Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the June 8, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Into the Dark and Cold
Baltimore Sun (06/05/09) P. 1; Roylance, Frank D.

Nereus is a remote-controlled robot submersible that dived more than 35,000 feet to the freezing, lightless bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean on June 4. Its navigation system was designed by Johns Hopkins University professor Louis Whitcomb, who directs Hopkins' Laboratory for Computational Sensing and Robotics. The robot features a manipulator arm that it used to collect sediment, rock samples, biological samples, tube cores, and other materials, while onboard cameras captured video and still images during its 10-hour sortie. Nereus was linked to its controllers via a miles-long fiber-optic cable, which had to be designed to support its own weight without snapping. Nereus' instruments are housed in sealed lightweight ceramic cylinders to withstand the massive water pressure, while electricity is supplied by 4,000 rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Whitcomb led the development of the robot's navigation system. He says that underwater vehicles must track their own movements with various sensors because satellite signals used by global positioning systems do not penetrate the ocean. Among the sensors Nereus is outfitted with are sonar ranging, Doppler sonar, precision pressure sensors, a gyrocompass, and accelerometers, which are integrated by a central computer that estimates the submersible's position and speed. "With a robot like Nereus we can now explore virtually anywhere in the ocean," says Andy Bowen with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. "The trenches are virtually unexplored, and I am absolutely certain Nereus will enable new discoveries."
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Software 'Gives Children a Voice'
BBC News (06/04/09)

Children with impaired speech will be able to communicate better using "How was school today?" according to computing scientists from the Universities of Aberdeen and Dundee, and Capability Scotland. The team has developed a system that uses natural language generation to help users hold a conversation about their day at school. "How was school today?" uses sensors, swipe cards, and a recording device to gather information on what the child using the system has experienced at school that day, says Dr. Ehud Reiter from the University of Aberdeen's school of natural and computing sciences. The team tested the software at Capability Scotland's Corseford School, and students, teachers, therapists, and parents were all pleased with the system. Jan Vallery, whose 11-year-old daughter Nicole has cerebral palsy, said, "The program enabled her to talk easily and answer questions quickly, prompting more interaction and giving us a very detailed insight into her day." The scientists plan to study how to use the software to support children with different levels and types of disabilities.


Looking to Nature for Smarter Software Systems
Irish Independent (06/04/09) Boran, Marie

Mike Hinchey, the director of the NASA Software Engineering Laboratory and co-director of the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre, says that software engineering is in the middle of a crisis. He says developers are building bigger systems that are more advanced and have greater functionality than previous systems without making fundamental changes to the software engineering process. Users trust these systems to be self-managing, but they are being modified using standard practices, which Hinchey says creates the dangerous potential that software systems will not be able to keep pace with other technological advancements. An example of the advanced systems that are being used is the software aboard extraterrestrial explorers. If the software encounters a problem, even if it sends a message back to Earth, it would take 40 minutes to receive the message, by which time it may be too late. Consequently, the software needs to be able to identify and execute a solution on its own. Hinchey has been working on swarm machines for space exploration, which involves sending out numerous small machines, instead of a single large one, which makes the mission far more likely to succeed. However, these swarms require different coordination and functionality skills. For example, if a swarm is sent out into space, about 60 percent to 70 percent is expected to be lost. As individual pieces are lost, the remaining machines need to calculate what they are capable of as a group, a type of computing known as autonomic computing or biologically-inspired computing.


Lawmakers: Keep ICANN Oversight With US
IDG News Service (06/04/09) Gross, Grant

During a recent hearing held by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, Go Daddy Group attorney Christine Jones testified that the U.S. government should continue to oversee ICANN after the organization's joint project agreement with the U.S. Commerce Department expires this September. According to Jones, U.S. government oversight of ICANN is necessary because the organization needs to become more transparent and accountable to both registrars and Internet users. Jones criticized the mechanisms ICANN has put in place to appeal its decisions, which she said resulted in "ICANN reviewing ICANN." Several lawmakers also said the federal government should retain oversight of ICANN. Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said the lack of a joint project agreement between ICANN and Commerce could allow an enemy of the U.S. to gain control of the domain name system. Lawmakers and witnesses at the hearing also discussed ICANN's plans to create new generic top-level domains. Jones said the plan could force companies to register hundreds of new Web sites in order to protect their brand names from trademark infringement. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said the plan could result in confusion among consumers, increased fraud, and more cybersquatting cases.


Study: Web Trackers Systematically Compromise Users' Privacy
Dark Reading (06/03/09) Wilson, Tim

A University of California, Berkeley study found that Web users may be tracked by dozens of sources on a visit to a single site. Within a single month, the researchers found 100 monitoring agents on the site blogspot.com. Although many of the trackers used on blogging sites are low-level monitors used by bloggers to see who is reading their posts, major companies also are tracking a significant amount of Web traffic, according to the report. The researchers found five trackers operated by Google, including Analytics, DoubleClick, AdSense, FriendConnect, and Widgets. "Among the top 100 Websites this project focused on, Google Analytics appeared on 81 of them," according to the report. "When combined with the other trackers it operates, Google can track 47 of the top 50 Web sites, and 92 of the top 100 Web sites." The researchers note that even if Web users know that their online activities are being tracked, they have no way of knowing how that data is being used. The report says that 36 percent of the Web sites in the study openly acknowledge the presence of third-party tracking, but each of the sites also state that the data-collection practices of the third parties are outside the coverage of the site's privacy policy. "Based on our experience, it appears that users have no practical way of knowing with whom their data will be shared," the researchers report. The researchers note that many large companies have hundreds or even thousands of affiliates, sometimes in completely different industries, and occasionally in foreign countries.


Research Has All the Right Moves
Newcastle University (06/02/09)

Researchers at Newcastle University have developed a motion-capture device that makes it easier to identify the different aspects of movement or sequences. Users sketch the movement with a mouse or pen, and the prototype tool searches for and retrieves similar sequences in minutes. Searching for sequences is difficult because motion-capture tools produce so much data. "Capturing human movement data theoretically interests a variety of people, but its actual usefulness depends on how effectively data retrieval and analysis can be performed," says Sally Jane Norman, director of the Culture Lab at Newcastle. "This development opens up far more cross-sector opportunities, making human motion capture a rich area of interdisciplinary investigation 20 years after the animation industry first teamed up with biomechanics experts." She says the research should interest the biomedical sector, which monitors movement for diagnostic or corrective purposes. The film and gaming industries also have come to rely more on motion-capture libraries. The research also has potential applications for education, advertising, training manuals, and simulators.


Memory With a Twist: NIST Develops a Flexible Memristor
NIST Tech Beat (06/02/09) Boutin, Boutin

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) engineers have discovered a way to build a flexible memory component from existing inexpensive materials. The device is particularly promising because it appears to possess the characteristics of a memristor, a relatively new component for electronic circuits. Electronic components capable of flexing without breaking are highly sought after by portable device manufacturers. Flexible memory also could be worn on the skin to monitor vital signs such as heart rate or blood sugar. To create flexible memory components, the researchers used polymer sheets and experimented with depositing a thin film of titanium oxide on their surfaces. By adding electrical contacts, the researchers were able to create a flexible memory switch that operates on less than 10 volts, retains its memory when power is disconnected, and can function after being flexed more than 4,000 times. The switch's performance is very similar to a memristor, which is essentially a resistor that changes its resistance depending on the amount of current it is receiving and retains that resistance even after the power has been turned off. "We wanted to make a flexible memory component that would advance the development and metrology of flexible electronics, while being economical enough for widespread use," says NIST researcher Nadine Gergel-Hackett. "Because the active component of our device can be fabricated from a liquid, there is the potential that in the future we can print the entire memory device as simply and inexpensively as we now print a slide on an overhead transparency."


UCF Researcher Developing Computer Program to Detect, Measure Brain Tumors
University of Central Florida (06/02/09) Abney, Barb

University of Central Florida professor Mubarak Shah is using the techniques used to detect suspicious activity in airports, stadiums, and other public places to find and measure potentially life-threatening brain tumors. Shah, Orlando Health System neuro-oncologist Dr. Nicholas Avgeropoulos, and Florida Hospital Zephyrhills Sunshine Radiology neuroradiologist Dr. David Rippe are developing a method that will automatically measure and compare the size of a tumor in three dimensions from MRI scans. "Radiologists use computers to look at scans, but this is taking the next step--allowing computers to help radiologists analyze the pictures and enabling an automated method to calculate the size of tumors," Rippe says. A radiologist's analysis can be limited by a variety of factors, including tumors that are irregular in shape or have jagged edges, tumors with liquefied centers, or surrounding tissue that is deformed or changing shape—all of which are difficult to see and quantify. The automated analysis of a small data set using a preliminary method from Shah has proven to be up to 90 percent accurate compared to analyses by radiologists.


Drawing Inspiration From Nature to Build a Better Radio
MIT News (06/03/09) Trafton, Anne

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers have developed a fast, ultra-broadband, low-power radio chip for use in wireless devices. MIT professor Rahul Sarpeshkar and graduate student Soumyajit Mandal designed the radio frequency (RF) cochlea chip, which was modeled on the inner ear of humans, or cochlea. Sarpeshkar says the cochlea excels at quickly understanding what is occurring in the sound spectrum. "The more I started to look at the ear, the more I realized it's like a super radio with 3,500 parallel channels," he says. The cochlea uses fluid mechanics, piezoelectrics, and neural signal processing to convert sounds waves into electrical signals that are sent to the brain. When sound waves enter the cochlea they create mechanical waves in the cochlear membrane and the fluid in the inner ear, activating hair cells that cause electrical signals to be sent to the brain. The RF cochlea chip works as an analog spectrum analyzer that detects the composition of any electromagnetic waves within its perception range. Electromagnetic waves travel through electronic inductors and capacitors, the equivalent of the biological cochlea's fluid and membrane, and electronic transistors act as the cochlea's hair cells. The researchers say the analog RF cochlea chip is faster than any other RF spectrum analyzer, and consumes about 100 times less power than would be required for direct digitization of the entire bandwidth, making it useful as a component of a cognitive radio capable of receive a variety of frequencies.


Novel Flood Warning System Developed
King's College London (06/03/2009)

A more advanced flood warning system has been developed by researchers at King's College London and Hohai University in China. The multipurpose Novel Flood Early Warning System (NEWS) addresses both climate change and corresponding hydrological factors. NEWS provides early and reliable flood warnings for the short term (a few hours), and the medium term (a few days), as well as for risk analysis. NEWS incorporates weather forecasts and post-forecast data processing into one system, assesses the uncertainty and risk of an ensemble forecasts, and provides application programming interface Web services with interactive flood risk mapping. "The new system will satisfy many unmet technological demands in the field of flood prediction and risk analysis, and will bring significant benefits and commercial value to the private and public sector--in addition to the many lives we hope it will save," says King's College London's Hannah Cloke. NEWS has been tested in the United Kingdom and China. The team is now focusing on turning the research prototype into a commercial system.


Obama Administration Begins Work on Cybersecurity R&D
NextGov.com (06/03/09) Noyes, Andrew

A major aspect of U.S. President Barack Obama's plan to improve the country's cyberdefenses involves maximizing government investment in cybersecurity research and development. The final objective is the cybersecurity equivalent of the Manhattan Project. The new U.S. cyberczar will be tasked with developing a framework for research and development strategies that will create game-changing technologies, and provide the research community with access to event data to help develop tools and testing theories. Eventually, the czar will develop threat scenarios and metrics for risk management decisions, recovery planning, and prioritizing research and development efforts. "Research on new approaches to achieving security and resiliency in information and communications infrastructures is insufficient," says a new federal report based on a 60-day review of the U.S. government's existing cybersecurity initiatives. "The government needs to increase investment in research that will help address cybersecurity vulnerabilities while also meeting our economic needs and national security requirements." One such initiative cited in the study is a National Science Foundation grant program for students dedicated to pursuing cyber-related government careers, which has supported more than 1,000 students in eight years. Obama also has proposed a $37.2 million cyber research and development budget for the Department of Homeland Security for fiscal 2010 to support operations in its national cybersecurity division and projects within the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative.


Women Faring Well in Hiring and Tenure Processes for Science and Engineering, But Still Underrepresented in Applicant Pool
National Academy of Sciences (06/02/09) Frueh, Sara; Yeibio, Luwam

Women are still underrepresented in the applicant pool for faculty positions in math, science, and engineering at major research institutions, but those who do apply are interviewed and hired at rates equal to or higher than those for men, concludes a new National Research Council report. The study also found that although women are underrepresented among those considered for tenure, those who are considered get tenure at the same or higher rates than men. Females who applied for tenure-track positions in each of six disciplines--biology, chemistry, mathematics, civil engineering, electrical engineering, and physics--had better odds of being interviewed and receiving job offers than males. But the report sees a gap between the rate of women applying for tenure-track jobs at research-intensive universities and the rate of women earning Ph.D.s, and this gap is widest in disciplines with larger portions of women receiving Ph.D.s. "Our data suggest that, on average, institutions have become more effective in using the means under their direct control to promote faculty diversity, including hiring and promoting women and providing resources," notes Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Claude Canizares. "Nevertheless, we also find evidence for stubborn and persistent underrepresentation of women at all faculty ranks." Further research on unresolved issues, such as why more women are not applying for tenure-track positions, why female faculty continue to experience a sense of isolation, and how nonacademic issues impact women's and men's career choices at critical points, has been urged by the study committee. "Overall the newly released data indicate important progress, and signal to both young men and especially to young women that what had been the status quo at research-intensive universities is changing," says Yale University School of Medicine professor and committee co-chair Sally Shaywitz.


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