Welcome to the December 13, 2013 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Presidential Task Force Recommends Overhaul of NSA Surveillance Tactics
The Wall Street Journal (12/12/13) Siobhan Gorman
The Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, a task force established by President Barack Obama in August, is advocating a major overhaul of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), according to people familiar with its recommendations. Sources say the task force concluded that NSA surveillance programs follow the law but recommended revising their structure, transparency, and internal security. One proposal calls for separating the code-making component of NSA, known as the Information Assurance Directorate, from the rest of the agency. Currently, one part of the NSA is responsible for breaking electronic security codes, while the other part develops and promotes them. Another proposal would provide more safeguards for the data of European citizens and recommends forming international standards for government activity in cyberspace and the use of cyberweapons. The task force also says that U.S. phone records should be held by the phone company or a third-party organization. In addition, the report reportedly concurs with recent suggestions that a civilian lead the NSA and that the agency be separated from the military's Cyber Command cyberwarfare unit. The report, which is due Sunday, has yet to be formally submitted to the White House, according to spokesperson Caitlin Hayden.
Week-Long 'Hour of Code' Campaign Lures Millions of U.S. Students to Computer Coding
The Washington Post (12/12/13) Lindsey Layton
More than 11 million students in 167 countries this week have taken a free programming tutorial as part of the "Hour of Code" initiative, a worldwide campaign to encourage computer science in education, according to Code.org founder Hadi Partovi. The initiative, which has received the support of President Barack Obama and features free tutorials by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is part of Computer Science Education Week. The Hour of Code offers lessons in computer coding that are aimed at every age group and accessible on a range of devices, from tablets to desktops. "We know that deep in their heart, Americans feel that technology is moving super fast, and they're afraid their kids are going to get left behind," Partovi says. "It's important to keep teaching biology and chemistry. But in this century, learning how the Internet works, what an algorithm does, is as foundational as those other subjects." He notes that more than half of the participating students have been girls. Partovi says the tutorials will remain available to the public after this week. "If you did the first hour, there are 20 more hours of tutorials you can do," he says.
Georgia Tech Designs Its Udacity Pilot to Avoid Failure
Chronicle of Higher Education (12/13/13) Steve Kolowich
The Georgia Institute of Technology is working to ensure the success of its massive open online course (MOOC) pilot program with MOOC provider Udacity, following high-profile online experiments at other institutions of higher education that have failed to yield the desired outcomes. The pilot will offer a fully online computer science master’s program, taught by Georgia Tech professors on the Udacity platform. By targeting students who are likely to succeed, Georgia Tech hopes to avoid the challenge that San Jose State's initial experiment with Udacity faced last spring by including at-risk students. The Georgia Tech MOOC students will have undergraduate degrees and an average GPA of 3.58, and many will be employed in the industry. At $6,600, tuition costs significantly less than the university’s traditional program. The number of students is initially somewhat limited, with 401 students admitted for classes that will begin Jan. 15. The experience provided will serve as a prototype for what the school eventually hopes to deliver to thousands of students at once, says Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson. If 250 students enroll, the university will "approach those 250 as though they're 2,500," Peterson says. "We believe this model is scalable."
Teachers Start 25 State Petitions to Add Computer Science to Grad Requirement
VentureBeat (12/09/13) John Koetsier
Teachers in the United States have initiated more than 25 petitions for state and education officials to make computer science courses satisfy requirements toward high school graduation and for college admission. Only 14 states currently count computer science courses toward graduation requirements for math and science, even as surveys suggest that 570,000 computing jobs are going unfilled. "A key obstacle is that rigorous, college-preparatory computer science courses do not satisfy a core mathematics or science admission requirement for either the University of California or California State University system," says Debra Richardson, who created a petition for California schools. "By 2018, California will need to fill 517,890 computing-related jobs--about half of a total of 1.1 million [science, technology, engineering, and math] jobs." In addition to California, Texas, New York, Maine, Florida, New Jersey, Kansas, Massachusetts, Utah, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota have active petitions. "Less than 2.4 percent of college students graduate with a degree in computer science," says Code.org's Amy Hirotaka. "Everyone should have access to quality computer science (CS) education...with more states allowing CS credits to count toward graduation, we’ll see programs expand and more students take part in this essential field."
Leaner Fourier Transforms
MIT News (12/11/13) Helen Knight
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have improved on their previous work by further refining an algorithm capable of performing Fourier transforms hundreds of times more quickly than the fast Fourier transform (FFT) algorithm, which transformed signal processing in the 1960s. By enabling computers to rapidly calculate Fourier transform operations that separate signals into their individual frequencies, the FFT algorithm helped advance audio and video engineering and digital data compression. Last year, MIT researchers Piotr Indyk (who shared the ACM Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award this year) and ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award recipient Dina Katabi released an algorithm that improved on the original, and now the team has further improved the algorithm by reducing the number of samples required from a signal in order to perform a Fourier transform operation. Indyk and his team will present their paper at the ACM-SIAM Symposium on Discrete Algorithms in January, demonstrating an algorithm that uses the minimum number of signal samples possible. Indyk says the research could enable astronomers to capture images of the universe in greater detail, and significantly cut the amount of time required for medical devices such as magnetic resonance imaging and nuclear magnetic resonance machines to scan patients.
Home Appliance Makers Connect with Open Source 'Internet of Things' Project
IDG News Service (12/10/13) Loek Essers
The AllSeen Alliance, which is supported by the Linux Foundation, including Cisco, D-Link, Haier, LG Electronics, Qualcomm, Panasonic, and Sharp, has developed an open source framework designed to enable systems to seamlessly discover, connect, and interact with each other regardless of the manufacturer or the operating system they are using. The AllSeen Alliance plans to contribute engineering resources and software to the framework, enabling software developers, manufacturers, and service providers to make interoperable services and devices that could be part of the Internet of Things. Developers can download the framework's code and details of its application program interfaces (APIs) to start working with it. "Once the APIs that comprise the interoperability layer are opened up, there will be all kinds of opportunities to add services on top," says Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin. "Engineers already are implementing this code in products being sold today." Zemlin says the framework also can be used to connect devices over existing technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Ethernet, as well as future radio and transport technologies.
Artificial Intelligence Goes Public
Researchers from several U.K. institutions are collaborating on "Being There: Humans and Robots in Public Space," a project that will use robots to serve as a proxy for people in public spaces. Over the next three years, the researchers will attempt to use robots to bridge the gap between the way humans communicate in person and online. Experts from Exeter University will lead the research into tele-operation, in which a human tele-operator will be able to remotely see through a robot's eyes and speak through its mouth, while directing where it looks and how it moves. Tele-operation would enable someone who is ill, disabled, or lives too far away to remotely participate in a public space. "The aim of our research is for the robot to be an avatar for a remote person so it will be taking part in the same activities as those present in the venue," says University of the West of England researcher Paul Bremner. "The robots will be tele-operated to produce speech, gestures, and other non-verbal social behavior so that we can look at the way robot avatars transmit social presence." The project also will build a living lab to study how people would respond and interact with the robot.
Rutgers Battling Cancer With Use of Supercomputing
Rutgers Today (12/11/13) Michele Fisher; Carl Blesch
Rutgers University doctors and scientists are using supercomputers to significantly increase the speed of genome and human tissue analysis to pinpoint cancer patterns. Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey physicians, geneticists, and others are collaborating on the effort with Rutgers Discovery Informatics Institute (RDI2) computer engineering experts as well as experts at Rutgers University Cell and DNA Repository Infinite Biologics. "We have the latest technology to come up with potential solutions very fast," says RDI2 director Manish Parashar. The Cancer Institute sends RDI2 scientists patient tissue samples that have been digitized at high resolution, and the RDI2 team then works with the institute's medical imaging experts to devise a treatment plan. The researchers optimized data-mining and pattern-matching algorithms developed by a Cancer Institute team led by David J. Foran to enable software to run in a high-performance computing environment. "That way the analysis can be completed in a matter of minutes, rather than days," Parashar says. "Our team provides the computational engine to review thousands of images, so our collaborators at the Cancer Institute can analyze these images, search the database, test hypotheses, and answer important questions." He says the research is transforming cancer therapy, which has long suffered from a time-intensive, trial-and-error approach.
Hipster, Surfer or Biker? Computers May Soon Be Able to Tell the Difference
UCSD News (CA) (12/10/13) Ioana Patringenaru
University of California, San Diego (UCSD) researchers are developing an algorithm that uses group pictures to determine what urban tribe a specific person belongs to with up to 48 percent accuracy. The researchers say the algorithm could have a wide range of applications, from generating more relevant search results and ads, to allowing social networks to provide better recommendations and content. "We are scratching the surface to figure out what the signals are," says UCSD professor Serge Belongie. In developing the algorithm, the researchers decided to examine group pictures rather than pictures of individuals, a strategy they hope will make it easier to pick up social cues, such as clothing and hair styles, to determine people's tribes based on visuals featuring more than one person. The researchers designed the algorithm to analyze the picture as the sum of its parts and attributes, and to analyze the boxes for color, texture, and other factors. They then fed the algorithm images labeled for the urban tribes they represent, such as hipsters, surfers, bikers, and Goths. Finally, they fed the algorithm pictures free of labels. The researchers say they are now working to improve the analysis of facial features and other attributes within the system.
Hundreds of Teens Attend Computer Science Education Day at Cal
Contra Costa Times (CA) (12/11/13) Theresa Harrington
The University of California, Berkeley held its annual Computer Science Education Day on Dec. 10, drawing hundreds of students across the Bay Area. Students participated in programming activities, listened to a presentation on crafting games, and toured the university. The day-long event is designed to introduce high school students to programming, and possibly inspire them to study computer science in college. The programming day also is part of the larger international Computer Science Education Week, which hopes to build greater interest in computer science careers. Dan Garcia, a computer science instructor who helped launch the university's program, believes the outreach programs are working. More than half of Berkeley freshmen take an introduction to computer science class, and women accounted for more than half of the students taking the course for the first time last year. Garcia's course is a prototype for a new Advanced Placement computer science course promoted by the U.S. National Science Foundation through its CS 10K campaign.
Microsoft 'Telepathwords' Site Helps Users Craft Stronger Passwords
eWeek (12/09/13) Robert Lemos
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft have developed Telepathwords, software that guesses passwords in real time to help users select better sequences of numbers, letters, and special characters to protect their data. Telepathwords models the way that attackers try to guess passwords based on common patterns used in passwords. The system behaves like word processors and search engines that utilize auto complete, except the user tries to fool the system from being able to complete the password. "Telepathwords is designed to help users create passwords strong enough to prevent online guessing attacks, in which an [attacker] might get up to a million guesses," says Microsoft researcher Stuart Schechter. The researchers created Telepathwords based on publicly available records of the types of passwords that people have chosen in the past. The Telepathwords site aims to educate users about the ease with which attackers are able to use well-known rules to guess the most common passwords. "While no security system is perfect, we've taken extensive precautions to protect the data sent between your browser and the servers Telepathwords uses to provide predictions," Schechter says.
Twitter Pattern: Those Who Don't Know You Well Are More Likely to Retweet
ASU News (12/11/13) Debbie Freeman
Arizona State University (ASU) researchers recently conducted a study involving the likelihood that a tweet will get retweeted. The study found that strangers are more likely to retweet a message than acquaintances of the original user. "We found that people with weak ties, such as those who only have a one-way relationship on Twitter--who don't both follow each other--are more likely to retweet," says ASU professor Zhan Michael Shi. The researchers hypothesize that users with weak ties retweet more often because they believe they are providing new information to their followers. As part of the study, the researchers developed a program that used 20 computers over 140 days, which enabled them to follow the progress of certain tweets for five-day periods and see whether the Twitter relationships between the author and retweeters were strong or weak. "We think the new information is going to be very useful to people like social-media managers and marketers trying to understand how information is spread via social-broadcasting networks like Twitter," Shi says.
Cloud Power Issue Looms, Says Cisco CTO
EE Times (12/09/13) Rick Merritt
Cisco Systems technologists say it is crucial for the U.S. government to fund basic research into future power consumption issues. Cisco's Dave Ward notes that Web giants have large data centers that consume as much as 40 to 50 megawatts, but they have plans to build multiple facilities that could draw 120 MW each by 2020. Ward says that amount of energy--just to handle the data--would be equivalent to what is needed to power a city of 500,000 people. He says finding ways to build more efficient data centers will be one of the most critical endeavors over the next few years. He cites silicon photonics as a breakthrough that could limit the need for bigger data centers. "As a society, we are not investing to get to the root of major power problems," Ward warns. Power consumption is a problem that also is endemic to chips. "We may break through to where we are leaking more power than we use," Ward notes. He also postulates that traditional switched telephony equipment may be outdated by 2020, as Ethernet-based systems become the norm.
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