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Welcome to the April 5, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break
New York Times (04/05/13) John Markoff

The EdX consortium has unveiled automated software that grades student essays and short written answers using artificial intelligence, and it will freely offer the program online to any institution. EdX president Anant Agrawal expects the assessment tool to help students repeatedly take tests and write essays to improve the quality of their answers, enhancing the learning process with instant feedback. The tool requires human graders to first grade 100 essays or essay questions, and then employs various machine-learning methods to train itself to automatically grade any number of essays or answers almost instantly. The software assigns a grade according to the scoring system developed by the teacher, and provides general feedback. "We found that the quality of the grading is similar to the variation you find from instructor to instructor," Agrawal says. Stanford University recently announced that it would collaborate with EdX to create a joint educational system that will incorporate the automated assessment software. Skeptics counter the software is inferior to live educators, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Les Perelman particularly critical of studies lacking "any valid statistical test comparing the software directly to human graders."


The Rise of the Bitcoin: Virtual Gold or Cyber-Bubble?
Washington Post (04/05/13) Anthony Faiola; T.W. Farnam; Eliza Mackintosh

Bitcoin virtual currency is booming as it is used to pay for goods and services directly over the Internet without requiring intermediaries such as banks or credit card companies. Bitcoin transactions carry fees that are lower than those charged by financial institutions, and they rely on cryptography to prevent double spending, counterfeiting, or theft. However, the number of available bitcoins is finite, and is expected to reach the 21-million maximum by 2140; this makes them commodities whose value appreciates as more users drive demand. There is no precise explanation for what is driving the currency's exponential rise, with some crediting a change in the network's programming that reduced the number of bitcoins issued daily. Wall Street analysts tracking bitcoin say there is still no sign the currency is attracting major investors, and critics say those paying high fees for bitcoins are investing in a phantom currency with illusory value. Also worrisome is the growing use of bitcoins to launder money, and the difficulty of keeping tabs on such transactions. “In a way it is like ... Monopoly money being used rather than your respective currency, not knowing who owns the bank and who is the dog, the car, the top hat or thimble," says the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's Rusty Payne. “Bitcoins are virtually untraceable.”


A New Wrinkle in Online Education
MIT News (04/03/13) Jennifer Chu

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is offering i2.002, an online version of its core mechanical engineering course, 2.002, with search functionality that enables students to view videotaped lectures at specific moments when searched-upon concepts are mentioned. The online course includes videotaped lectures, recitations, and a discussion forum. “It’s like Googling your class,” says MIT professor Ken Kamrin. “It’s a clickable, searchable index of videos...something that might be considered as part of the next generation of textbooks.” Kamrin and MIT professor Pedro Reis created the i2.002 videotapes by recording the 2.002 lectures and organizing the videos with a tree of clickable topics and subtopics; this allows students to watch lectures sequentially or to search topics and watch related videos on that subject's “branch.” The experimental course also enables students who might have schedule conflicts with lecture times to still enroll in the course, watching lectures on their own time. Students must still attend regular lab sections and in-class exams. Kamrin and Reis hope that i2.002 tools will eventually be used for edX and other massive open online course platforms.


World’s Most Detailed 3D Computer Model of Heart Chambers
University of Auckland (New Zealand) (04/03/13)

University of Auckland researchers say they have developed the world's most detailed 3D computer models of the heart's upper chambers. The researchers, led by Jichao Zhao, spent two years processing data from 700 thin image slices of the atria to use in their computer model. The model shows a detailed and realistic 3D image of the arrangement of muscle fibers throughout the heart's atrial chambers down to the cellular level. In order to achieve this, the researchers developed a suite of image-processing tools which enabled them to extract structural information from the images and examine the effects of the arrangement of muscle fibers on electrical signals in the atria. "By combining novel multi-site mapping catheters with state-of-the-art imaging, it will be possible to get a snapshot of what’s going on in real time and with much greater anatomical precision than is currently achievable," Zhao says. The researchers also developed the high-resolution computer models of areas directly affected by heart attacks. "Looking at the images of the border zone, you can see where the surviving muscle cells are being pushed apart and the spaces filled up with fibrous material which changes the electrical properties of the heart," says Auckland's Mark Trew.


Expanding the Pipeline: Hispanic Momentum in Computing
Computing Research News (04/13) Vol. 25, No. 4 Ann Q. Gates; Sarah Hug; Heather Thiry

With careers in computing topping the average U.S. growth rate, it is vital to boost the population of Hispanics who complete computing programs and acquire high-status, lucrative positions. A dearth of Hispanic faculty, role models, and mentors underscores Hispanics' underrepresentation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (CAHSI) was organized to reverse this trend through consolidation of the founding Hispanic-serving institutions' strengths, resources, and concerns. CAHSI's primary purpose is to mainstream mentoring and the construction of structured, academic networks for students that ready them for success in coursework from entry level through graduate school and, thereafter, into the STEM workforce. Among the alliance's practices is formation of Affinity Research Groups, the generation and maintenance of dynamic and inclusive research groups in which students learn and apply the knowledge and skills necessary for research and cooperative work. Meanwhile, CAHSI's Mentor-Grad program prepares undergraduates for graduate studies so they can complete a Ph.D. In the year since CAHSI was officially founded, the completion rate of Hispanic undergraduate students rose by 10 percent. CAHSI graduates Hispanic students at almost 10 times the national rate of Hispanic computing baccalaureates.


As Web Search Goes Mobile, Competitors Chip at Google’s Lead
New York Times (04/04/13) Claire Cain Miller

People increasingly want to use their mobile devices to find all types of information, which is fueling a shift in the nature of search. Consequently, Google and others are developing smarter search apps designed to generate more customized and relevant results. “What people want is, ‘You ask a very simple question and you get a very simple answer,’” says University of Washington professor Oren Etzioni. "We want to know the closest sushi place, make a reservation, and be on our way.” Google has changed its search model to display answers rather than just links if a person uses search terms such as “March Madness” or “weather.” In 2012, Google debuted the knowledge graph, which employs semantic search to comprehend and find meanings of and linkages among people, places, and things. “What Google is beginning to do is share some of the knowledge in the world that humans have in their minds, so users can begin to communicate with Google in a way that’s much more natural to their thinking,” says Google's Ben Gomes. He envisions a future in which Google can answer more complex questions, such as “How far is it from here to the Eiffel Tower?”


Physicists Nudge Electrons, Move Toward Crazy-Fast Computers
Live Science (04/03/13) Tanya Lewis

Ames Laboratory researchers have nudged electrons to change their spin in just quadrillionths of a second, the fastest time ever achieved and a breakthrough that could lead to faster computer processing and storage. The research has implications for the development of spintronics technology, which relies on rapidly switching magnetic fields to control both the spin and the electrical charge of electrons to store data. "We may expect faster writing in hard drives and faster reading and writing in [computer memory] with even less power used," says Ames scientist Jigang Wang. The researchers shone super-short pulses of laser light on an unusual magnetic material, bumping the atoms in the material into an excited state and changing their spins. Their big breakthrough was being able to achieve this about a thousand times faster than current technology. Wang says the technology eventually could be used to show very fast high-definition movies.


Bet You're a Liam--Software Puts Names to Faces
New Scientist (04/03/13) Jacob Aron

Cornell University researcher Andrew Gallagher believes it is possible to take an educated guess at someone's name with just one look at their face. Gallagher's team used tagged photos from the Flickr website to build up a database of named faces and then trained a computer to recognize the contributing factors. For example, Alejandras tend to have darker hair and skin than Heathers. The researchers tested the system using faces belonging to people with the top 100 names in the United States. Although the computer was only able to guess the correct name about 4 percent of the time, that mark is four times as good as the success rate achieved by random guesses and is about a third better than human guesswork. Gallagher believes accuracy could be improved, and the software could be used to automatically harvest names from online picture captions to tag people in pictures. Gallagher would like to expand the database to include all known names in the U.S. He plans to present the research at the Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition conference in June.
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The New Hackers: The Brains Behind Tomorrow's Tech
Wired News (04/03/13) Cade Metz

Google recruited computer scientist John Wilkes to develop the Omega software system that runs across thousands of computer servers, ensuring that each is used to capacity to let the company provide a variety of public services. Omega enables Google to distribute tasks evenly across one large cluster rather than running a different server cluster for each service. Omega's predecessor Borg serves the same purpose, but Omega advances the technology by allowing it to tune itself instead of requiring Google engineers to tune the system to their specific needs. A contributor to Hewlett-Packard’s PA-RISC processor and software operating systems, Wilkes is renowned for his work on an enormous storage system with the ability to manage itself. Google is now pioneering systems research, with an expanding Web operation that requires systems of unprecedented magnitude. To improve efficiency, Google needs data centers that operate as a single machine. Wilkes takes a more open approach to his work than is typical for Google. "I’m really interested in having outside researchers get a chance to think about Google’s kind of problems," he says. "I don’t necessarily want them to have the same solutions we have, because we have those already. We want them to have different solutions--in case they’re better.”


Researchers Root Out the Limits of Social Mobilization
Phys.Org (04/02/13) Bob Yirka

A group of international researchers recently studied the 2009 DARPA Network Challenge to determine the effectiveness of social mobilization, in which people join forces via social media to accomplish a common goal. Although social mobilization has been touted as a means of enabling people to overthrow governments or locate missing children, few studies have been conducted on the actual results of using social media in this way. The researchers examined the DARPA Network Challenge in which 10 weather balloons were hidden throughout the United States and a $40,000 reward was offered to the first to locate them. Using a highly coordinated social mobilization effort, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team found all of the balloons in less than nine hours and won the challenge. Social mobilization also was the key to winning the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Embassy in Prague's Tag Challenge last year. Using data from the DARPA Challenge, the researchers developed simulations supplemented with demographic and geographic data and the strategy used by the winning team. The researchers found that successful use of social mobilization requires a central leader with many existing social ties and the ability to quickly spread information.


Opening a Gateway for Girls to Enter the Computer Field
New York Times (04/02/13) Claire Cain Miller

Several programs are emerging that encourage girls to learn technology skills that will enable them to enter computer science fields. Manhattan-based nonprofit Girls Who Code offers an eight-week program that teaches software programming, public speaking, product development, and other skills geared toward technology industry career preparation. Similar groups include Hackbright Academy, Girl Develop It, Black Girls Code, and Girls Teaching Girls to Code. Although women account for over half of the total workforce, they claim less than a quarter of computing and technical jobs, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Women represent an even smaller proportion of executive and founder-level professionals. Advocacy and networking groups have attempted to coach women on forming startups and raising venture capital. Despite this, the number of women entering technology fields has decreased, with women now earning 12 percent of computer science degrees, down from 37 percent in 1984. Groups such as Girls Who Code attempt to intervene at a young age before the gender gap takes hold. Although 74 percent of girls in middle school show interest in engineering, science, and math, by the time they reach college just 0.3 percent choose computer science as a major, notes Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani.


Ford Offering $50K for App That Best Measures Fuel Efficiency
PCMag.com (03/28/13) Stephanie Mlot

Ford Motor Co. sees mobile and Web applications as a way to offer drivers easy access to personal fuel-economy performance data. The automaker has organized a contest to encourage further development of a consumer miles-per-gallon calculator. The Personalized Fuel Efficiency Apps Challenge, announced at the 2013 New York Auto Show, will offer a $50,000 prize to the developer who builds the best app. "With this data, using on-road personalized experiences, customers can share, compare, and learn how to optimize their fuel usage," Ford says. Ford's Jim Farley says cars should become social devices and there is a need to have an open architecture for cars. The challenge could lead to a cohesive in-car presence involving Ford's Sync platform, Bluetooth connectivity, hands-free voice control, and vehicle-compatible apps. The contest will run from April 24 to July 24, and apps must be built with Ford's Open XC architecture. App builders will have the option of either purchasing a hardware kit from Ford or employing the company's emulator data, already available for free on its website. Public voting is scheduled for Aug. 8-22, and a winner will be announced Aug. 28.


Interested in Making Your Own Musical Jams? There's an App for That!
Queen Mary, University of London (03/28/13)

Aspiring disk jockeys and musicians will be able to make music using a smartphone app developed by Queen Mary, University of London researchers. The Melody Triangle app enables users to choose from drum, piano, and bass sounds and create an infinite combination of rhythms and melodies. The triangle refers to the interface to artificial intelligence-based software that selects notes for the user, which can be varied by dragging tokens around the screen. Data collected from users will enable scientists to answer questions about musical tastes and aesthetics. "I'm interested in finding out what it is that makes some music more engaging than others, and one small part of the puzzle has to do with understanding the role of predictability in music," says Queen Mary's Henrik Ekeus. "Do people prefer repetitive musical patterns or do they like to have variety in their music? And if so how much? If it is easy to predict the next note of a melody, does it make the melody boring or satisfying?" The free app works with Android mobile phones.


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