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Welcome to the May 18, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Russian Whizzes Win Global Collegiate IT Contest
Agence France-Presse (05/17/12)

The St. Petersburg State University of IT, Mechanics and Optics has won this year's ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC), besting 111 other teams from around the world by solving nine of 12 problems in five hours. The problems featured real-world issues that require optimal solutions, such as having to build the best communications system between moving asteroids. The 112 teams competing in the ICPC were all finalists of an earlier regional round that involved 25,000 students from more than 2,200 universities in 85 countries. "The ACM ICPC is a wonderful opportunity for students from around the world to come together, collaborate, and exchange different views and experiences," says ICPC executive director and Baylor University professor Bill Poucher in a press release. "I am excited to see how these students will utilize the amazing knowledge they've gained from this contest and from one another as they continue their academic and professional pursuits." The University of Warsaw came in second in the competition, followed by the Moscow Institute of Physics & Technology, Shanghai Jaio Tong University, Belarusian State University, Zhongshan University, Harvard University, the Chinese Institute of Hong Kong, the University of Waterloo, and Moscow State University.


Closure in Disappearance of Computer Scientist
New York Times (05/18/12) Nick Wingfield

Computer scientist Jim Gray, who has been missing for more than five years, was declared legally dead by a San Francisco court, providing closure to Gray's widow and others. During his tenure at IBM and Tandem Computer in the 1970s and 1980s, Gray carried out pioneering work in developing database and transaction-processing technologies that underpin today's Internet. He received ACM's A.M. Turing Award in 1998, and the respect he engendered was partly reflected in the enormous search effort that followed his disappearance. Gray, an expert sailor, disappeared with his sailboat off the coat of Northern California, and his friends from Microsoft, Amazon.com, and Google scoured high-resolution satellite pictures of 132,000 square miles of ocean trying to locate him. Gray's widow, Donna Carnes, later hired a team to perform underwater searches using sonar and unmanned rovers. “I am in the San Francisco house, with the fire on, drinking tea, with the hope that Jim may rest in peace,” wrote Carnes in an email following the court's ruling.


Why Shutting Airports Is Not the Best Way to Halt a Global Flu Pandemic
Technology Review (05/17/12)

Rather than closing all international airports, Newcastle University researchers say a better approach to limiting the spread of a global flu pandemic is to cut specific flights between airports because it can achieve the same reduction in the spread of the disease with far less drastic action. The researchers, led by Jose Marcelino and Marcus Kaiser, used a standard disease-spreading model to simulate the spread of an H1N1-type infection across a network consisting of the world’s top 500 airports and the flights between them. The researchers found that shutting down entire airports only had a significant effect on spreading if it reduced travel by 95 percent. However, the same standard could be achieved by removing just 18 percent of the flights between cities ranked by a network measure known as edge betweenness. In the best-case scenario, shutting down entire airports would cut infections by 18 percent, while removing specific flights reduced infections by up to 37 percent, according to the researchers. "Selecting highly ranked single connections between cities for cancellation was more effective, resulting in fewer individuals infected with influenza, compared to shutting down whole airports," say Marcelino and Kaiser.


Saving Lives With Google Maps--Disaster-Tracking Software Developed by Abertay Student
University of Abertay Dundee (05/16/12)

A University of Abertay Dundee student David Kane has demonstrated that a home broadband router could be used to map natural disasters in real time. Kane has developed software that pings home broadband routers to determine whether buildings are still standing. The system shows live data on safe areas using Google maps, enabling a disaster to be detected and mapped within seconds, and progress of the support effort to be tracked. Kane says the system could automate the entire process of coordinated disaster response and supply a constant stream of up-to-date information. The software also could work with mobile phone networks, if an app was developed to support it, and would allow for accurate disaster tracking as phone networks go down, as geolocation runs on satellites. "The idea definitely works and I've built it so anyone can take this code and improve it," Kane says. "It's certainly not finished, but everything is open source compatible and using XML can plug straight into existing disaster management systems." Abertay lecturer Ian Ferguson says the use of computer infrastructure to find data about natural disasters as the occur could be a significant advance.


Paralyzed, Moving a Robot With Their Minds
New York Times (05/16/12) Benedict Carey

Researchers have demonstrated that humans with severe brain injuries can effectively control a prosthetic arm using brain implants that transmit neural signals to a computer. The researchers say their brain-computer interface could enable people with brain and spinal cord injuries to live more independent lives. “It is a spectacular result, in many respects, and really the logical next step in the development of this technology," says University of Montreal researcher John Kalaska, who was not involved in the study. As part of the study, two quadriplegic patients each had a tiny sensor injected just below the skull, in an area of the motor cortex known to be active when people move their arms or hands. The patients learned to move a robot arm by watching the researchers move the arm and imagining they were actually controlling it. The sensor transmitted their neurons' firing patterns from the imaginary movement to a computer, which recorded the patterns and translated them into an electronic command. Both patients were able to move the robotic arm and hand skillfully enough to pick up foam objects. The researchers note that their system is still experimental, and several hurdles remain before the technology becomes practical.


Computing Experts Unveil Superefficient ‘Inexact’ Chip
Rice University (05/17/12) Jade Boyd

Rice University researchers have developed an "inexact" computer chip that boosts power and resource efficiency by allowing for occasional errors. The researchers say the chips are 15 times more efficient than current microchips. "This work opens the door to interesting energy-efficiency opportunities of using inexact hardware together with traditional processing elements," says Hewlett-Packard's Paolo Faraboschi. The researchers cut power consumption by allowing the processing components to make a few mistakes. By managing the probability of errors and limiting which calculations produce errors, the researchers developed a method to simultaneously cut energy demands and boost performance. One type of inexact design is known as pruning, or trimming away some of the rarely used parts of digital circuits on a microchip. The pruned chips were twice as fast, used half as much energy, and were half the size of conventional chips. "When we factored in size and speed gains, these chips were 7.5 times more efficient than regular chips," says Rice researcher Avinash Lingamneni. The technology is expected to find use in application-specific processors, such as special-purpose embedded microchips for hearing aids, cameras, and other devices.


Memristors in Silicon Promising for Dense, Fast Memory
BBC News (05/18/12) Jason Palmer

European Materials Research Society researchers have developed a memristor that can be made much less expensively by using current semiconductor techniques. The researchers, led by University College London's Anthony Kenyon, were working on silicon devices for light-emitting diodes when they discovered that a film of silicon oxide on the devices behave like a memristor. After further testing, the researchers found that their devices seem to significantly outperform existing solid-state flash memory technologies. "Flash memory devices switch at 10,000 nanoseconds or so, and in our device we can't measure how fast it is," Kenyon says. "Our equipment only goes down to 90 nanoseconds. It's at least as fast as that and probably faster." The energy required to switch the state of the new devices is just a hundredth of that in existing flash memory, and significantly faster, according to the researchers. They believe the inexpensive and simple nature of the new device will make it commercially attractive.


Individual Typing Style Gives Key to User Authentication
Queensland University of Technology (05/15/12)

The unique typing styles of computer users could be used for authentication, according to Queensland University of Technology researcher Eesa Al Solami. He has developed the continuous authentication system (CAS), an algorithmic system that captures and analyzes the keystroke dynamics of keyboard users in a single session and allows for user authentication throughout a session. "So while current computer systems can authorize the user at the start of a session, they do not detect whether the current user is still the initial authorized user, a substitute user, or an intruder pretending to be a valid user," Al Solami says. "This makes a system that can continuously check the identity of the user throughout a session necessary." He says CAS can define a new global threshold for any user and will not be affected by changes in a computer user's typing style. The system would be valuable to the military, financial institutions, and universities, enabling organizations to generate alerts or terminate sessions when it detects a change in user. CAS could be extended to detect the typing styles on tablets and other mobile devices, Al Solami notes.


India's Proposal for Government Control of Internet to Be Discussed in Geneva
The Hindu (India) (05/15/12) Shalini Singh

The Commission on Science and Technology for Development is expected to discuss India's proposal to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly that governments take control of Internet regulation. India has led the charge, along with South Africa, Brazil, Russia, China, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, to shift Internet governance from Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers' (ICANN)'s multi-stakeholder model to a government-only model. Under the proposal, a UN Committee for Internet Related Policies would oversee all national Internet standards bodies and policy organizations. It also would negotiate Internet-related treaties and negotiate disputes. The committee would be funded by the UN, run by staff from the UN's Conference on Trade and Development, and report directly to the General Assembly. India's proposal could generate controversy for multi-stakeholder communities within the country and across the globe, since it involves a migration away from the prevailing democratic "equal say" process for Internet governance to one in which governments would be central, receiving advice from stakeholders and choosing the way forward. Guiding India's actions could be concerns about Western governments' closeness to ICANN.


Getting in Tune: Researchers Solve Tuning Problem for Wireless Power Transfer Systems
North Carolina State University (05/15/12) Matt Shipman

Magnetic resonance can be used to transmit power wirelessly, according to researchers at North Carolina State University. Professor Srdjan Lukic and Ph.D. student Zeljko Pantic have developed technology that automatically and precisely re-tunes the receivers in wireless power transfer (WPT) systems, making them more efficient and functional. "We're optimistic that this technology moves us one step closer to realizing functional WPT systems that can be used in real-world circumstances," Lukic says. The prototype incorporates additional circuitry into the receiver that injects small amounts of reactive power into the receiver coil as needed to maintain its original resonant frequency. If the transmitter's tuning changes, the electronic prototype also can read the trace amount of current being transmitted and adjust the receiver's tuning accordingly. "Because we are using electronics to inject reactive power into the receiver coil, we can be extremely precise when tuning the receiver," Lukic says. He says WPT systems could be used to charge electronic vehicles, electronic devices, and other technologies. “The next step is to try incorporating this work into technology that can be used to wirelessly charge electric vehicles," Lukic says.


Wild Blue Yonder: Engineers Tackle Challenges of Hypersonic Flight
Stanford Report (CA) (05/15/12) Simon Firth

Stanford University researchers are launching the Predictive Science Academic Alliance Program (PSAAP), which uses computers to model the physical complexities of the hypersonic environment, particularly as it relates to the scramjet engine. The program focuses on the "unstart" problem, which requires a clear understanding of the physics of the scramjet and then reproducing mathematically the immensely complex interactions that occur at hypersonic speeds. "These hypersonic vehicles are themselves subject to uncertainties in how they behave in the air," says Stanford professor Juan Alonso. PSAAP's goal is to try to quantify those uncertainties so that scramjet engineers can build the appropriate tolerances into their designs to enable the engines to function in extraordinary environments. PSAAP researchers are using the supercomputer facilities at Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia national laboratories, where the largest and most complex simulations can be run. The PSAAP team also has created LISZT, a computer language for running complex simulations on massive processor sets. LISZT can directly express problems in engineering and science through code designed specifically for exascale architectures. "It's something you could never have created unless you put computer scientists, mathematicians, mechanical engineers, and aerospace engineers together in the same room," Alonso says.


New Research Could Mean Faster Computers and Better Smart Phones
University of Gothenburg (Sweden) (05/15/12)

University of Gothenburg researchers have found that graphene and carbon nanotubes could help reduce the size and power consumption of electronic circuits. "If you stretch a graphene sheet from end to end the thin layer can oscillate at a basic frequency of getting on for a billion times a second," says Gothenburg's Anders Nordenfelt. "This is the same frequency range used by radios, mobile phones, and computers." He says the limited size, weight, and unique properties of the carbon materials could improve the electronics of devices. Graphene and carbon nanotubes can pick up radio signals because they have high mechanical resonance frequencies. "The question is whether they can also be used to produce this type of signal in a controlled and effective way," Nordenfelt says. "This assumes that they themselves are not driven by an oscillating signal that, in turn, needs to be produced by something else." Nordenfelt carried out a mathematical analysis to demonstrate that it is possible to connect the nanowire with an electronic circuit, apply a magnetic field, and get the nanowire to self-oscillate mechanically.


Study: Facebook Relies on Good Design to Retain Users
IDG News Service (05/09/12) Joab Jackson

University of Washington graduate student Parmit Chilana recently interviewed Facebook engineers and design specialists to learn how they develop and deploy new features for the service. Chilana interviewed 17 Facebook employees, including software engineers, product designers, and product managers. She used the principles of good software user interface design, as as described in a 1985 paper by John Gould and Clayton Lewis, who stress iterative design, a focus on user testing, and user-focused design, as a baseline. "Over half the interview participants explicitly identified user experience as a key factor in driving design on Facebook," Chilana says. Engineers often have to design for the least common denominator, as new features must be equally intuitive to a 90-year-old Mongolian grandmother as to a 14-year-old Brazilian soccer player, according to one Facebook engineer. Iteration also is valued at Facebook, with one engineer noting that the company "will just try to get something out there, make sure it is reasonable and then iterate on the design based on how people are using it," Chilana says. She also notes that Facebook designers are not averse to deploying cutting-edge features that comply with the company's long-term vision of a social networking site, even if users are unhappy with it in the short term.


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