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Welcome to the December 21, 2011 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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Hackers Threaten Voting Systems, Electoral Process
eWeek (12/20/11) Fahmida Y. Rashid

Iowa's Republican Party is increasing the security of the computer systems it will use Jan. 3 for the first caucus in the 2012 presidential campaign, after a recent threat to hack into the voting systems, according to the Associated Press. The threat came in the form of a YouTube video calling on Anonymous supporters to "peacefully shut down the Iowa caucuses," in protest of what the group considers a corrupt political system that favors corporations. Anonymous is a loose collective of like-minded hackers without an official structure, making it easy for a few individuals to claim an attack without most of the group's participation or knowledge. The Republican Party recently authorized added security measures designed to prevent attackers from delaying publication of the caucus results. Vote tampering could involve an attacker intercepting the final ballot before it is recorded on touchscreen voting systems. In September, Argonne National Laboratory researchers demonstrated such an attack using a credit card-sized device that cost about $10. "In light of the rapidly approaching 2012 U.S. presidential election, it seems there may be a need to give serious attention to securing our election technology," says ESET's Cameron Camp.

Look, Touch and Feel: How Your Mobile Interface Will Morph in 2012
Network World (12/21/11) John Cox

Mobile user interfaces will undergo several changes in the next two years, creating new modes for users to interact with their smartphones, other devices, and network-based services. Users will be able to quickly recognize onscreen objects and content and interact more accurately and faster, says IMS Research's Paul Erickson. These changes will make touchscreens much more accurate for users, says Gartner's Ken Dulaney. Touchscreen gestures will become a continuous movement of one or more fingers on the screen, and gesture support will make use of mobile device cameras to recognize and interpret a range of physical motions by the user. The user's voice interaction with a mobile device also will continue to improve and expand. "We'll see more evolved voice control in 2012, with more natural language and sentence structure from the non-Apple platforms," Erickson says. Future mobile interfaces also could be aware of the user's identity, their online affiliations via different social networks, their location, the time of day, preferences, and other nearby devices or online services. "A contextually aware system anticipates the user's needs and proactively serves up the most appropriate and customized content, product, or service," says Gartner's David Cearley.

Students Shift to Computer Science
Wall Street Journal (12/21/11) Emily Glazer

Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology recently funded a new applied-sciences campus on New York City's Roosevelt Island, highlighting the recent boost in popularity of computer science education among students. From 2010 to 2011, the number of declared undergraduate computer science majors at Columbia and New York universities rose 12 percent and 10 percent, respectively. In addition, the number of students enrolled in computer science classes rose between 30 and 50 percent this year over last year, according to university professors. The increase follows a national trend, as computer science majors increased 7.6 percent across the U.S. from 2009 to 2012, according to the Computing Research Association. "People certainly realize [computing] is now getting to be a basic skill in the 21st century," says Queens College's Computer Science Department chair Zhigang Xiang. New York, which has traditionally lagged in terms of technology innovation, is starting to catch up. "New York is really the up-and-coming place because people who don't have traditional technology backgrounds are starting companies in completely different sectors and utilizing technology," says Columbia University computer science student Arvind Srinivasan.

Bouncing Data Would Speed Up Data Centers
Technology Review (12/20/11) Duncan Graham-Rowe

Large data centers operated by Internet companies often experience data bottlenecks when trying to transmit data between machines. Wirelessly transmitting data would be a possible solution, but achieving the necessary speed would require a line-of-sight connection, which is impossible to achieve in a crowded data center. However, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Intel say they have solved the problem by bouncing wireless signals off the ceiling, which could boost data transmission by 30 percent. Bouncing the signals off the ceiling directly to their targets ensures direct point-to-point communication between antennas and also reduces the chances that any two beams will interfere with each other. The researchers placed flat metal plates on the ceiling to provide nearly perfect reflection. "You also need an absorber material on the rack to make sure the signal doesn't bounce back up," says UCSB professor Heather Zheng. The researchers created a simulation of a 160-rack data center with a 60-gigahertz Wi-Fi network and found that their system can add 0.5 terabytes per second. The researchers are now building a prototype data center to put the system into practice.

Government Looks to Make ICT Education 'Essential' to Curriculum
Women in Technology (12/19/11)

Computer science education should be an essential disciple in the United Kingdom's new national curriculum, and changes should be made to the information and communications technology (ICT) program to encourage more young people to study the subject and pursue information technology (IT) careers, according to the government. The statement from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) comes in response to Nesta's Next Gen report on reforming ICT and computer science education in schools. Launched last January, the new national curriculum will set out the core knowledge that students should acquire, including core subjects such as English, math, and science. The report also considers ways to improve the quality of computer science teachers, such as by offering training scholarships and bonuses. Moreover, Next Gen says video games could be used in schools to get more students interested in IT jobs. The report makes special mention of the success the Computer Club for Girls has achieved in exposing girls to IT, and DCMS believes the program could work with the video-game industry to make IT careers more attractive to girls. The trade body UKIE says the computer science course should be relevant to the industry and ICT skills should be delivered across the wider curriculum.

MIT Will Offer Certificates to Outside Students Who Take Its Online Courses
Chronicle of Higher Education (12/19/11) Marc Parry

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) plans to release a set of open online courses, and for the first time will offer certificates to outside students who complete them. MIT says the credentials are part of a new, interactive e-learning venture, tentatively called MITx, which is expected to host "a virtual community of millions of learners around the world." Users will watch videos, answer questions, practice exercises, visit online labs, and take quizzes and tests. MIT wants to develop a portfolio of high-demand courses and will invest millions of dollars in the program, says MIT provost L. Rafael Reif. MITx is another entrant in the open-science movement, which includes Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative and Stanford University's free online computer science courses. Although access to MITx courses will be free to users, the institute plans to charge a small fee for certificates that indicate a learner has mastered the content. "MIT plans to create a not-for-profit body within the institute that will offer certification for online learners of MIT course work," according to the MITx fact sheet. Reif stresses that the new open-learning initiative "is not an easier version of MIT. For [students] to earn a credential, they have to demonstrate mastery of the subject."

IBM: Top 5 Innovations That Will Change Your Life in the Next 5 Years
eWeek (12/19/11) Darryl K. Taft

IBM released its sixth annual list of five innovations that could change the way people live in the next five years. IBM predicts that advances in renewable energy technology will enable people to collect kinetic energy, which now goes to waste, and use it to help power their homes, offices, and cities. Meanwhile, IBM says that passwords will become obsolete as a user's biological attributes become the key to establishing and protecting their identity. Biometric data will be compiled through software to build a DNA-unique online password. IBM researchers are currently studying how to link the brain to electronic devices, such as computers and smartphones, and within five years they predict that early applications of this technology will be available in the gaming and entertainment industry. In addition, IBM says that in five years the technology gap between first- and third-world countries will narrow considerably due to advances in mobile technology. Finally, in five years unsolicited advertisements could feel so personalized and relevant that spam will no longer exist. In addition, IBM predicts that spam filters will be so precise that unwanted sales pitches will stop being a problem.

The Internet Gets Physical
New York Times (12/17/11) Steve Lohr

Low-cost sensors, artificial intelligence software, and advancing computer technology are leading to a new era known as the Internet of things. "We’re going to put the digital 'smarts' into everything," says University of Washington professor Edward D. Lazowska. He says smart devices will interact intelligently with people and with the physical world. There are several industries in which products and practices are being transformed by communicating sensors and computing intelligence. For example, General Electric (GE) researchers are developing a smart hospital room equipped with three small cameras. The room's software monitors movements by doctors and nurses in and out of the room, alerting them if they have forgotten to wash their hands before and after touching patients. Meanwhile, IBM’s computing intelligence project, known as Smarter Planet, is creating more efficient systems for utility grids, traffic management, food distribution, water conservation, and health care. The United Nations' Global Pulse initiative aims to leverage data from the Internet for global development using sentiment analysis, which monitors messages in social networks and text messages to predict worldwide trends. Global Pulse is exploring new frontiers in knowledge with its real-time tracking of what is happening to people, says project director Robert Kirkpatrick.

Tinkering With Evolution: Ecological Implications of Modular Software Networks (12/19/11) Stuart Mason Dambrot

Princeton University researchers have shown that network theory, when applied to software systems, provides insights into biology, ecology, and evolution. The researchers studied evolutionary behavior in complex systems by analyzing how the Debian GNU/Linux operating system (OS) uses modular code. The researchers found that how the network becomes more modular over time in various OS installations often parallels that of ecological relationships between interacting species. "We were very careful when identifying software packages through different releases--sometimes there could be different versions of the same package within the same release due to the improvements made by developers," says Princeton's Miguel A. Fortuna. Another key innovation was the researchers' use of a very precise method to detect the modular structure of the OS. "We borrowed an algorithm developed by physicists and widely used in ecology," Fortuna says. The researchers now want to improve the current experimental design. "The most important follow-up of our study would be the exploration of proprietary software like the Microsoft Windows operating system," Fortuna says. The researchers also are developing a dynamical model to simulate the growth of Debian over time, which could enable researchers to predict how many packages, dependencies, and conflicts will arise in its next release.

Merge Two of Your Fingerprints to Protect Your Data
New Scientist (12/17/11) Jacob Aron

West Virginia University's Arun Ross and Asem Othman have created a data protection solution that relies on blending two fingerprints. The software splits a person's fingerprints into two components: the general pattern of ridges and the fingerprint minutiae (the distinctive features used to compare prints). The program then creates a new and unique print for fingerprint authentication by combining one component from each print. "This is beneficial from a privacy perspective," Ross says. "Original fingerprint images are not stored; rather only the mixed fingerprint is stored and used for matching." Moreover, users will be able to change the stored fingerprints, which means they will have complete control over their data. The researchers also say the software enables two individuals to use the technique to combine their fingerprints, which allows the approach to work in systems that require authentication from more than one person. Ross presented their research at the recent Workshop on Information Forensics and Security in Brazil.
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The Role of Social Media in Protests
University of Oxford (12/16/11)

A new study examines the role of social network sites in recruiting and spreading messages for mass protests. Oxford University researchers collaborated with colleagues from the University of Zaragoza to analyze Twitter activity data during mass protests in Spain in May 2011. The team followed the posts of 87,569 users, tracking a total of 581,750 messages over a 30-day period. The study suggests that the early participants in the protest were the first movers in their local networks, and they sparked the initial online activity by recruiting users. However, the recruited "spreaders" who diffused information about the protest were scattered all over the network, and they played the critical role in reaching large numbers of people. The spreaders were more central in the network not because they had a higher number of connections, but rather due to their connection to others who had equally good connections. "Digital media has played an important role both in the recent wave of mobilizations in the Arab world and in protests across Western countries, such as the Occupy movement across cities worldwide," said lead study author Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon. "This is the first empirical study analyzing the mechanisms behind protest recruitment by means of online networks."

Is That Mozart or a Machine?
University of Toronto (12/15/11) Kurt Kleiner

University of Toronto researchers have developed software that uses statistical analysis to analyze an original piece of music and then composes a similar piece. The program uses statistical analysis to learn each note, and then predicts the likely value of the next note, including its pitch, duration, and where it falls on the beat. The prediction enables the software to choose the next note based on those odds. That note becomes the basis for the next note, and so on until the program is stopped. Similar techniques enable the program to choose appropriate chords, making sure that two musical voices do not clash. Although the computer-produced music lacks the structure that a human composer would provide, it retains the flavor and character of the original piece, says Toronto senior lecturer Daniel Eisner. He says that one of the system's advantages is that it can move seamlessly from one type of music to another, which could be useful for video games in which a character transitions from one part of the game to another.

Driverless Car: Google Awarded US Patent for Technology
BBC News (12/15/11)

Google has received a U.S. patent for technology that combines artificial intelligence with Google Street View maps to enable self-driving cars. The patent is for a method that switches a vehicle from a human-controlled mode into the state where it takes charge of the wheel. The patent describes a system using two sets of sensors. The first set of sensors would act as a “landing strip" when the vehicle stops. The landing strip triggers the second set of sensors, which receive data information informing the machine where it is positioned and where it should go. "The vehicle may be equipped with additional sensors that enable it to detect when the human has moved a sufficient distance away from the vehicle to allow safe autonomous operation," the patent filing says. Experts say that Google's patent will not prevent other companies from developing self-driving vehicles, although it will allow it to restrict other companies from using a similar method to switch their cars between human-controlled and automatic modes. "Google believe it is a technology that is here and now and will start appearing in motorcars in the near future," says University of Surrey professor Alan Woodward.

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