Welcome to the July 20, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Obama Proposes $1B for Science, Math Teachers
Associated Press (07/18/12) Josh Lederman
The Obama administration has proposed a plan to invest $1 billion in fiscal year 2013 to increase U.S. students' participation in science, technology, engineering, and math by creating an elite corps of master educators through the rewarding of salary stipends to high-performing teachers. Teachers chosen for the Master Teacher Corps will receive an extra $20,000 annually and must commit to participating in the program for multiple years. The White House says the program will start with 2,500 teachers divided among 50 sites, but could expand to include 10,000 educators over the next four years. The aim is to generate a multiplier effect in which master teachers share their knowledge and skills with other educators, improving education quality for all students. The administration will make $100 million available immediately by tapping an existing fund to incentivize top-performing teachers. "This initiative has nothing to do with politics," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "It's absolutely in our country's best long-term economic interest to do a much better job in this area."
Innovation Promises to Cut Massive Power Use at Big Data Companies in a Flash
Princeton University (07/18/12) John Sullivan
Princeton University researchers have developed SSDAlloc, software that could help organizations use a type of memory in their servers that requires much less energy than conventional systems. SSDAlloc enables organizations to substitute flash memory for the more expensive and energy-intensive random access memory (RAM) that is currently used for most computer operations. "The biggest potential users are the big data centers," says Princeton professor Vivek Pai. He says flash uses much less electricity than RAM, so switching memory types can reduce a company's power bill by up to 90 percent. SSDAlloc changes the way that programs look for data in a computer, according to Princeton graduate student Anirudh Badam. Flash memory is much faster than a hard drive, but that led to bottlenecking, which has limited its potential applications. The researchers say SSDAlloc moves flash memory up in the internal hierarchy of computer data, and tells the computer to consider it a larger, slower version of RAM. "Our system monitors what the host system is doing and moves it into and out of RAM automatically," Pai says. The researchers say SSDAlloc can be applied to a whole class of applications for use in many different fields.
Indian Scientists Try to Crack Monsoon Source Code
Reuters (07/20/12) Ross Colvin; Jatindra Dash
Indian researchers are developing computer models that could help predict the erratic movements of monsoons. The researchers are trying to crack a monsoon's "source code" using short- and long-range computer models that can provide much more specific information about the monsoon's movements. The researchers note that equipped with more precise forecasts, state governments would be better prepared for disasters such as the recent floods in Assam, India. The India Meteorological Office (IMD) currently struggles to predict when the rains will arrive throughout the country, where exactly they will fall, which parts will receive the most, and how long they will last. Conventional short-range forecasts give some precision but offer only a five- to seven-day prediction. The new research hopes to extend those short-term forecasts to at least 15 days and enable the IMD to give much more detailed seasonal projections. The new projections also could bring more certainty to economic policy-making. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government, for instance, is gambling on a normal monsoon this year to boost weak economic growth.
Huge Spam Botnet Grum Is Taken Out by Security Researchers
BBC News (07/19/12)
FireEye says the Grum botnet, believed responsible for transmitting 18 percent of the world's spam email, has been shut down though a joint effort by FireEye, spam-tracking service SpamHaus, and local Internet service providers (ISPs). "This collaboration is sending a strong message to all the spammers: Stop sending us spam," says FireEye researcher Atif Mushtaq. He learned on July 16 that a Dutch server participating in Grum had been closed, while the next day Grum's Panamanian command and control servers (CnCs) were deactivated. In response, the botnet shifted the rest of its CnCs to secondary servers in Ukraine. FireEye worked with other experts in the global security industry to press local ISPs to suspend the botnet, and Mushtaq says although more than 20,000 computers are still part of Grum, the lack of active CnCs would soon make them useless. He notes most spam botnets that previously based their CnCs in Europe or the United States have moved to nations they considered safe havens, such as Panama, Russia, and Ukraine. "We have proven them wrong this time," Mushtaq says. "Keep on dreaming of a junk-free inbox."
Researchers Create Memory With One Bit Per Molecule
The Engineer (United Kingdom) (07/19/12) Andrew Czyzewski
Magnetic memory with one bit per molecule represents a major advance for nanoscale computing. With current hard disks, one bit of digital information consists of about 3 million magnetic molecules. Researchers from Germany and Japan have developed a device that consists of a single magnetic iron atom, which can be switched with an electric pulse, in the center of an organic shell that protects the information stored within. "Not only does the resistance change but also the magnetic state, so it is, if you like, a combination of memristor features and spintronic features, and that's basically the new thing," says Karlsruhe Institute of Technology professor Wulf Wulfhekel. In memristor devices, resistance changes according to how much current has passed through it and information is retained even after the power is off. They require only 1/1000 of the energy and are approximately 100 times faster than standard flash memory chips. The potential applications of the magnetic aspect of the device also are of interest because the field of spintronics uses the magnetic spin of individual atoms for information processing, which is essentially computational power. The method also could impact the manufacturing techniques for the smallest-scale computing devices, which are reaching a limit.
Lessons Learned From MITx's Prototype Course
MIT News (07/16/12) Larry Hardesty
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University are preparing to offer free online courses in the fall through the edX project, which is based on MIT's MITx platform. MITx debuted its first course, Circuits and Electronics, in March and had nearly 155,000 registered students, of which 7,157 passed. "If you look at the number in absolute terms, it's as many students as might take the course in 40 years at MIT," says MIT professor Anant Agarwal. He predicts the rate of completion will increase as more courses are added to the edX catalog. Students from more than 160 countries registered for the class, with the majority coming from the United States, India, and Britain. The edX development team will work to make it easier for students to customize course content, including modifying homework deadlines and exam dates. The edX platform was designed not only as a means of delivering course content, but also as a testbed for educational experiments. One such project is a usability study in which students compared versions of video lectures where diagrams were presented either as digitally rendered PowerPoint slides or as shaky hand drawings that took shape as the professor lectured.
The Password You Can Use Without Knowing It
New Scientist (07/19/12) Jim Giles
Stanford University researchers have developed a password-creating technique based on implicit learning that combines cryptography with neuroscience. The researchers developed a game in which players intercept falling objects by pressing a key. The objects appear in one of six positions, each corresponding to a different key. However, the players are unaware that the positions of the objects are not random. The game is equipped with a sequence of 30 successive positions that are repeated more than 100 times during the 30- to 45-minute game. Players made fewer errors when presented with this sequence in successive rounds. The results suggest the game could form the basis of a security system in which users would learn a sequence unique to them in an initial session and later prove that they know it by playing the same game. The researchers estimate that testing 100 users non-stop for a year would result in less than a one in 60,000 chance of discovering the sequence. Stanford's Hristo Bojinov notes the system needs to be more user-friendly, and because it could still be hacked, he says it is more likely to be used in high-risk settings in which the code holder needs to be physically present.
UK Seeks Software Writers With Cyber Security Challenge
BBC News (07/18/12)
The U.K. government hopes to find people who can help protect Britain's infrastructure via the Cyber Security Challenge. The competition will seek to get software developers to focus on security as they write software and other applications, says ISC Squared's John Colley. "It costs 100 times more to retrofit security to an application than it does to do it from the start," he says. Colley notes computer science programs in Britain do not have a significant security component, and he says many firms provide training on how to work securely after hiring workers. Entrants will initially participate in an online treasure hunt and find answers to a series of questions, and the top 30 performers will move on to a series of tests in a computer lab, form teams, and solve a series of problems. "I don't want to give too much away but it involves securing the control mechanisms of something that's vital to national interest and security," says Qinetiq's Neil Cassidy.
Rise of the Machines
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia) (07/18/12) Asher Moses
Human-driven technological progress has largely replaced evolution as the dominant force shaping our future, according to Jaan Tallinn, one of the founding engineers of Skype and Kazaa. "My core main message is actually that this thing is not science fiction, this thing is not apocalyptic religion--this thing is something that needs serious consideration," Tallinn says. He says rapid advances in robotics and neuroscience could enable scientists to replicate the human brain by 2050. "Once you acknowledge that human brains are basically made of atoms, and acknowledge that atoms are governed by simple laws of physics, then there is no reasoning principle why computers couldn't do anything that people are doing and we don't really see any evidence that this is not the case," Tallinn says. He notes the key is to make sure that once there are artificial systems that can rearrange the environment like humans do, those changes must be beneficial to humanity. However, he says humanity can harness this advanced artificial intelligence to work for it. "Once you have something that is smarter than you and is actively on your side, you can basically solve any problems really quickly," Tallinn says.
Java Developer Most Difficult Tech Job to Fill: Survey
Network World (07/17/12) Ann Bednarz
Companies are engaged in fierce competition for technology talent because they are focusing on candidates with at least a few years of experience, according to the latest Dice Report. Dice.com polled 866 tech-focused hiring managers and recruiters and found that most want information technology (IT) professionals with two to five years in the workforce, followed by people with six to 10 years of experience. The poll also found that companies are less focused on developing talent internally as in the past, and formal corporate IT training opportunities are not widespread. "Hiring managers say they expect tech professionals to stay with their firm about three years," says Dice.com's Alice Hill. "That makes it tough to cross-train, retrain, or train at all." Overall, there were 84,940 available tech jobs as of early July. Java developers, mobile developers, .NET developers, and software developers were in most demand followed by skills in security, SAP, SharePoint, Web development, people with active federal security clearance, and network engineering. The New York/New Jersey metro region led the nation in available tech jobs with 8,871, followed by Washington, D.C./Baltimore with 8,334 positions, and Silicon Valley with 5,684 jobs.
A Memristor True Random-Number Generator
IEEE Spectrum (07/12/12) Yu-Tzu Chiu
National Tsing Hua University (NTHU) researchers have developed a memristor circuit that produces true random numbers while consuming less energy compared to other methods. The researchers took advantage of a particular characteristic of contact RRAM (CRRAM), a type of memory they developed in their lab. In CRRAM, the memory cell conducts over a very small area, so current flowing through it is sensitive to the capture and release of electrons that get trapped in and released from the silicon dioxide film, which is the random event the system uses to produce random numbers. "The random codes we get from the fluctuation will never be known," says NTHU professor Chrong-Jung Lin. The effect of this random trapping and releasing, known as random telegraph noise, produces a signal that makes up more than a 10 percent change in the device's resistance levels. "Signals generated in traditional approaches are enhanced to about 1 percent or 2 percent, and the required amplifications of [those] signals can lead to misleading results," Lin notes. He says the random number generator could be used to ensure the safety of data transmission in near-field communication payment systems.
Musical Glove Improves Sensation, Mobility for People With Spinal Cord Injury
Georgia Tech News (07/17/12) Jason Maderer
Georgia Tech researchers have developed Mobile Music Touch (MMT), a wireless musical glove that can improve sensation and motor skills in people with paralyzing spinal cord injury (SCI). The glove is used with a piano keyboard and vibrates the user's fingers to indicate which keys to play. While learning to play the piano, several people with SCI experienced improved sensation in their fingers. "For example, after using the glove, some participants were able to feel the texture of their bed sheets and clothes for the first time since their injury," says Georgia Tech project leader Tanya Markow. The MMT system works with a computer, MP3 player, or smartphone. A song is programmed into the device, which is wirelessly linked to the glove. As the musical notes are illuminated on the keyboard, the system sends vibrations to tap the corresponding fingers. After the study, participants performed several common grasping and sensation tests to measure their improvement. Those who used the MMT system performed significantly better than those who learned to play the piano normally. Markow says the vibration could be triggering activity in the hand's sensory cortex, which leads to firing in the brain's motor cortex.
Imagining Tomorrow's Computers Today
ScienceNOW (07/15/12) Jop de Vrieze
Intel principal engineer and futurist Brian David Johnson discusses his presentation at the recent Euroscience Open Forum on a future world of computers that develop relationships with the humans they serve. "I create models that will help find out how people will interact with computers, and these are based on social science, computer science, statistical data, and even some science fiction," Johnson says. One of Johnson's main projects is determining how people watch TV and what they love about it. "We then designed prototype chips that have the ability to bring the Internet and the television on one screen at the same time," Johnson notes. He says "our technologies will get to know us and we'll become more tightly connected. This has an impact on what we do productivity-wise, but even more it connects us to the things and people we love." Johnson also notes that the size of computational chips is approaching zero, which means that soon anything could be turned into a computer. He says at that point the challenge becomes deciding what should be done. "That is what we have the social scientists for," Johnson says. "We do not study markets, we study people."
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