Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the September 9, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


A European Project Will Raise Young People's Interest in Studying for Scientific Degrees
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (Spain) (09/08/09) Martinez, Eduardo

Eight European universities, including the Technical University of Madrid, are participating in the European DynaLearn Project, which is designed to increase student interest in scientific subjects by fostering an interactive learning environment. DynaLearn is a response to the general decline of interest in science and the growing number of science students who drop out of school. Osborne's 2003 survey cited several reasons for this decline, including a lower level of commitment to science education in Europe. The survey also found that information technology is not often used for the purpose to which it is best suited--as a tool for examining theoretical concepts that explain natural phenomena. The DynaLearn project will create an environment that caters to individual students' needs, adapts conceptual knowledge to work in the classroom, and makes scientific subjects more entertaining. Students can use DynaLearn to work with one another and their teachers, discuss what they have learned, and compare their work with that of their peers. Users can even personalize their own avatars, adding a social dimension to the learning process that will make the sciences more accessible. DynaLearn's creators hope their technology will eventually become a standard at the high school and university level for science and other subjects.

Electrical Circuit Runs Entirely Off Power in Trees
UW News (09/08/09) Hickey, Hannah

University of Washington (UW) researchers have developed a nanoscale-sized electronic circuit that can capture enough electricity from trees to run a low-power sensor. "As far as we know this is the first peer-reviewed paper of someone powering something entirely by sticking electrodes into a tree," says UW professor Babak Parviz. Last year, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that plants generate a voltage of up to 200 millivolts when one electrode is placed in a plant and another is placed in the surrounding soil. UW undergraduate student and study co-author Carlton Himes found that bigleaf maples generate a steady voltage of up to a few hundred millivolts. The UW researchers then developed a boost converter, a device that captures a low, incoming voltage and stores it to provide a greater output. UW's boost converter is capable of capturing voltages of as little as 20 millivolts and producing an output voltage of 1.1 volts, enough to run low-power sensors. "Normal electronics are not going to run on the types of voltages and currents that we get out of a tree," Parviz says. "But the nanoscale is not just in size, but also in the energy and power consumption." He says the system could provide a low-cost option for powering tree sensors that could be used to detect environmental conditions or forest fires.

Privacy Plug-In Fakes Out Facebook
Technology Review (09/09/09) Lemos, Robert

University of Waterloo, Ontario researchers have developed FaceCloak, a browser plug-in that shields social network users' private data from both malicious users and social network providers. Waterloo professor Urs Hengartner says the plug-in replaces sensitive information in a user's profile with news feeds and meaningless text that can only be unscrambled by trusted friends and contacts. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) professor Alessandro Acquisti says most users are unaware of the privacy implications of posting personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. In 2005, Acquisti and fellow CMU researcher Ralph Gross found that almost 80 percent of Facebook users revealed their birthday and the majority provided public access to their real-world address, which could provide enough information to commit identity theft. Acquisti says users have recently started changing their access options to protect their information more carefully, but social network providers have not been good at protecting user privacy because monetizing personal information could result in millions of dollars in revenue. FaceCloak allows users to designate what information should be encrypted and made available only to friends. The user receives a secret access key and sends two other keys to friends. The keys are used to access the real information, which is stored on a separate server. Similar tools are being developed by other academic teams, including a Cornell University plug-in called None of Your Business that encrypts profile information so it can be read only by a small group of friends.

Bio-Computing Day at SC09 to Feature One of the World's Leading Scientists in Molecular Biotechnology and Genomics
Business Wire (09/04/09)

Biologist Leroy Hood will be the plenary speaker for the 22nd annual SCO9 conference, which takes place Nov. 14-20, in Portland, Ore. Hood, president and co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, will discuss predictive, personalized, preventive, and participatory (P4) medicine and how it will affect health care in the future. Elected to the Inventors Hall of Fame for the automated DNA sequencer in 2007, Hood has published more than 650 peer-reviewed papers, received 14 patents, co-authored several textbooks, and co-authored a popular book on the human genome project, "The Code of Codes." He will speak on Wednesday, Nov. 18, to kick off Bio-Computing Day. Co-sponsored by ACM, SC09 is expected to attract 11,000 people from around the world, including many top computational scientists, researchers, and supercomputing experts. "Computing for a Changing World" will be the theme of this year's gathering, and there will be a special focus on initiatives related to sustainability and the three-dimensional Internet.

Mobiles Are Key to Learning of the Future
Open University of the Netherlands (09/07/09)

In a speech entitled "Learning in a Technology Enhanced World," Open University of the Netherlands professor Marcus Specht will argue that mobile phones are one of the most important learning tools today. Specht's speech is part of the university's upcoming Mobile Learning in Context Symposium. More than 50 percent of the world's population uses mobile phones, and almost all 15-year-olds have a mobile phone in the Netherlands. Digital natives--people that grew up with the Internet, computers, and mobile phones--consider mobile technology essential for day-to-day living. Specht believes that education must advance as rapidly, and become as universal, as mobile media. He urges instructors to work with technological developers to create new teaching practices. He also says universities should find ways to make learning accessible not just in the classroom, but in any environment. "The students of the future will demand the learning support that is appropriate for their situation or context," Specht says. "And they want it at the moment the need arises. Not sooner. Not later. Mobiles will be a key technology to provide that learning support." He adds that a partnership between teachers and innovators could make the educational technology that seems so innovative today obsolete in 20 years' time.

Computer Science Lacks Women, Minorities
SD Times (09/04/09) Worthington, David

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that few students are enrolling in computer science courses, particularly women and minorities. The BLS ranks computer application software engineering as the fourth most in-demand occupation in its Occupational Handbook for 2006-2016, largely because of the growing number of applications for emerging technologies and the increasing complexity of businesses. However, the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Jan Cuny says there has been a major drop-off in the number of computer scientists entering the workforce since 2000. Since 2000, 70 percent fewer students have majored in computer science, with 80 percent fewer women entering the field, according to Computing Research Association data. Cuny says the Higher Education Research Institute reports that only 1 percent of students are majoring in computer science, and just 0.3 percent are women. University of North Carolina (UNC) at Greensboro professor Anthony Chow says that over the past eight years there has been a slight increase in women's enrollment in computer science at the undergraduate level, but on the graduate level minority enrollment plunges to extremely small percentages. Retaining minority employees is another major problem, with nearly half of all minorities leaving technology jobs to enter other occupations, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Isolation is a major factor in the drop-out rates for women and minorities, says Teresa Dahlberg, director of the Diversity in Information Technology Institute at UNC Charlotte. She also says that women are often judged more harshly than men. Cuny says NSF is focusing on information education programs intended to spark student interest in computing by demonstrating how computers can solve programs through creativity, and also is working to infuse computer science into middle school and high school curricula.

Electronics Reach Out to the Ends of the Age Spectrum
New York Times (09/07/09) P. B4; O'Brien, Kevin J.

The economic slump is spurring electronics companies to develop cutting-edge products designed to appeal to both poles of the age spectrum--the very young and the very old--in an attempt to improve their bottom lines. "Targeting technology to the very old and the very young is a fast-growing field," says Mark Neerincx with Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. "This is going to be a big business." At the TNO research institute in Delft, Philips has developed the iCat, a robot that targets young children. Another TNO-designed robot for children is the Nao. Both products can see and talk and move facial features to emulate empathy. Neerincx says the robots, which have successfully developed emotional connections with young children, are programmed to teach children to avoid overeating and remind them to take insulin and other important medications. Meanwhile, Iker Laskibar with Spain's Ingema institute notes that there is a growing elderly population, and their numbers, along with improvements in quality of life, is driving companies such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM to ask how they can adapt their products to this market. DSC-Zettler's Levent Bektas also points out that older adults are now more willing to spend money on life-improving technology. Nintendo's Wii, for instance, has become popular among U.S. seniors who are using simulations such a bowling for diversion and low-impact exercise.

Arkansas Receives $3.3 Million Grant From National Science Foundation
University of Arkansas (09/03/09) McGowan, Matt

The University of Arkansas has received a $3.3 million National Science Foundation grant to build and support a cyberinfrastructure and to train students and workers in information technology (IT) systems, tools, and services. The Cyberinfrastructure for Transformational Scientific Discovery in Arkansas and West Virginia project is part of a broader effort to create a research consortium between the two states. At the University of Arkansas, the funding will enhance supercomputing resources at the Arkansas High Performance Computing Center, which supports research in computational science, nano- and ferroelectric materials, and multiscale visualization. "Beyond the critically important goal of helping scientists discover, understand, and solve complex problems that affect our lives, this award will enhance undergraduate education, provide training for information-technology workers, and support statewide initiatives such as the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network," says professor Amy Apon, principal investigator for the project. The project's objectives include creating a nationally competitive environment for computation and visualization and developing hardware and software capable of creating and capturing data with the goal of enabling a broad range of research in science and engineering. The project also will provide training in cyberinfrastructure and IT to students and the work force through a network of faculty and professional staff.

Open-Source Camera Could Revolutionize Digital Photography
Stanford Report (CA) (08/31/09) Orenstein, David

The Frankencamera is an open source device developed by Stanford University researchers that will enable programmers to change the camera's features and support new possibilities for digital photography. "The premise of the project is to build a camera that is open source," says Stanford professor Marc Levoy. When the camera's operating software is publicly released, users will be able to continuously modify it. One of the most mature computational photography concepts is the notion of extending a camera's dynamic range, or its ability to accommodate a wide spectrum of illumination in a single frame. High-dynamic-range imaging involves taking pictures of the same scene with different exposures and then blending them into a composite image in which every pixel is optimally lit. Usually this trick can only be done with images in computers, but the Frankencamera makes it possible to perform this process at the scene, using its open source software. The Stanford researchers also have developed an algorithm that augments the resolution of videos with high-resolution still photographs, and another objective is to have the camera communicate with computers on a network. "What we're talking about is, tell [the camera] what to do on the next microsecond in a metering algorithm or an auto-focusing algorithm, or fire the flash, focus a little differently and then fire the flash again--things you can't program a commercial camera to do," Levoy says.

New Microprocessor Runs on Thin Air
New Scientist (09/03/09) Barras, Colin

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor researchers Minsoung Rhee and Mark Burns have developed a series of channels and valves that process binary signals by sucking air out of tubes to represent a 0, and filling tubes to represent a 1. The processor's channels are composed of a chain of 1s and 0s, with pneumatic valves controlling the flow of signals between channels. The pneumatic valves are operated by changing the pressure in a small chamber below the air channel, separated from the circuit by a flexible and impermeable membrane. By filling the lower chamber, the membrane pushes upwards and closes the valve, preventing the binary signal from traveling through the junction. The researchers used these valve-controlled channels to create a variety of logic gates, flip-flops, and shift registers, which were connected to create a working 8-bit microprocessor. Rhee and Burns say the air processor could help improve lab-on-a-chip devices, which have yet to be of significant use, partially because they generally require a large number of bulky and expensive off-chip components to control their operation. Using logic circuits could provide those controls, but because many microfluidic systems do not have electronic components, adding standard electronic valves would require new manufacturing processes. "Many microfluidic systems use pneumatic valves to control liquid flow, so adding the pneumatic control circuits should be relatively simple and inexpensive," Burns says.

Researchers Find a New Way to Attack the Cloud
IDG News Service (09/03/09) McMillan, Robert

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found security holes in Amazon's EC2 cloud-computing service. The researchers were able to execute basic versions of side-channel attacks, in which a hacker looks at indirect information related to the computer to determine what is taking place on the machine. The researchers succeeded in pinpointing the physical servers used by programs running on the EC2 cloud, and then extracted small amounts of data from those programs. Previous research has demonstrated the vulnerability of side-channel attacks. In 2001, University of California, Berkeley researchers were able to extract password information from an encrypted SSH data stream by performing a statistical analysis of how keystrokes generated traffic on the network. By looking at the computer's memory cache, the UCSD and MIT researchers were able to obtain basic information about when other users on the same machine were using a keyboard to perform tasks such as accessing the computer using an SSH terminal. The researchers say that measuring the time between keystrokes enables them to determine what is being typed on the machine. To perform this attack, the researchers had to determine which EC2 machine was running the program they wanted to target, a difficult challenge as cloud computing is supposed to hide this information. However, by performing an analysis of DNS traffic and using a network-monitoring tool, the researchers developed a technique that could provide a 40 percent chance of placing their attack code on the same server as their target. Security experts say that side-channel techniques could lead to more serious problems for cloud computing.

Computational Process Zeroes in on Top Genetic Cancer Suspects
Johns Hopkins University (09/01/09) Sneiderman, Phil

Software capable of mining hundreds of genetic mutations and highlighting the DNA changes that are most likely to promote cancer has been developed by a team of Johns Hopkins researchers led by professor Rachel Karchin and doctoral student Hannah Carter. "Our new screening system should dramatically speed up efforts to identify genetic cancer risk factors and help find new targets for cancer-fighting medications," Karchin says. The Cancer-specific High-throughput Annotation of Somatic Mutations (CHASM) method was first used by the team to sort about 600 potential brain cancer suspects into driver mutations and passenger mutations. Preparation for the sorting involved a machine-learning method in which approximately 50 characteristics or properties associated with cancer-causing mutations were assigned numerical values and programmed into the system. Drivers and passengers were then separated and ranked using the Random Forest classifier technique, and the leading genetic errors were those that collected the most driver votes while the ones with the most passenger votes ended up at the bottom of the list. Karchin and Carter plan to post their system on the Web so that researchers around the world can use it freely to prioritize their studies. The researchers say that the CHASM technique can be tweaked to rank mutations that may be associated with different forms of the disease, such as breast cancer or lung cancer.

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