Welcome to the December 29, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Taking the Grunt Work Out of Web Development
MIT News (12/23/14) Larry Hardesty
That Old PlayStation Can Aid Science
The New York Times (12/22/14) Laura Parker
Supercomputers are vital to several fields of study, but for smaller universities and institutions the traditional supercomputer can be too expensive. Gaurav Khanna, a computer scientist and physicist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, found a clever workaround for this problem: networking together dozens of PlayStation 3 video-game consoles to create a small supercomputer. Khanna first networked PlayStation 3s into a supercomputer in 2007 to help him model the collisions of blackholes, networking 16 of the then-new consoles together and installing Linux on them. The ability to install Linux was one of the main reasons Khanna settled on the PlayStation 3: most video-game consoles, including the PlayStation 4, do not have this option. At a cost of $250-$300, the consoles also offer a lot of computing power for a relatively low price. Khanna's lead was followed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in Rome, N.Y., which built its own PlayStation 3-based supercomputer in 2010 using 1,716 of the consoles to conduct radar image processing. The Rome lab has contributed 176 consoles to the Dartmouth supercomputer, which is stored in a refrigerated storage container, and plans to donate 220 this year. The Dartmouth computer has the power of 3,000 laptop or desktop processors and cost $75,000 to build, a 10th of the cost of a comparable supercomputer.
One Day, Robots May Work in Zones Too Dangerous for Humans
The Washington Post (12/22/14) Meghan Rosen
Teams of roboticists from around the world will be competing in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge next year, seeking a $2 million prize for advancements in the field that one day could yield robots capable of carrying out rescue and recovery activities in disaster zones too hazardous for humans. The challenge was in part inspired by the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan: robots capable of withstanding the intense radiation could have dramatically accelerated the response, but the plant's layout and the tsunami-soaked conditions proved too much for the most advanced robots available at the time. The goal of the DARPA challenge is to develop robots with a broad skill set, such as operating levers and valves and navigating stairs and obstacles, which could be of use in similar disasters. The teams competing in the challenge have taken a variety of different approaches. Some teams have created largely humanoid robots, such as the University of California, Los Angeles' THOR-OP and Boston Dynamics' Atlas, while others have created more curious robots, such as SCHAFT, the bird-legged robot that won the first round of the DARPA challenge. The next round will add new challenges into the mix and add a great deal of time pressure, requiring robots to complete a set of tasks in an hour.
Santa (Well, Santa Tracker) Helps Google Test Its Dev Tools
Computerworld (12/24/14) Sharon Gaudin
Google again this year enabled kids of all ages to use its Santa Tracker website and app to follow St. Nick and his elves as they deliver presents around the world. Google offers Santa Tracker as a holiday gift to its users, but the company also uses the software to test other development tools. For example, the Santa Tracker team developed the mobile app with the latest version of Android Studio, a developer environment for the Android platform. Google's Andres Ferrate describes Santa Tracker as "an opportunity for us to use our own development products that we give to third parties and along the way we learn about the development experience." The team also tested the new Watch Face application programming interface, which powers the new watch faces for Android Wear. This year, the Santa Tracker offered a count-down-to-Christmas clock along with a new game every day until Christmas. The most popular feature is the dashboard powered by Google Maps, which enabled users to track Santa on Christmas Eve. "The experience itself is built almost entirely on the developer products we have," Ferrate says. "It's a natural length to extend that and talk about coding as well."
Stanford Computer Scientists Extend Web Browsers to Make the Internet Safer
Stanford University (12/19/14) Chris Cesare
MIT Computer Scientists Demonstrate the Hard Way That Gender Still Matters
Wired News (12/19/14) Elena Glassman; Neha Narula; Jean Yang
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computer science Ph.D. students Elena Glassman, Neha Narula, and Jean Yang unexpectedly found themselves demonstrating some of the challenges women face in computer science when they took to Reddit earlier this month to conduct an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session. The three MIT students wanted to field questions about attending MIT, programming, and their various projects, but also wanted to highlight their experiences as women in the field. They were immediately and repeatedly buffeted by questions about why their gender should matter and harassing comments asking about their bra size and proposing marriage. One Reddit user astutely noted the AMA session had become "a parody of what it's actually like to be a woman working in a [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] field." However, the AMA also generated many useful responses. Several users called out the harassers and discussions about bias in computer science were able to take place. Meanwhile, several women viewing the AMA took the opportunity to tell stories about their own experiences in the field and numerous men stepped forward to offer their support.
Twitter Maps U.K. Regions Happiest About Christmas
University of Manchester (12/23/14)
Researchers at the University of Manchester have applied bioinformatics techniques to Twitter to discover how U.K. residents feel about Christmas. Manchester researchers Marco Smolla and Jamie Soul captured and analyzed 3 million tweets, focusing on the words people used to describe how they were feeling during the holiday season. They scored the tweets as happy or sad and then ranked them by region. "The programming language that we use is helping researchers around the world to make sense of the immense amount of data that has been collected over the past few years," Smolla says. Doncaster was most excited about Christmas with 70.3 percent of tweets positive, followed by Dukinfield (55.7 percent), Sunderland (54.2 percent), Nottingham (52.8 percent), and Leeds (51.2 percent). Oxford had the highest percentage of tweets that did not have the nicest things to say about Christmas with 12.9 percent, followed by Southampton, Newcastle upon Tyne, Birmingham, and Liverpool. "Whilst we had great fun carrying out this exercise, the results help to illustrate the use of bioinformatics techniques for analyzing complex, big data," Soul says.
Big Data May Be Fashion Industry's Next Must-Have Accessory
Penn State News (12/17/14) Matt Swayne
Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers have used data analytics to identify a network of influence among major fashion designers and track how style trends move through the industry. Led by PSU professor Heng Xu, the team analyzed 6,629 runway reviews of 816 designers from Style.com, covering 30 fashion seasons from 2000 to 2014. The team extracted key words and phrases, added them to a dataset, and then created an approach to rank the designers and map influences within the group. To assess the accuracy of the model, the team compared the network against three industry-recognized lists of influential designers; they determined the network closely matched these lists. "There is no one gold standard for the most influential designers, but we believe these are a good place to start a comparison," Xu notes. She believes industry professionals could use the technology to predict fashion trends and identify up-and-coming designers. Xu also sees the fashion industry one day analyzing real-time data from Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram to predict fashion styles. In addition, she says the technology may help consumers by helping them create wardrobes that are both in their budget and in style.
AT&T Builds an Assistant App With Social Skills
Technology Review (12/16/14) Andrew Rosenblum
AT&T researchers have developed a smart, digital address book that serves up contacts based on the user's communication patterns on a daily basis. The virtual assistant, called Contax, is designed to analyze users' call logs and text-messaging patterns to determine their most important relationships. Contax actively curates the top contacts, creating a "social circle" that will be just one tap away whenever the user pulls out their phone to call or text someone. AT&T must avoid the mistake of enabling Contax to make an excessive amount of suggestions at different times of day, says the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab's Chris Schmandt. The current version would be accessible through the Web browser of a mobile device, but the developers say Contax could be turned into a downloadable app. Contax also could be modified to draw on email or social media in the future. The researchers are pitching Contax to other divisions to gauge interest in rolling it out as a product.
Getting Bot Responders Into Shape
Sandia National Laboratories (12/16/14) Stephanie Holinka
Sandia National Laboratories researchers say they are developing technology that will dramatically improve the endurance of legged robots, helping them operate for long periods while performing the types of locomotion most relevant to disaster-response scenarios. "Increased efficiency could allow robots similar to those used for the [DARPA Robotics] competition to operate for much longer periods of time without recharging batteries," says Sandia researcher Steve Buerger. One of Sandia's robots, called Sandia Transmission Efficient Prototype Promoting Research (STEPPR), is a fully functional research platform that enables developers to try different joint-level mechanisms that function in the manner of elbows and knees to quantify how much energy is used. Another robot, called Walking Anthropomorphic Novelly Driven Efficient Robot for Emergency Response, will be a more optimized and better-packaged prototype. The key to the testing is Sandia's novel, energy-efficient actuators, which drive the robots' joints. "We take advantage of dynamic characteristics that are common to a wide variety of legged behaviors and add a set of 'support elements,' including springs and variable transmissions, that keep the motors operating at more efficient speed-torque conditions, reducing losses," Buerger says. He notes early testing has shown STEPPR to operate efficiently and quietly.
The VuePod: Powerful Enough for a Gamer, Made for an Engineer
BYU News (UT) (12/16/14) Todd Hollingshead
Brigham Young University's (BYU) VuePod platform is a 3D immersive visualization environment that is changing the way engineers are viewing environmental engineering challenges. "This technology has the ability to revolutionize my job as an earthquake engineer," says BYU professor Kevin Franke. The VuePod enables users to virtually fly over, wander through, or hover above 3D environments. The images are generated by point data from aircraft outfitted with LIDAR, which scans the landscape and records millions of data points that are then viewed as an image on the VuePod. Point data also can be produced from stitched-together photos captured by low-cost drones. "We're presenting more information for the human eyes to detect changes," says BYU professor Dan Ames. The VuePod also has the potential to assist in infrastructure monitoring, such as tracking how highways deteriorate over time and observing the affect on buildings after severe weather or earthquakes. The VuePod may be the most cost-efficient immersive visualization system in academia, costing slightly more than $30,000 to create. "Ultimately, the goal is to take an expensive tool and make it cheaper for an everyday engineering firm to use," Ames notes.
Spider's Web Weaves Way to Advanced Networks and Displays
Boston College (12/17/14)
The structures of spider webs and leaves could serve as a design model for next-generation light-manipulating networks, according to researchers at Boston College and South China Normal University. In experimental scenarios, networks based on the designs showed superior performance, with the networks delivering a fourfold increase in electro-optical properties. Moreover, the designs offer the advantage of a low cost and simple manufacturing process. A spider web design would offer an efficient way to draw light through an optoelectronic device, while the leaf design would provide an effective electrode for solar cells, light sources, and transparent heaters, among other applications. "This natural structure has been optimized through the evolutionary process for efficient nutrient delivery with maximal strength and light harvesting," says Boston College professor Krzysztof Kempa. "In our application, these properties translate into highly efficient current transport, desirable mechanical properties, and minimal light shading." The designs could improve the efficiency of solar cells and the performance of a new generation of flexible, durable touchscreens and displays. "Our idea...starts with the premise that natural forms offer ready-made solutions for efficient designs, tested over millions of years through natural selection," says Boston College professor Andrzej Herczynski.
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