Welcome to the January 15, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Court Tosses Rules of Road for Internet
The Wall Street Journal (01/14/14) Gautham Nagesh; Amol Sharma; Ryan Knutson; et al.
A U.S. appeals court has rejected U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules mandating equal treatment for all Internet traffic by broadband providers, striking a blow against net neutrality and raising the possibility that bandwidth-hungry websites might be assessed a fee to ensure quality service. The court determined that the FCC imposed the same types of requirements on broadband providers as they did on traditional common carrier telecommunications services, even though the commission chose not to classify broadband as a telecom service. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler says he is opposed to regulating broadband Internet in the same way as the landline phone system. Consumers may consequently face tiered Internet service, receiving some content at full speed while other sites take longer to load--or are degraded in quality--because owners opted not to pay the toll. Analyst Tony Wible says some of the onus of paying for Internet infrastructure could be passed on to content providers or consumers in the form of usage-based billing. If the appeals court's ruling stands, it could seriously hobble the business models of content providers and raise costs for consumers. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu says the ruling "takes the Internet into completely uncharted territory."
NSA Devises Radio Pathway Into Computers
The New York Times (01/14/14) David E. Sanger; Thom Shanker
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has embedded software within nearly 100,000 computers worldwide, enabling the United States to monitor those machines and set up a digital pathway for launching cyberattacks. The software uses technology that employs a covert channel of radio waves that can be sent from tiny circuit boards and USB cards inserted secretly into the computers. The transceivers can share information with an NSA field station or hidden relay station up to eight miles away, which communicates back to the agency's Remote Operations Center. The transceiver also is capable of malware transmission. The system addresses the challenge of infiltrating computers that adversaries have tried to render invulnerable to surveillance or cyberattack by keeping them disconnected from the Internet. "What's new here is the scale and the sophistication of the intelligence agency's ability to get into computers and networks to which no one has ever had access before," says the Center for Strategic and International Studies' James Lewis. Officials and experts stress that the bulk of these software implants are defensive, used solely for surveillance and as an early warning system for cyberattacks targeting the United States.
U.S. Innovation Boosted by Silicon Valley-Detroit Team-up
The Washington Post (01/13/14) Michael A. Fletcher
Rising consumer demand for more technology in cars has sparked a convergence between the auto and computer industries, with analysts saying the trend is helping to inaugurate a period of prosperity for automakers. Among the innovations being ushered in are Web-linked vehicles that give drivers seamless access to their business and social networks, and aiding in this development is the establishment of research labs in Silicon Valley by major automakers. "We are here to find the new technologies that are going to make cars better and safer," says General Motors' Frankie James. The competition for engineering talent between automakers and computer and software firms also is intensifying, especially as people with such skills show increasing interest in the automotive sector. Some say the auto industry's robust growth and technological change is directly related to the concurrent boom in smartphone and mobile technology. "The software platforms in our personal computers and smartphones are moving to the car," says IHS analyst Egil Juliussen. "Both sides need help with that." Web-connected autos will boost customers for app makers and computer firms, while programmers will be required to structure and extract meaning from the cache of analytic data streaming from vehicles.
Hot IT Job Skills in 2014: Mobile, Web Development, and Big Data
IDG News Service (01/10/14) Fred O'Connor
Information technology hiring managers this year want employees with expertise in Web development, mobile development, and large-scale data analysis. Java and .Net skills also are especially valuable for Web development projects, according to Modis president Jack Cullen. Understanding how to create a site that can be easily viewed and navigated from a handheld device is just as important to employers as knowing how to develop a mobile application, adds Robert Half Technology's John Reed. He also notes that "anyone who has experience in and around data is in a great spot right now," including database developers, data engineers who structure data with Hadoop, and data scientists. In addition, tech hiring in the new year will include filling more traditional roles, as companies may struggle to find people with software quality assurance backgrounds. A recent Robert Half Technology survey found skills involving network administration, Windows administration, and desktop support will be in demand in 2014. Cullen also says the stronger economy will mean an increase in project manager and business analyst hiring as companies add or expand projects to handle the work uptick. However, the need for tech talent also contributes to the industry's hiring struggles.
No Girls, Blacks, or Hispanics Take AP Computer Science Exam in Some States
Education Week (01/10/14) Liana Heiten
No female, African American, or Hispanic students took the Advanced Placement (AP) computer science exam in some states in 2013, according to Georgia Institute of Technology computing outreach director Barbara Ericson, who compiled state comparisons of College Board data. In Mississippi and Montana, no students in any of the three categories took the AP computer science exam last year, although the College Board notes that Mississippi only administered one of the exams and Montana only administered 11. Eleven states had no African-American students taking the exam, and eight states had no Hispanic students taking the test. Among the 30,000 students who took the exam last year, less than 20 percent were female, about 3 percent were African American, and 8 percent were Hispanic, according to the College Board website. Females, African Americans, and Hispanics also had lower pass rates than white males on the exam, Ericson says. AP computer science courses "are more prevalent in suburban and private schools than in urban, poor schools," says Ericson, noting that only 17 states currently accept computer science as a core math or science credit. The College Board is committed to increasing access to rigorous computing courses and is working with national organizations, nonprofits, and the private sector to expand access, says spokesperson Deborah Davis.
Out in the Open: An NSA-Proof Twitter, Built With Code From Bitcoin and BitTorrent
Wired News (01/13/14) Klint Finley
Concerned about government surveillance of Internet traffic and social networks, Miguel Freitas aims to create a more secure alternative to Twitter using code from Bitcoin and BitTorrent. Although Twitter pushes back on government efforts to obtain user data, caution should be exercised in placing too much information with a single company, according to Freitas. He is building a decentralized social network called Twister, which no single entity should be able to shut down. Twister blocks users from gaining information about specific other users, such as when they are online, their IP address, and who they follow. Direct and private messages on Twister are protected with the same encryption scheme used by LavaBit. Twister is now available in a test version that runs on Android, Linux, and OSX, and can be configured to work with other operating systems because of its open source code. The network uses the Bitcoin protocol to ensure that user names are not registered twice, and that posts attached to a particular user name do in fact originate from that user. The BitTorrent protocol enables Twister to distribute a large volume of posts quickly and efficiently, and enables users to receive almost instant notification about new posts without relying on central servers.
Robots Learn From Each Other on 'Wiki for Robots'
Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands) (01/10/14)
The RoboEarth platform, described as a kind of Wikipedia for robots, will be presented this week to a delegation from the European Commission after four years of development. The platform connects robots to the Internet so they can flexibly deal with new situations and conditions. "The problem right now is that robots are often developed specifically for one task," says RoboEarth project leader Rene van de Molengraft at the Eindhoven University of Technology. "Everyday changes that happen all the time in our environment make all the programmed actions unusable. But RoboEarth simply lets robots learn new tasks and situations from each other." With RoboEarth, robots do not need to be programmed for every task or condition. RoboEarth enables robots to share their knowledge and experience worldwide on a central, online database, enabling other robots to learn new tasks and situations. The system also has a cloud engine for carrying out computing and thinking tasks, which means robots do not need as much computing or battery power on-board. Researchers from Philips, ETH Zurich, TU Munchen, and the universities of Zaragoza and Stuttgart also participated in the project.
The Right Words to Boost Your Kickstarter Pitch
New Scientist (01/14/14) Paul Marks
Georgia Institute of Technology researchers recently studied how effective certain words are in generating donations for Kickstarter campaigns. The researchers used data-mining software to download the pitches from 45,000 Kickstarter projects and analyzed nine million phrases used to persuade would-be donators to part with their money. Using this data, the researchers compiled the top 100 words or short phrases that signaled a project would likely be funded and the top 100 words suggesting it would not. "Those campaigns which follow the concept of reciprocity--that is, offer a gift in return for a pledge--generated the greatest amount of funding," says Georgia Tech researcher Eric Gilbert. However, campaigns that suggested the project was in jeopardy without a donation, such as by using the phrase "even a dollar," often indicated the project would fail. The researchers say such campaigns read as unattractive "groveling for money." Although Kickstarter has not fully digested the results, the website has been wildly successful, collecting $480 million in cash pledges in 2013 alone from three million people. "This is very interesting research and could undoubtedly be beneficial to both crowdfunding hopefuls and new crowdfunding platforms," says PocketQube founder Tom Walkinshaw.
Successful 'Hour of Code' Computer Tutorials Prompt Effort to Change School Policies
The Washington Post (01/14/14) Lindsey Layton
The success of the Hour of Code initiative has motivated founders Hadi Partovi and Ali Partovi to harness the momentum and use it to expand computer science education in elementary and secondary schools. More than 20 million people around the world took part in the Hour of Code, 17 million of them in the United States, half of which were female. The Hour of Code was inspired by the fact that of the U.S.'s 42,000 schools, only about 3,400 offer computer science classes. "There's an assumption because students are using this technology, they have the knowledge to build this technology, and they don't," says Computer Science Teachers Association executive director Chris Stephenson. The Partovi brothers raised $10 million to create code.org, a nonprofit organization aimed at changing policy on the federal, state, and local levels to expand access to computer science in K-12. One of code.org's main goals is to persuade school districts to count computer science courses toward graduation requirements, instead of offering them only as electives. "The kids who want to go to university or even community college are so laser-focused on what it takes to get them there," Stephenson says. "Taking credits that don't count toward graduation are not worth it to them."
The Tricky Problem of Making Smart Fridges Smart
Technology Review (01/13/14)
Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) researchers have developed CloudFridge, a prototype smart refrigerator system designed to study and improve the user experience. "Our main claim...is that a testbed geared towards evaluating realistic user experiences could be the catalyst for innovations in the field," says KAIST's Thomas Sandholm. CloudFridge is equipped with an object-recognition system that is designed to work without the user doing anything other than taking items in and out of the fridge. CloudFridge also has a Webcam that photographs each item as it is put into or taken out of the fridge and sends the resulting image to Google's Search By Image service. The prototype also uses infrared sensors to accurately measure the position of objects placed in the fridge. Finally, CloudFridge has a set of red or green light-emitting diodes that can spotlight objects in the fridge to bring them to the user's attention, perhaps because they need replacing or are close to their "use by" dates. "We are also planning on adding social features to share your fridge content with friends or compare tastes to be able to get collaborative filtering-based and social recommendations," Sandholm says.
'Invisibility' Materials Could Do Computer's Work
Live Science (01/10/14) Jesse Emspak
An international team of researchers has proposed that metamaterials, which can alter the properties of light waves often to render an object invisible, also could carry out mathematical operations. The research shows the mathematical basis for the technology, which could dramatically accelerate calculations such as those used in image processing. Metamaterials could change the shape of an incoming light wave in ways that have the same effect as performing calculations on a computer, according to University of Pennsylvania professor Nader Engheta. "As [a light wave] goes through a block [of metamaterial], by the time it comes out, it should have a shape that would be the result of mathematical operations," Engheta says. The researchers ran simulations of light waves passing through metamaterials and demonstrated that the method could perform calculus operations. This method of computation is known as analog computing, and it differs from digital computing, which is what most existing computers do. Engheta notes that in the future, metamaterial blocks do not have to be limited to a single mathematical operation, because the properties could be adjusted.
New Smartphone App Helps Blind Find Their Way Inside Buildings
PhysOrg.com (01/09/14) Bob Yirka
The visually impaired could navigate inside buildings where the global positioning system does not work using a smartphone app developed by researchers at the University of Palermo. Rather than warn of objects in a path, the app, dubbed pAth Recognition for Indoor Assisted NavigatioN with Augmented perception (ARIANNA), makes use of haptic feedback as users follow a predetermined path that is free of obstacles. The app is designed to work with special tape that is placed on the floor. The user points their smartphone at the floor similar to holding a cane, and swipes it back and forth until it buzzes in their hand and lets them know when to turn or walk straight. Buildings would need to use the tape for the navigation system to function, and there could be some opposition to putting tape on floors to serve as a guide for the blind. However, the researchers are now looking into using infrared line recognition, which can be seen by cameras but not people.
Rowan Computer Professor Pushes the Right Buttons
Philadelphia Inquirer (01/06/14) Jonathan Lai
Rowan University professor Jennifer Kay this year won a $34,000 grant from Google to teach robotics in a new massive open online course (MOOC). The course is geared toward middle and high school teachers, and offers video lectures, self-testing, and projects that teach robotics using Lego robot kits. As a way of generating interest in computer science and math, Kay started out by experimenting with robots that use ultrasonic sensors to detect and circumnavigate obstacles. She is now shifting her focus toward teacher education. To create the MOOC, Kay teamed with Rowan professor Edgar Eckhardt to produce course segments in a university studio. As with many MOOCs, completion rates are a challenge, and only 38 of the 1,165 people who enrolled in Kay's course completed all five projects and three evaluation surveys, although the completion rates are difficult to track. "My real goal right now is to find the people who might not otherwise do this, and let me try to show you how doable this is," Kay says. "If we wait for a computer science to be a [requirement]...we're going to be waiting for a long time, so let's see what we can do to get this in."
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