Welcome to the April 22, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Big-Data Science Requires SDN, Internet2 Chief Says
IDG News Service (04/17/13) Stephen Lawson
Internet2 CEO David Lambert noted at the recent Open Networking Summit that software-defined networking (SDN) is a critical ingredient for big-data research. SDN is intended to move network control from specialized devices to software operating on standard computing platforms, with lower costs, faster service deployment, and more network innovation among its expected advantages. Internet2 already is employing SDN components on its production infrastructure, and is running a live, production pilot for SDN along with a high-speed backbone so that academic users have abundant bandwidth for new applications. "The services that we will provide on this network are going to be as different from the current Internet as the current Internet is from what we had 25 years ago," Lambert predicts. He stresses that the innovation occurring now in SDN cannot be sustained without openness, and he cautions that networking vendors' focus on maintaining an economic edge led to a system that was too closed. This has resulted in a one-size-fits-all system that does not dovetail with new types of data flows, such as those required for big-data science. Lambert says SDN can liberate developers to create networks with new operational parameters, and it is essential to prevent vendors from locking down the basic rules of SDN too soon.
A U.S. Makeover for STEM Education: What It Means for NSF and the Education Department
Science Insider (04/18/13) Jeffrey Mervis
A proposed restructuring of U.S. federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education programs would significantly raise the status of the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). The proposal would have ED supervise federally funded activities to enhance elementary and secondary school science education, while NSF would oversee undergraduate and graduate STEM education. The Obama administration aims to cut 78 programs and consolidate another 49, but it has proposed 13 new programs and requested 7 percent more funding for STEM education in 2014 compared to 2012 expenditures. ED's Camsie McAdams says the department has proposed an Office of STEM and expects to hire more staff to handle any new programmatic efforts, and it is depending on strong alliances with NSF and mission science agencies. "The reorganization protects the investments across all agencies that serve underrepresented groups, including ED's investments for minority-serving institutions," she notes. NSF's Joan Ferrini-Mundy notes the president's budget request contains no substantial drop in funding for programs in K-12 or informal science, and there is a strong concentration on public engagement through ED and the Smithsonian Institution's present activities.
Security Holes in Smartphone Apps
UC Davis News & Information (04/16/13) Andy Fell
Popular Android apps have security flaws that could expose private information or allow forged fraudulent messages to be posted, according to University of California, Davis researchers. The researchers determined that the victim would first have to download a piece of malicious code, which could be disguised as or hidden in a useful app, onto their phone; the malicious code then would invade the vulnerable programs. The programs were left vulnerable because their developers inadvertently left parts of the code public that should have been locked up, says UC Davis researcher Dennis Xu. "It's a developer error," Xu says. "This code was intended to be private but they left it public." Xu collected about 120,000 free apps from the Android marketplace, and the researchers closely examined a handful of major applications that turned out to have serious security flaws. Xu notes that Apple's iOS platform could have similar problems with iPhone apps. UC Davis professor Zhendong Su says they have notified the app developers of the problems, although they have not yet had a response.
Bioengineers Build Open Source Language for Programming Cells
Wired News (04/19/13) Daniela Hernandez
The International Open Facility Advancing Biotechnology (BIOFAB) is developing a language that will use genetic data to program biological cells. The effort is part of a movement to use genetic data to directly improve the way human bodies behave, through a process known as bioengineering. The BIOFAB researchers have developed a way to control and amplify the signals sent from the genome to the cell. The goal is to develop a system that works across different types of cells, similar to the Java virtual machine. Java's "portability comes from the Java virtual machine, which creates a common operating environment across a diversity of platforms such that the Java code is running in a consistent local environment,” says BIOFAB co-director Drew Endy. "In synthetic biology, the equivalent of a Java virtual machine might be that you could create your own compartment in any type of cell, [so] your engineered DNA wouldn’t run willy-nilly." Carnegie Mellon University's Ziv Bar-Joseph notes that gene expression is similar to the way computing systems talk to each other. He notes that computers have been built to operate like cells and other biologically systems. Endy plans to make the finished BIOFAB language freely available to anyone.
Starting Early to Nurture Tomorrow's Scientists and Engineers
Capital Business (04/22/13) Marjorie Censer
The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is channeling millions of dollars into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs, including an expansion of an initiative to train STEM educators. Last month, the institute allocated a five-year, $22.5 million grant to the UTeach program, which enables undergraduates to obtain a bachelor's degree in a STEM discipline and a teaching certificate in four years. UTeach features a curriculum designed to produce better teachers, with a focus on giving students specialized training in the STEM major of their choice as well as getting them to work with students in the classroom. About 36 U.S. schools have implemented UTeach, and it is required at each school that the program be run by faculty members as well as master teachers. Ten research universities will be allowed to join UTeach through the Hughes Institute's funding, says the institute's David Asai. He notes there are two aspects to the program's appeal for the institute--it trains more undergraduate students in STEM work in the short term, and nurtures better science and math students who may pursue STEM degrees in college and enter STEM careers in the long term.
Kissing Cousins? In Close-Knit Iceland, App Helps Prevent Incest
Associated Press (04/18/13) Jenna Gottlieb; Jill Lawless
Three University of Iceland software engineering students have created an app that makes the Islendingabok, or Book of Icelanders, available to Android phones. The team developed the Islendiga-App, or App of Icelanders, for a contest that called for new creative uses of the Book of Icelanders, an online database of residents and their family trees stretching back 1,200 years. Iceland, which was settled by a group of Vikings in the 9th century, has a population of about 320,000 and most of its residents are distantly related. The app includes a feature that will notify users when people they meet are too closely related. Two Icelanders can simply touch their phones to activate the genealogical evaluation, which will sound an alarm if they have a common grandparent. Launched in early April, the app has been downloaded nearly 4,000 times. The Book of Icelanders database, which was developed in 1997 by deCode Genetics and software entrepreneur Fridrik Skulason, contains census data, church records, family archives, and other data on 95 percent of all Icelanders who have lived in the last 300 years.
Harvard Global Grid Computing Project Will Help Create Printable Solar Cells
Computerworld (04/16/13) Lucas Mearian
In June, Harvard University's Clean Energy Project will release a list of the top 20,000 organic compounds that could be used to make inexpensive, printable photovoltaic cells (PVCs). The list could lead to PVCs that cost about as much as paint to cover a one-meter square wall. "We're in the process of wrapping up our first analysis and releasing all the data very soon," says Harvard professor Alan Aspuru-Guzik. The Clean Energy Project uses the computing resources of IBM's World Community Grid for the computational chemistry to find the best molecules for organic photovoltaics. The project is using the surplus processing power of about 6,000 computers around the world to develop the list of photovoltaics that could be used to create inexpensive solar cells. Over the past few years, computational chemists have identified a few organic compounds with the potential to offer about 10-percent energy conversion levels. "Through our project, we've identified 20,000 of them at that level of performance," Aspuru-Guzik says. Harvard also has built data storage facilities to capture the results of the computations. Each molecular computation produces about 20 megabytes of data, and the global grid computing architecture generates about 750 gigabytes of data a day.
Space Telescopes and Human Genomes: How Researchers Share Petabyte Data Sets
Ars Technica (04/16/13) Sean Gallagher
Computational research is evolving as organizations seek to eliminate barriers that prevent collaborative teams from accessing data. Dealing with these new demands is Johns Hopkins University's Space Telescope Science Institute (STSCI), which ran the Hubble Space Telescope and in 2018 will house the James Webb Space Telescope operations. STSCI also stores the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), which is becoming the archive of record for astronomy imagery and data. Also dealing with big data research quandaries is the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Information Technology, which is updating NIH networks and infrastructure to enable researchers to better use high-performance computing resources, huge genome databases, and other data. STSCI and NIH are both hubs of research collaboration with increasing demands for raw data and ways of making that data more usable. They need to offer computing power on demand to perform large-scale analysis of existing data while also facilitating research by scientists outside the institution. These research networks face challenges from the scale of the data, which at STSCI includes petabytes of space telescope imagery and sensor data and at NIH includes genomic data. STSCI and NIH are working to provide access to high-performance computing resources as well as new collaborative tools to enable joint research.
Wireless 'Smart Skin' Sensors Could Provide Remote Monitoring of Infrastructure
Georgia Tech News (04/16/13) John Toon
Georgia Tech researchers are developing wireless technology for closely monitoring structures for strain, stress, and early crack formation. The approach uses low-cost, low-power wireless sensors that can be implemented on flexible polymer substrates, and can identify structural problems at a very early stage. The sensors can be inkjet-printed on various substrates, using methods that optimize them for operating with radio frequencies. "Placing a 'smart skin' of sensors on structural members, especially on certain high-stress hot spots that have been pinpointed by structural analysis, could provide early notification of potential trouble," says Georgia Tech professor Yang Wang. The researchers are focusing on passive wireless sensor designs, which means they need no power source, responding instead to radio-frequency signals sent from a central reader or hub. The approach utilizes a small antenna mounted on a substrate and tuned to a specific radio frequency, which enables the antenna to function as a stress sensor. "A key benefit of this technology is that it's completely wireless," Wang says. "It doesn't require a battery, and you don't have to climb around on bridges running long connecting cables."
Future Challenges of Large-Scale Computing
HPC Wire (04/15/13)
NVIDIA chief scientist Bill Dally says in an interview that similar processor requirements in high-performance computing, Web servers, and big data will lead to a convergence on heterogeneous multicore processors where each socket will feature a small number of cores optimized for latency and many more cores optimized for throughput. Dally predicts that three-dimensional stacked chip technology will be essential to the extension of high-bandwidth on-package memory capacity. With budget austerity likely to cut U.S. government investments in exascale computing, Dally projects that industry will continue to move ahead in this field on its own, although at a much slower pace. He also is hopeful that the challenge of achieving sustained exaflops on a real application in 20 MW will be met, thanks to numerous emerging circuit, architecture, and software technologies that could potentially enhance the energy efficiency of one or more parts of the system. Dally perceives energy efficiency and programmability as the two biggest challenges to reaching exascale. He notes that research projects are underway to devise more productive programming systems and the tools that will enable automated mapping and tuning.
Ahead of the Curve: But Bendable Screens Still Seek Breakthrough
Reuters (04/14/13) Jeremy Wagstaff
Screen technology is still dominated by liquid crystal displays (LCDs), which require backlight and sit between two sheets of glass, making the screen a major contributor to the weight of a device. "Most of the weight in a tablet is the glass structure in the display and the support structure around it to prevent it from cracking," says engineer Kevin Morishige. However, LCDs are being taken over by lighter organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) that do not need backlighting, offer a wider viewing angle, and better color contrast. Still, although glass is likely to continue to be a major factor in the display industry, future screens that users can bend, fold, and roll likely will be made out of plastic. OLED and plastic screens need barrier films to prevent their various layers from leaking oxygen and moisture. "There are barrier films in all sorts of products, for example food packaging, but the challenge is that OLED is one of the most sensitive materials we follow, and so creates huge challenges," says Lux Research analyst Jonathan Melnick. Another issue with bendable displays is that all the materials need to be bendable too, including the transparent conductors that drive current through the display.
Linked Smartphones Catch the Action From All Angles
New Scientist (04/12/13) Hal Hodson
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Eyal Toledano is developing a software system that wirelessly links smartphones together. Toledano says CoSync connects smartphones via their Bluetooth or Wi-Fi antennas, and enables multiple users to share their phones' features with other devices around them. In a test of the prototype system, six smartphones were linked, and the synchronized camera outperformed single phones in several areas. In tests, the group of phones outperformed single phones by evenly illuminating subjects and avoiding washed out, overexposed images. Flashes going off from different angles and set to go off at different times also could make for more dramatic lighting effects, or be used to avoid red eye, Toledano notes. In addition to delivering a virtual front-row experience at entertainment events, the system could have an educational application. "You could have students using their own cameras to collect data--like photos of flowers at a learning center--and sharing them in real time with their peers back in the classroom," says Penn State University's Khanjan Mehta. He also says the system could be used to quickly set up networks in refugee camps, war zones, and disaster situations to aid first responders.
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