Welcome to the June 28, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
China Pushing the Envelope on Science, and Sometimes Ethics
Washington Post (06/28/10) P. A1; Pomfret, John
China has rocketed back into the top ranks of scientific research by being free from the social and legal hindrances common in the West and due to its investment of billions of dollars. Nearly every Chinese ministry boasts a program to gain a technological lead of some sort, and in May a Chinese supercomputer was named the second fastest machine in the world at an international conference in Germany. China also is only second to the United States in the number of research articles published in scientific and technical journals worldwide. Many top Chinese scientific institutes appear to be insulating themselves from bureaucratic interference, which has raised ethical concerns about the research they are conducting. Among the challenges China faces is a weak innovation framework and unrealistic bureaucrat-driven mandates to produce discoveries. Another troubling fact is China's status as the leading source of "junk" patents, while plagiarism and doctored results abound. China's growing competitiveness is causing U.S. experts to question the practice of opening research institutions to Chinese students. U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation officials also claim that China is running a large U.S.-based espionage operation to steal the country's industrial, military, technological, and scientific secrets.
World First for Quantum Memory Storage
ANU News (06/24/10) Couper, Simon
A new system developed by researchers at Australian National University (ANU) uses quantum memory for light more efficiently than similar storage devices. The researchers used a technique they pioneered to stop and control light from a laser, which enabled them to manipulate electrons in a crystal cooled to -270 degrees Celsius. The level of efficiency and accuracy allows the quantum nature of light to be stored, manipulated, and recalled. "Light entering the crystal is slowed all the way to a stop, where it remains until we let it go again," says lead researcher Morgan Hedges. "When we do let it go, we get out essentially everything that went in as a three-dimensional hologram, accurate right down to the last photon." The inherent uncertainty in quantum mechanics means some of the information in this light will be lost the moment it is measured. The system is perfect for secure communication because the information could only be read once. The team plans to focus on improving storage times by experimenting with a technique that halted light in a crystal for over a second, which is more than 1,000 times longer than was previously possible.
Researchers Analyze the Future of Transistor-Less Magnonic Logic Circuits
PhysOrg.com (06/28/10) Zyga, Lisa
The emerging field of magnonics is attracting researchers because of its possible role in the development of transistorless logic circuits, and researchers are investigating how to use spin wave phenomena to make logic circuits. Unlike CMOS logic circuits, which use electric current to store and transfer data, magnonic logic circuits use spin waves propagating in magnetic waveguides. By avoiding electric currents, magnonic logic circuits have the potential to enable more efficient data transfer and enhanced logic functionality, including parallel data processing. Magnonic logic circuits can encode a bit of information through either the amplitude or the phase of the spin wave. Although the amplitude-encoding approach has benefits, including low power consumption due to the low energy of the spin wave signal, the phase-encoding approach is more promising, according to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers. "The greatest potential advantage of magnonic logic circuits is the ability to process information in parallel on different frequencies, which is not possible for CMOS-based logic," says UCLA researcher Alexander Khitun.
Broadband Availability to Expand
New York Times (06/27/10) Wyatt, Edward
U.S. President Barack Obama today will sign a memorandum that makes 500 megahertz of wireless spectrum, currently controlled by the federal government and private companies, available for auction. The memorandum is part of an administration effort to nearly double the wireless communications spectrum available for commercial use over the next 10 years. Most of the spectrum would be designated for commercial use in mobile broadband and similar applications, and proceeds from the auction would help finance better communications systems for public safety agencies. About 45 percent of the spectrum to be auctioned will come from federal agencies that will be asked to give up allocations that they are not using or could share. The remaining spectrum will come from unused spectrum already scheduled for auction or from broadcasters who would be offered incentives to relinquish part of their airwaves. "The administration's strong actions on wireless broadband will move us significantly toward sustainable economic success, robust investment, and global leadership in innovation," says Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski.
3D Virtual Learning Platforms
Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain) (06/28/10)
Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) researchers working on the eMadrid project are studying how to use three-dimensional (3D) virtual worlds for teaching. Three-dimensional virtual worlds must include teaching elements such as a training program, with a sequence of activities for students to acquire knowledge, as well as a methodology to evaluate previously defined learning results, to become a learning platform, says UC3M professor Carlos Delgado Kloos. "The 3D learning environments are not only appropriate for transmission of knowledge, but also for teaching competencies, and if they also include augmented reality elements for the manipulation of a three-dimensional world with real physical elements, even better results are obtained, as the barrier of a fictional world immersion is reduced," Kloos says. The eMadrid project is working to achieve these standards by collaborating with researchers from other universities, including Autonoma, Complutense, Politecnica, Rey Juan Carlos, and the National Distance Education University of Spain. The researchers are developing defined standards and best practices for implementing teaching environments in 3D virtual platforms.
Working Toward a Smarter, Faster Cloud
Technology Review (06/25/10) Naone, Erica
At the recent Usenix Annual Technical Conference, Georgia Institute of Technology researcher Vytautus Valancius described Transit Protocol, a system that would let cloud users customize the path their data takes as it travels through cloud computing platforms. Valancius says Transit Protocol enables users to set a path that matches the needs of a specific application. For example, he says Transit Protocol could let cloud providers connect to a variety of Internet service providers, and create a specially designed interface for customers to manage their access. Valancius says Transit protocol is currently being used to power several academic experiments at sites across the United States. "As cloud platforms mature to host increasingly complex and demanding applications, customers will want a greater degree of flexibility and control over these resources," notes University of British Columbia professor Andrew Warfield.
Lizard-Like Robot Can 'Swim' Through Sand
New Scientist (06/25/10) Urquhart, James
Inspired by the sandfish lizard, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are collaborating with Northwestern University's Paul Umbanhowar to develop a snake-like robot that can swim through sand. When the sandfish lizard is submerged in sand, the animal tucks its limbs into its sides and moves forward by wiggling from side to side. The researchers created a computer model of the sandfish lizard that showed a snake-like robot with seven body segments that could travel through a granular medium such as sand. The researchers built a robot that is 35 centimeters long and features seven aluminum segments linked by six motors, which are covered in spandex to prevent the motors from becoming jammed. When the robot undulates its body at a frequency similar to the lizard, it can move forward at speeds of up to 0.3 body lengths per wave cycle. The team would have to add more jointed segments to match the 0.4 body lengths per cycle that a submerged lizard can achieve.
John Shalf Talks Parallel Programming Languages
International Science Grid This Week (06/23/10) Boon, Miriam
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center's John Shalf describes parallel programming languages as tools designed to program systems with multiple processors and thus multiple concurrent instruction threads. He projects that all future computer speed upgrades will be derived from parallelism, as chips' clock frequencies are no longer increasing. Shalf says that a program that runs in parallel can be created using a sequential programming language, and notes that some of the most commonly used parallel programming strategies exploit the syntax of existing sequential languages. He is concerned "that serial languages do not provide the necessary semantic guarantees about locality of effect that is necessary for efficient parallelism. Ornamenting the language to insert the semantics of such guarantees ... is arduous, prone to error, and quite frankly not very intuitive." Shalf expects a resurgence in implicit parallelism and constructs formulated from functional languages, and says the most important development looking ahead is the migration of parallelism notions from an academic problem to a mainstream challenge. "This means it is even more imperative that we train future computer scientists to solve problems using parallelism from the get-go," he says.
Liquid Crystals Light Way to Better Data Storage
Scientists at the Tokyo Institute of Technology have made a breakthrough in the effort to uniformly control the orientation of liquid crystal molecules by developing a stable, rewritable memory device that takes advantage of the "anchoring transition" property of liquid crystals. The team was able to align rod-like liquid crystal molecules in a polymer using a laser beam or electrical field. The liquid crystal can store and erase data, and be used repeatedly. "This is the first rewritable memory device utilizing anchoring transition," says lead researcher Hideo Takezoe. The device also is bi-stable--the liquid crystals retain their orientation in one of two directions--and does not need power to keep images, Takezoe says.
Google Seeks Interwebs Speed Boost With TCP Tweak
The Register (UK) (06/23/10) Metz, Cade
Improvements to network bandwidth will be for naught unless the Internet's underlying protocols are updated, says Google's Urs Holzle. He says that in the next few years the average network speed worldwide will likely expand three-fold from 1.8 Mbps to 5.4 Mbps. Holzle speculates that, according to internal tests at Google, Internet protocols as well as the browser are the reason a disparity exists between what Web page load times should be and what they actually are. Google is attempting to upgrade browser speeds with Google Chrome, which aims to achieve 100 millisecond load times--but this advance cannot come without changes to Net protocols. Google has successfully increased the speed of its search engine by 18 percent without changing the site itself by making "some very modest changes" to the TCP protocol, Holzle says. Meanwhile, Google's in-development SPDY protocol is designed to reduce Web latency via improvements such as multiplexed streams, request prioritization, and HTTP header compression. Holzle says SPDY can slash packet counts by 40 percent and byte counts by 15 percent.
TCD Researchers Collaborate on International Project to Integrate 'Cloud Computing' With 'Grid' Technologies
Trinity College Dublin (06/22/10)
European researchers working on the StratusLab project are developing software designed to improve distributed computing infrastructures in an effort to enable research and higher education organizations to pool computing resources. Trinity College Dublin (TCD) researchers are leading the development of a repository of virtual appliances that will make it easier to create grid systems. The virtual appliances repository is designed to facilitate the growth and availability of grid computing for researchers. "The StratusLab toolkit will make the grid easier to manage and will allow grids to tap into commercial cloud services to meet peak demands," says TCD's David O'Callaghan. "Later it will allow organizations that already provide a grid service to offer a cloud service to academic users, whilst retaining the many benefits of the grid approach." The StratusLab project enhances the distributed computing infrastructure ecosystem by simplifying management, adding flexibility, and increasing maintainability, quality, energy efficiency, and resiliency of computing sites.
Uncovering Results in the Magellan Testbed
HPC Wire (06/22/10) Hemsoth, Nicole
The Magellan cloud computing testbed funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is dedicated to studying the advantages and disadvantages, in terms of cost and energy, of the cloud computing model as it applies to scientists working on government-funded initiatives. "What we're exploring is the question of whether the DOE or other government agencies should be buying their own clusters ... or whether those kinds of purchases should be done in a more consolidated way," says the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Centers' Kathy Yelick. She says the testbed's areas of concentration in addition to genomics research will include applied mathematics, high-energy physics, and climate data analysis. In terms of the usefulness of the cloud to scientific computation, Yelick contends that "there's a part of the workload in scientific computing that's well-suited to the cloud, but it's not the [high-performance computing] end, it's really the bulk aggregate serial workload that often comes up in scientific computing that is not really the traditional arena of high-performance computing." She observes that one of the findings Magellan has uncovered in its experiments is the fact that performance differences are evident even when operating fairly modest-sized applications across different cloud environments.
Process for Manufacturing Nanoelectronic 'Mini-Circuits' Developed
Empa (06/17/10) Hagmann, Michael
Empa researchers have synthesized complex organic nanowires and attached them together with electrically conducting links, a development that could lead to the production of electronic and optoelectronic components. The researchers say the process for synthesizing organic nanowires is unique in that the substrate temperature, molecule flow, and substrate treatment can be precisely controlled to enable the organic nanowires to develop a previously unattained, perfectly monocrystalline structure. The process includes a step in which the nanowires growing on the surface are ornamented with silver nanoparticles by sputter-coating. The nanoparticles are bombarded with energetic ions, knocking off silver atoms that enter the gas phase and are deposited onto the nanowires. Finally, more nanowires are grown, due to the silver particles' electrical contact with the original wires, which forms the basis of an electrical circuit on the nanometer scale. "This opens up the possibility of soon being able to manufacture organic semiconductor materials," says Empa's Pierangelo Groening.
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