Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the February 22, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Want a Job? Get a Computer Science Degree
Network World (02/22/10) Marsan, Carolyn Duffy

Leading universities are reporting that enrollment in computer science and engineering is up significantly this year as students discover computer-related degrees offer better job prospects and earnings potential. "The government has made it clear that computer science is a growth field, and I think that message is getting back to students and their parents," says Bruce Porter, chair of the Department of Computer Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. Corporate recruitment of top computer science graduates has stayed strong despite the economic downturn. Last spring Georgia Tech's College of Computing had the highest job placement rate of any major on campus, as well as the highest starting salary. "The financial sector--credit card companies, insurance companies--are very much interested in computer science students, as are defense companies and software development and networking companies," says Georgia Tech's Cedric Stallworth. Last year, computer science graduates from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received an average of 2.3 job offers and had an average starting salary of more than $72,000. The number of students enrolling as computer science majors is up 40 percent from last year at Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University reports that computer science applicants are up 14 percent from last year and 76 percent from 2005.

Truly Random Numbers
AlphaGalileo (02/22/10)

German researchers have developed a random number generator that uses a computer memory element, a flip-flop, to create an extra layer of randomness. The flip-flop switches randomly between two states of either one or zero. Just before the switch, the flip-flop is in a "metastable state" where its behavior cannot be predicted. After the metastable state, the contents of the memory are completely random. A larger array produces a more random number. The University of Hagen's Bernhard Fechner and BTC AG's Andre Osterloh's experiments with arrays of flip-flop units found that the extra layer produces a number that is 20 times more random than conventional methods. The researchers say their random number generator can protect systems from third-party snooping, making private and sensitive transactions on the Internet more secure.

Phone Game Needs No Server
Technology Review (02/19/10) Graham-Rowe, Duncan

Multiplayer games on mobile devices, such as phones, typically depend on remote servers for communication between devices and game hosting, but a new augmented reality game developed by researchers at Vrije Universiteit in the Netherlands requires no such server. The game employs the Ibis computing middleware system, which was originally designed for high-performance, distributed computing chores. The researchers adapted the system to operate on Android phones so that the handsets can run a lightweight communication server that enables a direct interface with the game via a 3G or Wi-Fi connection. The game was created in response to Google's Android Developers Challenge 2 and designed to use data fusion, combining numerous aspects of the device's hardware to blend game play with real-world events. The researchers say the game's networking methodology could be used in situations in which significant infrastructure is not always available, such as disaster relief or military operations.

Stanford Software Is Gaining the Sophistication to Comprehend What Humans Write
Stanford Report (CA) (02/18/10) Orenstein, David

Stanford University professor Chris Manning is working to enable computers to process human language well enough to use the information it conveys. Manning says that as computers improve, and are better able to understand online content, they will be able to deliver more relevant search results and help summarize and act on information that is most important to the user. He says the fundamental challenge is getting computers to understand at least a reasonable amount of what they read. Manning, along with Stanford professor Dan Jurafsky, has been developing software that uses probabilistic machine learning to understand sentences by recognizing parts of speech and sentence structure. The researchers also have created software that examines a word's context when deciding what a word means. The technical solution, called joint inference, is to look for other words in the sentence that are statistically shown to be relevant. Another technology under development is robust textual inference, which can read a passage of text and determine if its conclusion is supported.

A Virtual System Which Facilitates Access and Adapts Contents to the Student
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (02/22/10)

Researchers at Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) are developing Project FLEXO, a virtual platform for different teaching methods that can be customized to specific student profiles. The FLEXO platform seeks to provide "a wide variety of resources to individuals learning any given subject, and with adaptive resources, that is, resources which can change as an individual advances in his/her educational experience," says UC3M's Abelardo Pardo. The project also aims to facilitate access to content in different learning management systems, as well as adapt to changes in a student's learning technique. The researchers say the system is currently in the development stages and might not be ready for another year and a half. The research is limited to e-learning, which uses information technology for user training, recruitment, and education.

Robot Provides 3-D Images of Dangerous Locations
Missouri S&T News (02/19/10)

Researchers from the Missouri University of Science & Technology and the University of Missouri-Columbia have built a remote-controlled robot equipped with an infrared camera and light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology. "We can get a [three-dimensional (3D)] map of rooms by sending the robot inside or having it look through a window," says Missouri S&T professor Norbert Maerz. Maerz and a team of students have used their prototypes to map the insides of houses, university buildings, and cave passages in the local Mark Twain National Forest. The technology can provide detailed information about floor plans, but it also can "see" people and objects inside a space. In addition, the technology can detect structural damage such as cracks in beams, which would enable engineers to make safety recommendations after natural disasters. "The main idea is to assess safety in dangerous areas," Maerz says.

Can Mobile Phones Help People EatWell?
Georgia Tech Research News (02/17/10) Terraso, David

Georgia Institute of Technology Ph.D. candidate Andrea Grimes has created EatWell, a mobile phone-based tool for people who want to eat healthier. EatWell enables people to record and share audio stories with other members of their community via mobile phones. Grimes believes people who want to live a healthier lifestyle would benefit from the opportunity to hear stories of how others overcome the urge to eat, try new recipes, or find healthy alternatives at restaurants. Grimes conducted a pilot study that revealed users felt engaged with the content and connected to people they did not know, even though they offered few statements of encouragement or comments of collective action. She also wants to enable people to take photos of their health-eating efforts, caption them, and display them for other members of their community. "We're interested in seeing how displaying the content in this way that's publicly visible affects their interest in sharing," Grimes says.

Battling Zombies, Botnets and Torpig
University of Calgary (02/17/10)

University of Calgary (UC) researchers are developing a range of technologies to prevent and detect cyberattacks and botnets. "It's an issue of scale," says UC professor John Aycock. "If you control an entire network of tens or hundreds of thousands of home computers, you can do an awful lot of damage." Aycock says that most experts believe that botnet creators have gone from basement hackers to sophisticated online invaders with possible links to organized crime. "The motivation used to be to put another notch in your belt, today it's very much money-driven," says University of California, Santa Barbara professor Richard A. Kemmerer. Last year Kemmerer led a research group that took control of the Torpig botnet and posed as hackers. The researchers saw more than 180,000 infections, obtained 8,310 account credentials at more than 400 different institutions, and uncovered 70,000 passwords. Kemmerer says a preemptive approach is the only way to ensure effective Internet security.

Clemson Researchers Develop Hands-Free Texting Application
Clemson University (SC) (02/16/10) Johnson, Wanda

Clemson University researchers have developed VoiceTEXT, an application that could make it safer for people to engage in cell phone texting while driving. VoiceTEXT, which provides a hands-free alternative to texting that enables drivers to simply speak to their cell phone, was created by a team led by Clemson professor Juan Gilbert. "Through the car's speaker system or through the driver's own Bluetooth headset, drivers can give a voice command that delivers a text message," Gilbert says. "The recipient's phone recognizes the voice as a text message and the other person is able to respond appropriately." Gilbert says VoiceTEXT could be a better way to curb texting-related accidents than an outright ban on texting.

USB Fingerprints Identify 'Pod Slurping' Data Thieves
New Scientist (02/16/10) Marks, Paul

Intellectual property thieves who engage in so-called pod-slurping attacks leave a "USB fingerprint," according to Vasilios Katos and Theodoros Kavallaris of the Democritus University of Thrace in Greece. The researchers found that every USB stick and iPod or iPhone has a distinctive transfer rate when copying data from a PC's hard drive, due to differences in microcircuitry and the components of each device. By consulting the Windows registry, a company would be able to determine whether its files have been copied. Document folders for any file can be checked after a USB device has been plugged in as the computer registry counts copying as file access. A pod-slurping attack can be assumed to have taken place when the time it took to access all files matches the transfer rate of the USB stick or iPod plugged into the PC at that point. Kavallaris plans to automate Windows registry trawling, which would make it easier to determine which files have been copied.
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UWM Engineer Creates Unique Software That Predicts Stem Cell Fate
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (02/16/10) Hunt, Laura L.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) professor Andrew Cohen is developing software that analyzes time-lapse images capturing live stem cell behaviors. The software will enable scientists to search for mechanisms that control stem cell specialization and could lead to new research into causes of cancer. The software is designed to isolate the genes and proteins that control the specialization process. "This is a brand-new set of tools for developmental biologists, and it supports an area where no other predictive solutions exist," Cohen says. The software is 87 percent accurate in determining the specific "offspring" a stem cell with produce, and 99 percent accurate in predicting when self-renewal will end in specialization. Cohen's program is able to track and make predictions for up to 40 cells in real time, and he says it outperforms humans in detecting differences in how the cells change over time.

When Cars Go to Driving School
ICT Results (02/08/10)

The European Union-funded DRIVSCO project was launched to design a car smart enough to learn how the user drives and to send a warning when the user is not driving safely. The project's researchers have developed a vehicle that tracks a driver's every move, matches those actions with what it "sees" down the road, and learns how that driver normally handles situations. With infrared headlights, stereo cameras, and advanced visual processing, the system can see better at night than humans can. "What we wanted was a system that learns to drive during the day by correlating what it sees with the actions a driver takes," says DRIVSCO's Florentin Worgotter. And much like a person learning to drive, the system gets better over time, Worgotter says. After processing terabytes worth of information, DIVSCO was able to produce real-time predictions of how a particular driver would handle most highway or country road situations, but city driving is still too complex for the system to master.

Virtual Museum Guide
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (02/10) Zollner, Michael

Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research IGD scientists have developed augmented-reality animation software that can take users on virtual tours through museums. The Fraunhofer IGD software runs on a minicomputer and is controlled by a touch screen. The researchers say the program indicates a trend toward mobile, virtual guidebooks. Fraunhofer IGD researcher Michael Zollner says they programmed the software to recognize images, and it knows where the center of the camera is pointing and can superimpose the relevant overlay, such as text, video, or animation. The original image is visible under the overlays, so visitors always know where they are on the virtual tour. The researchers tested the software in the iTACITUS project, in which the team programmed a portable computer to act as an electronic tour guide for the Royal Palace of Venaria in Italy.

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