Welcome to the September 21, 2009 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Netflix Awards $1 Million Prize and Starts a New Contest
New York Times (09/21/09) Lohr, Steve
Netflix has awarded its million-dollar prize in the competition to develop better movie recommendation software to BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos, a seven-person team of statisticians, machine-learning experts, and computer engineers from the United States, Austria, Canada, and Israel. Netflix also announced that the competition was such a success that it is planning another one. The challenge, which started in October 2006, promised a million dollar reward for any contestant that could develop a movie recommendation algorithm based on user preferences that was at least 10 percent better than its Cinematch software. BellKor's Pragmatic Chaos, which was a combination of two previous teams, surpassed the 10-percent barrier in June, launching a 30-day period during which other teams could try to beat their system. In late July Netflix declared the contest over and announced that two teams had passed the 10 percent threshold--BellKor and Ensemble, a global alliance with about 30 members--and that the finish was too close to call. Netflix said that an additional review of the algorithms was needed. The contest has been closely followed because the lessons learned could be applied to other areas. Competitors were challenged to manage a huge data set of 100 million movie ratings, and the large-scale predictive modeling systems developed could be applied to fields in science, commerce, and politics.
U.S. as Traffic Cop in Web Fight
Wall Street Journal (09/20/09) P. A1; Schatz, Amy; Vascellaro, Jessica E.; Rhoads, Christopher; et al.
The U.S. government will likely clash with cable and phone companies in its plan to propose regulations that would force Internet service providers (ISPs) to assign equal weight to all Web traffic. The rules would ban carriers' blockage or slowdown of access to sites offered by competitors, among other things. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) director Julius Genachowski is expected to make a speech proposing for the first time that rules against blocking or slowing Web traffic would be applicable to wireless phone companies, say sources familiar with the plan. The FCC has a quartet of net neutrality principles that urge Internet providers to avoid restricting or delaying access to legal Internet sites and services. Genachowski is expected to propose that the commission convert the principles into formal rules as well as add a fifth precept requiring carriers to practice "reasonable" network management. Wireless carriers say the rules would prevent them from properly managing their networks. Analysts say that if U.S. wireless carriers are forced by the FCC to open their networks to streaming video and other data-intensive applications, their bandwidth capacity could be exceeded. Jupiter Research analyst Julie Ask says that in such an event, carriers may have to reassess how much they charge for data plans or even set a limit on how much bandwidth individuals receive. However, the new rules could benefit tech firms that are unable to pay ISPs for Internet access. "Any company or piece of software that becomes popular, generating a lot of traffic, would tend to benefit," says the Berkman Center for Internet & Society's Jonathan Zittrain.
EU Funding 'Orwellian' Artificial Intelligence Plan to Monitor Public for 'Abnormal Behaviour'
Telegraph.co.uk (09/19/09) Johnston, Ian
The European Union-funded Project Indect is developing software that monitors and processes information collected from Web sites, discussion forums, file servers, peer-to-peer networks, and individual computers in an effort to automatically detect threats, abnormal behavior, or violence. The project involves researchers from more than 10 European countries and is part of the EU's effort to expand its role in fighting crime and terrorism and managing migration. Project Indect, which started earlier this year, is developing a platform for the registration and exchange of operational data, multimedia content, intelligent processing of information, and automatic detection of threats. Researchers in York University's computer science department say their goal is to develop "computational linguistic techniques for information gathering and learning from the Web." Another EU project, Automatic Detection of Abnormal Behavior and Threats in crowded Spaces (Adabts), aims to develop models of suspicious behavior so that closed-circuit TV and other surveillance methods can be upgraded to automatically detect suspicious behavior. The Adabts system would track individuals in a crowd and analyze their body movements and the pitch of their voice. Adabts project coordinator Jorgen Ahlberg, of the Swedish Defense Research Agency, says the system will make it easier for security personnel to spot problems. However, Open Europe analyst Stephen Booth says the projects sound "Orwellian" and raise serious questions about individual liberty and rights. "These projects would involve a huge invasion of privacy and citizens need to ask themselves whether the EU should be spending their taxes on them," Booth says.
Turing Award Winner Barbara Liskov to Keynote at OOPSLA 2009
This year's ACM conference on Object-Oriented Programming Systems, Languages, and Appliances (OOPSLA 2009) will be held in Orlando, Fla., from October 25-29. OOPSLA will provide workshops, panels, tutorials, papers, posters, and other events on a variety of topics, including cloud computing, social networking sites, and agile software development. Barbara Liskov, winner of ACM's 2008 A.M. Turing Award, will be the keynote speaker. Other speeches and presentations will be provided by the National Science Foundation's Jeannette M. Wing, Gerard Holzmann from NASA's JPL Laboratory for Reliable Software, and Wikimedia's Brion Vibber. OOPSLA 2009 also will feature co-located events involving the International Symposium on Wikis and Open Collaboration (WikiSym), the Dynamic Languages Symposium 2009, and Onward!, a radical conference that fosters the multidisciplinarity of software development. OOPSLA workshops and panels will address software patterns and quality, architecture in an agile world, best practices for cloud computing, human aspects of software engineering, fundamental principles and interoperability requirements for domain specific languages, software engineering and architectures for real-time interactive systems, ontology-driven software engineering, and virtual machines and intermediate languages. OOPSLA 2009 also will feature DesignFest, a day-and-a-half event intended to sharpen design skills by challenging participants to work on real-world problems with a team of fellow OOPSLA attendees. For more information, or to register, visit http://www.oopsla.org/oopsla2009/.
Boston Globe (09/20/09) Johnson, Carolyn Y.
Two students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sought to determine whether online social network users were unknowingly revealing sensitive details through their virtual interaction with others, and they discovered through analysis of Facebook data that they could predict a person's sexual orientation just by looking at that person's online friends. MIT students Carter Jernigan and Behram Mistree used a program that studied the gender and sexuality of a person's friends and predicted homosexuality or heterosexuality through statistical analysis. "That pulls the rug out from a whole policy and technology perspective that the point is to give you control over your information--because you don't have control over your information," says MIT professor Hal Abelson. Project Gaydar, as Jernigan and Mistree call it, is an example of the rapidly accelerating field of social network analysis, in which the connections between people are examined to see what information can be extrapolated. The project taps the principle of homophily, which posits that similar people tend to group together. The method has demonstrated practicality in the identification of gay men, as opposed to gay women or bisexuals. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Kevin Bankston says this discovery shows the risk that people run in participating in social networks. "Even if you don't affirmatively post revealing information, simply publishing your friends' list may reveal sensitive information about you, or it may lead people to make assumptions about you that are incorrect," he warns.
FAU Receives Five-year Grant from the National Science Foundation to Create an Industry/University Cooperative Research Center for Advanced Knowledge
Florida Atlantic University (09/17/09) Galoustian, Gisele
Florida Atlantic University (FAU) has received a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to create a site for the Center for Advanced Knowledge Enablement (CAKE), which will establish a framework for interaction between faculty and industry to pursue advanced research in information technology, communication, and computing. FAU will work with Florida International University as one of nine NSF-supported centers. The goal of the CAKE project is to develop long-term partnerships between industry, academia, and government, and to promote high-quality industry research, strong industrial support and collaboration in research and education, and directly transfer university developed ideas, research, and technology to U.S. industry. The center will provide partners with numerous benefits, including early access to research innovations and opportunities to interact and work with faculty, students, and industry peers. The center also will provide a platform to leverage research and development investments with multi-university centers known for their innovative research capabilities. FAU's CAKE center will focus its research on new technologies for various Web-based applications, video compression and communication, next-generation hardware/software development techniques and tools for mobile devices, RFID-based automation systems, and other areas. "This grant provides FAU with the opportunity to conduct industrially relevant research, receive additional seed funding, and moreover, benefit from the recognition and prestige of being an NSF research center," says FAU's Borko Furht, CAKE's director.
Super-Dense Data Stores Cool Down
New Scientist (09/17/09) Barras, Colin
Super-dense "millipede"-style data storage systems could be enabled to function at room temperature with the development of a material that becomes soft when placed under pressure--a baroplastic--by engineers at Korea's Pohang University of Science and Technology. Millipede storage systems employ a sharp needle to etch data as a series of nanoscale pits in a tough polymer surface, and they read the data back by using the same needle to feel for what has been written. Punching a hole in the polymer requires a lot of heat, which consumes so much power that probe data storage is unaffordable, says Pohang University's Jin Kon Kim. His team designed a baroplastic that becomes soft at much lower pressure than earlier baroplastics, and they have demonstrated that the end of an atomic force microscope can etch the kind of tiny pits that store data in millipede-like systems by pressing on the new material. The probe tip also can read out the pits without altering them, through the application of lighter pressure. "The forces needed are relatively high, and this is likely to lead to tip wear issues," says University of Exeter's David Wright. He coordinates the pan-European Protem project, and says that the initiative has made progress with the development of new bilayer materials. "These combine a hard polymer skin just a few nanometers thick with a softer layer--for example, polystyrene--beneath," Wright says. "It combines the softness you want [to avoid damaging the probe tip and for fast writing speeds] with the thermal stability necessary for long data lifetimes."
New Information System for Blind and Visually Impaired
Freie University Berlin (Germany) (09/16/09)
An information appliance that will enable the blind and visually impaired to engage in online communication without a fully equipped computer has been developed by the artificial intelligence group at Freie University Berlin. The InformA project is a joint effort of Freie University, Telekom Laboratories, and the Berlin Association for the Education of the Blind and Visually Impaired. A small computer connected wirelessly to the Internet, InformA is operated like a radio in that users can turn to different information channels. Users press a button to hear the time and weather, and to access audio files of current newspapers. InformA reads email aloud, and users can respond by dictating a message. Users can take pictures of letters, package information, and leaflets with the integrated camera if they want to know what they say, and send pictures of more detailed printed documents to a call center for further assistance. Field tests have begun with hopes of optimizing InformA for future users. "Through the wealth of information provided by InformA, the device can also be of interest for older people without previous experience with computers, who until now have not had access to information offered through the Internet," says project leader and Freie professor Raul Rojas.
Republican Lawmakers Want Answers From ICANN
NextGov.com (09/16/09) Noyes, Andrew
The top two Republicans on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee recently sent a letter to ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom to express their concern about several issues regarding the organization, including its plans to introduce a number of new top-level domains (TLDs). In their letter, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) said that ICANN's plans to introduce new TLDs would have negative consequences for both consumers and businesses. Smith and Coble noted that since ICANN's plan does not contain price caps, legitimate businesses could be discriminated against and asked to pay a premium for each domain they register or renew. The lawmakers also said that ICANN has made no economic justification for its plan, except for a report that has been criticized for not including empirical data that supports its claim that the introduction of new TLDs would benefit consumers. Smith and Coble also said they were worried about the expiration of the joint project agreement (JPA) that formally establishes a relationship between the U.S. Commerce Department and ICANN later this month. ICANN has said the JPA should be allowed to expire because it is ready to be an independent organization, though some U.S. lawmakers say the organization should be permanently tied to the Commerce Department. However, others say that new TLDs will be good for consumers and will not increase the amount of cybersquatting or Internet traffic. "There is only so much Internet traffic and so many cybersquatter dollars available at any given point in time," says eNom's Richard Tindal.
Surveillance Software Solves Security Snag
University of Adelaide (09/14/09) Gibson, Candace
University of Adelaide researchers have developed software that eliminates the need for security personnel at large public venues to search for suspicious activity among hundreds of different video screens. The program streamlines the information gathered from thousands of cameras and channels them into a single sensor. The researchers say the program helps prevent data overload in the surveillance network and saves workers time and effort. The software, developed at Adelaide's Australian Centre for Visual Technologies, is being commercialized by Snap Network Video Surveillance. When security personnel find suspicious activity, they can "perform virtual walkthroughs to investigate without risking their personal safety," says Snap co-founder Henry Detmold. He says that because the program makes automatic connections between thousands of security cameras, one security operator can simply "follow people throughout the whole network, in real time." Fellow Snap co-founder and Adelaide professor Anton van den Hengel says the software can be used for arenas as large as airports and the 2012 London Olympics. Adelaide researchers will continue to develop the software with universities in Australia and New Zealand.
City 2.0: IT Will Make Cities More Engaging and Energy-Efficient
Computerworld (09/14/09) Brandon, John
Cities will be transformed by WiMax, smart grids, social networks, and other emerging technologies, once they are cohesively integrated. WiMax is seen as a critical tool for supporting city-wide wireless services. WiMax offers more ubiquitous access than Wi-Fi, because WiMax is available throughout a given area while Wi-Fi hot spots require users to search for them. The notion of the smart grid is oriented around the idea of using electricity when it is available at low cost rather than at peak periods, and the integration of renewable energy sources into the grid via two-way communication between utility companies and the businesses and individuals who use their power. There might be a central command center for overseeing and adjusting power usage and for delivering information technology (IT) services through WiMax, but the actual IT operation could reside in the computing cloud rather than in the city's data center. Social networking technology also is being tapped to provide online services through which citizens can keep up with local developments and comment on neighborhood issues. For example, Dublin, Ohio, uses networking software to operate a portal where government officials can post blogs, engage in dialogue via instant messaging, and share documents. Dublin plans to make the private network accessible to all citizens over the next several months.
Deaf Children Learn to Sign by Toying With RFID
RFID Journal (09/11/09) Swedberg, Claire
Language Acquisition Manipulatives Blending Early-childhood Research and Technology (LAMBERT) is a system that hearing-impaired students in Louisiana and Texas are using to learn American Sign Language. The system was developed by researchers at Southeastern University to address the language requirements of deaf preschoolers, their teachers, and their non-deaf parents. LAMBERT uses 25 toys outfitted with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags that help students learn to use sign language, in conjunction with a laptop or desktop PC and an RFID interrogator that plugs into a computer's USB portal. An object's tag must be held in close proximity to the reader, and once the tag is read, the computer runs an animated sequence that includes video of an individual signing that object's word, along with several pictures of the item so the student becomes familiar with the many versions of that object. The word is then spoken for the benefit of users with some hearing capabilities. The U.S. Department of Education is funding an expansion of the LAMBERT system through a $390,000 grant. Southwestern University professor and LAMBERT co-developer Becky Sue Parton says the grant will expand the number of RFID-enabled items from 25 to 500.
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