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Welcome to the March 16, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


U.S. Supercomputer Experts Assess Radiation Risks Amid Crisis at Japanese Nuclear Facility
NextGov.com (03/14/11) Aliya Sternstein

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has enlisted a team of supercomputer experts to measure the radiation risks caused by the Japanese nuclear crisis. NNSA activated the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center, which will use supercomputer algorithms on radiation doses, exposure, hazard areas, meteorological conditions, and other factors to produce predictive models, and give U.S. authorities real-time estimates on the spread of radioactive materials in the atmosphere. "Not only do they have codes that are capable of understanding the degrading of the nuclear stockpile, but also that are capable of simulating, at the physical level, very sophisticated interactions between materials that are necessary for reactors to operate," says the Renaissance Computing Institute's Stanley C. Ahalt. The researchers will use the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's BlueGene/L and Dawn supercomputers, which are ranked Nos. 12 and 16 on the biannual list of the world's most powerful supercomputers. "Senior officials and technical experts from the Department of Energy continue to be in close contact with other agencies as well as with our Japanese counterparts as we work to assess what is a very serious and fluid situation," says NNSA's Damien LaVera.


May the Best Algorithm Win...
Wall Street Journal (03/16/11) Jennifer Valentino-DeVries

A new algorithm contest from the Heritage Provider Network, a California physicians group, is offering a $3 million prize for the algorithm that can best predict when people are likely to be sent to the hospital. Heritage is working with Kaggle Pty. Ltd. to run the contest, which begins on April 4 and will last about two years. The goal is to eventually use the algorithm to identify people who can benefit from additional services, such as visits from a nurse or preventive care, which would reduce the need for hospitalization and save costs, says Heritage's Jonathan Gluck. "We just wanted to spur innovation and different ways of thinking in health care," Gluck says. The Heritage contest is one of many open algorithm-creation contests that Kaggle has helped run, including one by Ford Motor Co. to use vehicle data to determine when a driver is distracted. "We've discovered it's a powerful way to do predictive analytics," says Kaggle CEO Anthony Goldbloom. He says that Kaggle will soon launch similar contests for the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Wikipedia, and others.
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Internet Activists Mobilize for Japan
Technology Review (03/14/11) Erica Naone

Tufts University researchers have modified Ushahidi, Web software that helps users share information during a crisis, to help victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Ushahidi enables users to send information that is automatically displayed on a map, helping rescuers find trapped individuals, identify dangerous areas that should be avoided, and locate food supplies and clean water. The software was originally created to monitor the riots after the 2007 Kenyan election. However, it also has been used during the aftermath of last year's Haitian earthquake, in coordinating snow removal efforts in New York City, to monitor the protests in Libya, and to cope with the floods in Australia. In addition, a Standby Task Force has been created for Ushahidi, which consists of trained volunteers that are ready to assist with mapping the information that is submitted after a disaster. The Ushahidi Standby Task Force currently includes more than 300 volunteers worldwide. Other Internet-based disaster-response services responding to the crisis in Japan include SparkRelief, which launched a programming effort to create a site that survivors can use to find housing, and Google, which designed a Web site to help locate people displaced by the disaster.


Fundamental Discovery Could Lead to Better Memory Chips
University of Michigan News Service (03/14/11) Nicole Casal Moore

Researchers at the University of Michigan, Cornell University, Penn State University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a method for improving ferroelectric materials that could lead to memory devices that last longer and offer more storage capacity and faster write speeds. Michigan professor Xiaoqing Pan led the development of a materials system that spontaneously forms nano-sized spirals of electric polarization at controllable intervals, which could help reduce the power needed to flip each bit from a 1 to a 0. The researchers layered ferroelectric material on an insulator with closely matching crystal lattices, resulting in large electric fields at the surface, which cause the spontaneous formation of the budding sites. The researchers also mapped the material's polarization with atomic resolution. "Using this technique, we've discovered unusual vortex nanodomains in which the electric polarization gradually rotates around the vortices," Pan says.


'We Need to See Ahead'
MIT News (03/15/11) Peter Dizikes

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Janet Napolitano recently cited science and technology research as a crucial element of national security. She also laid out ways that the U.S. government would like to recruit skilled academic researchers for public service. "We need to see ahead, and we need scientists to help us do that," Napolitano said. She addressed a broad range of research areas where the government is planning additional investment, including materials science and information theory. Napolitano noted that the sheer volume of digital information that U.S. intelligence organizations must mine for meaning every day represents a big data problem. "We therefore can't overstate the need for software engineers and information systems engineers," she said. "We need communications and data-security experts. And we need that kind of talent working together to find new and faster ways to identify and separate relevant data from non-relevant data." Napolitano stressed that DHS and other federal agencies are renewing their efforts to support scholarly research that is pertinent to U.S. security objectives. DHS also is launching a cyberworkforce program that aims to hire 1,000 researchers and workers to manage its growing computer science and information technology requirements.


Get SMART in Cyberspace: Protect Your Data
Newcastle University (03/15/11)

Newcastle University researchers have developed SMART AM, a data security system that acts as an extra virtual gateway that other users must pass through if they want to use or share data relating to a specific individual. The system, developed by Newcastle researcher Maciej Machulak and professor Aad van Moorsel, was recently demonstrated as part of a national conference on threats and trust on the Internet. Machulak says that as more people store their data on the Web, it is important to provide a new way to secure their data while still allowing users to share it in a controlled manner. He says the next step will be to use SMART AM as a virtual gateway or barrier, protecting individuals’ data from unwanted viewing, such as global positioning system tracking via mobile phones. "With our system the user could control what types of services should 'see' them in cyberspace and which should not," Machulak says.


Silicon Spin Transistors Heat Up
University of Utah (03/15/11) Lee J. Seigel

University of Utah researchers have developed spintronic transistors that can align the magnetic spins of electrons for the longest recorded period of time at room temperature, a breakthrough that could lead to a new generation of electronics that are faster and require less energy. "With spintronics, we want smaller, faster, and more power-efficient computers and other devices," says Utah professor Ashutosh Tiwari. The researchers used electricity and magnetic fields to inject spin-polarized electrons into silicon at room temperature. The key to the experiment was the use of magnesium oxide to help align the electrons' spins. For spintronic devices to be practical, electrons with aligned spins need to be able to move adequate distances and retain their spin alignments for a sufficient time. During testing, the electrons retained their spins for 276 picoseconds, during which the researchers calculated that the spin-aligned electrons moved through the silicon 328 nanometers. "These numbers are almost 10 times bigger than what we need [for spintronic devices] and two times bigger than if you use aluminum oxide," Tiwari says.


Researchers Create 'Collaboratory'
Daily Reveille (LA) (03/14/11) Matthew Albright

Louisiana State University (LSU) researchers are leading an effort to develop a cyberinfrastructure that will connect 10 universities in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi for conducting research on coastal hazards. The technology will enable researchers to collaborate on studies involving coastal dangers such as storm surge, flooding, oil spills, and coastal erosion, says LSU professor Q. Jim Chen. The researchers will create a system for storing and communicating data, which will provide a more comprehensive image of the coast. In addition, they will develop high-bandwidth optical networks, high-performance computing equipment, large-scale data storage systems, new videoconferencing software, and imaging equipment. The effort also includes an educational and outreach program that involves undergraduate and graduate students participating in the research and network process.


Mini Disks for Data Storage--Slanted Edges Favor Tiny Magnetic Vortices
Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (03/14/11) Christine Bohnet

A breakthrough in data processing could be facilitated by slanted outside edges on nanoscale magnetic disks envisioned by Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf researchers Jeffrey McCord and Norbert Martin. They say the configuration supports the production of magnetic vortices with a diameter of one-third of a thousandth of a millimeter. The technology could assist in the storage of larger amounts of data on increasingly miniaturized surfaces with as little power consumption as possible. Each vortice is directed either upwards or downwards, and in combination with the direction of the magnetic rotation, each disk can assume four different states on the smallest space. The vortices are produced by depositing minute glass spheres on top of a thin magnetic layer, and under specific circumstances all the spheres arrange adjacent to each other and thus cohere into a mask of hexagons with tiny gaps. When this layer is bombarded with argon ions, the ions penetrate the gaps between the spheres and force particles out of the magnetic layer located underneath the gaps. The process leaves the spheres with a diameter of only 260 nanometers, allowing the ions to also penetrate areas located further inside the disks, achieving the desired slanted edge.


Warning on GPS Jamming Threats
University of New South Wales (03/11/11) Peter Trute

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) recently organized a workshop to discuss the vulnerability of global positioning systems (GPS). Navigation, vehicle and freight tracking, and location-based smartphone services are among the applications that now use GPS, often relying on low-powered GPS signals. These applications can be jammed by poorly controlled signals from TV towers, devices such as laptops and MP3 players, and mobile satellite services, says UNSW professor Andrew Dempster. In addition to unintentional jamming, GPS systems are at risk of criminal disruption via inexpensive jamming units, as well as spoofing--when a false signal is created--by terrorists. Dempster says that these disruption threats pose a significant hazard for military, industrial, and civilian transport and communications systems. He is working to develop jammer-detection technology. "Our research will produce a system that can accurately geolocate the position of a jamming signal, and hopefully track a moving vehicle carrying a jammer," Dempster says.


New Model Shows Importance of Feet, Toes in Body Balance
OSU News (03/10/11) Jessica Orwig

Ohio State University researchers have developed a computational model to study how foot and toe strength affect human balance, which could lead to new robotic body parts and advanced prosthetics. Many previous balance studies have focused on the legs and upper body while ignoring the feet and toes, says Ohio State professor Hooshang Hemami. "In order to reduce the complexity of the problem, the feet are often either neglected or modeled using simple shapes that don't really give full credit to the importance of feet," Hemami says. He and colleague Laura Humphrey designed a computer model that divided the foot into four separate sections and used it to conduct balance tests. The researchers simulated subjects with diminished toe strength by weakening different sections of the foot in the computer model, focusing primarily on the muscle located above the big toe, which helps control the foot's arch and provides support to the body while standing. The results showed that the toes become increasingly important as the subject leans forward. Computer simulations of healthy subjects were able to lean forward to about 12 degrees from vertical, while the computer simulations of those with diminished toe strength were only able to lean forward to about 10 degrees from vertical.


Spanish Linked Data Thematic Network Set Up
Universidad Politecnica de Madrid (Spain) (03/09/11) Eduardo Martinez

The Spanish Linked Data Thematic Network has been launched by 20 Spanish research groups with the goal of improving communication and knowledge exchange between Spanish researchers working in Spain or other countries. Thematic networks are alliances of public or private research groups with corresponding scientific or technological activities within a shared field of interest. Other entities also recently have launched their own thematic networks, including the U.K. and the U.S. governments, the Open Knowledge Foundation, and Italy's FAO-based community. The Spanish government is working to improve citizen and enterprise access to Spanish public data, and several regional and local governments have started to follow this trend and launched open data initiatives. The Spanish Linked Data Thematic Network has scheduled several research and evangelization meetings with enterprises and public administrations in order to achieve its goals. The network was established with several data sources, including GeoLinked Data, an open effort whose goal is to enrich the Data Web with Spanish geospatial data.


W3C Issues Compact XML Standard
InfoWorld (03/10/11) Paul Krill

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has issued a standard for a compact form of XML for use on smartphones and devices with memory or bandwidth constraints. The Efficient XML Interchange (EXI) standard will reduce XML processing's demands for network utilization, power, and energy. Work is already underway to support the standard for the compact representation of XML information in development toolkits. "[EXI is] an optimization of the XML exchange," says John Schneider, editor of the EXI specification. EXI could be used in sensor networks, cameras, automobiles, real-time trading systems, and wireless phones. "Even though [XML is] used everywhere, it's not used in some places because [of] constraints like giant documents or battery consumption or limited bandwidth," says W3C's Liam Quin. EXI could potentially displace XML at some user sites, say W3C officials.


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