Welcome to the August 14, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
The Engineer Online (08/12/09)
Researchers at Australia's Information and Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence (NICTA) have developed the Secure Embedded L4 (seL4) microkernel, which they say is the world's first formal machine-checked proof of a general-purpose operating system kernel. The researchers say the seL4 microkernel provides the ability to mathematically prove that software governing critical safety and security systems in aircraft and motor vehicles is free of large class errors. The microkernel has potential applications in military, security, and other industries in which the flawless operation of complex embedded systems is critical. "Proving the correctness of 7,500 lines of C code in an operating system's kernel is a unique achievement, which should eventually lead to software that meets currently unimaginable standards of reliability," says Cambridge University Computer Laboratory professor Lawrence Paulson. NICTA principle researcher Gerwin Klein says the researchers have created a general, functional correctness proof, which he says is unprecedented for real-world, high-performance software of such a large size and complexity. The NICTA team invented new techniques in formal machine-checked proofs, made advancements in the mathematical understanding of real-world programming languages, and developed new methodologies for rapid prototyping of operating system kernels. "The project has yielded not only a verified microkernel but a body of techniques that can be used to develop other verified software," Paulson says. The research will be presented at the 22nd ACM Symposium on Operating Systems Principles, which takes place Oct. 11-14 in Big Sky, Montana.
China Pulls Back From Edict on Web-Filtering Software
Wall Street Journal (08/14/09) P. A7; Back, Aaron
China has decided not to require that Internet-filtering software be installed on new personal computers, but it will install the software, called Green Dam-Youth Escort, on computers at schools, Internet cafes, and other public places. China's Li Yizhong says the software was always intended to be optional, not mandatory, and that the regulations were unclear when first released by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. In May, China notified domestic and foreign computer manufacturers that they would be required to ship the filtering software with all computers sold in China by July 1, but on June 30 a ministry spokesman announced that computer makers had not had sufficient time to prepare for the requirement and that pre-installation of the software could be postponed. Li says the ministry's intention was always to give parents and individuals the voluntary option to install the software, and that China "fully respects everyone's freedom to choose." However, it is still unclear whether China may eventually require computer makers to package the software on a separate disk to be shipped with their PCs. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing says the U.S. government welcomes the news that the Chinese government will not require the installation of Green Dam software on all computers. Li did note that the software is being improved, and a new, better version of the software could be introduced.
ACM Computer Research Contest Showcases Student Innovations
ACM recently honored the Grand Finals winners of its Student Research Competition (SRC), which is sponsored by Microsoft Research and is designed to encourage students to pursue careers in computer science research. The preliminary competitions were held at 10 major ACM Special Interest Group (SIG) conferences last year, with each featuring research projects from an international field of graduate and undergraduate computer science students. Nearly 200 students applied to participate in this year's SRC events. The competition gives students the experience of a real-world conference to present their research to the community, the opportunity to demonstrate success in problem-solving projects, and practice presenting their research. In the graduate category, the first place winner was Xu Liu from the University of Maryland, College Park, for his work on mobile currency readers for people with visual impairments. The undergraduate winner was Alice Zhu of Harvey Mudd College for her work on diagram creation and editing for pen-based interfaces. The Student Research Competition takes place during the course of a year, with more than 10 presentations at various ACM SIG conferences, with each set of student presentations focusing on different areas of computing. Competitors are judged on the quality and significance of their work and the quality and clarity of the oral and visual presentations of results. Winners from each competition are eligible to complete in the Grand Finals, where their presentations are evaluated over the Internet.
Microsoft Team Traces Malicious Users
Technology Review (08/13/09) Lemos, Robert
In a paper that will be presented at ACM SIGCOMM 2009, which takes place Aug. 17-21 in Barcelona, Spain, Microsoft researchers will demonstrate HostTracker, software that removes the anonymity from malicious Internet activity. The researchers were able to identify the machines responsible for anonymous attacks, even when the host's IP address rapidly changed. The researchers say HostTracker could lead to better defenses against online attacks and spam campaigns. For example, security firms could create a clearer picture of which Internet hosts should be blocked from sending traffic to their clients, and cybercriminals would have a more difficult time disguising their activities as legitimate communications. The researchers analyzed a month's worth of data collected from a large email service provider to attempt to determine users responsible for sending spam. Tracking the origins of a message involved reconstructing relationships between account IDs and the hosts used to connect to the email service. The researchers grouped all the IDs accessed from different hosts over a certain time period, and the HostTracker software searched through this data to resolve any conflicts. The researchers also developed a way to automatically blacklist traffic from an IP address if HostTracker determines that the host at that address has been compromised. HostTracker was able to block malicious traffic with an error rate of 5 percent, and using additional information to identify good-user behavior reduced the error rate to less than 1 percent.
Caltech Scientists Help Launch the First Standard Graphical Notation for Biology
California Institute of Technology (08/11/09) Svitil, Kathy
California Institute of Technology (Caltech) scientists and colleagues at more than 30 labs worldwide have issued a series of standards for graphically representing biological information, which should make information sharing easier and lead to the more accurate, consistent, and more readily comprehensible depiction of biological models. "Engineers, architects, physicists, and software developers all have standard graphical notations for depicting the things they work on, which makes it possible for everyone in those fields to be on the same page," says Michael Hucka, co-director of the Caltech Beckman Institute's Biological Network Modeling Center. "I think [Systems Biology Graphical Notation (SBGN)] represents the first truly broad-based attempt at establishing the same kind of standardization in biology." Previous graphical notations in biology have often been marked by ambiguity, are employed in different ways by different scientists, and are only appropriate for specific needs. Hucka says SBGN will enable the advent of new industries dedicated to the development of software tools for working with, teaching, and publishing the notation. Hucka and his collaborators expect SBGN to be more effective as a community standard because it represents a more concerted initiative to establish a standard by interacting with numerous biologists, modelers, and developers of software tools. To prevent SBGN from becoming excessively large or complex, the researchers chose to define three separate but complementary classes of diagram, which represent molecular process, relationships between entities, and connections among biochemical activities. "SBGN combines an intuitive notation with the rigorous style of engineering and math," says Caltech professor John Doyle.
Visual Time Machine Offers Tourists a Glimpse of the Past
ICT Results (08/12/09)
The European Union-funded iTacitus project has developed a "visual time machine" that combines augmented reality (AR) content with location awareness capabilities in mobile devices to give visitors to historic sites a richer and more enjoyable experience. The AR system overlaps information and images in real time on photos and videos taken with mobile devices. Users "can look at an historic site and, by taking a photo or viewing it through the camera on their mobile device, be able to access much more information about it," says BMT senior researcher Luke Speller, who oversaw development of the technology. "They are even able to visualize, in real time, how it looked at different stages in history." The iTacitus project also developed location-based services and smart itinerary-generating software for tourists. Visitors to historic cities can provide the iTacitus system with their personal preferences, such as an interest in opera or Roman history, and the system automatically suggests places to visit and a list of events taking place. The itinerary feature also can dynamically schedule visits and provide directions between sites. At an historic site, the AR feature brings the cultural and historic significance of the site to life by providing AR content downloaded from a central server. ITacitus project manager Ben Hodgson says the plan is to provide the system for free to smartphone users, and then charge a fee for AR content at different locations.
Netflix Prize: It Ain't Over 'til It's Over
Wired News (08/12/09) Van Buskirk, Eliot
Netflix is offering a $1 million jackpot to any team that can improve its movie recommendation system by at least 10 percent, and the competition is proving to be a significant experiment in the area of crowdsourcing. In the latest development, more than 30 competing groups have mobilized into the Ensemble, a new team that seeks to beat Bellkor's Pragmatic Chaos, the first team to qualify for the prize. Rather than cutting and pasting a lot of code, the Ensemble team ran hundreds of algorithms from their members and blended their results into one set, employing a variation of weighted averaging that showed a preference for the more accurate algorithms. The competition is enhancing the credibility of prize economics, which is the idea that crowdsourced contests can yield better, less expensive results than a direct, concerted initiative. People are already citing the Netflix contest as evidence that crowdsourcing could be the solution to complicated problems for which no single answer may exist. "Some people on our team think this is the way that problems will be solved in the future," says Ensemble member Chris Hefel. "Large problems, with large teams all across the globe collaborating by Internet." Netflix is expected to announce the winner of the contest in September.
Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli on the Future of EDA
EDN (08/12/09) Wilson, Ron
University of California, Berkeley professor Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli believes growth to be the biggest challenge to electronic design automation, and meeting this challenge involves moving outside of the integrated circuit (IC). "We have to look into lateral domains that share fundamental characteristics with the process of chip design," he says. Sangiovanni-Vincentelli observes that in other system domains, spending on tools is not much of a tradition. IC designers are open to assistance from computers, but this represents an immense psychological barrier in other areas. Sangiovanni-Vincentelli says that contracting geometries are being accompanied by changes in the familiar domain of IC design. "We are just starting to look at electronic systems composed of nanostructures," he notes. "We will need new methods, new architectures, and new tools to deal with the uncertainties inherent in devices this small. The challenge is to compose complex, reliable entities from unreliable components." Sangiovanni-Vincentelli suggests the re-examination of feedback systems as a possible path toward addressing this challenge. He points to notable developments in systems characterized by massive redundancy and says that all these areas of inquiry are based on metamodeling, a single formalism that is not yet fully realized.
'Infectious' People Spread Memes Across the Web
New Scientist (08/12/09) Barras, Colin
The speed and scope of the proliferation of new pieces of information, also known as memes, across the Web may be accurately predicted though a modeling technique developed by Spanish researchers. They say the key is recognizing the fact that people vary in how "infectious" they are in terms of exchanging content on the Internet. The modeling of the viral spread of information online has involved the use of epidemiological tools developed to analyze the spread of biological viruses. However, while knowing the basic reproductive number (R0) of an infection can help forecast the probability and extent of actual viruses, applying the concept to online information only yields a likelihood of the meme's success or failure, according to Esteban Moro at Madrid's Carlos III University. He and IBM's Jose Luis Iribarren have proposed a model to predict the meme's spread by combining an expectation of the variation of people's infectiousness with the R0 number. "Our model can give predictions within 1 percent error once secondary reproductive number and human activity are estimated," Moro says. The researchers say their modeling methodology should apply to information proliferating though social networking sites and other online services as well as email.
The A-Z of Programming Languages: Clojure
Computerworld Australia (08/10/09) Edwards, Kathryn
Clojure programming language creator Rick Hickey says Clojure came out of his desire for "a dynamic, expressive, functional language, native on the [Java Virtual Machine/Common Language Runtime (JVM/CLR)]." He says Clojure is designed to support the writing of simple, fast, and robust programs. Hickey says he elected to develop another Lisp dialect rather than extend an existing one because he wanted the language's appeal to reach beyond existing Lisp users, and to support design decisions that would have broken backward compatibility with the existing Scheme and Common Lisp programs. "I originally targeted both the JVM and CLR, but eventually decided I wanted to do twice as much, rather than everything twice," Hickey says. "I chose the JVM because of the much larger open source ecosystem surrounding it, and it has proved to be a good choice." Hickey stresses that solid concurrency support is a key feature of Clojure. "All of the core data structures in Clojure are immutable, so right off the bat you are always working with data that can be freely shared between threads with no locking or other complexity whatsoever, and the core library functions are free of side effects," he says. "But Clojure also recognizes the need to manage values that differ over time."
New LED Lights Have a Bright Future for Communication
University of California, Riverside (08/12/09) Lovekin, Kris
Researchers at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) are leading the Center for Ubiquitous Communications by Light (UC-Light), a multi-campus effort to change how people communicate and navigate in homes, offices, airports, and hospitals by using light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to transmit data to laptops and other devices. "PDAs, HDTV, information kiosks, computers, and laptops all can be interconnected wirelessly through visible light," says UCR professor Zhengyuan Xu, the principal investigator of the project and director of UC-Light. Xu will work with experts in communication, navigation, transportation, networking, and circuit integration from UCR, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Xu says LED lights, with a proper data interface to a wired data network such as Ethernet, make it possible to build low-cost communication and navigation systems using existing lighting infrastructure. He says the research could have a major impact on broadband wireless communication, HDTV signals, traffic navigation and directions, information retrieval through cell phones and mobile devices, and smart home systems. "The visible light spectrum is several orders of magnitude larger than the crowded radio-frequency spectrum, and thus has huge potential for low cost and high data rate communication," Xu says.
IBM Gets $16 Million to Bolster its Brain-on-a-Chip Technology
Network World (08/05/09) Cooney, Michael
IBM recently received $16.1 million to accelerate its portion of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) research program established to quickly and efficiently create brain-like senses in hardware and software to enable computers to process and understand data faster. IBM has now received $21 million for the Systems of neuromorphic adaptive plastic scalable electronics (SyNAPSE) project, which also involves researchers from HRL Laboratories and Hewlett-Packard, among others. Through the SyNAPSE program, DARPA hopes to develop electronic neuromorphic machine technology that is scalable to biological levels. The objective is to create systems capable of analyzing massive amounts of data from numerous sources almost instantaneously, enabling the military and businesses to make decisions fast enough to have a significant impact on a problem or situation. DARPA says that programmable machines are limited by an architecture that requires human-derived algorithms to describe and process information. However, biological neural systems such as the human brain can autonomously process information in complex environments by automatically learning relevant and probabilistically stable features and associations. Currently, programmable machines are less efficient than biological systems by a factor of one million to one billion in complex, real-world environments. The SyNAPSE program aims to eliminate the programmable machine archetype and find a new way of creating machines. The effort will involve the collaboration of numerous technical disciplines, including computational neuroscience, artificial neural networks, large-scale computation, neuromorphic very-large scale integration, information science, cognitive science, materials science, unconventional nanometer-scale electronics, and CMOS design and fabrication.
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