Association for Computing Machinery
Welcome to the October 26, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE


Women Making Slow, Sure Strides in Science, Math
Associated Press (10/24/11) Martha Irvine

About two-thirds of all undergraduate degrees and 60 percent of master's degrees are going to women, and many education experts believe it is only a matter of time before those trends influence science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In 2009 and 2010, women earned more than 50 percent of the doctorates in all disciplines, according to Council of Graduate Schools data. The American Association of University Women recently published a report stating that the ratio of seventh- and eighth-grade boys who scored more than 700 on the SAT math exam, compared to girls, is currently three to one, compared with a 13-to-one ratio 30 years ago. "In an ideal world you'd expect that it'd catch up, but it doesn't quite catch up because we're still losing women at every level," says former Alfred P. Sloan Foundation director Ted Greenwood. Some institutions have turned to all-women's programs in STEM fields, while others are targeting younger students, as research has shown that girls tend to lose interest in STEM subjects in middle school. For example, the University of California, Riverside recently launched Girls Excelling in Mathematics with Success (GEMS), a summer after-school math program for middle school girls, many of whom are from low-income neighborhoods.


French Kitchen Is a Recipe for Success
Newcastle University (10/24/11)

Newcastle University computer scientists and language experts are collaborating to design a kitchen that can provide step-by-step cooking instructions in French. Cooks would use a tablet or laptop computer incorporated into the kitchen to select a recipe, and motion-sensor technology incorporated into kitchen utensils, ingredient containers, and other equipment would communicate to the computer whether food preparation instructions have been followed correctly. The kitchen provides feedback when something goes wrong, and the user can ask for instructions to be repeated or translated into English at any time by pressing the touchscreen. "Our overriding objective is to make language learning more enjoyable, more effective and, by linking it to the development of another valuable life skill, more educational too," says Newcastle professor Paul Seedhouse. The team is developing three portable versions of the kitchen, comprising the computer and the set of sensor-enabled kitchen equipment. Newcastle has received a European Union grant to develop versions for English, German, Spanish, Italian, Finnish, and Catalan.


How Revolutionary Tools Cracked a 1700s Code
New York Times (10/25/11) John Markoff

A cipher dating back to the 18th century that was considered uncrackable was finally decrypted by a team of Swedish and U.S. linguists by using statistics-based translation methods. After a false start, the team determined that the Copiale Cipher was a homophonic cipher and attempted to decode all the symbols in German, as the manuscript was originally discovered in Germany. Their first step was finding regularly occurring symbols that might stand for the common German pair "ch." Once a potential "c" and "h" were found, the researchers used patterns in German to decode the cipher one step at a time. Language translation techniques such as expected word frequency were used to guess a symbol's equivalent in German. However, there are other, more impenetrable ciphers that have thwarted even the translators of the Copiale Cipher. The Voynich manuscript has been categorized as the most frustrating of such ciphers, but one member of the team that cracked the Copiale manuscript, the University of Southern California's Kevin Knight, co-published an analysis of the Voynich document pointing to evidence that it contains patterns that match the structure of natural language.


John McCarthy, Creator of Lisp Programming Language, Dies
CNet (10/24/11) Steven Musil

Stanford University's School of Engineering announced that John McCarthy, a pioneer in artificial intelligence (AI), died on October 23 at the age of 84. McCarthy invented Lisp, which became the leading programming language for AI while at the Massachusetts Institute of technology. Lisp, the second oldest high-level programming language behind Fortran, is still used today. McCarthy believed that there were aspects of human intelligence that could be described precisely enough that a machine could be programmed to simulate it. "If a machine can do a job, then an automatic calculator can be programmed to simulate the machine," McCarthy wrote in a 1955 research proposal. "The speeds and memory capacities of present computers may be insufficient to simulate many of the higher functions of the human brain, but the major obstacle is not lack of machine capacity, but our inability to write programs taking full advantage of what we have." McCarthy received the ACM A.M. Turing Award (1971), the Kyoto Prize (1988), and the National Medal of Science (1991).


Patents Emerge as Significant Tech Strategy
Seattle Times (10/22/11) Janet I. Tu

Technology companies' patent practices have shifted from using them to defend their own inventions to deploying them as an important part of competitive strategies in the mobile market. Companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and Google are being sued and issuing counter suits for various types of technology. For example, Microsoft has as many as 2,000 patents that are at issue over smartphone and tablet technologies. Microsoft already has reached licensing agreements with Samsung, HTC, and Acer, which together hold more than 50 percent of the U.S. Android smartphone market share by units. Based on royalties of $3 to $6 per device, Microsoft will receive about $444 million in fiscal year 2012 from Android-based device makers with whom it has negotiated agreements, according to Goldman Sachs. Because the mobile market is still so new, companies are "fighting it out in any way they can," with products, marketing, and patent portfolios, says University of Washington professor Andrew Torrance. He compares the battle over mobile computing patents to the earlier days of the personal computer. "I think we're in the early stages of a similar battle in mobile computing, which will eventually settle down like it did with PC computing," Torrance says.


Cloud Computing: Gaps in the 'Cloud'
Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany) (10/24/11) Jens Wylkop

Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB) researchers discovered a massive security gap at Amazon Cloud Services and presented their findings at the recent ACM Cloud Computing Security Workshop in Chicago. "Based on our research results, Amazon confirmed the security gaps and closed them immediately," says RUB professor Jorg Schwenk. The researchers used various XML signature wrapping attacks to completely take over the administrative rights of cloud customers, according to RUB researcher Juraj Somorovsky. Many cloud systems could be susceptible to signature wrapping attacks because the relevant service standards make performance and security incompatible, according to the RUB researchers. "We are working on a high-performance solution, however, that no longer has any of the known security gaps," Schwenk says. The researchers also found gaps in the Amazon Web Services interface and in the Amazon shop.


Avatars at UC Merced: Developing Virtual Health Care
Fresno Bee (CA) (10/25/11) Heather Somerville

University of California (UC), Merced researchers recently received a $75,000 grant to develop software that uses avatars to provide physical therapy to the elderly. The researchers are training the avatars to help users perform physical therapy exercises, making adjustments when the users do not perform the correct movement. The researchers, led by Merced professor Marcelo Kallmann, want to develop a virtual way to deliver health care to aging baby boomers, whose demand for care is greater than the supply of qualified doctors and physical therapists. The researchers are working to make the avatars more life-like, and are addressing security concerns about sending medical information over the Internet. UC Davis professor Jay Han originally approached Kallmann about developing a way to provide virtual health care for the state's aging population. Doctors at the UC Davis Medical are working with the researchers to develop therapy exercises that the avatars can demonstrate.


'Cyber Challenge' Encourages Teen Hackers to Seek Security Jobs
Baltimore Sun (10/22/11) Candus Thomson

The Maryland Cyber Challenge and Conference is part career fair, part talent show to give college and high school students an idea of how to turn their interest in computers into high-paying jobs. "There's a shortage of science and engineering students across the country, and only a handful of schools in Maryland have computer science staff and courses," says the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's Caroline Baker. "We want to raise the awareness of students about careers and degree programs and make it fun." As part of the challenge, the college students had to hack into a computer, gain control, and find valuable information. The high school students had to defend six computer servers from attacks by computer professionals. Students that attract the attention of U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) talent scouts could be offered college scholarships as part of the Stokes Educational Scholarship Program, says NSA recruiter Cindy Smith. After graduation, the Stokes students are required to work for the NSA for up to five years. "We're giving them the hacking opportunities they want in a legal manner," Smith says.


Researchers Uncover Privacy Flaws That Can Reveal Users' Identities, Locations and Digital Files
Polytechnic Institute of New York University (10/21/11) Kathleen Hamilton

The flaws of Skype and other Internet-based phone systems are the focus of a paper that will be presented at the Internet Measurement Conference 2011 in Berlin. The document, written by a team of researchers from the United States, Germany, and France, details several properties of Skype that allow the locations of users to be tracked over time as well as their peer-to-peer file-sharing activity. Marketers could link to information such as name, age, address, profession, and employer from social media sites to build profiles of Skype users. The researchers say that a database for tracking 10,000 users would only cost about $500 a week. "A hacker anywhere in the world could easily track the whereabouts and file-sharing habits of a Skype user--from private citizens to celebrities and politicians--and use the information for purposes of stalking, blackmail, or fraud," says Polytechnic Institute of New York University professor Keith Ross. The team tracked the Skype accounts of about 20 volunteers as well as 10,000 random users over a two-week period.


How an Extinct Zebra Could Upend the Networking Market
GigaOm.com (10/20/11) Stacey Higginbotham

The Internet Systems Consortium (ISC) has created a project to stabilize the code base for Quagga, an open source networking program, and offer commercial support to vendors using the code. The initiative, called the Open Source Routing Project, could lead to the development of an inexpensive, open source router. Quagga has languished without an organized community, but large and small vendors have been experimenting with the code. Google turned to the ISC for assistance in creating a community around Quagga because it wants to use less expensive, highly programmable routers in its network. The Open Source Routing Project is sponsored by Google, but it also is in discussions with Yahoo! Additional potential sponsors might include Internet service providers, other Web businesses, and Silicon Valley companies. Google has created an open source router called the Open LSR, which is a combination of merchant switching silicon, a commodity server, the OpenFlow protocol, and the Quagga open source code. Google plans to use Open LSR in its core network.


RAMCloud: When Disks and Flash Memory Are Just Too Slow
HPC Wire (10/20/11) Michael Feldman

Stanford University researchers have developed RAMCloud, a scalable, high performance storage approach that can store data in dynamic random access memory and aggregate the memory resources of an entire data center. The researchers say the scalability and performance components make RAMCloud a candidate for high performance computing, especially with those applications that are data-intensive. "If RAMCloud succeeds, it will probably displace magnetic disk as the primary storage technology in data centers," according to the researchers, who are led by professor John Ousterhout. RAMCloud's two most important features are its ability to scale across thousands of servers and its extremely low latency. RAMCloud has a latency that is 1,000 times faster than disk and about five times faster than flash. In addition, the researchers predict that RAMClouds as big as 500 terabytes can be built. Although there is no set timeline to turn RAMCloud into a commercial offering, the researchers do not foresee any technological hurdles.


Smarter Cameras Help You Take Slicker Snaps
New Scientist (10/19/11) Jacob Aron

University of Glasgow researcher Stephen Brewster is developing a camera interface designed to make it easier for photographers to get pictures right on the first take. The interface uses the sensors and processing power found in smartphones to give photographers more information before they take the picture, such as detecting if the image is aligned with the horizon or if the photographer's hands are shaking. The system also comes with a traffic-light signal that indicates if a shot will turn out well. A red light means the shot should be recomposed, and a green light helps to ensure a good picture. Meanwhile, Google's Sam Hasinoff is developing software that takes multiple wide-aperture photos with different depths of field (DoF) and combines them to create a picture with a DoF equivalent to a small-aperture photo but taken in a fraction of the time. The method, known as light efficient photography, automatically calculates which combination of photos will produce the desired picture for a selected exposure. "If either the scene or camera is moving, our method will record less motion blur, leading to a sharper and more pleasing photo," Hasinoff says.
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DCU Researchers Develop Patent Translation System
Silicon Republic (10/18/11) Sorcha Corcoran

Dublin City University (DCU) researchers recently demonstrated a machine-translation system that improves access to multilingual digital patent libraries. The prototype system, called Patent Language Translations Online (PLuTO), makes use of existing Web content and machine-translation tools developed by the team at DCU. "Thanks to its specialization, the system is more reliable than general-purpose machine-translation tools, providing on-demand translation when instant access to information is required," says project leader Paraic Sheridan. PLuTO is expected to lower the cost and the amount of time that it takes to access and file patent information. The project comes at a time when worldwide intellectual property activity is increasing, and more patent data has been filed in languages that are foreign to patent searchers and examiners. DCU already has deployed machine translation for English-Portuguese to run live on the European Patent Office Web site. The team plans to offer personalized, tailored vocabulary and terminology management for patent professionals across many languages.


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