Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the July 2, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

Please note: In observance of the Independence Day holiday, TechNews will not be published on Wednesday, July 4. Publication will resume Friday, July 6.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Computing Advances Vital to Sustainability Efforts
National Academy of Sciences (06/29/12) Lorin Hancock

Advances in computing, such as those that help to understand complex systems and their connections, are crucial to solving sustainability problems, according to a recent National Research Council report. University of California, Los Angeles professor Deborah Estrin says the report "will give us a chance to start creating opportunities for transformative efficiency gains, deep scientific understanding, and informed evolution of the associated political and economic systems." The report relies on smart energy grids, sustainable agriculture, and resilient infrastructure to demonstrate the potential impact of advances in computing. The report recommends working toward these sustainability goals by solving specific problems. The ultimate goal of applying computer science to sustainability is to inform, support, facilitate, and automate decision making, according to the report. In addition, the report emphasizes that computer science research in sustainability must be an interdisciplinary effort, with experts in the different fields of sustainability being equal partners in research.


'Leap Second Bug' Causes Site, Software Crashes
CNet (07/01/12) Steven Musil

The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service recently added a leap second to the Coordinated Universal Time, a move that has been made dozens of times since 1972, yet still caused site disruptions for some of the world's most popular Web sites and software platforms. For example, link-sharing Web site Reddit blamed the extra second for causing problems with the open source database Apache Cassandra, which is built with Java. Mozilla also attributed issues with its Hadoop platform to the added leap second. In addition, Web sites such as Gawker, StumbleUpon, Yelp, FourSquare, and LinkedIn all reported problems associated with the added leap second. The possibility the extra leap second could cause problems was raised by Google and Opera Software engineer Marco Marogniu, who recently discussed some of the reasons systems might fail by the sudden introduction of an extra second and described a workaround to help avoid crashes. Google has been gradually adding milliseconds to its systems clocks since last September to avoid a crash.


Silicon Valley's Top Threat Is China, Survey Finds
Computerworld (06/28/12) Patrick Thibodeau

Many high-level technology executives are convinced that some other country, probably China, will supplant Silicon Valley as the global center for innovation within the next four years, according to a KPMG survey of 668 executives. The finding that 44 percent of respondents expected this shift was surprising to KPMG's Gary Matuszak, but he notes that 42 percent of survey participants were from the Asia-Pacific region. Among U.S. respondents, 28 percent also think Silicon Valley will lose its status as the world's innovation hub, while 39 percent do not. Matuszak says the survey's chief observation is not a diminishing in Silicon Valley's leadership, but rather greater emphasis on innovation in other parts of the world. He stresses that Silicon Valley stands apart by virtue of an entire ecosystem built up to support innovation, which another region would find very difficult to duplicate. Information Technology Innovation Foundation president Robert Atkinson says that even if Chinese-owned companies do not become innovation leaders, the Chinese economy "may become an innovation leader if its policies result in foreign multinationals moving even more innovation-based activities to China." He says China wants "to make virtually everything, especially advanced technology products and services."


Princeton Researchers Working at Forefront of 'Exascale' Supercomputing
Princeton University (06/28/12) Gale Scott

Princeton University researchers are developing algorithms designed for exascale supercomputers that will enable scientists to address problems that were previously too difficult to solve. The Group of Eight's (G-8's) Research Councils Initiative on Multilateral Research Funding recently awarded grants to Princeton researchers William Tang, Jeroen Tromp, and Venkatramani Balaji to develop the algorithms. "What we hope to demonstrate is that this focused level of international scientific collaboration can help deliver breakthrough payoffs in high-performance computing," Tang says. The grants are part of a G-8 pilot project established in 2010 to facilitate multinational collaboration among scientists. Tang will use his grant to develop advanced simulation software that will be compatible with exascale supercomputers. The goal of the project, called NuFuSe, is to produce higher-fidelity simulations of the physics behind fusion reactions. Balaji is working on a project to design software that will organize huge archives of climate data from around the world. For example, Balaji says "a scientist at work on malaria might want to know how many mosquitoes are likely to be in a region in the future, which means predicting temperature or humidity." Tromp is using his grant to further his work mapping the interior of the Earth.


Software Identifies Censored China Microblog Posts
Agence France-Presse (06/28/12)

University of Hong Kong researchers have launched WeiboScope, a project to study the impact of microblogging on Chinese society. WeiboScope features software that tracks users of China's main microblog, Sina Weibo. The program is able to detect politically sensitive posts that have been deleted by Chinese censors and show the post and name of the Sina Weibo user. The researchers designed the software to download the posts of users throughout the day and identify censored posts by comparing the profile from time to time. A post will show up with a "permission denied" message when Chinese authorities have denied it. The project currently represents a "small snapshot of the whole universe of Sina Weibo," says lead researcher and Hong Kong professor Fu King-wa. The researchers are tracking 300,000 users who have more than 1,000 followers, but they want to use the software to cover more of the 300 million user base of the Chinese version of Twitter.


TEDGlobal: App Offers Safety in a Riot
BBC News (06/27/12) Jane Wakefield

Technology, Entertainment, and Design fellow Salvatore Iaconesi has developed a smartphone application that enables demonstrators and people who get caught up in riots to find safe areas. Users point their smartphone in a certain direction, and the app's color interface will turn red to indicate trouble ahead or green to indicate the area is safe. "The platform captures everything on a range of social networks, from Flickr, Instagram, FourSquare, Facebook, and Twitter, and processes it using natural language analysis to understand what the messages are saying," Iaconesi says. The app counts the messages suggesting danger and those suggesting safety and "synthesizes it into an easy-to-read interface," he notes. The app is currently available for activist groups, and will be made publicly available soon. Iaconesi says the app also could be used in disaster zones and could help the government understand other developments such as traffic jams.


Google's Futuristic Glasses Move Closer to Reality
Associated Press (06/28/12) Michael Liedtke

Google recently announced that it is selling a prototype of its Internet-connected glasses, known as Google Glasses, to U.S. computer programmers for $1,500, hoping they can suggest improvements and build applications that will make the glasses even more useful. The programmers would receive their glasses early next year. "This is new technology and we really want you to shape it," says Google co-founder Sergey Brin. "We want to get it out into the hands of passionate people as soon as possible." If the prototype experiment goes well, Google will release a less expensive version of the glasses to the public in early 2014. However, Brin says Google still needs to fix several problems with the glasses, such as finding a way to make the battery last longer so users can wear them all day. "I think we are definitely pushing the limits," Brin says. "That is our job: to push the edges of technology into the future." The glasses are meant to interact with people's senses, without blocking them, notes Google engineer Isabelle Olsson. The glasses are expected to appeal to runners, bicyclists, and others who want to document their activities as they happen.


Universal Speech Translator App Ready for Olympics
New Scientist (06/27/12) Jacob Aron

The 2012 Olympic Games in London will serve as the test bed for a new smartphone application that will enable people to converse with others in their own language. The Universal Speech Translation Advanced Research Consortium developed VoiceTra4U-M, a speech translation app for the iPhone that supports full voice translation for 13 different languages, with text translation for an additional 10 languages. The app enables the user to speak face-to-face with another person using a single iPhone or make phone calls to anyone else. The translation takes place on remote servers, which leads to a slight delay during a conversation. The app runs on an open platform, which enables any country to run its own server to provide translations for its local language, and up to five people can converse at once, each in their own language. Researchers from 23 countries are involved in the project and the initial focus was on translating words and phrases related to tourism. The app has up to 90 percent accuracy. VoiceTra4U-M will soon be available for free from the App Store, and data gathered from users during the Olympics will be used to improve it.


Google Says New 'Jelly Bean' Version of Android Coming in July
IDG News Service (06/27/12) James Niccolai

Google's next version of its Android operating system, Jelly Bean, features improvements to search, voice typing, and notifications. Google says a significant new feature in Android 4.1 is Google Now, which uses a person's location, search history, and calendar entries to offer more pertinent search results. For example, Google Now learns a user's normal commute to work and can check traffic reports to recommend a faster route when there is one available. Allowing Google Now to access a user's location, search, and calendar entries is likely to make some concerned about privacy, but Google executives emphasize that this feature is optional. Jelly Bean also features built-in speech recognition software so that users will be able to type using their voice when they are offline. In addition, Jelly Bean's Android Beam function is improved to enable the exchange of photos and videos, and users will be able to connect their smartphone to an external device such as a speaker by tapping the phone against it. Google also says that Jelly Bean's new notification system means that users will not have to open separate applications to act on those notifications.


Musical Robot Companion Enhances Listener Experience
Georgia Tech News (06/26/12) Liz Klipp

Georgia Tech University researchers have developed Shimi, a musical robot that recommends songs, dances to a beat, and keeps the music playing based on listener feedback. "Shimi is designed to change the way that people enjoy and think about their music," says Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg. The robot works like a docking station and is powered by the user's mobile device. By using the phone's camera and face-detecting software, Shimi can follow a listener around the room and position its speakers for optimal sound. In addition, if the user claps to a beat, Shimi can analyze it and play a song that matches the suggestion. "Shimi shows us that robots can be creative and interactive," says Georgia Tech's Mason Bretan. The researchers hope other developers will create more applications to expand Shimi's creative and interactive capabilities. "I believe that our center is ahead of a revolution that will see more robots in homes, bypassing some of the fears some people have about machines doing everyday functions in their lives," Weinberg says.


Scientists Develop Method for Authenticating Digital Images by Analyzing 'Noise'
University at Albany-SUNY (06/25/12)

University at Albany computer scientist Siwei Lyu and colleagues have identified a method of using "noise" to authenticate digital photography. By using statistical and computational analysis, Lyu's team developed techniques that measure noise strength across a photo to determine which parts of the photo originated from different sources. Lyu says the method is advantageous in that it does not explicitly rely on the knowledge of the image format, camera model, or tampering procedure, and has a high level of detection accuracy. Noise, the digital equivalent of film grain, exists in all digital photography, and is generally invisible to the human eye. Numerous factors during and after a photo is taken introduce noise, such as temperature and thermal conditions, sensor saturation, quantization, compression, and transmission. An unaltered image is expected to have uniform noise strength across all pixels, but inconsistencies in noise variances in altered photos become telltale evidence of tampering. "Collectively, the digital image forensic community aims to provide a series of tools that can significantly limit the extent of undetectable manipulations, or increase the real cost, in terms of time and technical sophistication, of making a believable forgery," Lyu says.


Can Chips Keep Their Cool?
IEEE Spectrum (06/26/12) Steven Cherry

IEEE Spectrum associate editor Rachel Courtland says it is now fair to talk about the end of Moore's Law because chips are getting much more difficult and expensive to produce at smaller feature sizes. "[Bernd] Hoefflinger says one of the first things we need to do is have a good target for where we want power consumption to be, and the target he settled on is the energy it would take for a simple multiplier to perform a single computation," Courtland says. However, she notes that to achieve these technological goals, there needs to be more technology that exploits the third dimension (3D) on the chip. "We are going short on the third dimension," Hoefflinger says. "There's an incredible amount of worthwhile and very helpful activity on 3D interconnects of chips." She also says designers should change the way chips perform calculations by looking at the most significant, leading bits first. "The reason this works so well is that it reduces the complexity that is normally accorded to multiplications," Courtland says. She notes that this will reduce the number of transistors that must be put in a multiplier by a significant amount, which will save power as well as space in the process.


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