Welcome to the February 17, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
Please note: In observance of the Presidents' Day holiday, TechNews will not be published on Monday, Feb. 20. Publication will resume Wednesday, Feb. 22.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Colleges Looking Beyond the Lecture
Washington Post (02/15/12) Daniel de Vise
Science, technology, engineering, and math departments at many universities are redesigning the lecture as a style of teaching out of concern that it is driving students away. Initiatives at American, Catholic, and George Washington universities and across the University System of Maryland are dividing 200-student lectures into 50-student studios and 20-student seminars. Faculty also are learning to make courses more active by asking more questions, starting ask-your-neighbor discussions, and conducting instant surveys. "We need to think about what happens when students have a bad experience with the course work," says University of Maryland of Baltimore County president Freeman Hrabowski. The lecture backlash signals an evolving vision of college as a participatory exercise as research studies have shown that students in traditional lecture courses learn comparatively little. The anti-lecture movement is fueled by the proliferation of online lectures, which threaten the monopoly on learning by self-sufficient campuses. Other scholars are looking to improve, rather than replace, the lecture model. For example, Johns Hopkins chemistry professor Jane Greco records her lectures and posts them online as homework, and uses her time in the lecture hall as an interactive discussion of the lab experiment students completed the previous session.
Share of Workers in Scientific Fields Shrinks
Wall Street Journal (02/17/12) Conor Dougherty; Rob Barry
The number of U.S. workers in science and engineering professions fell in the past decade, ending a steady upward trend in the proportion of workers in fields associated with technology. Workers in technical fields accounted for 4.9 percent of the labor force in 2010, down from 5.3 percent in 2000. Before 2000, the share of technical workers had increased in every 10-year period since 1950, according to a Population Reference Bureau (PRB) analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. PRB's study could encourage politicians and analysts to call for an expanded share of workers who have advanced skills, and find ways to encourage investment in the industries that will employ them. The study found that although there have been huge gains in jobs such as software design and applied mathematics, the number of technical workers in older-line industries have declined. The study also found that the number of scientists and engineers aged 55 or older increased 32 percent between 2005 and 2010, while those under 35 fell one percent. Meanwhile, the number of foreign-born workers is growing. In 2010, about one in five workers in the technical labor force was foreign born, compared with one in six in 2000, according to PRB.
Mobile Apps Take Data Without Permission
New York Times (02/15/12) Nicole Perlroth; Nick Bilton
Many smartphone applications for Apple and Android devices routinely gather personal address book information, often without notifying the user, and store that information on the app developer's computers. The U.S. Congress recently sent Apple a letter asking how approved apps were allowed to take that information without users' permission, especially when Apple's rules on apps expressly prohibit that practice. "We’re working to make this even better for our customers, and as we have done with location services, any app wishing to access contact data will require explicit user approval in a future software release," say Apple's Tom Neumayr. Although Google forces Android developers to ask users for permission to access any personal data up front, they often are not told how the information will be used or how the company plans to store it. "It’s time for app developers to take responsibility for ensuring that users know what they’re doing, rather than leaving it to the platforms to play a game of Whac-A-Mole," says Future of Privacy Forum director Jules Polonetsky. Many developers are changing their apps before Congress steps in, making updates and warning users about how the information is collected.
The President's FY 2013 Budget
CCC Blog (02/13/12) Erwin Gianchandani
President Barack Obama's budget proposal for fiscal 2013 calls for an 8.6 percent funding boost to the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) over fiscal 2012 levels, for a total of $709.7 million. CISE's mission is to advance computing frontiers and identify programs that have been raised to a foundation-wide level. Investments in this area include a $91 million budget request for the Cyber-Enabled Materials, Manufacturing, and Smart Systems program, whose goals include setting up a scientific platform for engineered systems interdependent with the physical world and social systems, synthesizing multi-disciplinary knowledge to model and simulate systems, and devising a technology framework for smart systems. The request also asks for $16 million to fund the Cyberinfrastructure Framework for 21st Century Science and Engineering. CISE supports investments to advance big data science and engineering research via core scientific and technological means of managing, analyzing, visualizing, and extracting useful information from large, diverse, distributed, and heterogeneous data sets to expedite the progress of scientific discovery and innovation, support new fields of inquiry, spur development of new data analytic tools and algorithms, enable scalable, accessible, and sustainable data infrastructure, and promote economic expansion and better quality of life.
Activist-Backed Collaboration Platform Set for March Release
IDG News Service (02/15/12) John Ribeiro
A functional prototype of the Global Square, a social network collaboration platform for activists, will be available by March. The Global Square will offer an interactive map that lists all ongoing assemblies worldwide, search options for finding squares, events, and working groups, an aggregated news feed, a public and private messaging system, and a forum for public debate and voting. A year ago, some activists said there was a need for an online global square, and in November WikiLeaks said the global collaboration platform would be the online platform for its movement. Volunteer programmers were called on to develop features for the open source and multilingual platform. The Global Square will use Tribler peer-to-peer technology, which its backers say will make it virtually impossible to break or censor the network. "The content files are not centralized in any physical server, so the network belongs to its users," says the Global Square. The platform initially will be available as a standalone PC application, and a smartphone app will be introduced later in the year.
Computer Scientists Collect Computing Tools for Next-Generation Machines
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (02/14/12) Eric Gedenk
Oak Ridge National Laboratory's new Titan supercomputer, which is based on a hybrid architecture of central and graphics processing units and is expected to be operational next year, will replace the lab's Jaguar system, which uses an entirely central processing unit-based platform. "Anything that tool developers can do to reduce the burden of porting codes to new architectures, while ensuring performance and correctness, allows us to spend more time obtaining scientific results from simulations," says Oak Ridge researcher Bronson Messer. The Oak Ridge team is working to ensure that researchers will not have to spend huge amounts of time learning how to use their codes during the shift to hybrid computing architectures. Many of the tools that are used on Jaguar will be used on Titan, but they will have to be scaled up for the larger machine. For example, the researchers have expanded the capabilities of debugging software to meet the needs of large leadership-class systems. Compilers also will play an important role in integrating scientific applications into hybrid architectures, and the Oak Ridge researchers have been collaborating with CAPS Enterprise for two years to develop the Hybrid Multi-Core Parallel Processor compiler.
Inside Higher Ed (02/17/12) Kaustuv Basu
Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Simon Fraser University found that 50 percent of all U.S. tenure-track faculty members in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines leave their research universities within 11 years of being hired. The study also found that the field of mathematics had the lowest median retention rate, with 7.33 years for men and 4.45 years for women. Mechanical engineering had the highest retention rate for men, at 16.19 years, while biology had the highest retention rate for women, at 16.36 years. Rensselaer's Deborah Kaminski says the study was unusual because it was longitudinal, instead of comparing the number of faculty members coming into an institution in a particular year against those leaving. Although women were retained at the same rate, there are not enough women Ph.D.s who are going into academics, and science in particular, Kaminski adds. "Our work confirms the importance of the late pre-tenure period as a period of critical risk in the retention of faculty in STEM," the report says. Women currently represent about 27 percent of STEM faculty members at the 14 universities in the study.
Genetics Inspire Cybersecurity Research
Wake Forest University (02/14/12) Katie Neal
Wake Forest University researchers are developing automated computer configurations that adjust to constantly changing threats by using genetically inspired algorithms to proactively discover more secure configurations. Early simulations demonstrate that the increased diversity of each device's configuration improves overall network safety. "If successful, automating the ability to ward off attacks could play a crucial role in protecting highly sensitive data within large organizations," says Wake Forest graduate student Michael Crouse. The researchers aim to improve the defense systems of similar computing infrastructures with minimal human interaction. "If we can automatically change the landscape by adding the technological equivalent of security cameras or additional lighting, the resulting uncertainty will lower the risk of attack," says Wake Forest professor Errin Fulp. Their research is part of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's (PNNL's) Bio-Inspired Approaches to Moving Target Defense Strategies project. In a separate cybersecurity project, Wake Forest and PNNL researchers are training an army of digital ants to seek out computing viruses in the U.S.'s power grid. "Designs found in nature can serve as a source of inspiration, providing robust and efficient methods that are better suited to address these complex problems," Fulp says.
Email Language Tips Off Work Hierarchy
Georgia Tech News (02/14/12) Michael Terrazas
Georgia Tech researchers have shown that certain words and phrases are reliable indicators of whether workplace emails are sent to someone higher or lower in the corporate hierarchy. Georgia Tech professor Eric Gilbert studied the Enron corpus, a set of 500,000 emails among some 150 former Enron employees, and identified lists of words that reliably predicted if emails were sent up or down the hierarchy. "Across a wide variety of messages and relationships, these phrases consistently stand out as signaling a power relationship between two people," Gilbert says. He says the research could be applied to designing smarter email software. To minimize the chance that the statistical findings captured phenomena unique to Enron, the researchers analyzed the emails and removed phrases that appeared specific to the company. "We chose a date several months before a formal investigation of Enron began and before its executives started selling off their own Enron stock," Gilbert says. Words and phrases such as "the ability to," "I took," "are available," "kitchen," and "thought you would" were found to indicate upward traveling emails. Words and phrases such as "have you been," "you gave," "we are in," and "title" were found to indicate downward traveling emails.
Wireless Voting Still Has a Long Way to Go
Computerworld (02/14/12) Matt Hamblen
A Webcast featuring a panel of mobile campaign experts at the Brookings Institution recently addressed the prospects for mobile voting. Facebook's Katie Harbath says electronic voting over a wireless device such as a smartphone is "a long ways away" since paper ballots still dominate much of the voting in the United States. Revolution Messaging CEO Scott Goodstein agrees, noting the problems with electronic voting in previous elections. University of California, San Diego professor Clark Gibson says secrecy of the vote is important to U.S. citizens. He says "quadruple firewalls and a way to back-check a vote" might be needed to provide people with some real insurance against fraudulent votes. Brookings' Darrell West says surveys show that up to 70 percent of respondents oppose electronic voting due to concerns about fraud and cheating. As a result, he says it is unlikely that people will embrace wireless voting any time soon.
Best Time for a Coffee Break? There's an App for That
Penn State Live (02/14/12) Matthew Swayne; Andrea Elyse Messer
Pennsylvania State University researchers have developed Caffeine Zone, an application that can help people determine when caffeine may give them a mental boost and when it could hurt their sleep patterns. The app takes information on caffeine use and combines it with information on the effects of caffeine to produce a graph of how the caffeine will affect the users over time. If a person rapidly drinks a cup of coffee, they will experience a spike in mental alertness, but enough caffeine can linger in the bloodstream to cause sleep problems hours later, says Penn State professor Frank Ritter. The researchers found that caffeine drinkers with between 200 and 400 milligrams of caffeine in their bloodstream are in an optimal mental alertness zone. However, drinkers that remain above 100 milligrams of caffeine in their bloodstream may experience sleep problems. To plot caffeine's effect with the app, users type in information about how much caffeine they drank, or plan to drink, and when they plan to have a caffeinated beverage, as well as how fast they drink the beverage.
STEM Studies: Robotics Leading a Surge in Interest in Science and Math
Times-Georgian (GA) (02/15/12) Kelly Quimby
School officials in Carrollton, Georgia plan to expand science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) studies from the youngest elementary school students to seniors in high school through after-school robotics clubs. In 2010 the school system received a federal grant, as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, to help establish the robotics program. The funds provided more than $690,000 to Carrollton High School and Carrollton Junior High School to strengthen STEM studies. A President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology report has stressed the need for renewed attention to STEM studies. “International comparisons of our students’ performance in science and mathematics place the United States in the middle of the pack or lower,” the report says. “This inadequate preparation in STEM subjects has major consequences in higher education. Since the program started, 188 Carrollton High School students have participated in the STEM classes. "We have 134 students involved in STEM," says Carrollton Middle School principal Jason Mundorf. "With the robotics club, their one day of week has become every day a week and we have parents that come every day. It’s really captured some great momentum.”
NFC Aid for the Visually and Hearing Impaired
VTT Technical Research Center (02/09/12)
Researchers at the VTT Technical Research Center of Finland are collaborating with TopTunniste, Tecnalia, and Demokritos on near-field communication (NFC)-based applications for the visually and hearing impaired. As part of the HearMeFeelMe project, the partners have used NFC technology to develop a speech-based item identification system and talking packaging for medicine and food. They have introduced five applications that enable people to touch medical information codes on packaging with a mobile phone to download product and dosage information, and hear it over the phone or a computer. For example, the Touch 'n' Tag mobile phone app identifies items using voice memos, with the user touching the NFC label on packaging and dictating information. Users can playback the memo by touching the label again with the phone. Another app enables pharmacy staff to store dosage instruction and other information on a NFC chip, and users can listen to the information at home. An almanac app enables an elderly person's social network of family members and nurses to offer reminders of scheduled doses of medicine or meetings. Users receive a message on their phone and then touch it to a pill dispenser to notify a family member or nurse of having taken the medicine.
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