors, methods of publishing and distribution that you acquire in the normal course of literary studies," says Stanford University professor Ursula Heise.


BuildSys 2012 Calling for Papers: Sensors, Buildings, Energy
CCC Blog (05/11/12) Erwin Gianchandani

ACM's BuildSys 2012 workshop, which takes place Nov. 6, provides an opportunity for the sensor, building, and energy research communities to address the challenges facing the design, deployment, use, and fundamental limits of those systems. The BuildSys organizers recently issued a call for papers, and the three best papers will be sponsored by the Computing Community Consortium (CCC). "We are interested in a life-cycle perspective across design, construction, and operation of buildings, and in energy consumption in both direct (electricity, gas etc.) and indirect (embedded energy in water) forms," the CCC says. Topic areas of interest include sensing technologies and sensor information processing methods; measurement, modeling, and visualization of building performance; and computationally assisted design of energy-efficient buildings. The workshop also welcomes demo abstracts, which describe technology that members of the community want to showcase, such as building controls, optimization and learning, smart energy-aware devices and appliances, and renewable energy integration. The deadline for paper/poster submissions is July 30.


Smart Shoes Step Up the Wearable-Computing Pace
CNet (05/09/12) Martin LaMonica

Researchers at the universities of Munich and Toronto have developed ShoeSense, a type of wearable computing system for smartphones. ShoeSense involves a sensor being placed in a shoe that is able to understand customizable hand and arm gestures. For instance, a user moves his finger along his forearm to raise the volume on a music player in his pocket, pinches to choose the next track, and then pinches with three fingers to send an "I will be late" email to his wife. ShoeSense's developers say it could be more socially acceptable to operate a smartphone via arm and hand gestures than through glasses, as would be the case with Google's Project Glass. "ShoeSense introduces a novel and unique perspective (from the shoe), making it possible to recognize discreet and relaxed, as well as large and demonstrative, gestures without the need for cumbersome hats or body-mounted sensors," the researchers say. Analysts note that much of the research in computing interfaces and wearable computers focuses on the new possibilities for combining the digital and physical worlds using sensors.


Software Design Cannot Be Neglected
ZDNet Asia (05/09/12) Jamie Yap

Compatibility and time-to-market pressures recently have de-prioritized software design investment, but industry observers say enterprises should concentrate on design as a differentiator to enhance usability and adoption of their software. "It's more than pretty screens now," says Constellation Research analyst Ray Wang. "It's about thinking how people engage with technology." Another factor underlying the de-emphasis of software design is a lack of stress on usability and human computer interaction training in local schools, says National University of Singapore (NUS) School of Computing researcher Zhao Shendong. Wang says great design helps cultivate a competitive advantage and shapes preferential behaviors in the value chain. He also points out that it would be helpful if vendors introduce "experiential designs" in view of fast product commoditization and contracting lifecycle times. NUS professor David Rosenblum says software design remains an ad hoc process within enterprises, while available established software design principles are scant. Under these circumstances, the "surest way" for software firms to realize a high level of design standard is to nurture a team of outstanding designers by identifying, fostering, and retaining the best designers. There also needs to be a chief architect responsible for guaranteeing the conceptual integrity of a software's design across its lifecycle, according to Rosenblum. He notes that smaller firms are particularly vulnerable to designing poor software, and it is common for them to neglect quality assurance.


Simulated Skiers Reveal Mountain Traffic Jams
Inside Science (05/08/12) Brian Jacobsmeyer

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology researchers led by graduate student Thomas Holleczek have combined global positioning system (GPS) tracking data and a skier simulation to help reduce collisions between skiers on a mountain. The skier traffic model is based on physical forces, such as gravity and friction, as well as social forces, such as a skier's tendency to avoid another and the edges of the ski run. The researchers simulated thousands of skiers traveling down two slopes to determine average speeds and densities. Holleczek compared GPS data with the simulation results and found that the computer model replicated behavior on the intermediate level run well. But the model did not fully account for skiers' tendency to periodically stop and rest on the more advanced trail. The research reveals unexpected bottlenecks that have been overlooked in the past, and these areas could be widened to reduce congestion. Although computer models can never account for all the randomness of human behavior, these simulations can still be useful, says University of Idaho civil engineer Ahmed Abdel-Rahim. "These models have continuously been improved and validated with data," he reports. Holleczek hopes to account for more variables in future generations of the simulation.


Japanese Humanoid Robot Can Keep Its Balance After Getting Kicked
IEEE Spectrum (05/08/12) Erico Guizzo

University of Tokyo researchers have developed a high-torque, high-speed robotic leg based on a novel electrical actuation system. The robot uses high-voltage and high-current liquid-cooled motor drivers that get their power from a 13.5-farad capacitor system. The capacitor was chosen because, unlike batteries, it can supply a large amount of current very quickly and reliably. The 53-kilogram robot's specialized motors allow it to react to disturbances such as kicks, knee strikes, and other abuse, as well as be able to jump 44 centimeters off the ground. The robot relies on a new balance control system that detects disturbances and computes 170 foot placement possibilities in 1 millisecond, selecting the best candidate to keep the robot from falling. The technique is the result of a collaborative effort between the University of Tokyo researchers and researchers at Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. University of Tokyo researcher Junichi Urata is putting together a team to equip the robot's lower body with manipulation arms and additional sensors in anticipation of participating in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Robotics Challenge.


Going Wireless in the Data Center
Computerworld (05/07/12) Johanna Ambrosio

Scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) are working on a technique that could accelerate data center traffic by as much as 30 percent, compared to using traditional cables. Their approach, called 3D beamforming, is to send short bursts of traffic directly between the servers that need the information--avoiding competition with other servers and applications--and to do so at top speeds. Congestion associated with short bursts of activity is the reason why data center traffic gets tied up at key points during the day. Using mostly off-the-shelf gear, the team set up a system that creates and transmits 60 GHz Wi-Fi beams. The design bounces data over server racks, off metal plates on the ceiling, to specially designed antennas on each server. And the method saves bandwidth because the wireless links can be turned off and on as needed. "The next step is to develop network protocols and management techniques" to ensure those connections can be established, broken, and remade at will, says UCSB's Heather Zheng. "We are currently working on these." Zheng expects this phase of the project to take a couple of years.


Best Websites Balance Self-Expression and Functionality
Penn State Live (05/07/12) Matthew Swayne

Penn State University researchers have found that providing users with a certain amount of freedom to express themselves could help designers develop more interactive Web portals and online communities. The researchers found that users increased their interactivity and developed a more robust community when they could write their own blog posts, change the look of the site, and add gadgets to personalized sites. "We need to strategically use interactive tools to help people interact in ways that are beneficial to both the users and site owners," says professor S. Shyam Sundar. However, the researchers also found that offering too many choices could frustrate or fatigue users. "Users feel overwhelmed when a site offers a lot of gadgets or tools and they seem fatigued by making too many decisions; but we can counter all this by providing them a chance to express themselves," Sundar says. The researchers designed 12 distinct variations of sites that either offered or did not offer users a chance to tailor the look of the site, to add gadgets and applications, and write original blog posts. The version that performed the best gave users a chance to write blog posts and allowed them to change the sites' look.


MSEIP Grants Fuel STEM Programs at Predominantly Minority Colleges
Campus Technology (05/07/12) David Nagel

The U.S. Education Department has awarded $3.1 million in grants to 14 predominantly minority colleges and universities to help support efforts of "long-range improvement in science and engineering education." So far 12 recipients, with awards totaling $2.71 million, have been published. The Education Department awarded the grants through its Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program, which seeks to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers among underrepresented populations. The funds are used to improve college and pre-college STEM programs, fund faculty development, provide stipends for participants, support student research, and renovate facilities. "These grants will help support the expansion of America's scientific and technological capacity to build global competitiveness by increasing minority graduates in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.


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