Welcome to the January 8, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Government Brews National Cloud for Science
Computerworld Australia (01/07/10) Pauli, Darren
A national cloud computing network will be made available to Australian researchers, as will $50 million toward the development of a petabyte supercomputer and data network within three to five years. "Everything is heading toward data-intensive science, and effective network access speeds will go through the roof," says Lindsay Botten, director of the National Computational Infrastructure group. "The federal budget funds--$20 million for the data center and $30 million for the petascale computer--were allocated for the next two years to provide computer resources to specific research areas like climate change, which itself received substantial money." Through these upgrades, scientists in many disciplines will be able to access--usually for free--the Australian computer networks without needing advanced information technology skills. Organizers also intend to strengthen the ties between Australia's cloud research networks and the massive grids spread across the Northern Hemisphere, such as those employed in the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Within five years, Australian and New Zealand scientists will jointly run under a trans-Tasman cloud network that promises to deliver greater simplicity, scalability, and standardization than the current grid. The Australian Research Collaboration Service will lead the effort, and it plans to expand its overseas grid connections that link Australian and New Zealand researchers to the major European and U.S. networks.
Fighting Trend, China Is Luring Scientists Home
New York Times (01/07/10) LaFraniere, Sharon
China is using financial incentives and appeals to national pride to reverse the drain of top science and engineering talent to the West. China's spending on research and development (R&D) has steadily increased over the last 10 years and now amount to 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). The United States spends 2.7 percent of its GDP on R&D, but China's share is much higher than most other developing countries. Although China excels in certain scientific fields, such as nanotechnology, it struggles in other areas and has never had a Nobel Prize winner for research conducted in mainland China and ranked only 10th in the number of patents granted in the United States in 2008. Chinese students have been leaving at an increasing rate for several years. Almost 180,000 scientists left in 2008, nearly 25 percent more than in 2007. Those who obtained science or engineering degrees were among the least likely to return to China. However, China has been able to draw some prominent scientists back. Many scientists are lured by their patriotism, their desire to affect change, and their belief in the Chinese government. "I felt I owed China something," says Shi Yigong, a molecular biologist who left Princeton University and returned to China last year. Many Asian scientists also confronted a glass ceiling in the United States, Shi says. Since his arrival in China, Shi has been actively recruiting more scientists to leave the West. In less than two years, he has recruited about 18 post doctoral fellows, almost all of them coming from the United States.
Argumentative Agents for Online Deal-Making
ICT Results (01/08/10)
European researchers have developed argumentative agent technology that relies on artificial intelligence to make reasoned decisions. The project, known as the Argugrid project, can browse the Internet for a certain product, evaluate prices, and compare quality or shipping times. The agents can enter into negotiations with other agents representing other parties in the online marketplace and haggle with them to make the best deal. "You might describe them as proxies for companies and people in electronic marketplaces," says Imperial College London's Francesca Toni. Argumentative agents represent a solution to the problem of needing faster, cheaper, more efficient electronic marketplace transactions. The system uses a peer-to-peer framework known as PLATON and an integrated distributed platform known as GOLEM, which supports the software agents. Although the underlying software uses several different, complex technologies, the argumentative processes are simple for users to understand. Rather than using mathematics and numbers to evaluate products, Argugrid uses text-based arguments. "People can follow and understand what is going on at any stage of the process," Toni says. "If they wanted to it would also be possible for them to intervene and provide their own input to the decision-making and negotiating processes." The agents also can evaluate the trustworthiness of potential business partners. The Argugrid team suggests the system can be used for other purposes such as earth observation and evaluating customer needs.
Smartphones Help Collect Data on Malaria Cases in Remote Uganda
Computerworld (01/08/10) Weiss, Todd R.
The Uganda Malaria Surveillance Project (UMSP) is an effort to fight outbreaks of malaria in Uganda by tracking cases in remote regions using a combination of smartphones, a modern relational database, and remote-access software. Nine smartphones deployed at rural data collection centers are used to wirelessly transmit information on patients, malaria incidence rates, and the impact of interventions to a central server in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. There, the information is fed into the main malaria project data center. The remote-access software, LogMeIn Rescue, enables Kampala-based UMSP staffers to instantly and securely retrieve the collected data from the smartphones in the field. The program was installed on the smartphones, and a single handset was deployed to each of the nine remote data collection sites. This enables data-entry workers in each facility to copy their collected malaria database file information onto a MicroSD card and plug it into the phone. Once the phones are activated, the devices can send the data to the central Kampala server. Ruth Kigozi, the monitoring and evaluation coordinator for the malaria tracking program in Kampala, says the collection and analysis of malaria data in Uganda has been transformed with the smartphone deployment. "Data is received within the first week of the current month, providing for timely analysis and dissemination," she says.
Pi Calculated to 'Record Number'
BBC News (01/06/10) Palmer, Jason
The mathematical constant pi was recently computed to a record 2.7 trillion digits, about 123 billion more than the old record. Computer scientist Fabrice Bellard used a desktop computer, running for 131 days, and more than a terabyte of hard disk space to complete and check the result. The old record of about 2.6 trillion digits was set in August 2009 by the University of Tsukuba's Daisuke Takahashi using a supercomputer that was 2,000 times faster than the one Bellard used. Huge calculations such as the one conducted by Bellard is part of a branch of mathematics known as arbitrary-precision arithmetic, or knowing a given number to any amount of decimal places. Bellard plans to release a version of the program he used to the public. Arbitrary-precision arithmetic has practical uses. "People have used it as a vehicle for testing algorithms and for testing computers; pi has a precise sequence of digits, it's exactly that, and if your computer isn't operating flawlessly some of those digits will be wrong," says the Mathematical Association of America's Ivars Peterson.
U Arizona Team Seeks to Construct International Internet Classroom
Campus Technology (01/06/10) Schaffhauser, Dian
University of Arizona (UA) researchers are developing the International Internet Classroom as a way to help teachers access information and teaching resources. The project will use artificial intelligence and user-generated data to create pertinent educational resources. The UA team plans to release a Unit Package Editor in February 2010 to a small test group of teachers. The tool will enable teachers to build and share collections of educational resources such as lectures, exercises, homework assignments, and videos. "Just about every single educational idea is out there, and we want to make it easy to develop and to share that information," says UA computer science department head Paul Cohen. A similar project, called eTwinning, already exists in Europe and has about 74,000 members and 3,980 active projects for teachers to use. The service connects educators from European Union countries. International collaboration among students is very important, as educators in other countries have realized, while U.S. teachers seem to fight global educating efforts, says Alan November, an international education consultant. As part of the UA project, a survey of U.S. educators was developed to determine how they use Internet-based resources. According to the survey, teachers use tools such as Wikipedia, Discovery Education, and YouTube, as well as search engines such as Google and Yahoo, to locate educational resources.
Airline Security: The Technical Task of Connecting Dots
InformationWeek (01/07/10) Foley, John
Maintaining the security of airlines entails a formidable effort to assimilate intelligence data produced by numerous sources, if intelligence breakdowns, such as the one that led to the near-bombing of an airliner on Christmas Day, are to be averted. Among the myriad elements that must be linked together from multiple intelligence agencies is data on known terrorists and suspects, information taken from passports and visa applications, ticket purchases, airport screening systems and procedures, airline passenger lists, video surveillance, information generated by associates of terrorists and suspects, phone records, and even hints on social media sites. Intelligent Enterprise's Doug Henschen says the challenge the U.S. government is facing is the classic information management problem of mining mammoth volumes of structured data as well as unstructured data for meaning that could make the difference between life and death. Technologies and practices that play a role in data assimilation include business intelligence tools, enterprise content management, data integration middleware, master data management, complex event processing, text mining, identity resolution, data mining, data cleansing, relational databases, and data warehouses. Emerging technologies such as social media analysis software and open source search capabilities also could contribute to the intelligence enhancement effort. However, technology alone will not cure the intelligence community's communication difficulties. People, processes, and communications also need to be emphasized.
Your Keyboard Knows That It's You and You're Stressed
New Scientist (01/07/10) Blincoe, Robert
University of Abertay Dundee researchers have developed software that identifies a person by their typing style. Mike Dowman and colleagues designed a program that generates a typing "fingerprint" for each person based on the length of time each key is held down. The researchers asked 35 people to log into a computer 36 times over three sessions using just a username and password combination. The software was able to correctly identify users 97.2 percent of the time in nearly 43,000 login attempts. The software also can detect stress in the user because of changes in the typing patterns and timing, Dowman says. "There's no question: people do type differently under stress," he says, and suggests that security systems could be designed to sound an alarm if it seems that a person might be forced to log into the system. The Abertay system has a similar success rate to other biometric systems such as voiceprints and fingerprint scanners, says computer security consultant Neil Barrett. He says passwords may become obsolete because "you can take the identification characteristics of the way they type in their username."
Wanted: Cyber Ninjas
New York Times (01/03/10) Drew, Christopher
U.S. colleges are adding courses and specialized degrees in the once-exotic field of cybersecurity to try to meet the growing demands for computer security skills in the public and private sectors. Banks, military contractors, and software companies, along with government agencies, are looking for "cyber ninjas" to keep investments and new projects safe from hackers. Polytechnic Institute of New York University in Brooklyn recently created a master's degree in cybersecurity, as did Indiana University, whose security degree is in informatics, which gears students toward finding new uses for information technology. Other U.S. universities, including Carnegie Mellon, Purdue, and George Mason, also have master's programs in cybersecurity. Georgia Tech offers a master's degree in information security online. Cybersecurity is seen as "the most technically demanding field, kind of like the fighter pilot of the information technology industry," says recent California Polytechnic State University graduate Jeffrey Henbest. Government officials expect the number of cybersecurity jobs to grow rapidly in the coming years.
Getting a Grip on School Timetables
A new optimization tool has the potential to help school administrators solve their timetabling problems. Developed by Arnaldo Vieira Moura and Rafael Augusto Scaraficci of the Institute of Computing at Brazil's University of Campinas, the Greedy Randomized Adaptive Search Procedure (GRASP) algorithm performed well in tests at three high schools in Brazil. Educational administrators normally address the issue of having enough teachers and resources for the appropriate classrooms and students manually, and that can take weeks for larger schools. School timetabling is viewed by mathematicians as NP-hard, the kind of problem that might be difficult for a supercomputer to generate a single, simple answer. GRASP is designed to find slots for teachers and classes for students, taking into consideration variables such as teacher preferences and workload requirements, the courseload requirements of students, and the conflicting demands for resources for different grade levels. The algorithm randomly selects lectures, assigns resources, and gives those with "greedy" criteria the highest scores; compares neighboring lectures and then re-ranks them in pairs; and then looks for near optimum solutions to guide its final decision. "The basic cycle is repeated a number of times and the overall champion solution is returned as the final answer of the algorithm," Moura says. GRASP could be adapted for other educational institutions and other timetabling problems.
DARPA Seeks Better, Faster Development of Complex Defense Systems
Federal Computer Week (01/05/10) Bain, Ben
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) wants to fund research that will act as a catalyst for the development of complex defense systems using new electromechanical systems and software. The new program, called META, hopes to create "model-based design methods for cyber-physical systems far more complex and heterogeneous than those to which such methods are applied today," according to a DARPA announcement. The cost and time needed to develop such systems has grown exponentially, DARPA says. META will develop a framework that can produce complicated aircraft and ground vehicles five times faster than current methods. META also will create new metrics and design flows that should help trim development and production time.
Researchers Create Single-Molecule Transistor
EE Times (01/05/10) Mokhoff, Nicolas
Molecules can behave like silicon transistors, according to researchers from Yale University and the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. The team used a benzene molecule attached to gold contacts to create a transistor. Yale professor Mark Reed and Gwangju professor Takhee Lee were able to manipulate the different energy states of the molecule to control the current passing through it. The scientific breakthrough comes after nearly a decade of developing techniques for observing what takes place at the molecular level. Developments include fabricating electrical contacts on small scales, identifying the ideal molecules to use, and determining where to place them and how to connect them to the contacts. "There were a lot of technological advances and understanding we built up over many years to make this happen," Reed says. Practical applications for a single-molecule transistor are still decades away, he says.
At Argonne Lab, a Shift From Radioactivity to Supercomputers
New York Times (01/01/10) Van, Jon
Argonne National Laboratory is phasing out its use of radioactive materials in favor of supercomputers for the purpose of conducting research. "The past was the past, and that really involved reactor experiments," says lab director Eric D. Isaacs. "The future is about a lot more computer-based types of design." The facility is hoping to draw more federal funding to help its researchers devise technologies that could support advancements in energy conservation and other fields. Argonne officials say nuclear-related work will continue at the lab, but the new machines will be used to run simulated reactor conditions. The federal government allocated $180 million to Argonne over two years, to be applied toward the reduction of its nuclear footprint as well as infrastructure upgrades, including gear designed to keep the next generation of supercomputers running at a cool temperature. The supercomputer investments follow in the footsteps of researchers such as Steven C. Pieper and Robert B. Wiringa, who earned the American Physical Society's Bonner Prize for their theoretical work in extending the reach of Monte Carlo programs through the use of supercomputers. Isaacs stresses that Argonne is concentrating on using computer simulation not just for nuclear reactor design, but for research into biology, materials science, and energy systems.
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