Welcome to the July 23, 2014 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Worldwide Web of Challenges as U.S. Cedes Internet Oversight
The Washington Times (07/22/14) Meghan Drake
Since its inception, the U.S. government has played a major part in the maintenance of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), but within the next year the organization's contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce will end, opening it to more global governance. Although some have worried this will offer more repressive governments license to interfere with the openness of the Internet, many experts say that is unlikely. Such thinking "reflects a misunderstanding of the policy-making process at ICANN as well as a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word 'consensus,'" says Larry Strickling, administrator of the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Instead, Danny Sepulveda, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, says the ending of the Commerce contract will create an environment in which all nations can play the role of stakeholders and help craft policies that will be responsive to the needs of all countries. Nevertheless, it will still be necessary to guard against any individual or group of nations exerting undue influence in the new ICANN. "I think it's important to acknowledge that arrangements of technology are always also arrangements of power," said American University professor Laura DeNardis.
W3C Wants to Open the Social Web for the Enterprise
IDG News Service (07/21/14) Joab Jackson
Indonesian Techies Crowdsource Election Results
Financial Times (07/18/14) Ben Bland
A trio of Indonesians working for international tech companies have used crowdsourcing to calculate a result for Indonesia's contested presidential election. Indonesia does not use electronic voting machines; each of the more than 140 million paper ballots submitted during the election must be counted by hand. Both candidates in the election have claimed victory and accused the other of rigging the counting process, necessitating a painstaking manual recount of the vote. However, the country's national election commission, anticipating concerns about the validity of the vote, has posted the individual results of Indonesia's 480,000 polling stations on its website. Ainun Najib and his two friends took this vote data, created an easy-to-use interface, and recruited about 700 friends and acquaintances through Facebook to manually type in and check the results. Najib says he had to fend off hacking attacks and move the data to protect it during the process, but the group was quickly able to conclude that Joko Widodo, a reformist governor, had beaten rival strongman Prabowo Subianto 52.8 percent to 47.2 percent, which tracks with initial results that projected Widodo as the winner. Philips Vermonte, a political analyst at Indonesia's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, called the crowdsourcing effort a promising first for citizen monitoring of elections.
EPSRC Calls for Partners to Develop Alan Turing Institute
Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (07/18/14)
The U.K. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) wants to partner with U.K. universities on an initiative to establish the Alan Turing Institute. The U.K. government, which plans to provide 42 million British pounds over five years to fund the national center, has turned to EPSRC to coordinate the effort. The government sees the Institute as an opportunity to position the nation as a global leader in the analysis and application of big data. "Big data is a key component in how we conduct science today and its importance will only increase in the future," says Greg Clarke, the U.K. Minister for Universities, Science, and Cities. The national center will promote advanced research and translational work in the application of data science and associated computational algorithms. The Institute is expected to bring together leaders in advanced mathematics and computing science, and the work of the center should be relevant to a wide range of business sectors. "It is a fitting tribute to Alan Turing that this Institute will push the boundaries of mathematics and lead the way in research, education, and knowledge transfer," Clarke says.
Share Button May Share Your Browsing History, Too
KU Leuven (07/21/14)
A recent KU Leuven and Princeton University study provides the first large-scale investigation of a previously undetected cookie-like tracking mechanism embedded in the "share" buttons of websites. The researchers found 5.5 percent of the world's top 100,000 websites track users using the mechanism, called canvas fingerprinting, which uses special scripts to exploit the browser's canvas, a browser functionality that can be used to draw images and text. When a user visits a website with canvas fingerprinting software, a first script tells the user's browser to print an invisible string of text on the browser's canvas, while another script instructs the browser to read back data about the pixels in the rendered image; this grouping of data is highly unique for each user and it can be reliably associated to individual users. As part of the study, the researchers used automated Web crawlers to scan the world's top 100,000 websites for canvas fingerprinting scripts. "We hope that our results will lead to better defenses, increased accountability for companies deploying sticky tracking techniques, and an invigorated and informed public and regulatory debate on increasingly resilient tracking techniques," says KU Leuven's Gunes Acar, the study's lead researcher.
Could 'Force Illusions' Help Wearables Catch On?
Technology Review (07/21/14) John Pavlus
Two Japanese researchers will present handheld devices that generate force illusions at the upcoming ACM SIGGRAPH conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. The force display devices exploit the fact that a vibrating object is perceived as either pulling or pushing when held. Buru-Navi3, a project involving NTT Communication Science Laboratories researchers Tomohiro Amemiya and Hiroaki Gomi, is about the size of a wine cork and relies on a 40-hertz electromagnetic actuator similar to those found in smartphones. Traxion, developed by a University of Tokyo team led by researcher Jun Rekimoto, also generates a force illusion via an asymmetrically vibrating actuator held between the fingers. "We tested many users, and they said that it feels as if there's some invisible string pulling or pushing the device," Rekimoto says. The force is significant enough to guide a blindfolded user along a path or around corners. The effect could be used in navigation and gaming applications, and even in mobile and wearable technology. However, tapping kinesthetic effects for mainstream application is a formidable challenge, and Amemiya acknowledges that although his device generates strong force illusions while being pinched between a finger and thumb, the effect is weakened if the device is only placed in contact with the skin.
The Story of WebP: How Google Wants to Speed Up the Web, One Image at a Time
GigaOm.com (07/19/14) Janko Roettgers
Google is hoping its new image format, WebP, will help to speed up the Web by shrinking the size of the average image file. Google already has realized tremendous bandwidth savings by introducing the format into its platforms and services; the average page load time of the Chrome Web Store was reduced by nearly a third and the Google+ mobile apps are saving 50 terabytes of data everyday after the switch to WebP. Other Internet giants, including Netflix and Facebook, also have adopted the WebP format, which grew out of work on Google's WebM video format and offers image compression about a third better than the JPEG format. WebP also combines features of several different formats. For example, it can compress high-detail images like a JPEG, animate images like a GIF, and feature transparency like a PNG. However, WebP faces competition from other emerging formats such as Microsoft's JPEG XR, and the format is still not supported by the Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer Web browsers. Mozilla has explicitly chosen not to support WebP in favor of its own mozpeg image encoder. But WebP has a leg up in the mobile arena, where it is supported by Android and can be used by iOS developers.
NASA Upgrades Humanoid Robot in Space
Computerworld (07/22/14) Sharon Gaudin
Robonaut 2 (R2), a 300-pound legless, humanoid robot that has been working on the International Space Station since 2011, is getting a series of upgrades, including new processors and software, in preparation of having a pair of legs attached to it. "Since arriving aboard the station in May 2011 during the STS-134 space shuttle mission, Robonaut has been put through a series of increasingly complex tasks to test the feasibility of a humanoid robot taking over routine and mundane chores or even assisting a spacewalker outside the station," the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) says on its website. Once the legs are attached to the robot's torso, R2 will have a fully extended leg span of nine feet, which will give it increased flexibility to move around the inside and outside of the space station. R2 has 38 PowerPC processors, including 36 embedded chips that control the robot's joints, and each leg has seven joints and a device on its foot called an end effector which enables the robot to use handrails and sockets. Robonaut, which communicates via sign language and can correctly press buttons, flip switches, and turn knobs, is part of a test to see how robots function in space and work with astronauts.
New Inexpensive and Easy Computer Software Provides Real-Time and Highly Accurate Data on Traffic
University of Granada (Spain) (07/18/14)
University of Granada researchers working on the SIPEsCa (Spanish for "Low Cost Autonomous Information and Prediction System for Real Time Data on the State of Roads using Distributed Devices") project have developed software that provides real-time data on traffic flow between cities. Drivers can use this information to choose the fastest route to a destination. The software works with Bluetooth devices that collect real-time data on road traffic before sending it to a central server. The information is then processed using data-mining algorithms, evolutionary computing, and neuronal networks, with the goal of providing information and predictions on traffic flow for users. The system currently is being tested in the metropolitan areas of Granada and Seville. "Thanks to this new method we have been able to monitor traffic density and movement on an individual basis, as vehicle users move between nodes within the zone in question," says University of Granada's Pedro A. Castillo. The devices collect the signals transmitted by the various technological elements within each vehicle, such as global-positioning systems or hands-free devices, as well as drivers' mobile phones, and the researchers stress the data they capture "are never associated with any specific user, since they do not gather any information that can allow for the personal identification of the user from which they are collected."
Researchers Develop High-Precision Software for Diagnosing Eye Sensitivity
RUVID Association (07/22/14)
Researchers at the University of Alicante report a successful test of prototype software for diagnosing eye sensitivity. The technology enables users to quantify the degree of opacity in the posterior capsule of the eye from a digital image of the magnification of the ocular fundus. The high-precision process directly analyzes the origin of the opacity in the intraocular lens and is a cost-saving diagnostic tool because it does not require any intervention by specialists. The researchers say using the technology can avoid needless interventions as well as enhance diagnostics in necessary interventions. Other systems address the problem of quantification of posterior capsule opacity using different computation techniques, notes Daniel Ruiz Fernandez, a member of the research group in Alicante's Bioinspired Engineering and Computer Science for Health. However, he says the processes have some drawbacks because they require interaction with experts for them to detect the zones of opacification, with the risk of losing objectivity in the quantification. In addition, some systems are automated but focus on detecting the lens, and not specifically on the growth of cells in the intraocular lens.
Austria's New Green Super Computer
University of Vienna (Austria) (07/15/14)
The Vienna University of Technology will house the new VSC-3 supercomputer, a cluster that consists of more than 32,000 individual processor cores. The VSC-3, Austria's most powerful computer, will enable scientific calculations to be performed in a variety of research areas. The initial plans for the supercomputer are focused on energy efficiency and reducing environmental impact, leading to the use of a new oil-cooling technique. "This collaborative project between eight universities, which covers many disciplines and fields of study, is a prime example of cooperation in practice and shows the added value that can result for all involved," says Austrian federal minister Reinhold Mitterlehner. VSC-3 features 2,020 nodes, each with 16 processor cores, giving the system more than 600 teraflops of computing power. "With VSC-3, we can provide our researchers with a modern infrastructure that can compete on an international scale," says Graz University of Technology's Horst Bischof. A key feature for optimizing the cluster's energy use are tanks in which the processors are immersed within paraffin oil, which is especially capable of conducting heat, so the heat generated by the processors can be transported away efficiently. The lack of air cooling means the computer room also does not require special ventilation.
Using 'Big Data' Approach to Map Relationships Between Human and Animal Diseases
University of Liverpool (07/18/14)
University of Liverpool researchers are building the Enhanced Infectious Diseases (EID2) database, which they say is the world's most comprehensive collection describing human and animal pathogens. EID2 has been used to trace the history of human and animal diseases, to predict the effects of climate change on pathogens, to produce maps of which diseases are most likely in some areas, and to categorize the relationships between human and animal carriers and hosts. "The database is matchless in scale, and has the capacity to hold data on all known human and animal pathogens, when detailed information becomes available," says University of Liverpool researcher Marie McIntyre. EID2 currently has more than 60 million pieces of data and new information is added all the time. The database is open access, allowing registered researchers to use it, and the data can be manipulated to help scientists address a variety of questions. "EID2 is useful because it gives access to sets of information on infectious pathogens which have, until now, been difficult to acquire," McIntyre says. EID2 can quickly and accurately map diseases because it can pull together several data sources at once. The database can produce country-by-country profiles of the factors affecting disease, enabling regions to best prepare to avert or manage outbreaks.
Birdsongs Automatically Decoded by Computer Scientists
Queen Mary, University of London (07/17/14)
Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) researchers have developed a successful way of identifying bird sounds from large audio collections. Their method takes advantage of large datasets of sound recordings provided by the British Library Sound Archive and online sources such as the Xeno Canto. The researchers say the strategy integrates feature-learning and a classification algorithm to establish a system capable of differentiating between which birds are present in a large dataset. "Automatic classification of bird sounds is useful when trying to understand how many and what type of birds you might have in one location," says QMUL researcher Dan Stowell. The new classification system performed well in a public contest using a set of thousands of recordings with more than 500 bird species from Brazil. The system was rated as the best performing audio-only classifier, and placed second out of all the entries. "I'm working on techniques that can transcribe all the bird sounds in an audio scene: not just who is talking, but when, in response to whom, and what relationships are reflected in the sound, for example who is dominating the conversation," Stowell says.
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