Welcome to the December 19, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Software Companies Beg for Qualified Job Candidates
Investor's Business Daily (12/17/12) Peter Barlas
The biggest problem the U.S. software industry faces is finding enough qualified software engineers, according to several major software firms. "I'd say that has been the industry's biggest problem in the past year," says GravityPeople's Jeff Winter. "You have a harder time finding and hiring people for open positions." Winter says the problem is not likely to get better any time soon. The number of college graduates with computer science and information science degrees has slowed the past 10 years, even as venture funds continue to support software startups with billions of dollars in financing. The relative lack of computer science graduates is a top concern, agrees ServiceNow CEO Frank Slootman. "The world is made up of software these days, and these jobs are going to be in high demand for a long time," Slootman says. Even for fast-growing companies, hiring has been slower than expected. For example, ServiceNow has nearly quadrupled its staff in the past 18 months, but it still has 150 unfilled jobs, mostly for software engineers. "It's about as bad as we've seen it since the late 1990s," Slootman says. "Companies fight each other tooth and nail for able bodies and minds."
Tor: An Anonymous, and Controversial, Way to Web-Surf
Wall Street Journal (12/17/12) Geoffrey A. Fowler
The Tor Project, which was created 10 years ago to hide the online activity of dissidents in countries that censor the Internet, has recently seen its popularity grow in the U.S. and Europe because of concerns over Internet privacy. "Ten years ago, no one had this concept of privacy," says Tor executive director Andrew Lewman. "But with the [former General David] Petraeus scandal and cell phones recording your location, now this doesn't seem so far-fetched anymore." Tor gets about 80 percent of its $2 million annual budget from branches of the U.S. government, but to grow further Tor needs more volunteers to sign up for its extended network. Tor currently has about 3,200 nodes, which can handle about two million daily users. However, Lewman says that to sustain millions more users and keep traffic from slowing down the system needs 10,000 nodes. Tor is currently developing hardware that volunteers could buy and plug into their home Internet connections to automatically become nodes. Services such as Tor "provide lifesaving privacy and security for people who otherwise could face extreme reprisal from their governments," says Andre Mendes with the U.S.'s International Broadcasting Bureau, which has given $2.5 million to Tor since 2006.
Internet Outages in the U.S. Doubled During Hurricane Sandy, USC Study Finds
USC News (12/18/12) Robert Perkins
University of Southern California (USC) researchers who track Internet outages worldwide witnessed a spike due to Hurricane Sandy, with almost twice as many Internet outages in the U.S. as usual. Just before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, about 0.2 percent of the Internet was down in the United States, which was lower than the 0.3 percent average. However, after the storm made landfall that number jumped to 0.43 percent and took four days to return to normal, according to the USC report. "This significant increase in outages shows the large impact Sandy had on our national infrastructure," says USC professor John Heidemann. To detect outages the researchers "ping" networks and wait for responses, which tells them if the networks are working properly. Heidemann says this method has been shown to provide a statistically reasonable picture of when parts of the Internet are active or down. The researchers noted a spike in outages in New Jersey and New York after Sandy struck. "We are working to improve the coverage of our techniques to provide a nearly real-time view of outages across the entire Internet," Heidemann says.
Technology’s Gender Barrier
Financial Times (12/17/12) Ian Sanders
Women account for just six percent of the chief executives of the top 100 U.S. technology companies and just 22 percent of the IT workforce overall, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. However, several initiatives have been launched to help women to succeed in the industry. For example, Women Innovate Mobile is an "accelerator" that provides guidance, feedback, and connections for female-founded mobile technology companies. "The key is the mentoring and the access to networks: that’s what changes everything--connections to people who can change your life and change your startup," says Women Innovate Mobile managing director Kelly Hoey. But mentoring existing female technology professionals is not enough. In the U.S., just 18 percent of undergraduate computing degrees in 2009 were awarded to women, down from 37 percent in 1985. Young women could be attracted to computer science by thinking about what technology enables instead of the technical skills alone, says Moonfruit CEO Wendy Tan White. Technovision, part of a nonprofit organization that encourages technology learning called Iridescent, is working to show women that technology can change lives by teaching high-school girls how to create mobile apps and launch and startups.
IBM: In the Next 5 Years Computers Will Learn, Mimic the Human Senses
Network World (12/17/12) Michael Cooney
A new generation of machines that learn, adapt, sense, and experience the world as humans do through the five basic human senses is one of the technologies highlighted in IBM researchers' annual report on the five biggest technologies for the next five years. The report also predicts that in five years industries such as retail will be transformed by the ability to "touch" a product through a mobile device. IBM researchers also think computers will be able to examine images and help people understand the 500 billion new photos that are taken every year. By 2017, a distributed system of clever sensors will detect elements of sound such as sound pressure, vibrations, and sound waves at different frequencies, the report predicts. The system also will be able listen to its surroundings and measure movements, or the stress in a material, to warn of danger. IBM also predicts that one day "baby talk" will be understood as a language, telling parents or doctors what infants are trying to communicate. In addition, IBM researchers are developing a computing system that experiences flavor, which will be used in collaboration with chefs to create new recipes.
MIT News (12/17/12) Larry Hardesty
Graphs have a myriad of uses in computer science, such as to depict a network diagram, and they have played a key role in many algorithms. For example, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have found that certain properties of physical systems could make them useful in quantum computing. The researchers developed a proof that relies on graphs whose nodes represent the quantum states of physical systems; edges connected states that could be reached from each other with no change in energy. The researchers found that the graph was highly connected and it had no bottlenecks that transitions between states had to work through. MIT researchers also used graphs to develop an algorithm that automatically splits a computer program up so that it can run on multiple servers. The algorithm minimizes the data that has to pass between servers, improving efficiency by identifying edges with low weights. In addition, MIT researchers used graphs to develop tree algorithms, a chess-playing algorithm, and weighted graphs that depict the strength of correlations between data points in a database.
Computers Write the Books, to INSEAD Prof's Credit
PhysOrg.com (12/17/12) Nancy Owano
INSEAD professor Philip M. Parker has patented a system that algorithmically compiles data into book form. Parker designed the algorithms to mimic the thought process of an expert while writing on a topic. The system makes use of databases of information, an interface to customize a query about a topic, and templates for information to be packaged. "Meta material, marketing material, and control material are automatically authored and if desired, distributed to a recipient," says the abstract for the U.S. patent issued to Parker. "Further, the title may be authored on demand, such that it may be in any desired language and with the latest version and content." Amazon lists more than 100,000 books attributed to Parker and more than 700,000 works attributed to his company, ICON Group International, and the subjects range from rare diseases to crossword puzzles and learning foreign languages. The system can compile an entire book in about 20 minutes to a few hours, depending on the subject. Parker believes the automated software concept could be used in other media formats.
HTML5 Now 'Feature-Complete,' W3C Says
InfoWorld (12/17/12) Ted Samson
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has published the complete definition for HTML5 as well as the Canvas 2D specification. W3C notes the announcement means that HTML5 and Canvas 2D are now feature-complete, and that businesses and developers have a stable target for implementation and planning. "Businesses know what they can rely on for HTML5 in the coming years and what their customers will demand," says W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe. "Likewise, developers will know what skills to cultivate to reach smartphones, cars, televisions, ebooks, digital signs, and devices not yet known." W3C says it is now devoting the standardization process to interoperability and testing to "ensure that the specifications may be implemented compatibly across browsers, authoring tools, email clients, servers, content management systems, and other Web tools." The process includes analyzing current HTML5 implementations, establishing priorities for test development, and working with the community to develop the tests. The implementation phase is likely to last into mid-2014, and then the W3C plans to publish the final HTML5 Recommendation.
Intel Offers an Image of the Workplace of the Future
eWeek (12/16/12) Michelle Maisto
Intel researchers recently offered predictions on how workers and workplaces will change over the next 10 to 20 years. "Most people work 9-to-5 jobs, are self employed or employed by one company but not both, and most have colleagues who are human. That's going to change," says Intel's Steve Brown, who along with colleague Tim Hansen released a whitepaper that covered five major points of interest. The first is that flexibility will become the key requirement of workers in the future, and the second is that employees will work in dynamic teams, which supports the idea of open innovation. Brown says the third finding is that offices will become more like temporary locations where an employee could work for a day and move on, or stay for six months. "Office-as-a-service will be a strategic tool to land employees in the right place at the right time," Hansen says. The researchers also predict the development of electronic teammates that can recommend the best approaches to problems and leave people to focus on their unique value. Finally, they predict that intelligent data agents will make up the second wave of consumerization, and will help with calendaring, shopping, travel, and assisting with finances.
UTA Unveils Humanlike Robots at New Lab
Fort Worth Star-Telegram (12/17/12) Diane Smith
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin's (UTA's) new Assistive Robotics Lab are developing a computer model of a robot that can walk like a human. Their research is part of a project to create a human-like machine that can enter extremely dangerous situations to save lives. UTA Research Institute executive director Rick Lynch says the lab's goal is to develop advanced technologies for the betterment of humanity and to find affordable solutions to the world's complex problems. UTA also unveiled two robots that will be added to the lab and help its researchers advance robotics for healthcare and first-responder situations. One of the robots is a nursing assistant that can lift about 400 pounds and is designed to help explore how technology can be used in hospital settings. The other robot is Dragon Runner 20, which is designed to disarm bombs in urban combat. The robots will become part of UTA's robot fleet, which also includes Zeno, which is aiding autism research, and PR-2, which is being developed to help handicapped people with day-to-day chores.
Research to Link Mobile Phones and Health
Murdoch University (12/18/12) Rob Payne
Murdoch University researchers are working with the University of Leuven's DistriNet Research Group to develop wireless sensor network technologies that monitor people's health. "A lot has been done on using sensors to monitor health, but my work is the first that uses mobile phones collaboratively to detect and alert people to physical conditions like heart attacks," says Murdoch researcher James Meneghello. “Basically, if a person wearing a sensor has a problem with their heart, I want their phone to detect the anomaly and reach out to phones around it, using them to process the information, then pulling it back to warn the person that they’re about to have a heart attack." The researchers say their technology can theoretically tell if diabetic neuropathy is occurring by monitoring variations in heart rate. Meneghello says the technology, if successful, could not only alleviate physical pain, but also spare a person from traveling very far to regularly see a physician.
Touchpad Steering Wheel Keeps Eyes on the Road
New Scientist (12/14/12) Paul Marks
Intel researchers have developed a touch-sensitive steering wheel that enables drivers to call up information that is displayed on the windshield. "We're looking at very simple touch interactions that don't require a visual focus," says Intel's Victoria Fang. The researchers used a three-dimensional printer to create a secure housing for a sheet of touch-sensitive material that they embedded in one of the spokes of a steering wheel. During testing, the researchers found that users are most comfortable operating the touchpad using the thumb of their right hand. Quick taps on the pad accept actions recommended by the display, such as "dim headlights" or "view accident location on satnav," while a swipe toward the left deletes a suggestion and swiping up or down scrolls through a menu of actions. The researchers also are exploring subtle audio prompts when new items appear on the display. University College London researcher Peter Bentley says the touchpad could be beneficial for simple activities such as choosing music or changing volume while driving, and perhaps setting the cruise control.
UCLA Engineers Develop New Energy-Efficient Computer Memory Using Magnetic Materials
UCLA Newsroom (12/14/12) Matthew Chin
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers say they have significantly improved magnetoresistive random access memory (MRAM) by using electric voltage instead of a flowing electric current. They say the improved memory system, known as magnetoelectric random access memory (MeRAM), has the potential to be used in future memory chips for almost all electronic applications. MeRAM combines extremely low energy with very high density, high-speed reading and writing times, and nonvolatility in a way that is much faster than MRAM. MeRAM also replaces spin-transfer torque's electric current with voltage to write data into the memory, which eliminates the need to move large numbers of electrons through wires and instead uses voltage to switch the magnetic bits and write information into the memory. The technique has resulted in computer memory that generates less heat, which the researchers say makes it 10 to 1,000 times more energy-efficient. "This work presents new insights into questions such as how to control the switching direction using voltage pulses, how to ensure that devices will work without needing external magnetic fields, and how to integrate them into high-density memory arrays," says UCLA's researcher Pedram Khalili.
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