Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the July 30, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Lack of Minority Representation in Science and Engineering Endangering U.S. Economic Health
HPC Wire (07/26/12) Jan Zverina

Many of the "precious few" minority students pursuing science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degrees are either dropping out or changing majors, says Rice University professor Richard Tapia. He notes that those students who do stick with a STEM major often encounter a "sink or swim" culture and have no support mechanisms from university officials, causing them to lose confidence or migrate to other majors. "We depend too much on minority-serving institutions to solve the under-representation problem, but all universities must be a part of the solution," Tapia says. He notes the problem has been exacerbated by the fact that Hispanics, which currently are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population, continue to be the least educated. “Our concern with under-representation today does not stem from moral or ethical issues,” Tapia says. “It’s a simple matter of the nation’s survival." He contends the economic health of the United States is based in large measure upon technical advances, so the country must find a way to incorporate the growing population of under-represented minorities into the mainstream of scientific and technical endeavors.


Reverse-Engineered Irises Look So Real, They Fool Eye-Scanners
Wired News (07/25/12) Kim Zetter

Researchers at the Autonomous University of Madrid and West Virginia University have developed a method to recreate iris images that match the digital iris codes stored in databases and used by iris-recognition systems to identify people. The research involved taking iris codes that had been created from actual eye scans in addition to synthetic iris images created by computers and modifying the latter until the synthetic images matched real iris images using a genetic algorithm. "At each iteration it uses the synthetic images of the previous iteration to produce a new set of synthetic iris images that have an iris code which is more similar [than the synthetic images of the previous iteration] to the iris code being reconstructed," says researcher Javier Galbally. The algorithm needs as many as 200 iterations to produce an iris image that is sufficiently similar to the actual iris that is being reproduced. "The genetic algorithm applies four ... rules inspired in natural evolution to combine the synthetic iris images of one iteration in such a way ... that they produce new and better synthetic iris images in the next generation," Galbally says.


'Control-Alt-Hack' Game Lets Players Try Their Hand at Computer Security
UW News (WA) (07/24/12) Hannah Hickey

University of Washington (UW) researchers have developed Control-Alt-Hack, a tabletop card game in which players experience what it is like to be a computer security professional defending against a wide range of cyberthreats. "Hopefully players will come away thinking differently about computer security," says UW professor Yoshi Kohno. The target audience is 15- to 30-year-olds with some knowledge of computer science. Players work for Hackers Inc., a firm that carries out security audits and consultations for a fee. Three to six players take turns selecting a card that presents a hacking challenge that ranges in difficulty and degree of seriousness. Game play involves completing missions by rolling dice, using skills, and sometimes pulling something out of a bag of tricks. "We wanted it to be based in reality, but more importantly we want it to be fun for the players," says UW doctoral student Tamara Denning. Some scenarios incorporate actual research, such as security threats to cars, toy robots, and implanted medical devices. "We wanted to dispel people's stereotypes about what it means to be a computer scientist," Denning says.


Identifying Trending Stories on Twitter and Optimal Temperature for Data Center Computers
University of Toronto Scarborough (07/24/2012) Don Campbell

University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) professor Bianca Schroeder and students Nosayba El-Sayed, Ioan Stefanovici, George Amvrosiadis, and Andy A. Hwang received a best paper award at the recent ACM Sigmetrics conference in London for research on cooling computers in data centers. Their paper suggested that allowing warmer temperatures than are normally recommended might be justifiable. The researchers collected data from a large number of centers and ran tests to measure the effect of temperature performance. Their results showed that higher temperatures either were not associated with negative effects on the equipment, or else the negative effects were smaller than predicted. "We see our results as strong evidence that most organizations could run their data centers hotter than they currently are without making significant sacrifices in system reliability," the authors say. UTSC researchers also have received accolades for a paper on identifying trending stories on Twitter in an efficient way, making their approach useful in real time. Professor Nick Koudas and graduate students Albert Angel and Nikos Sarkas have won the Best Paper award for the Very Large Databases Conference, and will present their research at the gathering in Istanbul in August.


An App That Could Stop Traffic
Technology Review (07/25/12) Rachel Metz

German researchers have developed Greenway, a Windows phone application designed to help people avoid traffic jams and get drivers from one point to another in the shortest amount of time. Greenway's developers hope to prevent traffic jams from happening altogether by using software to predict where drivers are going. The app provides a standard shortest route and a traffic-optimized Greenway route, as well as the approximate amount of time and fuel it would take to reach the destination using each route. The software can simulate up to 50,000 cars, and the results show that, on average, cars taking Greenway routes make it to their destination twice as fast and use up to 20 percent less fuel, according to researcher Christian Bruggemann. He speculates that for Greenway to function optimally, about 10 percent of drivers in a city would have to have it running. "Using a predictor like in the Greenway system, even if it's not perfect, will still give a significant leap forward compared with using nothing," notes Temple University professor Benjamin Seibold.


New NRC Report Links Government Research Investments to Nation’s Leadership
CCC Blog (07/24/12) Erwin Gianchandani

The U.S. National Research Council's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board recently released a report that updates a diagram, known as "tire tracks," which links government investments in academic and industry research to the creation of new information technology (IT) industries. The report says the tire tracks model "illustrates the complex nature of research in the field and the interdependencies between various subfields of computing and communications research." The newest tire tracks model, which was last updated in 2003, includes important research areas that have emerged since the 2003 report, reconsiders how best to characterize and depict these investments and impacts, and updates the material in the 2003 report that accompanies the tire tracks figure. The report also emphasizes the complex university-industry-government partnership that results in innovation and leadership in IT. "Innovation in IT is made possible by a complex ecosystem encompassing university and industrial research enterprises, emerging startups, and more mature technology companies," the report notes. The report also identifies four factors that show how federal support as positively impacted innovation in computing, including new federally funded programs, the combination of government-funded academic research and industry research and development, the continued improvement of research and development strategies, and federal support for research that complements industry investments.


Using Social Networks to Analyze the Classics
Inside Science (07/24/12) Joel N. Shurkin

Coventry University of England researchers are using social networking algorithms to analyze classic myths to determine if the events and characters they depict are real. The researchers studied Homer's "Illiad," "Beowulf," and the Irish epic "Tain Bo Cuailnge." They marked each character in the stories as nodes and their connections to other characters as edges in a network. They then used social networking algorithms to determine the popularity of each character and whether the links were friendly or unfriendly, says Coventry's Padraig Mac Carton. The researchers found that Iliad and Beowulf contained the same patterns between characters that occur in actual social networks, indicating they could be based on facts or real characters. However, the researchers found that the authors were probably combining characters in Tain Bo Cuailnge. "Computer-aided work on literary analysis is a way we can find insights into our literary heritage and our culture at large, without giving up the 'close read' for the texts we want to look at more deeply," says Columbia University researcher David Elson.


STEM Report on Higher Education Recommends Employers Work Closely With Universities
Computer Weekly (07/24/12) Kayleigh Bateman

The U.K. House of Lords Science Technology Committee recently released its report on higher education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects, which raises the question of how industry and academia can collaborate to ensure STEM graduates and postgraduates have the appropriate workplace skills. "As the [information and communications technology] curriculum continues to evolve, it will ... be important for education bodies, the government, and technology organizations to work together to ensure a more balanced and inspiring [information technology (IT)] education to help boost the U.K.'s technology sector and future talent," says Hitachi Data Systems' Stephen Ball. He notes that Hitachi has seen a 680 percent increase in the number of IT-related graduate applications since 2010. SAP uses its University Alliances program to connect with students who are interested in a career in IT. "Ultimately, enabling universities to include business management technologies in their course programs--essentially training students in how to use them, and their importance and value to overall business performance--reduces the cost to businesses in training graduates on those programs when it comes to hiring them," says U.K. head of University Alliances Martin Gollogly.


Computers Not Yet Able to Understand Human Speech
Cornell Chronicle (07/23/12) Rebecca Harrison

Cornell University professor Lillian Lee discusses the progress in natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning and the challenges that lie ahead. She notes that machines, including Apple's Siri, are still unable to pass the intelligence test by demonstrating natural language conversation. "Understanding language is really hard, not just because of understanding the structure of language part ... it also involves understanding things about what human beings want," Lee says. Scientists are working to integrate insight from linguistics into statistical models, she notes. Lee also points out that she has argued for a probabilistic, data approach. NLP will lead to the development of systems that can use human language as input or output, including speech-based interfaces, information retrieval, automatic summarization of news, emails and postings, and automatic translation. Lee is excited about NLP because it is "interdisciplinary, including fields of computer science, linguistics, psychology, communication, probability and statistics, and information theory."


Students’ Cellphone Screening Device for Anemia Wins $250,000 Prize
The JHU Gazette (07/23/12) Phil Sneiderman

Johns Hopkins University (JHU) researchers have developed HemoGlobe, a cell phone application that provides a noninvasive way to identify women with anemia in developing nations. The device is designed to convert the cell phone network of health workers into a larger system for detecting and reporting anemia at the community level. JHU's Soumyadipta Acharya says HemoGlobe "will equip millions of health care workers across the globe to quickly and safely detect this debilitating condition in pregnant women and newborns." The system's sensor is placed on the patient's fingertip, and shines different wavelengths of light through the skin to measure the hemoglobin level in the blood. Community health workers can view a color-coded test result, indicating cases of anemia. After every test, the phone sends an automated text message with a summary of the results to a central server, which produces a real-time map showing where anemia is present. The information could lead to follow-up care and help health officials distribute resources. "Our low-cost device will use the existing cell phones of health workers to estimate and report hemoglobin levels," Acharya says.


Crowd Sourcing Comes to Astronomy
Science News (07/23/12) Nadia Drake

Astronomers have reconstructed the orbit of the Holmes comet, which flew by Earth in 2007, using photos from the Internet. Princeton University postdoctoral research associate Dustin Lang and New York University's David Hogg initially performed a Yahoo! search for photos of the comet, which returned more than 2,400 images, including the comet and pictures of completely different things such as cats. The researchers used the online computer program Astrometry.net to filter through the images and narrow the results to 1,299 usable images. They then used the photos, which were taken in different locations, with different cameras and different exposures, to reconstruct the comet's orbit in three dimensions. The researchers came very close to the orbit determined by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "I think it's the beginning of something really, really important," says Harvard University's Alyssa Goodman. "The biggest deal is the availability of all this data that isn't being collected for the purpose it was used."


Sing for the Win
University of Cambridge (07/22/12)

University of Cambridge researcher Charlie Williams has developed SingSmash, a mobile device game that helps people learn music theory. Users sing into the device, and by hitting the required note at the right moment, gamers are given an opportunity to bounce a ball back and forth to unlock increasingly difficult levels. The app gets users stretching their vocal cords while introducing them to notation by telling them what they have just sung. "When I teach music I try to emphasize actually doing it first, and I wanted to build a game to encourage that and make it fun, while slipping in the educational aspect so that if people want to build on skills they develop through the game then they can," Williams says. SingSmash relies on built-in algorithms and pitch detectors to match the incoming sound to the correct note within a broad but specified spectrum. Williams wants to develop a multiplayer version of the game and to incorporate rhythmic exercises. "I'm hoping that people who play guitar in a band or whatever can use this as a fun way to build up their skills and explore new musical patterns," he says.


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