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Welcome to the May 16, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Software Engineer: 2012's Top Job
InformationWeek (05/15/12) Cindy Waxer

A recent study ranked software engineer as the top job for 2012 based on five criteria, including salary, stress levels, hiring outlook, physical demands, and work environment. Software engineer ranked higher than doctor, Web developer, computer programmer, and financial planner due to tremendous demand and outstanding salary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently found that the median pay for software engineers was $90,530 per year in 2010. In addition, the demand for software engineers is on the rise, with an estimated growth rate of 30 percent between 2010 and 2020. "Over the last few years there's definitely been a 20 percent to 25 percent uptick in salary for software engineers," says Monetate's Tom Janofsky. "I feel like I live in a different economy. We're constantly hiring." Other benefits for software engineers are collaboration, creative thinking, and hands-on experimentation that can support a career in a continuous state of evolution. Software engineers also enjoy a lot of flextime, interesting colleagues, and a collaborative, team-oriented work environment. "A lot of what we do is about failing, doing something wrong, and then going back and looking at the problem again," Janofsky says.

The Elusive Capacity of Networks
MIT News (05/15/12) Larry Hardesty

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Technology in Munich have shown that in a wired network, network coding and error-correcting coding can be handled separately without causing a reduction in the network's capacity. In a network coding system, a node scrambles together the packets it receives and sends the hybrid packets down multiple paths, where they are scrambled again at different nodes. However, each link between nodes could be noisy, so the information in the packets needs to be encoded to correct for errors. "I could try to remove the noise, but by doing that, I'm in effect making a decision right now that maybe would have been better taken by someone downstream from me who might have had more observations of the same source," says MIT's Muriel Medard. The researchers analyzed the scenario in which the noise in a given link is unrelated to the signals traveling over other links. They also analyzed the scenario in which the noise on a given link is related to the signals on other links and determined how to calculate the upper and lower bounds on the capacity of a given wireless network.

Researcher Develops Personalized Search Engines
Arkansas Newswire (05/15/12) Matt McGowan

University of Arkansas professor Susan Gauch is helping to develop, a system of annotation for the Web that can be an open source platform for annotators to comment on individual sentences. "What is trying to do is build confidence and trust about information obtained on the Web," Gauch says. She notes "the peer-review component will be determined by the annotator's reputation, which will be based on many demographic factors and will be constantly under review by other annotators." functions as an overlay on top of stable content, such as news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation and regulations, and software code. Gauch says the system does not require the participation of the underlying site, and the content is housed on separate servers. She also notes that by enabling or disabling plug-ins, users can activate and deactivate the service. "Technology allows us to see which sites users frequently visit, so we have a good idea what they're looking for when they enter vague or ambiguous search terms," Gauch says. A user's behavioral information enables the system to develop profiles that guide users to pages they will be interested in.

Body Heat-Powered Computers a Step Closer
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (05/14/12) Jon Cartwright

Harvard University researchers have developed a method to tailor composite materials so that their thermal conduction is in a direction that changes throughout. The researchers demonstrated this concept with a thermal shield, a device that excludes heat from a certain region. The researchers placed the device in a block of conductive jelly and kept one side warm and the other cold. With no shield in place, the heat would have flowed through the jelly in a uniform temperature gradient. However, when the shield was in place, it almost totally excluded the heat current from the region inside without affecting its flow in the jelly outside. "There are likely situations where heat currents can be successfully harnessed for computation and other applications," says University of California, Berkeley researcher Alex Zetti. Materials already exist whose conductivity depends on temperature, notes Harvard's Yuki Sato. He says if these materials were used in the new device, it would access the heat current only if the surroundings were warm enough, which would be the basis of thermal computation. A thermal computer would be extremely energy efficient, because it could run off waste heat in the environment, including heat produced by the human body.
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Perfume-Puffing Robot Sniffs Out Social Media Mentions
BBC News (05/15/12)

Mint's Benjamin Redford has developed Olly, a robot that connects to the Internet and emits a waft of scent when its owner is mentioned on social networks. Olly is designed to watch the millions of messages passing through social networks and spot when people are talking about its owner. Redford says a whiff of perfume is a good medium for reward because it could catch someone's attention without being overly distracting. "We are gradually spending more and more time on screen and it's good to have some other form of sensory stimulus rather than just video and audio," he says. Users can set Olly to monitor Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks for interactions such as retweets, posts, comments, mentions by name, or specific text search. They also can tailor the robot to give off different scents, including a partner's perfume. The technology has been made available through a Creative Commons license, which enables anyone who is familiar with electronics, three-dimensional printing, and computer programming to make their own robot.

Humanoid Robot Swarm Synchronised Using Quorum Sensing
Technology Review (05/16/12)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have developed an approach for robotic synchronization based on the biological phenomenon of quorum sensing. Quorum sensing is a form of synchronization used by bacteria and social insects that works by constantly releasing signaling molecules into the environment while simultaneously measuring the local concentration of those molecules. The concentration rises as more creatures join the local population, making it an effective measure of population density. The researchers, led by Patrick Bechon and Jean-Jacques Slotine, are using a similar approach to synchronize humanoid robots. The quorum-sensing approach gives each robot access to a global variable such as the average population or the average clock time. Each robot also can change its variable because it contributes to the average. The MIT research is contributing to a larger trend in robotics that takes advantage of less expensive humanoid robots to enable the large-scale synchronization of humanoid robot swarms.

Researcher Runs IP Network Over Xylophones
IDG News Service (05/14/12) Joab Jackson

University of California, Berkeley graduate student R. Stuart Geiger recently ran an Internet Protocol (IP) network over a set of xylophones, played by human participants. Geiger says the network protocol, Internet Protocol over Xylophone Players, provides a fully compliant IP connection between two computers. The system involves two Arduino microcontrollers, sensors, a pair of xylophones, and two players. In a normal setup, the computer will send a message packet to the microcontroller in the ACSII format, which the microcontroller converts into hexadecimal code. The Arduino is attached to a series of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), each of which corresponds to a hexadecimal character, as well as a key on a xylophone. When an LED lights up, the human participant strikes the corresponding key on the xylophone. Piezo sensors are attached to each xylophone, so that they are able to sense when a note is played on the other xylophone. The Arduino for the receiving computer senses the note and then converts it back into hexadecimal code. When the second computer sends a return packet, the order of operations is reversed.

Font for Digits Lets Numbers Punch Their Weight
New Scientist (05/12/12) Jacob Aron

Researchers at the St. Andrews and Calgary universities have developed FatFonts, a font that offers a way to write numbers so that their areas equal their numerical value. The researchers say FatFonts has the potential to transform data visualization by enabling a single infographic to convey exact values as well as a visual overview. The team measured the area for each number and then thickened or thinned sections so that the total area scaled in proportion to each number. For example, the number two has an area that is exactly twice that of one, three is triple the size of one, and 999 is the largest number possible with FatFonts. The team demonstrated the concept by creating a map of Sicily in which each number represents the height of the ground at that geographical location. Standing back from the map makes it easy to identify mountainous regions, but the added advantage is that moving closer also enables viewers to compare points numerically. The researchers note the concept is most effective when printed on large, high-resolution wall displays, which are big enough to see the individual numbers as well as large-scale trends.

Researchers Develop a Web Application for the Evaluation of the Ecological Status of Rivers in the Spanish Mediterranean Basin
University of Granada (Spain) (05/10/12)

University of Granada researchers have developed the Mediterranean Prediction and Classification System (MEDPACS), a Web application that evaluates the ecological status of any river in the Spanish Mediterranean basin by estimating the variety of aquatic macroinvertebrates that live in each river. MEDPACS was developed within the framework of the GUADALMED project, in which seven Spanish universities collaborated to test different methods for assessing the basin's rivers. The project aims to develop an evaluation methodology for meeting the provisions of the European Parliament's Water Framework Directive. The model automatically creates maps and reports on the ecological status of each stream. The system lists the macroinvertebrate community that should live in a specific stream habitat in any river of the basin, provided there are no environmental alterations in that point. The list of macroinvertebrates provided by the model is compared to the actual list to determine the level of habitat alternation. To generate the forecast list, the model performs a series of calculations and assessments, including parameters such as the distance between the specific stream point and the source of the stream, the slope, or the geological materials in the upstream area.

Bee Research Breakthrough Might Lead to Artificial Vision
RMIT News (05/10/12)

New research reveals that honeybees use multiple rules to solve complex visual problems, and study author Adrian Dyer of RMIT University says the findings help explain how cognitive capacities for viewing complex images evolved in the brain. Dyer says rule learning was a fundamental cognitive task that enabled humans to operate in complex environments. "For example, if a driver wants to turn right at an intersection then they need to simultaneously observe the traffic light color, the flow of oncoming cars and pedestrians to make a decision," he says. This type of cognitive task is beyond current machine vision. "Our research collaboration between labs in Australia and France wanted to understand if such simultaneous decision making required a large primate brain, or whether a honeybee might also demonstrate rule learning," Dyer notes. The team trained individual honeybees to fly into a Y-shaped maze that presented different elements in specific relationships, and the bees were able to learn that the elements had to have two sets of rules. The findings showed that multiple simultaneous conceptual rule learning can be mastered without a complex brain. The research also suggests that machines would be able to handle such a task and see almost as well as humans.

Biologically Inspired Energy
Texas Advanced Computing Center (05/09/12) Aaron Dubrow

University of Houston professor Margaret Cheung is using the Texas Advanced Computing Center's Ranger supercomputer to explore the role that confinement, temperature, and solvents play in the stability and energy efficiency of the carotenoid-porphyrin-C60 molecular triad, an artificial photosynthetic material. "By using computation, we can understand the properties and the behavior of this molecule and gain insight into improving it," Cheung says. The results of the experiments provide a way to test and engineer nano-capsules with embedded triads that, when combined in large numbers, could greatly increase the ability to produce clean energy. Since 2011, the project has used more than 2.5 million computing hours on Ranger and 2 million hours at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Council. The researchers simulated the triad in solution at many different temperatures and confinement conditions to map the impact of these changes on the behavior of the molecule. The researchers discovered that the triad conformation distribution could be manipulated by temperature fluctuations in the solvent. They hope to use the information from the computer simulations to design a scalable system that maximizes the generation of chemical energy while maintaining the triad's stability.

Researchers Propose Solution to 'Bufferbloat'
The Register (UK) (05/09/12) Richard Chirgwin

Xerox PARC's Van Jacobson and Pollere's Kathleen Nichols have developed Controlled Delay (CoDel), a queue management mechanism designed to solve the "bufferbloat" problem, which happens when packet buffering causes high latency and jitter and reduces overall network throughput. CoDel is designed to provide a "no-knobs" approach to queue management to overcome bufferbloat. CoDel dynamically resizes the buffer at the edge, so that the buffer keeps a sufficient number of packets to handle jitter without fooling the sender into picking the wrong Transmission Control Protocol window size. CoDel uses a local minimum queue to estimate the end-to-end ideal queue size. The traffic is then measured to see how long it is above or below the minimum queue estimate, and the measurement is based on packet-sojourn time rather than in terms of bytes or packets. Since it is a self-contained algorithm, it requires no configuration, and the researchers believe it is suitable for modern packet buffers and could be added to edge devices at a minimal cost.

Spin Spirals for Computers of the Future
Julich Research Center (05/07/12) Angela Wenzik

Researchers from Julich, Hamburg, and Kiel have demonstrated how magnetic moments in chains of iron atoms could allow information to be transported at the nanoscale in a fast and energy-efficient manner over a wide range of temperatures, while remaining mostly unaffected by external magnetic fields. “To the best of our knowledge, it is a completely new concept for data transport on this scale,” says Julich Research Center professor Stefan Blugel. "Because the system is extremely stable and allows information to be transferred in a fast and energy-efficient manner, we believe it is an extremely promising option for future applications." The researchers call the spiral arrangement of the magnetic properties in chains of iron atoms "spin spirals," which were placed in twin rows on an iridium surface for the experiments. "What is particularly interesting, is the fact that the spin of the atomic screw, which we refer to as chirality in the jargon, is very stable--even at relatively warm temperatures," Blugel says. The researchers now plan to study whether the system is stable at higher temperatures, up to and including room temperature.

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