Welcome to the December 8, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
7 Largest U.S. Districts to Teach Computer Science
Associated Press (12/08/14) Josh Lederman
The U.S.'s seven largest school districts, which include New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas, Houston, and Fort Lauderdale, are joining more than 50 other school districts to start offering introductory computer science to all of their students. In addition, the College Board, which runs the Advanced Placement (AP) program, is introducing a new course called AP Computer Science Principles that will launch in the fall of 2016. President Barack Obama has long wanted to make the U.S. more competitive with other countries in computing, science, and math education, but his efforts have been limited by Congress, which has not acted upon most of the president's proposals on education. In an effort to bypass Congress, Obama has sought to use his convening power to get communities and companies to help. The new course will focus on encouraging women and minorities to start training for careers in computers. In order to meet the teaching demand, charitable groups are pledging $20 million to train more teachers in computer science by the start of the 2015 school year. "While no one is born a computer scientist, becoming a computer scientist isn't as scary as it sounds," Obama says.
NSA Spy Program Targets Mobile Networks
IDG News Service (12/07/14) Marc Ferranti
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) has been running the Wireless Portfolio Management Office and the Target Technology Trends Center, operating under the name Auroragold, in order to intercept the internal communications of operators and trade groups and infiltrate mobile networks around the world, according to the latest revelations from documents supplied by Edward Snowden. The Auroragold program closely monitored the GSM Association (GSMA), maintained a list of 1,201 email targets, and gathered information about network security flaws. As of May 2012, the agency had collected technical information on about 70 percent of the estimated 985 mobile phone networks worldwide, according to the documents. The Auroragold project collected information in IR.21 documents used by GSMA members to report security weaknesses and details about the encryption used by mobile operators. NSA then used this information to infiltrate encrypted communications. "NSA collects only those communications that it is authorized by law to collect in response to valid foreign intelligence and counterintelligence requirements--regardless of the technical means used by foreign targets, or the means by which those targets attempt to hide their communications," NSA responded in a statement. "In order to anticipate and understand evolving threats to our citizens and our allies, NSA works to identify and report on the communications of valid foreign targets."
Rethinking Low Completion Rates in MOOCs
The Chronicle of Higher Education (12/08/14) Steve Kolowich
Low completion rates among those who sign up for massively open online courses (MOOCs) has been one of the major sticking points in improving online education, but Harvard University research fellow Justin Reich wants to provide more clarity to the issue by examining the intent of those who sign up for MOOCs. Reich got 79,500 people who signed up for a handful of the MOOCs offered by Harvard to respond to a survey, enabling him to sort them into four groups based on their intentions when they signed up for the course: completers, auditors, browsers, and those who were unsure of their goal. More than half, 44,500, said they intended to complete the course and earn a certificate, while 23,000 were there to audit the course or were simply browsing, and 12,000 had not decided what their goal was. In addition, Reich found 10,500 people completed the course and earned a certificate, a completion rate of 13.3 percent. Among those who signed up intending to complete the course, the completion rate was 19.5 percent, while among those who did not intend to complete the course, the completion rate was 5.4 percent. Reich says the next challenge is determining why people leave MOOCs.
Apple to Host Free Workshops to Take the Mystery Out of Coding
CNet (12/04/14) Anne Dujmovic
More than 650,000 events have been scheduled this week around the world to teach kids the basics of computer programming as part of Computer Science Education Week. The nonprofit Code.org, whose mission is make computer sciences accessible to kids everywhere, is spearheading the second annual Hour of Code. Companies will be joining schools, public libraries, and coding clubs in hosting events. Apple plans to offer free hour-long coding workshops for children at all retail locations, but says people of all ages are welcome to sign up. Meanwhile, Google, Target, Salesforce.com, and about three dozen other companies are offering Hour of Code programs for employees. Disney Interactive, Microsoft, and Best Buy are among other companies planning to host hour-long events. "The Hour of Code, we hope, will continue to spark a creative fire that students might otherwise never discover," says Code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi.
SciServer: Big Data Infrastructure for Science
National Science Foundation (12/04/14) Mike Rippin; Aaron Dubrow
Johns Hopkins University researchers are adapting tools developed to handle massive astronomy data sets into online big data storage and analytics tools that can be used across scientific disciplines. The SciServer project, backed by the U.S. National Science Foundation, grew out of work done by Johns Hopkins' Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), an ongoing effort to map the entire universe begun in 1998. The project has generated an enormous amount of data, now in excess of 70 terabytes, which has necessitated the development of tools that would make sharing and analyzing the data easier. The tools include the SkyServer website, the predecessor of SciServer, which enables users to navigate the night sky and search for information about stars and other objects. The SciServer researchers are taking the lessons learned with SkyServer, such as how to centralize data and make it easily and equitably accessible to all researchers, and applying them to other fields. The project began in 2013 and over the next four years new versions of SciServer targeting specific disciplines will roll out. The goal is to create a drop box-style cloud storage service that researchers can upload data into and use to search it and other datasets.
The Open Source Software Stephen Hawking Says Changed His Life
TechRepublic (12/02/14) Nick Heath
Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking collaborated with Intel founder Gordon Moore to develop a more efficient technology for controlling the computer interface Hawking depends on for communication. Much of the software that powers Hawking's new user interface and predictive text system will become available under an open source license in January 2015. "He wanted something that looked and felt like his current interface, but much more effective and faster to operate," says Intel's Lama Nachman. The Assistive Context Aware Toolkit (ACAT) can be segmented into three components: sensor input from cheek muscle movement to trigger onscreen item selection, an interface that chooses letters to compose words and enables communication and Web browser interaction, and software that anticipates what Hawking is typing as he chooses letters. SwiftKey analyzed a body of Hawking's past work and his everyday text input to develop a probabilistic model of his language usage, accelerating his rate of speech about twofold. Intel also devised a file manager to accelerate Hawking's ability to access documents, and application-specific menus whose options shift based on the software he is using, simplifying switching between Web browsers and other tasks. Intel hopes open-sourcing ACAT encourages developers to build on the software to assist other disabled people.
Scientists Review Worldwide Rise of 'Network of Networks'
A new paper from scientists based in China, the U.S., and Israel examines how the world has come to be dominated by interconnected networks, and how relatively small changes can cause systemic disruptions within and between them. The scientists from Northeastern University, Beihang University, and Bar-Ilan University say critical infrastructure systems such as those used in transportation, energy, and telecommunications increasingly resemble the highly complex, interconnectedness of human social networks, as well as biological systems. The researchers particularly focused on percolation theory, a method for studying the robustness of a network and predicting its "percolation threshold," the "fraction of removable nodes (or links) that leads to the collapse of the network." The researchers say percolation theory can be used to craft more robust networks or to identify an "optimal path" through the network. This approach would be especially useful in designing and improving critical infrastructure, with the researchers noting real-world examples of how localized disruptions to infrastructure caused system-wide disruptions, such as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the recent typhoon that devastated the Philippines. The researchers note the framework of an interdependent network of networks can "provide insights leading to further analysis of real data on interdependent networks."
Google's Intelligence Designer
Technology Review (12/02/14) Tom Simonite
DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis' company was acquired by Google after it demonstrated software that could teach itself to play video games at a superhuman level, and Hassabis envisions Google DeepMind building artificial intelligence (AI) software that can learn when confronted with any challenge. DeepMind's video game milestone was accomplished via deep learning, a machine-learning method in which data is processed through networks of simulated neurons, in combination with reinforcement learning. Deep-learning technology is used to develop software that obtains knowledge through actions and the subsequent feedback on their effects. Hassabis says the DeepMind software's capabilities were rooted in a learning process in which it replayed past experiences over and over to extract the most precise clues on what future actions to take, much like the human brain's hippocampus does. Google DeepMind researchers are partly focused on using DeepMind software to improve Google products such as YouTube recommendations and mobile voice search. Hassabis mainly is interested in their work leading to breakthroughs such as "AI scientists" that could create and assess test new disease hypotheses in lab conditions. "AI has huge potential to be amazing for humanity," he says. "It will really accelerate progress in solving disease and all these things we're making relatively slow progress on at the moment."
U.S. Intelligence Wants High-Tech Access to the Most Prodigious Sensor of All: Humans
Network World (12/01/14) Michael Cooney
The U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) has issued a Request For Information for its Future Applications of Sense Technology for Fidelitous Wearable Devices program, which will investigate how wearable devices that offer "direct and persistent sensing of an individual and their social and physical environment" can be used to better monitor a wide variety of personal factors. "Of specific interest are potential advancements in sensing capabilities that enable accurate, continuous measurement with devices that are relatively imperceptible to the user and seamlessly integrated with their daily activities," according to IARPA. Researchers responding to the request should address the signatures measured by the sensor, the purpose of measuring the proposed signatures, how the testing and validation would be conducted, and what are the theoretical or practical limitations. "By developing these pockets of promising research and development into valid, accurate sensing capabilities, the benefits of novel wearable devices are potentially far-reaching for a variety of personal, professional, and scientific uses," IARPA says. "Rapid development of this pipeline may yield innovative, and potentially disruptive, sensing capabilities for future wearable devices."
Lassie Text Home: Pooches Get Technological
New Scientist (12/01/14) Rachel Nuwer
Projects are underway to enhance dogs' ability to interact with technology in new ways, in the hope "we'll be able to make them even better at their jobs," says North Carolina State University in Raleigh professor Alper Bozkurt. He is developing a smart harness that enables dogs dispatched into disaster zones to collect and transmit data, one of several examples of technologies designed to take the animal's experience into account. Another research project involves the design of dog-friendly buttons that can be triggered by nose or paw contact, and which are colored in high-contrast blue and yellow to make them more perceptible to dogs. A prototype alarm by the same design team enables dogs to alert medical services if their owner goes into diabetic shock, because it is configured as a rope that triggers the alarm when pulled with the mouth. Meanwhile, Georgia Institute of Technology researchers are refining an interactive vest for service dogs as part of the Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations project. The vest is equipped with nine sensors based on dogs' ability to bite, tug, nose-tap, and grip objects with their mouths. Each sensor relays a distinctive message, and motors within the vest vibrate to communicate remote commands to the animal.
Pamplin Researcher Is Developing Online Tools to Help Users Adopt Better Privacy Practices
Virginia Tech News (12/02/14) Sookhan Ho
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University professor France Belanger has spent nearly a decade studying ways to understand and improve individuals' information privacy practices. She is now working with Robert Crossler, an information systems researcher at Mississippi State University, to design privacy tools with usability, convenience, and personalization in mind. Their latest project is a mobile app that teaches users how the features on their smartphone can affect privacy. Belanger says the Privacy Helper offers the flexibility needed to give people control over how they share personal information. She sees Internet users' desire to protect themselves while also wanting supplements, such as product notifications from retailers and location-based services, as a privacy paradox. Most violations of online privacy are not illegal but rather the results of tacit consumer consent, according to Belanger. "Businesses have self-regulated through privacy policies, but they also see the immense value of information and tend to collect as much data as possible," she notes. "We click the button and accept without actually reading. We are willingly giving away a whole lot of data about ourselves." After completing usability testing, Belanger and Crossler plan to make Privacy Helper available to the public.
Why Don't More Minority Students Seek STEM Careers? Ask Them.
Brown University (12/01/14) David Orenstein
A group of minority students attended a retreat earlier in 2014 to discuss ways to enhance their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) training, and they identified eight major themes summarized in the journal CBE-Life Sciences Education. The students proposed the addition of a social justice component in STEM education, such as examining biomedical research in the context of health disparities. They also advocated training to help them better explain science to nonscientists, connecting STEM with other disciplines, and obtaining early guidance on career paths. Moreover, they sought guidance on achieving work-life balance starting at the undergraduate level for issues such as childcare, and suggested STEM education reconsider evaluation metrics that do not take into account diversity or misunderstand cultural differences. The students also wanted access to "invested mentors" who display real interest in their careers and more opportunities for ancillary training such as parallel graduate degree programs. Brown University professor Andrew G. Campbell says examples of successful programs include Brown's open graduate curriculum, which enables students to pursue a master's degree in one field after enrolling in doctoral studies. The research was funded by grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
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