Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the October 29, 2010 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


Chinese Supercomputer Wrests Title From U.S.
New York Times (10/28/10) Ashlee Vance

China's Tianhe-1A supercomputer is poised to replace the U.S.'s Jaguar supercomputer on the Top500 list of the world's fastest machines. Built by China's National University of Defense Technology, the Tianhe-1A has 1.4 times the horsepower of the Jaguar and performs 2.5 times 10^15 mathematical operations per second. Although the official list of the 500 fastest machines goes public Nov. 1, the Chinese supercomputer "blows away the existing No. 1 machine," says University of Tennessee computer scientist Jack Dongarra. The Chinese system links thousands and thousands of Intel and NVIDIA-produced chips, but the real technological achievement is the networking technology, which was developed by Chinese researchers, Dongarra says. The Chinese interconnect system can handle data at about twice the speed of InfiniBand interconnect technology, which is used in many supercomputers. Dongarra also predicts that China will have another machine on the Top500 list that ranks among the five fastest in the world. The United States plans to make much faster machines out of proprietary components and to advance the software used by these systems so that they are easy for researchers to use, says computer scientist Steven J. Wallach.
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DHS Urged to Bolster Cyber Infrastructure Security
InformationWeek (10/27/10) Elizabeth Montalbano

A new U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report says the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is not doing enough to ensure that critical infrastructure such as power grids and telecommunications networks will continue to operate in the event of a disaster. The GAO report says DHS has not properly trained its Protective Security Advisors (PSAs) to articulate their responsibilities in relation to resiliency issues. PSAs are tasked with helping the owners of infrastructure and serving as mediators between them and DHS and other local, state, and federal government agencies. In addition, the GAO report says DHS faces difficulties in developing resiliency strategies for the various networks it is charged with protecting. The report includes several recommendations for DHS, such as developing resiliency performance measures and updating its guidelines for PSAs in order to make it easier to ensure that vital infrastructure will hold up in the wake of a disaster. The report also urges DHS to develop a better approach to disseminating resiliency information and recommendations. DHS says it is working to implement some of GAO's recommendations.

Microsoft Provides Azure Access to Academic Projects
ZDNet UK (10/27/10) Tom Espiner

Microsoft recently gave consent to the University of Nottingham to use its Azure cloud computing platform for three years free of charge to work on the Horizon project. Horizon and Inria, a French computer science collaboration, are researching technologies that can be used for societal benefit. "In the collaboration with both institutions, Microsoft [previously] focused on research projects rather than computing resources," says Microsoft's Dan Reed. The Horizon project will feature 10 Microsoft researchers who will contribute to building software, tools, and technologies on Azure. "Researchers will use whatever model is appropriate, but our plan is to make most of the software open source," Reed says. One of the goals of the Microsoft researchers will be to develop desktop software that can handle interfacing with back-end high-performance computing systems. The Nottingham researchers want to study how Azure can be used as a technology to deliver services, and how small businesses can use Azure in their business models, says Horizon project director Derek McAuley. "[Researchers will look at] apps for location-based services that integrate social networking with car-sharing," he says.

Japanese Printer Syncs Pictures With Smells (10/26/10) Mark Brown

Keio University researchers will present an ink-jet printer that can print out a photo with the appropriate scent for the image at the upcoming ACM Multimedia 2010 conference in Florence, Italy. The team has modified a Canon printer and replaced the typical ink cartridges with vials of four different aromas. Instead of sending out droplets of color, the printer makes a tiny, picoliter smell that can produce aromas of lemon, vanilla, lavender, apple, cinnamon, grapefruit, and mint. Still, hurdles remain for the aroma-printer, such as synchronizing smells. A normal printer holds just cyan, magenta, and yellow to mix the colors on the fly, while the aroma-printer would need space for hundreds of vials for different smells. Moreover, the researchers need to develop software that would enable the printer to automatically recognize elements of an image and release the appropriate aroma.

New Software Brings Facial-Recognition Technology to Mobile Phones
University of Manchester (10/26/10)

University of Manchester scientists have developed facial recognition technology for smartphones that can track a user's facial features in real time. The software is part of a face- and voice-verification system for mobile Internet applications that could potentially replace passwords and PIN numbers for logging onto Web sites. "Our model runs in real time and accurately tracks a number of landmarks on and around the face, such as the eyes, nose, mouth, and jaw line," says lead researcher Phil Tresadern. "A mobile phone with a camera on the front captures a video of your face and tracks 22 facial features." The face verification software has been demonstrated on a Nokia N900 for the European Union-funded Mobile Biometrics project. The researchers say the ability to tell who a user is, where they are looking, and even how they are feeling could lead to some fun applications. For example, virtual objects could be attached to users' faces as they move around.

Getting the Big Picture Quickly
University of Utah News (10/26/10) Lee J. Siegel

University of Utah researchers have developed Visualization Streams for Ultimate Scalability (ViSUS), software that quickly edits huge photographs containing billions of pixels. ViSUS can produce good approximations of what the full image would look like by sampling only a fraction of the pixels, enabling users to interactively edit and analyze massive images in seconds instead of hours, says Utah professor Valerio Pascucci. The software can be used to edit medical images such as magnetic resonance imaging and computed axial tomography scans in three dimensions, and also could lead to more sophisticated video games. "We are studying the possibility of involving the player in building their own [gaming] environment on the fly," Pascucci says. The system can produce previews at various resolutions by taking progressively more and more pixels from the data that make up the entire full-resolution image. "In our method, the preview has constant size, so it can always fit in memory, even if the fine-resolution data keep growing," he says.

Water Could Hold Answer to Graphene Nanoelectronics
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (10/26/10) Michael Mullaney

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) researchers have developed a method for using water to tune the band gap of graphene, which could lead to new graphene-based transistors and nanoelectronics. The researchers exposed the graphene to humidity, which allowed the band gap to form. The research team, led by RPI professor Nikhil Koratkar, showed how to open a band gap in graphene based on the amount of water they adsorbed to one side of the materials. "In this study, we demonstrated a relatively easy method for giving graphene a band gap," Koratkar says. "The advantage of water adsorption, compared to gasses, is that it is inexpensive, nontoxic, and much easier to control in a chip application." He notes that graphene is naturally a zero band gap material, and because semiconductor devices require material with band gaps, developing a technique for creating band gaps in graphene is key to its use in electronics.

At SRI, Developing an Expertise in R&D, Innovation
CNet (10/26/10) Daniel Terdiman

The nonprofit SRI International is a leading research and development (R&D) center, but it also specializes in the commercialization of its products. "Our mission is to be the world's leader in innovation, delivering new innovations and solutions into the marketplace," says SRI's Norman Winarsky. "That's very different from our peers, which are usually [set up] to educate, or to do R&D alone." Winarsky says that at least 70 percent of the center's contracts are with the U.S. government, while about 50 companies that began within the institute have eventually been spun off. At any given moment SRI is undertaking approximately 2,000 projects, spread across its five major divisions of information technology, physical sciences, engineering systems, education, and biosciences. One innovation generating excitement in SRI's pipeline is electroadhesion technology, which enables small robots to climb walls. SRI also is striving to ascertain the next significant fields of innovation, with Winarsky pointing to cybersecurity and the advent of artificial intelligence-based virtual personal assistant systems as two such areas.

Robot 'Hands' Write Without Fingers
ScienceNOW (10/25/10) Kristen Minogue

University of Chicago physicist Eric Brown has conducted detailed research on the use of grain sacks as a universal gripper for robots. Brown and colleagues use a thin rubber sack filled with coffee grains or small glass spheres, which contracts by 1 percent in volume when the hand comes in contact with an object. A small pipe sucks air from the sack, enabling the hand to mold to the shape of the object. The hand has some trouble grasping flat objects such as plastic discs, porous objects such as cotton balls, and anything bigger than half its size. However, researchers say the hand is very versatile and can pick up just about any shape, and unlike conventional robotic hands, does not require the manipulation of 20-odd joints with a computer. "This seems like a much better way to go," says Yale University physicist Corey O'Hern, who believes that making the sack stickier could solve the porous-object problem, but notes that his idea might make it hard to let go of objects. The researchers believe the technology would benefit amputees, as it would be easier to operate than current prosthetic hands on the market.

New Model to Trace the Origins of Information
University of Southampton (United Kingdom) (10/25/10) Joyce Lewis

A community of international researchers has developed a data model for tracing the origins of information and for sharing provenance details between systems. University of Southampton professor Luc Moreau says it is now possible to determine whether computer-generated data has been forged or altered. Having an understanding of where data comes from will help users decide whether they want to trust the data. In 2006, Moreau launched the Provenance Challenge series, and the effort to exchange provenance between information systems has led to the design of the Open Provenance Model (OPM) and its revision in an open source community process. "Provenance is well understood in the context of art or digital libraries, where it refers respectively to the documented history of an art object, or the documentation of processes in a digital object's life cycle," Moreau says. "Interest in provenance in the e-science community is also growing, since it is perceived as a crucial component of workflow systems that can help scientists ensure reproducibility of their scientific analyses and processes."

Chip-and-PIN Crack Code Released as Open Source
ZDNet UK (10/25/10) Tom Espiner

Cambridge University researcher Omar Choudary recently released open source software that cracks the encryption used by chip-and-PIN readers and published the technical details of hardware used in the Smart Card Detective, a device he built and used to modify a transaction between a credit card and a reader. Choudary was able to carry out a card transaction without a valid PIN after modifying the Europay, MasterCard, Visa (EMV) protocol that underlies chip-and-PIN validation. "I would like this as an open framework for research to investigate how the protocol works, and to secure what's remaining," Choudary says. Although critics say that making the information public makes it possible for criminals to perpetrate card fraud, Choudary says that full disclosure of the details was a necessary step to get banks to fortify EMV security. An attack using the device is unlikely to be carried out by anyone other than researchers, according to the UK Payments Association. The association's Mark Bowerman says that criminals need to get their hands on a physical card to conduct an attack, and they would be more likely to employ it for online fraud.

7 Programming Languages on the Rise
InfoWorld (10/25/10) Peter Wayner

Seven increasingly popular niche programming languages offer features that cannot be found in the dominant languages. For example, Python has gained popularity in scientific labs. "Scientists often need to improvise when trying to interpret results, so they are drawn to dynamic languages which allow them to work very quickly and see results almost immediately," says Python's creator Guido von Rossum. Many Wall Street firms also rely on Python because they like to hire university scientists to work on complex financial analysis problems. Meanwhile, Ruby is becoming popular for prototyping. Ruby sites are devoted to cataloging data that can be stored in tables. MatLab was originally designed for mathematicians to solve systems of linear equations, but it also has found a following in the enterprise because of the large volumes of data that organizations need to analyze. Although JavaScript is not a new programming language, new applications for JavaScript are constantly in development. For example, CouchDB uses JavaScript's Map and Reduce functions to help bring harmony to both client and server-side programming. Other popular niche languages include R, which also is known as S and S-Plus, Erlang, Cobol, and CUDA.

5 Agencies Design Robots of the Future
Government Computer News (10/25/10) Henry Kenyon

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Agriculture (USDA) and Homeland Security (DHS) departments have collaborated to form the Robotics Technology Development and Deployment (RTD2) program, which aims to develop medical, military, scientific, agricultural and bomb-disposal robots. The program is developing technologies for robots that can work safely in close proximity to or in physical contact with people to help carry out "mundane, dangerous, precise, or expensive tasks," according to an RTD2 announcement. Both NIH and NSF are interested in developing robots to assist the elderly, the disabled, and hospital patients. DARPA is trying to develop robot actuators that are safer and stronger than human muscle. The USDA is researching ways for robotics to help automate farm work. The DHS is focusing on technology that can detect and disarm explosives.

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