Welcome to the April 4, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Ruling Spurs Effort to Form Digital Public Library
New York Times (04/03/11) Miguel Helft
The recent federal court ruling that derailed Google's plan to create a massive digital library has brought a new urgency to another effort to create a universal public library. The project, known as the Digital Public Library of America, would "make the cultural and scientific heritage of humanity available, free of charge, to all," according to the group, which includes librarians from major universities and officials from the U.S. National Archives and the Library of Congress. The project is being coordinated by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which recently held a meeting that was attended by representatives from major technology companies. Although the group has no formal structure, it has formed six working groups to study the project's scope, financing, governance, legal barriers, technical issues, and audience. The project is garnering inspiration from Europe, where several countries have already launched large digitization projects. In the United States, the challenge is to expand the scope of digitization efforts and to unify them into a single, searchable electronic interface. The group's managing committee hopes to have a working prototype within 18 months.
Tech Sector Faces "Serious and Pervasive'' Skills Shortage
Postmedia News (Canada) (03/29/11) Jameson Berkow
Canadian companies will need to hire about 106,000 new information and communications technology (ICT) employees over the next five years, but there likely will not be enough qualified applicants to fill those positions, according to an Informational Communications Technology Council report. "Given the important role played by the ICT sector in Canada's economy--as a generator of economic activity in its own right and as an enabler of connectivity and competitiveness in virtually every other industry--we cannot afford to lose ground due to a lack of necessary human resources," the report says. The report recommends encouraging more post-secondary students to take ICT-related courses, integrating foreign-educated workers into Canada's ICT workforce, shifting post-secondary curriculum toward more cross-disciplinary programs, getting the industry to accept compromises on skill levels, and embracing more diversity in the ICT workforce. The report also says that employers should provide training opportunities in the form of internships and job-shadowing programs, in addition to providing current employees with chances to learn ICT skills.
New Tool Makes Programs More Efficient Without Sacrificing Safety Functions
NCSU News (03/31/11) Matt Shipman
North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers have developed software that helps programs run more efficiently on multicore chips without sacrificing safety features. The tool will help programmers who might otherwise leave out safety features because of how much they slow down a program's functions, says NCSU professor James Tuck. "Leaving out those features can mean that you don't identify a problem as soon as you could or should, which can be important--particularly if it's a problem that puts your system at risk from attack," Tuck says. In the past, the safety features were embedded directly into a program's code and run through the same core, which slows the program down. The researchers' tool utilizes multicore chips by running the safety features on a separate core in the same chip, which enables the main program to run at close-to-normal operating speed. "Utilizing our software tool, we were able to incorporate safety metafunctions, while only slowing the program down by approximately 25 percent," Tuck says.
Store Data in Your Body Without Cyborg Modification
New Scientist (04/01/11) MacGregor Campbell
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Pranav Mistry has developed Sparsh, a system that enables users to transfer files from one device to another by touching their screens. "The user touches a data item they wish to copy from a device, conceptually saving it in the user's body," Mistry says. For example, a user could look up the phone number of a pizza restaurant on their laptop, touch the phone number on the screen, and then touch their smartphone keypad. The system would automatically dial the number. The first touch copies the phone number to a temporary file in either a Dropbox or an FTP account, and the second touch retrieves the data. Both devices have to run the software and the user has to be signed into their Dropbox or an FTP account. Sparsh can be used to transfer any type of data, including photos and Web addresses. The software currently runs as an application for smartphones, tablets, and computers, but Mistry says "the ideal home for Sparsh is to be built into an [operating system], so that it can provide the copy-paste feature across all applications."
New Countries Emerge as Major Players in Science
Science Business (03/29/11)
The traditional scientific superpowers of the United States, Western Europe, and Japan are being challenged by newcomer nations led by China, according to a report from Britain's Royal Society. The study found that China's portion of the total volume of globally published scientific articles is now only outsized by that of the United States, while the percentage of articles published in international journals involving international collaboration has risen from 25 percent to more than 35 percent over the last 15 years. The U.S. share of global authorship has declined from 26 percent to 21 percent, while the Chinese share has climbed from 4.4 percent to 10.2 percent. "Beyond the emergence of China, we see the rise of South-East Asian, Middle Eastern, North African, and other nations," says Chris Llewellyn Smith, chairman of the advisory group for the study. "The increase in scientific research and collaboration, which can help us to find solutions to the global challenges we now face, is very welcome." The study pointed to the increasing globalization of science, with research carried out in more and more places and to a greater degree than previous. Besides China, Brazil, and India's rapid rise, the report identified other rapidly emerging scientific countries, including Turkey, Iran, Tunisia, Singapore, and Qatar.
SFU Group Seeks New Approach to Webcasting
Vancouver Sun (Canada) (03/31/11) Scott Simpson
Simon Fraser University professor Jiangchuan Liu is leading a research effort to find new ways to make the digital world faster, smarter, cheaper, and more attentive. "The recent statistics say that in the United States, computers consume at least 10 percent of the whole electrical bill in the whole nation and this can rise to 20 percent in the coming years," Liu says. The researchers are working on several software projects aimed at making digital communication more efficient. One such project, Scoop, is a program designed for professionals who want to confer, collaborate, and share information from discrete locations. "For industry, they can easily develop some kind of working system but to make the system work best, and much better than their competitors, they need a lot of advanced techniques, say from university researchers--and we can help them," Liu says. Using Scoop, the researchers are developing schematic maps of how groups of friends share information on mobile networks. The researchers plan to use the maps to develop peer-to-peer networks that would enable members to share the combined computing power of their devices.
Social Search, Without a Social Network
Technology Review (04/01/11) Tom Simonite
Google recently added a new social feature that enables users' friends to help determine what ranks high in search results. Google's +1 button, which enables users to indicate search results they like, will eventually appear on other Google services such as Maps and YouTube. The +1 button is very similar to Facebook's Like button, which is used in conjunction with Microsoft's Bing search engine. Although Google is trying to give users what they need, "it is at a disadvantage because it doesn't have a social graph in the same way Facebook does," says University of California, Berkeley visiting scholar Vivek Wadwha. Facebook's Like button adds items to the Facebook profile, while Google's +1 adds links to the Google profile, an often ignored feature. As Google tries to expand the role of its profile pages, its new social features will come under attack from spammers seeking to manipulate +1 data, says Blekko co-founder Rich Skrenta. However, he says that if Google can make +1 work and opens it up, the feature could provide valuable data to researchers. "If they can boot up the system and keep the spam out, it could be another interesting source of social ranking data," Skrenta says.
University Scientists Reach Beyond the Clouds With a Mobile Phone App to Explore the Outer Atmosphere
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (03/30/11)
A mobile phone served as the on-board data logger, payload tracker, and communications relay during a test flight of the Atmospheric Science Through Robotic Aircraft (ASTRA) project. The phone ran a Windows Phone 7 application developed by scientists at the University of Southampton and Microsoft for on-board data logging and payload tracking. Using a GSM mobile phone network, the phone streamed data to a cloud computer during the one-hour flight. The ASTRA team was able to track the payload during a flight that reached an altitude of more than 70,000 feet, using the app running on ground-based phones. The equipment was protected from extreme environmental conditions by a high-grade foam enclosure. "Our software solution couples together Windows Phone 7 mobile computing with powerful cloud computing resources to analyze the data we are collecting in real time," says Southampton's Steven Johnston.
Engineering Professor Uses Tools of His Trade to Count Van Gogh Canvas Threads
Cornell Chronicle (03/30/11) Anne Ju
Cornell University professor C. Richard Johnson Jr. is using algorithms to identify which of Vincent van Gogh's paintings came from the same original rolls of canvas. The algorithms enable the researchers to count the number of threads per centimeter in the canvases Van Gogh used. The researchers X-rayed the paintings to reveal the thread patterns from beneath layers of primer and then entered the images into a computer to calculate the weave densities. The canvas weave maps plot the average thread count and display the results in color. The researchers then matched patterns to determine which paintings came from the same roll of canvas, revealing the order in which Van Gogh painted his works. Johnson and his colleagues have analyzed approximately 60 percent of Van Gogh's paintings in museums worldwide. The researchers also were able to determine which paintings were cut down at some point using similar image-processing technology.
Microsoft Researchers Tout Low-Cost, Programmable Prototype Data Center Switch
Network World (03/30/11) Michael Cooney
Microsoft researchers are developing ServerSwitch, a programmable, low-cost switching chip that could supplement cloud and other network-based services. ServerSwitch integrates a programmable application-specific integrated circuit switching chip with a programmable multicore commodity server and control software that can handle data center network traffic more efficiently, says Microsoft Asia researcher Guohan Lu. He says that in the future ServerSwitch could be used to help technologies such as OpenFlow, an open source switching specification. Both OpenFlow and ServerSwitch are designed to lead to a more programmable networking platform, according to the researchers. "By leveraging the low latency of its PCI-E interface and efficient server software design, we can implement software defined signaling and congestion control in the server central processing unit (CPU) with low CPU overhead," Lu says.
Amazon, Others Make Fixes After IU Informaticists Uncover Online Security Flaws, Receive Free Products
Indiana University (03/30/11) Steve Chaplin
Indiana University and Microsoft researchers have found logic flaws in the software of online stores that use third-party cashier-as-a-service (CaaS) payment services such as PayPal, Amazon Payments, and Google Checkout. The researchers say the flaws could allow malicious users to receive products for free or at reduced prices. The researchers, led by Indiana professor XiaoFeng Wang and doctoral student Rui Wang, were able to receive electronics, DVDs, digital journal subscriptions, personal health-care items, and other products for free. "We believe that it is difficult to ensure the security of a CaaS-based checkout system in the presence of a malicious shopper who intends to exploit these knowledge gaps between the merchant and the CaaS," XiaoFeng Wang says. Most of the flaws were the result of lapses in merchant software, according to the researchers. For example, the researchers could trick a Web store into believing that they had paid for an item through Amazon Payments, when instead they had made a payment into their own merchant account at Amazon. "Our analysis revealed the logic complexity in CaaS-based checkout mechanisms, and the effort required to verify their security properly when developing and testing these systems," Rui Wang says.
Carole Goble: Democratizing Informatics for the 'Long Tail' Scientist
Bio-IT World (03/29/11) Kevin Davies
University of Manchester professor Carol Goble has an agenda to democratize informatics for life sciences, and she has developed a slew of open source life science tools with this goal in mind. Among the tools Goble has helped create are myExperiment, a place to find and share scientific workflows, and BioCatalogue, a curated catalog of public Web services for the life sciences. Goble says her move to open source was driven by the desire to publicize the results of public e-science investment. "I saw my bioinformatics/life science colleagues basically cutting and pasting from Web sites and acting like machines to do these pipelines manually, because they had no other way of doing it," she says. "Any tools available to them were out of their price bracket. I wanted to help not so much 'big science' but the small laboratory, the 'long tail' scientist." Another advantage of open source Goble envisions is sustainability. She says the Semantic Web in life sciences has made progress, notably in its execution of data integration using some descriptions, while persistent issues include sorting out infrastructure, setting up ubiquity in publishing using identifiers and common concepts to facilitate linking, and finding a primary mechanism for managing provenance.
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