Welcome to the February 15, 2012 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.
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HEADLINES AT A GLANCE
Syrian Opposition Seeks to Wipe the Assad Name Off the Map--Via Google
Washington Post (02/14/12) Colum Lynch
Syrian activists are using Google's Map Maker crowdsourcing software to oppose the Assad regime by renaming streets and landmarks after their revolutionary idols, including protesters who have died during the 11-month uprising. Names have changed over time on Google as maps are updated with user proposals sanctioned by other users as well as Google editors. Syrian opposition figure Rami Nakhle says the campaign started several months ago on Facebook. Google's Deanna Yick says Google has constructed its maps from "a wide range of authoritative sources, ranging from the public and commercial data providers, user contributions, and imagery references." She notes that this generally supports a comprehensive and up-to-date map, but maps are in a constant state of revision, so Google will continue to review data and make changes with the availability of new information. The Syrian campaign reflects widespread use of the Internet, especially social media, by anti-government movements across the Middle East to raise public support. Ogle Earth blog author Stefan Geens says the re-christening of landmarks by Syrians is the most recent manifestation of attempts to promote political views via crowdsourcing--and the first uprising he is aware of where online mapping programs have been exploited to rewrite history.
Internet in Iran Severely Disrupted as Elections Loom
Reuters (02/14/12) Marcus George; Joseph Menn
Concerns that Iranian authorities are ramping up suppression of opposition supporters in anticipation of parliamentary elections in March are being heightened by the Internet disruption that millions of Iranians recently experienced. Outside experts and Iranian bloggers say the latest online blockage impacted the most widely used form of secure connections on Feb. 10, while traffic was said to have resumed normal volumes on Feb. 13. The blockade appeared to take aim at all encrypted international Web sites outside the country that rely on the Secure Sockets Layer protocol, says Renesys' Earl Zmijewski. Opposition advocates think Iranian authorities were targeting their attempts to mobilize a rally urging the government to release leaders of the opposition Green movement from house arrest. Voice of America reporter Hamed Behravan says the Iranian government is testing various tools, and the Internet disruption may have been a test to see how the public would react. Many Iranians are worried the government may be readying the unveiling of its national Internet system, which would enable the authorities to completely control the content that Iranian users are permitted to access. Iranian authorities say the national Internet system is designed to weed out sites designated as unclean.
Researchers Crack Online Encryption System
Computerworld (02/15/12) Jaikumar Vijayan
An online encryption technique widely used to safeguard email, e-commerce, and other sensitive Internet transactions is crackable, according to a study by U.S. and European cryptanalysts. Their review of 6.6 million public keys employed by Web sites to encrypt online transactions found that 12,720 were completely insecure and 27,000 were susceptible to compromise. The problem was often linked to the manner in which the keys were produced, with the researchers demonstrating that the numbers associated with the keys were not always as random as necessary--thus enabling attackers to use public keys to guess the corresponding private keys used to decode data. "We are presently working around the clock to inform the parties whose keys are vulnerable and the [certificate authorities] that issued certificates for them, so that new keys can be generated and the vulnerable certificates can be revoked," says the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Peter Eckersley. He warns that hackers could exploit the vulnerability by assembling a similar database of public keys and reproducing the cryptanalysts' method to identify the weak keys. Cryptographer Bruce Schneier says the random number problems described by the researchers could have been unintentional or deliberately embedded by someone attempting to eavesdrop on encrypted communications.
This Thursday, a Symposium on the Impact of NITRD
CCC Blog (02/13/12) Erwin Gianchandani
On Feb. 16, the Computing Community Consortium, in conjunction with the National Coordination Office for the U.S. Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program, will mark the program's 20th anniversary with a symposium. The NITRD Program delivers an architecture and mechanisms for coordinating 15 federal agencies that sponsor networking and information technology (IT) research and development. The symposium will be semi-technical, characterizing achievements and prospects in subjects that include IT and citizens' lives, basic IT building blocks, IT's engagement with the physical world, IT's relationship with scientific advancement, and the world of massive data. A key theme of the program, which will be available as a live webcast, will be the NITRD Program's role in fueling U.S. competitiveness and influencing the shape of today's world. Among the U.S. agencies united under the program to support basic, world-changing networking and IT research are the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Security Agency, and the National Science Foundation.
Obama Boosts Federal R&D By $2 Billion
InformationWeek (02/13/12) Elizabeth Montalbano
The White House has proposed a $2 billion increase in the budget for U.S. research and development (R&D) for fiscal year 2013, with a focus on research being done at the Department of Homeland Security, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the Department of Energy (DOE). The proposed R&D budget also allocates $3 billion for science, technology, engineering, and math education as part of an ongoing effort to prepare a more technology-savvy workforce. Overall, the White House proposed a $140.8 billion R&D budget, an increase of 1.4 percent over last year, according to the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The budget proposal includes stipends for research efforts in clean air and energy at DOE, specifically providing $350 million for transformational energy R&D in DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, and $2.3 billion for DOE's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office to focus on clean-vehicle technologies research. In addition, the budget request provides a combined $13.1 billion, a 4.4 percent increase, for the R&D labs at the National Science Foundation and NIST as well as DOE's science office.
The Age of Big Data
New York Times (02/11/12) Steve Lohr
The data explosion has created opportunities for consultants to help businesses extract sense and meaning from the data to guide decisions, cut costs, and increase sales. International Data Corp. estimates that data is expanding at 50 percent a year, driven by increasingly sophisticated technologies such as digital sensors. The United States needs 140,000 to 190,000 more workers with deep analytical expertise and 1.5 million additional data-literate managers, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report. Such people are increasingly sought after by other data-intensive fields besides business, including political science, public health, and sports. "The march of quantification, made possible by enormous new sources of data, will sweep through academia, business, and government," predicts Harvard University's Gary King. Networked sensors connected to computing intelligence supports the rise of the Industrial Internet, while greater access to information is also fueling the big data trend. In addition, computer tools for extracting knowledge and insights from the Internet's vast volumes of unstructured data are quickly gaining ground, spearheaded by advancing methods of artificial intelligence. The abundance of new data ramps up computing advances, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Erik Brynjolfsson notes that data quantification is emerging as a revolutionary new tool.
Protests Erupt Across Europe Against Web Piracy Treaty
Reuters (02/13/12) Erik Kirschbaum; Irina Ivanova
More than 25,000 demonstrators recently took part in protests across Europe against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a controversial international anti-piracy pact. Opposition to ACTA in Eastern Europe is especially strong and spreading rapidly. "It's not acceptable to sacrifice the rights of freedom for copyrights," says German Greens party leader Thomas Pfeiffer. The governments of eight nations, including Japan and the United States, signed an agreement in October designed to cut copyright and trademark theft. The protesters are concerned that free downloading of movies and music might lead to prison sentences if ACTA is ratified by European parliaments. "We don't feel safe anymore," says protester Monica Tepelus. "The Internet was one of the few places where we could act freely." Jeremie Zimmermann with Internet freedom group Quadrature du Net calls the protest an unprecedented demonstration "because it's taking place in all of Europe at the same time."
Computer Programs That Think Like Humans
University of Gothenburg (Sweden) (02/13/12)
University of Gothenburg researchers have developed software that can score 150 on a standard IQ test. IQ tests are based on progressive matrices, which test the ability to see patterns in pictures, and number sequences, which test the ability to see patterns in numbers. "We're trying to make programs that can discover the same types of patterns that humans can see," says Gothenburg's Claes Strannegard. The researchers used a psychological model of human patterns in the computer program, integrating a mathematical model that follows human-like problem solving. "Our programs are beating the conventional math programs because we are combining mathematics and psychology," Strannegard says. The researchers also have started working with Stockholm University researchers to develop new IQ tests with different levels of difficulty. "Now we want to divide them into different levels of difficulty and design new types of tests, which we can then use to design computer programs for people who want to practice their problem-solving ability," Strannegard says.
The Joy of Checks
Newcastle University (02/13/12)
Researchers at Newcastle, York, and Northumbria universities have developed a way of making quick and easy electronic transfers while retaining the paper check as something physical to be handed to the recipient. The system uses a checkbook that resembles those currently issued by banks except for the grayish background on each check, which consists of billions of tiny dots laid out in a specific pattern. Using a digital pen, the account holder writes the check and a camera in the pen tracks its position on the paper. "It is important that people are supported to carry out day-to-day tasks such as paying a bill using a procedure they can relate to their past experience," says Newcastle's John Vines. "The beauty of this system is that it is a safe and cheap electronic transaction for the banks but it’s a physical paper-based transaction for the customer." Checks are seen as a vital part of customers' financial independence, especially among the older generation, notes York professor Andrew Monk. "What this system illustrates is that electronic banking doesn’t need to be done via a computer or smartphone--there are alternatives," says Newcastle's Paul Dunphy.
National Science Foundation Steps Up Its Push for Interdisciplinary Research
Chronicle of Higher Education (02/13/12) Paul Basken
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is dispatching top official and University of Michigan professor Myron P. Gutmann to college campuses to promote the need for greater interdisciplinary research if they wish to win NSF grants. Gutmann notes that such research has yielded rapid advances in various fields, such as healthcare applications of atomic-scale science and the study of extreme weather events through analysis of both natural and social variables. NSF director Subra Suresh has prioritized the push for more interdisciplinary research since his arrival in October 2010. Emphasizing more interdisciplinary research is both financially and scientifically sensible, says Columbia University professor Mark C. Taylor. He notes that graduates are becoming too specialized to find employment due to the unsustainable nature of department-based hierarchies. Economic anxiousness could aid the NSF in its interdisciplinary efforts by making universities and their researchers particularly keen to comply with its mandate. Gutmann notes that NSF still believes in the importance of traditional disciplines, and says that in his department about 33 percent of research grants are interdisciplinary. "It doesn't need to be 100 percent," he says. "But it might want to be 60 percent."
Minister Launches Next Generation of Supercomputers for UK Researchers
University of Edinburgh (02/13/12)
The University of Edinburgh's Advanced Computing Facility recently launched the High-End Computing Terascale Resources (HECToR) and BlueGene/Q, two supercomputers that can deliver complex computer simulations in a range of scientific fields. The computers' capacity and performance will help United Kingdom (U.K.) researchers study climate change, the fundamental structure of matter, fluctuations in ocean currents, projecting the spread of epidemics, designing new materials, the structure and evolution of the universe, and developing new medicinal drugs. The supercomputers "will provide U.K. businesses and researchers with the technology they need to compete successfully on a global scale," says Minister for Universities & Science David Willetts. "HECToR and BlueGene/Q will each play a significant role in facilitating ground-breaking research across many areas of science, with tremendous benefits for society," says Edinburgh professor Sir Timothy O'Shea. Both the BlueGene/Q and HECToR facilities have about 800 teraflops of computational power. HECToR uses the latest Bulldozer multicore processor architecture, which allows twice the performance over the old architecture. BlueGene/Q can perform the calculation of 100 laptops using the same level of electricity used to power a light bulb.
Here's Looking at You (but I'm Still Texting)
New York Times (02/11/12) Anne Eisenberg
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Microsoft have created PocketTouch, a prototype touchscreen that can be used to send messages while it is concealed in a jacket or pants pocket. The prototype uses sensors similar to those in most touchscreens, and is mounted on the back of a smartphone case. "It's a way to send short messages when it is not socially appropriate to fish out your device," says University of Rochester professor Jeffrey P. Bigham. PocketTouch is different than most touchscreens in that it calibrates continuously, adapting to different types of fabrics. "We wanted a way for people to be able to respond quickly," without having to break eye contact with a group, says Microsoft researcher T. Scott Saponas. "We're not trying to replace the functionality of the touchscreen to compose email and browse the Web." Instead, he says the goal is to make it easier to conduct minimal communication. PocketTouch is one of several new approaches that are being developed for computer user interfaces, says Harvard University professor Krzysztof Gajos. "They are looking for robust, novel ways to interact with a mobile device that are appropriate for unusual situations," he says.
Georgia Tech Develops Software for the Rapid Analysis of Foodborne Pathogens
Georgia Tech News (02/08/12) Jason Maderer
Georgia Tech researchers have developed the Computational Genomics Pipeline (CG-pipeline), software that can characterize the bacteria that caused two of the deadliest bacterial outbreaks to strike the global population in the last 25 years. The researchers, led by professor King Jordan, who worked in collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, developed an integrated suite of computational tools for the analysis of microbial genome sequences. The software "analyzes the sequences, finds the genes, and provides clues as to which genes are involved in making people sick," Jordan says. "Manually, this process used to take weeks, months or a year. Now it takes us about 24 hours." The CG-pipeline software has been used to analyze the severe outbreaks of E.coli and listeriosis, both of which took place in 2011 and claimed a combined 80 lives. "The software was used to determine that two previously distinct strains of E. coli combined to form a single hyper-virulent strain," says Georgia Tech graduate student Andrey Kislyuk. Meanwhile, graduate student Lee Katz used the CG-pipeline to identify a key epidemiological genomic marker, which will help track invasive strains of Listeria.
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