Welcome to the April 28, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
In Italy, a First, Modest All-Female Hackathon
The Wall Street Journal (04/28/14) Eric Sylvers
Microsoft recently sponsored a three-day hackathon in Italy called Nuvola Rosa, or pink cloud, which was designed to encourage young women to aspire to jobs in technology and science. Nuvola Rosa involved about 700 17- to 24-year-old women from across Italy. Less than 10 percent of female Italian university graduates currently get degrees in technical or scientific fields, according to a McKinsey & Company study, which puts Italy behind Finland, France, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. Italian women entering universities tend to avoid computer programming and the hard sciences because they are perceived as too difficult and require a level of determination they are convinced they do not have, according to La Sapienza professor Tiziana Catarci. About 29 percent of Microsoft's workforce in Italy is female, putting the company about five percent above average for the IT sector in Europe. However, Microsoft Italia CEO Carlo Purassanta wants eventually to have half of his 830 full-time employees be female. The all-day hackathon event, in which 80 percent of the presentations and courses were delivered by women, required female teams to develop apps for mobile devices.
Stanford Scientists Create Circuit Board Modeled on the Human Brain
Stanford Report (CA) (04/28/14) Tom Abate
Stanford University researchers say they have developed microchips based on the human brain that are 9,000 times faster and consume significantly less power than a standard PC. The Neurogrid circuit board is comprised of 16 custom-designed Neurocore chips that can collectively simulate 1 million neurons and billions of synaptic links. The researchers say the iPad-sized circuit board can model orders of magnitude more neurons and synapses than other brain mimics on the power it takes to operate a tablet computer. The next step is to reduce the board's approximately $40,000 price tag and create compiler software to enable engineers and computer scientists with no knowledge of neuroscience to meet challenges, such as humanoid robot control, using Neurogrid. Stanford professor Kwabena Boahen says Neurogrid represents the most cost-effective neuron simulation method, in keeping with his objective to make a system affordable enough for use in wide research applications. He believes the Neurocore's cost could be slashed by a factor of 100 by switching to modern manufacturing processes and making the chips in large volumes, leading to a 1-million-neuron board that costs $400. Possible applications include a controller for advanced prosthetic limbs that require no connection to a power source.
Homeland Security Struggles to Tempt, Retain Cyber Talent
Reuters (04/26/14) Doina Chiacu
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is struggling to hire cybersecurity experts, says Mark Weatherford, the department's former cyber chief, in part because prospective employees do not want to have to wait several months before they are hired. Weatherford says the top talent in the tech industry is unlikely to wait that long to get a job. Another challenge is the private sector generally pays cybersecurity professionals more than the federal government does. However, current DHS cyber chief Phyllis Schneck says the department could compensate for the lower salaries by appealing to the patriotism of prospective candidates and by pointing out cyber professionals can gain valuable experience by working for the federal government. "We could actually use our mission to outdo some of those salaries they're offered," Schneck says. "But we have to have the flexibility and some additional competitiveness to bring them inside." Meanwhile, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson has said he wants to address the problem by getting involved in recruiting himself. Johnson also wants Congress to give him the authority to directly appoint new hires to certain cybersecurity positions, revise job descriptions and requirements for some positions, set salaries, and offer prospective cybersecurity professionals additional incentives to come to work for the department.
Microsoft Wants You to Educate Its Virtual Assistant
Technology Review (04/24/14) Tom Simonite
Microsoft's forthcoming mobile operating system upgrade will include Cortana, a virtual personal assistant that is designed to become more intelligent as people use it. Cortana gains knowledge about users, and researcher Larry Heck believes his effort to use the data streaming through it for continuous improvement will help the tool sustain its relevance. Cortana is programmed with a sassy personality to encourage dialogue with users, and Heck says the likelihood that Cortana will learn what users really want is increased when they feel they can talk back to it. He says Cortana also is more refined than Apple's Siri in handling follow-up questions or commands, for example by being able to respond to queries about how long it will take to reach a specific restaurant after providing a list of suggestions. "The quality of the data [Heck's team gathers] and how they learn to use it is going to determine the success of Cortana," notes SRI International's Norman Winarsky. Heck's team will apply methods from the online search realm to identify and correct Cortana's mistakes, for example by noticing a person hitting the back button. Heck says Cortana's integration with Microsoft's Bing search engine increases the potential for the knowledge the app can build.
Shortage of Female STEM Workers Hurts Tech Industry
CIO (04/25/14) Kenneth Corbin
Intel Foundation executive director Wendy Hawkins, speaking at a recent science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) conference, said the low number of women working in computer science is a business challenge, in addition to being an image problem for technology companies. Hawkins said Silicon Valley companies and high-tech firms have "special and specific needs" in the areas of computer science and computer engineering. "Unlike almost every other field of science or engineering, those two fields in particular have really dismal records in terms of women's participation," she noted. In addition, Hawkins said there is a significant underrepresentation of people of color in the computer science and engineering fields. The recent STEM conference was held amid concerns about a shortage of qualified workers trained in those fields, especially as industries in all sectors of the economy become more technology-centered. In addition to lobbying for stronger education standards at the state and federal level, the speakers at the conference urged businesses to get involved with nonprofits and associations working at the community level.
Computer Program Could Help Solve Arson Cases
University of Alberta (04/24/14) Bev Betkowski
University of Alberta researchers say they have developed software that can cut the need for extra levels of human analysis in arson cases, reducing the waiting time to determine the cause of a deliberately set fire. "By getting the laboratory results back quickly, investigators can use this information to ask the right questions when interviewing people or evaluating other evidence, which will help them resolve the case more quickly by pointing them in the right direction," says Royal Canadian Mounted Police National Forensic Laboratory Services researcher Mark Sandercock. The Alberta study is the first to use a mathematical model to classify debris pulled from suspected arson scenes, going beyond research based solely on simulated debris. The researchers focused the study on gasoline because it is the most commonly used ignitable liquid used in arsons. The researchers used chemical profiles taken from burned carpet, wood, and cloth to develop a computer filter that isolated the signature of gasoline in the data. "It's a system that is quite accurate and goes down a similar investigative path that a human would when looking at the data," says Alberta professor James Harynuk.
Data Mashups Can Help Answer the World's Biggest Questions
The Conversation (04/24/14) Lora Fleming
The Medical and Environmental Data Mashup Infrastructure (MEDMI) project aims to enable research into the links between climate, weather, environment, and health by integrating databases from each of these areas and enabling access through one Web-based portal, writes Lora Fleming, director of the European Center for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter. Fleming says the MEDMI researchers want to create a shared resource for medical, environmental, and public health professional. The collection of health and environment data over the past 20 years includes detailed monitoring of weather and climate variables such as temperature and rainfall and digital health records, among other useful additions. The researchers want to identify places where climate and other environmental factors converge to affect vulnerable populations so decision-makers can mitigate the consequences and study these interventions. However, Fleming says merging data types ranging from a description of a person's mental health to measurements of ocean currents presents some major challenges. She notes statistical techniques and methods such as geographic information systems can provide a good foundation, and the standardization of spatial data services by the Open Geospatial Consortium has begun to create a common international language between databases.
Your T-Shirt's Ringing: Telecommunications in the Spaser Age
Monash University (04/16/14)
Researchers from Monash University say they have modeled the first surface plasmon amplification by stimulated emission of radiation (spaser) to be made completely of carbon, technology that one day could make it possible to print extremely thin mobile phones directly on clothing. The team used graphene and carbon nanotubes for the design, according to Ph.D. student and lead researcher Chanaka Rupasinghe. "Other spasers designed to date are made of gold or silver nanoparticles and semiconductor quantum dots, while our device would be comprised of a graphene resonator and a carbon nanotube gain element," Chanaka says. Carbon would make the spaser more robust and flexible, operational at high temperatures, and eco-friendly. The researchers showed for the first time that graphene and carbon nanotubes can interact and transfer energy to each other through light. The optical interactions are very fast and energy-efficient, and are suitable for applications such as computer chips. "Graphene and carbon nanotubes can be used in applications where you need strong, lightweight, conducting, and thermally stable materials due to their outstanding mechanical, electrical, and optical properties," Chanaka says. "They have been tested as nanoscale antennas, electric conductors, and waveguides."
Career Alert: A Master of Analytics Degree Is the Ticket--If You Can Get Into Class
Computerworld (04/24/14) Patrick Thibodeau
Employers increasingly are looking for people with data analytics degrees and schools are seeing more applications, but acceptance rates for programs are declining. At North Carolina State University (NCSU), for example, the 75 students who will earn a Master of Science in Analytics this year have received a total of 246 job offers from 55 employers. The average starting salary is $96,500 and signing bonuses average $12,000. NCSU received nearly 800 applications for its next class, three times the number just two years ago, when it doubled enrollment to 85. The school will offer admission to 99 or 100 students, for an acceptance rate of just 12.5 percent. "We will turn away quite a large number of applicants this year and a fair number of them are otherwise qualified," says Michael Rappa, the founding director of NCSU's Institute of Advanced Analytics, which became the first in the United States to offer a Master of Analytics program in 2007. Northwestern University also is turning away qualified applicants, and indicated it received 600 applications for 30 openings in its September class, for an acceptance rate of 6 percent.
Study: People Pay More Attention to the Upper Half of Field of Vision
NCSU News (04/22/14) Matt Shipman
People focus more on the upper half of their field of vision, according to a new study from researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and the University of Toronto. The researchers tested people's ability to quickly identify a target amidst visual clutter. Participants fixed their eyes on the center of a computer screen while researchers flashed a target and distracting symbols for 10 to 80 milliseconds. The team then replaced the screen with an unconnected mask image to disrupt their train of thought and asked participants to indicate where the target had been located on the screen. The researchers found people were 7 percent better at finding the target when it was located in the upper half of the screen. "A difference of 7 percent could make a significant difference for technologies that are safety-related or that we interact with on a regular basis," says NCSU professor Jing Feng. He says the research could have an impact on everything from traffic signs to software interface design.
Researcher Proposes Alert Tool for Managing Online Privacy Risks
Help Net Security (04/23/14) Zeljka Zorz
Princeton University professor Arvind Narayanan has proposed the creation of a "privacy alert" system that would help the average Internet user better manage their privacy. Narayanan envisions the system as having two modules, with the first being a privacy vulnerability tracker similar to existing tools used to track security vulnerabilities. This module would track threats to privacy and tag them based on their severity, the products and demographics they affect, and how they can be mitigated. The second module would be a user-facing tool that can track the user's privacy preferences and use them to filter the information gathered by the vulnerability tracker. This would generate alerts for users, enabling them to easily track and respond to the evolving privacy threat landscape. Narayanan recognizes the concept of such a tool is not revolutionary, but he hopes that describing how it would work will encourage others to develop it. He notes the tool also could have several additional features, such as an open application programming interface, crowdsourced information, and the ability to integrate it with users' browsing history and other personal information.
Go 1.3's First Beta Promises a Sleeker, Faster Language
InfoWorld (04/23/14) Serdar Yegulalp
Google's Go language is about to enter its 1.3 revision, with a first beta soon to be made available. Most of the changes in Go 1.3 do not involve introducing new features to the language, but instead address many of the issues and complaints that have come up in its first few years. A few of the new features position Go as a one-stop-shop language for all things Google. The first set of major improvements to Go 1.3 involves the linker and compiler, both significantly reworked to enable programs to compile more quickly. The performance for binaries created by the Go compiler also has been improved, with faster and more efficient garbage collection and a reworked regular-expression handler. In addition, experimental support has been added for four new platforms, including Oracle Solaris, Bell Labs' experimental OS Plan 9, FreeBSD, and Google's Native Client. Go was created to address several problems experienced by both developers and Google, such as concurrency, and it currently ranks about 15th on the list of languages used by GitHub projects, although its use is increasing.
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