Welcome to the January 12, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Revealed: The Environmental Impact of Google Searches
Times Online (UK) (01/11/09) Leake, Jonathan; Woods, Richard
Harvard University physicist Alex Wissner-Gross has been researching the environmental impact of Google searching and claims that one search generates about 7 grams of CO2 emissions. "Google operates huge data centers around the world that consume a great deal of power," Wissner-Gross says. "A Google search has a definite environmental impact." Analysts estimate that Google processes more than 200 million Internet searches daily. A recent Gartner study found that the global IT industry generates as much greenhouse gas as the airline industry, or about 2 percent of the world's global CO2 emissions. A Google search is typically submitted to several servers competing against each other. Requests may even be sent to servers thousands of miles apart, returning data from the server that can produce an answer the fastest, which minimizes delays but increases energy consumption. An estimate from John Buckley, managing director of British environmental consultancy group carbonfootprint.com, puts the CO2 emissions of a Google search between 1g and 10g, depending on whether or not users need to turn on their PCs first. Running a PC generates between 40g and 80g of CO2 emissions per hour, Buckley says. British Computer Society data center expert Liam Newcombe says computer's increased energy use is acceptable as long as Web searches are replacing activities that consume more energy, such as driving to stores, but if Web searches are adding energy consumption that would not otherwise happen, there may be a problem.
Supercomputing Helps UC San Diego Researchers Visualize Cultural Patterns
UCSD News (01/09/09) Ramsey, Doug
The Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) have awarded 330,000 hours of supercomputer time to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Software Studies Initiative for use in its Visualizing Patterns in Databases of Cultural Images and Video project. The time grant is one of three inaugural awards from the Humanities High Performance Computing Program, recently created by the DOE and NEH. "Digitization of media collections, the development of Web 2.0, and the rapid growth of social media have created unique opportunities to study social and cultural processes in new ways," says Software Studies Initiative director and principal investigator Lev Manovich. "For the first time in human history, we have access to unprecedented amounts of data about people's cultural behavior and preferences as well as cultural assets in digital form. This grant guarantees that we'll be able to process that data and extract real meaning from all of that information." The project will process millions of public domain images, paintings, professional photographs, graphic designs, videos, feature films, animations, music videos, and user-generated photos and videos. Manovich has been developing the Software Studies Initiative framework, which uses interactive visualization, data mining, and statistical data analysis to research, teach, and present cultural artifacts, processes, and flows. The project also aims to use cultural information on the Web to create detailed and interactive spatio-temporal maps of contemporary global cultural patterns. Algorithms will be used to extract image features and structure from images and video to create metadata that can be analyzed using statistical techniques.
Scientists Bring 2,000 Year Old Painted Warrior to Virtual Life
University of Warwick (01/12/09) Howard, Zoe; Dunn, Peter
Computer scientists are helping to restore a 2,000-year-old Roman statue discovered in the ruins of a town near Pompeii. Scientists from WMG (formerly Warwick Manufacturing Group), an academic department at the University of Warwick; the University of Southampton; and the Herculaneum Conservation Project are scanning, modeling, and digitally recreating the statue, believed to be of a wounded Amazon warrior. The statue still has painted hair and eyes that have been preserved by the ash that buried the town of Herculaneum. The researchers are using new technology to measure the surface of the bust and convert the data into a computer model and then a physical three-dimensional model. They are using a new form of photography to record the texture and color of the painted surfaces. "Our work at Southampton attempts to bridge the gap between computing and archaeology in bringing the best that colleagues in engineering have to offer to unique artifacts from our past," says Graeme Earl, who is leading the university's archaeological computing team. WMG specialists in high-resolution laser scanning, rapid prototyping, and ultra-realistic computer graphics are reproducing the lighting and environmental conditions under which the original statue would have been created and displayed. "Our work will be used both for educational and research purposes to give people new insights into the statue's design, to provide a record for conservators, and to explore how it may have been appreciated over 2,000 years ago," says WMG professor Alan Chalmers.
Teens Prepared for Math, Science Careers, Yet Lack Mentors
MIT News (01/07/09)
U.S. adolescents are eagerly and positively embracing the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but there is a pronounced lack of encouragement from mentors and role models, as indicated by the 2009 Lemelson-MIT Invention index. Eighty-five percent of teens polled in the study expressed interest in STEM, and 44 percent said their interest was fueled by "curiosity about the way things work." Most of the interested teens said a sense of altruism rather than materialism would motivate them to pursue careers in related fields. Eighty percent of respondents believe their schools have adequately prepared them for such careers, and the stereotypical view of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians as geeky was held by only 5 percent of teens. "Increased exposure to STEM through hands-on learning and interaction with teachers and professionals in these fields may be partly responsible for this positive shift in teens' perceptions," says Lemelson-MIT Program invention education officer Leigh Estabrooks. However, almost 66 percent of survey respondents said they may be discouraged from pursuing a STEM career because they do not know anyone who is employed in these fields or understand what people in these fields do. The Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam effort establishes teams of high school students, teachers, and mentors that receive grants to solve real-world problems through technological innovation. The program is designed to get high school students excited about invention, enable students to problem solve, and nurture an inventive culture in schools and communities.
Robot Baby Seals to Replace Cats and Dogs as Pets in Hospitals, Nursing Homes
Canadian Press (01/12/09)
Inventor Takanori Shibata, from Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, demonstrated Paro, a therapeutic robot that looks like a baby seal, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "His whole body is covered by tactile senses so Paro feels your touch and your stroking," Shibata says. Paro also features artificial intelligence technology, which enables the robot to remember how it was treated, encourage caressing, and respond to mistreatment with a sad cry. "Paro changes his character depending on the interaction with the owner," Shibata says. Designed for use in animal therapy and social rehabilitation for people who cannot take care of real animals and in institutions that do not allow them, Paro also is being used as a substitute pet in Japan.
NSF Looking for Wicked Cool Visual and Data Analysis Algorithms
Network World (01/07/09)
The National Science Foundation (NSF) wants to develop highly interpretive mathematical and computational algorithms and techniques to help the U.S. government and private researchers evaluate the data generated by health care, computational biology, security, and other areas. NSF wants to make it easier for law enforcement and the intelligence community to present its data in a visual format, which will require the development of new algorithms capable of representing and transforming digital data into mathematical formulations and computational models that allow for efficient and effective visualization. NSF's research effort is part of a five-year, $3 million project known as the Foundation on Data Analysis and Visual Analytics (FODAVA), which is led by the Georgia Institute of Technology, the NSF, and the Department of Homeland Security. One FODAVA program is a Georgia Tech system known as Jigsaw, which provides multiple coordinated views of large document collections to show connections between entities found within the collection. Meanwhile, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says it wants to develop software capable of capturing knowledge from naturally occurring text and transforming it into the formal representations used by artificial-intelligence reasoning systems.
A Joined-Up Bot-Fighting Strategy
Technology Review (01/09/09) Graham-Rowe, Duncan
Researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Buffalo have developed a spambot-fighting technique that exploits the difficulty computers have recognizing cursive handwriting. The researchers believe that switching from a text-based verification system to a system that uses computer-generated cursive handwriting will make Web services more secure. The new technique is a variation of the commonly used CAPTCHA system. Most CAPTCHAs display images of randomly generated text that has been distorted to make it difficult for optical character recognition (OCR) programs to read. However, OCR programs have steadily improved, and some spambots are now able to pass these tests. Presenting connected, cursive handwriting may present a more formidable challenge to spammers' automated systems, says SUNY Buffalo researcher Achint Oommen Thomas. However, the new system has a human success rate of just 75 percent, which is far too low, says Newcastle University researcher Jeff Yan. The researchers acknowledge that the low success rate is a problem, and are looking for ways to improve the new system. Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Luis von Ahn, a member of the team that first developed CAPTCHAs, notes that humans are not very good at recognizing handwriting. Von Ahn's latest system, called reCAPTCHA, uses characters from old books that were already found to be unrecognizable to computers to test for human users.
Delivering Politics to the People
ICT Results (01/09/09)
The European eParticipate ID project is re-engaging the public in local politics by making it easier for people to get involved. After the eParticipate ID project deployed Web services in 10 local authorities across Europe, hundreds of citizens were able to watch local debates on the Internet using an online service called Public-I. Physical attendance at local political events also increased. Project researchers say the core of eParticipate ID's success comes from the compelling services it provides. For example, during a video stream of a council meeting, constituents can access relevant documents, presentations by members at the meeting, and background information on the topic being discussed. EParticipate ID coordinator John O'Flaherty says some local authorities have started providing online translations for constituents who do not speak the official language. In addition to Webcasting and archiving, eParticipate ID offers e-petition services, discussion groups, and Web-based magazines. Similar local political initiatives in the United States have focused on cable TV, which is more expensive because it requires studio space and broadcast-quality cameras. The eParticipate services can use less expensive equipment, O'Flaherty says. "There's a lot of variety in the tools deployed, how they are used, and how they are paid for," he says.
More Bang for Less Buck: UB's Supercomputer Go "Green"
University at Buffalo News (01/07/09) Goldbaum, Ellen
The University at Buffalo's (UB's) Center for Computational Research (CCR) will undergo an energy-efficiency upgrade that will create energy savings of approximately $150,000 while improving the center's total capacity to 20 teraflops, up from 13 teraflops. The upgrade was funded by a $150,000 investment from UB and a $300,000 contract from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). "Current trends in data centers have led to a crisis in terms of electrical and cooling capacity, where it is increasingly difficult to meet the expanding power requirements of supercomputers," says CCR director Thomas Furlani. "Over the next year, CCR...will replace one-quarter of its old servers with state-of-the-art energy efficient servers that will not only dramatically reduce CCR's power and cooling requirements, but will also increase its compute capacity by more than 50 percent." The project will replace at least 256 existing high-performance computing servers with high-efficiency models. The upgrade will pay for itself in three years, with UB recovering its investment in the first year. NYSERDA's Robert G. Callender says the energy efficiency demonstration project should raise awareness of the significant energy savings that are possible through data center upgrades. Furlani says even as demand for high-performance computing infrastructure increases, the improvements in computational power achieved through advances in processor design and fabrication have been offset by limitations in the ability to power and cool the high-density computer racks.
Data Analysts Captivated by R's Power
New York Times (01/07/09) Vance, Ashlee
The R programming language is being used by a growing number of data analysts as data mining is increasingly being used by organizations to set ad prices, find new drugs faster, or fine-tune financial models. The open source language also has become popular among statisticians, engineers, and scientists without a background in programming because of the language's ease of use. "R is really important to the point that it's hard to overvalue it," says Google research scientist Daryl Pregibon. "It allows statisticians to do very intricate and complicated analyses without knowing the blood and guts of computing systems." Statisticians find R particularly useful because it contains several built-in mechanisms for organizing data, running calculations on the information, and creating graphical representations of data sets. Some familiar with R describe it as a stronger version of Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet that can help present data trends more clearly than is possible using information in rows and columns. R also is popular because users can alter the software's code to write variations for specific tasks. "The great beauty of R is that you can modify it to do all sorts of things," says Google's Hal Varian. "And you have a lot of prepackaged stuff that's already available, so you're standing on the shoulders of giants."
Alice's Cyber-Wonderland Keeps Growing
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (01/06/09) Heinrichs, Allison M.
Teachers from high schools, community colleges, and universities recently gathered at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to learn more about Alice, a free computing tool that can help generate student interest in computer science. Alice teaches students how to program by having them create three-dimensional animations and stories. Created by Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist Randy Pausch and fellow researchers, Alice is particularly geared toward attracting young women to computer science by enabling them to use programming as a storytelling method. The newest version of the program, Alice 3, incorporates characters, motions, and art from the computer game "The Sims," which was donated to CMU by Electronic Arts to give Alice a more polished and sophisticated appearance. CMU scientists are asking teachers to test Alice 3 with students, and to track any bugs in the software so they can be fixed before worldwide release. "Today's students are very savvy about video games," says CMU professor Wanda Dann, director of the Alice project. "And when they're creating their own animations, they would really like the animations to look like the video games do." CMU says about 15 percent of colleges use Alice to teach computer programming. Sun Microsystems engineer Daniel Green, who teaches middle and high school students at a computer club, says Alice also is excellent for younger students. "I've been fundamentally surprised at how young the kids are who are using this," Green says.
Top 8 Microsoft Research Projects to Improve Our Lives
Network World (01/07/09) Ashley, Mitchell
Microsoft Research has a Web site dedicated to its socio-digital systems research projects. The Digital Postcard project could eventually turn digital picture frames into devices capable of displaying holiday cards or birthday pictures and greetings from loved ones. The Epigraph project could help family members not living at home communicate by providing each family member with a space on a screen to post whatever content they feel like sharing with other family members. The Digital Shoebox and Family Archive projects aim to help users manage the increasing amount of digital data that is created from digital photos. The Shake2Talk project is exploring the use of the smart phone's vibrate feature as a means of communication, such as "feeling through your phone" when a child is putting the key in the front door when they arrive home from school, or feeling a romantic heartbeat when a significant other sends a text message. The Whereabouts Clock shows where family members are located based on their cell phone's GPS location. Finally, the Text-it-Notes and TEXT2PAPER projects focus on transferring messages between paper and digital forms without manual transcription.
C-DAC Initiatives for NE Region
A new supercomputer has been installed at India's North Eastern Hill University. Developed by the Center for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), the PARAM Sheersh Supercomputing Facility features 4 teraflops of peak supercomputing power and 10 terabytes of high-performance storage. C-DAC developed and designed everything from the datacenter to the associated equipment. The supercomputer has a backup network based on Infiniband, offers management capability over a gigabit Ethernet, and makes use of open source tools and C-DAC's resource access and management portal. Research in areas such as weather, bioinformatics, physics, computational fluid dynamics, material sciences, and life sciences will be conducted using the new supercomputer. C-DAC also has developed the health educational tool Cure@Home, which can be deployed on personal computers to help people learn more about home remedies for diseases and symptoms.
P2P Traffic Control
Researchers at the University of California, Irvine believe that peer-to-peer style information sharing could be used to improve road conditions for drivers. Using local-area wireless technology, vehicles could form an ad hoc network to exchange information about traffic conditions, accidents, and other incidents involving the roadways. This traveler-centric, zero-infrastructure network would share traffic information based on the same concept that file sharers on the Internet use to exchange music and video files. The researchers recently tested a prototype of the system, called Autonet, which is based on 802.11b wireless technology. Autonet features a graphical in-vehicle computer client that continuously monitors other nearby clients on the wireless network and shares information about local road conditions. The researchers say that Autonet can record about 3,500 traffic incidents for two vehicles passing each other at highway speeds. Autonet also can have wireless clients other than vehicles.
How Technology May Soon 'Read' Your Mind
CBS News (01/04/09) Stahl, Lesley
Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientist Marcel Just and colleague Tom Mitchell have combined functional MRI's (fMRI's) ability to observe a brain in action with computer science's ability to process massive amounts of data to see if it is possible to identify what occurs in the brain when people think specific thoughts. The researchers asked subjects to think about 10 objects, five tools, and five dwellings. The subjects' brain activity was recorded and analyzed for each object. The researchers were able to identify what object they were thinking about from their brain activation patterns. Similarly, researchers at the Bernstein Center in Berlin are working to use brain scans to identify people's intentions. Bernstein Center research subjects were asked to make a simple decision, whether to add or subtract two numbers, which they would be shown later. Researcher John Dylan-Haynes says he could read directly from the activity in a small part of the brain that controls intentions what the subjects intended to do. Haynes also is working on a system that would be able to tell where people have been. One experiment involves having subjects navigate through a virtual world, and then showing them images of places they have seen and places they have not seen. FMRI scanning already is being used to try to understand what consumers want to buy and how to best sell those products as part of a new field called neuromarketing.
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