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ACM TechNews
September 15, 2008

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Welcome to the September 15, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Hackers Hit Large Hadron Collider Web Site
Computerworld (09/12/08) Keizer, Gregg

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) says it has revived a Web site for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that was attacked by hackers, although it remains off limits to the public. CERN says the Web site was only defaced, as hackers temporarily replaced the Web site with a message. The network did not suffer any permanent damage, and no other files were installed on the science project's computers. "It was benign, but it reminds us that we need to be vigilant," says James Gillies of CERN, which operates LHC. "And no harm was done to the experiment or its computer network." Turning on the LHC for a test search of particles that make up dark matter has generated some controversy, in that some people have argued that it would create a black hole that could destroy the planet. A report in the U.K. newspaper the Telegraph says a group called the Greek Security Team (GST) has claimed responsibility for the attack.
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Turning Social Networks Against Users
Technology Review (09/15/08) Naone, Erica

Several research projects have explored the viability of distributing malicious software through social networks. At this week's Information Security Conference in Taipei, Taiwan, researchers from the Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas (FORTH) in Greece will present details of an experiment that enlisted Facebook users in a potentially devastating Internet attack. The researchers created an application that displays photographs from National Geographic on a user's profile page, but also requests large image files from a target server. If enough people added the application to their page, the flood of requests could shut down a server or render it inaccessible to legitimate users. FORTH research assistant Elias Athanasopoulos says the researchers made no effort to promote their application but 1,000 Facebook users installed the application within a few days. The resulting attacks, launched against a server the researchers established to receive the attacks, were not severe, but Athanasopoulos says they could disrupt a small Web site, and they could be made more intense with a few minor adjustments. A more detailed analysis of different social networking sites, by computer-security consultants Nathan Hamiel of Hexagon Security Group and Shawn Moyer of Agura Digital Security, found that the potential for damage is far more severe. The two built examples of malicious applications on top of OpenSocial, an open application platform used by MySpace, Orkut, and several other social networking sites. One of the demo applications, DoSer, logs out users who view a compromised page for several seconds. Another, CSFer, sends unauthorized friend requests from the target users. Hamiel says there are many more ways to attack social networks and there is little that can be done to defend them.
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When Disaster Strikes
ICT Results (09/15/08)

The European Union-funded Sensor and Computer Infrastructure for Environmental Risks (SCIER) program has developed an early detection and warning system for natural disasters. SCIER uses state-of-the-art automation to detect disasters in the making, forecast how an emergency will probably unfold, alert authorities, and provide information authorities need to respond effectively. SCIER researchers deployed networks of ground-based sensors, including video cameras, meteorological instruments, and river-level gauges in high-risk areas, particularly in the "urban-rural interface" where homes and businesses are in close proximity to undeveloped areas. The ground-based sensors are wirelessly linked to a local area control unit, which structures and compares the raw data to check for anomalies, such as if a temperature spike at one sensor is reflected in nearby sensors. SCIER technical coordinator Sotiris Kanellopoulos says the system should be able to understand when there is an erroneous measurement to prevent false alarms. When the local area control unit detects a real threat, it activates SCIER's computational armamentarium to forecast how the emergency will most likely develop over the first few critical hours. Kanellopoulos says the system is not designed to simulate fires or other disasters for days, but it can simulate the first few hours. The system uses sophisticated mathematical models of how natural disasters unfold based on detailed information about the local geography along with real-time sensor data concerning wind, rainfall, temperature, and other variables.
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Developing Robots With Human-Like Behavior
EUROPA (09/10/08)

The European Science Foundation and the Japan Science Foundation are encouraging young researchers to develop robots capable of conforming to situations and physical movements in ways similar to humans. Earlier this year, the two groups co-hosted an event to unite young researchers from the fields of robotics and cognitive science with the goal of promoting a new generation of intelligent machines. Gottingen University professor Florentin Worgotter gave a speech in which he emphasized that gaining greater insight into how animals coordinate their movements could help researchers transfer those principles to robots and their development. University of Tokyo professor Yasuo Kuniyoshi says conventional methods based on artificial intelligence techniques developed since the 1980s have failed to produce adaptable robots, which would require techniques that break down events a robot has not been programmed to expect into smaller parts in an attempt to analyze them. The event also focused on the importance of communication channels between humans and robots, regardless of how robots receive instructions. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology professor Aude Billard says enabling robots to interpret a person's intention and predict their action will help researchers meet the challenge of getting robots to imitate simple human gestures.
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Making Every Word Count
Wall Street Journal (09/12/08) P. A12; Bialik, Carl

Determining the most commonly used words in the English language is a challenge, not least because the very systems that are supposed to make this research simpler, such as computers and the Internet, can distort language patterns, writes Carl Bialik. Language corpora need to be well-balanced so that the diversity of text is fairly represented without having certain definitions of words with multiple meanings predominate, says Princeton University linguist Christiane Fellbaum. The current state of affairs has the rankings of words differ across different corpora. "It's easy to build bigger collections using the Web, but that gives short shrift to genres that don't often make it online, notably fiction," Bialik notes. "It also ignores spoken words, which are underrepresented in corpora because they are so much harder and more expensive to collect." Important subtleties can be missed if there is an insufficiency of spoken-language data, and the cost of collecting spoken words greatly exceeds the cost of collecting written text. Vassar College's Nancy Ide, manager of the American National Corpus, says Web-based corpora cannot be fully shared and analyzed by researchers without copyright permission for all of the text they contain. She also cites the difficulty of isolating American English from British English and other variants online. Microsoft, which uses corpora to correct misspellings in its Word program, has licensed over one trillion words of English text in each of the past two years. It also collects text from Hotmail email exchanges, removing any identifying information, to bolster its spell checker. "Text corpora is the lifeblood of most of our development and testing processes," says Microsoft's Mike Calcagno.
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IBM Testing Voice-Based Web
IDG News Service (09/11/08) Ribeiro, John

IBM's India Research Laboratory's (IRL's) Spoken Web project would make Web-based information accessible to those unable to read or write, or to those without access to the Internet. The Spoken Web project takes advantage of the rapid deployment of mobile phones in countries such as India, where PC-based Internet penetration is not as high as that of mobile phones. IRL director Guruduth Banavar says the goal is to ensure that everything that is done on a Web browser on a PC can be done with a mobile phone. Spoken Web technology will enable local communities to create and disseminate locally relevant content and interact with Web sites by speaking on a phone, Banavar says. Spoken Web uses the Voice eXtensible Markup Language (VoiceXML) and the hyper speech transfer protocol to mirror the Web in a telecom network. The technology enables users to create and browse VoiceSites that have their own uniform resource locators, follow VoiceLinks, and conduct business transactions and online purchases. Users will be able to access the Spoken Web using a toll-free number, and VoiceSites can be created over the phone using a set of templates on the server site, Banavar says. The Spoken Web potentially could be linked to the Internet, but sites on the Web would have to be converted to support spoken interfaces, both through VoiceXML and by how Web content is designed and presented.
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Clemson University Turns Idle Computer Time Into Solutions for World Problems
Clemson University (S.C.) (09/04/08) Polowczuk, Susan

Clemson University is donating the idle computer cycles of computers in the university's instructional labs to the World Community Grid (WCG). The nonprofit WCG, managed by IBM, aims to create the largest public computing grid to benefit humanity. IBM says Clemson's School of Computing contributes more than four years of CPU time every day, meaning that approximately 1,500 Clemson computers work on WCG problems daily. On some days, Clemson is the first in the nation, and as high as fourth in the world, for contributions to the WCG. "Most computers at universities are underutilized. For instance, at night when everyone sleeps, the computers are idle," says Clemson professor Sebastien Goasguen. "By joining WCG, we maximize our utilization by virtually donating computers when we don't use them. In doing so, we contribute to humanitarian causes." Almost 400,000 teams from around the world donate computing time to the WCG.
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Google Outlines the Future of Search
VNUNet (09/11/08) Marshall, Rosalie

Google's Marissa Mayer expects to see significant advances in search technology over the next decade. "These include mobile devices offering us easier search, Internet capabilities deployed in more devices, and different ways of entering and expressing queries by voice, natural language, picture or song, to name just a few," she says in a blog post. Search technology could even take a user's contacts or location into consideration as it delivers results. "Maybe the search engines of the future will know where you are located, maybe they will know what you know already or what you learned earlier today, or maybe they will fully understand your preferences because you have chosen to share that information with us," Mayer says. She even envisions people wearing a device that would be capable of listening to conversations, performing searches in the background, and then returning the relevant information to the user. Mayer says Google should focus more on translation services, which would help make the Web available to everyone regardless of dialect.
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Putting a 'Korset' on the Spread of Computer Viruses
American Friends of Tel Aviv University (09/09/08)

Tel Aviv University professor Avishai Wool and graduate student Ohad Ben-Cohen have developed Korset, an open source antivirus program for Linux-based servers. "We modified the kernel in the system's operating system so that it monitors and tracks the behavior of the programs installed on it," Wool says. Wool says Korset provides a model for the operating system kernel that predicts how software on the server should run. If the kernel detects abnormal activity, it stops the program from working before malicious actions can occur. Wool says their solution is much more efficient and does not consume as many resources as traditional antivirus software. "There is an ongoing battle between computer security experts and the phenomenal growth of viruses and network worms flooding the Internet," he says. "The fundamental problem with viruses remains unsolved and is getting worse every day." Wool's research was presented at the recent Black Hat Internet security conference.
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Microsoft's Lab Cooks Up Photo Collage Program
IDG News Service (09/04/08) Kirk, Jeremy

Microsoft's U.K.-based research lab has released AutoCollage 2008, new software that automates the process of creating photo collages. The company has applied its facial recognition and blending technologies to AutoCollage 2008, which makes assembling photos into a collage easier and faster. AutoCollage 2008 is designed to find representative images and avoid repetitive features, and match images so they seamlessly flow into one another. Users can resize photos and then print them. Alisson Sol, the development manager for the project, says a Web service is "technically possible," but users with a low-bandwidth capacity who upload a number of large photos could encounter some problems with the program.
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Researchers Develop Automated Cell-Screening System
Carnegie Mellon News (09/08/08) Vaidya, Akanksha

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Ray and Stephanie Lane Center for Computational Biology have developed an automated system that can analyze images of cells much faster and more accurately than humans. The technique, developed by robotics and machine learning professor Geoffrey Gordon, computational biology professor Robert Murphy, and recent Ph.D. graduate Shann-Ching Chen, will be capable of analyzing more than 100,000 cells, and will be able to establish relationships between those cells. Gordon says it is easier to classify cells by studying a group of cells instead of just a single cell, though it requires the computer to account for a large amount of information, which is difficult and time consuming. To solve this problem, the researchers developed a new reasoning methodology that is potentially far faster at reasoning through entire groups of cells. Murphy says the system describes the distribution of a given protein in each cell using numerical features, and then learns which features are associated with which subcellular pattern, similar to how humans may use color, smoothness, and shape to distinguish between fruits. The system relies on the protein distribution in cells to classify them into different groups. The researchers say the system, which also can recognize subtle differences between cells, could significantly change how biological research is done.
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Threat From DNS Bug Isn't Over, Experts Say
Dark Reading (09/08/08) Wilson, Tim

Security experts have only temporary solutions so far for the critical DNS flaw, which if exploited on a large scale could bring down the entire Internet. Since vendors simultaneously installed a patch after IOActive researcher Dan Kaminsky discovered the flaw earlier this year, the number of servers vulnerable to an attack has dropped dramatically, from over 85 percent to less than 30 percent. Still, experts warn that the patch is a temporary fix and only hinders attackers from exploiting the flaw. "What we've got out there so far are truly Band-Aids," says Alan Shimel, chief strategy officer at StillSecure, the firm that has been monitoring the vulnerability since its discovery. "There are questions on how to move the solution to the firewall level. We need a new DNS." Attackers are already trying to find ways around the patch. MessageLabs analyst Paul Wood has seen a surge in traffic by hackers searching out systems with unpatched vulnerabilities.
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Disruption-Free Videos
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (09/08)

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications, Heinrich-Hertz-Institut (HHI) in Berlin, have created a new video coding format that uses additional data to protect the most important data packets during transmission. The extension of the H.264/AVC coding format allows digitally transmitted images to be broadcast without error, as the additional data packets would ensure that only the quality would be affected if any information is lost. "If, say, two video packets need to be transmitted, we equip an additional data packet with the result of the sum of the bytes in the two video data packets," says Thomas Wiegand with HHI and also a professor at the Berlin Institute of Technology. "If any of these three data packets gets lost, we can deduce the content of the original two." Called scalable video coding (SVC), the new format runs on all H.264/AVC-compatible devices, and independently of overall data volume. SVC standardization can be used for HDTV, the Internet, videoconferences, surveillance technology, or mobile radio.
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Watch and Learn: Time Teach Us How to Recognize Visual Objects
MIT News (09/11/08) Delude, Cathryn M.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) neuroscientists have tricked the brain into confusing one object with another, demonstrating that time teaches us how to recognize objects, a discovery that could help develop more brain-like computer vision systems. Human eyes never see the same image twice. Subtle differences in the direction of the gaze, angle of the view, distance, light, and other factors mean that even if someone is looking at the same object multiple times, the object creates innumerable impressions on the retina. Every time a person's eyes move, the pattern of neural activity changes while the perception of the object stays the same. This stability is called invariance, and is fundamental to a person's ability to recognize objects. Although it feels effortless, it is a central challenge in computational neuroscience, says MIT's James DiCarlo. "We want to understand how our brains acquire invariance and how we might incorporate it into computer vision systems," DiCarlo says. One possible explanation is that our eyes tend to move rapidly, about three times per second, while physical objects usually change more slowly, which means differing patterns of activity in rapid succession often reflect different images of the same object. MIT researchers are working to understand the brain mechanisms behind this effect. In their latest study, the researchers had monkeys watch an altered world while recording neuron patterns in the inferior temporal (IT) cortex, a high-level visual brain area where object invariance is believed to occur. After the monkeys looked at these altered worlds for a while, the IT neurons became confused. The researchers are now testing this concept using computer vision systems viewing real-world videos.
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Climate Computer Modeling Heats Up
National Science Foundation (09/04/08) Dybas, Cheryl

Climate researchers are using a $1.4 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to generate petascale computer models that depict detailed climate dynamics while establishing the foundation for the next generation of complex climate models. The researchers say the availability of petascale computing promises a golden opportunity for climate researchers to advance Earth system science and help improve the quality of life on the planet. "The limiting factor to more reliable climate predictions at higher resolution is not scientific ideas, but computational capacity to implement those ideas," says NSF's Jay Fein. "This project is an important step forward in providing the most useful scientifically-based climate change information to society for adapting to climate change." For example, the increase in computing capabilities has enabled Ben Kirtman, a researcher at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, to develop a novel weather and climate modeling strategy designed to isolate the interactions between weather and climate. "The information from this project will serve as a cornerstone for petascale computing in our field, and help to advance the study of the interactions between weather and climate phenomena on a global scale," Kirtman says.
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CORRECTION:

In an article published in the September 12, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University was mistakenly referred to as the Virginia Institute of Technology. The article also stated that Barbara G. Ryder is a professor at Virginia Institute of Technology, which is wrong. She is the J. Byron Maupin Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Computer Science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

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