Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the May 15, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Professor Dame Wendy Hall Elected Fellow of the Royal Society
University of Southampton (ECS) (05/15/09) Lewis, Joyce

ACM president Wendy Hall has been elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science. The Fellowship of the Royal Society is second only to a Nobel Prize in terms of the highest accolade a scientist can receive. The Royal Society recognized Hall for her research into how humans interact with large-scale multimedia information systems. Hall, who is a professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, has recently focused on the new field of Web Science in an attempt to learn more about the evolution and the future development of the Web. "As someone who has very much focused on engineering and application building, I never really thought that being made a Fellow of the Royal Society was something I could expect to achieve in my career," Hall says. "It is also really important for the computing community that our field is increasingly being recognized for the significant role it plays at the forefront of science and engineering research today." Hall also has been a strong advocate for getting more females to consider careers in science and engineering.

Constantinos Daskalakis Wins ACM Award for Advances in Analyzing Behavior in Conflict Situations
Association for Computing Machinery (05/14/09) Gold, Virginia

ACM has awarded Constantinos Daskalakis the 2008 Doctoral Dissertation Award for advancing the understanding of behavior in complex networks of interacting individuals, such as those created by the Internet. Daskalakis's dissertation, "The Complexity of Nash Equilibria," provides a novel, algorithmic perspective on Game Theory and the Nash equilibrium. Daskalakis, a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research New England, was nominated by the University of California, Berkeley, and will receive the award at the annual ACM Awards Banquet on June 27 in San Diego. Daskalakis's dissertation explores whether rational, self-interested individuals can arrive, through their interactions, at a state in which no single one of them would be better off switching strategies unless others switched as well. This state is called a Nash equilibrium, and is traditionally used in Game Theory as a way of predicting the behavior of people in conflict situations. Daskalakis demonstrated that in complex systems the Nash equilibrium is computationally unachievable in some cases, suggesting the Nash equilibrium may not be an accurate prediction of behavior in all situations and emphasizing the need for new, computationally meaningful methods for modeling strategic behavior in complex systems, such as those found in financial markets, online systems, and social networks.

House Passes Bill to Strengthen Planning, Coordination of IT R&D, to Maintain U.S. Leadership
House Committee on Science and Technology (05/12/09) Snider, Alex Dery

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would have industry and academia get more involved in the strategic planning of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) program. "To ensure that we make the most effective use of our resources and to remain a leader in these fields, it is critical that the agencies that comprise NITRD come together to develop common goals and well-defined strategies," says Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), author of H.R. 2020, the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development Act of 2009. ACM was among the organizations that endorsed the measure, which also boosts support for large-scale, long-term, interdisciplinary research in networking and information technology. Moreover, the bill supports technology transfer between government, academia, and industry; creates a task force to oversee collaborative R&D activities in cyberphysical systems; formally establishes a coordination office; and makes education of the future NIT workforce a key part of the program. The government has invested in NITRD for almost 20 years, and the program has had a positive impact on the economy and national security, adds Gordon, chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology.

A Blueprint to Stop Browser Attacks
Technology Review (05/14/09) Naone, Erica

University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) researchers will present a new way of defending against cross-site scripting attacks at the upcoming IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy. The new defense enables a Web site to control how user-generated content is transmitted to a Web browser, neutralizing cross-site scripting attacks before they reach the end user. White Hat Security founder Jeremiah Grossman says cross-site scripting is the most prevalent threat on the Internet, and although newer Web sites are better equipped to defend against these attacks, there are still millions of vulnerabilities on the Internet. The UIC solution involves a layer of software called Blueprint that can be inserted between user-generated pages and the browser. Blueprint is stored on a Web site's servers, reads user-generated HTML, and checks it against a white list of trusted code, removing any potentially harmful scripts and deciding how content should appear in a browser. The software then reformats the information and transmits it to the browser. For example, Blueprint eliminates characters and symbols that are sometimes used to send unauthorized scripting signals to a user's browser. The solution was tested against 94 types of cross-site scripting attacks and successfully prevented every attack. "What we want to do is to take away the ability for the browser's parser to make any script-identification decisions on the untrusted content that is supplied by the Web application," says UIC professor V. N. Venkatakrishnan.

Is the U.S. Ready for Government-Sponsored Cyberattacks?
Network World (05/12/09) Messmer, Ellen

A recently published report from the National Research Council (NRC) contends that there has to be more public disclosure and informed debate about cyberarms and cyberwarfare. The report draws a comparison between the unchecked proliferation of cyberweapons and the spread of nuclear arms following World War II. The study sees a growing likelihood for a cyberarms race and cites the undisciplined use of cyberweapons being developed by the United States and other countries. Also of concern to the NRC is the absence of formal or comprehensive policies for cyberattacks in the national, political, and military arenas. "Programs to develop cyberattack capabilities are classified and dispersed throughout many program elements within the Department of Defense with the result the overall capabilities are not known even among those with the necessary clearances," the report says. "Effective Congressional oversight that goes beyond a few individuals on the relevant committees is also inhibited." The U.S. Strategic Command Joint Combat and Command of Network Warfare is the military's operations point for offensive cyberattack capabilities, but the NRC study indicates that the U.S. Air Force functions as "the main advocate" and wants to obtain a Cyber Control System that can perform automated network disruptions. The report suggests that the United States should be ready to discuss the topic of cyberweaponry in various venues and prepare policy. One of the toughest problems for military institutions that monitor the U.S. computer infrastructure for signs of attack is attribution, or pinpointing the originating source of a cyberattack.

Research Developed at the UPM's School of Computing Improves Traditional Survey-Taking Systems
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (05/11/09) Martinez, Eduardo

Researchers at the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid's (UPM's) School of Computing have developed a new intelligent text-mining system that restructures traditional survey systems. The new system has been applied to research conducted with the Universidad de Zaragoza based on a questionnaire intended to determine students' opinions on Gran Escala, a project to build Europe's largest leisure complex. Zaragoza's Multicriteria Decision-Making Group (GDMZ) created a Web site to test the new system, which was only accessible to the administrator and students selected to give their opinion. Using the Web site, students gave a total of 332 opinions on the benefits and negative aspects of the Gran Escala project. Students provided two different types of opinions, with some scored as numerical ratings and others expressed as texts. GDMZ applied numerical and statistical techniques to the scored responses to identify student preferences and the arguments supporting their opinions, while UPM's researchers designed intelligent text-mining techniques to analyze the texts entered by the students, which were found to closely match the numerical scores. UPM's Jesus Cardenosa says the success of the new system creates a new way of interpreting citizen opinion. He says the new system can be used to complement traditional survey-taking systems.

Studying Epidemics in Virtual Worlds
BusinessWeek (05/07/09) Hesseldahl, Arik

Computer models are increasingly being used by public-health officials looking for help in the fight against infectious diseases. For example, following the reports of a swine flu outbreak in Mexico, health officials in Allegheny County, Pa., began making contingency plans for how they would react in case the virus spread to their area. To test the possible success of their plans, the officials asked University of Pittsburgh computer scientists to create a working model of the county. Pittsburgh researchers built a virtual world containing the county's 1.3 million residents, which was used to run through 15 scenarios and various government reactions. Pittsburgh professor Dr. Bruce Y. Lee leads a team working on a virtual world effort to simulate outbreaks. The team enters real data on infections and deaths in different areas and creates simulations. The virtual world uses U.S. Census Bureau data to create a digital representation of each person in the United States, using details such as a person's age, location, and job. Lee says the biggest decision for public health officials is when to close schools and offices. Virtual simulations show that when workplaces and schools are closed, people do not necessarily stay home, and some still go for walks or to the mall where they can catch or spread a virus.

Playing for Keeps--Computerised Play Helps Elderly Stay Sharp
ICT Results (05/13/09)

The European Union-funded ElderGames project is designing cognitive and socially stimulating games to help older adults stay mentally sharp. Extensive trials enabled project researchers to design an inviting, interactive play table and display, and create a series of computer-driven games that challenge and monitor important cognitive skills, simulate social interaction, and are fun to play. The ElderGames system features a table with multiple cameras mounted on risers at the corners of the table used to identify each player, and special handheld pointers the players use to indicate their moves or choices, both of which allow players to interact naturally with the virtual world. Working with experts from several fields, the researchers identified a set of important mental abilities that are most affected by aging, including the ability to maintain and direct one's attention; fine motor skills; memory; and executive functions such as planning, problem solving, and decision making. The project analyzed hundreds of games and identified those that use key mental skills, could be played interactively, and were challenging and enjoyable enough to get players to play again. "Play is good in itself, but the challenge was to allow the users to train what the experts told us were the most important cognitive abilities in this period of life," says ElderGames coordinator Malena Fabregat. In addition to exercising and refining cognitive skills, the games can alert caregivers to any early warning signs of potentially serious cognitive changes.

The A-Z of Programming Languages: Tcl
Computerworld Australia (05/08/09) Edwards, Kathryn

John Ousterhout is the creator of the Tcl programming language. He says that its creation came about to meet the challenge of producing and deploying a powerful command language as a library package that can be embedded within diverse applications to form the core of the applications' command languages. Ousterhout says that his realization that he could construct a toolkit as an extension to Tcl led to the creation of the Tk framework. Ousterhout splits the Tcl ecosystem into two camps. "On the one hand are the Tk enthusiasts who believe that the Tcl/Tk's main contribution is its powerful cross-platform [graphical user interface] tools; they think of Tcl/Tk as a standalone programming platform, and are constantly pushing for more Tk features," he says. "On the other hand are the Tcl purists who believe the most unique thing about Tcl is that it can be embedded into applications." Ousterhout says the scope of activities encompassed by Tcl, rather than any single flagship application, has been the programming language's biggest advantage. He says the use of Tcl to build large programs took him by surprise, as he only anticipated that very short programs would be built with the language because it was originally designed as a command-line tool. Ousterhout thinks the migration of coding to scripting languages makes sense, as "scripting languages make it substantially easier to build and maintain certain classes of applications, such as those that do a lot of string processing and those that must integrate a variety of different components and services."

Faster Computers, Electronic Devices Possible After Scientists Create Large-Area Graphene on Copper
University of Texas at Austin (05/07/09) Vargas, Daniel

University of Texas at Austin researchers report that using copper to create large-area graphene could enable the manufacturing of new graphene-based devices and lead to faster computers and electronics. "Graphene could lead to faster computers that use less power, and to other sorts of devices for communications such as very high-frequency (radio-frequency-millimeter wave) devices," says professor Rod Ruoff. "Graphene might also find use as optically transparent and electrically conductive films for image display technology and for use in solar photovoltaic electrical power generation." The researchers have successfully grown graphene on copper foils in an area that is limited only by the size of the furnace used. The researchers demonstrated for the first time that centimeter-square areas could be covered almost entirely with mono-layer graphene with only a small percentage, less than five percent, being covered by bi-layer or tri-layer flakes. To determine graphene's mobility, the team created dual-gated field-effect transistors with the top gate electrically isolated from the graphene using a thin layer of alumina. The devices show that graphene's mobility, a key metric for electronic devices, is significantly higher than in silicon, and is comparable to natural graphite.

Cloud Computing Could Help Analyze Genomes
Diamondback (05/06/09) Nash, Jeff

University of Maryland computer scientists Mihai Pop and Steven Salzberg will spend the next two years developing software capable of analyzing genetic information in parallel on large computer networks. Pop and Salzberg will attempt to use cloud computing to accelerate the DNA sequencing process by buying computing power on a distributed network of computers. If successful, the two researchers will have found an easier way for scientists to study the genetic makeup of Earth's creatures. "Probably the most exciting benefit this technology could provide is mapping out the genetic content of pretty much every organism known to man," Pop says. "With faster and cheaper sequencing, we should be able to analyze anything." The researchers say that more efficient DNA sequencing could lead to significant biological breakthroughs. A $380,000 National Science Foundation grant will allow Pop and Salzberg to spend the next two years determining if cloud computing is a practical solution for DNA sequencing. One potential problem is how to efficiently send DNA sequences over the Internet. "The biggest open question for us right now is whether the Internet can keep up with the computations," Pop says. "It's possible that, even if our analysis would take only an hour on the computer cloud, it could take us an entire day for us to send all of the data."

Development of an Artificial Simulator of the Human Nervous System to do Research into Diseases and Test New Medicines
Universidad de Granada (04/16/09)

University of Granada researchers have developed EDLUT, an event-driven, lookup-table-based simulator that can reproduce any part of the human body's nervous system. EDLUT can simulate hundreds of thousands neurons at the same time using technology that compiles the behavior of a neuron or several types of neurons in a first stage. It then simulates medium- and great-scale neuronal systems based on those pre-compiled models. "This fact means an essential technological advance and indisputably affects the quality of nervous simulation," says University of Granada professor Eduardo Ros Vidal, coordinator of the EDLUT development project. The researchers say EDLUT will aid in the analysis and understanding of the functions of the nervous centers, enable research into new pathologies and diseases, and help test new medicines. EDLUT also could help improve robots and machines inspired by the human body and the nervous system. The free program was developed at the University of Granada's CASIP research group.

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