Welcome to the August 12, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Berkeley Lab Gets $62M to Build Blazing Ethernet Network
Network World (08/11/09) Cooney, Michael
The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has been awarded $62 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to develop what it says will be the world's fastest computer network. The lab will use the Energy Sciences Network (ESnet) to build a prototype 100 Gbps Ethernet network to connect DOE supercomputer centers at speeds 10 times faster than today's ESnet. ESnet currently serves an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 DOE researchers and more than 18,000 non-DOE researchers from universities, government agencies, and private industry. "This network will serve as a pilot for a future network-wide deployment of 100 Gbps Ethernet in research and commercial networks and represents a major step toward DOE's vision of a 1-terabit--1,000 times faster than 1 gigabit--network interconnecting DOE Office of Science supercomputer centers," says DOE Office of Advanced Scientific Computing Research head Michael Strayer. ESnet recently announced a bandwidth reservation system called On-Demand Secure Circuit and Advanced Reservation System (OSCARS), which automatically collects information on the network's topology once an hour and determines if there are physical changes in the network, and updates its database accordingly. When a new reservation is received, OSCARS checks the database for conflicts with existing requests and reserves a path for information to travel.
Your College Gets a Supercomputer! And Yours, and Yours!
Chronicle of Higher Education (08/10/09) Young, Jeffrey R.
There may soon be a supercomputer for every college thanks to the declining assembly costs and growing power of these systems. Monmouth College, for instance, built a homemade supercomputer out of dozens of old high-end computers purchased on eBay for about $200 per unit. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has constructed a series of shared supercomputers that any college can access online. Supercomputers are critical tools for the modeling of complex phenomena, and also are instrumental in many projects that display high-resolution images of data. A 2006 report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) contends that increasing supercomputer access is vital to the maintenance of U.S. research's competitiveness, and says that "problems of national need" will not be addressed unless more schools and more professors can use supercomputers to tackle their biggest challenges. Last year several colleges initiated a program to spread awareness about supercomputing by designating a professor at each participating campus as a proselytizer and tech-support contact for the NSF-supported TeraGrid supercomputer network. Monmouth professor Christopher G. Fasano, who put together the institution's supercomputer, is concerned that "a new kind of digital divide" could manifest itself if small colleges do not make appropriate supercomputing investments, and thus fail to draw the best students and researchers. He says that exposure to supercomputing is becoming an essential need for students, especially if they are to go to graduate school in technical disciplines.
Finding the Right Piece of Sky
Technology Review (08/12/09) Naone, Erica
At the recent ACM SIGGRAPH 2009 conference, Microsoft Research's Visual Computing Group presented SkyFinder, a search system designed to analyze images of the sky. Microsoft's Jian Sun says that unlike most commercial image-search systems, which rely on text associated with the image, SkyFinder provides good results while also allowing the user to interact intuitively with a search engine. SkyFinder can be used to search for different types of sky images. For example, a user can enter a request in natural language, such as "a sky covered in black clouds with the horizon at the very bottom," and SkyFinder will return images matching that description. SkyFinder analyzes and categorizes images using a popular method called "bag of words," which involves breaking the image into small patches and analyzing and assigning code words that describe each patch. By analyzing the patterns of the code words, the system can classify the image in categories such as "blue sky" or "sunset" and determine the position of the sun and the horizon. It also is possible to fine-tune a search using a visual interface. SkyFinder offers a screen that allows users to adjust icons to show the desired position of the sun and horizon. SkyFinder then arranges the images on screen, from blue sky to cloudy sky or from day time to sunset, and once the user has found an image he or she likes, that image can be used as a guide in a more targeted search.
ACM Information Retrieval Group Honors Pioneer in Search Techniques
The ACM Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval (SIGIR) has awarded the 2009 Gerard Salton Award to Microsoft Research's Susan T. Dumais in recognition of her innovative contributions to information indexing and retrieval systems. Dumais' research and development of novel interfaces and algorithms has significantly improved document indexing and search strategies and has helped to establish an important connection between human-computer interaction and information retrieval. The award was presented on July 20 at the 2009 ACM SIGIR Conference, where Dumais gave the opening keynote address. Dumais was an early developer of innovative interfaces and algorithms that were based on an understanding of computer users and the context of their search. She also was a co-developer of Latent Semantic Indexing, which helped overcome the "vocabulary mismatch" problem in searching that occurs when searchers and authors use different terms. Currently, Dumais is researching personal information management, user modeling and personalization, tightly coupling search and browsing, and implicit measures of user interest and activity. Dumais also has contributed both to the theoretical developments and practical implementations of key search issues, many of which incorporate knowledge of users and their context to improve search techniques. The Gerard Salton Award is presented every three years to an individual who has made significant, sustained, and continuing contributions to research in information retrieval.
U.S. Web-Tracking Plan Stirs Privacy Fears
Washington Post (08/11/09) P. A2; Hsu, Spencer S.; Kang, Cecilia
The White House is proposing to soften a long-existing prohibition on tracking how users peruse U.S. government Web sites with cookies and other methods, inciting suspicion among privacy advocates. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has proposed replacing a ban on using cookies and other technologies on government sites and replacing it with new standards. Supporters of the proposal say social networking and other services have transformed the way users share knowledge, and White House officials say those services can be used to enhance transparency and public participation in the government. Some privacy advocates say the change represents a fundamental and inexplicable shift in federal policy. The American Civil Liberties Union's Michael Macleod-Ball says the proposal could "allow the mass collection of personal information of every user of a federal government Web site." Even those in favor of revising the policy question whether the Obama administration is pursuing these changes at the behest of private companies, as the sector's clout in Washington has expanded significantly. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Electronic Privacy Information Center cite the language of a February contract with Google, in which a government agency specifically exempted the company so that it could access Google's YouTube site. Electronic Frontier Foundation legal advocate Cindy Cohn calls the agreement troubling. "It appears that these companies are forcing the government to lower the privacy protections that the government had promised the American people," Cohn says. "The government should be requiring companies to raise the level of privacy protection if they want government contracts."
Semantics-Based Software Boosts Company Performance
ICT Results (08/07/09)
SUPER, a European research project, has developed software that expedites companies' development or adjustment of their business processes while realizing cost savings through the application of semantic Web technology. The tools yielded by the project augment the business usability of the service-oriented architecture approach to software development. SUPER research consortium member Agata Filipowska says the project effectively brought together a trio of different research groups consisting of people working in the semantic Web, business process management, and information systems. Telecom business managers can model new business processes, seek out existing process fragments, automatically fill in the missing components in the process model, look for semantic Web services that will provide the functionality, organize business processes from available Web services, and perform implemented business process models through employment of the SUPER ontologies. SUPER tools can render business language as machine-readable language and vice versa, making expertise in the underlying information technology unnecessary. In the first stage of SUPER, a business analyst can model a new process on his or her computer using familiar flowchart-like graphics. The executable description of the process is readied from the outputs of the semantic business process modeling phase, while further flexibility is injected via semantic Web services. The SUPER tools oversee the performance of business processes during execution, while in the analysis stage this data may be used to check the business processes against key performance indicators and deliver feedback for continuous process improvement.
Computer Scientists Take Over Electronic Voting Machine With New Programming Technique
University of California, San Diego (08/10/09) Kane, Daniel
Computer scientists from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), the University of Michigan, and Princeton University have demonstrated that a Sequoia electronic-voting machine could be hacked, and votes stolen, using a programming technique that had not yet been invented when the machine was designed. The researchers used return-oriented programming to force a Sequoia AVC Advantage electronic-voting machine to turn against itself and steal votes. "Voting machines must remain secure throughout their entire service lifetime, and this study demonstrates how a relatively new programming technique can be used to take control of a voting machine that was designed to resist takeover, but that did not anticipate this new kind of malicious programming," says UCSD professor Hovav Shacham. In 2007, Shacham first described return-oriented programming, a systems security exploit that generates malicious behavior by combining short pieces of benign code already present in the system. The researchers had no access to the voting machine's source code, or any other proprietary information, when designing the attack. Previous voting-machine security research efforts have been criticized as having unrealistic access to the voting-machine system, but for this study the researchers only had access to information that would be available to anyone who bought or stole a voting machine. "With this work, we hope to encourage further public dialogue regarding what voting technologies can best ensure secure elections and what stopgap measures should be adopted if less than optimal systems are still in use," Michigan professor J. Alex Halderman.
Robots to Get Their Own Operating System
New Scientist (08/10/09) Campbell, MacGregor
Robots are limited by the fact that they are often designed and built in isolation for specific functions, and roboticists have started to consider what aspects of their manufacture can be standardized in the hope of developing a universal operating system (OS). "Robotics is at the stage where personal computing was about 30 years ago," says Brown University's Chad Jenkins. "But at some point we have to come together to use the same resources." It is almost impossible for robots to share code without a common OS. Teams at Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Technical University of Munich, Germany, are developing and using the Robot Operating System (ROS), an open source series of programs designed to function as a common platform for a wide spectrum of robotics research. ROS features software commands that, among other things, offer robotic navigation and limb/sensor controls without needing details of how the hardware operates. The operating system also boasts high-level commands for actions such as image recognition and even opening doors. With a common OS, robotics researchers would be able to concentrate on reproducibility.
Tiny 'MEMS' Devices to Filter, Amplify Electronic Signals
Purdue University News (08/10/09) Venere, Emil
Purdue University researchers are developing a new class of microelectromechanical (MEMS) devices called resonators that contain vibrating, hair-thin structures and could be used to filter electronic signals. Resonators vibrate in specific patterns, so they can cancel out signals that contain certain frequencies while allowing others to pass, making these devices useful for applications such as refining cell phone signals. The devices have led to a new type of band-pass filter, which is used in electronics to allow some signals to pass while blocking others, says Purdue professor Jeffrey Rhoads. This new class of resonators represents a potential way to further the miniaturization of band-pass filters while improving their performance and power efficiency. Incoming signals generate voltage that creates an electrostatic force, causing the MEMS filters to vibrate. In addition to their potential use as cell phone filters, resonators also could be used for advanced chemical and biological sensors for medical and homeland security applications, and possibly as a new type of mechanical memory element that uses vibration patterns to store data. "The potential computer-memory application is the most long term and challenging," Rhoads says. He says the band-pass filter design promises to create better performance than previous MEMS technology because it more strictly defines which frequencies can pass and which are blocked.
Computer 'Agents' Take to the Web
BBC News (08/06/09) Kleinman, Zoe
Artificial intelligence agents that automatically negotiate for online shoppers, called Negotiation Ninjas, will be tested on a shopping Web site called Aroxo this fall. The agents are the result of 20 years of work by researchers at Southampton University. "Computer agents don't get bored, they have a lot of time, and they don't get embarrassed," says Southampton professor Nick Jennings, one of the researchers behind the work. The agents use a set of rules called heuristics to find the optimal price for both buyer and seller based on information both parties provide. "We use heuristics to determine what price we should offer during the negotiation--and also how we might deal with multiple negotiations at the same time," Jennings says. "We have to factor in some degrees of uncertainty as well--the chances are that sellers will enter into more negotiations than they have stock." To use an intelligent agent, sellers must answer several questions on how much of a discount they are willing to offer and whether they can go lower after a certain number of sales. Buyers enter the item they wish to purchase and the price they are willing to pay. The agents then act as an intermediary and search the lists of sellers who are willing to accept a price in the region offered. If a match is found, the seller is prompted to automatically reply with a personalized offer. The buyer can then accept, reject, or negotiate, in which case the agent analyzes the seller's criteria to see if they can make a better offer. Aroxo will test the Negotiation Ninjas this fall, and plans to have the system fully operational by Christmas.
New Linux-Based Technology to Make 'Smarter' GPS
Computerworld Australia (08/06/09) McConnachie, Dahna
National ICT Australia has developed AutoMap, a Linux-based system designed to make personal navigation systems more accurate. AutoMap uses machine-vision techniques to detect and classify geometric shapes from video footage, including shapes such as signs and company logos, which can change frequently in a neighborhood and make it difficult for digital map makers to keep their projects up to date. AutoMap project leader Lars Petersson says an average of 10 percent to 15 percent of street signs in an area will change every year. He says mapping companies currently employ someone to drive up and down each street in a van equipped with five or six cameras, with a passenger making annotations. Collected footage is then examined frame by frame to determine the location of signs. Petersson says this manual task frequently results in numerous mistakes. The AutoMap system automatically detects signs from video footage, and with further research Petersson expects to have developed more advanced data-gathering techniques. One possibility is placing a small camera inside taxis, fleet vehicles, and garbage trucks. "These vehicles will traverse the whole road network on a regular basis," Petersson says. "They will be able to automatically detect points of interest and automatically send this information back to base where a complete and constantly updating map emerges over time." The researchers also plan to develop methods capable of recognizing three-dimensional images such as park benches and speed cameras.
Nanoelectronic Transistor Combined With Biological Machine Could Lead to Better Electronics
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (08/10/09) Stark, Anne M.
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have developed a hybrid platform that uses lipid-coated nanowires to build prototype bionanoelectronic devices. Incorporating biological components into electronic circuits could improve biosensing and diagnostic tools, advance neural prosthetics, and boost the efficiency of future-generation computers. "Electronic circuits that use these complex biological components could become much more efficient," says LLNL project lead scientist Aleksandr Noy. He says the creation of smaller nanomaterials that are of a similar size as biological molecules will allow for the integration of systems at a more localized level. To create the biological platform, the LLNL researchers used lipid membranes, which are ubiquitous in biological cells and form a stable, self-healing, and virtually impenetrable barrier to ions and small molecules. The lipid membranes also can house an unlimited number of protein machines capable of performing many critical recognition, transport, and signal transduction functions. The researchers incorporated lipid bilayer membranes into silicon nanowire transistors by covering the nanowire with a continuous lipid bilayer shell that forms a barrier between the nanowire surface and solution species. "This 'shielded wire' configuration allows us to use membrane pores as the only pathway for the ions to reach the nanowire," Noy says. "This is how we can use the nanowire device to monitor specific transport and also to control the membrane protein."
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