Welcome to the October 10, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
It’s Not Here or There, It’s Quantum: American, French Scientists Win Nobel Physics Prize
Associated Press (10/09/12) Karl Ritter; Louise Nordstrom
Serge Haroche and David Wineland were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for inventing methods for examining and studying the quantum world, research that could lead to the development of superfast computers. Haroche is a professor at the College de France and Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, and Wineland is a physicist at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado Boulder. Working separately, the researchers developed laboratory methods that allowed them to manage, measure, and control fragile quantum states, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Wineland traps ions and measures them with light, while Haroche controls and measures photons. "Their ground-breaking methods have enabled this field of research to take the very first steps towards building a new type of superfast computer based on quantum physics," the Academy says. The Nobel judges note that quantum computers could radically change people’s lives in the way that classical computers did last century. "The calculations would be incredibly much faster and exact and you would be able to use it for areas like ... measuring the climate of the earth," says prize committee secretary Lars Bergstrom.
Mining the Internet for Speedier Alerts on Drugs
Wall Street Journal (10/08/12) Shirley S. Wang
Researchers at the University of Virginia and West Virginia University have developed computer algorithms that can filter billions of pieces of data from patient comments in online chats, Web sites, and news stories to detect serious adverse drug reactions. The researchers want to alert the medical community about possible negative drug reactions much sooner as well as warn the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about possible new adverse reactions. The researchers hope to continue to improve the algorithms to make the recognition of important signals more accurate, says University of Virginia professor Ahmed Abbasi. The researchers tested the algorithms by analyzing Web data on 20 drugs that are already on the market for which the FDA has issued its strongest black box warnings. The researchers studied tens of millions of pieces of data on each of the drugs from Web sites over the last 10 years and determined at what point they would have been alerted to possible links between drugs and adverse reactions. The researchers found that 80 percent of the time, the formulas detected potential adverse event patterns three months earlier than the FDA issued warnings, says West Virginia University professor Donald Adjeroh.
An Operating System in the Cloud
Tsinghua University researchers have developed TransOS, a cloud computing operating system that stores its code in the cloud, which enables a connection from a bare terminal computer. The terminal has a minimal amount of code that dynamically connects it to the Internet, after which TransOS downloads specific pieces of code that offer users options as if they were running a conventional operating system via a graphical user interface. Applications call on TransOS only as needed so that memory is not used by inactive operating system code as it is by a conventional desktop computer operating system. "The TransOS manages all the networked and virtualized hardware and software resources, including traditional OS, physical and virtualized underlying hardware resources, and enables users to select and run any service on demand," according to the Tsinghua researchers. They note TransOS also could be implemented on other devices, such as refrigerators and washing machines, and factory equipment. The researchers say it is essential that a cloud operating system architecture and relevant interface standards be established to enable TransOS to be developed for a vast range of applications.
The Patent, Used as a Sword
New York Times (10/08/12) Charles Duhigg; Steve Lohr
Federal judges, economists, corporate executives, and others say flaws in the U.S. software patent system are hampering innovation. They also note that software patents are being used as litigation weapons. An assessment by Stanford University found that as much as $20 billion was spent on patent litigation and patent purchases in the last two years in the smartphone industry alone. Public filings reveal that for the first time, spending by Apple and Google on patent lawsuits and large patent purchases exceeded spending on research and development in 2011. Critics say the patent office frequently grants patents that describe obscure algorithms or business methods without patent examiners demanding specific details on calculations occur or how the software operates. This enables some patents to be so broad that patent holders can claim extensive ownership of apparently unrelated products built by others. Companies are frequently sued for violating patents they never knew existed or never thought might apply to their creations. "The standards for granting patents are too loose," argues federal appellate judge Richard A. Posner. Large technology companies generally want to curb the financial damages juries can award for minor patent violations, whereas drug manufacturers want to ensure they can sue for billions of dollars if a single patent is infringed.
The Mouse Faces Extinction as Computer Interaction Evolves
Washington Post (10/07/12) Ariana Eunjung Cha
Students today are part of the first generation growing up with a computer interface that does not rely on a keyboard and mouse. This fall, iPads are cannibalizing the sales of PCs in schools, according to analyst Charles Wolf. In the coming years, even more advanced technology, such as hand-motion detectors and voice-recognition systems, will be integrated into conventional computers. "If you let the plastic chunk that is a mouse drop away, you will be able to transmit information between you and machines in a very different, high-bandwidth way," says former Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher John Underkoffler. He notes scientists are developing new devices that respond to body motions, voice, fingers, eyes, and thoughts. In many elementary schools, students use the iPod Touch and the iPad to learn everything from the alphabet to preparing multimedia presentations. Although desktop computers help activate the language and abstract thinking parts of a child's brain, new interfaces can help open the spatial part, according to Underkoffler. In July, the iPad outsold the Mac two to one for the second consecutive quarter in the education market, according to Apple. "The adoption rate of iPad in education is something I’d never seen from any technology product in history," says Apple CEO Tim Cook.
How to Get Girls Psyched About Computer Science
CNNMoney.com (10/05/12) Beth Kowitt
During this year's Most Powerful Women Summit, Harvey Mudd College president Maria Klawe offered the most promising case study on how to get more young women interested in science, technology, engineering, and math. At Harvey Mudd, women accounted for about 40 percent of graduates with computer science degrees last year, up from 10 percent in 2005. Klawe says the college addressed the issue by attempting to understand why women do not enter the field and then working on altering perceptions about the introductory course. "This whole idea that instead of learning to program to learn to program, learn to program in order to solve fun problems--it frames it totally differently, because we know women are interested in computers for what you can do with them," Klawe says. She discourages parents from getting their daughters into the field before college because "the whole culture is swaying young women to say this is not for me, I won't be good at it." Young women should be encouraged to take one computer class their first year of college, and computer science departments need to make their programs fun and less intimidating, Klawe notes.
App Protects Facebook Users From Hackers
UCR Today (10/08/12) Sean Nealon
University of California, Riverside researchers have developed MyPageKeeper, an application for detecting spam and malware posts on Facebook users' walls, which they say is highly accurate, fast, and efficient. The researchers also have introduced the term "socware" to describe a combination of social malware, encompassing all criminal and parasitic behavior on online social networks. The researchers found that MyPageKeeper flagged 97 percent of socware during a four-month testing phase that involved more than 40 million posts from 12,000 MyPageKeeper users. The researchers also found that it took just 0.0046 seconds to classify a post. "This is really the perfect recipe for socware detection to be viable at scale: High accuracy, fast, and cheap," says Riverside professor Harsha V. Madhyastha. The app works by continuously scanning the walls and news feeds of subscribed users, identifying socware posts and alerting the users. The researchers say the app's primary novelty is that it factors in the social context of the post, which includes the words in the post and the number of likes and comments it received. They also note that users are unlikely to like or comment on socware posts because they add little value.
Power in the Palm of Your Hands
Newcastle University (10/08/12)
Researchers at Newcastle University and Microsoft Research Cambridge (MSR) have developed Digits, a wristwatch-sized sensor that tracks users' hands to enable them to remotely control devices. "The Digits sensor doesn’t rely on any external infrastructure so it is completely mobile," says Newcastle's David Kim. The current prototype includes an infrared (IR) camera, IR laser-line generator, IR diffuse illuminator, and an inertial-measurement unit track. "We wanted users to be able to interact spontaneously with their electronic devices using simple gestures without even having to reach for them," Kim says. "Can you imagine how much easier it would be if you could answer your mobile phone while it’s still in your pocket or buried at the bottom of your bag?" The researchers say their biggest challenge was extrapolating natural-looking hand motions from a sparse sampling of the key points sensed by the camera. "We had to understand our own body parts first before we could formulate their workings mathematically," says Newcastle's Shahram Izadi. The Digits prototype, which features electronics that are self-contained on the user's wrist, optically image all of the user's hand, enabling freehand interactions in a mobile setting.
Worries Over Defense Department Money for 'Hackerspaces'
New York Times (10/05/12) Amy O'Leary
The federal government plans to invest $10 million over the next three years in experimental workshops that encourage high schools to launch courses and clubs based on the "hackerspace" phenomenon. The government wants to encourage the development of people who could one day turn into computer professionals who help stop cyberattackers. However, critics say the government's money also could co-opt these workshops just as they are starting to spread quickly. There currently are about 200 hackerspaces in the United States. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has entered into 74 contracts and completed about 40 projects that were started in hackerspace communities, according to DARPA program manager Peiter Zatko. At the recent Hackers on Planet Earth conference, a panel of experts voiced concerns that DARPA financing would steer more hackers toward military projects. However, the panel agreed that hackerspaces could provide an exciting model for hands-on technical education in schools. "I think we’re looking at science and technology as content, not experiences," says Maker Media founder Dale Dougherty. Hackerspace member Matt Joyce notes that you never know where something you create will end up. He says "a lot of people [are] watching on the sidelines to see what happens."
AI Sports Commentator Knows All the Best Stories
New Scientist (10/04/12) Douglas Heaven
University of Alberta researchers have developed Scores, an artificial intelligence system that can tap into a cache of sporting stories to find relevant anecdotes that a commentator could use. The system works by comparing the features of a live event, such as the teams, key players, the score, and the remaining time, with a database of available stories. The system selects those stories that include the most similar features from the live event and feeds them to the human commentator. Scores uses machine-learning techniques to evaluate the relevance of candidate stories. The most important feature was the teams involved and the second was the difference in number of runs. The researchers tested the system by creating commentary for prerecorded sports broadcasts and presented them to an audience of 16 volunteers, who said they found the commentary relevant and enjoyable.
IETF Starts Work on Next-Generation HTTP Standard
IDG News Service (10/03/12) Joab Jackson
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is working on the next generation of Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), says Mark Nottingham, chairman of the IETF HTTP working group. The IETF standard SPDY protocol will serve as the basis for the updated protocol underlying the Web. HTTP version 2.0 will accommodate the evolving use of the Web as a platform for delivering applications and bandwidth-intensive, real-time multimedia content. The working group will look to reduce latency and streamline the process of how servers transmit content to browsers, but the protocol also must be backward compatible with HTTP 1.1 and remain open to be extended for future uses as well. HTTP 2.0 will primarily use TCP, but other transport mechanisms may be substituted. A proposed standard is scheduled to be submitted to the Internet Engineering Steering Group by 2014. The working group also will continue to refine HTTP 1.1. "Having a real, stable, solid, mature standard would be key to further improvements of HTTP protocol," says NGINX's Andrew Alexeev. "There's definitely the need for a modern Web protocol that is well suited for today's and tomorrow's Internet infrastructure, Web architectures, applications, server, and client software."
NIST Unveils Next Generation of Hash Algorithm
GovInfoSecurity.com (10/02/12) Eric Chabrow
The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced that a European team has won a five-year competition to design a new cryptographic hash algorithm to serve as NIST's next Secure Hash Algorithm, SHA-3. NIST began the competition in 2007 after becoming concerned that their current secure hash algorithm, SHA-2, could be vulnerable. NIST received 63 submissions from teams across the world and announced Keccak, an algorithm developed by STMicroelectronics' Guido Bertoni, Joan Daemen, and Gilles Van Assche, and Michael Peeters of NXP Semiconductors, as the winner. NIST's Tim Polk says Keccak was chosen for its elegance, compactness, and utility. Keccak is radically different from SHA-2, and works well on a variety of platforms, especially small, networked smart devices such as security sensors and remotely controlled home appliances. Polk says NIST remains confident in the resilience and security of SHA-2 and thus plans to adopt Keccak as SHA-3, which will operate as an "essential insurance policy" on SHA-2.
NSF-NCSA Study Probes Relationship Between Industrial Applications and Underlying Science
HPC Wire (10/03/12) Steve Conway
In an interview, U.S. National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) director Merle Giles discusses the findings of a study to determine whether improvements in the science inside applications and other factors could help industrial high-performance computing (HPC) users. "The main goal was to better understand the root causes that limit the realism and performance of today's HPC applications and to solicit ideas for improving the applications' performance and realism for industrial users," Giles says. As part of the study, IDC conducted extensive interviews in person and in writing, and organized a focus group to probe some of the issues more deeply. Of the surveyed organizations, 17 percent were in government, 7 percent were academic, and 76 percent came from industry or from organizations closely allied with industry. Giles says one of the most important findings was that users are fine with today's HPC systems but many need retraining for next-generation systems. In addition, about 66 percent of the organizations approved of having NCSA or the U.S. National Science Foundation heavily involved in the process of advancing their important applications.
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