Welcome to the June 22, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Iran's Web Spying Aided By Western Technology
Wall Street Journal (06/22/09) P. A1; Rhoads, Christopher; Chao, Loretta
Iran has developed a sophisticated system for monitoring and censoring the use of the Internet by its citizens, enabling it to examine and control the content of individual online communications on a wide scale. Technology experts both inside and outside Iran say the country's efforts to monitor Internet information far surpasses blocking access to Web sites or cutting Internet connections. The ongoing political turmoil has shown that Iran has the ability to perform deep-packet inspections, which enables government authorities to block communications, monitor and gather information on individuals, and alter communications for disinformation purposes. The "monitoring center," installed within the Iranian government's telecom monopoly, was part of a larger contract between Iran and a joint venture that included mobile-phone networking technology, says Ben Roome, a spokesman for the joint venture, which includes Siemens AG and Nokia. "If you sell networks, you also, intrinsically, sell the capability to intercept any communication that runs over them," Roome says. In recent months, the Iranian government has experimented with the monitoring technology, but had not used it extensively until the recent unrest. "We didn't know they could do this much," says a network engineer in Tehran. "Now we know they have powerful things that allow them to do very complex tracking on the network." Networking engineers familiar with the system say Iran can control all online communications from a single chokepoint, where emails and social-networking sites are monitored for keywords.
Ties That Bind: Organizing Large-Scale HPC in the European Union
HPC Wire (06/19/09) West, John E.
The European Union (EU) is making a substantial investment in pan-European resources in an effort to place its members on the cutting edge of the computational space. "Supercomputers are the 'cathedrals' of modern science, essential tools to push forward the frontiers of research at the service of Europe's prosperity and growth," says EU commissioner Viviane Reding. However, it is not easy or inexpensive to construct a large-scale supercomputing infrastructure to support research and industrial goals. Still, it is hoped that the EU's collective resources may make it possible for a strong high-performance computing (HPC) player to enter an arena currently dominated by the United States and Japan. The EU and individual members acting in tandem have vowed to establish a supranational supercomputing infrastructure, and the Distributed European Infrastructure for Supercomputing Applications (DEISA) consortium is a key nexus of the EU's HPC effort. DEISA's Hermann Lederer describes the infrastructure as "a European counterpart of [the U.S. National Science Foundation-funded] TeraGrid." DEISA partners are linked to users and each other through the TransEurasia Information Network and the National Research and Education Networks, while the DEISA Extreme Computing Initiative encourages researchers to greatly increase their understanding of vital research issues. The Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe is a vehicle through which the EU and European HPC leaders hope to further expand their investment in global computational leadership by setting up three to five "tier 0" facilities with petascale capacity to focus on broader EU science and industrial research objectives.
IT Careers Aren't Cool Enough for Canadian High School Students
Computerworld Canada (06/17/09) Kavur, Jennifer
A study by the Conference Board of Canada for the Canadian Coalition for Tomorrow's IT Skills (CCICT) and Bell Canada found that high school students place a greater emphasis on the coolness and fun factor of a job, even over job security and salary, and that many students are not drawn to information and communications technologies (ICT) careers because they do not believe the work is fun or cool enough. The report, "Connecting Students to Tomorrow's Jobs and Careers," is based on interviews with 1,034 students in grades 9 and 10 from Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax. Nearly 77 percent of the students believe ICT jobs offer average or above average pay, 74 percent believe ICT jobs provide average or above average job security, and 37 percent believe ICT jobs are above average in terms of creativity. However, 31 percent believe ICT jobs are not fun, and 25 percent believe ICT jobs are uncool. "Whether students regard ICT-related careers as appealing or not appear to depend critically on whether they regard ICT jobs as interesting, fun, and cool," the report says. The results of the study support many of the initiatives the CCICT has been working on during the past year, says CCICT executive board vice president Terry Power. Power says many assumptions on why kids were staying away from ICT revolved around parents getting burned from the dot-com crash, or high school counselors warning about ICT jobs being outsourced. However, the study found that students are staying away from ICT because of its uncool image.
Cell Phones That Listen and Learn
Technology Review (06/22/09) Grifantini, Kristina
A cell phone would be able to track the behavior of its user with SoundSense, new software developed by Dartmouth College researchers. SoundSense automatically classifies sounds as "voice," "music," or "ambient noise," but the user also can train it to recognize unfamiliar sounds. When a sound is frequently picked up via the microphone on a cell phone, SoundSense gives it a high "sound rank" and asks the user whether it is significant and if he or she wants to label the sound. In tests, the software correctly determined when the user was in a particular coffee shop, walking outside, brushing her teeth, cycling, and driving a car. "The SoundSense system is our first step in building a system that can learn [user behavior] on the go," says project leader and Dartmouth professor Tanzeem Choudhury. Monitoring everyday sounds via cell phones has the potential to provide people with much information on their daily activities, which could be used to improve their personal healthcare needs or time-management skills. SoundSense does not use a lot of power, sends data elsewhere for processing, stores raw audio clips, and can be told to ignore certain sounds.
Plan to Teach Military Robots the Rules of War
New Scientist (06/18/09) Simonite, Tom
Georgia Institute of Technology robotics engineer Ron Arkin is researching how military robots could be programmed to act ethically and obey the rules of engagement and has developed an "ethical governor" intended to guarantee that robotic aircraft follow a set of ethical guidelines in combat. He is demonstrating the system in simulations based on recent campaigns by U.S. troops in the Middle East. The simulations show that the system is able to identify a group of enemy soldiers but does not fire because they are inside a cemetery, and firing would violate international law, or that the system can limit a robot's fire to weapons that would only damage an enemy vehicle but not any surrounding vehicles or buildings. To develop the software, Arkin used studies of military ethics and conversations with military personnel, with the objective of reducing non-combatant casualties. Arkin emphasizes that his research, which is funded by the U.S. Army, is not intended to develop prototype battle robots. "The most important outcome of my research is not the architecture, but the discussion that it stimulates," Arkin says. He believes that the development of machines capable of determining when to use lethal force is inevitable, which means it is critical that when such robots are developed that they are capable of being trusted.
Intel Toots Its Research Horn for Chips--and More
CNet (06/18/09) Shankland, Stephen
Intel's recent Research Day provided demonstrations and previews of the variety of projects that extend beyond the company's core computer processor business. Projects on display included efforts to improve WiMax regional wireless network technology, advance mobile device processing capabilities while reducing energy consumption, refine software to make large-scale data storage faster, and transmit electricity wirelessly within a small room. Intel's CTO Justin Rattner also announced that the Corporate Technology Group at Intel will now be called Intel Labs, and will focus on evaluating not only what technology works, but discovering what does not before Intel invests significant funds in that area. Intel also emphasized its efforts to break into the mobile device market. Those efforts include the Atom chips and its next-generation Moorestown processors, which feature lower energy consumption requirements. Intel demonstrated technology that enables a Moorestown system to use less power by using a more aggressive version of existing power-saving techniques, including sending a computer into sleep mode as frequently and deeply as possible. Moorestown also makes platform-level engineering easier by combining numerous computer system elements onto a single processor and integrating graphics, a memory controller, and other elements into a system-on-a-chip, which makes it simpler for one part of a chip to signal when it is idle and does not need power, or when it is about to be busy and needs more power.
EU Lays Out Plans for the 'Internet of Things'
VNUNet (06/18/09) Bailey, Dave
The European Commission (EC) has developed a 14-point action plan to address some of the problems that could develop when everyday objects such as food packaging and prescription drug containers are equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags as part of an effort to create an "Internet of things." Such a network could have a number of benefits, including the ability of food packaging to record temperatures along a supply chain or warn patients when they are taking two prescription drugs that are incompatible with one another. However, a number of problems could begin appearing when the use of RFID technology increases, including issues with governance, privacy, and data protection. The EC says the action plan will address these issues and help Europeans benefit from the development of an Internet of things. Meanwhile, the EC is planning to gather a representative group of stakeholders in Europe to monitor the development of the Internet of things. However, the network's development could be hampered by the fact that Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) has yet to be introduced. The EC says IPv6 is necessary for dealing with the large number of IP addresses that will be created by putting RFID tags on everyday objects.
ORNL Finding Could Help Electronics Industry Enter New Phase
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (06/16/09) Walli, Ron
Researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have made a discovery that could lead to smaller, faster, more powerful, and more energy-efficient devices. The discovery revolves around a method to measure the intrinsic conducting properties of ferroelectric materials, which has been considered a promising material for several decades but had not been proven in an experiment. However, ORNL researchers Peter Maksymovych, Stephen Jesse, Art Baddorf, and Sergei Kalinin from the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences believe that they have made a breakthrough. "For years, the challenge has been to develop a nanoscale material that can act as a switch to store binary information," Maksymovych says. "Harnessing this functionality will ultimately enable smart and ultra-dense memory technology." The researchers have demonstrated a giant intrinsic electroresistance in conventional ferroelectric films, in which flipping the spontaneous polarization increased conductance by up to 50,000 percent. Ferroelectric materials can retain their electrostatic polarization and are used for piezoactuators, memory devices, and radio-frequency identification tags. The key distinction of ferroelectric memory switches is that they can be tuned using the thermodynamic properties of ferroelectrics, which can be used to minimize the power needed to record and read information.
Researchers Ready Personal Energy Monitoring Devices
EE Times (06/17/09) Walko, John
Embedded data mining, inertial sensors, and global positioning systems are used in a wireless device being developed to monitor the amount of energy a person consumes on a daily basis. Developed by researchers at Cambridge University's Computer Laboratory, the Personal Energy Meter (PEM) would record everything from the energy consumed while traveling, the heating and appliances people use, to the indirect energy used as a result of consuming manufactured food and goods. "Our Personal Energy Meter builds on existing environmental foot-printing efforts by considering if it is possible to apportion a fair share of the energy consumed by an activity or artifact down to a personal level," says Cambridge's Computer Lab Simon Hay. "We believe that it is possible to make the process virtually automatic, so that PEM users are free to go about their day normally without manually entering data." The PEM could be created as a separate device, but also could be incorporated into a mobile phone. The project is part of Computing for the Future of the Planet, a larger research program at the university.
Computer Idle? Now You Can Donate Its Time to Find a Cure for Major Diseases
University of Delaware (06/16/09)
More than 6,000 volunteers around the world are contributing computing power to the University of Delaware (UD) in an attempt to help biomedical researchers find cures for HIV, Parkinson's, arthritis, and breast cancer. UD's Docking@Home project is using the computing power to model and simulate the combinations of molecules and their binding orientations, or docking, in an effort to discover candidates for new drugs. The computer users are helping UD complete 30,000 docking tasks a day, according to professor and project leader Michela Taufer. The volunteers are using the open source program Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing to enable UD to automatically access their computers when idle. UD also is developing software for ExSciTecH, an immersive volunteer computing system to explore science, technology, and health, which will enable volunteers to "throw" a molecule into a protein with a Nintendo Wii. "Other people do yoga with a Wii," Taufer says. "We are doing science."
The A-Z of Programming Languages: Erlang
Computerworld Australia (06/16/09) Edwards, Kathryn
Erlang programming language creator Joe Armstrong says the language stemmed from an Ericsson research project to improve programming telephony applications. The problem it intended to address was writing a control program for a small telephone exchange in the best way. Armstrong says the language was released as open source to encourage its proliferation outside of Ericsson, and he notes that Erlang is most appropriate for writing defect-tolerant servers. "In the Erlang world we have over 20 years of experience with designing and implementing parallel algorithms," he says. "What we lose in sequential processing speed we win back in parallel performance and fault-tolerance." Armstrong agrees that Erlang's development will be driven by programming languages' increased exploitation of threading because of multicore processors. "As each new version of Erlang is released, we hope to improve the mapping onto multicores," he says. Armstrong says that Erlang appears to be headed along a path in which it will help shape the design of future programming languages, and he speculates that "as systems evolve Erlang will be there someplace as we figure out how to program massively fault tolerant systems."
Vanderbilt Doctors and Software Engineers Pioneer an Advanced Sepsis Detection and Management System
VUCast (06/15/09) Salisbury, David F.
Researchers from Vanderbilt University's Medical Center and Institute for Software Integrated Systems have developed a real-time system for sepsis detection. In May, the system was tested in the medical center's intensive care unit, and this summer an automated decision support system will be added to help guide attending physicians through complex sepsis treatments. "This is an effort to use the power of informatics to move from reactive to proactive medical treatment by creating tools to support the use of evidence-based clinical guidelines," says Vanderbilt HealthTech Laboratory director Peter Miller, who is overseeing the project. Sepsis occurs when bacteria invade the body from wounds or intravenous lines, which over-stimulates the body's immune system and causes inflammatory and abnormal clotting responses. Sepsis can result in organ failure and death. The system features an automated early detection system that alerts doctors that a patient may be developing sepsis, based on temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, and white blood count. Creating the system involved developing a special modeling language specifically designed for clinical decision-making. Although the language is specific to sepsis management, the underlying technical infrastructure can be used to model almost any medical protocol, says Vanderbilt graduate student Janos Mathe.
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