Welcome to the August 12, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
London Riots: Britain Weighs Personal Freedoms Against Need to Keep Order
Washington Post (08/12/11) Anthony Faiola; Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi
The British government is taking aim at social media amid the recent riots, claiming that it is undermining the country's democracy. British and Scottish authorities have taken into custody more than a dozen youths on suspicion of using the Internet and text messages to encourage disorder. The crackdown caused social media advocates to respond with accusations of infringement on freedom of speech, but British Prime Minister David Cameron says the greater evil was permitting the dissemination of violent speech. He announced during an emergency session of Parliament that officials were collaborating with intelligence services and police to examine how and whether to "stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder, and criminality." Authorities claim that youths employed BlackBerry Messenger, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to organize disturbances, sharing meeting times and locales and, in certain instances, urging the spread of criminality. Student activists are concerned that any restrictions could be applied beyond the mandate to quell criminality, and instead be used to suppress social dissent.
PCAST Sustainability Report Emphasizes 'Informatics Technologies'
CCC Blog (08/10/11) Erwin Gianchandani
Better accounting of ecosystem services and broader protection of environmental capital are the recommendations of a new report from the U.S. President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST). The report calls on the federal government to institute and finance a Quadrennial Ecosystems Services Trends Assessment that taps existing monitoring programs and newly recommended activities to identify trends associated with ecosystem sustainability and possible policy responses, and recommends the expansion of informatics technologies. "The collection of data is an essential first step in the powerful and rapidly developing new field of informatics," PCAST notes in its report. "The power of these techniques for deriving insights about the relationships among biodiversity, other ecosystem attributes, ecosystem services, and human activities is potentially transformative." To address the extreme heterogeneity of the data, PCAST urges the establishment of an informatics infrastructure embodying mechanisms for making data openly and readily available in formats accessible to both human and machines. The council also presses for the provision of standards that foster interoperability, and decision support software incorporating insights from government, industry, and academia.
How Computational Complexity Will Revolutionize Philosophy
Technology Review (08/10/11)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist Scott Aaronson argues that computational complexity theory will have a transformative effect on philosophical thinking about a broad spectrum of topics such as the challenge of artificial intelligence (AI). The theory focuses on how the resources required to solve a problem scale with some measure of the problem size, and how problems typically scale either reasonably slowly or unreasonably rapidly. Aaronson raises the issue of AI and whether computers can ever become capable of human-like thinking. He contends that computability theory cannot provide a fundamental impediment to computers passing the Turing test. A more productive strategy is to consider the problem's computational complexity, Aaronson says. He cites the possibility of a computer that records all the human-to-human conversations it hears, accruing a database over time with which it can make conversation by looking up human answers to questions it is presented with. Aaronson says that although this strategy works, it demands computational resources that expand exponentially with the length of the conversation. This, in turn, leads to a new way of thinking about the AI problem, and by this reasoning, the difference between humans and machines is basically one of computational complexity.
Security Flaws in Feds’ Radios Make for Easy Eavesdropping
Wall Street Journal (08/10/11) Jennifer Valentino-DeVries
University of Pennsylvania researchers recently completed a study showing that the portable radios used by many U.S. federal law enforcement agents have security flaws that allowed hundreds of hours of sensitive traffic sent without encryption to be intercepted. The researchers, led by professor Matt Blaze, also found that the radios can be effectively jammed using IM-Me, an electronic child's toy used for text-messaging, and that the standard used by the radios provides a way for an attacker to continuously track the location of a radio's user. The researchers say the radio's design may be contributing to the problem, as it can be hard to tell if the radio is transmitting in encrypted mode. "In some cases, this involved one user explaining to another how to set the radio to encrypted mode, but actually described the procedure for setting it to clear mode," the researchers note. Another problem concerns the fact that messages are often sent in segments, and if an attacker can block just some of these segments, the entire message can be jammed. The researchers have created a Web site with information that helps law enforcement groups solve the problems.
Mobiles Become Emergency Data Network
BBC News (08/09/11)
Computer scientist Thomas Wilhelm has developed Auto-BAHN, software that can turn mobile phones into ad-hoc networks in the aftermath of a disaster by gradually migrating messages to their intended targets. Auto-BAHN uses Bluetooth short-range radio and Wi-Fi technology to pass messages along. Smartphones that have the Auto-BAHN application will be able to search for other Auto-BAHN-enabled phones and propagate the message across the network of Auto-BAHN-using phones until it reaches its intended recipient. The current Auto-BAHN application works on Android phones, but Wilhelm is working on one for the iPhone. Wilhelm wants to prove that the concept works to convince smartphone makers to include a similar application as a standard feature on their mobile devices.
Smartphone Jiggles Reveal Your Private Data
New Scientist (08/10/11) Jacob Aron
University of California, Davis researcher Hao Chen led the development of a keylogging device for smartphones that uses the phone's motion sensors to detect vibrations from tapping the screen. Since mobile operating systems do not treat the motion-sensor output as private, it can be a target for hackers to create a seemingly benign app that secretly monitors phone users, according to the researchers. Chen's keylogger calculates which key of the virtual keyboard the user has tapped based on how the phone jiggles in response. In testing, the keylogger correctly guessed more than 70 percent of keystrokes on a virtual numerical keypad. Chen says the technique also will work on a full alphanumeric keyboard but with less accuracy. However, he says accuracy should be higher on a tablet device due to the its larger dimensions, which would accentuate the tablet's movements as the user taps the screen.
Researcher Teaches Computers to Detect Spam More Accurately
IDG News Service (08/10/11) Nicolas Zeitler
Georgia Tech researcher Nina Balcan recently received a Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship for her work in developing machine learning methods that can be used to create personalized automatic programs for deciding whether an email is spam or not. Balcan's research also can be used to solve other data-mining problems. Using supervised learning, the user teaches the computer by submitting information on which emails are spam and which are not, which is very inefficient, according to Balcan. Active learning enables the computer to analyze huge collections of unlabeled emails to generate only a few questions for the user. Active learning could potentially deliver better results than supervised learning, Balcan says. However, active learning methods are highly sensitive to noise, making this potentially difficult to achieve. Balcan plans to develop an understanding of when, why, and how different kinds of learning protocols help. "My research connects machine learning, game theory, economics, and optimization," she says.
'Data Motion Metric' Needed for Supercomputer Rankings, Says SDSC's Snavely
UCSD News (CA) (08/09/11) Jan Zverina
San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) associate director Allan Snavely says the world's top supercomputer systems should not be judged based solely on calculation speed. "I'd like to propose that we routinely compare machines using the metric of data motion capacity, or their ability to move data quickly," Snavely says. Supercomputers are usually compared by their fastest calculation speed, which is typically measured in the number of floating point operations per second (FLOP/S). However, Snavely supports the idea that supercomputers should be measured by their overall ability to help researchers solve real-world problems. "This may be a somewhat heretical notion, but at SDSC we want a supercomputer to be data capable, not just FLOP/S capable," he says. "The number of cycles for computers to access data is getting longer--in fact disks are getting slower all the time as their capacity goes up but access times stay the same." Snavely proposes a measurement that weights DRAM, flash memory, and disk capacity according to access time in a compute cycle.
Mobile Devices Help Remove Barriers to Fresh Food
Stanford School of Medicine (08/08/11) Kris Newby
Researchers at the Stanford Prevention Research Center have developed a way to notify city officials of the environmental barriers seniors face in trying to reach sources of fresh food. The Stanford Healthy Neighborhood Tool is a software app that enables community proponents to document obstacles to walkability, safety, and healthful-food access using tablet computers and smartphones. The app lets advocates roam a neighborhood, take pictures of obstacles with a mobile device's camera, and make voice recordings characterizing the hazard. Once a photo is captured, the app records the hazard's site via a global positioning system. All of the hazard images and locations can immediately be downloaded wirelessly to a map on a Web site, to be shared with researchers, city planners, or policymakers. The tool was developed by Stanford's Neighborhood Eating and Activity Advocacy Team, a project to help senior neighborhood residents analyze and address the challenges to eating healthier foods.
Disney Research Pittsburgh Demonstrates Tactile Tech Guaranteed to Send Shivers Down Your Spine
Carnegie Mellon News (PA) (08/08/11) Byron Spice; Jennifer Liu
Disney Research, Pittsburgh (DRP) researchers have developed Surround Haptics, tactile technology that enables video game players and movie watchers to feel a wide range of sensations. The technology is based on psychophysical experiments and new models of tactile perceptions. DRP, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University researchers, developed a chair equipped with vibrating actuators. In a recent demonstration, users played a driving simulation game and were able to feel road imperfections, sense skidding, braking, and acceleration, and experience ripples of sensation when the cars collide or jump. "This technology has the capability of enhancing the perception of flying or falling, of shrinking or growing, of feeling bugs creeping on your skin," says DRP's Ivan Poupyrev. The researchers developed an algorithm that can control an array of vibrating actuators to create virtual actuators, which are placed between any two physical actuators, giving the illusion of feeling, according to Poupyrev. The researchers developed the algorithm by systematically measuring users' ability to feel physical and virtual actuators with different stimulation levels. Surround Haptics also could be used as a means of communication for the blind, emergency workers, vehicle operators, and athletes.
University of Southern California (USC) researchers have developed a system for testing computer-security networks by making the computers simulate human errors that leave networks vulnerable. Normally, human factors are generally overlooked when security systems are tested because it is impractical to manipulate the behavior of users in ways that would produce meaningful results. However, the USC researchers used cognitive agents to test the human impact on security systems. The agents' motives and behaviors can be fine-tuned to make errors in the same way a real employee would. Agents also can be given group tasks, which can be influenced by group dynamics. "We have focused mainly on fatigue, the physical need to take breaks at regular intervals, or the need to go to the bathroom," says USC researcher Jim Blythe. The preliminary results show that as users succumb to phishing attacks, the ability of information technology staff to cope with the consequences diminishes as they become increasingly overwhelmed and tired. The next step is to apply financial pressure to the agents, in addition to emotional and physiological pressure.
ONR Encouraging Women to Pursue STEM Careers
Office of Naval Research (08/05/11) Geoff Fein
The U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) coordinates the Department of the Navy's efforts to encourage K-12 students to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and one area of focus is young women. ONR has made a special effort to target school-aged girls with its Young Investigator Program, and also partners with academia and educational nonprofits to develop specialized K-12 programs for girls. Working with Google on the Iridescent Technovation Challenge, ONR gives girls who develop the best smartphone applications the chance to work with the company to professionally develop and distribute their apps via the Android Market. Meanwhile, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific sponsors Girls Day Out, which provides free keynote speeches, campus/lab tours, and interactive activities to middle-school girls. Expanding Your Horizons, a program offering a mentor network and hands-on activities, is scheduled to begin in October. "These programs geared toward girls didn't exist for the most part last year," says ONR's Michael Kassner. "They are a result of ONR's active support of Navy diversity and an awareness of gender disparity in STEM."
Analytical Chemistry: Authenticating Ancient Artifacts
A*STAR Research (08/03/11)
A*STAR Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences researchers have developed band-target entropy minimization (BTEM), software that can identify the individual components of a chemically complex object. The researchers, led by A*STAR's Marc Garland, originally developed BTEM to analyze reaction mixtures in the chemistry lab, but recently found that when combined with Raman spectroscopy, the software also can be used to assess shards of ancient Chinese ceramics. "The basic idea behind BTEM is that the simplest irreducible patterns in the data set are sought," Garland says. The researchers tested the Raman-BTEM method by analyzing a set of Chinese pottery shards with known provenance. The researchers were able to identify cobalt oxides in the Ming dynasty shards, and hematite in the Qing dynasty shards. "The commercial world could also benefit from our work, and we have started to work with companies to help them more readily identify copies of their products on the market," Garland says.
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