Welcome to the June 24, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
A Start-Up's Camera Lets You Take Shots First and Focus Later
New York Times (06/22/11) Steve Lohr
Later this year Lytro will release a camera that enables users to adjust the focus after a photo has been shot. What makes that possible is the device's ability to capture more light data, from many angles, than a conventional camera can. The key to this breakthrough is a microlens array that packs the equivalent of numerous lenses into a small space. Meanwhile, the viewer can switch points of focus through sophisticated software. In addition, Lytro's camera eliminates shutter lag and can capture an abundance of data for three-dimensional (3D) images, which can be viewed on a computer screen with 3D eyewear. Lytro was founded by Ren Ng, based on research he did at Stanford University for his Ph.D. thesis that won an ACM Doctoral Dissertation Award in 2007. Ng says that being able to shift an image's point of focus will enable users to explore photographs in ways that have previously not been possible. "They become interactive, living pictures," he says. Columbia University professor Shree Nayar calls the camera's ability to eliminate any loss of resolution a real innovation. "If they have been able to recover most of the lost resolution, then their image refocusing application is a very cool feature," Nayar says.
Overseas Tech Firms Ramp Up Hiring in Silicon Valley
Wall Street Journal (06/23/11) Don Clark
European and Asian companies are increasingly using high-tech workers from Silicon Valley to conduct long-range research and help design new products for global markets. "Our future is going to be driven by innovations that come from this market," says Huawei's John Roese. Other foreign companies that have large technical staffs in the Bay Area include SAP, Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, Fujitsu, and Telefon AB L.M. Ericsson. Many overseas companies are focusing on communications-related technologies, capitalizing on the talent pool created by local companies such as Cisco Systems. "The epicenter for the handset industry has shifted from Finland to Silicon Valley," says Ericsson CTO Hakan Eriksson. Some foreign companies have used acquisitions to set down roots in the region, while others have mainly grown by recruiting local technology talent. The evolution of mobile devices also has contributed to Silicon Valley's prominence, with Ericsson, for example, finding it beneficial to work with Apple engineers.
Cracking the Code of Machine Translation
New Scientist (06/20/11) Jacob Aron
University of Southern California scientists have developed a machine-translation technique that treats translation as a cryptographic challenge rather than a matter of analyzing the statistical characteristics of the same text written in two different languages. Software written by researchers Sujith Ravi and Kevin Knight calculates the likelihood that a foreign word matches an English word based on the frequency it occurs within the text. The scientists employ another piece of software that assesses the quality of the resulting English to guarantee that the translation makes sense, which consequently supplements the probabilities used in the translation software. Johns Hopkins University researcher Chris Callison-Burch says that Ravi and Knight's technique holds much promise, but has yet to prove itself. Meanwhile, his team is developing translation software that avoids parallel data, crawling online texts and comparing disparate texts from different dialects. Ravi and Knight also are investigating how monolingual techniques might help translate unknown ciphers or long-lost languages. Such translation also may help soldiers or aid workers in rapidly responding in nations with unfamiliar languages.
How Are Students Learning Programming in a Post-Basic World?
Computerworld (06/23/11) Lamont Wood
Since the Basic programming language has faded into obscurity, there is no single lingua franca across the entire PC user community to function as a default starter language, and among those distressed by Basic's passing is science fiction author David Brin. He laments that today the top one-tenth of 1 percent of students "will go to summer camp and learn programming, but the rest may never know that the dots comprising their screens are positioned by logic, math, and human-written code." On the other hand, Tufts University professor Kathleen Fisher applauds the emergence of numerous programming languages. "Different languages are good for different things, each has its own domain of discourse, and it is best if the application is in the language's domain," she says. Fisher cites Python as a language that is taking a vanguard position for introducing programming to a new generation of students, noting that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University are using it. Python developer Vern Ceder notes that Indiana's Canterbury college prep school teaches Python "because it is easier for kids to actually write productive code right away."
Intel Demos Its Version of Future Supercomputing
eWeek (06/20/11) Chris Preimesberger
Intel recently outlined its plans to support exascale-level computing and parallel applications within nine years using its many integrated core (MIC) exascale supercomputing architecture. MIC is based on the Knights Corner processor, which will be used in Intel's forthcoming 22-nanometer chip line. The MIC architecture will enable Intel to develop supercomputers that can carry out as many as quintillions of computer operations per second. Intel says the MIC architecture will enable organizations to process huge amounts of data, and could be used to investigate causes of climate change, identify more efficient fossil fuels inside the Earth's crust, and conduct human genome research. Intel also has partnered with European researchers to run three new labs focused on creating simulation applications that start to address the energy efficiency challenges of moving to exascale performance, says Intel's Anthony Neal-Graves. "This is really about delivering performance or flops within a manageable power budget, that's the key issue that we're facing in this space," he says. One important advantage of Knights Corner is that Xeon x86 developers will be familiar with its programming environment, according to Neal-Graves. "If you can program Xeon, you can program a MIC microprocessor, because it uses the same tools, the same compilers, and the same programming model that is used for x86 today," he says.
DNS Agility Leads to Botnet Detection
CSO Online (06/21/11) Robert Lemos
The use of tactics to strengthen botnets, such as fast-flux networks and Conficker-like dynamic domain generation, can tip off their activities, according to research from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Botnets can be uncovered at an early stage by dynamically detecting changes in the domain name system (DNS). The Georgia Tech team reports that they were able to detect anomalies in the DNS indicative of botnets and have documented recognition rates greater than 98 percent. The team used a system that dynamically determines the reputation of a domain-name/Internet protocol-address pairs by collecting DNS query data from registrars and analyzing the domain structure, focusing on the network and zone characteristics. The team combined the system, called Notos, with machine-learning technology, called Kopis, which can detect changes across the DNS infrastructure of a company, Internet service provider, or the Internet, which are characteristic of malicious networks. The team trained Kopis to understand lookup patterns, periodicity, and profiles based on the diversity of the lookups. The two systems were able to detect botnets, such as the IMDDOS and those built on SpyEye. They can detect botnets weeks before they go active and start sending out malware.
Exeter Study Brings Brain-Like Computing a Step Closer to Reality
University of Exeter (06/23/11)
University of Exeter researchers recently concluded a study involving the first-ever demonstration of simultaneous information processing and storage using phase-change materials. The new technique could revolutionize computing by making computers faster and more energy-efficient. The study demonstrates that phase-change materials can store and process information at the same time, as well as perform general-purpose operations such as arithmetic functions. The phase-change materials also can be used to make artificial neurons and synapses, which could lead to a brain-like computer system. "We have uncovered a technique for potentially developing new forms of 'brain-like' computer systems that could learn, adapt, and change over time," says Exeter professor David Wright. The next stage in Exeter's research will be to develop systems of interconnected cells that can learn to perform simple tasks, such as object and pattern identification.
PlanetLab Creates a More Advanced Sudo
IDG News Service (06/20/11) Joab Jackson
A new program stands to give data center administrators far greater control over what end users can and cannot access on a computer. A team at Princeton University's PlanetLab global research network has developed an access control program called Vsys, and says that it has the potential to replace the widely used Unix sudo tool. PlanetLab researcher Sapan Bhatia describes Vsys as a tool for restricting access to privileged operations. "The rapport between sudo and Vsys is like the rapport between assembly language and C, in the sense you can do everything with the former that you can with the latter," Bhatia says. However, he notes that "Vsys contains a bunch of convenience mechanisms that if you [needed them] on a continual basis, you would have either used Vsys, or you'd end up developing something like Vsys." The team used several other Unix tools to build Vsys, including Ptrace, a process tracer, and chroot, which defines a user's root file system. Administrators will be able to create scripts that can detail permissible user actions, while executions can be written in any programming language. Also, the executions are executable files.
Imaging Cereals for Increased Crop Yields
University of Adelaide (06/17/11) Robyn Mills
Computer scientists at the University of Adelaide are collaborating with LemnaTec to develop imaging technology that will help plant physiologists better estimate crop yields well before grain production. Multiple images will be made of plants as they grow, which will be used to build computerized three-dimensional models that match the plant's changing shape with its biological properties. The technology will enable plant physiologists to automatically and quickly measure plant structural properties and how they change over time, says Anton van den Hengel with the Australian Center for Visual Technologies. The image-based approach is detailed, allows for yield prediction early in the plant's lifespan, and accounts for various growing conditions. "This novel image-analysis technology promises to transform crop breeding and, as a result, the agricultural industry," van den Hengel says. "It will help Australian agriculture prepare for the impact of climate change and the need to produce more food for a growing population."
HP Plans Apps to Simplify Human-PC Interaction
Financial Express (India) (06/22/11) Ajay Sukumaran
Hewlett-Packard's (HP's) Indian research lab is building applications designed to simplify human-computer interaction for enterprises in sectors such as health care and financial services. HP Labs India views enterprise business as a significant opportunity, but also believes the apps will help drive IT penetration in the country. "We are developing some applications for the Indian market that will be controlled using natural interfaces," says HP Labs India director Sudhir Dixit. "We have combined all these things into a solution that we are building where there is a mobile, a TV, and there's paper." HP Labs India wants to integrate technology that is available off-the-shelf to allow for tasks such as digitizing a paper document using a mobile phone or synchronizing entertainment between a phone and TV. The lab also is developing a prototype of a hardware ecosystem. The lab recently released a beta version of its Personalized Video app, a tool for creating channels on a topic of interest based on videos pulled from YouTube. Another app links online text-based educational content with videos.
Microsoft, Google and Twitter Debate Whether HTML5 Is 'Holy Grail'
Network World (06/17/11) Jon Brodkin
A panel discussion at the recent Usenix technical conference focused on the question of whether the HTML5 language is the killer technology for building next-generation Web applications, with Microsoft's Erik Meijer arguing that HTML5 is "not really native." Google's Patrick Chanezon said the use of HTML5 hinges on how broad an app deployment is required, contending that it is preferable for apps that operate across Android and desktop browsers. Twitter's Raffi Krikorian cited the language's constraints, such as its inability to send notifications to users, while Flipboard's Charles Ying said that "we try to build great experiences with [HTML5] but we find that frame rates just aren't cutting it when we try to do new animation." Most panelists agreed that HTML5 marks a major step in the evolution of desktop Web browsers, but its mobile capabilities still come up short. This raises the issue of whether mobile developers should build Web apps or apps downloaded from an app store, with panelists noting that the app store model is supported by developers because it is a profit center. Ying said that for the moment, native apps on mobile devices are a better option than Web sites from both a technological and economical perspective. Chanezon observed that the advent of Web apps that look more like native apps and need a powerful Web client is in a way a reversion to the client-server architecture.
Millions of Archived Films and TV Footage Now Accessible to All
Royal Holloway, University of London (06/21/2011)
A new search engine developed by Royal Holloway, University of London, and the British Universities Film & Video Council (BUFVC) will make it easier for users to find film, TV, and radio content online. Such content is usually made available as standalone collections, which requires users to know where to look before they begin their search. However, the BUFVC federated search engine is designed to serve as an all-in-one tool for accessing nine online databases with more than 13 million film, TV, and radio records. The icon-based search engine generates related records and searches and provides a detailed user history and export function. Film, TV, and radio content is an underused resource in teaching and research, says Royal Holloway professor John Ellis. "Educators are keen to use them, but experience many problems in locating useful resources," Ellis says. "This unified search of all BUFVC's existing databases solves this by providing a thoroughly tested user friendly interface with many novel features." The search engine will be released under an open source license this summer.
The Virtue in Virtuality
Peabody Reflector (07/11) Jennifer Johnston
Education technology platforms in development at Vanderbilt University's Peabody campus are connected in their commitment to accessibility, their focus on efficiency and efficacy, and a concentration on science, technology, engineering, and math topics. The goal of the Virtual Multi-Agent-based Programming (ViMAP) platform is to develop computer applications that can model real-world phenomena so that students can use intuitive knowledge rather than memorization to learn complex scientific concepts. Learning with ViMAP takes place on-screen, removing the need for lab equipment or space. With these new tools, students can immediately put the concepts they are learning in the classroom into practice. Meanwhile, Peabody professor Andy Van Schaack has co-invented the Livescribe smart pen that incorporates a computer, microphone, speaker, and display to allow users to capture what is heard and synchronize it with what is written, expediting the grading of students' work. Also under development at Peabody is a math instruction program designed to save time so that teachers can concentrate more on instruction. The program uses virtual manipulatives to help students learn about fractions more efficiently and at less cost than procuring and storing physical manipulatives.
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