Welcome to the June 23, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
SC500: China Wins a Slowing Supercomputer Race
IDG News Service (06/23/14) Joab Jackson
For the third time in a row, China's National University of Defense Technology's Tianhe-2 supercomputer ranked first on the twice-yearly Top500 supercomputer list, with a speed of 33.86 Pflops/s. Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Titan supercomputer, a Cray XK7 system, ranked second at 17.59 Pflop/s, about half the speed of the Tianhe-2 supercomputer. Tianhe-2's consistent run at the top of the list, which was released Monday at the International Supercomputing Conference in Leipzig, Germany, can be attributed to the slow growth of the world's top supercomputers. The Chinese supercomputer ran at the same speed it did a year ago, while nine of the top 10 computers on the list were also on the previous lists. If the supercomputers were combined, all 500 systems would produce 274 Pflops/s in supercomputing power, compared with 250 Pflops/s six months ago and 223 Pflops/s a year ago. The Top 500 list is compiled by researchers at the University of Mannheim, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The researchers also examine how supercomputers are built and they found high-performance computers increasingly are using accelerators and co-processors, in addition to traditional processors, to carry out specialized tasks.
Is There a Crisis in Computer-Science Education?
The Chronicle of Higher Education (06/23/14) Jonah Newman
Mother Jones editor Tasneem Raja recently wrote a report on computer science education trends in the United States and found the country graduated proportionally fewer computer science majors in 2011-12 than in 1985-86. In 1985-86, 4.3 percent of college graduates received computer science degrees, compared to just 2.6 percent of graduates in 2011-12. However, the report also found a steady fluctuation in interest among undergraduates and graduates in computer science. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, many elementary, middle, and high schools taught computer science programming to students, according to University of Oregon professor Joanna Goode. However, "as the PC revolution took place, the introduction to the CD-ROMs and other prepackaged software, and then the Internet, changed the typical school curriculum from a programming approach to a 'computer literacy' skill-building course about 'how to use the computer,'" Goode says. In addition, fluctuations in college-degree attainment are often connected to changes in the job market in certain industries. The peak in computer science degrees came in 1985, about four years after the introduction of IBM's first personal computer and the Apple II. Similarly, a second wave of computer science graduates came in the early 2000s, about four years after the dot-com bubble. The latest data indicates the U.S. currently is in the middle of another rise in interest in computer science at the college level, according to Raja.
Researchers Target New Form of RAM From Rare Materials
ZDNet (06/19/14) Rob O'Neill
Researchers at Victoria University in New Zealand are developing a new type of non-volatile random-access memory (RAM) using a class of materials called rare earth nitrides (RENs). Unlike current technology, non-volatile RAM retains data when a device is switched off, which could enable faster computers and cloud data storage that spans multiple servers. In addition, non-volatile RAM would reduce energy consumption. RENs, thin films that are both magnetic and semiconducting, could help create magnetic RAM (MRAM) that stores data using an electron's spin instead of its charge. The researchers are experimenting with europium nitride, which is not usually magnetic, but can be induced to behave like a magnet when produced with fewer nitrogen atoms. Scientists at the Center for Research on Hetero-Epitaxy and Applications in France are aiding the research, with facilities capable of growing pure versions of RENs. In research that could lead to a large breakthrough for creating spintronics devices, the team also is experimenting with a new method of using RENs to control electrical conduction precisely to move devices from being magnetic to non-magnetic.
Shortage of Cybersecurity Professionals Poses Risk to National Security
The nationwide shortage of cybersecurity professionals is posing risks for national and homeland security, according to a new RAND Corporation study. The demand for trained cybersecurity professionals is particularly severe in the federal government, which offers lower salaries than the public sector. "As cyberattacks have increased and there is increased awareness of vulnerabilities, there is more demand for the professionals who can stop such attacks," says RAND scientist and lead study author Martin Libicki. "But educating, recruiting, training, and hiring these cybersecurity professionals takes time." Libicki says the demand for cybersecurity professionals began to overtake supply in 2007, largely due to increased reports of large-scale hacking attacks. The manpower shortage is primarily at the high end of the capability scale, where cybersecurity professionals command salaries of more than $200,000 to $250,000, according to Libicki. Many organizations are trying to deal with the shortage by focusing on internal promotion and educational efforts.
Scheduling Algorithms Based on Game Theory Makes Better Use of Computational Resources
A*STAR Research (06/18/14)
Researchers at the A*STAR Institute of High Performance Computing have developed a method to address the scheduling problem in the ASTRO program from the field of cosmology and the WIEK2k program from the field of theoretical chemistry. Their scheme relies on a game theory-based scheduling algorithm to minimize the execution time. The scheme also is based on an algorithm to reduce the economic cost and another one to limit the storage requirements. The researchers say their approach shows improvements in terms of speed, cost, scheduling results, and fairness. In addition, the researchers found the execution time improved as the scale of the experiment increased. "Our game theory-based scheduling algorithms possess great potential for large-scale applications," says A*STAR's Rubing Duan. "We are looking into how the algorithms adapt to other metrics, such as memory, security, resource availability, network bandwidth, and multiple virtual organizations." However, the researchers say their algorithms may not be suited for applications that are highly heterogeneous.
New Manufacturing Methods Needed for 'Soft' Machines, Robots
Purdue University News (06/18/14) Emil Venere
Purdue University researchers have developed a technique that could be used to produce "soft machines" made of elastic materials and liquid metals. The researchers say the technology could be used for robots that have sensory skin or stretchable garments that consumers could wear to interact with computers. The technique involves the use of a custom-built three-dimensional printer. The researchers embedded liquid-alloy devices into polydimethylsiloxane, a silicon-based elastomer. They also used liquid gallium-indium alloy to create patterns of lines to form a network of sensors. "Gallium oxidizes really quickly and forms a thick gallium-oxide skin, which is challenging to work with using typical liquid-processing techniques," says Purdue professor Rebecca Kramer. However, she says the researchers developed a method that utilizes the alloy's oxidized skin for structural stability, which enables the electronics to be embedded in elastomer without ruining or altering the printed structures during the processing steps. "While this is a huge step forward, we need to continue to decrease scale and increase density to develop sensors and electronics that are comparable to traditional, rigid devices and that mimic the functionality of human skin," Kramer says.
Columbia Engineering Team Finds Thousands of Secret Keys in Android Apps
Columbia University (06/18/14) Holly Evarts
Columbia University researchers, in a paper that won the Ken Sevcik Outstanding Student Paper Award at the ACM SIGMETRICS conference on June 18, have discovered a security problem in Google Play. "Given the huge popularity of Google Play and the potential risks to millions of users, we thought it was important to take a close look at Google Play content," says Columbia professor and paper co-author Jason Nieh. The researchers developed PlayDrone, a tool that uses various hacking techniques to bypass Google security to download Google Play apps and recover their sources. The researchers used PlayDrone to discover developers often store their secret keys in their apps software, and these can be used by hackers to maliciously steal user data or resources from service providers. "Google is now using our techniques to proactively scan apps for these problems to prevent this from happening again in the future," says Columbia Ph.D. student and paper co-author Nicolas Viennot. He notes developers already are receiving notifications from Google to fix their apps and remove the secret keys. "Our work makes it possible to analyze Android apps at large scale in new ways, and we expect that PlayDrone will be a useful tool to better understand Android apps and improve the quality of application content in Google Play," Nieh says.
Move Over, Silicon, There's a New Circuit in Town
University of Southern California (06/17/14) Megan Hazle
Researchers at the University of Southern California's (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering have developed a flexible, energy-efficient hybrid circuit combining carbon nanotube (CNT) thin-film transistors (TFT) with other thin-film transistors. The researchers say the new material could replace silicon as the main transistor material used in electronic chips because carbon nanotubes are more transparent, more flexible, and can be processed at a lower cost. The researchers developed the energy-efficient circuit by integrating CNT TFTs with TFTs comprised of indium, gallium, and zinc oxide (IGZO). "It's like a perfect marriage," says USC professor Chongwu Zhou. "We are very excited about this idea of hybrid integration and we believe there is a lot of potential for it." The breakthrough has enabled the researchers to circumvent the difficulty of creating n-type CNT TFTs and p-type IGZO TFTs by creating a hybrid integration of p-type CNT TFTs and n-type IGZO TFTs and demonstrating a large-scale integration of circuits. "This gives us further proof that we can make larger integrations so we can make more complicated circuits for computers and circuits," says USC Viterbi Ph.D. student Haitian Chen.
Hackers Reverse-Engineer NSA's Leaked Bugging Devices
New Scientist (06/18/14) Paul Marks
Security researchers have reverse-engineered some of the wireless spying devices used by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Led by Michael Ossmann of Great Scott Gadgets, the researchers recreated the devices using the NSA's Advanced Network Technology catalog, recently leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden. The catalog describes and pictures gadgets that agents can use to conduct computer or phone surveillance, including "retro reflectors" that attach to parts of a computer to collect private information in a range of ways. For example, retro reflectors can listen in on ambient sounds and gather keystroke data. In the past, security engineers have been unable to counteract retro reflectors because only the NSA and its partners understood how the devices worked. Critical to the reverse-engineering was an software-defined radio (SDR) that Ossmann created called HackRF, which consists of a plantable "reflector" bug and a remote SDR-based receiver. Ossmann found the reflectors are relatively simple devices consisting primarily of a small transistor and a 2-centimeter wire that serves as an antenna. SDR helps obtain information from the reflectors, with the radio emitting a high-power radar signal to make the reflector wirelessly transmit keystroke data.
Memory Cells Built on Paper
IEEE Spectrum (06/16/14) Rachel Courtland
A team at the National Taiwan University in Taipei has printed small resistive random access memory cells on paper, which they say is a first for nonvolatile memory devices. The approach employed a combination of inkjet and screen printing. Basic circuit components previously have been printed on paper, but memory is one of the last frontiers. Memory will be needed if paper electronics are to perform computations and store data, notes graduate student Der-Hsien Lien. He says the memory cells were as small as 50 micrometers, indicating they could potentially be packed together to store about 1,000 bits per centimeter, which amounts to 1 MB on a single side of a sheet of standard A4 paper. Still, the research team thinks better inkjet printers could increase memory capacity to 1 GB, and capacity could expand further by building memory cells at the intersections of crossed lines, an approach called crossbar memory. The researchers now are looking for a partner to build electronics for storing and reading information in memory cells.
Information School Team App for West African Fishermen Snags Sustainable Fishing Prize
UC Berkeley NewsCenter (06/18/14) Jonathan Henke
A team of four students and alumni from the University of California, Berkeley's School of Information has won the grand prize of the Fishackathon programming challenge. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the event brought together participants from across the country in a competition to develop creative solutions for the sustainable management of fisheries and the protection of oceans. The teams addressed challenges facing small fisheries such as overfishing, illegal fishing, lack of resources, and the degradation of the marine environment. The Berkeley team focused on the problems faced by the West Africa Regional Fisheries Program, which is administered by the World Bank, and designed and implemented a mobile-based solution. Called Fish DB, the tool enables fishers to register their boats, obtain fishing licenses, and report any illegal fishing activity. The tool is a browser-based mobile app and a short messaging service-based system that supports both fishers and government staff. "The challenge of unsustainable fishing is really complex," says Dan Tsai, one of the four students who created the system. "We knew that to make an impact, a solution would have to take into account the social, cultural and political contexts."
STEM Pipeline Problems to Aid STEM Diversity
Brown University (06/18/14) David Orenstein
Brown University scientists have written a paper suggesting four research-based ideas to lead more underrepresented minority students into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers, based on an analysis of the STEM pipeline. Representation of minorities in STEM college degrees and Ph.D.'s diminishes over time, with many of those entering the programs not completing them. "That pipeline we've laid? We're stuffing it but the yield is less than we expect," says Brown professor Andrew G. Campbell. "That's because it's not a horizontal pipeline, it's a vertical one. You can't just stuff it and walk away." Among incoming college freshmen, similar proportions of underrepresented minority (URM) and non-URM students express interest in STEM subjects, but URM students are less likely to graduate in STEM subjects. The discrepancy intensifies at the graduate level, and again in the workplace. The paper suggests educators and policymakers should improve conditions to help move URM students through the pipeline. Specifically, the researchers suggest alignment of culture and climate, partnerships between research and minority-serving universities, critical masses of minority students, and faculty engagement in diversity.
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